Japan Travel on a Budget
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How to Travel Japan on the Cheap: Choose Wisely from Your Options
There’s certainly a lot to get into when visiting Japan – so much so, that it might seem overwhelming. The sprawling cities, the trains, the themed hotels and restaurants – all this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the wealth of experiences you can have in this amazing country. But this is, in my opinion, also the main reason for the ‘Japan is sooo expensive’ narrative or reputation: many visitors strive to fill their days to the brim with activities, wanting to do as much as possible. That is all fine and well but, to ‘do it all’, you require not just the money and the time, but also a fast way to travel. And what’s the fastest way to travel around Japan? Taking the Shinkansen bullet trains – which can put a serious dent in your finances. Which gets us to my advice nr 1: look beyond the JR Pass.
Cheap Transportation in Japan: It Does Exist
If you’ve already started planning your Japan budget travel, you’ve likely spent some time ruminating about whether or nor to get a Japan Rail Pass. It is a popular multi-city travel pass heavily marketed to foreign tourists in Japan as a convenient and easy way to move about. You know what else it also is? Expensive. Admittedly, for some people and some types of travel styles, it fits perfectly. However, fans of slow travel might struggle with justifying the price point, especially if you’re looking to stay in the country for 2 weeks of more. Here’s why:
- The price levels reflect the duration of time you can use the Rail Pass. There are 3 options: 1 week, 2 weeks and, you guessed it, 3 weeks – that is, of consecutive use. This means that, during the specified timeframe, you can use the high-speed Shinkansen trains as much as you need to. These are the iconic Japanese bullet trains that travel at speeds of up to 200 mph and, therefore, get you where you need to go REALLY dang fast. It’s definitely a cool way to travel around, but here you’ve got to really think about how much you will move around.
- The price is a flat rate, meaning, to get the most out of it, you have to change locations a lot. But do you really want that? If you’re coming for 1 week and you’d like to visit Tokyo, Kyoto AND Hiroshima, for example, then you’ll likely get your money’s worth. But if you’re a slow traveler and prefer to spend a couple of days in one place instead of a hit and run king of tourism, you’re likely looking at staying for 2 weeks or more. And then you really have to think about whether it’s better to buy single Shinkansen tickets if/when you need to. Luckily, for that you can find countless Japan Rail Pass calculators to help you plan the most optimal and financially efficient trip.
- The JR Pass will only allow you to use the JR lines. Which would be cool if JR was indeed the only public transport company. But it isn’t. In Tokyo alone, there are 8 other major rail transport providers. And there is no one rail pass that combines all of them. So even if you do have a JR Pass, you will likely still spend extra money to utilize other train lines.
Budget Transport Options for Japan: Seishun18 regional train pass and long-distance buses
On the other hand, budget Japan travelers will be happy to hear that the the high speed train is not the end-all-be-all of Japanese public transport. You can take advantage of the long distance Willer buses, which offer timed all-you-can-travel passes similar to the JR ones – but for a fraction of the price.
Similarly, the seasonal Seishun18 pass gets you 5 days of unlimited travel with the regional trains, for something around $100 per person. And unlike with the JR Pass, these travel days DON’T HAVE TO BE CONSECUTIVE, meaning you are a lot more flexible and plan to travel Japan for more than just a week or two. Admittedly, the trains you can take with the Seishun18 are slower than the Shinkansen, but they will get you where you need to go nevertheless.
You can buy the Seishun18 directly at a JR sales point, usually at a bigger station. But there is a caveat – these tickets are only availabe several times a year, and tend to coincide with bigger school and university breaks (as the inintial idea for these was to provide students with affordable travel options during holidays). As far as the pass goes, it’s pretty old school: you get a stamp for each travel day when you enter the train station (or simply show the already stamped pass if you’re re-entering), and enjoy a full day of regional train travel. Do keep an eye on the train type though!
And when it comes to inner city travel, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s no need to spend money on super expensive taxis or Uber rides. Japan has very well connected (and notoriously busy) public transit network in each major city. Our advice would be to avoid traveling during rush hour when in major metropolitan area, and also to closely research what metro companies you can/should ride with. Yes, you read that right, most major cities don’t use one unified metro network – instead different private companies run different lines. So it’s all about figuring out which network is the best for you. Here are our best Japan budget transport tips for Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima:
- Tokyo: Tokyo Subway pass: available for 24, 48 or 72 hours. For roughly $6/per day, you can ride all you want on the Tokyo Metro Line and the Toei Line. These two lines will connect you will all main tourists sights and many more. Buy it at the airport when you arrive, and buy as many as you’ll need for the stay. You only validate one ticket at a time, for the duration that you need.
- Kyoto: Kyoto bus pass: Indeed, buses are the better way to move around this picturesque city, as the metro system is not incredibly spread out and the regional trains don’t cater as well to typical tourist routes. For around 600 Yen for 24 hours, you can ride all you want. You can buy these directly from the driver.
- A combined Kyoto pass for buses and subway is also availabe, as a 2-day option. You can purchase these at a train or metro statio. However, we didn’nt find these passes to be truly worth their money – there are only a few metro lines on this pass and they’re out of reach of most tourist destinations around town.
- Hiroshima: If staying near the city center, we found it easier to walk rather than take public transit, as the city’s core is not that spread out. Still there are trams and buses going through the city, which seemed like the preferred way for locals to move about.
- Osaka: Single metro tickets did the trick for us there. The fairly cheap fare per way (unlike in Tokyo) gave us flexibility. But to be honest, we ended up walking pretty much everywhere.
As a rule of thumb, we’d recommend avoiding Uber because it is quite expensive – smiliarly priced to Taxis, but also subject to surge pricing, which can make this popular ridesharing app a budget killer. Taxis are not hard to come by, but they are hardly Japan budget travel-friendly. Between the regional trains, long-distance buses, and the high-speed Shinkansen trains, you certainly have various options to get around. For Japan travelers on a budget, seeking out multi-use passes for either the Willer buses or the regional train network are definitely the better option. However, if slow travel is not your thing and you need to move quickly between cities in order to visit multiple destinations within a week or two, the JR rail pass is the best approach.