I experienced Japan for the first time in August of 2019. After researching, planning, and actually taking the trip, this post summarizes how I managed to make the most of my time there without overspending.
Book your flights during seat sales or at travel fairs
I spent less than Php8,000 both ways because I booked my flight via the AirAsia app. Most non-sale round trips go for Php10,000 to as much as Php20,000. AirAsia had just started offering flights to and from Osaka and gave special rates to travelers who booked through their app instead of via a browser or travel agency. Wherever you’re aiming to travel, it’s good to follow budget airliners like AirAsia, Jetstar Asia, and Cebu Pacific on social media so that you can stay updated on their sales and promotions. You can make sure that you’re the first to know about discounts if you create an account on their app or website and turn on push notifications.
Stay at a hostel instead of a hotel
Accommodation in Japan is notoriously expensive. If you don’t mind sharing a room with other travelers, opt for a hostel instead. I stayed in Osaka for three nights and paid ¥2,000 (about Php1,000) per night and Kyoto for five nights for ¥2,580 (about Php1,290) per night. Three- and four-star hotels go for Php2,000-7,000 nightly, while five-star hotels can set you back as much as Php14,000 per night. If you’re going to Kyoto, keep in mind that they have a tourism tax of ¥200-1000 per night depending on the price of your accommodation, and this is separate from your payment to the hostel or hotel.
Most hostels offer a bed space and a locker or other storage area for your belongings. There is a shared shower and bathroom area with multiple stalls, and most places offer some kind of kitchenette for you to cook or heat up food. The hostel I stayed at in Kyoto even had free breakfast in the common area every morning.
The convenience stores or “konbini” in Japan put convenience stores in other countries to shame. They have full meals, some groceries, toiletries, souvenirs, and ATMs (Extra tip: Seven Bank is international, so if you need to withdraw some extra cash, you can do it there. Just be mindful of fees that your bank may charge). I would often visit one before going to a park or temple to buy my lunch for the day and take it wih me. They’re a good place to get a cheap meal and drink, and while the food is not quite restaurant quality, it’s still delicious.
If you’re feeling adventurous, take your tote or canvas bag to the nearest grocery store and stock up a bit on easy-to-prepare food there. Most grocery stores sell ready-to-eat sushi and sashimi at a discounted price in the evening because they want to sell as much as possible before closing.
Commute like a local
Unless you find a package that includes exactly the places you plan to visit, you probably won’t make the most of set-destination fixed-price train cards. It’s almost always cheaper to just pay your bus fares and buy your train tickets individually. If this feels like too much of a hassle, buy an ICOCA card or a similar reloadable card and fill it up.
Before my trip, I made a list of places I planned to visit and used Google Maps to estimate how much I would spend in total for transportation. Just search for directions and select the “public transportation” option to see how much it costs to go from one place to another. This is also an easy way to plan which attractions to visit in a day as you can see or search for what’s in the same area. My total was a bit over ¥9,000 (Php4,500) for all eight days I was there, including traveling between cities (Osaka to Kyoto, Kyoto to Nara, Kyoto to Osaka), so I purchased an ICOCA and put ¥10,000 on it. Reloadable cards work for all train lines within the Osaka-Kyoto-Nara area, but if you’re planning to take the train as far as Tokyo, you won’t be able to use it then. The cards can also be used at most convenience stores and even some grocery and retail stores.
Take advantage of free attractions
There are many places you can visit for free in Japan, especially if you love the outdoors. You can see Osaka Castle and walk around Osaka Castle Park. You can take a stroll in Gion in Kyoto, and you might spot a geisha. If you do, don’t forget to ask for permission if you want to take a picture of her or with her. Also found in Kyoto is the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is open 24 hours, and the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.