Budget travelling in Japan the Mike & Mary way

Posted by in Mike's blog

Vacationing in Japan can get crazy expensive, but it doesn’t have to.  If we aren’t careful, we can drop tens of thousands of yen in a day while we are away from home.  It helps to pretend that the values of all the things we buy have less zeroes at the end…but when we do that we’re only fooling ourselves.

Now that we have been to more prefectures than we can count on our hands I feel like we have learned enough about how to have a good time while saving money to be able to write about it.  Some people like to travel in luxury – and that’s fine.  Visiting Japan on a JR pass and taking shinkansens to every interesting place by day and sleeping in fancy ryokans by night is a great way to take in everything this country has to offer.  We do the opposite of all of that, and that’s what this post is about.

By the way, we love trains

We’ve tried a few methods of transport around Japan.  In our experience, busses may be cheap but they are uncomfortable and prone to traffic.  Airplanes are…airplanes.  Domestic flights usually aren’t affordable enough to consider.  Fast trains (shinkansens, express/limited express) are extremely convenient, but the cost adds up very quickly.  The Bunny still rides for free, but the round-trip cost for 2 adults on fast trains is usually as much as or more than our entire vacation budget.  We used a seishun 18 kippu when we went to Bunny island last year and we took slow trains all day for 2 days.  That took forever, and the ticket isn’t always available.  Driving is also possible, but parking in cities can get very expensive and navigating them can be stressful.  So what’s best?

We’ve decided that what works best for us when we go short to medium distances is a mix between driving our car and taking local trains.  For this to be feasible, free parking is a necessity.  We succeeded in parking for free for the third time last weekend when we went to Nagoya.  Driving to as close as possible to our destination without entering a densely populated area lets us drive on nice roads AND pay very little for our local train ride(s).

Where do we park?  At small train stations in the middle of nowhere with big parking lots.  When we go to Kyoto and Osaka we park at Kitakomatsu station in Shiga.  When we went to Nagoya we parked at Kawake station, also in Shiga.  Some of the questions we ask ourselves when we consider leaving our car at a station include:  Can we get a clear satellite image of the parking lot?  Does there appear to be a gate to the lot?  Is the station manned 24/7 (if yes, there’s a better chance that our car will be noticed)?  Is the station in a densely populated area full of commuters?  Is the station close enough to our destination to make our local train tickets super-cheap?

Time for a cost comparison.  If speed is a factor, the Thunderbird is the best choice.  Here are some options for travelling from Fukui to Osaka, round trip for one person:
Thunderbird (limited express train) – ¥10720 | Local trains – ¥6520 | Express bus – ¥6300 | Car + local train (park at Kitakomatsu station) – ¥2900

Now let’s look at Fukui to Nagoya.  Kawake was OK, but I feel like we could have done better if we found a station that was a little closer:
Shirasagi (limited express train) & Shinkansen -¥10380 | Local trains – ¥5880 | Express bus – ¥5840 | Car + local train (park at Kawake station) – ¥3240

Finding a hole in the wall just big enough for our family

Like transportation, sleeping arrangements come in all shapes, sizes and costs.  In other countries we prefer Couchsurfing, but it can be quite difficult to find hosts with enough space for all three of us in Japan.  We succeeded a couple of times, and we failed other times.  We still send couch requests before we travel, but we have also learned how to find low cost accommodations when it doesn’t work out.

Our method for finding hotels/guest houses/ryokans is a little bit convoluted & time consuming, but it works for us.  It takes a while because we need to check two internets to find good prices – and the English one usually doesn’t have what we need.  Here’s the process:

1. Lower ALL standards and expectations.  Roof + bed + privacy is good enough.  If we get our own bathroom we are living in luxury!

2. Figure out how far we’re willing to travel from a JR station

3. Search TripAdvisor.  Look for properties with NO price listing and a few good reviews.  Places that are connected enough to be included in TripAdvisor’s reservation database will often be too popular and/or busy to offer low prices.

4. Search for the names of the properties that fit the above criteria on Google with a “-tripadvisor” value in the search string (to remove the various TripAdvisor domains).  If the place we’re looking for has a small website, hopefully this will find it.

5. Repeat steps 2-3 with Rakuten (in Japanese).

We’ve found a few good deals using the some or all of above method.  In Osaka we stayed at the Hotel Sun Plaza II for a total of ¥2400.  In Kyoto we stayed at Guest house BOLA-BOLA for ¥5000.  In Nagoya we stayed at the Silk Tree hotel for ¥4400 (and we got breakfast)!  We’re always open to better deals, so be sure to comment if you have any 🙂

Resisting the temptation to eat away at our savings

By far the hardest part about saving while we travel is staying away from all the delicious local delicacies we find when we go to new places.  Every city in this country has something unique and special…and we have a weakness for justifying the cost of sampling most things that we come across.  We only really succeeded in not destroying our budget once or twice.  We did it by carefully planning our meals in advance and putting only what cash we needed in envelopes – one for each day we were gone.

Once we’ve set our budget, how do we keep the costs down?  Convenience stores!  Our family of three can be enjoy full, hot, sometimes healthy meals for less than ¥1000 if we just stick to bentos.  We also try to budget one restaurant meal per day for lunch because it’s cheaper than supper and it’s nice to take a break from walking around.  Even cheaper:  If we’re staying somewhere with a kitchen we can cook for ourselves if we remember to bring a bit of rice from home.

That’s how we travel in Japan!  Hopefully we’ll practice what we preach on our next adventure and stay under-budget 🙂