My first trip overseas was, I am told, a bold choice.

I chose to go to Japan way back in 2001 figuring that if I was paying all this money to go overseas it better be somewhere exotic. I wasn’t wrong. Tokyo’s dizzying horizon to horizon multi-story buildings, the bustling population that swarm through subways like well a practiced synchronized swimming team, and the constant flashing adverts almost seem designed to stun the first time traveler.

Japan was astounding; a mind-blowing experience from which I don’t think I have ever really recovered, but it was also an expensive one. The first thing I did there was spend R2000 on a taxi from Narita Airport to my hotel, as based on the buildings around it, I had assumed I was in the centre of the city. The hotel room, for which I had paid a small fortune, was tiny, and included a bathtub you sat in with your knees around your ears. The Shinkansen (or bullet train) to Kyoto was a once in a lifetime experience, but bled even more of my precious student Rands out of me. In short: I was a first time traveler, who didn’t speak the language and I paid for it; dearly. As a result, one of the first things I wanted to do when we launched this blog was to use what I know now to help the me of the past with a list of ways to travel Japan as economically as possible.

1) Eat at a supermarket

Buying your food from a grocery, or convenience store is usually not something you would consider on holiday, but in Japan it could save you a fortune. Many of the stores will have prepackaged sushi or bento boxes that are easy to recognise and buy even if you don’t speak Japanese.

While the wrappers on the rice cakes, or chicken meals can sometimes make it hard to see, or understand, what you are getting, you can generally just take a shot in the dark and pick one up anyway. It’s a great way to get some local food, at a small fraction of the price of a restaurant meal. If you feel a little more adventurous duck into a Bento store and get something there. The major chains are Origin Bento and Hotto Motto.

You will pay about R50 for a meal there.

2) Sightsee for Free

While some of the bigger, or more popular attractions do ask for an admission fee, there are a lot of important places you can see for free. In Tokyo these include the Meiji Shrine and the Imperial Palace, while in Kyoto you gain free admission to the Nishiki Market and Sento Palace. Nara’s famous Park is also free.

You can get a more comprehensive list here:

3) Shop Tax Free

Don’t buy your small gifts in many different areas. Try to do souvenier or tech purchases all at the same time. If you go to any shop which is designated as a tax-free store, you can have the consumption tax waived if you spend more than 10 000 yen.

It may not seem like an outrageous discount, or even make anything seem cheap, but the money you save can easily cover a few supermarket meals.

4) Use the Free Wi-Fi

Japan is known for its futuristic thinking and with good reason.

Coming from South Africa you won’t believe how many places offer free wi-fi and not of the 15MB free variety. Keep your wi-fi on as 7-Elevens, subway stations, bus stations and hundreds of other places will help you keep connected for much less than if you head into an internet café or rent a mobile phone.

5) Free Guides

Don’t pay to rent audio guides at attractions or to join a tour at your favourite stop. Rather ask the tourist information centres about the free guides program. The program is set up to pair tourists who need help understanding the attractions with a local who is trying to improve their English.

The quality of English of the guide can be a little hit or miss, but the tours will usually be knowledgable and involve a little of that personal flavour that makes touring a foreign country so unique.

6) Capsule Hotels

If you are going to Japan you have probably heard about their capsule hotels, which are little more than a bed in a box.

That said, the regular hotels don’t exactly give you the space to run around, and this form of accommodation is totally unique to Japan. As well as allowing you to stay somewhere for as little as 2500 yen a night, the capsule hotel will also provide you with a truly Japanese experience.


Of course if you can afford it grabbing a package tour in Japan really is the best bet. You won’t have to worry about the language barrier, finding food or getting around as all that will be taken care of, and in some cases the unique experiences you would usually shudder at the expense for (such as riding the Shinkansen or staying in a Ryokan) are already included.

Try this very different take on Japan as an example:

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