We’ve developed a few strategies here in Japan which have allowed us to maintain a reasonable budget. Click the links to view relevant images.
- Walking – As long as our destination can be walked to in under 2 hours and the route is walk-able, we usually choose to walk. Transportation is very expensive in Japan and the transportation costs add up quickly. Plus the extra exercise doesn’t hurt!
- JR Rail Pass – Having the Japan rail pass has also allowed us to zoom around the country a bit and not feel limited by the cost of rail travel. One has to be careful when planning though, because if you can’t walk to your destination from the train station, you may end up paying $20 per person, one-way, to take a bus to your final destination.
- Eating rice and miso soup – We purchased a large bag of rice for $7 and have made rice with most of our meals when a rice maker is available at our hostel. We have even been having rice with raisins for breakfast (surprisingly delicious and filling!) and rice as a side dish to our dinners. We’ve also made tomago kake gohan a few times for breakfast. You can also obtain individual miso packages (cheaply), which can be easily added to hot water for an instant soup side dish.
- Being late night vultures at the grocery store – Most grocery stores will mark down items in the deli/to-go area after 7pm. As it gets later, the items get cheaper. A person can stand on the sidelines watching the employees do their rounds with the price gun and get the good stuff as soon as it is marked down to an acceptable level. This is a great way to get cheap sushi – it is often marked 50% off!
- Prioritizing caloric value at the grocery store – We have been making purchasing decisions based on calories/$. We usually have a cheap breakfast of rice, cereal, or French toast (super cheap, but feels fancy :D). For lunch we have a snack while we are out and about – some combination of apples, bananas, carrots with peanut butter, and cheap/high calorie snacks we find in the dollar section (100 yen, more specifically). For dinner we often have tofu, udon noodles (you can get a package for ~35 cents), rice, eggs, and whatever vegetables are cheap. We combine these items in different ways to try and keep it interesting! Every once in a while we splurge for an authentic Japanese meal of course!
- Be a creative cook – this ties into point number 5. French toast is great and filling 3 dollar breakfast but without maple syrup it can be a bit bland. For a cheap (free) topping we made a caramel sauce with the free hostel-provided sugar and old butter someone had abandoned in the fridge. A different day we made an alfredo-ish sauce for our pasta using leftover mayonnaise in the hostel fridge. One day we pan fried some udon noodles and tofu and then added a scrambled egg mixture – creating a filling and nutritious dish that tasted remotely like macaroni and cheese and only cost $3.50. Or how about the squid fillets on sale for a dollar each?
- Spend hours walking around trying food samples – many of the upmarket candy and specialty stores have small boxes of samples sitting out. When you’ve tried all the wheres that one store is offering, move on to the next! Takayama is a great place to do this. They even had free sake samples when we were there!
- Only splurge when necessary – there are many Shinto shrines and temples in Japan, often with $5 (or more) entrance fees. If we entered every one we came across, we would be way over budget. Many can be viewed from outside for free and a few seemed so unique that we chose to pay to enter. It is important to do your research in advance! A few examples of shrines and temples which we paid to visit being the Tōshō-gū Shrine in Nikkō ($13 entrance fee/person and worth it!), Kinkaku-ji, Sanjūsangen-dō, and Ryōan-ji Temple (just kidding! We don’t understand why this zen garden is so famous). We also jumped at the chance to visit free venues such as the Fushimi Inari shrine.
- Plan ahead – if many attractions are clustered together but are on the opposite side of the city from you, plan on having a long day out and explore all of them at once to save on the transportation back and forth. Or use strategy 1 – just walk there and back. This is especially important as many attractions are closed in the off-season or on Mondays – you wouldn’t want to pay to get somewhere to only find that it is closed!