Japan is expensive. Yet, with the right information and sensible planning, you can spend a lot less than you think and still have a fantastic time. Here’s how to plan
Get a Japan Rail Pass
This is available only to people on a tourist visa, and must be purchased (http://www.japanrailpass.net) before arriving in Japan. It offers unlimited rides on Japan Railways trains (with very few exceptions) for up to three weeks. A rail pass for one week is around US$ 280 for regular coach, and US$ 370 for luxury ‘green’ coach. You can use the pass on the Tokyo Monorail too. Regular tickets are calculated at US$ 2/km, and distances are so vast, your savings will be huge.
Rent a bicycle
Near most train stations you can rent a bicycle for the day for under $10. If you're going to tour a whole town, a bicycle is a lot cheaper, more convenient, and more fun than taking the bus. Japanese motorists are among the most polite in the world, so it’s a safe option. If you are travelling during the Japanese monsoon (May, June) to save on air fare, you can buy inexpensive rain-gear in any store and pedal your way around.
Stay at a capsule hotel
A great way to save on lodging is to put up at a capsule hotel. You will stay in a narrow but comfortable air-conditioned berth with a mattress, and often a TV. Capsule hotels were invented to give businessmen a place to sleep until the first train the next day. You will find such hotels clustered around train stations, or the areas with nightlife. Bathing facilities are usually included in the price.
Try Minshukus and Pensions
Minshuku are Japanese-style "bed and breakfast" lodgings. They are usually family-run, offer Japanese style rooms, and often include one or two meals in the price. Pensions are the Western-style equivalents. Unlike the Minshuku, the Pensions are more visible in mountainous resort-towns and the countryside. The cost per night ranges from US$ 30 toUS$ 100 per night, and is much cheaper than the US$ 150 you will spend at budget hotels.
Stay overnight at a temple dormitory
Consider this as much for the experience as for its obvious cost-saving advantage. It is possible for tourists to spend the night at Buddhist temple lodgings (shukubo). A stay often includes two vegetarian meals, and the chance to join the morning prayers. One of the best places to experience a night at a temple is the famous Mount Koya, south of Osaka. Bookings can be done through an agency called Japanese Guest Houses, reachable at +81-72-756-6242.
Stay at low-cost business hotels
Look for them in city-centres and around train stations. These are budget-conscious hotels used by business travellers, and can also be used by tourists. As well as a good price, you'll get a clean room and it's likely that you'll be near at least one affordable place to eat. Look for hotel chains such as Route Inn, APA Hotel, Super Hotel and Tokyo Inn, which operate dozens of hotels across Japan.
Save on tips
An under-appreciated aspect of dining in Japan is that tipping is not expected. In some cases, it may even be seen as rude. If you do leave some change behind, it will be politely returned. However, if for some reason, you feel compelled to leave a tip, place the money in an envelope and hand it over to the staff discreetly.
Eat at noodle bars and night street stalls
These specialise in noodles (ramen), a great way to get very full at an affordable price. You'll know a ramen restaurant when you see customers seated at a long counter eating from steaming bowls. Udon and soba dishes are other pocket-friendly meal alternatives. You can also eat at an Izakaya, the Japanese version of a pub-eatery, with a selection of typical Japanese as well as Western foods. The vibe is casual, and therefore usually inexpensive.
Opt for the yakitori, or kaiten-sushi
This is a skewer of vegetables and charcoal-grilled chicken, usually served with beer or sake after work, perfect for a well-rounded, nutritious meal. There are yakitori restaurants (yakitori-ya), often found near train stations. Sushi is a snack in Japan, but can be a full meal if you plan well. Look for automatic sushi places, known as kaiten-sushi, that serve little plates on an automatic conveyor belt.
Pocket-friendly hangouts: beaches, temples, and gardens
There are lots of beaches on both mainland Japan (mostly in enchanting Tokyo) and on the islands of Okinawa. If the weather is good, this is an affordable and unbeatable way to pass the day. You can make your entire trip revolve around these beautiful, peaceful and enlightening places. Some Japanese gardens may charge, but most are free and you'll find plenty to see and enjoy as you take a rest from the hectic pace outside of the garden.
Provided you can get to the good hiking locations, this can be a very affordable way to see more of Japan. The rest-huts on hiking trails tend to be priced reasonably and there are amazing attractions, from volcanoes on Japan's southern island of Kyushu to the peaks of the Japanese Alps in Central Honshu.