Japan on a budget: Cheap accomodation options
A lot of people like the adventure of going somewhere without planning anything. They strap their backpack on and off they go. While this is rather enjoyable, for the sake of saving money I will stick with planning our journey a little more.
Traveling in Japan can become very expensive. Most of you have probably heard of the Japan Rail Pass that will allow you access to the whole train network (minus Nozomi and Mizuho Shinkansen and all connections that are not done by JR) that you can only get from outside of Japan. It costs about $300 per adult/week. While this might be a good idea for some people, it is actually not that cheap depending on where you want to go. If you want to go to a lot of places in a very short time, I guess the ticket might do, but if you are like me and rather stay in one place for a while before moving on, there are cheaper alternatives.
Instead of the JR Pass, consider traveling via night bus. Night buses are fairly common in Japan and they have connections throughout the whole country. You get into a bus in the evening, drive through the night and arrive in the morning. Ideally you slept on the way so you already saved money for one stay at a hotel. Now when I say night bus, I do not mean like a normal bus that is used for public transportation. These buses have very comfortable seats with leg space. If you can sleep in a vehicle at all, you will doze off in no time. There are also some connections during the day, but for the sake of saving the hotel costs let us focus on night travel.
There are night buses who are run by the JR, but I found them to be inferior to the private companies that also offer a much better service. These buses used to be part of the Japan Rail Pass, but not anymore. Search the Internet and find out which connections are available. I used a company called Willer Express. The clue is that they offer special passes with a fixed price. For example, for $100 I bought a pass that was valid for three days. I used it to travel at night three times which saved me about 50% of the usual price. But I could actually also have taken one additional route per day, if I wanted, coming up to six connections. These tickets are only available from outside of Japan, but that is why we are planning ahead. It is not really impossible to bypass that problem once you are in Japan, though. Note that there is also a five day pass for $150 available.
Okay, we booked the pass and we will be travelling at night for three times, from Tokyo to Osaka, to Hiroshima and back to Tokyo. But with no hotel, how are we going to take a shower? Since Japan has a big culture of public baths that is not really a problem. You can just go to the tourist information (they usually do speak English) and ask them to show you where the public baths are. You might even get a map so you can explore the area. A small bath should not cost more than $5. Even though it is great that we saved three nights worth of hotel costs, considering we are here for two weeks that still means we have 11 nights left!
If we do not plan carefully, 11 nights might cost us $1,000 or more. If you have friends in Japan, that is usually a nice way to spend a few nights, but if not, hostels are a good option. A friend of mine once stayed in a hostel in Tokyo for just about $20 a day. Of course that also comes up to about $220 for eleven days but that is a much more manageable price than $1,000 or more for a hotel. There are other places where you can stay for even less money, but let us focus on places with real beds.
Surprisingly, I found that capsule hotels are rather expensive, all things considered. So that might not be the obvious answer many people might imagine.
If you must book a hotel, try to do it in Japanese or try to find somebody who can do it in Japanese for you. A lot of the bigger English hotel search engines do not have most of the cheaper hotels listed. I once stayed in a business hotel in the heart of Osaka for just about $25 per night. It wasn’t the best hotel but the room and the sheets were clean and the staff was nice. But that hotel never showed up when I looked for it in English. In my experience, www.google.co.jp will get you really good results if you look in Japanese. It might take a few days to find the right places.
We are going to need a hostel in Tokyo for two nights, then travel to Osaka with the night bus. We will stay at a business hotel for three nights, travel with the night bus to Hiroshima and stay there for another three nights. Then we are going to travel back to Tokyo with the night bus and staying at the same hostel for another two nights, before heading back to the airport and back home. This will cost us $100 for the bus and $230 for the hotels.
Now we have what I would call the framework of our journey. We have all the connections that we need to get to Japan and to the places we want to visit, and back home. We also have booked all the places where we want to stay, so we do not have to fear having to sleep under a bridge. I would like to add here that, since Narita is a bit far from Tokyo, it does actually cost about $15 to get to downtown Tokyo and back. Though there are special trains, those usually cost more so we will just take the normal commuter train, adding another $30 to our expenses.
Money used: $860 Now that we know how to get to Japan and around Japan with our budget and our travel is planned out, what other things do we need to be aware of? After all, we have to stay alive somehow over the course of two weeks.