Planning to travel in Japan? Whether you're only visiting for a few days or expecting to travel as part of a longer stay here, this information should give you an idea of how much you can expect to spend. I'm assuming that you are a budget traveller, otherwise this page wouldn't be of much interest to you anyway.
Information correct (to the best of my knowledge) as of summer 2001; I'm not in a position to make further updates.
In case there's anyone out there who doesn't already know this, the currency in Japan is the yen. As of early April 2001, the US dollar is hovering around ¥120-125, but please check a more up-to-date source before you travel! (See my links page for a currency converter.) There are coins in ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥50, ¥100 and ¥500 denominations; for notes it's ¥1000, ¥2000, ¥5000 and ¥10,000. This last amount is referred to as "ichi-man en" - the Japanese count in ten-thousands rather than in thousands. Of the coins, ¥10 and ¥100 are the most useful, since these are accepted by telephones, luggage lockers (found at every station) and the ubiquitous vending machines - though most machines will give change.
In Japan, cash rules. Department stores and larger shops will often accept credit cards, but most things are paid for in cash. It's quite normal - and safer than in most other countries - to carry large amounts of money (equivalent to several hundred British pounds or US dollars) around with you.
Money can usually be exchanged at banks and post offices. Post offices generally have longer opening hours. I don't think they charge commission; I believe it's built into the exchange rate. If you have an international cash card (Cirrus, Mastercard, Visa, AmEx, etc.), most Post Office cash machines will now give you money - and they'll even speak (yes speak) English to you! However, be warned that most cashpoints in Japan close down around 7pm and for at least part of the weekend. (The average salaryman probably works longer hours than the cashpoints!) There are often additional charges for using cash machines at weekends and sometimes even in the early evening, so try to stick to using them only on weekdays, and withdraw plenty of money!
There is a 5% sales tax added on to most purchases when you pay. It's not usually included in the ticket price.
Inflation is low at present; prices have hardly changed since my first visit to Japan in mid-1997.
Train is by far the easiest way of getting to most of the places you're likely to want to visit in Japan. The trains aren't cheap, but they're clean and punctual, and there are some special-offer rail passes available. Which one is the best to go for depends on how far you want to travel and over how long a period.
The main railway company is Japan Rail or JR, which has an extensive network of lines throughout the country (apart from Okinawa, where there are no railways at all, although a monorail was under construction in Naha when I visited (New Year 2000)). There are also numerous private railways, many of them serving more remote areas. You'll probably be able to get to most of the places you're interested in by using JR lines. Cities are usually served by a combination of JR lines, private suburban lines and underground railways. I'm told that in Nagoya, for example, an underground ticket costs from ¥200 to ¥290, with one-day passes available for ¥740.
If you pay as you go then it's about ¥1000-1200 for a 1-hour journey on local trains. A short hop of one or two stops will cost ¥180-200. On my local line the futsuu are the slow trains that stop at every station (they're the ones with 2 kanji characters) and the shinkaisoku (3 kanji) are the faster ones that stop less frequently. However, the terminology varies from one line to the next. Normal tickets are valid on either.
If you come around school holiday times then you can get the Seishun Juhachi Kippu (Youth 18 Ticket), a pass that gives you 5 days (not necessarily consecutive) of unlimited travel on local JR trains for Y11,500. You can buy it at any JR station with a ticket office. You can also use this pass for up to five people travelling together - just get it stamped once per person per day of travel. It's primarily intended for students but anyone can buy it. The approximate dates of validity are: 1st March - 10th April; 20th July - 10th September; 10th December - 20th January. The ticket is only on sale up until about ten days before the end of the period of validity.
I live in Hikone, near the Maibara stop on the shinkansen line. I've used a juhachi-kippu to make return trips to Hiroshima, Kyushu and Tokyo. The Hiroshima trip took about 8 hours and three trains each way, so it was just about tolerable; the Tokyo trip was 8-9 hours and 5-6 trains each way during the day, so I wouldn't recommend it. Better to either get an overnight bus or train, or to splash out on a shinkansen ticket which will get you from Tokyo to Maibara in about two hours for about ¥10,000, then switch to a local train which will take you to Kyoto for ¥1100 or Osaka for about ¥1900. I believe the overnight bus is about ¥8000. (See my links page for links to sites giving further information.) As for my Kyushu trip, by leaving Hikone at 5am I would have made it to Kumamoto before 10pm if it hadn't been for a big earthquake that struck shortly after I passed through Hiroshima! For the return trip I took the overnight "Moonlight Kyushu" from Fukuoka (Hakata) to Kyoto.
Alternatively you can buy the Japan Rail Pass before you come to Japan; this allows you to travel on the shinkansen (bullet train) but it's a lot more expensive so it's only worthwhile if you want to travel long distances over a short period. The 1-week JR Pass costs ¥28,300, which is roughly the same price as a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the shinkansen. Bear in mind that it's only good for seven concecutive days once validated, so the time continues to tick away even if you stay in one place for a few days. It's also only available to holders of a tourist visa, so if you're working in Japan then you're not eligible. It's possible to get round this restriction, but it's not legal!
Yes, accommodation in Japan is expensive. The cheapest option is usually youth hostels, and even they're normally at least ¥2500 per night. Some require IYHF membership, or offer a discount to members; some don't. (There's an extremely cheap hostel in Himeji - only ¥700 a night when I visited in August 1999 - but it looks as if it was built shortly after the war and hasn't been renovated since, there's a 9pm curfew and no English is spoken.)
Capsule hotels are usually around ¥3000-4000 and can be found in the entertainment areas of large cities. You can check in at any time of the night. The snag for us females is that most of them are men-only.
Love hotels are a good option if you're travelling as a couple or a group of three or four people. Hotels usually charge per person rather than per room, love hotels being the one exception - you can pack in as many people as you like. A love hotel generally has a gaudy appearance, a curtained parking area, and a board advertising rates for a "rest" (a daytime visit of a couple of hours) and a "stay". A "stay" usually costs between ¥4500 and ¥7000. The emphasis is on privacy and discretion; you choose the room you want from a photo on an illuminated board, and pay for the room without ever seeing the clerk's face. Usually you can't check in for a "stay" until after about 9pm. (I have to admit that I've actually never stayed in a love hotel myself!)
Traditional Japanese hotels are called ryokan; they cost from about ¥5000 per person per night, but more exclusive ones can be five or even ten times that price. Their cheaper cousins are called minshuku, with rates usually between ¥3000 and ¥6000 per person. A minshuku is usually a private home which rents out rooms to guests. These are the Japanese equivalent of a British B&B, though unlike at a B&B, usually no food is included in the price.
You shouldn't need to carry a sleeping bag unless you're planning to camp - and finding places to camp in Japan isn't all that easy. A cotton sheet sleeping bag may be useful if you're hostelling; often sheet hire is included in the overnight rates, but sometimes there's an additional charge of about ¥200.
Food and drink
You can eat quite well for about ¥2000 a day. Drinks are very expensive - usually about ¥500, even for soft drinks - but water is always provided free in restaurants. (Sometimes you'll be given green tea by default and will have to ask for water - "o-mizu kudasai" - if you want it.)
To keep your costs down, it's best to make lunch your main meal of the day. You can get breakfast from a bakery or convenience store (konbini) for a couple of hundred yen, and for your other meals noodles are generally the best bet. A lot of places have display windows containing plastic models of the food, so all you need to do is drag the waiter/waitress outside and point to the one you want. You can get a huge bowl of noodles (Chinese-style "ramen", buckwheat "soba" noodles or thick white "udon") for around ¥500-700. Okonomiyaki - a kind of thick savoury pancake - is also good, and is popular mainly in western Japan. (Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki also contains noodles, Kansai-style doesn't.)
In the evening you can eat in a food-and-drink establishment called an izakaya, but the costs can often mount up quite quickly. There's usually a menu with pictures of the food, and you order several small dishes between a group of people and split the cost - along similar lines to tapas. Individual dishes aren't expensive, but nor are they usually very big, and you have the cost of drinks to take into account as well.
If you're visiting in summer then you'll find that you need to drink gallons of liquid to avoid getting dehydrated. A vending machine selling chilled drinks (usually for ¥120 unless you're in a tourist trap) is never far away. In winter these same machines sell hot drinks too.
Being vegetarian in Japan is not easy. If you're willing to eat fish then that will make things a lot easier. You can ask for a pizza with no meat and no fish, but sometimes it will still arrive with prawns and bacon on it! Japanese often take the word "niku" (meat) to mean "beef", so anything that comes from a pig is OK, and of course prawns aren't fish, are they?! Many dishes are based on dashi, which is a soup stock made with kelp (seaweed) and dried fish; this even includes the basic miso soup.
Telephones: Japanese phone charges are quite high. You can make international calls from silver payphones and from green ones bearing an "international" metal plate. Phone cards can be bought from convenience stores. For an international call, you can dial 001, then the area code (minus the initial zero) followed by the number you want, but I believe it's a bit cheaper if you replace the 001 with 0041 or 0061, which routes the call through a different provider. You can get AT&T cards from Lawson convenience stores which allow you to make international calls from payphones for around ¥40 per minute, depending on which country you're calling.
If you need to get rid of your luggage during the day then there are lockers (koin rokka) at every sizeable station. The small ones are usually ¥300 for up to 24 hours, with a 72-hour limit. A normal-sized rucksack without side pockets will usually fit into a small locker, provided that the frame isn't too long. Bigger lockers are often in short supply.
If you can make your base in Kansai, then just about everywhere else in Kansai should be close enough for a day trip on local trains - this includes Kyoto (the city to visit in Japan), Osaka, Nara (an attractive former capital), Kobe and Himeji (famous castle). Osaka is like Tokyo on a smaller scale, so if you see Osaka then you don't really need to go to Tokyo for the Japanese urban experience! There are international flights available to Kansai International Airport, south of Osaka, so you don't necessarily need to fly to Narita (south-east of Tokyo).
Public toilets don't normally provide toilet paper (incidentally, you squat facing the hood end) so if you're offered a pack of tissues on the street - they usually seem to be advertising karaoke places, chat lines or mobile phones - then it's a good idea to accept. Busy shopping areas and station entrances are the best places for free tissues!
Cigarettes are widely available from vending machines for ¥260-280. I've heard that Japanese cigarettes are highly addictive because there are no legal constraints on the manufacturers and so of course they want to get as many people hooked as possible! As a result a high proportion of the population are smokers: something like 54% of men and 24% of women, if I remember rightly. Smoking isn't allowed on trains (except in certain carriages of long-distance ones) but don't expect to find smoke-free areas in restaurants.
NTT shops and a few department stores offer free Internet access, generally for 30 minutes at a time. They often don't allow you to use email sites though. You can usually find an Internet cafe or two in a fair-sized city, but they're not as widespread as in many other parts of Asia.
Is there any further information that you think should be included on this page? Have you found the existing content helpful? Please mail me with your comments, using one of the links below.
Thanks to Nick Ramsay for his contributions.
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