The purpose of this article is to share the experience of my travel in Japan in 2014. I did it with little money so yes ! it can be cheap to travel in this country !!
Here are the good plans if you don't have lots of money, by categories.
The cheap means are the same as in every country, so no surprise.
- Hitchhiking. It is possible to do it everywhere in Japan of course, and it will be safe as the reputation of this country as the safest in the world sounds true to me. But it won't be easy all the time. If you are in cities areas you'll probably have to wait a lot, the best is to walk until you start to go outside the city I think.
In my case I did it only in Hokkaido where it worked very well for me. I met other people that said it was easy in Yakushima, and I think that in the countryside in other islands it should be alright. It is just that the real countryside is not that frequent in Japan. I would say in the center of Kyushu and Shikoku, two remote areas, and in the North, in Tohoku, if you avoid the big cities.
- By bicycle. I did it during two months and a half, so it is possible (just slow and tiring). Very cheap of course but also very slow which means you need time. Once again avoid the populated areas because it is a real pain for the lugs with the traffic.
In Hokkaido during Summer it is very common, I saw a lot of Japanese and foreigners doing it. It is also the flattest island by far I think : it was the easiest place for me to cycle around. Indeed there are fewer passes and they are lower than on Honshu for instance.
Moreover no big rainy season like in the three other main islands and a not too hot summer make it a good choice for Summer. And then during Fall it is rare that the typhoons reach Hokkaido so it is still a good place to go.
I found it very interesting to go by bicycle because this way you really see the countryside. It enables you to be be slow enough to see everything and to stop when you think it is worth it. Moreover you can go everywhere, even on a closed road (I did it twice and even with a small motorbike I would not have been able to pass).
- By motorbike. I haven't tried yet but I saw many Japanese people doing it, even after Summer. A bit more expensive because you'll have to pay the gas of course, but still very interesting.
- By ferry. Less and less used, therefore less and less compagnies and lines, but still common to go to Hokkaido. You can go to this page if you want to see all the long distance routes.
The price depend on the type of cabin you ask for and the season. Here is an example for Tokyo (Oarai in fact) Hokkaido (Tomakomai). Around 10 000 Yen for one person with no means of transportation (bike, car...).
For the short lines, the best is to look at a map or to ask people. For instance I took a ferry between Hakodate (Hokkaido) and Oma (Honshu) and between Wakayama (Honshu) and Tokushima (Shikoku) and I knew they existed thanks to my big road map of all Japan.
- By long distance buses. They are very often night buses for the very long trips. It is cheaper than the train, but also slower. Here is a link to go to the page of the compagny I know. Even if Willerexpress isn't in your city, ask people in a michi no eki or in a city office, or in post office, or in a konbini... you should be able to find a bus station with long distance buses.
- By train. Now I start talking about normal means of travelling, for the people willing to do it a more classical way. If you stay with a visa of less than three months, you can get the Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass. Very interesting if you stay for a short time, less than three weeks, and if you plan to move a lot. You have to buy it before going to Japan !! With the pass, almost all the train of the JR compagny, by far the biggest one in Japan are free. For one week : 30 000 Yen, for two weeks : 46 000 Yen and for three weeks 60 000 Yen. It is half price for children. More information on the official website.
For the prices and the schedules, go on this website. The trains are said to be always on time and the Japanese are very proud of it, but if you are very unlucky, like me, they may be late. In my case they were late twice out of the five times I took one, 8 and 5 minutes late, enough in the first case to make me miss my connection.
- By airplane. There are many local flights in Japan, and it can be a good idea if you don't have time. It is the most expensive means to travel but sometimes the difference with the train is small (if no JR Pass). Be carefull that very often the airports are far from the cities and so it will be longer than just the flight and more expensive than just the plane ticket.
For the schedules and the prices, go there (same for the trains in fact).
You can also rent a car of course, as many Japanese people do it there are a lot of agencies in every city. I don't remember the price but if you take a small car it isn't expensive compared to European countries I think.
You'll need an international driving license with a translation, which can be done by your consulate in Japan or in advance in your country by a compagny (a bit more expensive),at least it is the case for France.
If you are going to move a lot inside the cities, my advice is to take the Suica card or the equivalent card in the others cities than Tokyo, it is really convenient. Then you just have to put money in the card and to beep it when you go inside and out the subway station.
It also works for the JR trains if you stay inside the same area, so for short trips (ask someone in the station if you don't know). Even if it doesn't work when you want to go outside (because you changed area and so the computer doesn't know where you beeped before) just explain your problem and pay at the fare ajustement place and everything will be alright.
You can buy it in stations for 2000 Yen, which includes a deposit of 500 Yen (you get it back back if you give back the card) and 1500 Yen of credit. More on wikipedia.
The prices are always for one person, in Japan you always pay per person and never per room.
- Free camping. Sometimes you can do legal free camping because there are some free campsites in the country. I saw a few of them in Hokkaido and in Tohoku (north of Honshu) and then nothing until Shikoku. In any case it is rare. But no problem, it is easy to sleep in parks or near michi no eki. More about this in this page.
- Camping. Once again Hokkaido is different from the rest of Japan. In this island there are many many small and cheap campsites, between 100 Yen (in the mountains) and 600 Yen (the most expensive I found). Very often it was 300 Yen (in 2014).
It is cheap but you'll get a place to put your tent, that's all. There are toilets but no shower, no restaurant, no shop, nothing else. It is very frequent and popular in Hokkaido and less frequent elsewhere.
Be carefull, there are also autocampsite, where you can let your car just near your tent, and it is much more expensive, even if you don't pay for a car.
In Honshu the campsites are less frequent but still there are some. More expensive than the ones in Hokkaido, around 1000 Yen, and still no shower.
- Biker's house. As there are many bikers everywhere in Japan, there are also many biker's houses, which are the cheapest way to sleep with a real roof above your head. Between 800 Yen and 1200 Yen, maybe more in some places. Very often 1000 Yen.
Sometimes you can have a shower and sometimes it isn't possible. Also in some cases you have to reserve, but I think that it is worth trying even without reservation.
In a biker's house there are two rooms, a big one for the men and a small one for the women, and then everybody sleep in the same room near the others.
Sometimes you have to pay a bit more if you want a futon and/or a blanquet, and sometimes it is free, no rule about this.
- Manga kissa. Or manga kissaten, or manga cafe. A place where you can rent a tiny box with a computer for one night. Japanese style (no chair) and Western style available.
Free drinks and free icecreams, and of course you can read as many mangas as you want, in Japanese of course !
The price is different wheter you come in before or after the night limit, often between 8pm and 9pm. Cheaper for the night time, around 1500 Yen for 9 hours. During the day it is around 1000 Yen for three hours. You'll need to take their card if you want to stay, which is often 300 Yen and sometimes free. So once you have a card, try to find manga kissa from the same compagny. It is more expensive for the Friday and Saturday evenings.
In many of them you can have a shower, for 300 Yen. Be carefull, if there are many people in it, it is better to reserve in advance or they might tell you that you have to wait an hour before you can have your shower.
- Guesthouse. Only in the big cities. It is the cheapest "normal" way to sleep. The range of prices is very wide, it starts around 2000 Yen for a dormitory with many beds (6 or 8, sometimes even more) and can go to 4000 or 5000 Yen for a private room. The prices change according to the season and the day of the week.
It is also possible to sleep, from the cheapest to the most expensive, in a capsul hotel (in cities only), in a love hotel (in cities only), in a minshuku, a kind of bed and breakfast, in a ryokan, the traditionnal Japanese hotel, and in a "normal" or business hotels, the Western style hotels.
For the minshuku, ryokan and Western style hotels, the prices varies a lot depending on where you are, countryside or big cities, and of course the standard you choose. For minshuku and ryokan it starts from 5000 Yen if you are lucky to very expensive prices, and for a Western style it is more expensive.
- Rivers ! Of course the cheapest way to wash yourself and your clothes, but also the coldest. I often had my shower in rivers in Hokkaido and in Tohoku. For tough people not afraid of the cold water and with really little money.
To wash your clothes you can also use the tap in campsites, michi no eki or parcs, a good plan is to put them in a strong plactic bag to be more efficient and so quicker, particulary to rince them.
- Michi no eki. In some michi no eki, there is a shower in the toilet for handicapped people, very usefull !
If there isn't and if you don't want to pay for your shower, or you just don't have the choice because there is nothing else, you still can wash yourself, a least the minimum, in the Japaese style toilets (the most common, in every parc, every michi no eki...) with a bottle. I did it when I had no choice, not really convenient, but better than being to dirty in my opinion.
- Onsen. Means spa in Japanese. Japanese people love to go to onsen to have a bath and relax there. Around 500 Yen everywhere for a normal onsen. A more luxurious one would be more expensive, it depends on the level of the facilities and on the water caracteristic (helps to cure this or that...).
Sometimes there are free onsen, like the one just near the campsite in Rausu (Shiretoko, Hokkaido).
It is good way to meet people, each time I went to onsen I ended up talking with people.
- Sento. Means public bath in Japanese. Similar to onsen but in this case it is normal water heated by men, so no particular health benefits. A bit cheaper than onsen, between 350 Yen and 450 Yen. There are many in the cities because many Japanese people like to have their bath outside as it is a way to meet people in this country.
- Coin laundry. For the normal people who don't want to manually wash there clothes in rivers, in parcs or in michi no eki. Something like 300 Yen for the washing and then it is 100Yen to dry the clothes. But if you have to many clothes you'll need to put them two or three more times in the dryer, so more like 200 to 400 Yen.
I don't know for hotels, ryokan and minshuku but for the biker's houses and the guesthouses I saw, there is sometimes a wash-machine, alone or with a dryer (often for the same price as in a coin laundry, free if you are lucky) and sometimes there is nothing.
Japanese people are really crazy about food, usually a half of a Japanese guidbook talks about restaurants !
As they are crazy about it and as they very often eat outside, there is plenty of choice, and for every price. You can have ramen, udon or soba, the noodles, for 350 Yen and eat in a famous restaurant for 10 000 Yen. Well, if you are an this page, it should mean you want to travel for cheap, so let's talk about cheap food.
The cheapest way to eat is of course to cook yourself, as everywhere else on Earth. Rice is very cheap, but long to cook, and good plan is to buy soba, somen or udon and to cook them. Bread isn't to expensive too so to eat bread with whatever you want inside can be a good option.
If you want to go in a shop, the cheapest places are definitely the ramen restaurants or the soba and udon restaurants. Very often the lowest price of the restaurant (many different options, depending on what is added to the noodles) is around 500 Yen, even cheaper sometimes.
For sushi or sashimi, there are cheap shops where you can have a sashimi for 100 Yen, but only if you take like five or so (so on fact it is more like 500 Yen, and you have 5 sashimis or sushis). I don't recommend to eat in this kind of place because since 2011, a cheap sushi or sashimi very often means that it is made with fish from the contaminated area, near the nuclear power plant of Fukushima. So they are cheap radioactive sashimi.
- Michi no eki. In every michi no eki there is free wifi so you just have to find the paper with the code and it is alright, or ask someone if you can't find the paper.
- Stations. If you are in a big station, the probabilities are very very high that there is free wifi. Ask someone what the code is and you'll have the Internet.
In a small station in a city it is unlikely that there is wifi but it is worth asking. If the answer is no ask for the nearest place with free wifi, there might be one.
If it is a small station in the countryside, don't count on it, it is still Middle Age there.
- In Starbucks café. If you go in a Starbucks café and if you registered and got a code before that (it is here if you want to do it now), then you can log on the wifi and use it for free as much as you want.
- In touristic places. There is often a free wifi spot in or near a famous place.
It is sometimes shown on touristic maps. Otherwise you just have to ask someone in a touristic information center, Japan has many free wifi spots.
Of course there is free wifi in every guesthouse of the counrty, and in every more expensive accomodation.
For the biker's houses there is sometimes wifi and sometimes not and I have no idea what is the most frequent, so chek for it before reserving, if you reserve.
Very often you can go on the Internet in a café in Japan, but only if you have an account in like Docomo or Au compagnies. In this case you have to pay each month, so no free Internet. Therefore if you see a sign saying there is wifi, check carefully what it means before paying a drink for nothing.
Good luck and bon voyage !!!