Japan was always a must-visit country in my travels. And my two weeks there was everything I'd dreamt of and more. But many people are put off from travelling to Japan because of the expense. Yes, it is expensive, but there are ways to make visit Japan on a budget and still see a lot of the top attractions that this amazing country has to offer.
Here's how we did Japan in two weeks on a budget, including tips from fellow travellers.
Our Two Week Japan Itinerary
Day 1 - Arrive in Tokyo
Day 2 - Tokyo
Day 3 - Tokyo
Day 4 - Tokyo
Day 5 - Tokyo to Takayama (first day of JR Pass - see below)
Day 6 - Takayama to Kyoto
Day 7 - Kyoto
Day 8 - Kyoto
Day 9 - Kyoto
Day 10 - Kyoto to Hiroshima (half day) to Miyajima
Day 11 - Miyajima to Tokyo (last day of JR Pass)
Day 12 - Tokyo
Day 13 - Tokyo
Day 14 - Fly back from Tokyo
Alternative Japan Routes
Our trip started and ended in Tokyo, but you could easily fly into Tokyo and fly out of another city in Japan, such as Kyoto or Osaka.
We only bought a one week Japan rail pass, which limited our time exploring out side of Tokyo. You could buy a full two week ticket and get to see more places - although you might feel you have to move around a lot to make the most of your ticket!
On Day 11 of our itinerary, many people fit in Himeji, which has a pretty spectacular castle. The castle is currently undergoing reconstruction and is covered in scaffolding, so we missed it on this trip and spent more time in Miyajima.
Instead of heading up to Takayama, you could carry on down south to spend more time in Kyoto, visit Osaka or Kobe, or go past Hiroshima to the south of Japan
Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass)
If venturing out of Tokyo then definitely buy a JR Rail Pass before you leave your country.
This will be a life-saver whilst travelling around Japan as it is so expensive to buy individual train tickets when you arrive.
Their website also has an excellent forum, where you can ask questions about your visit and pick up tips from other travellers. Their team is very responsive, replying often within a few hours of posting.
Cheap places to stay in Japan
When in Tokyo, I recommend staying in Ueno as it's downtown and so relatively cheap compared to places like Shinjuku.
You can get off directly at Ueno Station from the main airport (Narita) and it's easy to navigate through Tokyo from Ueno station.
Try to stay in Ryokans or Hostels, as Japanese hotel rooms are not only tiny but very expensive. Ryokan are Japanese style inns, so a more authentic experience as you sleep on tatami matt floor, futons, onsen steam bath - very comfy! You usually also meet fellow travellers over a delicious Japanese breakfast (rice, eggs, fish, etc).
If you are staying for longer than a week in Tokyo or want more independence, then look up the very reasonable Weekly Mansion aparthotel in Ueno (it's also in every Tokyo district).
Two useful sights for booking accommodation - HostelBookers.com and HostelWorld.com. Simply pick the dates you want, how many people and then you can view all available listings. Map view gives you an idea of where hostels are located (nearer transport links is preferable), you can sort by rating to get the best places to stay at the top, and you can also read past visitors reviews to get a feel for each place.
A word of warning - book your accomodation far in advance of your trip, at least a month. The best and cheapest places book up very quickly, especially in blossom season!
Japanese eating on a budget
Sushi Joint - Find a conveyer belt sushi place, which are cheaper than normal restaurants, and enjoy powered green tea and sushi!
Street Food - Japanese street vendors are everywhere and the food is very varied. From steam buns to yakatori, there's something for everyone to fill up on for a lot less
Sushi Triangles - Mostly sold in convenience stores such as 7-11, these are small triangles of sushi wrapped in sea weed. They come in an intricately wrapped package (pull 1, then 2, then 3) and are a cheap and delicious way to feed fatigued tourists. Oh, and 7-11s have free wifi and toilets, which comes in very useful at times.
Okonimiyaki - This is a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The restaurants that call themselves Okonimiyaki are cheap and serve lots of other delicious Japanese meals - not to mention that some let you cook your own pancake on heated grills installed into your table!
Alcohol - Drinking is expensive in Japan, especially in bars and restaurants.
Cheap/free things to see in Tokyo
Tsukiji fish market (free) - Its due to move location next year and will be much harder to get to. You have to go Mon-Fri around 4-5am for the best time. Then go get Sushi from the Breakfast Sushi bars by the market (cash only at most - Sushi Dai is the one I went to with locales - lines to get in at 5am)...
Harajuku Station area (free) - A number of things to do here a) Walk through park to Meiji Jingu shrine. b) Harajuku Girls on the bridge by the station - especially on a Sunday afternoon c) Takeshita Street just across from station is the main trendy fashion street - well worth a stroll down and people watch. The area around here is full of high end shops to but don't waste your time - Takeshita Street is the one for people and strange store viewing!
Shibuya Crossing (free) - This is the major pedestrian crossing just outside the station be aware all stations in Tokyo are absolutely massive and if you leave by the wrong exit you could be literally miles from where you want to be! (Hachiko exit for this one) Grab a coffee at the starbucks that overlooks the crossing - incredible place to sit and watch everything happen.
Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo (free) - nice walk down to it as well.
Find a all you can eat and drink Shabu-shabu restaurant (cheap) - Here you book a table for a fixed amount of time and its all you can eat but more importantly all you can drink! Load up on beer, sake and try the Shoju too. This is a good first step to going to a Karaoke room.
Take the Yamanote subway line and ride its loop all around the inner city core (cheap) - Get off at Akihabara for the electronics district. Visit Yodobashi store here - the biggest electronics store in the world it seems.
Take the last train home some night on the Yamanote line (cheap) - Remember last trains leave early, around midnight, so you either want to go then or just stay up until they start running again around 5am.
Maiden Cafe (cheap) - Visit a Maiden Café in Akihabara for a cup of coffee and cake
Go to Shinjuku station at rush hour (free) - busiest, and largest, railway station in the world. A trip on the Yamanote line in rush hour is also quite the experience.
Oriental Bazaar (cheap) - On Omotesando Street in Harajuku, this is a good and inexpensive place to pick up souvenirs if you want any.
Ginza (cheap/free - if you don't buy anything) - From the Imperial Palace in Tokyo you can reach Ginza, which is worth strolling through as it's where all the posh shops are (Japanese version of London's Knightsbridge). Stop off at Doutor coffee shop (opposite Mitsukoshi department store) at the crossroads, an amazing spot for watching the world go by.
Day trips out of Tokyo
Nikko - a world heritage site of ancient Buddhist shrines.
Hakone - a good weekend break from Tokyo, very picturesque lakes with wonderful views of Mount Fuji.
Kamakura - Pretty much Zen central, famous for the enormous Daibutsu Buddha statue.
Rest of Japan
Kyoto - Lots of the main temples and tourist attractions are grouped together in the east of the city. We travelled to the south east, starting at the Seikan-Ji Temple, then walked our way through to the north east of the city. Once you finish the Philosopher's Path, catch a bus back to central Tokyo. It's a long day, but worth it!
Nara - A day trip outside of Kyoto, this city has a huge park full of deer, temple and one of the biggest statues of Buddha in the world
Hiroshima - The peace museum and park is so moving, but also a cheap day. The museum is only 50 Yen to enter and you can wander around the park for a few hours.
Miyajima - When visiting Hiroshima, definitely take the boat out to Miyajima Island, one of the most beautiful islands in Japan. You can do a big walk around the island and to the top of the mountain there. The boat across to the island is also included in the JR Pass.
Kobe - a vibrant city where younger generations live and of course home of yummy Kobe beef. If you have time, there is a great Onsen town called Arima Onsen just a bus ride away.
Kanazawa - Some of Japan's most beautiful temples and most famous garden Kenrouken.
Takayama - Wonderful as it takes you into the heart of traditional Japanese life, with a beautifully persevered old Japanese town.
Himeji Castle - What many people don't know is that just outside Himeji City is an amazing 1000 year old temple complex called Engyo-ji high up in Mount Shosha, which can be reached by a 30 minute ropeway journey. Recently it was made more famous as parts of The Last Samurai film with Tom Cruise were filmed there.
That's my suggestions on how to visit Japan on a shoestring. What advice would you give for first time travellers to Japan?