Wallet-friendly traveling in Japan

It’s no hidden secret: Japan is a country where you can easily blow $100 in a day. There’s just too much to enjoy that costs more than what we anticipate. A few drinks at Lawson or Family Mart – and I’m just talking about water, green tea and Vitamin C – and maybe a potato croquette can easily exceed JPY500. Even meals at fast food joints cost at least JPY600. Transportation (not including the use of the JR Pass) may also cost that much in a day. Ramen costs JPY1,000 on average, and shopping… well let’s not go into that.

After a week in Iwate Prefecture, I took another six days off to meet friends and colleagues in Tokyo. I had thought I had brought more than enough for myself to have a comfortable experience, but alas, I missed several hundred dollars worth of yen in my budget (and I’m still wondering where they went). I was almost strapped for cash during the last few days of my time in Tokyo. But wisdom and clear decision-making helped me get through with a few more yen to bring home.

There are folks such as the Frugal Traveler by the New York Times who have demonstrated that this is possible. But how does one plan an enjoyable experience in a city like Tokyo (or any other major city in Japan) without burning a hole in their pockets?

Download apps that track expenses

Use a smartphone app to track your spending. I downloaded Tripcoin, which is able to record your budget and expenses by trips. You add your total budget for your trip, and set your estimated daily limit. If it weren’t for this app, I woud’ve been in a much worse place, worrying if I had enough to last for the rest of the trip.

Tracking expenses is not fun. I get it. It takes discipline to track what you spend. And for crying out loud, you’re here to enjoy yourself, not worry if you have enough money! But if you think about it, by not tracking your expenses, you would be worse off by the end of the trip because you won’t have any money left for things that you need later, or for emergencies, or buy things like souvenirs for family and friends back home. While you may argue that you can go to a currency exhange counter to get more yen, chances are that the exchange rates will not be in your favour, and you’d be charged an administration fee, both of which are unnecessary.

This app really saved me during my trip, and it is ridiculously easy to use. I highly, highly recommend this. Unfortunately it’s only available for iPhone users.

Buy only what you need

Because I downloaded this app, I was also able to decide what to spend my money on. Like I said earlier, it’s so easy to spend money in this country which has a ton of beautiful things that you want to buy but really don’t need. Because I have a limit, I decide if I should buy a cute Snorlax toy at the Pokemon Centre that probably costs JPY2,000, or save that money and use it to buy food instead. And even then, you shouldn’t have to spend JPY2,000 on food unless you have to. JPY600 on takoyaki or JPY1,000 on ramen is more than enough. And if you’re just peckish, go to the convenience store.

Besides, it’s also better to have some leftover currency by the end of the trip in case of emergency or last minute purchases at the duty-free store. And even then, you can decide what souvenirs to buy for people. Do I get the really yummy cookies that cost JPY3,000, or peanuts or senbei crackers for a third of that cost – for people who can’t tell the difference or won’t appreciate it anyway?

Buy first what you really came for

Part of my agenda for extending my Japan time in Tokyo was to find the traditional equipment to make kumihimo braids. And I already knew they would be expensive – those things cost almost $500, and that doesn’t include the silk threads!

I also wanted to see if I could get some figurine toys from either Ikebukuro (there was none) or Akihabara (didn’t have time), but by the time I found and bought the kumihimo equipment, my bag was so heavy I gave up looking for the toys.

I’m bummed that I can’t get my Oikawa Tooru figurine here, but the kumihimo was probably a better investment.

Cosmetics and beauty products may also be cheaper here, but be honest – you can only get so many items here. And unless you they are exclusive only within Japan, you’re better off buying your daily beauty care at home.

Also track how much space you have in your luggage – if you’re practically meeting the maximum check-in allowance (like I did), abort all plans to buy more stuff.

Use your credit card if necessary

Credit cards are a last resort, but still come in handy when you need them. When cash is tight, I used it on slightly medium-priced items that cost between $20 to $70. Cash is still king among small businesses here, so you don’t want to use your card unnecessarily and inconvenience the poor elderly owner.

Despite the tight budget I was on, I still manage to enjoy myself. I didn’t starve, and I could still enjoy good coffee. I travelled comfortably, and I even managed to walk through Nakameguro, Daikanyama and Kichijoji to practice my photography. Inokashira Park was beautiful, and would definitely be even grander with hanami season upon us (unfortunately a bird pooped on my head so no parks for me for a while). I still had enough to buy the stuff my family wanted me to get, with leftover yen to carry home.

If you have tips to travel cheap in Tokyo or anywhere, feel free to share!

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2 thoughts on “Wallet-friendly traveling in Japan

  1. I always buy loads of stuff from 100yen shop so I send some back by post using the funabin (boat) so it arrives roughly 2 months later in France and it’s like a present because I often forget what I bought. I used to do “non spend days” when I stayed for 2 months but it’s easier in Kyoto since you have free temples and you can walk anywhere and have lots of places to sit and eat your combini lunch than in Tokyo. There are often little shops than sell bentos for students at lunch time and these are cheap. Also discount prices in the evening in supermarkets are useful. Being French though it’s too hard to go without dessert and coffee I often end up paying more for tea+ cake than for a menu.

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