I thought backpacking Japan would go just as smoothly as travelling New Zealand: Just going with the flow and basically winging the entire trip. Japan is not as backpacker friendly and attuned to the backpacker community and as a result, some prior planning is necessary. That being said, there are a lot of conveniences that should not be underestimated and that backpacker-prone countries like Australia and New Zealand could do better, too. So this is what I learned backpacking Japan on the cheap and what I wish I had known in advance.
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Table of Contents
- 1 Getting Around Japan
- 2 Trains and Railpasses
- 3 Hostel Quality
- 4 Convenience Next Door – 7Eleven, Toilets and Lockers
- 5 Etiquette in Japan
- 6 Staying Connected
- 7 Keeping the Energy Up – Drink and Food in Japan
- 8 Shopping in Japan
- 9 Onsen
- 10 Where to Travel and When
- 11 Female Solo Traveller Safety
- 12 Is Backpacking Through Japan Easy?
Getting Around Japan
If you don’t plan on travelling around Japan too much but want a few longer distance rides, take the bus! The main company to use is Willer Express and I’ve been really happy using them, often for overnight rides, which tend to be cheaper as well (and safe one night accommodation cost). Other bus company options as mentioned by a reader are Expressway (for Central Japan) and Koukusai Kogyo Bus (in Japanese only).
The buses can be prebooked online and you don’t even need to print your ticket. Simply show the booking number to the driver and you are good to go. When you create an account online, it will also collect points per booking, which you can use as discounts for future trips.
The bus seats are quite comfortable, being plush and even having a hood so you can block out light when you want to sleep. (Or you hate people watching you sleep or apply makeup. I’ve seen them used for this purpose, too.) There are even more reclining, compartmentalised seats in the back for overnight trips in case you want to invest in more comfort.
Long-term trips usually have breaks at roadhouses, where you can enjoy the cool bathrooms, refill your water bottle and buy food and souvenirs. They are like mini malls, essentially, and, if you ask me, a cool experience in themselves.
Trains and Railpasses
To maximise your sightseeing potential and get the most out of your buck, invest in a railpass (With my affiliate link, you can get 5% Off Japan Rail Passes). They come in all different kinds of deals, depending on what your travel plans involve.
You can get a Japan Railpass for the entirety of Japan or select regions. Then, choose how many days you need it for and check the price. There are various companies out there offering the pass but prices are essentially the same.
The Japan Railpass can only be booked and delivered abroad, so make up your mind in advance. Once you have it, you need to visit your local JR information center and get it validated.
Your information brochure will tell you, where exactly you can do that as there are several options. Be aware that there can be rather long waiting times – especially during cherry blossoms season. And bring your passport with you!
Alternatively (and if you forgot to book ahead), you can get a local regional pass or rechargeable IC card. With that, you can go on day trips cheaper and more easily as you just tap and go. If you need a ticket for a cross-regional train ride, double check the prices online before you accidentally book an expensive option.
Not all train staff speaks English, so communication problems aren’t unusual. (Always stay calm and polite! Japanese really want to help, they do NOT want to scam you.)
When is a Railpass worth the purchase?
If you are staying for only a short time in Japan and want to sightsee and city hop every single day and maybe even see multiple stops in a day, then the railpass is a great deal.
If you plan on staying longer in a city or hate fast travel, opt for local purchases. Prices on’t change, so you can decide on the spot.
Japan Tours on a Budget
One way to stretch your budget and reduce the hassle of planning everything is to join a day tour. This way you can easily reach the main spots, have a guide explain everything to you and there’s no need to suss out public transport and different train connections and local railpasses.
Often, you can use JR lines (and therefore your Railpass) within larger cities. To get to more remote locations and possibly to your hostel, more often than not you need to change to metro or bus lines. If you booked your hostel through hostelworld or booking, you can find directions in the hostel information, making it easier for you to find it.
You can also always ask at stations for help and directions to your desired stop. At bus stops, this is more difficult. Get local bus maps straight from the station where you land to be prepared and don’t shy away from asking locals. Even if they don’t know the answer (or English), they will often try to find someone nearby who does.
Transport in Tokyo is an entirely different beast (and I wrote a rant about it, too). There are multiple train operators and lines weaving throughout the city and they interconnect but you can’t just change between them – without paying extra. With a rechargeable IC card, you can easily hop around between them but it will also cost you extra as they set their own prices and don’t consider the entirety of your trip in the fee. So stick to one operator per route if you can.
What most Japanese do and you can do cheaply as well is get a bike. Most hostels rent bikes out for the day for about 300yen and there are bike lines as well, cars are used to bikes and cyclists are just as relentless as in other countries. So always watch out for those. And while we’re at it, be aware that you have to make yourself known when trying to overtake people on the street. For some reason, most Japanese have the tendency to take up quite a lot of space when walking with others. Make “sumimasen” you go-to word.
Hostels in Japan aren’t as modern and exciting as you might expect. Especially in the lower price range, you will more often than not encounter old BnBs that have been turned into makeshift dorms. Many are quintessentially Japanese with tatami mats and slim mats on wooden floors or minimalist bunk beds. This isn’t terrible, it just is. But you might feel it in your back.
Should you be totally into the idea of pod beds, know that most of them are reserved for males only. More and more allow women nowadays, but in general, you have to do a little more digging if you are a woman wanting the pod experience. Just don’t be claustrophobic! You can’t even sit up in them. If they have, lockers in Japanese hostels will be rather small. Washing lotion and shampoo are mostly provided but towels or breakfast aren’t.
A big bonus with Japanese hostels is that they aren’t party hostels, so while walls are thing, you won’t need to plug in earplugs from party noise or loud chatter. Light and noise out is usually enforced after 10 or 11PM. If you are thinking that you need to stay outside for cheap hostels, that doesn’t always apply in Japan. I scored some really good deals in Asakusa in Tokyo, or Tennoji in Osaka to give you an example.
Convenience Next Door – 7Eleven, Toilets and Lockers
Convenience Stores like 7Eleven and Lawson
If there’s one thing you can count on when walking around Japan, it’s that there’s a convenience store within a 5 minute walking radius of you at all times. You’d be hard pressed to not find a 7Eleven, Lawson, Daily Yamazaki, FamilyMart or Kubus nearby, whether it is big cities or small towns.
As in other parts of the world, they are open 24/7 and stock all the usual essentials, but this being Japan, they go one step further, Meals served here aren’t of the usual fast food kind, they are proper heat-and-go dishes. The prices range between 100 and 200 YEN, which amounts to 0.80 to 1.60 USD or 0.77 to 1.50 EUR. The dishes can be heated in the stores’ microwaves, so you can dig right in. (Just be aware that eating food on the street, let alone when walking, is frowned upon in Japan.
Another big bonus of all these convenience stores is that you can get money out safely. When I visited last, ATMs in Lawson were the only ones – besides those at post offices – that accepted my card. Now, it seems that most banks accept international credit cards. The fees at the convenience stores, however, are the same wherever you go, which is around 119yen per 10000yen take out.
You can get stationary, latest magazines and manga digests, hygiene products, batteries, drinks and even use the instore machines to book tickets for special events and museums, such as the Ghibli Studio or Anime Japan in Tokyo. (It’s in English but you can find instructions online because sometimes that’s the only way to get tickets.)
If you want to be lazy and safe money, hit up a Daiso. Everything in here is 100yen plus tax, which makes 108yen, unless otherwise stated. So you can get amazing souvenir and food deals from here. Another popular supermarket is Don Quijote, which you can spot from afar by the giant penguin dancing on a half moon. It usually has multiple floors that are packed with absolutely everything you could possible need ever. Be it beauty products, food and drink, electronics, clothes, costumes or toys, it is easy to end up in a spending spree.
Be careful with price tags as tax is often not included, which is true in both stores as well as restaurants. Sometimes the tax is included in the listed price and at other times (especially when you thought it was a good deal) you will realise it at cashier. Always be on the lookout for the small +税金 (+tax). In general, the consumption tax is a flat 8% on all items but is scheduled to increase to 10% in April 2017.
Japanese Public Toilets
Similarly, toilets can be found aplenty. Look for them in and nearby train stations, around public parks and main squares. They are always clean and free to use. Most of them don’t provide soap, so it’s a good idea to bring your own dry soap sheets or hand sanitiser. If people hand out marketing material on the street, chances are that its tissues and you should grab them to use as toilet paper. Sometimes you need it because at times toilet paper isn’t provided either.
Public toilets can vary vastly in look. Some are super sleek, high tech constructs, like at roadstop houses. They will have an electronic announcement screen, showing the toilet layout and which ones are occupied and what path to take to get there. Of course, this includes the fancy multi-button toilet bowls as well. Park toilets, for instance, are bare bones and mostly squat toilets. Don’t shy away from using those, though. They are super easy to use and actually more natural. Oh, and if there’s no public toilet in sight, try at a convenience store.
Coin Lockers for Luggage
If you have made the decision to check out early but leave town late, then you know the problem. Should I leave my luggage at my ho(s)tel and come back later? Or should I drag it around with me? Well, in Japan there’s no need to worry because you will find coin lockers at all the train station. Some have quite limited numbers, so be there early to snatch them!
Coin lockers are easy to use and there are usually written or electronic instructions pinned to them. Sizes vary from small bags to hand luggage suitcase sizes over to big luggage. That being said, they are mostly rather slim, so pack accordingly or think of a different option. Once you have snatched your desired locker, press the door shut, insert the necessary coins and lock it. Keep the receipt and write down your pin code to be able to retrieve it later. In Tokyo, most coin lockers keep your luggage for up to three days. You can even check train station layouts and locker locations online, such as for Ueno or Nippori in Tokyo.
Etiquette in Japan
This one is super tricky and hard to just summarise. But to give you a broad overview, you should not eat in public unless right next or in the place where you bought the food. There won’t be bins anywhere else, either. Walk on the left unless you want to overtake people on an escalator (unless you are in Osaka, where people walk on the right, it seems).
Always use a polite greeting, bow and say thank you plenty. On public transport, take up as little space as possible, put your phone on silent, don’t talk loudly (and definitely not on the phone) and don’t eat on the street. Eating and drinking on trains is allowed but be as inconspicuous as possible and keep your trash.
When you are eating in company and the server doesn’t pour the drinks at the table, you need to fill everyone else’s glass before you can refill your own. Never stick chopsticks into rice. Unless you are at a funeral or pay respects at a grave, of course. Don’t eat at temples and shrines, and take your hat, sunglasses and shoes off if you go inside.
Tipping isn’t customary and if you do, you will be given it back. So don’t even try it as it will embarrass the other person. When you are sick, do wear one of the infamous masks as it is supposed to keep germs to yourself. Blowing your nose in public is frowned upon; you gotta suck it up. Literally.
More noise rules relate to public transport. There shouldn’t be any sound coming from your phone and loud talking is frowned upon as well. Most people play on their smartphones instead or read mangas. Eating noises are a special issue as well. When eating soup, instant noodles or the like as well as when drinking hot beverages, people use a lot of noise to slurp everything up as fast as possible.
Next, when you enter a house or temple building, for example, you will see a wooden elevation or carpet and possibly already a line of shoes. That means you have to take off yours as well and put them there neatly. If there are house slippers provided you may use them, otherwise stay in socks. For the bathroom, use the special slippers provided.
Here’s a word of caution: the Japanese will hate you for wearing a backpack. You know all those unwritten rules and behaviour expectations? Taking off your backpack on public transport for space reasons (even though putting a giant backpack between your legs doesn’t necessarily make much o a difference and is a pain to get back up if it’s so crowded you can’t even move) is one of them. No matter how big or small, you are expected to place it on your lap and not the floor. Or at least, hold it in front or at the side of you. (Sometimes that also for safety and pickpocket reasons.)
Be prepared that you might get shoved just walking on the streets. You do take up a lot of space, after all. But often it is very much intentional. That being said, you might need to claim space yourself also when you want to pass a group of Japanese who claim as much space as possible but are very much oblivious to your looming presence. Therefore, use the word “sumimasen” (excuse me) a generous amount. It works wonders.
Free Wifi Spots
Japan has made a lot of improvements in the past years to support international tourists throughout their journey in Japan. The first time I visited, I had to rely mostly entirely on my own tourist hotspot unless I was at a big train station (and even then the connection was tolerable). Now, there are free city hotspots in main touristy areas. Even the famous Fushimi Inarii Shrine in Kyoto has their own hotspot!
More than that, you can access wifi in convenience stores and international franchises like Starbucks. And Starbucks is everywhere as well. At one point I saw two Starbucks just across the road. It has become quite the institution in Japan and you no longer have to create your own account in advance to be able to log in.
Railway companies have their own wifi networks as well, and they vary according to region. But they are free and you have to register with your email and click the confirmation link (no use making up a different identity!) and then repeat every hour if you want to stay connected. It’s easy.
Sim Cards and Portable Hotspots
Getting a sim card has gotten much easier. However, you cannot just go into a store and buy a local one. It has to be a tourist sim card. You can preorder them in advance and have them delivered to the airport or your ho(s)tel or get one at the airport. Furthermore, a lot of hostels will sell tourist sims as well or can help you find a store that does.
You don’t even need to change your sim card if you get a portable pocket wifi router. This way, you can enjoy unlimited and fast wifi on the go and don’t have to share in hostels, which can slow down the connection. In some hostels, the wifi is downright terrible (especially in the rooms).
Keeping the Energy Up – Drink and Food in Japan
Special Food Deals
One thing that will make you question your budget choices (or where all your money is going) is Japanese food! It is seriously so delicious and every city has their own tempting specialities and you need to do some field research, don’t you? Even if you “just” have that one skewer and then another because they are cheap, it will quickly add up. Be warned! But seriously, dig in also!
To help keep things in a happy medium, visit local izakayas, bars and restaurants during main lunch hours to claim lunch deals. In the evening, visit local supermarkets an hour before they close to snatch price reduced items, such as fried food, bento boxes and rice balls. For sweets, walk the main shopping streets and step into the small speciality shops or Daiso stores to grab sweet treats at a lower price, including Kit Kat and those delicious chocolate cookies (try the butter one!).
If you cannot afford restaurant visits, consider Japanese fast food, such as gyudon at Sukiya. I am seriously addicted to it and you can have a bowl of rice and meat for $2.50! (Sorry, vegetarians won’t be happy here.) There are also smaller takeaway shops outside train stations that will have pre-cooked readymade meals, which are much cheaper (and less tasty) than the ones in restaurants and malls.
Should you want to try as many dishes as you can at once but without having to pay heftily for it, I highly recommend a buffet restaurant, such as the ones you can find on the top floor at Osaka station. You can eat unlimited for an hour or so and they serve up local and regular dishes and desserts. And this time, you can try everything and as much as you can possibly stomach. If you think an hour is a lot for eating, take into consideration that you will be unable to move for a while after devouring all the yumminess – especially if you have been living off instant ramen.
To be dramatic, it is nearly impossible to die of dehydration while in Japan. There are drink vending machines at every corner! Public parks and many toilets also have water fountains so you can refill your water bottles easily.
Recycling and Rubbish in Japan
One thing that will instantly strike you while travelling Japan is how clean everything is. Streets are free of rubbish! But there are no bins. (And no, those bins next to drink vending machines are only for bottles and cans.) How does this work?
First and foremost, there is no eating or drinking on the street or while walking. (I am guilty of doing it sometimes though. Oh no.) When you buy food on the go, you will get plastic bags, hand wipes and plastic cutlery. So you can eat it right away (or later) and then can neatly wrap it up in the bag and use it as a bin bag to discard at home or when you find the appropriate bin. Train stations generally have multiple bins for recycling and many convenience stores have them inside as well. Littering is highly fined so don’t do it! (Also because you should be a decent human being.)
When you are in your hostel or airbnb, you need to separate your bin according to the instructions. Each district (and house) has different rules on that and they should be strictly followed. While in my airbnb in Honanchou I once had to dismantle my plastic bottle. Cap and label had to be separated from the bottle and each had to go in a different bin. The trash collectors would check the trash and leave angry warnings (and fine threats) in red on the dumped bags (they refused to collect them) if we didn’t do it right!
Shopping in Japan
While I was in Australia, I lived in fear of Japan being even more expensive. Newly made Japanese friends reassured me it would be cheaper, especially food. And food is a vital part for me. What they failed to mention is that because the local Japanese food is so good and diverse, I would spend double the amount of money on it than in Australia. I haven’t encountered farmers markets either and so I rely on finding relatively cheap supermarkets. Those are rare because most shops are 7/11s on every corner and the medium priced Family Mart on every second street. Then there also are speciality shops.
Onsen are one of my favourite things in Japan. They are public baths that are super hot and said to be healthy. Particularly when it is cold outside, there is nothing better. Be aware that you must cover all your tattoos (with water-resistent make up or plasters) and that you cannot wear any clothes.
Double check whether your onsen of choice is mixed gender or separate. After you enter, you take off your shoes instantly (as you always do indoors in Japan) and then all your clothes. Keep them in the boxes provided. Enter the bath and clean yourself before you go into the bath.
Stay as long as you are comfortable and when you get dizzy, stand up for a while to cool down or get out. After your bath, you wash yourself again. (Don’t bring your camera for selfies! That’s not allowed for obvious reasons.)
Where to Travel and When
The two major times to backpack Japan are of course cherry blossom season and colourful autumn. But there is something to love throughout the entire year. Just know that winters can be harsh and summers sweltering and humid. May and June have the best weather and there are tons of flower and temple festivals as well.
Female Solo Traveller Safety
One question I get asked a lot by fellow female travellers when I talk about Japan is: Is Japan safe to travel as a woman? My answer is a very pronounced 100% yes! In face, Japan is one of the safest countries. You could basically leave your valuables around and nobody would steal them. You can walk the streets at night (or day) and there is zero catcalling.
Women dress conservatively and ladylike but if you are walking in ridiculous outfits (not saying I do… but yeah, I do sometimes… for video purposes, of course), people will just ignore you. As always, you have to use common sense and not run into dodgy looking streets or walk around in skimpy clothes love hotel districts. Even when people tried to take a photo of me (wearing a colourful wig), they politely asked first and didn’t do it sneakily behind my back.
Plenty of hostels offer female only dorms as well. And there are women only cars on trains. One thing has to be said, though. Japan is majorly sexist. You can see that in business hotels, for instance. The majority of them are catered (and some exclusively) for men. At one the only female toilet was down in the backyard and the female area was on floor 8 no less. Even though I waited for an eternity at reception, every man who came in was served first. You have to be really assertive at times (because that is unexpected in women as well and will definitely get you attention).
Is Backpacking Through Japan Easy?
It absolutely is! There are hostels and airbnbs everywhere and in central locations. You can easily find other international travellers, signs and announcements are in English and travelling around Japan is super easy. Japan is one of my favourite countries to explore. It is just so exciting and different.
Now you: Have you been thinking about backpacking Japan? What do you want to see most?
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