Starting the list with Tokyo seems like a ridiculous notion, but of you’re willing to do your research and forgo personal space in exchange for saving precious yen, staying in one of the most hectic cities in the world can be a rather thrifty option. Firstly, one of the greatest things about staying in Tokyo on the cheap is that many of the best sightseeing hotspots are free and cheap. You can explore countless stunning gardens like Yoyogi Park and the Imperial Palace East Gardens for free, and if you want to see something a little more exotic, a visit to Shinjuku Gyoen is going to set you back a very low 200 yen (US$2). So many of the city’s other sights like Tsukiji Market, Shibuya scramble, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory will only cost you your transport fee.
Yoyogi Park, 2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan, +81 3 3469 6081
Imperial Palace East Gardens, 1-1, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan, +81 3 3213 1111
Shinjuku Gyoen, 11 Naitomachi, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan, +81 3 3350 0151
Tsukiji Market, 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo, Japan, +81 3 3542 1111
Metropolitan Government Building Observatory, 2 Chome-8-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Sitting on the northern shore of the Japanese island of Kyushu is Fukuoka one of the country’s main cities and one of Japan’s cheaper city options. Given that it’s not as densely populated as say Tokyo or Osaka, Fukuoka balances between being small enough to stay on the cheap while still being an incredibly vibrant city. You can easily get a room at a guesthouse in the city for 2,400 yen (US$21) per night, and an entire apartment on Airbnb for as cheap as 6,500 yen (US$58) per night for two people. Because the city is known for ancient temples and beaches you can have a lot of fun here while spending nothing.
Want the history of Kyoto without the tourist trap costs? Then Kamakura is the place to go. Firstly, there’s the fact that it’s close to Tokyo (less than an hour), meaning that if you’re in the main city you’ll save the crazy shinkansen (bullet train) prices. In a previous life (around 1192), Kamakura was actually the political center of Japan, which it ruled for over a century. These days, a lot of the buildings and history of this era of Tokyo still remains. Known in some circles as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, it is a popular tourist destination, but a lot more budget traveler-friendly. Don’t miss Kamakura Daibutsu, the second tallest bronze Buddha statue in Japan.
Kamakura Daibutsu, 4 Chome-2-28 Hase, Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan, +81 4 6722 0703
Osaka is like Tokyo’s grittier little sibling, with arguably better food. Like Fukuoka and Tokyo, accommodation options are varied and suitable for all budgets, however what makes Osaka a budget traveller’s utopia is the ability to eat well for next to nothing. Street vendors sell local-style okonomiyaki (filling omelette/pancake-style hybrid dish) and takoyaki (fried batter balls), which cost the friendly price of 300 – 700 yen (US$3-$6) depending on how hungry you are. Osaka locals love to drink, too – check out izakayas with nomihodai (all-you-can-drink deals) to get boozed up for less.
If you want to experience world-class beaches and rich Japanese culturein one cheap vacation, Okinawa is the place to be. If you’re willing to rough it, there are plenty of beach camping options for free and cheap, just be sure to keep a look out for “no camping” signs. If you’d rather have a solid roof over your head, then a guesthouse is the best option – some places can be as low as 2,000 yen per night (US$18) because real estate in the area is way cheaper than the more populated cities.
If Osaka is the cheaper Tokyo, then Kobe is the even cheaper Osaka alternative. The capital of Hyogo Prefecture and one of Japan’s ten largest cities, Kobe has a lot more going for it than just beef, though of course the beef is pretty great. This busy hub is overflowing with history and rich uniquely diverse culture thanks to its origins as a port city. Located only 20 minutes from Osaka, you have the best of both worlds – the affordability of being in a smaller city, but the accessibility of Osaka in less than a 30-minute journey.
If you want to explore Japan’s stunning mountains and some of the most incredible ramen you’ll ever experience, a visit to Sapporo is definitely one trip you should add to your itinerary. If you’re concerned about breaking the bank, head during the warmer months to avoid the hordes of snow-chasing tourists and ski holiday makers. If you’re coming to Japan in summer and want to escape the heat, Sapporo’s mild temperatures provide some serious respite. Also a lot of the city’s attractions are free including Odori, Moerenuma and Nakajima Parks. During the non-snow season, finding a place to stay is a lot less competitive, which means you can nab a bed in a hotel or hostel for around 2,000 – 3,000 yen (US$18-27) per night.
Moerenuma Park, 1-1 Moerenumakoen, Higashi Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan, +81 1 1790 1231
Nakajima Park, 1, Nakajimakoen, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan, +81 1 1511 3924