Japan is a dream destination for many travellers. Neon-flooded cities, complex food scenes and sights of natural wonder all add to its appeal. The third most-visited country in Asia in 2019, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation, is also the world’s third largest economy. After its Government lifted all Covid-related entry restrictions in October, tourism helped Japan return to growth in the final quarter of 2022.
It may remain a more expensive holiday prospect than South East Asia, but Japan can be visited on a budget. It helps that the Yen is low against the pound, meaning that your holiday money will stretch further.
Even during the popular cherry blossom (sakura) season, which runs from late March–early May for much of the country, you can plan a cost-effective break. As pictures of the pink and white blooms are shared in the coming weekss, you might be tempted to book ahead for 2024.
When to book
Chelsea Dickenson, budget travel expert and founder of Cheap Holiday Expert, suggests your first focus should be flight savings. “If you are hard locked into dates and a destination, you need to think about the areas in which you can still be flexible,” she tells i.
“Can you catch an early, less popular flight? Can you take an indirect flight? Can you fly to a nearby airport use another mode of transport to reach your destination?” Using these tips can help you shave hundreds off your journey there.
Now that cherry blossom season is underway, prices for flights to Japan have spiked. Data from travel app Hopper shows that a last-minute flight to Tokyo could cost as much as £8,229.
Instead, plan a break for spring 2024, but wait to book: according to Hopper, the best time to book for next year is between May and August 2023. Buying tickets over this period could save you hundreds of pounds, based on the app’s data. If you buy during this window, the average flight to Tokyo for peak season (mid March–April) is £690, while the average flight to Kyoto is £789.
Booking a Japan Rail Pass in advance is an essential part of any trip. You make savings by travelling with this ticket, which is only available to purchase outside of Japan.
“If you plan to take the train to explore the country, work your trip around your rail pass. When I visited, we saved £100 per person by opting for the seven-day pass instead of the 14-day one,” Dickenson adds. “Hone in on free or cheap activities that can pad your day out”.
How to save when you arrive
Follow in the footsteps of countless pilgrims by approaching Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s most-recognisable Buddhist temple for free. It is also free to wander the Imperial Palace East Gardens at any time of the year. However, the palace’s Chidorigafuchi Moat is the place for cherry blossoms.
Dickenson has other cheap tips for Tokyo: “One of the best value things I did in Tokyo was (surprisingly) visit a five-star hotel,” she says.
The Park Hyatt Hotel is known for featuring in the Sofia Coppola film, Lost in Translation.
“What it really should be known for is its exceptional ‘happy hours’ which allow you to enjoy seasonal dishes and unlimited drinks for two hours for £42 per person,” adds Dickenson.
Accommodation-wise, capsule hotels are the best budget option in the capital city. The Nine Hours chain has a branch in Narita airport, which is handy for early morning departures. Meanwhile, Nine Hours Otemachi Imperial Palace is in the centre of Tokyo and starts around £45 per night.
Japan’s third largest city is more affordable than Tokyo, but still has some of Japan’s best live music venues, record shops and street food in the country. Most of Osaka’s memorable sights are free; the neon lights of the Dotonbori Glico Sign, the colourful alley of food stalls on Shinsekai and the many cherry blossom spots.
Swing by Osaka Castle Gardens or get free tickets to walk the Cherry Blossom Passage at Osaka’s Mint. It’s pleasant to cycle around Osaka and it costs around 500 Yen (£3) to rent a bike for the day. Hotel Toyo is a budget option with a friendly atmosphere and it’s £32 a night for a twin room.
Rebuilt around Hiroshima Bay, you would be remiss to skip this coastal city in the south of Japan. Both the Atomic Bomb Dome and nearby Peace Memorial Park are free to visit. Allow time for quiet contemplation in the park and on the equally meditative Miyajima Island, which is a short ferry ride away from the city centre. It is free to walk around the island’s temples, including the Itsukushima Jinja Otorii (Grand Torii Gate) – this is one of Japan’s most famous shinto sites, which looks like it is floating on water when the tide is in.
Take the low-cost trams around Hiroshima; the six lines make up the country’s largest streetcar network. The city is full of great budget options; the Hiroshima edition budget guesthouse chain J-Hoppers is as crisp as the rest of them with private double Japanese style rooms from £35 per night.
The capital of north island Hokkaido, Sapporo is outdoorsy, green and one of the country’s most affordable cities to travel or live in. Famous for snowboarding and skiing in the winter months, Sakura season comes later here with the 1,900 cherry blossom trees in Moerenuma Park coming in to bloom any time from mid to late May. The city’s wide, straight boulevards are great for cycling and the local mountains are loved by hikers; Mount Maruyama is less than 20 minutes from the city centre and smaller Mount Moiwa is great for cultural sites like its Shinto temple Torii gates or cable car. Both have panoramic views of the city from their peaks.
Sapporo Beer Museum is also free to visit and Ganso Ramen Yokocho, an original ramen alley from the 1950s, sells cheap bowls. The best budget guesthouse in town SappoLodge, is an urban mountain hut, where a private room starts from £40 per night.
Japan’s former capital city is not known for being cheap, but some of its most-visited sites and pilgrim’s trails are free. The iconic Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine with its thousands of bright orange torii gates that line the hillside, is completely free of charge.
Another free attraction is the Philosopher’s Path, a cherry blossom lined walkway that links the city centre to the university with temples dotted along the way. A short train ride out of the city centre, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is also free to visit. Travel around by bicycle, or local trains, which are also included in a JR Pass. There are some affordable options, like swanky capsule hotel The Millenials, where prices start at £35 per night (but can go up to £100-plus in cherry blossom season.)