Japan is uniquely brilliant for backpackers, even ones with poor foresight like me!
Though many people told me that the idea of backpacking this Asian island sounded impossibly hard and expensive, I have traveled enough to know that no matter where you go in the world you only need three things to survive and thrive.
A bed, a train, and a diet coke.
Though diet coke is hard to come by in Japan, I did find beds and an amazing transportation system that made it possible for me to facilitate a severely under-planned trip to Japan!
So, here are some tips and tricks that I joyfully and sometimes painfully uncovered as I traversed the land of the rising sun.
PLANNING (Or a lack thereof)
I read a couple lists of places to go in Japan before I went and honestly I didn’t end up going to half of those places. I had big plans in Japan of going to cat café’s and exploring Harajuku, but some of the best exploring I did was free of a map as we wandered through the temple littered mountains of Kyoto. Feel free to plan as you wish, but leave yourself some breathing room to really wander and take in the culture. So long as you have a general understanding of the public transportation system and a good nose for street food you will be okay.
And I can say that confidently because that is ALL that I had.
GETTING TO JAPAN
Like with any trip, your biggest expenditure is going to be dat plane ticket, so make it count. We flew into Narita Airport in Tokyo and the other option is to fly into KIX (Kansai International) in Osaka. It should be said that flights into Narita are usually cheaper and that was enough to sell me.
Both airports have easy access to Japan’s A-FUCKING-MAZING public transportation which I will talk about more later. Narita actually has a line within the airport, just buy a ticket and head down the stairs to hop on. At KIX you will have to take a shuttle bus to get to the trains.
No matter the airport you choose, if you are flying out of a major airport in the US your flight is going to clock in around 13 hours, so mentally prepare yourself for that.
GETTING AROUND JAPAN
Japan’s public transportation system was heaven sent. It can get you virtually anywhere in the country and like everything in Japan, it is fantastically kept up.
There are several train lines that run with the most common being the JR or Japanese rail. Almost all of them accept a metro card called PASMO. Which is a refillable card that can be purchased at most train stations at the obnoxiously bright PASMO kiosk. I believe the card itself costs something like 500 yen to get (about $5) and can be refilled so you don’t have to buy individual tickets all the time. It’s awesome.
The trains themselves run similar to all other subways in the world. The only difference being that the names of lines and stations are Japanese so that can be a little hard to get used to.
If you find yourself in Tokyo and decide that you want to get to Harajuku from your conveniently located hostel in Asakusa (where we stayed) then I would recommend getting yourself to the local Don Quixote (the 6 story convenience store that has EVERYTHING), jumping on the free wifi, and googling Asakusa to Harajuku and select the subway icon.
Google is your friend.
You’ll end up with something like
If you are uncertain about the location of the station I recommend asking literally anyone on the street for help. Japanese people are extremely nice and often speak pretty good English
Rest assured that along with Japanese, all the signs will also have translations in Romaji (English letters). Each stop is announced clearly in both Japanese and English. There are also usually live electronic signs updating you on the stops as you go.
Now, there will be times when you try to hop on a train during Japanese rush hour. And you will absolutely be politely shoved into a train car by men wearing vests and gloves. But there’s no better way to start a morning than nestled up next to a Japanese business man.
As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese people do speak English very well for the most part. However, part of going to another country is immersing yourself into the culture. My friends and I were lucky in that I had recently finished a semester of studying Japanese in school. So, I could at the very least say thank you and tell them the food was good.
Each Japanese character represents 1-2 letters with either a vowel alone or a consonant followed by a vowel, so when you read the word read it in little pieces with everything pronounced the way it’s spelled
Like harajuku, is actually ha-ra-ju-ku. Easy peasy.
So to say thank you, you say arigato (a-ri-ga-to)
If you’re really really thankful, you say arigato gozaimasu (go-za-i-ma-su or go-zi-mas phonetically)
And if you’re really really really thankful, like someone just saved your life after you choked on a sushi roll, you say domo arigato gozaimasu (do-mo)
Then, if you had some particularly delicious ramen you tell the lady who made it that it was oishi (o-i-shi)
Here are some other easy ones that will make you feel like you’re immersing yourself
Good morning- ohaiyo (like, ohio)
Hello- Konnichiwa (Ko-n-ni-chi-wa)
Goodnight- Konbanwa (I think you get the idea at this point)
For a place that is not traditionally known for backpacking, Hostels abound in Japan and they vary from cool trendy hostels to cheap bare minimum hostels. Now, it is up to you where you choose to stay but be careful. Sometimes it’s better to spend a little bit more money to buy yourself a good location, safety, and a wifi connection. Nothing can ruin a trip faster then hating your hostel.
During our time in Osaka we stayed in a hostel called Hotel Chuo (I’m calling y’all out) and it was unbelievably bad. I went against my better judgment in choosing it because it was dirt cheap and we def got what we paid for.
A stinky room, gross bathrooms, and creepy elderly men wandering the halls at all hours. It was horrifying and resulted in us going into a deep Japanese depression that was only cured by Harry Potter World Osaka and leaving for Kyoto.
I recommend using Hostelworld, from there I usually focus on pictures coupled with reviews. I look for a hostel with good clean pictures, high location ratings, and good reviews.
Hostelworld also lists the amenities, which is where you can make certain that there’s free wifi, a bar, free towels, and the like.
Once you get to your awesome hostel, use it to your advantage, a lot of people running the desks are young and have great recommendations for off the beaten track adventures to take. Ask them their favorite restaurant or to draw you a map. I always start my time in a city by chatting with the hostel and getting them to tell me the local hacks.
Food in Japan….. is weird.
I will tell you right now that if you are vegetarian or vegan you will struggle in Japan. It is certainly not impossible, but for us it was very hard. Japanese restaurants are not fond of changing their meals. So, asking for them to remove the meat was a no-go. Especially if, like us, you look for restaurants that are hole in the wall local places where an old lady makes your noodles right in front of you.
Finding Western food is also surprisingly complicated. I saw my first McDonald’s during my third week there while we were in Kyoto. Kyoto also provided us with a much needed pizza buffet which I very much recommend if you ever find yourself in the Gion district of Kyoto.
Despite this, the food was affordable. We spent about 1,000 yen a meal ($10) if we ate out and we binged on the crazy Japanese snack foods if we were in a hurry or on a long train ride.
Once again, ask your hostel! Some of the best ramen I’ve ever eaten was recommended to us by a hostel manager.
There are, no exaggeration, dozens of vending machines on the streets that have sodas and snacks. While I never saw any of the audacious ones that sell panties and child slaves, I did see a lot. (Be careful when buying water that it is actually plain normal water and not “sports water”. I did that almost every time and ended up with very sugary flavored water.) There were even a few vending machines that would spit out heated orders of french fries for a couple hundred yen.
Street food is also very common. You will not walk down a single road in Japan and not see a kiosk selling green tea flavored soft serve ice cream. Street food for me, was hit or miss. Ice cream was always a hit, but I took a lot of risks in Japan that resulted in me eating cheese on a stick that tasted like fish. So be a little picky when choosing your food, not everything is going to be amazing just because it is technically authentic Japanese
SEEING BEAUTIFUL THINGS
There is no need to pay a tour guide in Japan. There is no need to pay to see beautiful things at all besides putting a little money on your PASMO and getting your cute little butt out there. Japan is covered in beautiful temples spread out over mountain sides. Spend your days walking through streets and stumbling upon giant Buddha statues and Shinto shrines.
If you stumble upon a temple and they ask you to pay 200 yen ($2) for a lit incense stick, always do it. Even if you just commune with nature and enjoy the smell, it’s a cool experience.
Do remember that these shrines and temples are in use and are not just a cool place for tourists to hang out. Try and be respectful of their religion, don’t be too noisy or take pictures of them worshiping.
SOLO FEMALE TRAVEL
Some train lines offer a female only cars which were full of mothers and young school girls. Though I never felt personally accosted by men in Japan, we got a lot of stares as we walked around in our tank tops and shorts, I always love seeing steps taken towards protecting women. Plus, the female car smells better and is a generally happier place.
Know your limits in Japan. Never let a sincere fear for your personal safety be overlooked because you feel awkward or embarrassed. If you feel unsafe, especially if you are traveling alone, look for a way to get out of the situation.
Our plane tickets cost us around $1100, which is cheap for Japan, but don’t panic because everything gets cheaper from this moment on. I recommend, as always, that you plan your dates around the cheapest flights. We had flexible dates, so when we found the $1100 flight we jumped on it and planned the rest of the trip around those dates.
The bullet train is something most people know about but it is extremely pricey. When we traveled from Tokyo to Osaka we actually flew as it ended up being significantly cheaper, though we did not get the view of mt. Fuji which many Japanese people told us was worth the money. Japan has a few small airlines that fly very cheaply domestically, so the flight was only about $100 round trip
From there our hostels ranged from $7 a night at the horrible hotel Chuo to roughly $27 a night at our nicer hostels.
We put a surprising amount of money into our PASMO because we used the trains SO FUCKING MUCH. But with a one way train ride averaging 250 yen, it added up slowly. But it did add up!
All and all our total cost for the trip came in around $1500 not counting food, a detour to Universal Studios Japan, and buying about 15 different tea towels to hang on my walls.
Was it the cheapest trip ever? No. Not by a long shot. But for a month in Japan I think it was worth it
Do let me know if you have any questions or are planning your own trip to Japan!