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Asia on the (not so) cheap – Japan edition
I gleefully named this travel series Asia on the Cheap, but as you can tell from the title of this post, our trip to Japan didn’t exactly fit into the cheap category.
In fact the 16-day trip around Japan cost around one third of my total three-month travel budget – ouch!!
But it was worth every penny to experience Japan to the full. My mum and sister joined from London, and together we explored the sights, sounds, and tastes of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Ka’non-ji.
My partner and I were also making amends for our last trip to Japan in 2014. That trip came at the end of a month-long tour of East Asia, by which time we were broke, and quite taken aback by Japanese prices.
So we didn’t pay for any experiences, avoided paying entry to temples, and ate perhaps just one proper meal a day. Instead of taking the Shinkansen, we took buses and local trains.
While we still had fun back then travelling around Japan on a tight budget, we vowed to come back to Japan next time with more money, and boy did we overcompensate…
It sounds cliché, but Japan truly is a country of contrast and contradiction.
It revels in tradition, while breaking the mould with new technologies.
Its cities pulse with youthful energy, while its rural provinces empty out due to a rapidly aging population.
Its people are remarkably polite, but often harbour some disturbing xenophobic and nationalist tendencies.
It has the world’s highest life expectancy rate, yet office workers die so often from overwork that they’ve got a name for the phenomenon: Karōshi.
It’s famed for its healthy diet, yet unhealthy levels of smoking and drinking abound, and eating deep-fried snacks are the norm.
During our trip we encountered all of these facets of Japan, and I’m no less fascinated by how these contradictions come together.
I also feel lucky that we had the opportunity to meet and talk to a number of locals on this trip, who could shed further light on the often bewildering nature of Japanese life and culture.
Here are the main highlights from the two weeks:
Odaiba and TeamLab Borderless exhibition in Tokyo
Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo Bay that looks futuristic but also feels somewhat dated.
We went there to go to Team Lab Borderless, which is a beautiful immersive, interactive exhibition using lights, animation, and majestic music. It’s very hard to describe, but well worth the experience (just make sure you buy tickets in advance).
We also went to the National Museum of Science and Innovation – Miraikan – to check out the robots on show (which ranged from super cute to super creepy).
I’ve seen a lot of temples while travelling in Asia, so unfortunately it’s quite rare these days that I feel awe-inspired by ancient temples and shrines. However, I found a few Japanese temples truly mind-blowing.
Top on my list this time was Kinkaju-ji (Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto. The setting of the pavilion in the midst of water and pine trees was truly beautiful and serene.
We also explored Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, established in 778. A friend joined us on the trip, and gave us helpful explanations of the different buildings and rituals.
Discovering Japanese food with locals
The same friend steered us to the most delicious green tea ice cream I’ve ever eaten, plus a great vegetarian soba noodle joint.
He recommended we join a food and drink tour around Kyoto run by another friend. I was quite hesitant to pay £30 per person for the tour, but I’m so glad we did. The guide showed us three different places for food and drink, and ordered us dishes from impenetrable Japanese-language menus that we’d never know about had we not had a local with us.
When visiting another friend in his hometown of Ka’non-ji (more on this below), he took us to local places that had the most delicious udon I’ve ever tasted – and for a fraction of what we paid in the bigger cities.
Vintage clothes shopping
Japan has some incredible (but pricey) vintage stores. In Tokyo, we went to Chicago in Omotesando, which has a massive range of second-hand kimonos and quirky dresses and skirts.
In Kyoto, I fell in love with a store called Small Change. Meanwhile Osaka was full of vintage stores in the Amerika-mura part of town, which strangely reminded me of Camden in London.
Experiencing a traditional Japanese festival in Ka’nonji
Over the past year I’ve made some Japanese friends living in Bangkok by attending a weekly productivity meet-up. The meet-up is run by a Japanese guy who travels from Bangkok to his home-town in Ka’non-ji every year to celebrate a local festival.
Once we knew that our trip to Japan would coincide with the festival, our friend helped us arrange our visit.
Ka’non-ji (in Kagawa Prefecture) is a town way off the beaten tourist path. Its inhabitants are mostly fishermen, farmers, or work in nearby factories. According to my friend’s father, it used to be a vibrant town, but with an ageing population, is now quiet and on the decline.
But each year the town’s community comes together for the festival and its “organised chaos” (as my friend put it).
The town splits into nine groups, each of which is responsible for a chosa – a big portable shrine that the men lift up and wheel through the streets while shouting festival slogans.
Each group has its own rest area with free beer and food, which is a recipe for much drunkenness, merriment, and occasional injury. The drinking starts at breakfast time, so by midday, grown men are curled up on the street napping.
With Japan still being a highly patriarchal society, only men are allowed to pull or go onto the chosa. Young girls are allowed in, but they should be “hidden” inside while the chosa is taken around the town (Ms ZiYou certainly would not approve, and I neither did I).
Thankfully my friend’s wife thinks this is changing, since the men won’t be able to sustain the tradition of the festival by themselves. By the time their 3-year-old daughter grows up, they imagine she’ll be on the Chosa shouting as loudly as the men.
How I blew my budget
As mentioned at the top of this post, this trip cost me a pretty penny. My daily expenses in Japan (excluding the flight) averaged £79, but I only set an average budget of £33 a day for our entire three-month trip.
However, this was also expected; I knew that this was going to be the most expensive portion of our travels, and I wanted to enjoy myself while on holiday with my family.
Also, for the first time in about 5 years, I didn’t meticulously record all of my spending!! This was because it was far too difficult to track – my mum, sister and I were spending from a shared pot, and whoever had their wallet to hand paid first. We were also spending on far too frequent a basis to keep getting my phone out to log expenses.
Although I don’t have a neatly itemised summary of how much everything cost, I did take note of big items charged to credit cards, and how much spending money we withdrew.
Overall, we changed or withdrew £1,300 between three of us, and this went towards food and drink, local transportation, entry fees, and some shopping.
Not included in this was the flight, Shinkansen, accommodation, and some entertainment.
Food and drink
Most of our cash went on food and drink. Despite the reputation of the Japanese diet, ours ended up being super unhealthy: loaded with carbs and oil, caffeine and alcohol.
Our mornings would usually start with a strong coffee and chocolate croissant. We’d have some noodles or sushi for lunch and dinner, and pack in as many snacks as possible around the main meals. We’d end the day with a few plum sours or a beer.
I blame all of the snacking on the kombini: the ubiquitous 7-11s, Family Marts, and Lawson’s that sell delicious snacks for just 100 JPY (about 70p) a pop. However, 100 JPY several times a day on stuff that adds little nutrition to our diet adds up to an unreasonable sum. The chocolate and baked goods in these places were too good to ignore.
Although we didn’t spend lavishly on meals by going to high-end restaurants, we did spend about £8-12 a meal per person just by eating noodles or okonomiyaki. Occasionally we’d have kaitensushi (conveyor-belt sushi) and eat a bit cheaper for about £4-5 per person.
A proportion of our cash went towards local transportation – using the metro, bus, and local trains to get from A to B. The cost differed according to the length of ride, but usually we’d spend about £3-5 day per person just getting around the city.
We also splashed out on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto, in the interest of time. It was fast, comfortable, and convenient, but for £100 per person one way, was very pricey.
We decided not to get a JR pass because we weren’t doing enough train travel to make it worthwhile.
While many beautiful temples are completely free to visit, the most popular ones usually have entrance fees.
For example, Kinkaku-ji costs 400 JPY per ticket (roughly £2.90). This doesn’t sound like much, but when you visit at least 10 temples or gardens, the costs build up.
Museums also cost money, such as the Miraikan (620 JPY / £4.40) and the Manga museum in Kyoto (800 JPY / £5.80).
Although I’ve packed a tiny backpack and don’t have space to carry any new purchases, my sister just happened to have a half-empty suitcase 🙂
As mentioned above, we hit up some amazing, but overpriced vintage clothing stores. I did however manage to find a kimono-style jacket for a very reasonable price of about £15.
We also found bargains in Uniqlo and Daiso. My sister did some research and found out that Uniqlo prices in Japan are quite a bit lower than in London. I bought a few pairs of heat-tech socks and warm slippers (in preparation for the shock I’m going to get coming back to London weather).
I also bought some very useful packing cubes from Daiso for 200 JPY (roughly £1.45)
My partner and I flew in from Shanghai, and again chose the cheapest rate by opting to fly at a sub-optimal time (1am). This only cost us £68 each.
My mum and sister flew with British Airways from London direct, forking out £998 each!!
We stayed in a mix of hotels, ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), and AirBnbs, all of which are quite pricier than what I’m used to.
Since I was with family, I didn’t want us slumming around in bed-bug infested hostels or sketchy hotels, so I picked our accommodation carefully.
The highlight was staying in a Machiya style house in Kyoto via AirBnb. Think wooden structure, paper screens, tatami mats, and very small doorways (we bumped our heads a lot).
The average price per night for each person came to about £30. Surprisingly, the most expensive place was in Ka’nonji, where we had to pay £50 per person per night.
None of these places came with breakfast included.
I bought the tickets to TeamLab as a treat for everyone else, which came to £86 total. The food and drink tour in Kyoto cost £30 per person.
Both of these experiences were well worth the money and I’d do them again in a heartbeat.
Total trip cost
In total, this trip set me back £1,323, including flights and accommodation.
This is a hefty chunk of my travel budget, but upcoming destinations will be cheaper, so I should be able to get myself on track again.