But they really don't. And I am going to share with you my tricks to traveling cheap and cheerful in Japan.
1) Stay: When in Japan, live as the locals do.
If you can forget 5 star hotels or even forgo the word 'hotel' in your mind, you will find hostels and guesthouses that will serve you just as well as your home away from home. Hana Hostel in particular is a popular and well-known chain of hostels or hybrid inn, all around Japan.
My experience there: During my recent trip, I stayed at Yume Nomad in Kobe, Hana Hostel Hybrid Inn in Kyoto and NUL-Live.com House (formerly known as Namba Guest House) in Osaka. (Hostel and guest house reviews coming soon)
2) Eat: Convenient marts and street food all the way
Lawsons, Family Mart and 7-11 are the budget traveler's best friend in term of cheap, filling and most importantly, delicious food. You can get almost everything in their convenient marts which are in every street in Japan. Fresh sweet or savory bread, instant noodle, onigiri, sushi and pre-prepared meals just waiting to be microwaved for your consumption.
Of course, street food is in abundance especially in Dotonbori, Osaka. In Kobe, they were plentiful in Sannomiya and for Kyoto, look out for morning markets around temples, shrines and parks. Amazingly, you can still taste the best of Japan while on the go and at one tenth the price of dining at a fine dining Japanese restaurant. If you are worried about the language barrier, look for restaurants with the vending machine outside such as Kamukura Soup with Noodles for a fussy-free delicious wholesome meal at less than RM30. The portions are usually so big you can share them.
3) Travel: Buses and Trains - The best way to move around
A little research ahead of time can save you a buck load of money and time on traveling around Japan. I traveled by buses and trains on my previous trip and I did it again on my recent trip because only in Japan, you will find a public transportation network that is so well connected that it gets you to where you need to be. Tourists have the option of several travel passes to purchases and for the Kansai area and Osaka, my favourite passes to use are the Kansai Thru Pass and the Osaka Unlimited Pass respectively.
The Kansai Thru Pass get you around the Kansai area - Hyogo, Kyoto, Nara and Osaka with unlimited access to their subways, trains and buses. Of course, there are limitations as well as you cannot use it on the JR train lines or on the Kintetsu Limited Express train as that would require you to pay an extra fee for the reserved seat.
The Osaka Unlimited Pass gives you the same privileges within Osaka as well as complimentary access and entrance fees to many of Osaka's tourist attractions. If planned wisely, you will find this pass is well worth its value and more.
My experience there: I used the Kansai Thru Pass around Kobe, Kyoto and Nara and to get to Osaka. Once in Osaka, I utilized the Osaka Unlimited Passes and saved up on over 2,700 yen (RM85).
For more in-depth explanation of the passes, click here: Getting around and about Osaka.
*As of April 1 2014, the Osaka Unlimited Pass has been renamed the Osaka Amazing Pass but I reckon the benefits are still the same.
4) Do: See and experience the culture
If the attractions suggested by the Osaka Unlimited/Amazing Pass doesn't appeal to you, there are still numerous things you can do in Japan that won't cost you a yen. Visit parks like Maruyama Park in Kyoto for their gorgeous cherry blossom trees.
Apply to join an Imperial Palace tour as that is free of charge and you gain a guided access into a sacred palace closed to the public while learning about its historical value. Explore Den Den Town in the Nipponbashi district for nostalgic toys, anime and games. Collect stamps at many of the main tourist attractions as free souvenirs to remember your trip by.
Japan alone is gorgeous and you will find yourself spoiled for choice with photo opportunities in every corner of it.
My experience there: Besides photographing my trip, I bought a stamp book for only 300yen (RM10) to start collection stamps at most of the attractions. There was a certain thrill becoming a stamp hunter as you will keep looking out for the small stamp station in every attraction. Did I mention that the stamp itself was FOC?
5) Flying there: Book early and cheap
This tip is no secret but you'll be surprise by how cheap the tickets can get if you start hunting early. Plan your trip more than 6 months in advance and look out for airline promos constantly for the best deals. Don't just look at budget airlines as national carriers can be cheaper than those.
My experience there: I scored my MAS return flight ticket to Osaka at only RM900 because I was entering dates at random 9 months prior to my trip (and still high from my first trip). By luck, I came across MAS rate that excluded the airport tax and surcharge tax both ways. Unable to resist, I booked the flight for myself and my friends and a few hours later, that mysterious promo was gone. If you see cheap rates for a destination you really want to go, don't second guess yourself. Just book it and worry about the rest later.
Odds are you will be googling how to travel to Japan on a budget which is why you are here in the first place.
In total, my overall expenses for Japan amounted to about RM5000 per person, inclusive of flight, accommodation, transportation, food, portable wifi router, attractions and souvenirs. Of course, the more people there are, the cheaper and more fun it gets.
So there you go. Cheap and cheerful ways to visit Japan.
Also read about:
Osaka on a Budget
Kobe: Yume Nomad Guesthouse review
Kobe Day 1: Kitano Ijinkan & Harbourland
Kobe Day 2: Rokkosan Pasture, Mount Rokko & Sannomiya
Kyoto: Hana Hostel Hybrid Inn review
Kyoto Day 3:Fushimi Inari Shrine
Kyoto Day 4: Imperial Palace, Kitano Shrine, Kinkaku-ji & Gion
Kyoto Day 5: Arashiyama & Cat Cafe Nekokaigi
Osaka: Namba guesthouse (NUL-Live.com House), Osaka Review
Osaka Day 6: Nara & Dotonbori
The Artistic Manhole Covers of Japan
Osaka Day 7: Pokemon Center & Cherry Blossoms, Osaka Castle Park
The Flavours of Haagen Dazs Japan
Osaka Day 8: Tsutenkaku Tower, Den Den Town & Umeda Floating Garden Observatory
Osaka Day 9: Ramen Museum, Kyoto Hanami & Kiyomizudera Night Illumination
Osaka Day 10: Bye Japan :(
Kobe, Kyoto, Nara & Osaka Itinerary (10-days)