Low Budget Traveling
At the end of my stay in Japan I really ran out of money for good and had to borrow some from friends and family, but I also got better and better in almost living for free and still doing traveling. Now I decided to share these gathered secrets with you and teach you how to do traveling in Japan on a low Budget.
First traveling usually includes getting from point A to point B. The basic formula is, the more time you spend for getting from A to B, the cheaper you can get there. Thus we have: Night Bus, Seishun 18 Kippu, Hitchhiking and cycling and walking.
サイクリングとハイキング Cycling And Hiking
Usually in itself content of the journey, as it takes too long to get anywhere far. Also cycling includes the problem of getting a bike in the first place. There are many great places for cycling and hiking in Japan and some trains allow you to take your bike (use Seishun 18 Kippu). If you want to go on a pilgrimage, I can recommend the 遍路 Henro on 四国 Shikoku (http://dwellingindreams.blogspot.com/2008/01/blog-post.html).
青春１８切符 Seishun 18 Kippu
The Seishun 18 Kippu is a cheap way of using trains at the cost of time. It allows you to use all JR local (普通) and express (快速) trains for free on five days. The days need not to be consecutive and one ticket can be used by more than one person. For every person and day you will get a stamp, of which you have a total of five.
Cost: 11.500 Yen
Where To Get: Every JR Station
Taking only local and express trains takes a long time, and requires you to change trains very often, so be sure to prepare a sheet where you note down where to change trains. For looking up the connections you should use Hyperdia and un-select Airplane (飛行機), Shinkansen (新幹線) and Limited Express (特急):
The Seishun 18 Kippu is only valid at certain time periods:
Selling Time 02/20 - 31/03
Validity 01/03 - 10/04
Selling Time 07/01 - 20/08
Validity 07/20 - 10/09
Selling Time 12/01 - 10/01
Validity 12/10 - 20/01
When there is no 18 Kippu, or you are in a hurry, there is one more affordable option: the night bus.
They usually connect larger cities and cover the distance over night. You can go as far as Tokyo - Hiroshima in one night and a bit of the day.
A good way to find night buses is Rakuten: http://travel.rakuten.co.jp/bus/
The price is usually around 6.000 Yen, depending on the distance.
Be careful, the place to board the bus can be quite tricky to find. They are usually not at a parking lot, but simply on the side of some major street anywhere or behind stations. However the reservation comes with a map and location description you should print out. Further note down the phone number of the bus company, so you can call them, if you cannot find them. Also be sure to plan plenty of time to find the boarding place, else you will easily miss the bus.
The coolest and cheapest way to travel in Japan. Also if your lucky, you can go as fast or even faster than with the Seishun 18 Kippu. When you intend to hitchhike, you should first prepare for it:
x get a DIN A3 writing block with white pages, easy to tear out
x get a thick dark pen or a paintbrush pen, if you can handle it
x get a map including roads and city names of where you want to travel (a compass also helps)
x get a personal thank you gift (explained later)
The problem is, where to hitchhike. It's useless inside a city, because most cars will be on local business, so you will have to find a way to get out of the city first:
Where To Hitch
1 get a city map from the local tourist office (they are free)
2 check a suitable highway or express way interchange that leads to where you want to go
3 see if you can reach it by subway or bus + a reasonable amount of walking
4 get there
If you have decided for the express way, keep in mind, that you cannot access them by foot, so you need to find a street that connects with the express way and since you have to pay for the express way, there aren't many streets leading to and from it. Once you are actually on the express way and need to change cars, ask your driver to drop you at an interchange. Here the cars need to wait in line and pay for the express way. That means plenty of time for them to spot you behind the gate with your sign and plenty of time to decide whether to take you or not. Thus express way interchanges are a very good place, but it is really hard to get there.
The highway is a different matter. It leads just as the express way anywhere you want, but the speed is restricted to 60 km/h. Here suitable places are parking lots at resting stops (konbinis, restaurants, etc.). Again place yourself that people entering their car can already see you and decide whether to take you or not, until they reach you at the end of the parking lot.
Sometimes there are no resting places, then go for the second strategy and wait at traffic lights. When it turns red pass all the waiting cars, show them your sign and smile making eye contact. Show them that you are an ordinary guy and have nothing bad in mind.
Making cars stop without traffic lights, resting areas or interchange accesses is really difficult. If you have no other choice, try at least a spot, where cars can stop after seeing you without blocking the road.
What To Write On The Sign
Now you need to decide which city to write on your paper block. In theory you can also use the thumbs sign, but not many people will understand the sign, and many will simply oversee you. So it is always better to use a sign. The question is which city to write on it. You can try your desired city, but if it is too far, try to find a big city on the way and try with that. Here it is important to have some inside knowledge. For example when I hitchhiked first I choose a city, nobody goes to, so nobody stopped. Japanese drivers don't think as far as "Oh that's on the way, to where I drive" or "I am not driving that far, but at least I can take him a bit". So it is very important what your sign says. To get inside knowledge ask passing people directly if they think it would be a good idea to try this or that city. They are usually always helpful.
Because of the just mentioned problem writing a city name on the sign reduces the number of cars, that will stop. But then using the thumb does not work too well either, so what to do. I thought of a kind of paper thumb as solution. I wrote in big numbers the number of the current street and place a big arrow pointing in the direction I want to go below it. I found that this works quite well and many cars will stop. After you climb in you just explain where they should drop you or that they should drop you simply, when they leave the street.
Saying Thank You
Japanese people are really friendly and you will notice that probably every second person that let's you ride in their car also invited you for lunch or dinner on the way and pays for you. Also they never accept any money, when you climb out, so you are left with a really bad consciousness. So what to do? Takayuki, a Japanese friend that I made on the way, did it like this: Inside the car he would write a poem for the people letting him ride and give it to them when he left the car. This is a great idea, but you can of course think of a different thing: Maybe a scetch, a picture card from your home, sweets or Omiyage, or whatever is suitable for carrying around and makes for a nice Thank You gift :)
The early bird catches the worm. This is especially true when you want to cover large distances, because the car drivers that also want to cover large distances will usually start very early. So set your alarm to 6:00 and try to be on the road at 7:00 and your chances will be very high.
As soon as the light fades, your chances of being taken up also fade away. Apart from the fact that people do harder seeing you, people in the night always seem scary and strange, and not many people will have the courage to take you up.
In general I had to wait between 20 minutes and 3 hours. But 3 hours only when I choose really bad positions... So plan ahead :)
Concerning lodging we have the following options: Tent, Manga Kissa, Hiroma, Youth Hostel, Guest House, Capsule Hotel, 旅館 Ryokan, Hotel.
Using a tent is the cheapest but most difficult for of sleeping. The problem is that there are not many places on 本州 Honshu (Japan's main island), where you can easily erect a tent. Look out for river sides, as they usually are a good spot to camp. If there is no river side, try to stop at smaller towns or village and start walking away from it. In the nature you should also be able to find a place. What worked well for me are forests. But they can be pretty scary at night, especially in summer, when there are many huge insects visiting you at night...
Another problem is alarm systems. Most open spaces are protected for some stupid reason with alarm system. That means as soon as you set a food on it an alarm will ring, and make it impossible to proceed. Even in forests certain spots triggered the alarm. It really drove me nuts.
There are a couple of camping places but they are not very frequent. So you'd better find another place and be ready to get up early or apologize to the first person spotting you in the morning.
漫画喫茶 Manga Kissa
The cheapest option for cities is the Manga Kissa. At some point in the near past they decided to let people have a comfortable and cheap stay over night to increase night business. Inside you can get your own private room with leather floor and cushions, a computer with internet, countless shelfs of Manga and free drinks. Sometimes even free showers and ice cream.
Price: 1000 - 1500 Yen
Earlier this was the normal way to sleep for traveling people. A Hiroma is simply a big sleeping hall with Futon's closely arranged next to each other. Nowadays there are not many left, but you often find them in Onsen places. This is quite nice, because you can extend your stay with entering the Onsen (hot spa) before and after your sleep. The Hiroma, though usually available, are usually not listed on the information, you will have to ask for it.
Price: 1000 - 2000 Yen
ユースホステル Youth Hostel
The classic way of lodging for the backpacker. Every major city has at least one Youth Hostel and even many far off places have one. You can have showers, wash you cloths, browse the internet and sleep in a dorm. The biggest advantage is that you can easily make friends and spend a nice time with other people. However the price is much higher than the previous options.
Price: 2500 - 3000 Yen
ゲストハウス Guest House
Basically the same than the youth hostel in all but the name. Usually run by a nice couple and often having better accommodations than the Youth Hostel. They are often even cheaper. Sometimes they are called Backpacker's Hotel. Very often they are clad in Japanese Tatami / Ryokan style, without the higher cost. Keep an eye out for them.
Price: 2000 - 3000 Yen
The classic way for Japan to sleep while traveling. Earlier they mostly had Hiroma, now they only have private rooms, which makes them quite pricey. However when friends or our parents are in for visiting you, staying at a Ryokan you can be sure to show them the Japanese way of sleeping and resting, Apart from a Tatami room with Futons, they usually have a Japanese style お風呂 Ofuro (bathroom).
Price: 3000 - 5000 Yen
カプセルホテル Capsule Hotel
Also nick named coffin hotel. A child of the modern age. You will sleep in a tiny tube, which has a lot of Star Trek atmosphere. Inside you will have alarm clock, television set, radio and a light. Outside you might find a spacious Japanese style bathroom and recreation areas. Definitely worth the experience once.
Price: 3000 - 4000 Yen
The way to sleep for the innocent fool, who never though of other options. However when you indeed cannot find other options, the cheapest hotels start at 4.000 Yen and thus are almost affordable. Of course it is impossible to give an upper limit for hotels... The cheaper ones are sometimes called Business Hotels, but not always. However Business Hotels are a good way to start looking.
Price starting from 4000 Yen
For Japanese local food is a very essential part of traveling, if not the reason in itself. However that is were most of your money will go, if you are not careful. So I advise you to keep a cheap diet and extent it only here and then with some expensive local dish.
A cheap way of not starving is to buy slices of toast (100 Yen), some cream cheese (200 Yen) and vegetables like three carrots (100 Yen), 6 paprika (100 Yen) or three cucumbers (100 Yen) from a supermarket and take them with you. Since it is not much I advise you eating four times a day one slice with cheese and one vegetable, or two times plus some cheap dish on the road. You can extend that with cheap portable Konbini food, like Onigiri. All of the above can take high temperatures and a backpack atmosphere without growing bad. A cheap food you can basically find everywhere are Soba noodles. You can get them starting at 200 Yen, and they are delicious and filling. Often they are sold at stations (駅そば Eki Soba).
If you are hitchhiking, you will probably be invited to dinner or lunch several times, and need to worry to much about food. A little supplement toast mix like above should be sufficient. In Youth Hostels and Guest Houses you are usually also able to cook, another way to extend your diet.
D) Final Tips
Knowing Japanese helps a lot on budget traveling, but is no requirement. You can also hitchhike without knowing Japanese, but you should find a way to write your signs in Japanese, else nobody will be able to read them.
Speak to people! Often people have valuable advice for you like a cheap place to stay over night, a quick route to the city you want to get in, or some cheap food around the corner. Also it is very easy to make friends with other travelers, who again can give you valuable tips.
When you arrive in a city unprepared go to the tourist information or, when there is none or it is already close, to the 交番 Koban (Police Box). Surprisingly compared to other countries, Japanese police is indeed there to help you! So you can go there and directly ask for a cheap place to stay over night. Usually you will not be the first one to ask and they often even have printouts prepared to the next cheap place. Like this I often found my way to the Onsen Hiroma, for example. In Kyoto they have a whole catalog with all the Youth Hostels, Guest Houses and Backpacker's Hotels. So be sure to ask them.
Use Wikitravel (http://wikitravel.org/en/Main_Page). Wikitravel has an excellent pool of information about Japanese towns. You can find attractions, special food and cheap ways to travel and sleep. So be sure to check the Wikipage of the city or area you are intending in going.
That's it, I am quite experienced in Low Budget Traveling in Japan by now, so if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me.