The lunchtime queue snakes out the door at Nakajima, a traditional restaurant in Tokyo’s ever-bustling Shinjuku district. The Japanese capital has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world – over 200 – and this intimate eatery is one of them. After waiting nearly half an hour, I’m shown to a seat at a counter overlooking the kitchen and presented with a menu offering nothing but sardines, which can be served deep-fried, simmered, sashimi-style or in a hotpot. Following the example of my fellow diners, l plump for the latter, and I’m soon presented with a bubbling casserole dish, accompanied by rice, miso soup and lightly pickled vegetables. It’s simple, it’s sumptuous and, more surprisingly, it’s cheap. While the kaiseki dinner sets at Nakajima start at JPY8,640 (£63), the price tag for my Michelin -approved lunch comes to just JPY900 (£6.50). No wonder it’s so popular.
Japan may have a reputation as an expensive destination, but there are many ways for more budget-minded travellers to enjoy the best that the country has to offer. Whether you’re going for the traditional culture, the food, the hot springs or the karaoke, there’s a lot that can be done without spending much – or any – money.
This frugality extends to getting around, too. One of the prevailing myths about Japan is that internal travel swallows your budget whole. But that’s simply not the case, with plenty of discount fares and deals on offer, which is why we’ve set out to prove that you can experience a classic Japanese itinerary, from trekking ancient trails in Nagano and strolling the temples of Kyoto to watching sumo wrestlers grapple in Tokyo, on a budget that won’t break the bank.
TRANSPORT – Sleek, punctual and dazzlingly fast, the shinkansen bullet train became a symbol of Japan’s post-war recovery, and it’s still the most convenient way to travel long distance. The Japan Rail Pass covers unlimited trips on the nationwide JR network, including many shinkansen services, though it doesn’t include the country’s myriad private rail companies. Starting from JPY29,no (£212) for seven consecutive days, it’s best suited to people who plan on hopping between multiple cities, such as the popular Tokyo-Kyoto -Hiroshima route; remember that you’ll need to buy it before arriving, although there are rumours that this might be changing in the future. If you don’t mind limiting yourself to a smaller section of the country, you can save significantly on travel expenses.
For instance, the JR East Pass – covering the Tokyo area and the northern Tohoku region, home to some of Japan’s most unspoiled scenery – gets you five days’ worth of travel for JPY20,000 (£145). Since it can also be used across at wo-week period (from date of purchase), you can take your time. Highway buses offer a cheaper, albeit rather less glamorous, way of getting around. You can normally travel from Tokyo to Kyoto for under JPY6,000 (£44) with operators like Wilier Express -considerably less if you book well in advance. And don’t rule out flying as an option: both JAL’s Japan Explorer Pass and ANA’s Experience Japan Fare both offer discount rates to overseas visitors from J PY10,800 (£78.50) per sector, putting distant locations like Sapporo and Okinawa within easy reach. Public transport within cities is also efficient and relatively inexpensive. Only use taxis as a last resort, as they’re liable to sap your budget fast.
SHOPPING – There’s no shame in picking up a few cheap souvenirs at a 100-yen (75p) shop. Larger stores, such as the three-storey Daiso in Tokyo’s Harajuku, are vast grottos of delights, and stock distinctively Japanese tableware, stationery and ornaments. For some slightly more stylish trinkets, try the 3 Coins chain, where most products cost JPY300 (£2). The dried goods aisles of any mid-sized supermarket can also yield a welter of inexpensive gifts – dashi (soup) stock, dried kelp, miso paste, tea, noodles. Just be warned that labels are often only in Japanese, so it’ll help if you know what you’re looking for. When making larger purchases, department stores and most major retailers will let you shop tax- free, though you’ll need to be spending at least JPY10,001 to be eligible. Mate sure to bring your passport, too.
Dedicated bargain hunters can have a rummage through piles of antiques and pop-culture detritus at flea markets, one of the few places in Japan where haggling is permitted. Try the regular weekend Tokyo City Flea Market at Oi Racecourse, the Sunday market at the capital’s Yasukuni Shrine, or the monthly market at Kyoto’s Toji Temple. Finally, a visit to a venerable department store like Tokyo’s lsetan Shinjuku and Ginza Mitsukoshi or Kyoto’s Takashimaya is essential. The customer service at these retail temples is impeccable – staff bow to customers in unison as the doors open each morning – and the basement food halls teem with tantalising morsels. You may even snag a few free samples.