DINING – Japan is home to one of the most sophisticated culinary cultures on Earth, and even if you’re on a tight budget it’s worth permitting yourself the odd splurge. That said, the overall quality of the cuisine means that fast food can be pretty decent. Try Yudetaro for buckwheat soba noodles, CoCo Ichibanya for Japanese-style curry and rice, or Yoshinoya iotgyudon, a bowl of simmered beef and onions served over rice. All can fill you up for around 500 yen (€3.50), without the attendant guilt of a trip to McDonald’s. For penny-pinching gourmands, the best advice is to save on dinner and spend more at lunchtime instead. Especially on weekdays, it’s common for restaurants to offer lunch sets for a fraction of what they’d charge in the evening, meaning you can make your money go much further. Around JPY1,000 (£7) is the norm, and even the more high-end places will often have sets for less than 2,000 yen (£15).
Tabelog, the local Yelp equivalent, lets you search for restaurants by area, cuisine and budget, and while the English interface is a little wonky, it’s a handy resource. When you’re on the move you can pick up nutritious bento boxes and other prepared meals fora few hundred yen at supermarkets or one of the country’s 50,000-plus convenience stores. A couple of ortigiri rice balls, the ultimate budget food, should keep you going for hours. If your hotel doesn’t offer breakfast, look out for the ‘morning sets’ available at many old-school coffee shops, which include a complimentary plate of food with your drink. And speaking of coffee: you can get a respectable brew for JPY100 (75P) at almost any convenience store.
ACTIVITIES – One thing you can count on in Japan is that you’re never too far from a mountain. There are ample hiking opportunities within easy reach of most major cities, ranging from challenging multi-day hikes in the japan Alps to gentler walks that can be completed in a few hours. For a taste of earlier times, follow the Nakasendo trail in Nagano’s Kiso Valley, or the old Tokaido highway between Hakone and Mishima – routes that historically linked Tokyo and Kyoto. When the weather’s good, the trails along the north shore of Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi prefecture offer spectacular views of Mount Fuji across the water. Hot springs (onsen) ate equally abundant, and worth seeking out – especially after a walk. In Nozawa and Kusatsu, there are public bathhouses maintained by the local communities, which visitors can use for free. For the former, check out the centrally located Oyu bathhouse, while the bracingly hot Shirahata-no-yu in Kusatsu, is worth a try.
In more remote rural areas, especially further north, you can still find outdoor baths that are open to the public, but you’ll need to shed your inhibitions along with your clothes to enjoy them properly. Be sure to check the Japan National Tourism Organization website Jjnto.go.jp) and other online listings to see if there are any traditional festivals (matsuri) happening during your trip. These boisterous celebrations offer a fascinating window into Japanese culture, and there are hundreds of them taking place throughout the year – all of them free, of course. At the peak of summer, you can also catch spectacular fireworks displays almost every night.
Renting a bicycle can end up saving money on transport, while allowing you to enjoy your surroundings at a more leisurely pace. Just be sure to shop around: you should be able to find a bike for JPY500 (£4) a day in Touring the famous temples of Kyoto – the golden Kinkakuji, the imposing hilltop Kiyomizu-dera, the serene Ryoanji- can drain your money faster than expected. In this strollable city, it costs nothing to wander the traditional Higashiyama neighbourhood or the Philosopher’s Path, a pleasant stroll alongside a cherry-tree-lined canal, or to explore the sprawling grounds of Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its thousands of vermillion torii gates.
ACCOMMODATION – Transport aside, accommodation is likely to put the biggest dent in your budget. The concept of last- minute deals never really caught on in Japan, so it’s a good idea to book well ahead of time. That’s especially true in Kyoto and the surrounding Kansai region, which has been struggling to cope with the recent influx of international visitors. Make sure to include japanican.com in your accommodation search, as it lists places that don’t appear on other sites. Booking hotel and travel packages can save you money, too, especially if you aren’t planning on getting a Japan Rail Pass. Finding genuinely cheap lodgings can be a challenge, but if you don’t mind sacrificing a little comfort it’s certainly possible.
You can get a berth in a capsule hotel – an experience in itself – for less than J PY3,000(£22) per night, and hostels such as the Khaosan chain offer dorm beds fora similar rate. Getting a private room will cost a little more: expect to pay at least JPY5,000 (£36)per person for a minshuku, the local equivalent of a bed and breakfast; they’re essentially a budget alternative to staying in aryckart, the traditional Japanese inns that usually come complete with tatami beds, sliding screens and onsite onsen (hot springs). Lower-end ryokancan be found fora similar price, but bear in mind that you’ll save considerably if you book a room without dinner or breakfast.
There are plenty of bargains on Airbnb (at least until Japanese authorities decide whether or not to clamp down on the service, which currently occupies a legal grey area). If you’re travelling as a couple, you could also treat yourself to a night at a quintessentially Japanese institution: the love hotel. Designed for illicit trysts, these discreet playpens aren’t for everyone, but you can usually get a suite, complete with king-sized bed, Jacuzzi and widescreen TV, for under 10,000 yen (£73) per night.