Temples, shrines, sushi, cherry blossoms, and Samurais are but a fragment of what Japan has to offer. What better way to experience Japan in its entirety than traveling around the country with only a backpack? Backpacking sounds like a lot of fun but it can also be frustrating if you are unprepared, so here’s some advice!
1) Rent a pocket Wi-Fi to minimize the chances of getting lost as Japan is a huge place and train stations have many different exits! It will also be convenient for you to contact your family to let them know that you’re doing fine.
2) Bring enough cash because it is very likely that there will be an extra cost to withdraw money from an ATM. Some shops in Japan also do not accept cards so it’s always good to have spare cash.
3) Lockers of different sizes are available in most train stations around Japan for a couple hundred yen. Bringing a huge backpack everywhere would not only bring inconvenience to yourself but to others as well. It’s better to travel light and store your baggage in the lockers provided to save you from having a hard time in crowded areas.
4) Try to avoid taking public transport during peak hours as you and your backpack might not be able to fit on the packed train. The peak hours on weekdays are between 8 am and 9 am, and after 5 pm.
5) Don’t be surprised if you can’t find any bins along the streets of Tokyo. Locals pride themselves on keeping public spaces clean and that’s probably why Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities in the world. Carry a bag with you so that you can deposit your trash in it and dispose of it if you happen to see a rubbish bin.
6) Don’t be afraid to ask for directions. People in Japan are very helpful and are even willing to go the extra mile to bring you to your destination instead of just pointing it to you.
If there is a word of advice that I can give you, it is that traveling in Japan is not cheap. The transportation system in Japan is one of the best in the world and it can be really expensive. However, there are perks of being a foreigner, read on to find out what they are!
Trains are one of the most reliable and convenient options to get around Japan. They are extremely punctual so it’s better to head to the station early to catch it on time. Local trains also provide overhead luggage racks for you to store your backpacks. If you are planning to travel around the country, you can opt to get the Japan Rail Pass, which offers unlimited travel on the JR network, including high-speed bullet train lines. There are different passes for different periods of time, so please check out the link below for more information!
There are different types of buses that you can take in Japan. For instance, there are limousine buses which take you from the airport to particular areas in the city, and there are also local buses that travel around the city. Moreover, there are buses which bring you from the city all the way up into the mountains! Though it may be cheaper to travel by bus than by high-speed bullet trains, be prepared that the bus journey will take quite long! Buses that travel long distances usually have a compartment where you can store your baggage in, you can just ask the bus driver if you can’t find it. Also, do look at the time schedules to get a gist of how long your journey will take and where to hop off the bus as long-distance highway buses will have various stops along the way.
If you don’t have much time to spare, you can hop on a plane instead of taking trains or buses! Japan has its own domestic airlines, which can be comparatively cheaper than taking a train. Instead of a two and a half hour ride from Tokyo to Osaka on the “Shinkansen”, more widely known as the high-speed bullet train, traveling by plane can cut the travel time by half.
4) Uber, not taxi (when in Tokyo)
Plan your travels around the availability of public transport as taxis in Japan are extortionately priced. If there really is no option (i.e. you’re taking an early morning flight) and you’re in Tokyo, you can opt for Uber as it’s a better alternative to taking a taxi. However, do note that Uber is only available in Tokyo.
Economical hotels not fancy hotels
The main intention of a backpacking trip is to save money, so it makes sense for you to book a simple place to rest instead of a fancy hotel. Here are some of the cheaper accommodation options you can try out. Who knows, you might gain more than expected!
1) Budget hostels
If you want to save on accommodation, budget hostels are the way to go. Designed for backpackers, these hostels are a great way to meet new friends and share travel tips with one another. It is also the cheapest option, as the cost for a night is around 1,500 to 3,000 JPY per person (approximately 14.12 to 28.23 USD). Depending on the hostel, there may be various types of rooms to choose from, such as gender-segregated shared rooms or private rooms which come at an extra cost. Amenities such as toilets, showers, kitchens, and lounges are considered common areas that are shared with other guests. However, a drawback is that the hostels may be a bit tricky to find, as they are often not close to the city area, so do take note of the number that you have to call if you get lost! Sites like booking.com can help you find these places.
2) Capsule hotels
Basically, if you are just looking for a place to sleep, a capsule hotel will be good enough. The capsules are typically bunk beds, which include a small television, Internet access, a blanket and controls for light and heating. Bathrooms and toilets are communal and some capsule hotels may require you to ask the front desk for keys to use the bathrooms for a set time limit. As the space is quite tight, there will be lockers available for guests to store their luggage in. A night can cost around 2,000 to 5,000 JPY per person (approximately 18.76 to 46.90 USD). These hotels are usually located near major train stations and have gender-segregated floors for travelers.
Backpacking with friends? Perhaps a hotel is not the best choice due to its small size. Since last year, Japan has legalised Airbnb, a rental accommodation service that connects homeowners to guest visitors. Accommodation options include apartments and hostels that are equipped with Internet access, a kitchen, a bathroom and for some, a washing machine and a dryer. It will be worth the price if you are traveling with more than two people, as Airbnb lodgings are usually cheaper than hotels which charge according to the number of people who stay in the room. In fact, the cost for a night in an apartment can be as low as 1,500 JPY (approximately 14.12 USD). You can search for these places on booking.com as a reservation is free, as well as cancellation, if you do it two days before.
4) Family hosts
If you want to fully immerse yourself in the Japanese culture and get to know the Japanese better, a homestay option is a great alternative! Staying with a family has become increasingly popular among foreign visitors. You will have the chance to learn more about the culture and language through a first-hand experience, and it provides you with a more intimate and friendly setting than staying at a hostel or hotel. The accommodation includes Internet access, breakfasts, dinners and all utilities at an affordable rate of 3,000 JPY (approximately 28.23 USD) per night or higher.
Due to the nature of the stay, toilets are shared with everyone staying in the house and there are different house rules for different families, so it would be good to abide by them if you wish to have a pleasant stay. There is no registration fee for a short stay that is fewer than 21 nights, but prices vary for periods longer than that. You can go to the link below for more information on the prices, instructions on how to book and other additional information you might need.
Places of interest in Tokyo and Osaka to suit a backpacker
A great starting place for any backpacker looking to explore Japan, Tokyo, Japan’s vibrant capital presents an interesting experience to the backpacker. From traditional shrines to the brightly lighted skyscrapers, this metropolitan offers numerous wonderous sights for backpackers. Osaka, the “nation’s kitchen” and Japan’s second largest city should not be missed out as well. Find out about why you should drop by these two cities, and the best places to check out there on your backpacking trip through Japan.
1) Free spots to check out
a) Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
Firstly, the famous Tsukiji fish market is one not to be missed when you’re in Tokyo. Whether you are a seafood lover or not, this place should be on your to-go list, because entry is entirely free! Be prepared to wake up early though, as shops there typically close at around 1 pm. We suggest heading there as early as 8 am or even earlier if you want to skip the crowds! On the other hand, do note that the market is expected to move to a new location sometime in October 2018. There are also certain days when the market is closed, so do check out the calendar in the link below before going! However, the calendar is in Japanese so a simple guide is to avoid going to the market on the days highlighted in red.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday, 5am - 2pm. Closed on certain Wednesdays, Sundays and holidays.
Address: 5 Chome-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo
b) Sensoji Temple, Tokyo
Located in Asakusa, the Sensoji Temple is one of Tokyo’s prominent temples. The outer gate of the temple, Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), is hard to miss, and you have to pass by the shopping street, Nakamise, on your way to the temple. The shops sell a variety of local food, souvenirs and some even have yukata rental services, with staff helping to dress you up in a traditional kimono. At the temple, you can purchase an “omamori”, or better known as good luck charms. There are specific charms for specific blessings, such as good health, studies or relationships. We suggest leaving your backpack in a locker at the nearest train station as this street tends to get really crowded.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 6am - 5pm (main hall). Temple grounds are always open.
Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Asakusa, Taito
c) Meiji Shrine, Tokyo
A scenic spot for photo taking, the shrine itself and the nearby Yoyogi Park is a large forested area within the city. Take a long stroll down the path towards the shrine and be greeted by a huge torii gate at the entrance. If you are fortunate enough, you might even chance upon an ongoing Shinto worship ceremony or a traditional wedding. Do avoid going to the shrine during the first few days of the new year though, as it is a popular spot for people to make their first prayers for the year.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, sunrise to sunset.
Address: 1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya
d) Nara, Osaka
If you are in Osaka, you should definitely not miss the chance to travel to Nara, which is only an hour’s ride away! Nara is most famous for its free-roaming deer and if you’re lucky, you might even be able to meet one right after you exit the train station. It is entirely free to view and touch the deer but if you want to make your experience more worthwhile, you can feed them with deer crackers which can be purchased at 150 JPY (approximately 1.40 USD). Don’t be surprised at the deer which bow to you to ask for a snack, they can be slightly aggressive when getting their food from you.
2) Where you can rest
a) Internet Cafes
If you’re tired after a long day of traveling, you can go to an Internet cafe to rest. Internet cafes provide a wide range of activities and amenities, such as net surfing, manga or comic book reading, as well as drinks and shower rooms for you to freshen up. If you need a nap, you can also go ahead and book a room for a few hours to recharge your energy. It’s a great place for you to stop by after all the traveling and sightseeing to take a breather. You don’t even need any pre-reservation!
b) Ueno Park, Tokyo
Another attraction that is totally free is the Ueno Park, a large public park in Tokyo. The park is one of the best spots to view cherry blossoms in early April, where hundreds of cherry trees are planted along the path. You can purchase a packed meal from the convenience store and head to the park to have lunch under the cherry blossoms. A tip is to head there early though, as there are bound to be many others and you may end up not having a spot under the tree if you don’t reach early.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 5am - 11pm
Address: Uenokoen, Taito
c) Osaka Merchandise Mart (OMM) Sky Garden, Osaka
Also completely free of charge, the sky garden on the 21st floor of the OMM building is a place you can head to if you want to watch the city light up as the day turns into night. It offers a stunning view of the skyscrapers in Osaka business park, Osaka castle and Nakanoshima, a long and narrow sandbank glistening in the river. It’ll be a great place for resting and enjoying the tranquility, away from city life.
OMM Sky Garden
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 10am - 8pm
Address: 1-7-31 Otemae, Chuo-ku
3) Places worth splurging on
a) Ghibli Museum, Tokyo
Does the title Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service ring a bell? If you are a fan of this great Japanese animation director, then you have to head to Studio Ghibli museum! It showcases Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces and brings his beloved films to life. However, tickets are only available with reservation only and they sell out fast, so make sure you book in advance! You can find out how to get tickets through the link below, as well as the museum’s opening hours!
Opening Hours: Monday, Wednesday to Sunday, 10am - 6pm. Closed on Tuesdays (with exceptions).
Address: 1 Chome-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka
Phone: +81 570-055-777
b) Dotonbori, Osaka
If you are a food lover, Dotonbori is right up your alley. Enveloped with neon lights, huge crowds and the smell of aromatic food, Dotonbori is famous for being the heart of Osaka’s nightlife, with its many restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and theaters. Fill your stomach with various kinds of street food along Dotonbori and try out “takoyaki”, better known as octopus balls, or Kobe beef! You can also find Osaka’s most famous delicacy, “okonomiyaki”, a Japanese pancake that is filled with various ingredients of your choice.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 24 hours
Address: Dotonbori, Chuo-ku
c) Universal Studios, Osaka
Immerse yourself in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, Universal Wonderland, and Hollywood-themed attractions. If you still have money to spare and don’t mind splurging, don’t miss the chance to go to Universal Studios Japan! Just like any other theme park, it can be pretty crowded during weekends so the best time to go on early weekday mornings during non-peak seasons. The types of tickets available include the studio pass, which is priced at 7,900 JPY (approximately 73.94 USD), and the universal express pass, which needs to be purchased separately from the studio pass if you want to skip the queues. Tickets can be purchased from travel agencies or at the ticket booths. For more information, you can check out the link below.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 9am - 7pm
Address: 2-1-33 Sakurajima, Konohana-ku
Phone: +81 6-6465-3000
Shopping - where to find the best deals
1) Family Mart
Convenience stores such as Family Mart sell a variety of products such as food, drinks, stationery and travel items, all at an affordable price. There are thousands of outlets all around Japan and it’s a great place for backpackers to drop by to grab a quick bite or purchase any additional or forgotten travel items. Furthermore, certain Family Mart outlets offer tax-free shopping!
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, mostly 24 hours but varies by store.
2) Don Quijote
Don Quijote is your one-stop discount shop for everything, from snacks and travel essentials to souvenirs. There are over 160 stores all over Japan and the bigger ones are in Akihabara, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. The store is a multi-level paradise for backpackers who need to buy last-minute souvenirs or travel essentials that they might have run out of. If you spend a minimum of 5,000 JPY (approximately 46.85 USD) on either consumable or non-consumable goods, you can also apply for a tax-free claim with your passport! Check the link below for the locations of different outlets and the opening hours.
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, mostly 24 hours but varies by store.
Besides Don Quijote, Daiso is a backpacker’s next best friend. One of the biggest outlets in Tokyo is in Harajuku. I’m sure you can’t find a better deal anywhere other than in Daiso, where most items are priced at 100 JPY (approximately 0.94 USD)! Daiso sells gift items, snacks, toiletries, household products and many other items. It is a perfect place to restock essential accessories and food for your backpacking journey at a cheap price!
Daiso Harajuku Outlet
Opening Hours: Monday to Sunday, 10am - 9pm
Address: 6-1-9 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
A final reminder
Check your train routes, plan ahead and consider buying train passes which can be a more worthy option. Japan values manners and respect, so look out for signs and abide by them. Ensure that you do not litter on the streets or talk loudly on the trains. With everything covered in this article, you’re all set to go on a backpacking trip in Japan!
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