With its tech-centric entertainment, ancient temples, lightning fast rail system and traditional art forms, Japan offers a fascinating mix of the new and the old. Between rural Hokkaido and the tropical islands of Okinawa, you’re bound to find something to embrace as a curious backpacker. And with the following insider tips, backpacking Japan can be both memorable and affordable.

1. Skip the train

Rail passes can be pricey and often completely unnecessary given the cheap deals offered by airlines, ferries and buses. Low-cost carriers such as Vanilla Air or Peach can whisk you to another major city for as little as ¥3000 one way.

Overnight ferries – such as the Sunflower, which runs from Osaka to Beppu – give travellers tatami mat sleeping space and the chance to party with locals on deck (just be sure to bring an eye-mask and earplugs if you actually want to sleep). Similarly, overnight buses crisscross the country at highly discounted rates.

11 tips for backpacking Japan: Osaka castle in cherry blossom season, Osaka, Japan.© lkunl/Shutterstock

2. Or buy discounted train tickets

If riding the shinkansen is a non-negotiable part of your Japan experience, opt for deals such as the Puratto Kodama. This one-way ticket saves you ¥4000 off the regular bullet train fare between Tokyo and Osaka. Or take advantage of the seasonal Seishun 18; five days of unlimited local train travel.

3. Come prepared with socks

It’s customary to remove your shoes before entering most indoor spaces in Japan, including shrines, traditional restaurants and ryokan. If you’re going to wander around in your socks (make sure they're clean), they might as well be stylish. If you've not got anything suitable from home, head to a local Don Quijote store to up your sock game.

4. Shop at Daiso

Forget something? Need a makeshift costume for a random night out? A cheap souvenir? Visit one of the 3000 Daiso stores scattered throughout the country, where most items are ¥100 and you can buy anything from craft supplies to shampoo.

5. Escape the gaijin trail

While plenty of bucket list destinations may be among the most memorable places you visit, adventurous backpackers are bound to find more tranquility and less hand-holding away from the pockets of tourist friendly areas.

From Tokyo, consider jetting to the nearby Izu Islands, volcanic gems with deserted beaches. From Kyoto, marvel at the sand dunes of Tottori or head to Amanohashidate, nicknamed “Kyoto by the sea.” 

6. Use a locker

Lugging your backpack around on a stopover can be tiring and a nuisance to others, especially on crowded streets. Consider storing it at the nearest train station, where there’s always a set of lockers available to stow even the largest of backpacks for just a few hundred yen.

7. Stay up all night

Public transportation in most Japanese cities, including Tokyo, ends before 2am, but that needn't scupper your night out. Locate the nearest karaoke joint. You can rent a booth for the whole night and fine-tune your singing skills at the same time.

Alternatively, you could check into an internet café: nonstop entertainment in the form of net surfing, manga and coffee – some even have showers, if you need to freshen up. This is also a useful option if you're arriving somewhere in the early hours without a pre-booked hotel.

FK3Y0G epa01102341 Japanese youth surf the net and sleep in a Net Cafe in Tokyo, Japan, 29 August 2007. The number of people with no fixed address who spend the night at 24-hour Internet cafes totals 5,400 in Japan, of whom 27 percent are in their 20s, according to a Government study released Tuesday. The average monthly income of the so-called Net Cafe Refugees is 110,000 yen, or 705 euro. Many of the people who make their homes in Net Cafe find it too difficult to pay rent for apartments, according to the study. EPA/EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN

8. Get a Hostelling International membership

Hostels tend to be pricier in Japan as compared to other backpacking destinations like Europe and Southeast Asia. By securing an Hostelling International membership online ahead of your trip, you will be able to save up to ¥600 yen per night at over 300 hostels throughout the country.

9. Stick your thumb out

Hitchhiking in Japan is great. It’s entirely possible – and safe – to transverse the entire length of Japan through the goodwill of others. Just be prepared to chat it up or offer small gifts in appreciation.

10. Feast at a conbini

Besides the ubiquitous kaiten sushi options, another cheap meal can be found at your local conbini. These convenience stores sell everything from freshly ground coffee to microwavable meals, as well as basic provisions for day trips and hiking excursions. More importantly, locals congregate here to drink or purchase alcohol for the road (there are no container laws in Japan). Try a Japanese beer or “Strong Chu-hai” – a fruity 8% cocktail concoction.

Geishas walking in Japan

11. Show some respect

Japan has a very homogeneous population, so foreigners tend to stick out. However, there are a few things you can do to help yourself blend in, including as speaking quietly on trains and not hassling geisha for photo ops. You'll easily learn from Japan’s friendly locals, who will do anything to make sure you are having a fantastic journey.

Top image © NIKON-T20/Shutterstock 

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