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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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