Japan may seem like an expensive travel destination, but there are several ways for travelers on a budget to enjoy Japan without digging too far into your wallet. Domestic transportation can be quite expensive in particular, but luckily, here are several ways to combat this.
The Japan Rail Pass is definitely the most budget-friendly way to travel Japan if you are planning on visiting multiple cities in a short period of time, as it gives you access to almost all Japan Rail (JR) trains as well as high speed bullet trains (the Shinkansen), and JR-run ferries and local buses. However, the Japan Rail Pass is unfortunately only available to those traveling for tourism purposes with a temporary visitor status (stay under 3 months). The Japan Rail Pass can only be purchased on the internet before your date of travel; it is not possible to buy the pass at any JR offices, trail agencies, or airports because they are not sold on Japanese territory. Once you reserve your pass, a voucher will be sent to your home address that you can exchange for the pass at a JR ticket office on your arrival. JR offers three types of passes in both coach class and first class: the 7 day, 14 day, or 21 day pass, ranging from 29,110 yen to 59,350 yen for coach, and 38,888 yen and 81,870 yen for first class, which gives you access to more spacious seating and free drinks on special bullet trains. Considering the average one-way ticket for the Shinkansen costs about 15,000 yen, the Japan Rail Pass is a bargain if you plan to make use of the bullet train.
The Japan Rail Pass is certainly an excellent deal, but all hope is not lost for those of you visiting Japan on a long-term or non-tourism visa.
Discount ticket shops, or kinken shop in Japanese (金券ショップ kinken shoppu) are overlooked but invaluable resources for budget traveling in Japan. Discount ticket shops sell train tickets, bullet train (Shinkansen) tickets, gift certificates (商品券 shouhinken), and other miscellaneous tickets and vouchers, at values slightly cheaper than their purchase price at a JR ticket kiosks or ticket machines. Some shops may stock tickets from other rail companies, but JR is the most widely available, since its rail network is operated all across the country. Not all discount ticket shops have the same rates and prices, which fluctuate based on supply and demand. Discount ticket shops are located near major train stations outside of the station, and are run by unaffiliated third parties, not the railway itself. While unfortunately, bullet train tickets are not usually sold at discounts greater than 500 or 1000 yen, discount ticket shops are very useful for securing cheap local train tickets, and here’s how:
Afternoon discount tickets, or in Japanese 昼間特割きっぷ (hiruma tokuwari kippu) are discounted tickets useable on most ordinary JR train routes (local, express, special express trains) between 10 am and 5 pm on weekdays, and all day on weekends and holidays. Afternoon discount tickets are often thirty to fifty percent cheaper depending on the route than their ordinary counterparts, so if it is possible to arrange your travel schedule to coincide with the times you can use afternoon discount tickets, I highly recommend you do so. As long as you enter the gate between these times, you should have no problem using them. For example, if you put your ticket into the ticket gate at 4:59 pm, you should be able to use the afternoon discount ticket even if you exit the gate at 8pm. It is also possible to buy afternoon discount tickets for some local buses, depending on whether the discount ticket shop has them in supply at the time or not. Tickets at valid for three months from the purchase date, so it is possible to buy tickets for your entire stay at once if you have planned out the route.
There you have it! While there are other ways to save money on transportation in Japan, such as commuter passes (定期券 teikiken) and buying tickets in bulk (回数券 kaisuuken), the Japan Rail pass and discount ticket shops are among the easiest and cheapest ways to save money when traveling in Japan. It is entirely possible to make your stay in Japan budget-friendly if you know a couple local tips and tricks, and plan carefully.