UPDATED 10/15/2016 – Japan is one of the Filipino’s dream destinations in Asia, but planning a trip to the Land of Rising Sun can often be discouraging because of its reputation as expensive.
Yet this is one of the many myths about going to Japan. With proper planning and prioritization, you can enjoy a cheap Tokyo travel. In November 2015, autumn time, we flew to Tokyo and spent less than Php 16,000 for 9 days in basic expenses like food, transport, tours, and entrance fees (including DisneySea) but excluding accommodation, airfare, and shopping. (Php 26,944 if you include accommodation, airfare, Philippine travel tax, visa processing fee, and unexpected expenses.)
Here are some tips how you can get the most value out of each buck:
1. Bring your baon for breakfast
Food is not something you want to tighten your spending on when you’re in Tokyo, but breakfast is a different thing. Many restaurants in Japan don’t open until late in the morning. You can opt for convenience stores like 7-11, Family Mart, Mini-Stop, or Lawsons, where meals range from Y150 to Y550*
What we did: We stocked coffee and noodles from the Philippines and grocery items from local stores in Tokyo. Don’t bother bringing bread; Tokyo’s bakeries and pastry vendors in train stations have some of the best. Convenience stores in Japan have delicious pre-prepared meals, too.
2. Exchange local currency in the Philippines
If you have a big budget with you, you’d want to avoid a proportionally large financial cost that comes with buying local currency. It’s best if you buy yen in a bank or a NAIA terminal arrival area before going to Japan. They have some of the most competitive rates you can get in Manila.
What we did: We ordered yen in BDO a week in advance. We discovered that the arrival area of Terminal 3 offers a good rate as well.
3. Look for alternative accommodation
If you’re the kind of traveler who doesn’t mind giving up the familiar hotel environment and its amenities (set/buffet breakfast, 2 p.m. check-in time, bathroom amenities, etc.), it may be the time to try out Airbnb. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, Airbnb choices in Tokyo are as affordable as Taipei. Basic criteria in choosing a good Airbnb host should be proximity to a train station, good reviews, WiFi, and a kitchen.
What we did: We stayed in an Airbnb host that is 10 minutes away by foot from the JR Yamanote Line and Metro Line. Although there was a delay in our check-in time and the restroom was communal per floor, we appreciated that the host has a big dining area, kitchen, a living area with a TV, heater, CCTV cameras, and a washing machine. The house is also near vending machines, convenience stores, and several small and local restaurants. Plus, we interacted with the host on a daily basis such that he suggested we go to Mt. Fuji Fifth Station after our failed attempt of viewing the elusive mountain from Hakone.
4. Buy a day pass
Tokyo’s railway system is a complex web of overlapping routes operated by many companies. Try to study it beforehand, then draft your itinerary. It’s more practical to group the destinations you’ll visit by train line. This way, you can choose among the many day passes available, whichever is practical. There are at least 6 train passes you can choose from if traveling within Tokyo. (Daily passes within Tokyo expire when train operation ends.)
Take note: If you can find alternate routes, avoid switching between operators (e.g. switching from a JR-operated line to a Toie-operated subway line); it costs substantially more.
If the cost of a day pass exceeds the total cost of individual tickets you would have purchased for the day’s trip, then you may just want to buy and load a Suica or Pasmo card. Both cards are used to store value in the same manner as Manila’s Beep card or Hong Kong’s Octopus card. You can calculate your fares ahead here or on Google Map.
Meanwhile, there are also discounted tickets and train passes available if you’re traveling to destinations outside Tokyo like Hakone and Fuji Five Lakes. I suggest you spend at least a night in either Hakone or Fuji Five Lakes since you can use the pass for two days (travel there and return back the next day). Take note: Always bring your passport since many of the passes going outside Tokyo are for foreigners only.
What we did: We used a day pass in Tokyo once when we visited Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku. Since you’d be using the JR Yamanote Line to access the main destinations, the Tokunai pass (for JR trains only) seemed to be the most practical among the 6 day pass options in Tokyo. We used Suica throughout our stay, except when we traveled to Hakone, in which case we bought a Hakone Free Pass (Y5,140), and Mt. Fuji Fifth Station, when we availed the Mt. Fuji Round Trip Ticket (Y5,600).
5. Take the bus
Want to climb Mt. Fuji? While the Mt. Fuji Round Trip Ticket itself is discounted, you can save Y200 and 15 minutes by taking the bus all the way to Mt. Fuji Fifth Station via Highway Buses from its terminal near Shinjuku Station. This bus line can also take you to other countryside destinations like Nagano, Matsumoto, Hakuba, and Takayama. You can reserve your bus seats 7 days prior to the trip.
What we did: As the Tokyo(Shinjuku)-Mt. Fuji buses were already fully booked, we took the round trip ticket instead.
6. Take advantage of free attractions
Museums and a number of attractions require entrance fees, but several others like parks, temples, public art, famous streets, and government buildings can be accessed without shelling out cash. Want a free tour of Tokyo? You can book your free guide here.
If you prefer your a DIY tour, you can select from any of our 6 proposed day itineraries when in Tokyo.
What we did: The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building skyscraper is your best choice to see the entire metropolis without costing you a single yen. It’s just a 10-minute walk from Shinjuku Station. We tried other free attractions like the Gundam statue in DiverCity Tokyo Plaza, Odaiba, Meiji Shrine in Harajuku, Imperial Gardens (periphery), Shibuya, Akihabara, Diet, and a number of temples.
7. Duty-free stores
When shopping, always ask beforehand whether the retail price includes the 8% consumption tax. Some stores exempt foreign tourists from paying this tax (Take note: Bring your passport to be exempted), while several who don’t simply advertise a pre-tax price to lure you into purchasing.
What we did: For very affordable shopping, try Daiso stores. Drop by in Okachimachi along the JR Yamanote Line for bargain shopping. Duty-free stores abound in districts like Shibuya, Akihabara, and Odaiba. Duty-free stores at Narita International Airport also provide affordable pasalubong options.
The secret to a cheap Tokyo travel is to plan ahead while allotting some space and a contingency plan in case things don’t work out as hoped. This website lists down interesting itineraries for budget travelers like us who want to save not only money but time.
See the breakdown of our expenses here.
*Exchange rate was Y 1.00 = Php 0.38 in November 2015