Is Japan on a budget physically possible for families? Let me bust a common myth for you guys - Japan is not that expensive.
I mean, for real. Who here has fallen for the misconception that Japan is an overly expensive country? That is probably the number one reason most people delay this bucket list destination.
Let's put it this way - if you can afford living in Europe, USA, Canada or Australia, then you can most certainly afford a holiday to Japan. Because if you live on one of these continents, then I can assure you that it can be way more cost-effective on many fronts.
We recently spent close to a month discovering and exploring this incredible country - that's when we came to realise just how affordable necessities like food and transport are.
Why the heck have I been delaying it for so long? I legit want to live in Japan.
It's a country that people - guaranteed - will always yearn to return to. It's awe-inspiring yet absolutely bonkers. It's forward-thinking yet reserved. It's everything you imagined from what you've seen and heard, and so much more.
Our Cost of Travelling to Japan - Quick Breakdown
- Flights: $690 one way from Bali to Osaka for 2 adults, 1 child & 1 infant
- Accommodation: $1,774 for a total of 23 nights
- Transport: $610
- Food: $1,675
- Attractions: $360
- Shopping: $381
- Kids' Necessities: $60
- Total: $5,550
Clearly, food was our downfall. Not because food was ridiculously expensive, but simply because Japan's food is something that no man or woman can resist. You will literally want to try something new every 5 steps you take.
*All values are listed in USD
Flights to Japan
The route we took to Japan probably won't apply to you, as we were on a one-way ticket to Osaka from Bali, but there's many ways in which you can save yourself a crap ton on flights to Japan.
Numero Uno - call me Captain Obvious, but you need to obviously plan your outgoing and return flights outside of peak holiday times. In Australia, peak travel seasons align directly with school and uni holidays.
- December to January (avoid like the plague)
- Mid to late July until, pretty much, October (mid-year is pretty much peak to fly anywhere in the world that is experiencing summer)
I know. I know. This probably doesn't leave you with many options when it comes to travelling Japan on a budget, which completely sucks when your job won't let you travel outside of these times. But, if you can weasel your way into scoring some leave in low season - you can stumble upon some real sweet deals.
Let me tell you about a not-so-secretive-secret. Use Skyscanner's "Cheapest Month" option, which you can select when you enter your travel dates. Instead of "Specific Date", choose "Whole Month", and voila - find the cheapest travel dates for every month of the year.
So, I got a little curious and wanted to know how much it would cost to fly from other major cities to Japan during low season. Here's what I came up with:
- Los Angeles - Tokyo ($555 return per person)
- London - Tokyo ($650 return per person)
- Sydney - Tokyo ($425 return per person)
If you're from Australia, I would highly recommend staying on top of Jetstar's Japan Deals where friends of ours have previously snagged 2-for-1 return tickets, or half price tickets that are seriously cheaper than having a weekend bender in Melbourne or Sydney city.
Accommodation in Osaka, Kyoto & Tokyo
Before I get stuck into how bloody brilliant the invention of Airbnb is - it is unfortunately not the case in Japan anymore. For the time being, at least.
As of June 2018, Airbnb dropped nearly 80% of its listings in Japan - meaning, these properties won't get re-listed until they are in compliance with the new laws.
So, fingers crossed you can get your hands on a good Airbnb deal, because that is probably the one thing that has made travelling to Japan affordable as a family.
We've started using booking.com to find apartments, as they actually list a large number of apartment options now, treading into the Airbnb sphere of business (I mean - who wouldn't?). The best thing about this platform is that with most places, you don't have to pay until you arrive. How awesome is that? Cos ain't nobody wanna be outta pocket before their holiday even begins.
Where We Stayed
Osaka: 7 nights in a 1-bedroom apartment
Kyoto: 7 nights in a 1-bedroom apartment
Tokyo: 9 nights in a studio apartment
Not gonna lie, we used to love the hotel life. Sinking our heads into memory foam pillows and fluffy bedding was the luxury we used to indulge in when travelling. Yeah, that all changed the moment we decided to procreate.
Places with 'domestic housewife must-have appliances' are a prerequisite for booking any form of accommodation - washing machines, stoves, bathtubs are necessities we can't live without anymore. Ah, the parent life, y'all.
But, if apartments don't tickle your fancy, there are stacks of other accommodation options in Japan. Hotels, hostels, love hotels, capsules, and Ryokan are all readily available in most cities. I just wouldn't exactly call the vast majority of these 'family-friendly'.
For more options, take a look at these budget and family-friendly accommodations in Tokyo.
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Getting Around in Japan
Should you get the JR Rail Pass?
To get one or not to get one, that is the question. It really all depends on your itinerary and how long you intend to stay in Japan.
We only travelled between Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo. The most expensive leg of the journey was catching the Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo - $120 per adult. Not gonna lie - buying those tickets hurt just a bit. *Cries*
If you intend to do a lot of train travel within 7, 14 or 21 days, AND you plan to catch the bullet train to more distant cities like Okayama or Hiroshima, then it's very well worth it.
On the bright side, if your kids are under 6 years, they get to ride with you for free. Kids aged between 6 and 11 must purchase half price tickets, and kids over 12 years cop the full price. Youch.
Being in possession of the JR Rail Pass also allows you to travel on JR-run subway in each city for without any additional charges. An important thing to note though, is that there are a gazillion train providers in Japan. This means you'll still need to buy a ticket when travelling on lines that aren't run by JR.
Save on transport - grab the Tokyo Subway Pass for unlimited travel 24, 48 or 72 hours!
Using the Train Network
Getting around by train is, without a doubt, the most efficient way to exploring any city in Japan. It is also fairly cheap (I'm comparing prices to Australia here).
On average, we spent around $3-6 on train tickets in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo per adult a day. Even tickets between Osaka, Kyoto and Nara were very affordable - look at paying between $7-12 for one way trips.
Not having the JR Rail pass allowed us the flexibility to buy tickets for any line which would get us to our destination the quickest, so you can see why it wasn't worth it for our itinerary.
Rent a Bicycle
In exception of Tokyo (because it's just too darn hectic), the most enjoyable way of getting around and seeing all the sights is to rent a bicycle. We did this in Osaka, Nara and Kyoto and we have zero regrets. Apart from the bits where steep inclines were involved - my unfit self almost died from what I would call 'too much cardio'.
You can rent a bicycle in Kyoto from 800 Yen ($7) per day, and if you're tugging little ones along, they also offer child seat attachments for an additional 400 Yen ($3.60) a day. Alternatively, you can strap them into a carrier and avoid the extra cost.
If you're doing Japan on a budget, do not hail a taxi.
Unless you're an absolute baller and don't know how else to spend your money (send kind donations my way, please) - I'm going to dissuade you from booking an Uber or hailing a taxi. I mean, as gangster as the cabs look in Japan - all black, low riding, and fitted with passenger doors that open automatically (which is so swag by the way), you will most likely experience heart failure as soon as the metre turns on.
Let's put it into perspective - a trip from Narita Airport to Shinjuku will cost you over $200. [Insert fainting emoji]
What will cost you far less, if you're daring enough, is to rent a car to explore cities and the countryside for roughly $60 per day. You can pick up car rentals from most major airports and drive yourself off into the horizon as soon as you arrive.
Eating Out in Japan
You can send yourself flat broke (guilty) from tasting the finest foods that will have ever graced your tastebuds, or you can go 'poor student' cheap and find eats that are only slightly more expensive than meals in South East Asia.
Cheap but Tasty Franchises
The clear winners for us were Matsuya and Yoshinoya who specialised in Donburi - basically, a rice bowl dish consisting of grilled meat, and well, grilled meat. You can get a Donburi set which includes a bowl of Miso soup and coleslaw for 350 Yen ($3) - total bargain.
We legit fed our family of four for $12, and we were stuffed.
Stand-Up Eateries Around Stations
Here's a little tip - look for food around train stations. The eateries are usually tiny (we barely just squeezed our strollers into some of them), sometimes there are seats, but most of the time you have to stand, scoff down your bowl of soba noodles, and be on your way. That's Japanese efficiency.
We found Tempura Soba around a station in Osaka for 300 Yen ($2.70) which was the bomb diggity.
The downside is that they're far from family friendly considering there's, well, no place to sit. High chairs? Don't even try to ask. You'll just be a recipient of blank stares.
Packaged set meals from supermarkets in Japan will be your saviour when it comes to saving money and your sanity if you're travelling with kids.
You can find rice bowls and fried noodles from 200 Yen ($1.80) and mouthwatering sushi combinations for 700 Yen ($6.30). They're made fresh every day, and I'm not even gonna lie, these packaged Bento Boxes taste way better than most Japanese restaurants in Australia.
HOT TIP: Visit supermarkets after 5pm for end-of-day specials where you'll find 20%-50% off pre-made meal packages.
What's the best thing about Asia? Convenience stores. Don't even argue with me on this one.
If there's no supermarket within close reach, you can bet your arse there'll be a 7 Eleven or Family Mart. For those times you're out of cheap dining solutions, or the kids are actin' like fools - pop into one of these godsend stores and turn your evening into a 5-course convenience store degustation consisting of pre-made Bento Boxes, Hokkaido Cheesecakes, ice cream, sashimi and beverages that will blow your tastebuds away.
Pre-packaged meals will cost you between 350 Yen ($3) to 750 ($6.70) Yen.
Hunt Down Lunch Deals
I don't about you guys, but we despise eating out at night with kids. We avoid it like the plague. Wouldn't touch it with a 100-foot pole. Y'all parents will know where I'm coming from.
That's why lunch time was the go for us. That's pretty much how we tackled our list of must-eat places in Japan - we booked all the best eateries during lunch hour, a time where kids are much more tolerable and you also aren't subject to peak dinner prices. Win.
So, if there's a restaurant you're dying to visit (especially Yakiniku restaurants), before you rush over for a dinner that will do some serious damage to your wallet - jump on their website and check if they have have lunch specials. Same quality, less hurt to your finances.
How much did we Spend on Food per Day?
Doing Japan on a budget as a family meant that we had to sacrifice one of our favourite Melbournian meals - brunch. Or brekky. Whatever you want to call it. We made our own breakfast on the daily to save money, which required us to do a grocery haul in each city we visited.
We spent anywhere between 6000 Yen ($55) up to 9000 Yen ($80) on groceries each week. Okay, I'll admit. A lot of it wasn't necessary and only served to fuel my love for Japanese snacks.
Our weekly grocery hauls fed the four of us each morning and consisted of: bread, avocados, milk, coffee, rice, sausages, fruits, cereals, and heaps more.
Daily food total excluding breakfast: Between 3875 Yen ($35) to 6640 Yen ($60)
Cost of Attractions & Sights in Japan
The most expensive things you'll pay for in Japan (other than food if you have zero self control like me) is entry to theme parks - Disneyland, DisneySea, Universal Studios, Fuji Q, and so forth. Although it may not seem pricey at first, it'll all add up in the end. Temples, castles, gardens, etc.
If you're caught between which Disney Park to visit, take a look at this detailed comparison to help you decide.
Trust me when I say you're going to want to visit an animal cafe. Hedgehogs, rabbits, owls - you name it, the Japanese have thought of it. Or, you might even want to visit this hair-raising animal cafe in Osaka we set foot into. Animal cafes will set you back a fair chunk considering most have a cover charge, and on top of that, you'll have to pay for overpriced drinks and food.
On average, museums entrance fees cost between 500-1800 Yen ($4.50-$16), while temples and castles will set you back between 400-600 Yen ($3.60-$5.40) depending on which ones you visit, as some temples don't charge entry.
Purely for the entertainment of our kids (alright, maybe for ours too) we visited attractions like Osaka Aquarium and the Kyoto Railway Museum, which cost $20 and $10 per adult, respectively.The good news in all of this is that kids under the age of 3 get into most attractions for free. *Happy dance* Junior high and elementary kids pay around half price, high school and university students also receive a small discount.
Average Daily Cost of Travelling Japan as a Family
As a family of four, I have to confess - we did a decent job in keeping to our daily budget. Well, apart from the days we lost all sense of self-control and ate double our body weight. If you have an dash more self-control than us, it's definitely possible to do Japan on a manageable budget as a family.
Our average daily cost of travel: $60 for the whole family (food + transport only)
Japan on a Budget: Money Saving Tips
- Before you go, find information on free or cheap things to do in each city - trust me, it's so worth it. A good one we used for Tokyo was Little Grey Box's 49 Insanely Cheap & Free Things To Do In Tokyo.
- Save on train transport by determining whether it's worth getting the JR Rail Pass for your Japan itinerary
- Sunday is the cheapest day for train travel - look into getting discounted daily tickets
- Take the bus - although much less efficient, if you have the time to spare, you'll save a lot more.
- Pre-book attraction tickets online for discounts and faster entry - we booked Disneyland, Osaka Aquarium, Universal Studios, and Robot Restaurant tickets online and saved some precious dollars.
- Make your own breakfast, or book accommodation that includes breakfast.
- Shop at Daiso or Don Quijote for discount home and, basically, everything-you-can-think-of-under-the-sun-products
- Avoid eating at nice places during dinner time - find lunch time specials at popular restaurants
So, is Japan cheap for family travel?
No, it's not cheap. But it's also not going to cost you more than what you're already paying on food and transport back at home, if you live in Europe, Australia, or North America.
Food was our biggest budget killer. After all, I don't think there's many people out there who can resist all the heavenly food Japan has to offer. If there is, then you have my respect.
Your expenditures in Japan will really come down to what kind of attractions you're intent on doing, and how much self-control you have with food. For real.
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Japan on a Budget for Families: The Video
If you're afflicted by the travel bug and always planning your next adventure - you might find these useful:
- Get $15 USD off your hotel reservation on Booking.com
- $29 USD Airbnb travel credit when you sign up and book your first stay
To stalk the #SquatFam (aka Hangry Squad) more closely, you can find us on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. We always promised to deliver fun and a less serious approach to life because I'm really just a 3-year old trapped in an adult body.
Have you got any secret tips on travelling Japan on a budget? Leave us a comment below.