Cheap travel in Japan: 3 options for getting around on a budget

Cheap travel in Japan: 3 options for getting around on a budget

It's horrifying trying to book a trip in Japan. There seems to be no cheap way to get anywhere. Domestic flights are expensive, the shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train) costs a fortune, and even a quick road trip costs and arm and a leg with highway tolls and high gas prices. But if you're determined, you can get anywhere on the islands without breaking the bank.

Shinkansen bullet train Photo by specialoperations

The night bus

The night bus in Japan is called yoko-basu (夜行バス) and it’s around half the price of the daytime bus. Not only do you get to your destination, but you might also get a little shut-eye.

Bus routes connect all the major cities in Japan. You can take the night bus from Tokyo to Kyoto for as little as 4,000 yen and Niigata from Tokyo is only 2,000 yen. This is incredibly cheap when you consider the high price it would cost to fly, take the train, or drive.

The night bus is comfortable. There are curtains covering the windows so the light of dawn doesn’t disturb your slumber. They even give you a blanket and pillow. The seats recline slightly and it’s as quiet as a tomb (so don’t dare natter away to your traveling buddy, as the staff will ask you to pipe down!).

The downside is that the seats aren’t designed for giant westerners. If you’re over six feet tall (or in metric terms, inching toward the 2-meter mark), you’re going to wake up sore and cramped.

Willer Bus Photo by Wakkubox

Discount airlines

Recently a number of discount airlines have sprung up in Japan. These companies offer domestic flights, which are surprisingly expensive in Japan, for as little as 5,000 yen one way. The only trouble is that there are few routes, services are limited, flights get randomly canceled and the airlines don’t answer their phones. But… they’re really cheap.

Discount airlines include Jetstar, Air Asia, Skymark, and Peach. To give you an idea of how limited the routes are, Peach doesn’t even fly to Tokyo. Air Asia has some flights that only go out of Narita and not Haneda. Skymark doesn’t let you book flights until within two months of the departure date.

Discount airlines offer incredible deals if you don’t mind the lack of services. Interestingly, these airlines haven’t ‘taken off’ (sorry) with Japanese consumers, to whom quality of service is just as important as getting there. For an American like me who’s used to Greyhound, they’re a money-saving miracle.

Stick out your thumb

One more option is to plant yourself at a highway rest stop and stick out your thumb. The highways of Japan are full of kindly tourists and lonely business travelers who are happy to pick up a hitchhiker, even one of a foreign persuasion. I’ve heard stories about drivers eagerly practicing their English in exchange for the lift.

Funny treatment of outsiders aside, the Japanese are actually very warm once they let you ‘in,’ so I can see how this works. Most cars zip by but the one that decides to pick you up welcomes you in and treats you as a valued guest, plying you with snacks and drinks.