Budget traveling in Japan: Cheap transport.

This post is another one in our budget traveling in Japan series, this time about transportation  We were backpacking in Japan for more than a month so we were searching for ways to spend less and see more. You can also read about cheap accommodation in Japan.

So by this point everyone probably thought about shinkansen or the bullet train, which I guess is really famous for Japan. They look like a bullet, their speed is crazy high (you can get from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours. That’s 500 km). But, they’re also very very expensive. And I don’t mean ”I’ll just add some more and buy the ticket’’ expensive. No no no, if you buy a Japan Rail Pass (JRP) for 21 days it will cost you more than 550 $. Yes, you can have unlimited rides (but sometimes you still need to pay – depends on the company) and ride the fastest train on the planet. But it’s still something that a lot of people can’t afford, especially backpackers. This fact alone makes people think that Japan is really expensive. So we explored the option of not having the Japan Rail Pass.
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Hitchhiking, local bus, local train, walking. Even if you found enormous number of articles that JRP is really worth it for the relations you’re doing, it’s because they sum up the prices of individual bullet train rides without the JRP (super expensive!) and compare it with the price of the pass. You CAN avoid the bullet train and it IS much cheaper. For 35 days of transportation around Japan we paid 280 $/person instead of 900 $ for JRP (21 days + 14 days + extra costs for certain tracks).

Local buses are cheaper than trains

Japanese people love trains and usually have a lot more money than an average backpacker so when you ask them hot to get from point A to point B, they will tell you the fastest (and maybe the most expensive) way to get there. Japan is well connected with local buses which are new, maintained and comfortable. Drivers look like gentlemen with white gloves 🙂 Buses stop for toilet break every hour or so and the roads are perfect. Don’t be scared to use the bus!

You can buy the tickets on the bus station and from our experience the reservation was not necessary (sometimes even not possible). We did travel in low season, in June. If you’re traveling in cherry blossom time, i’t might be different.

It also happened to us that we got a discount because we bought two tickets. And sometimes a bus ride at a certain hour is cheaper than others, so just ask if this is the lowest price of the bus. It doesn’t matter if you go at 11h or 14h, right?

We calculated that an hour of bus ride usually costs 11 $ but when you drive around unknown remote villages, more expensive the bus will be. At one point a hour bus ride was 22 $ but then it surely is time for …

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Hitchhiking

Yes, it is possible and very user friendly 🙂 For most of Japanese it will be the first time picking up a hitchhiker so it’s best to give them a nice experience. This is a couple of recommendations:

  1. Dress nicely and make yourself as friendly on the outside as you are on the inside 🙂
  2. Minimize your luggage. We had one big backpack and two smaller ones.
  3. Hitchhike with the usual ‘thumb-up’ and write your direction on a small white board with white board marker. You can buy them in a ‘100 Y shop’.
  4. Your direction should be written in kanji (also write a city that’s on the way to your destination). Find the right kanji online and draw a smiley face or a teddybear. It will make you more friendly 🙂
  5. Position yourself on a place where people can safely stop their car. A good place is a road with some parking place nearby, secluded bus stop or a farm road.
  6. Try to smile and if they look at you, give them a little bow. Almost all the people who picked us up saw us, made a turn and picked us up. I, as a girl, had a little more luck than Mic.
  7. Hitchhiking in big cities can be tough because there is little convinient space. You can take a bus to the last stop (or metro) and find a suitable road.
  8. Good places for hitchhiking (on longer distances) are rest stops on the highway. Try to get some help from a local to get you to your first one and from then on you can continue to hitchike on the reststop’s parking space. It’s also a good place to be dropped off if a car doesn’t go all the way to your destination. Oh, and people can see you and decide if you are dangerous or not (while having lunch).
  9. It’s always good to have a small present, like candy or chocolate. It can be a good ice breaker, you know. Oichiiii!
  10. Most of the Japanese don’t speak English so be prepared for some akward moments in the car. Don’t worry, just learn some basic words and they’ll be happy you tried 🙂 And don’t forget to use Google Translate.

City touring

If it’s a smaller city, try walking. It’s a good way to get to know the city, good for the body and free. Get lost and enjoy! And if you do really get lost, you can always get directions from any shop vendor.

Rent a bike. Some cities have a network of city bikes (pay 200 ¥ and then you have stations all over the city, like Kanazawa), but you can rent them from most of the hostels and hotels or even shops (Kyoto). Daily price is around 500 ¥ (4 $). Bicycle path is usually well arranged but it can be a problem with parking (limited on designated spaces). There is a lot of cyclists in Japan (be careful while walking!).

All bigger cities have a good bus network, and some metro network (like Tokyo). You can buy a daily pass or buy them per ride. If you’ll be riding more than 3 rides it’s best to buy a daily pass (on metro before hand, on buses you can buy it in the end at the driver). Daily pass costs around 5 $.

Cheap domestic flights

Even international flights actually. We decided to go backpacking Japan only because of the cheap ticket with Jetstar for 150 $ from Bangkok. Domestic flight from Oita (Kyushu island) to Osaka cost us 50 $, while a bus would be 110 $ and a train 170 $. Cheapset flight are with JetStar, AirAsia and Peach Airlines.

Oh, we had one slight problem with our flight – it was cancelled because of bad weather so we flew the next day, and people didn’t speak English. Fun time at the airport 🙂

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Rent-a-car

Our wish for next visit to Japan is to have a rent-a-car and a tent. Nature is so beautiful and sometimes there is no accmmodation nearby so you can really be free, having a car.

5-seater with AC costs 40 $ (you can pick it up at one airport and return it on the next). 1 l of gas costs a bit more than a 1 $, road tolls are more expensive, though (from what we saw around 8 $ per hour on the highway).

There is some free parking but most time you need to pay. Some hostels and hotels have free parking space but it’s best to check in advance.


All in all, expenses for transportation in Japan are not so expensive as everyone thinks. If you have time and will, you can significantly lower your costs, so don’t be afraid to visit this beautiful country.

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