Japan Costs: $150 a Day

Japan isn’t the best place for budget backpackers like us, but it’s such a great country we ended up spending six weeks there anyways. Cities like Kyoto and Tokyo can be prohibitively expensive, and at the one-month mark our daily average was up over $170! Strangely enough, spending a couple of weeks on a tropical island in Okinawa brought our daily average down and by the end we squeezed into our planned budget of $150.

Just want the numbers? Skip to the bottom.

[ptcPhoto filename=”IshigakiBeach.jpg” title=”IshigakiBeach” caption=”Sunset Beach in Ishigaki was all but deserted – and free to visit.” position=”center”]

Given the steep price to travel in Japan, we had to find some ways to cut back. As always, we would have done better budget-wise had we focused on cutting food and lodging costs. But who wants to eat instant noodles when there’s delicious sushi everywhere? Actually the conveyor-belt sushi restaurants are usually a great deal, with plates (two pieces of nigiri) starting at around ¥150 ($1.50) each. Malls and department stores will generally have a handful of really good, reasonably priced restaurants tucked away on the basement floors, and ramen shops like Ippudo aren’t a bad deal either.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ConveyorBelt.jpg” title=”Conveyor” caption=”A conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Kyoto” position=”center”]

Also make sure you check out local grocers. They’ll have a large selection of tasty prepared foods, and prices are marked down in the evenings around 7:00 (sometimes you’ll find items up to 75% off!). Everything is prepared fresh daily, so there’s no need to worry about spoiled meals if you eat them within a day or two. Most hotels will have a fridge you can use, either in the room or in a common area. Worst-case scenario, do try their instant noodles – they’re surprisingly good. We also got into the habit of buying frozen packs of edamame (soybeans) and letting them defrost in the fridge or our backpack for a few hours. They make for an affordable, healthy snack.

[ptcPhoto filename=”NaraEel.jpg” title=”Eel meal” caption=”One of our splurge meals – an eel restaurant in Nara” position=”center”]

Lodging is another thing that’s pricey in Japan. On average we spent more than $60 a night, so in retrospect it would have been a good place for couch surfing. We’ve heard that people sleep overnight in internet cafes but didn’t try it ourselves. Also, some deals can be had on capsule hotels but many of them are for men only (and none of them are quite big enough for Eric’s 6’4″ body). Like in Korea, they also have Love Motels but we didn’t get a chance to stay in one.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Tatami.jpg” title=”Tatami” caption=”Traditional tatami rooms are sometimes more affordable.” position=”center”]

To save on transportation, stay far far away from taxi cabs. The flag will drop at $6 and climb with alarming speed. Countless articles will tell you that the JR (Japan Rail) pass is a good deal, but there’s no way it would have been a bargain for us. I won’t go into too much detail, but the cheapest rail pass (good for only seven days) is ¥37,800 ($378), and we only spent $354 each over the course of six weeks. You’d have to be moving VERY quickly and take the Shinkansen (bullet trains) everywhere to get your money’s worth out of a rail pass.

If you do want to take the Shinkansen without a rail pass, look into what is called the Puratto Kodama, a discounted ticket that can be purchased at some major train stations. We bought a ticket a few days ahead of time and paid $98 each to travel on a (slightly slower) bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo – a savings of almost $40 each. Our transportation figures don’t include getting to Okinawa since we left Japan for a couple of months and then used miles to go back – flights from the mainland would have increased our in-country transportation costs considerably.

[ptcPhoto filename=”BulletTrain.jpg” title=”Bullet train” caption=”Shinkansen trains go up to 320 kilometers (almost 200 miles) per hour.” position=”center”]

It’s not hard to find free entertainment in Japan. During our time in Okinawa we borrowed snorkels from the guesthouse and hung out on the pristine beaches, which didn’t cost a thing. The cities are full of good deals too, though. For example, if you want to go to the Osaka Aquarium (highly recommended), grab a Kaiyu Pass for $26 a person. It covers entry to the aquarium and unlimited metro rides for the whole day. Tokyo in particular is packed with fun neighborhoods where you can just walk around snapping photos.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shinjuku.jpg” title=”Shinjuku” caption=”In Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood” position=”center”]

Some attractions in Kyoto will cost more during autumn when the leaves change. I imagine it’s worth the extra cost to get up close to the Japanese maples in the traditional gardens – the rainbow of fall colors would make for some fantastic photos. Shrines are usually free, although some temples will charge a small fee to enter.

One great thing about Japan is that there’s always something to see even if you’re just wandering around.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Chest.jpg” title=”Chesty” caption=”Some things are entertaining because they’re confusing.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Escarator.jpg” title=”In Kyoto Station” caption=”This too – do you see it?” position=”center”]

The daily average cost for our visit was $149.71 (or $74.86 per person per day), so we came in just under our goal of $150 a day.

Here is a breakdown of all our costs during our stay. This table does not include costs to enter the country, which include a $200 ferry from South Korea the first time around, and a couple months later, a $40 flight from Taipei, Taiwan (we used miles for this flight and only paid taxes).

Type of Expense Total Cost
(for 41 days)
Daily Average Notes
Lodging $2,520.86 $61.48 Our lodging choices ranged in price from $33 in Ishigaki to $86 in Kyoto.
Food $1,964.63 $47.92 We could have prepared more meals at the hotels, but Japanese food is way better than our cooking.
Transportation (within country) $708.70 $17.29 You can save a lot if you take slower trains and buses – traveling between cities can be pricey.
Entertainment $237.80 $5.80 Includes the Peace Park and Memorials in Hiroshima, the Osaka Aquarium, Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Sangusagendo Hall and the Silver and Golden Pavilions in Kyoto, karaoke in Tokyo, and bicycle rental on Taketomi Island.
Alcohol $537.25 $13.10 Large cans of beer are about $2 in convenience stores.
Incidentals $168.95 $4.12 Includes the costs for items like sunblock, internet, clothes and donations.
Grand Total* $6,138.19 $149.71 *Total reflects expenses for two people. It does not reflect costs to enter the country (i.e., visas or airfare).

Some Examples:

Average cost of a sit-down dinner for two – ¥2500 ($25)
Entry ticket for a traditional garden – ¥600 ($6)
Metro fare in Tokyo – ¥160-300 ($1.60-$3.00)
A good cup of matcha green tea – ¥500 ($5)

Snapshot Sunday: Ishigaki from the Air

[ptcPhoto filename=”Ishigaki640.jpg” title=”Ishigaki Island” caption=”View of Ishigaki from the plane – Ishigaki, Okinawa – Japan” position=”center”]

Late typhoons in Okinawa prevented us from scuba diving during our two weeks in Ishigaki. But as we left we saw some beautiful views of the reefs that surround the island. We’ll have to save the manta rays for next time!

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

A Love Letter to Osaka’s Takoyaki

Dear Takoyaki,

I was reminiscing today about our time in Osaka and thinking more about the concept of kuidaore (eating oneself into ruin) – something so many people experience in this culinary city. I was going to write an article about all the reasons we enjoyed Osaka: The massive aquarium with whale sharks,

[ptcPhoto filename=”whaleShark.jpg” title=”Whale shark” caption=”These things are huge” position=”center”]

manta rays,

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaManta.jpg” title=”Osaka Manta” caption=”As are these” position=”center”]

and octopus.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaOctopus.jpg” title=”Osaka Octopus” caption=”She was saying hello” position=”center”]

The fabulous neighborhood around Dotonbori Street

[ptcPhoto filename=”Dotonbori.jpg” title=”Dotonbori” caption=” Dotonbori Canal and the Glico Man” position=”center”]

with its giant animatronic crabs.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaCrab.jpg” title=”Osaka Crab” caption=”Kani Doraku crab restaurant” position=”center”]

The grand temples with five-story pagodas,

[ptcPhoto filename=”Shitennoji.jpg” title=”Shitennoji Temple” caption=”Shitennoji, the oldest temple in Japan” position=”center”]

and that ramen shop that was so satisfying on a rainy evening.

[ptcPhoto filename=”OsakaRamen.jpg” title=”Osaka Ramen” caption=”You’ll know the Kinryu Ramen shop by the huge dragon out front.” position=”center”]

I was going to write about the various other “Yakis of Osaka” like yakitori skewers and yakisoba.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Yakisoba.jpg” title=”Yakisoba” caption=”Yakisoba in Dotonbori” position=”center”]

Even okonomiyaki, a savory “as you like it” pancake – delicious with bacon, squid, and green onions – is second only to you, Takoyaki.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Okonomiyaki.jpg” title=”Okonomiyaki” caption=”A decadent okonomiyaki pancake” position=”center”]

Why do I love you so? Let me count the ways.

You don’t play hard to get – I can always find you when I’m looking for you. All I have to do is find a giant octopus perched over a shopfront, and there you are.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShopFront.jpg” title=”Shop Front” caption=”The mark of a takoyaki place” position=”center”]

It takes mad skills to make you so good, from the pouring of the batter, to the adding of the diced octopus, ginger and onion, to the precisely timed somersault that ensures you’re evenly browned all around.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TakoMaker.jpg” title=”Making Takoyaki” caption=”Getting ready for the first turn” position=”center”]

Do you remember the time I watched you being made? I took a little video to mark the occasion:

And it only costs a few dollars to be with you – it’s not like the aforementioned animatronic crab restaurant where we spent $60 for an appetizer.

After you’re plucked out of your sizzling hot grill dimple, placed into a paper tray nestled alongside seven of your friends, slathered with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, and dried fish flakes, you’re just perfect.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Takoyaki.jpg” title=”Takoyaki” caption=”The finished product” position=”center”]

I try to eat you but your molten-hot magma burns my entire mouth. It reminds me that love hurts sometimes, but it’s always worth it in the end.

If I’m going to eat myself into ruin, I want you to be a part of it.

Hope to see you again soon.

&#x2661

Sam

Snapshot Sunday: Star Sand in Okinawa

[ptcPhoto filename=”StarSand640.jpg” title=”Star sand” caption=”Star sand on Taketomi’s Kaiji Beach – Okinawa, Japan” position=”center”]

We spent most of one afternoon searching for this “star sand” on a beach in Taketomi, Okinawa. Each piece consists of the exoskeleton of marine protozoa that once lived on the ocean floor, and measures barely a millimeter across. Sand stars are some of the oldest fossils known to humankind – there is evidence of them dating back 550 million years.

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

Looking Back: India

Although we’ve been sharing a lot of our experiences from the road, there are so many details about the places we’re visiting that aren’t captured in articles specific to places or activities. We decided to start a new project, “Looking Back“, which will be a series of articles that address some of the random things we’ve learned about each place, including our overall impressions and favorite moments. Hopefully this will fill in some gaps for our readers and help us remember the unique aspects of each country before they start running together in our memory. World travel has a way of making the last city a blur, let alone things that happened months ago!

We’ve written a lot about India but at times it’s difficult to be completely honest about our experiences without sounding overly negative. India truly has a lot to offer the traveler who is willing to venture far outside his or her comfort zone. But before considering a trip to India the following should be kept in mind. (Note: Yes, there is some ranting below and yes, I realize no destination is perfect.)

India at a Glance

  • Gross National Income (GNI) Per Capita: $1,530 – Lower middle income
  • Our Daily Budget (for two people): $42.23
  • Size: 1,222,559 square miles (about one-third the size of the USA)
  • Population: 1.21 billion people (about 3 times the population of the USA)
  • Population Density: 954 people per square mile
  • Government Type: Constitutional Republic
  • Ranking on the Global Gender Gap Report: #105 of 135 countries surveyed, scoring very low in Political Empowerment and Economic Participation and Opportunity
  • What Did We Learn?

    Lodging

    There are many levels of hotels in India, but if you’re a budget traveler you can expect conditions a bit below what you may consider reasonable at home. Hot showers are luxuries that most budget hotels do not provide. Luckily, much of the year India is HOT and it’s hardly necessary to have a hot shower. In super-budget places the plumbing is often laughably bad with toilets that are barely operational and sinks that drain directly onto the floor. Electricity is available most of the time, although considering the quality of some electrical work we saw, a surge protector is probably a good investment. Cleanliness is variable but we rarely had issues with bugs and most linens and pillows fell under the “clean enough” category. If a place was questionable we just used our sleep sheets.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”KannurView.jpg” title=”Arabian Sea” caption=”For a few dollars more” position=”center”]

    As Sam discussed in our budget article, lodging in India can be extremely affordable if you don’t mind the issues mentioned above. Prices and quality do go up rather quickly if you want a more comfortable level of accommodation.

    People

    As travelers, most of the locals you deal with on a regular basis are hotel owners, shopkeepers, servers at restaurants, transportation workers, beggars, and scammers – many of whom have little interest in you outside of getting as much money as possible. Some of them have no issues with scamming you or charging you well above the going rate for their services, and they may bug you endlessly when you clearly have no intention of doing business with them. Needless to say, these relationships don’t last long.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IndiaChild.jpg” title=”India Child” caption=”I made a new friend.” position=”center”]

    Most other people you come in contact with on a typical day are Indian men. As a man myself I am usually ignored, but Sam gets quite a bit of unwanted stares – and occasionally more, as Sam wrote about in her post describing our Holi experience.

    If you want to meet genuine people who want nothing from you, try striking up a conversation while taking public transportation. Many Indians were interested in learning all about us and were open with sharing their stories and photographs. They’re not afraid to ask questions about your religion and relationships that Westerners might consider personal. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave us alone because they wanted to keep the conversation going, but in general we really enjoyed these interactions. It can be difficult to know at first whether people are being genuinely nice, but this is something you have to deal with in any developing country you visit.

    Safety

    Those overly concerned with safety will probably want to skip India. Leaving your hotel room can be terrifying. It’s hard to feel safe walking down the road when you have to balance between looking up at what’s coming and looking down at what you’re stepping in. We witnessed a number of accidents, most notably when I was hit by a rickshaw on a crosswalk while crossing the street. Traffic laws are almost completely ignored. You’re sure to see stray cats, dogs, cows, and even monkeys that will sometimes attack without warning. You’re probably not much safer in your hotel room as there are no fire alarms anywhere, nor emergency exits, nor, from what we could tell, building codes of any sort.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”DelhiElephant.jpg” title=”Delhi elephant” caption=”It’s all fun and games until someone gets trampled.” position=”center”]

    The good news is that we don’t think food safety is as big of an issue as people often say. Sure, there’s a good chance you’ll get sick, but most food poisoning passes rather quickly. Drinking only bottled water and going to restaurants that have a lot of customers will go a long way in helping you avoid the worst. And your stomach will toughen up if you stay long enough.

    Costs

    Prices are very low by western standards. In most cities we spent less than $10 a night for a hotel and maybe $20 a day for food, and it certainly can be done for less if you are on a tighter budget. With that said, prices for everything are about double what was listed in our 2007 Lonely Planet guide book and the price of major attractions is comparatively high for foreigners. Nevertheless, this really is one of the least expensive countries to travel.

    Do be aware that prices are not fixed for anything except food and trains. If you want a good deal on gifts, clothing, hotel rooms, taxis or really anything else, be prepared to bargain hard for it. When purchasing things the best strategy we learned was to never show interest in the item you intend to buy, but rather one right next to it. Find a reason you can “settle” on the item you want if they’ll take less money for it. Bargaining isn’t so much about making sure both sides are happy with the deal (which almost never happens), but rather making it appear that you didn’t get exactly what you wanted. In the end, try not to be one of those people that bargains down to the last twenty cents. It’s easy to get caught up in the process, but we always try to keep in mind that our very presence in their country means we’re probably better off.

    Sights

    Hopefully we’ve covered enough of the sights and activities in our articles that there’s no doubt you won’t be bored here. From temples to beaches, India has it all, but some of the best experiences come from just watching people go about their daily lives. India is extremely colorful and is full of interesting characters.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”India576.jpg” title=”Udaipur Ghat” caption=”Along the river in Udaipur” position=”center”]

    Food

    In general food is very good and varied in India. If you need meat with every meal, you may run into problems since it’s not always available. But India does have some of the most flavorful vegetarian food in the world. Despite its reputation, we didn’t find the food extremely spicy (full of spices, yes, but not all that hot), but I’m sure some will disagree. You do need to go to more local restaurants if you want good food though. Without fail, food served in hotels and more touristy towns ranged from bad to awful.

    [ptcPhoto filename=”IndianFood.jpg” title=”Kochi meal” caption=”Mmm, we miss Indian food” position=”center”]

    Noise

    Yes, I’m giving noise it’s own heading. Trust me when I say it is well deserved. India is an extremely noisy place. I’ve mentioned this before, but there is an epidemic of horn use there. The video below is of a relatively uncrowded street in Jaipur. The traffic flow is interesting to say the least, but make sure you watch with the sound on. The constant sound of horns blaring is commonplace, as practically every road in India is like this. At first it’s humorous how people honk at everything and at nothing at all. Eventually it does get to you. On more than one occasion I found myself yelling at the drivers who felt it necessary to honk continuously and without cause as they passed.

    It’s not just the traffic noise though, Indians themselves are generally just very noisy people. There doesn’t seem to be a concept of an indoor voice. People shout even if you’re standing two feet away. There’s no concept of entering a train quietly at three in the morning.

    One of the last places we visited in India was a hotel that was known for its quiet gardens. We visited hoping to get away from noise for a few days. The owner told us that Indians often complain when they stay there because it’s too quiet. I suppose if you lived your whole life with constant noise, dead silence might be unsettling.

    Our Best Memory

    One of our favorite memories from India is the morning we woke up early and saw the ghats in Varanasi. That experience really can change your views on how interconnected we all are, as well as what constitutes beauty.

    Would We Return? (aka, What Did We Miss?)

    We would certainly return to India after some recovery time. This time we’d focus our travels on far southern India and the northern area near Pakistan and the Himalayas (if safe). We’d also take some cooking classes to gain a better understanding of regional Indian cuisine.

    Should You Go?

    This is not an easy question to answer. India is huge and is quite different from one region to another. The urban areas are usually dirty (on the verge of disgusting), loud (on the verge of mind-splitting), and overwhelming (on the verge…or rather…completely tear-inducing). But it has such beauty and charm it’s very hard to write it off completely. India is not a place for all travelers, but if you are strong enough, traveling there can be a very rewarding experience.