Food and Drinks

Why visiting Japan isn’t as expensive as you might think

  • E Fujioka
  • 11TH SEPTEMBER, 2023 | Updated 11TH SEPTEMBER, 2023
Why visiting Japan isn’t as expensive as you might think
Picture for Why visiting Japan isn’t as expensive as you might think

Whenever I speak to friends about visiting Japan they usually come back with “I’d love to but isn’t it very expensive?”. Well, happy to say that is very much no longer the case, in fact Japan can be a very reasonably priced travel destination. When comparing with destinations such as the US, Singapore, and Scandinavia the cost of hotels, eating out and shopping is surprisingly cheap. A meal out can be had for under $7/£5 and a local train or metro ticket for under $3/£2 and a hotel room for $100/£75.

So where did this myth of Japan as expensive come from?

During the eighties economic bubble in Japan prices went through the roof. The post war years saw massive rapid economic growth. To illustrate, at its peak, Tokyo real estate was worth 350x that of Manhattan per sq foot, and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was valued at more than the whole of California. In the late eighties western economies were experiencing recession and high unemployment. In 1985 the UK, Japan, the US, Germany & France signed the Plaza Accord which aimed to devalue the dollar against the yen.

The bubble burst in 1989, seeing asset values tumble. Prices of everday goods have been pretty stable since – and in fact recent years have seen deflationary pressures. This means that the price of food, eating out and hotels are now very reasonable for anyone travelling from the UK, Europe or the States.

What can I expect to pay as a tourist for food?

Firstly – same as the locals! Generally food falls into 2 buckets – western-style and Japanese-style with many shades of fusion in-between. Going to Starbucks, or the local chains such as Doutour, you could expect to pay $2/£1.50 for a coffee, and similar again for a pastry. A breakfast set, such as an omelette, sausage and hot drink would likely be about $5/£3.50 and a Japanese-style set menu of rice, miso soup, grilled fish and some vegetables would likely be from $5/£3.50 in a local café or chain coffee shop. For $15 - £12.50 in a mid-priced hotel you can feast on a buffet option that would include western and Japanese menu items.

It's very common to go for a fixed price lunch menu – whether that be Japanese curry and rice, tempura with miso soup and vegetables or a hot bowl of noodles. The cheapest chain shops deliver for under $5/£3.50 but a reasonable medium price venue would not be more than $10/ £8. 

By the way, tips are never paid and drinks in the form of hot tea, or iced tea and water in the summer, are always included. If you are really counting the pennies fast food places such as McDonalds (or the Japanese home-grown Mosburger) abound and are cheaper than in Western countries. You could also venture into a convenience store and pick up a pack of sushi or chilled noodles or even sandwiches for a few hundred yen.

If you want a pit stop after hours of walking there are plenty of options from heading into a Karaoke place – you get to sit down, have a drink and sing along all-included in the price per hour with tambourines and maracas usually provided! (typically $8/£6), to a small Japanese tea room where you can have some traditional sweet rice cakes and green tea (or green tea ices in the summer) for a similar price.
Eating Kakigori Sm

Heading out to dinner the world is really your oyster (and kaki-fry – Japanese oysters deep fried in breadcrumbs are delicious). From Italian to French, Chinese to Californian and every budget available. Most restaurants display their menus outside, and at the lower-end of the market photos come on menus making it easy to point and order. You can eat really well in the majority of places for $20/£15 and then the skies the limit in terms of gourmet experiences in the big cities and hotels. People quite often go to an izakaya – where you order small dishes tapas-style to share, along with drafts of beer, sake or soft drinks. Expect to pay around $30/£25 a head for several drinks and sharing plates. Alcohol is generally cheaper, with the exception of wine.

Finally heading back to your hotel after a night out stop off for some late-night ramen – standing at a noodle shack and slurping a satisfying bowl will be a satisfying end to the day and costs around $5/£3.50.

How about the cost of hotels?

There are hotels to suit every budget and again Japan is very competitively priced. City centre, standard 3-4* hotels can be had for around $150/£100 per room per night all the way up to the most luxurious spas at many thousands of dollars and backpacker hostels at the other end. And no you will not need to stay in a little capsule hotel – largely these are for budget, male business travellers (some don’t welcome women) and not the most comfortable experience for tourists!

There are some amazing places to stay if you are pushing the boat out for a special occasion – a honeymoon or landmark birthday – here are some of our recommendations. And if you are thinking of travelling with kids, hotels will often be happy to add extra beds for little or no extra cost and outside Tokyo, are often generously sized. Have a scroll through our accommodation pages to read about the different types of places to stay.

What about travel?

Kids by the Train Sm

Trains, buses and taxis are all easily available, safe, clean and most likely cheaper than what you are used to. From the pristine limousine buses, where white-gloved drivers will whisk you from the airport to your hotel for around $20/£15 to metros and buses, it would be safe to say the transport system is world-class. Information in English now abounds, including multi-lingual automatic ticket machines in the subway, make navigating around cities a dream. You can either pay a single journey fare or buy various tourist passes for your stay.

For longer journeys it’s hard to beat the shinkansen (bullet train) and there are plenty of rail passes for foreign visitors that allow you to travel freely for a set period of time. Usually if you are taking more than a couple of long trips (say Tokyo to Kyoto return) then it is definitely worth paying up front but don’t worry if you haven’t had the chance, there are always “turn up on the day” fares with unreserved seats in carriages.

I hope this has encouraged you all to think of Japan as a competitively-priced destination. I’d love to hear your experiences or comments.

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