Japan Money Guide

Basic tips for the first time traveler of every budget

15 August, 2012 by

While we do write a variety of more in-depth location centric travel guides about Japan, many of the questions that come to us are often about more basic concerns. For people traveling to Japan to the first time, simple culture differences, like paying for things in Japan, that might seem second nature to those accustomed are very valid concerns.

As part of our recent initiative, I’ll be taking a step back to cover some of these issues. Paying for purchases oversees placed number 3 in the Top 10 Worries Before Traveling, so today we feature one of the biggest worries, finance.

Contrary to what most people think, things really aren’t that expensive in Japan. The false perception of fast paced, high strung lifestyles of Japanese people is typically only meant for the metropolitan cities like Tokyo. Things are not nearly as bad as what most make it out to be, and for what you do pay, Japan offers an extremely comfortable standard of living.

Don’t let your dreams of travel remain just that.

The misconception is likely the result of an outdated perception of Japan, from when travel shows were plentiful. Many of these shows date back to the 90s when Japan was recovering from their economic bubble. These days the Japanese government seems to think it wiser to invest their money in promoting anime, manga and pop idols oversees rather than an accurate depiction of the country.

Times have changed though and with the economy in constant deflation since the 90s, traveling to Japan gets more affordable each and every day. With locals being unwilling to spend their salaries, businesses are more than happy to accomodate holidaying foreigners who are far less frugal in comparison.

Japanese Yen

Many figures will cite Japanese Yen in the rest of this article. Estimating the cost in yen isn’t too difficult if you got it the right way round. Rather than divide the value of your local currency to yen, it’s easier to understand yen by their equivalent of a dollar, the basic denomination of 100 yen. Every 100 yen is roughly equivalent to $1.60 Singapore Dollars or $1.30 US Dollars.

Genuine “Japan Hour”-esque ryokan are pricey and the equivalent of a luxury resort stay.

How Much Does It Cost?

Flight costs to Japan will vary based on your country of origin and carrier of choice, but with more budget airlines popping up, the price to physically get to Japan isn’t too bad. For Singaporeans, ticket prices can drop as low as SGD$300 for budget airlines and SGD$500 for bigger carriers whenever there is a promotion for a return trip, inclusive of taxes.

A more regular estimate would be about SGD$600-$800, the estimated year round price for carriers like Delta Airlines or ANA, so as long as you book your flight early. For flights, it’s always best to buy your tickets directly from the airline companies’ websites.

I’ll likely go into accommodation in more detail in the future but here are some estimates. Generally, lodging is a lot cheaper than say, Singapore. Though those coming from Singapore will not feel it directly. 2 star business hotels start at about SGD$60 a room per night in the Tokyo area and can reach to around $100 for a 3 star hotel. Prices are slightly cheaper outside the capital.

Plan ahead and you won’t need to spend a night here.

The government imposes a levy for all hotels per head, so sharing hotel rooms aren’t always as economic as one would think, the options are also fewer. But you might be able to get couple or triple rooms for SGD$40-$50 per person. Again, all these prices are assuming that you book in advance. Despite having as many hotels as it does, it is really difficult to find rooms at business hotels at the last minute, especially during peak periods.

For backpackers, dormitories usually cost about SGD$30-35 for a single bed in a large dorm. Prices for individual dorm rooms aren’t too different in price from business hotels, unless you’re sharing with a few friends, in which case you can expect to pay about the usual dorm range.

Capsule hotels, aren’t recommend, except for their novelty, which they use to justify charging as much as (if not more than) dormitories. The desperate have turned to “net cafes”, which is the worst option for various reasons. If you don’t mind, you can actually rest at some Love Hotels for cheaper. These are probably safer and more sanitary than the former. Another alternative in desperate times is to rent a karaoke room and spend the night there.

Budget breakfast.

Cash, Plastic and Checks

The smallest note in Japan is 1,000 yen and anything else comes in coins. Use your coins as often as possible. It’s too easy to pay in bills to avoid fumbling through the coins (some of which look pretty similar) but they will start to build up really quickly.

Many, but not all stores absorb the consumption tax so you will be stuck with 95 yen worth of coins just for 100 yen purchases. Family run or standalone stores usually absorb the tax or round it off, but larger or franchise chains prefer odd prices.

Regardless, the practice in Japan is that all prices displayed are already final and inclusive of all taxes. There’s no uncertainty of being slapped on a hefty service and goods tax after. Though you might want to check the fine print when visiting seedier places.

Certain stores, such as supermarkets in particular provide a pool of 1 yen coins and you can take a few to use with a certain minimum purchase but the practice is not common elsewhere.

Major shops and convenient stores accept payment by transport smart cards.

An alternative is to charge up your Suica and use it for all smaller purchases to almost completely avoid the hassle of dealing with coins. Tipping is not practiced at all in Japan (it can be seen as demeaning) and some vending machines have a limit to how many coins you can put in, so apart from donating the coins to shrines or temples, getting rid of them isn’t exactly easy.

Personal checks aren’t used much in Japan at all and almost never accepted anywhere. This is because Japanese banks impose a heavy handling fee on checks. Travelers checks can be used, but only at a very limited number of places.

Thankfully, it is not necessary to carry around loads of cash since the majority of shops do accept credit cards. As long as the card is an international norm like Visa and MasterCard and applicable for overseas purchases (e.g. you can use it to shop online) you should be good. There is no surcharges from purchases made directly with credit cards at stores in Japan, apart from your usual bank rates, which are actually surprisingly good.

There are a great number of free attractions throughout Japan.

Avoid exchanging yen at money changers in Japan. Instead you can actually draw money directly from ATMs in Japan. While there was an issue with MasterCard, it has since been solved and many 7-Elevens in Japan have ATM machines that can accept debit and credit cards with the Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, Cirrus, Plus and American Express marks.

There are English menu options in the ATMS and from here, you will be able to withdraw your money as you do usually back home, but with a $5 surcharge per transaction imposed by your bank. Obviously you will want to withdraw more at once to counter this.

Citibank ATMs are also able to accept all of the above cards with the added bonus that there is no surcharge if it is a foreign Citibank card.

Pack your own lunch for maximum savings.

Saving in Japan

I’ve covered this in greater detail in the previous series of transport guides but some basic planning of your route and means of travel properly will result in some of the most significant savings when holidaying in Japan. I’ve heard numerous complains on how expensive the subway is for example from ill-prepared acquaintances.

Contrary to popular belief, getting a JR Rail Pass isn’t always the best choice either. But with a little bit of homework transport in Japan can be both convenient and economic.

The Ueno’s Ameyoko wholesale market is a popular tourist destination. But some things are indeed cheaper here.

A cheaper and occasionally more convenient alternative for when staying at smaller cities where transport is expensive is to rent a bike, such as when MJ and Wilson stayed in Kyoto. Some hotels offer such services for cheap (approximately 500 yen a day). Dedicated bicycle rental companies tend to be pricier but anything more and you’d be better off just taking the public transportation.

The other big money sink in Japan for those living there is in utilities. But unless you’re staying for an extended period of time and renting an apartment somewhere, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Resist the temptation to stop at every vending machine.

Japanese Drinks & Vending Machines are one of the most sinister things to one’s wallet. For tourists who spend the entire day trekking from one attraction to the next each vending machine is like a lighted beacon and gallery of “please buy me”.

While individually they don’t cost much, a harmless drink or two every few hours works out to quite a bit in the long run. Though the same can be said for Japanese Charms from shrines, at least that is money towards a good cause. For the truly thrifty, I’d recommend bottling some water before heading out each day.

There are second hand shops scattered around Tokyo for electronics, media and clothes where you can get a good bargain deal.

Note that the same rules apply to canned and bottled drinks as anywhere else, and that is if you definitely need your fix, you’ll find them cheaper at supermarkets than anywhere else.

One phenomenon is that vending drink prices are actually tuned to parts of the city. Drinks at isolated vending machines in less busy neighborhoods can go as low as 80 to 100 yen a pop while those at Shinjuku, Shibuya or other busy parts of town will sell that drinks at up to 150 yen. In these cases, it’s actually better to get them at a convenience store and one is never far away in these places.

Many food shops reduce their prices near closing time.

100 (or rather 105 yen) shops can be a godsend. Unlike some dollar shops found overseas, you can get a truly wide range goods here for cheap. Use them to stock up on basic amenities if your accommodation does not provide any. Convenient stores, while convenient, are pricier too.

Purchasing souvenir snacks as “omiyage” whilst in Japan are a given. But unless you’re never returning to a shop, or at a day trip elsewhere, it’s better to put off purchasing such items until near your return trip back. Omiyage snacks rarely keep for long. In the best cases, they can last for a week or two, others like those from Asakusa last a day max.

It’s always best to purchases the souvenir snacks before immigration. Duty free shops in the airport do carry a limited range of the most popular snacks like Tokyo Banana and Shiroi Koibito but prices are marked up considerably.

Oddly enough, the omiyage at touristy towns are often cheaper than the mass produced stuff.

Inevitably, this article represents just a small fraction of tips and information regarding money related travel matters in Japan. I’m sure our travel savvy readers will have more to add or even conflicting views on some of the points mentioned above. Do contribute by dropping us your own tips in the comments below.

Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.


Supermerlion's Webmaster and Editor-in-Chief. Singaporean Nikkeijin with over 12 years of experience in the media industry. Producer at a Japanese entertainment company. Former Web Developer, Graphic Designer, Multimedia Programmer, Manager and Consultant. Shoots with a Canon 5Dmk2 and Sony RX100-2.