Japan is cheaper than you think. Way cheaper. In fact, Japan is arguably the least expensive country in the developed world, rivaled only by Portugal and South Korea. And now that the yen is at a three-decade low against the US dollar, it feels particularly cheap for those coming from the USA.
Why Do People Think Japan Is Expensive?
The image of Japan as an expensive country dates back to the days of the Bubble Economy of the late 80s. It’s usually illustrated by urban legends about a guy who walked into a hostess bar in Tokyo and wound up paying $500 for a beer. Like all urban legends, there may be a small kernel of truth (sure, you could spend that much at a hostess bar if they’d actually let you in the door), but most of it is hyperbole and cherry picking of the facts. Unfortunately, the Japanese tourism authorities have done a remarkably poor job of correcting this image, perhaps for fear of painting Japan as a budget travel destination and attracting the wrong type of travelers.
Average Hotel Rates
October 2023, average rates for a standard double room in USD:
Rates for standard double room – Source: trivago Hotel Price Index
What’s Going on in Japan?
I regularly have this experience: I fly to Japan from Vancouver International (YVR) in British Columbia, Canada. I usually spend the night at a hotel near the airport before I fly. That usually runs me around CA$300, which is about US$218, and I have to take a shuttle bus to the airport in the morning. Then, on the day of my flight, I grab lunch at an airport restaurant, which usually runs me about CA$35 (US$25), including the tip. And I have to emphasize that both the meal and the hotel are totally ho-hum.
When I arrive in Tokyo, I usually spend the night at an airport hotel before taking the shinkansen to Kyoto. Last time, I stayed at the Villa Fontaine right inside the terminal at Haneda. It cost me US$172. And the hotel is brand new, just steps from the check-in counters, and it has a brilliant roof-top spa with views of Mt Fuji. And, while I’m at the airport, I usually grab a meal at the airport. Last time, I had incredible tonkatsu at Koganeiro no Buta and it cost me ¥2580 including tax (and there’s no tipping in Japan). That’s US$17. It simply makes no sense!
Cost of Meal for Two People
October 2023, average cost of a mid-range restaurant, three-course meal in USD:
Cost of three-course meal – source October 2023 Numbeo Cost of Living Index
The Weak Yen Makes Japan Even Cheaper
Then yen has not been this weak against the US dollar since 1990. That’s a third of a century ago! In Tokyo, you can now get a perfectly acceptable hotel room for US$150 and a good dinner for US$25. For those prices in New York you’d be looking at a night at the YMCA, and despite what the Village People claim, it’s not fun to stay at the YMCA. And you’d be eating at McDonald’s.
Cost of Living
October 2023, average cost of living in USD:
Cost of living – source October 2023 Numbeo Cost of Living Index
It’s Not Just Low Prices: It’s Value for Money
The most important point here is not just that Japan is cheap: It’s that in Japan you get incredible value for your money. While in the West, you have to pay luxury-level prices to get good service, in Japan, good service is absolutely standard, even at cheap hotels and restaurants. It’s part of the culture.
The Plane Ticket Is the Hard Part
For most Western travelers, Japan is starting to feel like Southeast Asia: once you arrive, everything feels inexpensive. Whether you’re coming from North America, Europe or Oceania, it’s the ticket that stings. But once you arrive in Japan, you’ll constantly be shaking your head and marvelling how much cheaper Japan is than back home and at other popular vacation destinations.
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth itfor you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world