Is Japan expensive? My 2023 travel spending

Why I think Japan is relatively cheap, coming from Los Angeles.

written by oz chen

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japan travel photos - Kiyomizu-dera castle

At a dinner party years ago, I asked “What is one travel destination you’d gladly revisit over and over again?”

I wanted to know people’s favorites, not just where they’d like to go next.

From a rather diverse group, half of the participants said Japan. That always stuck out to me, and Japan has been at the top of my travel bucket list for years.

Having spent the last 2 weeks in the land of the rising sun, I can tell you: totally worth it.

Here I’ll cover different sections w/jump links:

My Japan Travel Spending

I didn’t go into this trip with a set budget, so I’m pleasantly surprised that my total spending came out to about $2600, which breaks down to $200/day for a 13 day trip.

I traveled with my college roommate, so we effectively split expenses 50/50 for the whole trip.

Some Japan trip cost highlights:

  • Airfare: $638.98 for roundtrip airfare direct from LAX to Haneda airport. $314.80 of this cost was covered by 21000 Chase points, which I had just enough of at the time of booking. Clutch!
  • Hotels: $1179.04. This was a range of AirBnBs, hotels, and 1 amazing ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) experience.
  • Transportation: $504.28. This included a domestic flight, a 7 day $216 Japan Rail Pass, and a rental car for a couple days.
  • Dining/Drinking: $409.38. I was most surprised at how little I spent on dining and drinking, considering that I felt like I was eating all the time.
Example of casual dining at Kura, a revolving sushi restaurant. 3460 yen comes out to $13.30/person.

How I feel about cost is relative.

The average nightly rate across ~5000 California hotels work out to $221.

From that POV it feels great to experience Japan for less than the nightly local rate.

Is it expensive to travel in Japan?

Japan turned out less expensive than I had expected.

Disclaimer: I write from the point of view of an someone living in Los Angeles, an already-expensive city where cocktail drinks regularly cost $20. So my perception is skewed as such.

Here are 3 economic factors that make Japan cheaper than expected, from the POV of an Angeleno:

  • Exchange rate: The dollar has been strong against the yen. When I went the exchange rate was about 130 yen to 1 USD. Many cheap snacks were under 200 yen ($1.50) and meals were usually under 2000 yen ($15).
  • No tip culture: If you come from a tipping culture like the U.S., you effectively spend 20% less dining out in Japan.
  • Cheap thrills: many of the attractions I visited ranged from free (Fushimi Inari Gates) to 500 yen ($3.84). I didn’t go to Disney Tokyo. In many cases, doing touristy things like trying new foods or buying souvenirs that cost more than the destination itself.

Lodging was the cost I’d consider relatively expensive, since typical Japan hotels have such limited space and rooms are quite small.

For the same reason, I enjoyed ryokans, the most expensive option which came down to $345 per person for 2 nights. That included large apartment-sized accommodations that included a private onsen and 4 incredible kaiseki meals.

Kaiseki, a multi-course traditional Japanese meal. My favorite dining experience in Japan.

Invisible that make Japan relatively INexpensive

Is Japan expensive? may be too blunt of a question, because I discovered that the value of the experience was usually higher than expected.

Two factors that make the relative value of visiting Japan much higher:

  1. Floor for service and quality is high
  2. High safety and cleanliness

Allow me to expand on those invisible factors.

Factor #1: The floor for service and quality is high

Hypothetical: everything else being the same, you can pick from 2 destinations.

  • Destination A has some great places but you really have to do your research.
  • Destination B has consistently decent options wherever you go.

I’d pay 20% more for Option B…considering that’s already the savings from not having to tip in Japan.

Because the floor for quality is high in Japan, it decreases the mental cost of decision making. Most places I went to was at least decent. I was amazed that just about everything I’ve ordered looked – and tasted – like the pictures in the menus. The level of consistency is off the charts.

The best ramen I ever had for less than $15. (Google Maps)

At a high end bar, fancy cocktails cost about 1500 yen (~$12). But the level of service, vibes and craftsmanship is easily worth 5 times that much to access in the states.

  • Example: at Kyoto speakeasy Bar Alchemist, they served us hot towels and complimentary soup (delicious despite my initial confusion), before giving us some amazing drinks.
  • For the same price in the States, the experience can be being barked at by a bartender who shoves you a hastily-made drink, and you’re still expected to tip. From this perspective, I think the Japanese will find the American bar scene expensive—and stressful.

Another way to summarize this is that I never felt like I got shortchanged in Japan; my experience was always the opposite, getting a higher level of quality and service than expected.

Most of this despite me dining at mostly low to mid tier restaurants. Except for coffee and cocktails, two things I don’t mind going bougie for.

Factor #2: Low mental cost + high safety

There’s 1 slice of society that should tell you everything about it: the state of its public bathrooms.

Japan’s overall safety + cleanliness lowers the mental cost of travel. So much so, that it more than made up for any language barriers or navigating public transit.

  • Public bathrooms are surprisingly clean. Even public trains have Toto bidets; everyone is encouraged to sit to use them.
  • I rarely worried about my luggage or theft
  • I consistently felt safe in public spaces; the most high alert I’ve ever been was other tourists.
  • It was relatively rare to see police, but in busy cities there are often public service workers and help staff.

For these reasons, I’d rank Japan as one of the best places for solo travelers.

My mom usually questions my travel decisions, asking Is Mexico safe? and would text me throughout my Eastern European travels.

When I told her I was going to Japan, she just texted “Enjoy your trip.”

For what it’s worth, Japan passes the Asian Mom test.

I’ve always heard that Japan was expensive, and maybe that’s why I waited so long to visit.

That was a big mistake.

The other factors I talk about here make Japan a great value as a travel destination.

(Even if the USD : JPY exchange rate gets weaker, you can still have a great time without breaking the bank.)

If you’re thinking about visiting Japan, now’s the time.

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