Japan has a reputation as an expensive place. But that is old history. The Japanese Yen (JPY) dropped like a stone against other currencies a few years ago, and despite breathlessly enthusiastic articles in the business press about how the currency has appreciated, it is not more than a few tenths of a percent.
Even though the currency remains cheap for foreigners, the prices for people who receive their salaries in Japanese yen have remained constant - and even gone down, since Japan occasionally suffers from deflation, which is the opposite of inflation.
No Budget Effects
Like many countries, there are free things to do in Japan. And some of them are things you want to do as a visitor.
Some of the most attractive things to do in Japan is visiting the traditional places of worship. While Japan used to be a Buddhist country with a strong animist component, there are also some beautiful churches. Temple visits and visits to shrines are free, although if you want to get your fortune it normally costs 100 yen. Less than a can of coffee from a vending machine, and much more interesting.
The public gardens that dot the cities are also free to visit, although not all gardens are public parks. The lovingly reconstructed traditional gardens that dot Tokyo typically charge a small fee, 100-200 yen,
Eating & Drinking Out
Tokyo has (or at least had at one point) more Michelin stars than Paris, and there are places which will make your mouth feel in ways you had never anticipated, calling out flavours you could have sworn nobody had heard about until they put them in your mouth. They create an experience to back it up, but they are unfortunately also priced accordingly. Half a monthly salary for an ordinary office worker is not an uncommon price for their meals. And they do not allow children.
But those are probably not places where you want to take your kids, unless their tastes go far beyond fried potatoes and spaghetti with tomato sauce. If that is more to their taste, there are lots of places which will be happy to serve your children.
Budget Places For Childrens Meals
While the starred restaurants may not be welcoming to children, places in the price range just above the set meal restaurants which abound in Japan are perfect for children - and will welcome them as customers.
Those include not only the "Family restaurants", chains llike Gusto, Cocos, and Royal Host; but also lesser known chains like Cafe Shakeys and Tomato Jr. A meal in those places will put you back approximately 3000 to 4000 yen for a family of four, depending on what you order and whether you have a beer or wine witth your meal. But they are hardly apices of culinary distinction. A childrens meal will cost about 500 yen, and your child will get a cheap toy, but the food consists of fried potato, fried shrimp, and fried chicken, maybe with a couple of salad leaves and mini tomatoes, plus a broccoli floret or two.
If you go to a nice middle-range restaurant you will have to pay at least 10000 yen for a good meal, including drinks. This includes wine, beer, or Japanese sake.
a separate mention here about kaiten-zushi restaurants. While the dishes in the sushi restaurants in central Tokyo - both with a conveyor belt and without- are oriented towards adults, the chain stores in the suburbs are more child-friendly. Not only do they have cooked fish, they have different types of child-friendly foods, and desserts as well. All conveyed on the same conveyor belt. Many kaiten-zushi places also offer ordering to your table using tablet computers, and when they do, the order menu is normally available in English. The price is somewhere between the family restaurants and the upscale places, but it all depends on what you have. Check the color and pattern on the plates carefully, they tell you the price of the dish. Usually there is a large board somewhere in the restaurant with the prices and the different kinds of plate, making it easy to track that you are not overspending.
Set Meals At Home
I mentioned the set meal restaurants; most people in Japan do not cook very often at home, and when they do, it is only part of the meal. Especially the rice. The reason Japanese homes very rarely come without a rice cooker is that Japanese people deeply appreciate the taste of freshly cooked rice. The rest of the meal is regarded as a kind of garnish. Japanese housewives, who usually are the people in the family who cook, buy most of the rest in the grocery store - or from the set meal restaurants.
Buying a bento box or a couple of onigiri and a cup of instant miso soup in the convenience store is the modern Japanese office workers version of lunch and dinner, in particular during the working week. A bento box with rice, fish or fried meat, and a couple of vegetables cost approximately 500 yen, an instant miso soup cup about 150 yen, and an onigiri between 105 and 130 yen (but there are premium versions which can cost up to 300 yen, so always check the price).
Buying a meal in a set meal restaurant will put you back approximately 550 to 700 yen, depending on what you have. The typical price for lunch in a restaurant has otherwise crept up towards 1000 yen, one of the rare instances of inflation in Japan (neither the meals or restaurants have changed since the ptice was 850 yen). But in the set meal restaurants, where you order and pay in a ticket vending machine and then sit down at a desk or perhaps a small table, there is no space for a family to sit down, and you can forget bringing the stroller even if it has a sleeping child inside. On the plus side, the vending machines in the big chain stores have been modernized, with a video screen where you can see what you are ordering, and the option to select text in English (or Korean or Chinese). Sometimes the translation is a bit clunky, leaning on the dictionary style. But most of the time they get it right.
Buy a take-out meal in a set-meal restaurant like Sukiy, Matsuya, or Yoshinoya and take it home. It is by far the easiest way to get a hot meal at home with a minimum amount of effort.
Tokyo has some hotels which will make the most sybaritic traveler feel they have landed in luxury heaven. And then, on the other side of the scale, there are capsule hotels and private rooms in Internet cafes.
None of those are suitable for families with children. But the next step on the ladder, family rooms in hostels, are not a bad idea if you are on a budget. A family room in a hostel can cost as little as 10000 yen per night, and is much more comfortable than a room in a business hotel, which is really intended for single travelers.
A large room in a Western-standard hotel costs about 40000 to 70000 yen, or even more. Prices at the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, known from the wonderful film "lost in translation", start just below 70000 yen and go on to 140000 for a suite; for a family of four. AirBnB starts at 10000 for a small house, but prices in central Tokyo is more in the area of 30000 to 50000 yen per night.
One great way to stay in Japan is in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese guesthouse. If you are going to Kyoto, do it there, as the Kyoto ryokan are legendary for their hospitality. But if you have not planned to, stay in a ryokan in Tokyo, at least for a few nights. Yes, you have to sleep on the floor, but that is part of the experience.
Staying in a ryokan in Tokyo will cost between 30000
and 40000 yen per night for a family of four.
Travel Inside Japan
Taking a taxi in Tokyo costs 410 yen for the first 1050 meters, and then 200 yen per 1050 meters. But you also have a time component. Most people take taxis when they need to go between two train or subway stations, very few people take taxis longer distances. Considering that it costs approximately 30000 yen to go from central Tokyo to Narita airport, this is understandable. Trains are both more convenient and taster.
To go between two stations in Tokyo with the train or subway costs about 120 yen, which is the minimum fee. There are actually platform tickets on some stations, valid only for entry and exit to the same stations, but it is a rare trip that does not comprise more than three stations and change of trains. The typical price for a trip of about 40 minutes duration is 250 to 400 yen, depending on how many train lines are involved. Taking the bus costs about 120 to 300 yen, depending on how far you go. Children under six are free, and until 12 they pay half price - on trains as well as buses.
If you are only going to stay in Tokyo with a trip to Kyoto, the Japan Rail Pass is perhaps not economical - a normal shinkansen ticket for an adult is 13600 yen one-way, but a Japan Rail Pass for 14 days is about 45000 yen. But you do not have to make many side trips to make the Japan Rail Pass pay its way. If you plan to see Kyoto, Nikko, and Hakone as well as Kamakura, plus travel around a bit in Tokyo, the economics of the Japan Rail Pass changes and it becomes a good idea, at least if you plan to stay more than 10 days.
Japan is not a physically big country (the land area of Japan is about the same as that of California), but it is incedibly physically varied, and it stretches from the tropical islands of Okinawa to the arctic sea of Okhotsk north of Hokkaido. It is long and narrow, but most of the area is connected through bridges and tunnels, making train travel possible using the Shinkansen trains.
This does not mean there are no airlines, but it is simply not economical either from a time or money perspective to fly, unless you are going to (or from) Hokkaido or Okinawa - which anyway does not have any train connection to the Japanese mainland.
To fly from Narita to Naha in Okinawa with one of the new low-cost carrier (LCC) airlines costs on the order of 7000 Japanese yen per person for a one way trip - outside the holiday weeks (when the price more than triples).
Souvenirs And Gifts
When you travel in Japan, it is a strange place that does not have a local specialiality. Usually it is some kind of food, maybe prepared in a unique way. Or it may be the fruits of a plant which only grows at this particular location. Japan is actually one of the hotbeds of biodiversity in the world.
And if they can eat it, they will. And package it nicely so visitors can buy it and take home to their friends. Edible gifts is a billion-yen industry. Many of them will impress the people back home and make nice additions to your own kitchen. The prices are also reasonable, around 800 to 1200 yen, but be careful if you are allergic to rice, nuts, eggs, or beans. The filling in traditional Japanese sweets were almost exclusively made from beans.
But if you want to cook rather than eat, spend some time at the kitchen floor of a Japanese department store. Not only will you find gifts which will be perfect for friends and family serious about cooking, you will also find things you absolutely need in your own kitchen. The famous Japanese kitchen knives, made by actual traditional swordsmiths in the same way as the world-famous Japanese samurai swords. A Japanese kitchen knife - and be careful, there are machine-made copies - is a work of art and will put you back approximately 30000 yen and up.
If that is out of your spending range, there is an amazing alternative if you are looking for high-quality Japanese-made goods at reasonable prices. That is the 100-yen-store.
Japanese city centers are dotted with stores huge and small who have one thing in common: everything is the same price. And that price is 100 yen (actually 108 yen, because tax is not included). Ten years ago the stores were full of Chinese junk, but now they have upped their quality game, and Japanese manufacturers have learned to make cheap products, while maintaining their famously high quality. Many of those goods are traditional Japanese goids, but many other things are not so traditional things which people use in their everyday lives. Think schampoo hats, sushi making kits, and dog towels. A perfect place to find quirky souvenirs at reasonable prices. Especially if they are stamped with the Hello Kitty character.
The most expensive thing you are likely to do in Japan, when it comes to events, is going to an amusement park. Tokyo has several parks in the city center and many more in the fringes of the city. The largest amusement park in the Tokyo area is FujiQ Highlands, but that is in Yamanashi and it is a good two-hour bus ride outside Tokyo, making it a great day trip. If you like rollercoasters, it is a must. Entrance is 1500 yen at the door, but with the bus tickets it is 7800 yen.
A day pass for an adult at the Tokyo Dome is 8000 yen, for kids it is 4000 yen. Beware though that when it is crowded, they put in activities which are not included in the passes. You may wonder if you are in the right business when you see they charge 1000 yen for bouncing around in a balloon in a pool - per five minutes! And it is always full!
Unless you go to an amusement park, entry is much cheaper. Most parks, except those which are considered gardens, are free. The gardens charge between 150 and 300 yen, but they are free for children (and seniors over 65 pay half price).
Museums charge between 300 and 800 yen for grownups, children go free. The observatories and view floors normally charge 1200 to 1800 yen.
The parks are free, and so are many other sights. In particular temples (and shrines, and churches). Most Buddhist temples maintain a garden, sometimes specialized towards some kind of flower or plant. Just remember that they are places of worship, and do not let your kids run around and play (unless there is a playground attached). And do not go into the graveyard to take photos. The graveyards are not public places in Japan, with some exceptions like the Aoyama Cemetery.
Food, Drink, And Formula
As I have mentioned before, you are likely to have to visit two different places to find food and baby formula. The drugstores sell baby supplies, and they also sell diapers. Some supermarkets have drug store departments, but by no means all.
A package of diapers cost about 1200 yen, a can of formula between 2000 and 4000 yen (depending on if you buy it in a package or on sale; or separately).
A carton of milk costs about 120 to 150 yen, a carton of yoghurt about 300 yen. The prices of yoghurt can vary a lot. Corn flakes cost about 1000 yen, but the packages are a lot smaller than you are used to, as are the packages of muesli. As a matter of fact, all packages are smaller than you are likely used to. 10 eggs, not a dozen, cost 120 yen, a bag of sausages approximately 400 yen.
If you are allergic to chicken, be careful, most sausages contain chicken meat. The exception is the Schauessen sausages (before the German speakers in the audience laugh themselves to death, yes it is a real brand). Of course, those sausages are a bit more expensive.
Cheese and butter tend to be very expensive in Japan, a normal small Camembert costs 330 yen and up. Much more if it is made in Japan. Bread is either factory-made (in which case the price is 100 yen or less for a quarter-loaf, which comes in either four, five, or six slices); or handmade (well, bake-off) and made in the store. Then, the price can be up to five times higher. In Japan, bread can also come with baked-in sausages, baked-in hamburgers, sprinkled with cheese, with vegetables baked in, fried, boiled, and any number of variations you can think of, and many you have never thought about. The price is between 150 and 300 yen for a piece of bread.
If you find that surprising, you will be chocked when you come to the fruit and vegetables department. Japanese vegetables are grown by hand and cared better for than animals in many other countries. The taste is terriffic, the quality extremely high, and so are the prices. Look forward to paying 60 yen for a cucumber or 300 yen for a bag of five tomatoes, and wondering what the growers in your home country are doing with their vegetables.
Fruit is even more expensive, since it bruises more easily than vegetables. 150 to 200 yen for a single apple is nothing unusual. If you crave fruit, buy bananas, they are usually 100 yen for a bunch of four.
Getting The Sales Tax Back
Japan does not have VAT, but it does have sales tax. Currently, the Japanese sales tax is 8 percent, but if the Abe government gets its way, the sales tax in Japan will be raised to 11%. The raise was actually scheduled and has been postponed due to the bad economy.
You need to be a bit careful, because prices sometimes include the sales tax, sometimes not. You have to look at the price tag, if it says "+税金" then the tax is not included in the price. If the price tag says nothing it is included. Or maybe not. Formally, you do not have to include tax.
The best thing about the sales tax, at least for tourists, is that you can get it back. Not in every store. You need to go to a store which has a global tax back sign in the window, and you will only get the tax back for things you can show to the customs agent as you leave the country.
Be a bit careful about where you are going to shop, if you are going to ask for getting the tax back.
Budget For Emergencies
When you are traveling, remember that you need a margin, both in case you want to do something extra and in case something happens. Typically 10% of the budget for a day will be enough. But also put away a special fund for souvenirs, and another for emergencies.
Visiting a doctor costs about 50000 yen, and even if you get it back from your travel insurance, you will need to pay in full at the clinic. Medicine will be approximately 15 to 20000 more. Most clinics take credit cards, but many one-doctor clinics will not. Nor will smaller pharmacies.
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I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.