Is Japan Too Expensive? Debunking the Myths of Travel Costs in Japan

Today I was researching travel costs to Japan for a client and found that the Japanese Yen is now trading at approximately JPY 80 to the US Dollar. I remember in April 1995 when the Yen hit its all-time high against the Dollar at 80.43…OUCH. I started to wonder where the currency might be in the coming weeks and months as more and more travelers visit Japan during the peak cherry blossom season. When you do the simple math, it hurts. Japan can be very expensive, but like many aspects of this great nation, what is not said is often the most important.

One theme that continues to be on the minds of people today is the cost of travel. Given the current economic malaise in the USA and around the globe, many individuals have been forced to postpone or even cancel travel due to financial hardship or uncertainty. Travel is one of the first things to be eliminated when one has to make spending cuts due to new budgetary realities, but it is also one of the first areas on the rebound when individuals feel that it is time to take a long overdue vacation.

Over the past month I have received hundreds of requests indicating that they want to travel to Japan, but that it is just too expensive. This is one of the biggest hurdles when promoting travel to Japan. There is this mindset that Japan is just too expensive and when you add the language and cultural differences it all just seems too much and you sense that when you return from Japan, you will need to take another trip just to get over it. Well that simply is just not the case and in more cases than not, at the end of many journeys to Japan travelers are anxious to return again in the future.

So with that in mind I have dedicated this article to debunking the myths and explaining how to find affordable Japan today. I will identify what I consider to be the most helpful tools when planning a journey to Japan. You will find valuable websites to get the best value in air, accommodations, transportation and cuisine which are the building blocks to any successful trip to Japan.

Air travel is the most common way to get to Japan, but each year more cruise lines are offering Japanese cities as ports of call in their regional and/or global itineraries. The biggest story in air travel to Japan is the recent (Oct 2010) opening of the new International Terminal at Haneda International Airport for flights from around the world. Four slots from the USA were awarded to American Airlines (JFK), Delta Air Lines (LAX & DTW) and Hawaiian Airlines (HNL). Haneda is located in downtown Tokyo and just a short 30 minute ride to the center of the city.

I tell all of my clients that redeeming mileage for international travel, especially for upgrades to business or first class, is one of the best ways to maximize the value of your hard earned miles. Keep in mind that with fewer flight departures today, it is even more difficult to secure award space as the airlines continue to try to increase their revenues. You must plan ahead in order to fly on your preferred travel dates, but do not lose faith if you cannot get a free ticket or confirm an upgrade. Recently United Airlines launched their Premium Seating program which enables you to confirm an upgrade on international travel at the time of ticketing even when an upgrade award is not available. If seats are available in the upgraded cabin, the airline will make them available for a premium fee instead of mileage. For example I recently found a flight to Japan and when I was advised that an upgrade was not available from San Francisco to Tokyo using mileage, I was able to secure a confirmed Premium Seating upgrade for an additional $775 USD one way.

If two people are traveling together on the same qualifying international itinerary, the American Express International Airline Program is still one of the best values in travel today. One person pays full fare and the second pays for taxes only. If your budget permits and you need to travel in business class, this is definitely worth the card’s annual fee. If you are traveling solo or not an American Express card holder, you can still find incredible values in air travel directly from the airlines or your travel agent if you plan and book well in advance (50+ days) and secure what are known as “Z” fares. These confirmed business class seats offer considerable savings over full fare business. Please check with your preferred airline as they are subject to availability and may be identified by another fare code depending on the airline. Please note that these fares do carry restrictions and are not fully refundable like regular business class fares and have hefty change fees in the range of $400.

If you are just looking for the best fares to Japan, I always recommend the online booking site KAYAK.COM. Here you will see fares from all major carriers in real time.

Once you arrive in Japan you will find that all transportation runs like clockwork. If you are arriving at Tokyo Narita or Haneda the Airport Limousine Bus is the most convenient and economical door-to-door transfer option. If you are traveling to Asakusa or Ueno from Narita, you might want to consider the new Airport Super Shuttle at an incredible one way fare of only JPY 1,000 ($13 USD).

If you are arriving at Kansai International Airport and traveling to Kyoto you might want to consider the Yasaka Kansai Airport Shuttle which offers door-to-door airport transfer service for JPY 3,500 ($44 USD). The other service available in the Kansai region is the MK Skygateshuttle with similar fares and services.

The best value in travel in Japan continues to be the Japan Rail Pass. This pass must be purchased outside of Japan before you arrive and you can select from Regular or Green “First” Class and durations of 7, 14 or 21 days.

Japan prides itself on its extraordinary hospitality and you will find this service excellence across all levels of accommodations from 5-star deluxe hotels and inns to small family owned and operated minshuku or pensions. If you are looking for rock bottom prices from a wide range of hotels, I recommend RAKUTEN.COM. The website is available in English and very simple and user friendly. I recently found and stayed at hotels in Tokyo for just $50 USD per night…yes it is possible! If you do not find your preferred hotel at RAKUTEN.COM and want something more upscale, I highly recommend IKYU.COM. Here you will find most of the major hotels in Japan at discounted prices.

Another wonderful resource for maximizing your hard earned travel dollars is JAPANiCAN.COM. This online travel site is powered by JTB which is Japan’s largest travel company. Here you can search, plan and bundle travel components to meet your specific needs. Recently I was able to book the Shinkansen Bullet Train from Tokyo to Kyoto along with hotel accommodations and saved 52% off the regular published tariff.

Something different…and with incredible value…
If you are yearning for alternative, unique accommodations like a loft, home or simple guest room, one of my favorite new travel sites is AIRBNB.COM. This wonderful travel site from creative minds in San Francisco is not exclusive to travel to Japan, but rather provides alternative accommodations around the globe. When you visit the site you will find amazing places of discovery, so be sure to set some time aside to really enjoy their offerings.

When traveling to the ancient capital of Kyoto, I always encourage my clients to try traditional accommodations like a ryokan or Japanese inn which are so unique to Japan. They offer an intimate glimpse of Japan’s great tradition of hospitality, but often at a significant cost. Another option is to stay in one of Kyoto’s beautiful traditional machiya or townhouse. IORI KYOTO MACHIYA STAY is an excellent source for a wide variety of traditional residence-style accommodations located around the ancient capital. Kyoto is also home to one of the most extraordinary designer capsule hotels – 9HOURS. I recently spent several nights at this amazing showplace of great design where your room rate is based on the total number of hours you stay. The concept is 1 hour to prepare for bed, 7 hours to sleep, and 1 hour to rise and shine = 9Hours. When I arrived at the sliding glass doors at the establishment in Teramachi, I felt as though I was about to walk into their homepage – check it out!

If you want to experience the most unique loft living in the world, you might want to consider the REVERSIBLE DESTINY LOFTS in Tokyo designed by the international design team of Arakawa + Gins. Words do not even begin to adequately describe the residences, so I will just encourage you to check them out for yourself. They have dedicated two units for rental for visitors to Tokyo.


2011 Michelin Guide: Tokyo, Kamakura & Yokohama
Finding a good value in food in Japan can sometimes be a daunting task given the current exchange rate. I have advised my clients over the years that the best deals are the set lunches offered at hotels, restaurants and cafes throughout Japan. So have your big meal in the middle of the day and eat light for dinner – the healthier alternative that will stretch your yen. One major enhancement to the 2011 MICHELIN guide for Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kamakura is the new pictogram. It indicates a starred restaurant offering a menu under 5,000 yen ($60 USD) for lunch and/or dinner. Diners can enjoy gourmet meals for as little as 5,000 yen maximum per person. “Value for money” is one of five criteria to select star restaurants, and the new pictogram serves readers to find local eateries at affordable prices. There are 95 restaurants (81 in Tokyo, 7 in Yokohama and 7 in Kamakura) with a pictogram in the guide. This is more than a third of the restaurant selection.