Thanks for posting. The article has some good advice, but I disagree that "the secret" to traveling cheaply in Japan is a self-guided prebooked tour.
I went to Japan a little over a year ago and was actually surprised at how affordable it was.
My advice for traveling Japan on the cheap:
- Get a JR pass before leaving your home country. These 7- and 14-day passes allow unlimited travel on most any Japan Rail train (including the bullet trains). You *cannot* buy these in Japan, and they offer enormous savings over buying tickets individually. A 7-day pass, for instance, costs a little over $300 Canadian, and you can easily fit in all your distance travel and even some local travel (Tokyo's JR trains for instance) for this price.
- Learn to love noodles. I agree with the writer of the article - noodle bars are the best place to have hearty, tasty meals on the cheap. I paid an average of $3 for lunches in Japan. Hard to argue with that.
- Rotating sushi as the article points out, is an excellent way to enjoy sushi without spending a fortune. The sushi is no-frills but it's fresh and delicious.
- Get out your walking shoes, as most cities and towns in Japan have their major sites fully accessible on foot. Obviously if you want to see all of Tokyo, you'll need to take some sort of public transit at some point (the JR pass comes in handy, here), but Japan is very well set up for pedestrians. Or...
- Rent a bicycle, since cyclists seem to outnumber motorists in Japan, at least judging by my (totally unscientific) powers of observation. For such a mountainous country, Japan is amazingly bicycle-friendly, and you'll blend right in with the locals if you cycle in a business suit.
- Get a no-fee bank account... temporarily. Japan's a cash society and frequent bank transactions can be pricey unless you do this. My bank (TD) allows me to switch over to an unlimited-type account that charges no fees for international ATM withdrawals. As long as I have a higher-than-average minimum balance in my account, making the switch for a month and then switching back to my regular account costs me nothing.
- By the way, not all ATMs accept international bank cards. But, contrary to what the article says, you don't need to go to a post office to withdraw cash. 7-11s: Learn 'em, love 'em.
- Speaking of 7-11s, you can get just about any kind of food there - full breakfasts, and fairly decent lunches and dinners, too - all for far less yen than you might expect.
- Shrines and temples are nearly all free for visitors, and are great ways to learn about the culture and see the sights of the country. Many of them are located in large parks and green areas, and you can spend hours or even days just wandering around seeing everything without spending a cent.
- Hostel dorm beds tend to be priced similarly to those in most developed nations, e.g. Australia, Europe. To save money, choose accommodations based on location, so you can walk to most of the major sites rather than taking local transport.
Given all of the above, I have to say that I found Japan surprisingly reasonable for a budget traveler's pocketbook. I spent 2 weeks in Japan and then a few months later I spent 2 weeks in South America. Guess which trip cost more? If you guessed Japan, you'd be wrong.