Tag Archives: Japan

Making Accommodations Affordable in Japan

At the beginning of this year, I had no concrete plans to travel except to DC for FinCon.

As I look back, I pause for a moment of gratitude. I was a little ping pong ball this year, bouncing all over the place. Getting work done and catching up with some of those people who have meant so much to me over the years.

In 2019, I visited:

  • New York City
  • Toronto
  • The Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
  • Bar Harbor, Maine
  • Boise, Idaho
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Dayton, Ohio
  • Japan

I promise I’ll cover all of these trips, as they were all made pretty frugally. But today I want to spend some time on the accommodation situation in Japan.

Affordable Accommodations in Japan

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you’re probably worried about the cost of accommodations–especially if you’re staying in one of the big cities.

While it’s true that Japan can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be. While I did stay with my friend for three nights (I was there for her wedding!) most of the time I was away I was able to score low-cost accommodations without even feeling like they were low-cost to begin with.

Tokyo Hotel

Sliding door with woman's lips on it, between her teeth insider her mouth it says "Play on Moxy Tokyo moxy"

I booked my flight through miles, and apparently getting from Pittsburgh to the Western side of Japan is darn near impossible via rewards. So both times I have gone, I ended up flying into Tokyo.

This time, I decided to take a little time in Tokyo before the wedding to catch up on sleep and adjust to all the shifts that come with traveling to the other side of the planet.

I managed to get out a little, too, between naps. Those adventures are currently being logged on Instagram, but I’ll write about them here, too, in the near future.

I had points built up through the Marriott Bonvoy program. The Moxy Tokyo Kinshicho was affordable, available and in a great location, so I booked. I had enough points that I was able to get half of my nights in Tokyo for free.

If you don’t do the rewards points thing through specific hotel chains, another method I use to get free nights is booking through Hotels.com. Your tenth night is free, regardless of the hotel chain you use. You can book the Moxy here. I’d also recommend this method because they have killer discount prices.

Moxy Tokyo Kinshicho

My stay here was great. The room I booked was small; while I had two twins, there was only about a foot between the end of the bed and the wall.

This is Tokyo, though, and the layout of the room was so smart that the size wasn’t even noticeable. There are collapsible tables, chairs, luggage racks and more hung along the wall in the entrance way. The shower room in the bathroom is a good size, allows for American- or Japanese-style showers, and even has a stool if you need to sit down.

The decor was adorable and trendy. This place markets itself as a party hotel, though I largely stayed during the week so everything was pretty quiet. I met a lot of other gaijin guests in town for different world events; there was no shortage of socialization opportunities. It just might be louder on the weekends.

The location is perfect, too. Walkable from the Kinshicho station–even with luggage in tow–you can easily get to everything in the Sumida City neighborhood. Probably the biggest attraction is the Skytree, which is the second tallest structure in the world. But that really is just the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re travelling using the JR Rail Pass, the proximity of the station makes it easy to get everywhere else, too. I used it as a jumping off point for Odaiba, Roppongi Hills, Nakano and Shibuya, but also spent time exploring the neighborhood itself.

Airbnb in Hiroshima & Kyoto

Airbnb is one of my favorite ways to travel on a budget. Not only is it often more affordable than a hotel, but you also usually get a better travel experience, too.

Affordable Private Apartment in Hiroshima

After the wedding, I headed to Hiroshima for one night. It is something I highly recommend everyone do if they have the opportunity to visit Japan. I’ll write about the transformational experience soon, but right now I’ll just cover accommodations.

While I was in Hiroshima, I booked a private apartment. It was the best experience. I had access to laundry so I could prep my clothes for the next leg of the trip. The bed was like sleeping on a cloud — a true rarity in the land of the rising sun. I had privacy and space and slipped into sleep easier than I have in years.

My host was amazing, too. He knew I was staying for just one night, and sent over this guide prior to my stay to help me maximize my time and money while I was in town. It was incredible.

The room itself cost about $70, which was cheaper than a cheap hotel. On top of that, I had enough Airbnb credits to get more than 50% off.

If you want to use the same method, you can sign up for Airbnb as a new member and get $55 in credit towards your first stay. Then, when you refer your friends you’ll get more credit when they complete their first stay.

Hostel Kyoto Gion

As a solo traveler, I have booked hostels in the past. I’ve found that the fears I had in the past are overblown, and that being a safe traveler in a hostel is easier than you’d think. In fact, it can be good to have other people there to notice your presence or absence when you’re in a big city by yourself.

When I went to Kyoto, I also booked on Airbnb. The last time I was in Kyoto I missed one of the key attractions: Gion. The older-feeling part of the city (so much relativity here) known for its geisha.

Much to my delight, I found the Hostel Kyoto Gion. It would have been under $100 to book for 3 nights had I not had had enough Airbnb credit to cover the stay 100% free.

I was a little nervous about it being a co-ed hostel, but I figured if there was anywhere to give it a shot, it was the ultra-safe Japan. I felt 100% safe the entire time. Most of the co-ed people staying there were couples in two separate beds, mixed in with one pair of male friends and a few other female solo travelers.

There were cameras. I never felt unsafe, but it’s always nice to have that little extra layer of assurance there — to know that there is accountability even in an ultra-safe environment. Each bed was spacious and had curtains and outlets and a light and earplugs so you could have complete privacy.

Perhaps the best part of this stay, though, was the hosts. My Japanese is not great, though I have studied it through my local library sporadically in preparation for my trips. While my hosts’ English was limited, it was way better than my Japanese and they were so adept at using interpretive technology that communication was not only never a problem, but so warm and sincere that at times you forgot you were in a hostel rather than doing a home stay.

I mean, on top of free coffee, printed travel guides and local tips from the hosts themselves, I was offered a meal in the spur of the moment one day. We talked about my kids and the host ended up buying them their favorite souvenir from Japan: Japanese candy. I know one of them ended up taking another guest to some type of festival when she asked about things to do.

Oh, and for the first time ever? I got the bottom bunk.

It was my best hostel experience yet, and it was 100% free thanks to those Airbnb credits. Here’s where you can get started with yours.

Affordable Narita Hotel

I did end up staying at a hotel in Narita my last night. It was near the airport and there was a free bus and because of a combination of the booking platform and points, it was crazy cheap.

But they tried to nickle and dime you for everything once you’re there. No free breakfast. No water bottles waiting for you in your room. Literally the only dirty carpets and hotel bathrooms I’ve ever seen in Japan. The shower room was in with the toilet without any separation between the two.

So I wouldn’t highly recommend this particular place.

But I would recommend finding a place near the airport for your last night if you’re flying out of Narita. It’s not close to Tokyo — depending on where you’re staying it can be an hour or two ride by train. By staying near the airport that last night, you have a way easier commute when your flight does take off. Plus, if you do a hotel, most of them have free shuttles.

Have you ever been to Japan? How did you manage the costs of accommodations?

How I Scored Two Free Flights to Japan

This post is in collaboration with PenFed Credit Union. All opinions are 100% honest and my own. PenFed is federally insured by NCUA.

I've looked into traveling to Japan, and these tickets would normally cost me about $2,500. She managed to get them for free. Mad frugal blogger respect.

I’ve been writing a lot about my recent trip to Japan lately. We’ve covered how I got my accommodations for fifteen days for a grand total of $387.50. We’ve talked about all of the breathtaking beauty the country has available for free.

But I don’t think I’ve told you guys yet about how I actually got to Japan. At least not in detail.

I flew myself and my sibling from my home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Tokyo for free. And not free as in, ‘I only paid fees!’ I mean free as in I didn’t have to pay for those, either.

How We Flew to Japan for Free

This was a long process that took place over many years. I was saving up miles for emergency situations, but also I had this trip in the back of my mind. The way I did it was I picked one specific airline, opened up credit cards which awarded me with miles for that airline, and then earned the bonuses. Whenever I travelled for business or took a trip just for fun, I made sure to use that same airline, and doubled my miles by using one of their branded cards to pay.

That resulted in a large stockpile of miles, which I then used to book a flight to Tokyo. I really wanted to fly first or business class because after our initial layover, it was a thirteen-hour flight. But when I went to book, they didn’t have any awards seats available in business class for the dates I wanted to travel.

It turned out okay. Because I was the one “paying,” my sibling took the middle seat on all the flights. I got a neck pillow which was the best $20 investment ever. And even in economy seating, the number of free movies and games to play on the seatback kept me entertained during the periods when I wasn’t trying to awkwardly position my laptop.

Would business class have been better?

Absolutely.

But economy wasn’t as big of a nightmare as I thought it would be, and now I still have a ton of miles leftover for whatever my next sojourn may be.

When I booked my flight, I used my miles, but I used a different credit card to pay the fees. This card allows me to use each point as a penny when I redeem against travel purchases. I earn two points for every dollar spent. I had enough points built up to completely cancel out the $100 in fees for the two tickets.

How You Can Get Started on Your Next Free Flight

When I first started my travel hacking journey, I chose to hone in on one airline. It worked out fine, but I did have a little trouble finding flight availability. I’ve actually thought about taking this trip prior to the cherry blossom season of 2018, but I guess it’s a popular route and my travel dates weren’t flexible enough.

If you want more flexibility with your travel dates and rewards redemption, you’re probably going to want to look at a credit card that accrues points which are redeemable against travel purchases—regardless of the airline. A great one that just recently came out is the PenFed Pathfinder Rewards American Express Card.

A lot of rewards cards will waive the annual fee for the first twelve months, but then you have to pay a fee every year after that just to keep the card open. With the cards I have, that fee has been anywhere between $79-$95, but it can be much higher.

The Pathfinder card doesn’t have an annual fee. At all. Even after the first year.

When you sign up for the card, you have three months to spend $2,500. If you meet this minimum spend, you will be rewarded with 25,000 bonus points.

You earn 1.5 points on every purchase, and 3 points on all travel-related purchases. If you’re a member of the military or have a PenFed Access America Checking Account, you’ll earn 4 points on all travel-related expenses.

Let’s say in those first three months you don’t spend any money on travel, but you do meet that $2,500 minimum spend right on the nose. You’d earn 1.5 points for each dollar spent, giving you 3,750. Add in the 25,000 point signup bonus, and you have 28,750 within three, short months.

You must redeem your points within the PenFed rewards portal. However, within the portal you can book with your choice of eleven different airlines:

  • American Airlines
  • Alaska Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Frontier Airlines
  • JetBlue Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Spirit Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • United Airlines
  • Allegiant Air
  • Virgin America

The Points Guy estimates that each point earned is worth 0.85 to 0.90 cents when you redeem for airline travel. That means your 28,750 points are potentially worth $258.75 towards your next flight. Not a bad start!

Like I said, this was a trip years in the making, but I’m glad I got started with rewards points and miles when I did. The timing ended up being perfect as we visited Japan at one of the most beautiful times of year during one of the years when I needed to see beauty most.

 

Have you ever used rewards points to book a free flight? Tell us your story in the comments!

Cash, Cards & Money in Japan

So glad I read this before I travel to Japan! Otherwise I wouldn't have brought enough cash--and then would have had trouble getting money out of an ATM!

True story: I hardly ever use cash. Living here in the US, I use cards for virtually every transaction I make. I rarely run into cash, and when I do, it’s a pain in the butt to get deposited into my bank account.

We were going on this big trip to this super modern, super tech-y country: Japan. Before we left, I did exchange some dollars for yen. I wanted to dodge the poor conversion rates you usually find at the airports and have enough for the entire trip. I just assumed I’d be able to use my card pretty much everywhere, but I also knew it wasn’t the best idea to be in a foreign country with zero dollars in my pocket.

I was in for a surprise, though. Less than a week into our trip, my money was gone. We had to spend it at restaurants, at a hair place for my sibling, and overall just on little things at businesses that only took cash.

For example, in Kyoto we ate at several restaurants that were cash only. Sometimes they were the only thing open, too, when we grabbed dinner later in the evening!

Fun Fact: We found food to be the same price in Japan as it is in our home city of Pittsburgh. And, yes, the portion sizes were just as generous! The food was usually a lot healthier, too.

Delicious ramen and gyoza in Kyoto Japan

I also bought an umbrella at a store front across the canal from us; they also only took cash. Because I didn’t know exactly where would and wouldn’t take my plastic, I burned through the paper money relatively quickly. It was spending I was planning on anyways–I just didn’t expect to use cash as my medium of payment quite so often.

Finding an ATM in Japan That Will Actually Work

When I first had to hit up an ATM, I went to one run by Japan Bank. Supposedly these are compatible with US-issued cards.

That was not the case for me. And I had my friends interpreting for me through the process, so I know it wasn’t a language gap.

Eventually, we discovered that while my card didn’t work at the Japan Bank ATM in the grocery store, it did work at the same ATMs at the post office and 7-11. These were both quite prolific in the parts of Japan we went to.

If you’re at a bigger train station, that’s usually a good place to find both a post office and 7-11, though they were spread throughout the cities, too. You might just have to google where they are if you’re in a more rural area, as there wasn’t the same build-up of businesses around the rural train stations we visited.

You don’t have to tip in Japan.

money fro around the world

Money from around the world at my favorite restaurant we ate at while in Japan–they just happen to serve Mediterranean fare.

My friend’s family cooked us delicious meals and took us out a few times, too. But mostly we ate at restaurants while we were away. It felt really weird not tipping the first time we ate out, but you’re not supposed to in Japan. Apparently they actually pay their waitstaff a living wage.

Go figure.

Converting to Dollars is Easy

The following was true for me on my trip, but you’ll always want to check current conversion rates before you embark on your own journey.

When I went, though, the rule of thumb was to move the decimal point two places to the left to get an approximate conversion rate. So something that is 10,000 yen is about $100USD. Something that’s 2,000 yen is about $20.

The dollar was doing pretty well when we hopped on the plane to cross the Pacific, so we knew that every purchase would be slightly less expensive than what we had calculated using our ridiculously simple conversion formula above.

Remember the Cash

Japanese money

Ultimately, the biggest money lesson I learned while in Japan was the first one we covered: bring cash, and don’t walk by a post office or 7-11 with empty pockets without stepping in to use the ATM. Even in a place which had bathrooms so tech-y they blew my mind, paper money was still widely used and sometimes even required–even in urban settings.

What to Do in Osaka

Punk rock shows, baseball games, local fare...makes me want to go to Osaka, Japan! Loving the cultural differences in frugality and money-saving measures, too.

This post should probably be titled What I Did in Osaka–because there’s so much going on in this city it’s insane in a very awesome way.

We had such a great time in Osaka, and even found some frugal differences from what we were used to at home while we were there.

Go to a Baseball Game

orix buffaloes game

Our friend was super generous and got us some tickets to an Orix Buffaloes game. It was sooo much fun. When we got there, I had a water bottle with me. I was expecting to have to throw it away, but instead they took it and poured its contents into an open paper cup. Score for not having to buy another once I got inside!

In between innings, there were dancers that came out to perform and amp up the crowd. During plays, there were sections of volunteers who performed practiced cheers complete with arm movements and everything. These sections looked to be mostly or completely male, but I was across the field from them so I couldn’t tell for sure. If you watched the Olympics, it was similar to the cheerleading section North Korea had.

At one point, between one of the innings, a whole bunch of people in the crowd let go of these blue, phallic shaped balloons (not purposely phallic–I don’t think) and they scattered all over the park as the gas escaped its blue, plastic cages.

There was a woman walking around with a keg on her back, selling beer, but you could get the same thing for a little less money at the concession stand inside. Like everything else in Japan, the park was extremely clean, and they still have cordoned off rooms for smokers.

Our team didn’t win, but we had a great time. Aside from all the excitement of the cultural differences, watching a ball game live is one of my favorite past times, and it was really cool to get to do so in another country.

Another big team in Osaka is the Hanshin Tigers. From what I can tell, they’re a bit more popular than the Buffaloes–Ichiro played for the Tigers before coming to the US.

Punk Rock Shows at Namba Bears

NAMBA BEARS OSAKA

If you’re checking out any underground scene in Osaka, there’s a good chance it’s literally going to be underground.

That’s the way it was when my sibling and I caught a local punk show at Namba Bears. Beer was three yen and was stored in a cooler–like the type you’d take camping. Tickets were pretty much the same cost as they are here–somewhere around $20. I bought a t-shirt for someone back home and the artist was cool enough to throw in a free pin with the purchase.

So that’s the money side of things. The experience, though, was what really made the night. The music was amazing. In fact, I found a new favorite artist. I was totally digging the first act, though I wasn’t in a place where I could see the whole stage at first. My sibling pointed out that it was a one-man band. I moved so I could see better and sat there with my jaw on the floor for the rest of the act.

It was incredible. He had bells on top of the drums he was playing completely with his feet as he rocked his guitar and sang. And he sounded amazing–whether there had been three other people in his band or not. He’s currently recording–he only has one track out right now, but should have a full album up soon. You can check out USGKZ & The Equipments on Bandcamp.

The other two sets were amazing, too. But this guy was my favorite.

Disclaimer: My Japanese is horrible and I have no idea what the lyrics say.

Underground Comedy

funny in japanese

Outside one of the bigger comedy clubs.

Osaka is known for its standup. My sibling wanted to go to a show, but speaks even less Japanese than I do. Eventually they made the financially savvy decision to go to an underground show rather than to one with bigger comedians. It was super affordable–about ten dollars if I remember correctly.

We had no idea what these guys were saying, but it was pretty interesting to see some of the basics of how comedy differs from our culture. First, there were a lot more duos than single comedians. And pretty much all of them got into a character rather than just standing up there as themselves telling jokes.

My friend laughed particularly hard at this one comedian, and she said he was singing about all the little embarrassments he goes through in daily life. Like truly silly ones, and many of them were unique to Japanese culture–or at least completely new to me as an American.

As obvious gaijin, we got asked where we were from. When we said Pittsburgh, the comedians knew about our history with steel mills (which aren’t here anymore, but a lot of Americans don’t even know that,) and were excited about the Pittsburgh Pirates. Every Japanese person we met on our travels knew our baseball team–and we have a long history of sucking! (Our ownership actually makes money off of losing and it’s messed up.)

It was a fun experience. Worth the money, and–once again–literally underground.

Visit the Pokemon Center

pikachu japan

A couple years ago, I downloaded Pokemon Go onto my phone. I was a nerd child, and actually played in a Pokemon card league when I was younger. Augmented reality seemed cool, I thought my kid would have fun with it, and really I just wanted to play Pokemon again.

My child did get super into it, so I promised before I left that I’d catch all kinds of new Pokemon for them and get them some stuff from the Pokemon Center. There are multiple Pokemon Centers around Japan, but we went to the one in Osaka.

That place is expensive as heck. Super cool, but super expensive. I got a couple plates for the kiddos, blind boxes, a stuffed Squirtle, and–for myself–a notebook. And I spent too much money. And I wanted more.

I restrained myself, though! Even if you don’t spend any money while you’re there, it’s still a really cool place to visit if you’re into Pokemon even though it’s just a store.

Eat Kushikatsu

kushikatsu

Kushikatsu is the food Osaka is famous for. Essentially, they batter meat or vegetables and maybe other things–I don’t know–and then deep fry them. Ours came on a stick, and then you could dip it into this great sauce.

Our friend took us to Kushikatsu Daruma in Lucua Osaka. It looks and feels like a diner–though with completely different fare than what you’d be used to as an American. Daruma is celebrating it’s 89th birthday this year, so you know they’re doing something right! They have other locations around the city, and there are other places to get kushikatsu. But this was my only experience with it, and I absolutely loved Daruma.

Buy Candy

candy store osaka

I kid you not when I say that my sibling brought back an entire suitcase full of candy. It was kind of ridiculous, but also a little bit understandable, especially as a lot of it was for gifting when we got back.

But it was also ridiculous.

While in Osaka, we went into this huge candy store. And I mean huge. It was like the ToysRUs of candy. (Too soon?)

There were all kinds of new-to-us sweets–even from familiar names. Like:

  • Peach gummies (that had liquid inside which exploded in your mouth when you bit into them.)
  • Strawberry cheesecake Kit Kats.
  • Wasabi Kit Kats.
  • Five million other flavors of Kit Kats.
  • Meiji Horns (which remind me of Milano cookies except way better–yes, it is possible!)
  • Whatever is in those geisha containers in the picture.
  • So, so much more.

Osaka is fun.

Of the three major cities we visited, Osaka seemed the grittiest to me, and I mean that as a compliment. In Kyoto, I got to visit ancient sites and experience the natural beauty woven into the city’s fabric. In Tokyo, I felt like I was in an uber clean, uber safe, uber tech-y modern metropolis.

But in Osaka, with business after business stacked on top of each other, squeezed into shorter high rises than those in the country’s capital, I felt like I was learning about and experiencing what Japan’s culture is becoming.

Praying for Wealth at Fushimi Inari

Totes want to go here! Planning a trip to Kyoto, Japan right now!

You know those pictures you see of orange tori gates lined up one after another, creating a fantastic tunnel?

Those pictures are of Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. Visiting there was a really cool experience for my sibling and I while we were on our trip to Japan.

What to Know Before You Go to Fushimi Inari

If you’re taking a JR train to Fushimi Inari, you’re in for a treat. It’s a super quick train ride away, and you’ll be met with the first orange tori gate when you step out of the station. You literally just have to walk across the street.

Once you pass through this first gate, you’ll enter a huge complex with places to pray and shops to purchase souvenirs. From there, you’ll enter the first tunnel of tori gates. Bear in mind that this path will take you up a mountain–wear appropriate clothing for your trek!

The gates get thinner the higher up you go up–the most condensed section is right there at the bottom.

The Story Behind the Gates

We were told that when you pray at Fushimi Inari, you are undertaking an obligation. The complex is set up as a shinto shrine dedicated to wishes for wealth. Should your wish be granted, you should use a portion of your money to donate another one of these orange gates.

That means that the tunnel created by the gates isn’t just a cool way to get people to come pray; it’s a manifestation of the success people and organizations have had since offering their prayers.

It’s also why the gates are closer together at the base of the mountain rather than the top; odds are that by the time you visit, there will be more gates up at the top than when I went as more wishes for wealth are granted!

Am I Praying for Wealth or Something Else?

When we made it to the main shrine, I threw in my go yen and prayed. I found myself praying for wealth, sure. Because that’s what you do when you’re there.

But I also found myself not so much desiring material gains for material gains’ sake. I found myself praying for the things money can grant: independence, freedom (hopefully to travel some more!), and the ability to be an actor in my own life rather than a passive vessel. To create my own path rather than being forced to walk upon one I had been told to travel.

Because it isn’t ever really about money. It’s really easy to fall into the numbers trap, measuring our success with a calculator in hand. But the reasons we pursue money are our true driving motivators, and we should never lose site of them. They’re what keep us grounded, and what can push us to keep going when things get hard.

I’ll be sure to let you guys know if they ever end up erecting an orange gate in my name.

 

What would you pray for at Fushimi Inari, besides the obvious request for cash?