Think you can't afford to go on holiday to Japan? Think again...
When you think of student travel, the first things that comes to mind are bleak hostels (more on those here) and the holy trinity of the Gap Yah: Thailand, Vietnam and anywhere that you can get a beer for less than 20p.
While we all love a 20p beer, the idea that only 'cheap destinations' are viable holidays for students is a bit of a con. Anywhere can be cheap, if you know how to do it – even Denmark if you’re prepared to live off hot dogs and make a nest out of striped fisherman jumpers.
The holy grail of 'expensive' holidays though, is Japan in cherry blossom season. The kind of trip everyone talks misty-eyed about doing someday, when they’ve invented the next Google, or discovered they’re secret Genovian royalty.
But friends, I am here to tell you I went to Japan during cherry blossom season this year and I am neither a surprise princess nor Steve Jobs-reborn.I’m just a journalist with a near-obsessive love of travel research.
So, here’s how to do Japan in its most peak of peak times, without spending a million pounds. Or even over a grand.
Ignore the expensive restaurants
If there’s one thing I want to pass on about Japan, it’s this: you don’t need to pay for the expensive restaurants to eat well.
I suspect everyone goes and pays for the £300-a-head stuff because they feel like they have to, and then goes home and raves about how the pricey food in Japan was LIFE-CHANGING and SO MUCH BETTER THAN EVERYTHING HERE because, well, if it wasn’t life-changing, you’ve just spunked £300 on a meal for nothing.
But one of the most wonderful things about Japan is that even at the lowest pay-grade, their food is exceptional. You can get brilliant ramen for 800yen a head, which is about £5.30 – try Ippudo in Kyoto or Fu-unji in Tokyo.
Most vending machine ramen joints (where you buy a ticket from a machine then sit down and wait for your order) are cheap but super tasty. The best sushi we had was at the 100yen (67p!!) a pop sushi plate conveyor belts, a move that was delicious but has ruined all Yo Sushis for us forevermore. And forget everything you thought you knew about convenience store food and chains: they’re treasure troves of katsu sandwiches and rice balls.
Then there’s the izakayas – Japanese pubs that have someone in the corner grilling 100 to 200yen meat skewers (yakitori), in a stroke of genius that makes you wonder what all the other countries are doing with their lives. The UK scrolls through Japan’s Instagram at 2am in the morning then unfollows because it’s getting unhealthy.
Also, don’t bother queuing for anything (there’s too many good places without queues), unless it’s Nakajima, the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant in the city. They do four sardine dishes available in 800yen lunch sets, and I never thought I’d be out here saying sardines are worth an hour queue, but fuck me, they are.
Viewing cherry blossoms is free
If you’re going in cherry blossom season, don’t worry about seeing the major sights. I know they’re on all the iconic pictures of flower filled Japan and this seems like madness, but honestly, the cherry blossoms are everywhere – and in spring, that peaceful looking temple turns into Oxford Street at Christmas but worse.
A shuffling zombie queue walk slalom of selfie sticks and oh god, is that a couple in bridal wear? Are they doing a photoshoot in this? Yes. Yes they are, and you paid money to look slightly disgruntled in the background of it. Trust me, save your money and do the most famous spots in an off-peak trip.
Instead, hit up the free parks like Ueno in Tokyo and Maruyama Park in Kyoto. They’re crowded, but they’re “hamami” crowds, which is the Japanese art of picnicking under the sakura trees.
Think lots of bonhomie, cheap food stalls and booze, and no entrance fees. Naka-Meguro canal in Tokyo is also glorious – it seems painfully crowded at first, but walk (or apologetically shuffle) away from the main spots near the train station and there’s loads of blossoms and way more breathing space. You can find a list of free cherry blossom spots here.
If you do want to pay for anything, make it a boat ride on the various park lakes. They’re surprisingly reasonable and if you’re willing to go in a row boat rather than the giant swan pedal boats, you’ll barely have to queue.
Get all the passes
Transport in Japan is expensive. But, you just need to think of it like the UK. Rock up on the day to a train station here, and your ticket from York to London is £150, but book in advance and it’s £30.
Fly to Japan and just buy all your tickets, and your holiday budget will be gone in the first few days. Get passes in advance instead. There’s literally one for everything. The big one is the JR rail pass: it’s £191 for 7 days of unlimited travel on the JR cross-country trains. That’s £27 a day, for trains to every major station, as well as the main lines in Tokyo.
A good trick is to spend your first week of holiday in Tokyo (or the city you’ve flown in to) just using subway passes, then activate the 7-day pass for the last week. Or reverse the order. You can also get passes for most of the major tourist destinations, like the Hakone Free-Pass.
Or, if you’re up for trying some slow travelling, the buses are a cheap alternative to trains – and if you’re able to sleep on them, you can get an overnight journey, which will save you a night’s stay.
Airbnb is your friend
Keeping accommodation costs down in Japan is hard – it’s pretty normal to spend 70-80% of your budget before you’ve even landed on flights and hotels. One thing you can do is ditch the hotels, where you’ll pay £100 a night for the most basic of business hotels, and go for airbnbs instead.
You can get a studio flat in prime locations like Shinjuku for £30 a night. There won’t be enough room to swing a cat, but it’s private, very #authentic and better than a single mattress in a hostel.
Ryokans (traditional japanese inns) can also be really purse-friendly. We stayed in Kyoto at the historic Yadoya Hiraiwa for £30 a head at peak cherry blossom season, and it was delightful.
Book in advance. Like, six months to a year in advance. People don’t dick about when it comes to sakura season, and neither should you. Plus, the further you book in advance, the cheaper it is, especially when it comes to flights. Right now, you can fly to Tokyo in March / April 2019 for less than £500 return, which is a steal.
The best bit of our trip was when we got out of the cities. Tokyo and Kyoto are thrilling and definitely worth visiting, but in peak season they’re kind of soul-destroyingly crowded.
On a cross-country train journey up to Takayama, we saw hundreds of tiny, peaceful towns and villages positively dripping with cherry blossoms and blissfully tourist-free. My advice would be to do the cities for max three days, then get on a train to somewhere, anywhere, two to three hours outside the city. This tactic is cheap too. Up in the mountains, we had Hida beef dishes – which blows kobe, wagyu and all the other fancy beefs out the water – for less than a fiver.
The reasonably priced guest houses we stayed in were beautiful too, and inevitably owned by an 80-year old Japanese person who’d insist on carrying our suitcases upstairs while we hovered behind terrified, amazed and desperately trying to google the Japanese for both, “no really, we can take them ourselves” and “what’s your workout regimen?”.
It was like staying with your grandparents: they’ve got a “computer room” (yes, a room featuring one computer with a dial-up connection), will wait up for you to make sure you get back before the 10pm curfew, and get very concerned if you’re not having a bath both morning and night. And that kind of nostalgia is priceless folks.