Your Homicidols Guide to Traveling to Japan

Now that Japan has opened its borders to overseas visitors again, we are fielding a lot of requests for travel advice in the Homicidols Discord server. I actually started compiling the following travel guide just prior to COVID shutting down the world for two-plus years, but seeing the current influx of prospective or first-time travelers has motivated me to finally finish it.

Just about every article I read about traveling to Japan repeats the same platitude that Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. It always mildly infuriates me since, for travelers at least, it is much cheaper to spend time in Tokyo than most major cities in the US and Europe. 

I travel widely as a hobby and have been lucky enough to visit Japan several times. Additionally, as part of my RealJob™ whose salary finances all of these trips, I spent several years managing the travel services for a rather large institution in the southwestern United States. From this experience, I can definitively tell you that it costs considerably more to travel to, and spend a week in, San Francisco (868 miles away) or New York City (2,400 miles away) than Tokyo (5,899 miles away). Heck, a room at the Motel 6 in Dirtville, Arizona where I stay when I visit family charges twice as much per night as a nice business hotel in Tokyo (although the Motel 6 does come with complimentary tarantulas that eat the scorpions for free).  

Between sending employees around the world and sending myself to see Japanese musicians perform on three different continents, I can pretty categorically state from experience:

  • Japan is a comparatively affordable place to visit.

To help break the stigma that traveling to Japan is unattainably expensive, or at least more affordable than folks may have thought, I have compiled the following travel budgeting tips and tools here to help our readers set foot in the land of their oshi. 

The Shibuya Milkyway, Star Lounge and Chelsea Hotel. A holy trinity.

If compiling an international travel budget seems like a dauntingly complicated task just remember that traveling to see idols perform includes only four major categories of expense: 

For each of these categories of expense, I have compiled some strategies for reducing costs including some options for those who are less risk-averse than I. 

About Me

Please note that I am compiling these travel tips as someone whose trips originate in the United States. Also, I typically travel alone so pricing is based on the experience of a solo traveler whose comfort level requires lodging with a private bathroom. I typically spend around $3,000 – $3,500 on a two-week trip to Japan, but it can definitely be done for less.

I am also a compulsive planner whose travel preparations sometimes go so far as to include using Google street view to virtually walk between a subway station and a hotel to familiarize myself with the route before arrival.  So, of course I’ve created a travel budget worksheet that I use to price out all of my trips beforehand. Feel free to borrow it: Japan Travel Budget Worksheet.

Note: I do not get commissions from anything or anyone, so if I mention a specific website, app or vendor in this guide it is because I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with it/them.

Airfare

To avoid burying the lede, here are the three biggest money saving tips for airfare:

  1. Fly on a weekday. 

You may need to play around a bit to find which days of the week have the absolute lowest cost, but flying in the middle of the week can knock hundreds of dollars off the round-trip ticket costs. ANA has this handy matrix to help you find the most affordable day.

2. Be strategic when bundling your domestic and international flights.

If you don’t live in a city with an international airport that has direct flights to Tokyo, airlines will sometimes gouge you on the domestic flight to transport you to the international hub. I noticed this on my first trip to Japan. I was charged $400 to get from my home town to LAX when I can buy a round-trip ticket to LAX from my home via multiple carriers for around $100. Now, I will price both the bundled flights from my home to Japan, and the costs for booking each leg of the journey separately to see if there is a significant difference. 

Important Note: There are benefits to bundling the flights on the same carrier that may outweigh the cost savings: first, you will typically only have to check your baggage once through to Japan and, most importantly, if the flight to your international hub is delayed to the point that you miss your connection to Japan, the airline will do everything they can to book you on the next flight. If you missed your Japan flight due to a delay on another airline, they have no obligation to help you.

3. ONLY FOR THE BRAVE: Fly on a discount international airline.

There are multiple discount international carriers that offer roundtrip tickets from the west coast of the U.S. to Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka for cheap. These are no-frills flights with smaller seats, fewer in-flight amenities, and generally require a transfer through Shanghai or another city in China where all passengers will need to de-plane and go through customs/immigration before boarding their final flight to Japan. I have friends who have taken these flights without a problem other than a little discomfort and inconvenience, but do your research. There are reviews online recounting difficulties such as getting stranded at an airport in China with no service agents who speak English or Japanese. 

View from the NHK Building on Odaiba.

General Airfare Purchasing Tips

Best Time of the Year to Visit

The two major influences on the price of airfare are cyclical demand and oil prices. Only one of these elements is generally predictable (not oil), so when looking for affordable airfare to Japan, avoid the times when demand (and prices) for plane tickets will be sky high such as New Years and Golden Week (May).

I’ve found good prices during October and November and February through April. I would assume prices in the summer are pretty reasonable too but I’ve never heard anyone speak fondly of the heat and humidity of a Japanese summer. Unless you are planning to scale Mount Fuji or hit the summer music festivals, I would suggest a milder season to visit.

Also note that typhoon season stretches into September so think twice about visiting during that time if you don’t do well with overwhelming humidity.

How Far in Advance To Buy Your Plane Ticket

In terms of timing your plane ticket purchase to get the best price, the general rule of thumb is to purchase two-to-three months before departure. The more time you wait, the fewer seats will be available and limited supply generally means a higher price.

This creates a dilemma unique to the chika idol otaku:

Except for festivals and larger one man lives, most independent idols publish schedules, at most, about a month in advance. This means that the idol otaku on a budget will have to purchase their plane tickets before they even know if the groups they want to see will have a gig scheduled while they are in the country.

I usually get around this a bit by anchoring my trips around one or two big or special shows that have been announced well in advance. If, however, you feel that your entire trip to Japan would be wasted unless you see a certain group or idol, then be prepared to pay a higher plane ticket (and lodging) price in exchange for that certainty.

Buy Plane Tickets Directly from the Airline

While aggregator sites like Travelocity are great for finding which airlines have the most affordable flights, avoid buying your tickets through the service. If your flight happens to be canceled or delayed, the airline may refer you to the aggregator’s non-existent customer service to make alternative arrangements instead of assisting you. Also, whenever an airline needs to bump passengers from a flight, the people who bought tickets through a third party get bumped first.

Lodging

The cheapest lodging in Tokyo is crashing with friends, but while it may save you money, it could cost you the relationship.

There is dirt cheap lodging in Japan for the truly adventurous with good backs. If you don’t mind sharing sleeping quarters and restrooms with people you don’t know and have a high tolerance for the sounds and smells of other human beings, dorms, hostels and capsule hotels are a very affordable option.

However, if your preferences demand amenities such as a private bathroom, there are still business hotels and Airbnbs available for under $100 per night. Each of these options has their pros and cons.

Hotel vs. Airbnb

For me, a hotel offers several distinct advantages:

  • They will receive mail (such as concert tickets) for you;
  • Ability to easily cancel or modify reservations without cost;
  • Easy communications (someone on staff almost always speaks English);
  • Staff will assist you or if something goes wrong.

Affordable Hotels

Business Hotels are a class of lodging that are below the cost of more luxurious or western-style hotels but pricier than dorms or capsule hotels. The rooms are typically just large enough to house a futon, efficiently designed bathroom, and maybe a chair and small writing surface. As cramped as it sounds, I typically find the experience more cozy than claustrophobic. I also usually book a double room, which are slightly larger and don’t cost much more (double refers to occupancy not size). 

There are a few business hotel chains but my hands down favorite is Super Hotel. I have never had a bad experience at a Super Hotel property, and their breakfasts are outstanding.

View from my hotel room in Shibuya (January ’23).

Note: If you are tall, be sure to check the size of the futon. It will be listed in the booking information. Not all of these hotels have beds that are designed to sleep people over six feet.

Pro Tips

Include the Breakfast

Since most of these hotels are designed for business travelers, they will come with a breakfast option. I highly recommend opting in for breakfast as they are typically well worth the price and the experience. This is not the “continental” breakfast that is offered at US hotels which might be a store bought danish, a banana and coffee if you’re lucky. These are typically full-blown, multi-course meals and have included some of the best food I have eaten while in Japan. 

Hotel-provided breakfasts from my most recent Tokyo trip.

I’m not usually a breakfast person, but while in Japan, my hotel-provided breakfast usually serves as my largest meal of the day. They give me all the energy I need to get through a day of walking several kilometers and idol lives.

Booking Hotels

I always reserve my lodging through Booking.com for a number of reasons, primarily because it allows you to cancel and modify reservations fairly easily.

Booking.com’s Map View for Searching for Hotels

 I will tentatively start booking lodging about three months out, but my arrangements almost always change several times before the actual trip as new shows and festivals are announced in different locations (Note: as you near the date of travel, prices go up and availability goes down, so be sure to have a new room lined up before canceling the old reservation; I learned this one the hard way).

The other reason for using Booking.com is because of their “Contact the Property” feature which includes language translation. I have used this function to not only communicate with the property before I arrive, but also to ask questions while I am in residence. More than once, there has not been anyone at the front desk who spoke English, but I was able to go back to my room, submit my question through the Booking.com app, and get an answer to a question that way.

Change the Scenery

If I am staying in Tokyo for multiple weeks, I will typically book a different hotel for each week, especially if I haven’t stayed at the hotel before. I do this for variety as it will let me experience different areas of Tokyo, but also because, while almost every lodging experience I have had in Japan has been positive, I have occasionally found myself in a hotel room that I am not entirely fond of. I once ended up at a hotel where the very small rooms had no windows. It didn’t help that a sizable earthquake hit while I was in it which just heightened the claustrophobia. Other times, the breakfast options weren’t great, or transportation to and from the place was a lot less convenient than it looked like on a map. In those cases, it was a relief that I wasn’t stuck in that place for more than a few days.

Airbnbs

I have several friends who almost exclusively use Airbnb for lodging in Japan and haven’t encountered any major problems. I have never gone this route for a few big reasons:

  1. Airbnbs typically cannot be canceled or modified without penalty;
  2. Most Airbnb properties will not receive mail on your behalf;
  3. Most Airbnb proprietors in Japan do not speak English, and my Japanese is rudimentary.

If you go the Airbnb route, be sure to read the reviews for the property you are considering. If you have ever tried to find a place in Tokyo using an address alone, you may be familiar with how difficult that task that can be. I have read multiple Airbnb reviews where the traveler was unable to even locate the home or apartment that they had rented. 

All of these variables combined has led me and my risk-averse nature to stick with hotels over Airbnb’s.

Essentials

Local Travel

Since no one who can afford Tokyo taxis would be reading a guide on how to save a few yen, local transportation means subways, buses and walking. Luckily, Japan’s public transportation system is convenient, affordable and can get you just about anywhere in the country. On arrival, before you leave the airport, pick up a Suica or Passmo card and slap ¥5,000 – ¥10,000 on it. These rechargeable cards are an essential item and can be used on almost any bus, subway, vending machine, conbini and many restaurants in Japan. 

An average trip on the subway in Tokyo will run you ¥200 – ¥300 each way. Longer trips out to places like Odaiba will cost you more, but you can price them easily in Google maps or one of the other travel apps.

Google maps displaying the train fare for the route.

One obvious tip for reducing local travel costs is to simply book your lodging in Shibuya or Shinjuku where the majority of idol live houses are currently located. Then you just have to walk a few blocks to the show instead of paying for transportation.

Bring Comfy Shoes

You will be walking several kilometers a day traversing a sprawling metropolis with countless staircases reaching both far into the sky and deep underground. If you lead a fairly sedentary Western lifestyle, you may want to condition yourself starting a few months ahead of time with a special focus on strengthening the knees. At the very least, invest in a good, comfortable pair of walking shoes and break them in well in advance.   

JR Pass: Yes or No?

One of the big questions for first time visitors is, “Should I buy a JR Rail Pass?”  

The easy answer is: “If you are not leaving Tokyo, absolutely not.”

The JR Rail pass becomes a bargain only if you are traveling between cities in Japan. For example, a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka is approximately $140 one-way/$280 round trip. The seven-day JR Rail Pass is about $250 and will cover the cost of the Shinkansen plus any other travel on JR trains and buses in that seven-day period, so it turns into an excellent deal.

Google Maps or the Japan Travel (NAVITIME) app can help you cost out trips to see if a seven, 14, or 21-day JR Rail Pass will save you money on your trip. 

For the more patient and adventurous, there are cheaper ways to travel between Japanese cities. For example, a bus will get you from Tokyo to Osaka for $60 – $80, but it will also take you seven-to-nine hours versus two hours and 30 minutes via Shinkansen.

Communications

WiFi in Tokyo is not yet ubiquitous, so you will want to rent a pocket WiFi unit or SIM card to ensure you have data access everywhere you go. While you can rent these items on the spot upon your arrival at the airport, it will cost you a lot more than making arrangements in advance. I have found the best place to search for info on current pricing and reliable providers is the r/JapanTravel subreddit. This is a very competitive market and the cheaper providers rent out fast so (like with most of the money-saving tips here) plan ahead and reserve your unit well in advance.

Food

There are lots of food and travel TV shows and YouTube channels with gorgeous profiles of Michelin starred restaurants and premiere dining experiences in Tokyo. I haven’t done any of that except for the one time a friend took me to a famous tempura place. Since I’m usually traveling on a budget, it’s a good thing that my tastes run to conbinis, diners, conveyor-belt sushi and fast food joints. I would recommend another guide if you are looking to experience the finer aspects of Japan’s food culture. If it were up to me, I would award a Michelin star to 7-11. Conbinis are amazing.

Conbini-style Fine Dining

The best advice I can give on saving money on your food budget is wrapped up in the lodging advice: find a hotel/BnB with a good breakfast included and make it the primary meal of the day. 

My typical routine in Tokyo is to load up on calories at breakfast, head out for a day of shows and then grab something from the convenience store on my way back to the hotel. Out of pocket, this costs  less than $10 a day. Also, Japanese combini food is its own special kind of amazing so you can sample something new every night for a whole other kind of cultural experience.

Discretionary

This is where (we pretend) to have the most control over costs. It is very easy to say ahead of time that we will only get one cheki per show and then all the members are in front of you and suddenly there are seventeen cheki tickets in your hand and your wallet’s devoid of yen.

The Loft Rock Café in Shinjuku.

As remarkable as the music coming out of the genre currently is, the most compelling element of chika idol are the idols themselves, and their live performances is where they truly shine. It is unfortunate that, at times, the simple act of getting our hands on a ticket to a show can  be the most convoluted and seemingly impossible task on the planet.

Buying Concert Tickets

Buying concert tickets to big shows in Japan has always been overly complicated but, in some cases lately, the experience has turned into an existential nightmare, and may soon even become an impossibility. Some of the protections and additional requirements are an understandable (and sometimes, sensible) deterrent to predatory scalping, but the end result is often the exclusion of overseas purchases. Proprietary apps have emerged as the latest complication as some events are only delivering tickets on phone apps that foreigners may not be able to even download much less navigate.

This is an area that is constantly changing and evolving, so any definitive advice will probably be outdated in a matter of months. I would recommend dropping by the Homicidols Discord Server Travel Channel for the latest information, especially if you are looking for information about a specific event.

Luckily for chika idol fans, many live houses use ticketing vendors that are much easier to navigate and, when they aren’t, will usually just let you buy same-day tickets at the door.

At the moment, here are the difficulty levels for purchasing from different ticket vendors.

  • Easy Peasy (just set up an account and purchase): LivePocket, Tiget, Zaiko
  • More complicated registration to navigate, but possible: Rakuten, ePlus
  • Require a friend in Japan, Japanese phone number and/or Japanese Credit Card and even then, good luck: Ticket Pia, Lawson

Proxy Purchases

The easiest method for purchasing tickets from the most problematic vendors is to engage a ticket buying proxy. They will enter lotteries or make purchases for you for an additional fee. There are a number of these services, but not all of them survived the pandemic. Japan Concert Tickets appear to still be up and operating. I have used them in the past multiple times without encountering any issues.

Fan Clubs

The other way to secure tickets is to join a group’s fan club (especially join THE ONE fan club if you are interested in seeing BABYMETAL). While these clubs can offer special lotteries and sales to overseas members, they are sometimes as difficult to join as the most problematic ticket vendor.

Guide to Attending an Idol Live

Idol unit, RAY, have published this helpful Manual for Enjoying Live Idol Shows, translated into English by Azusa Suga of shoegaze bands, For Tracy Hyde and April Blue.

Currency Exchange

While more and more places in Japan will accept debit, credit cards and electronic payment methods, most people and places still prefer cash. Buppan in particular is still an entirely cash affair, so you will need to make sure that you have cash on hand at all times.

It was not that long ago that practically the only place to exchange foreign currency in Tokyo was at the post office of Tokyo Station, so you may still encounter advice to arrive in the country with a large pile of yen. Luckily for us, in the run up to the 2020 Olympics, international ATMs were installed in every conbini in the country giving travelers easy access to the best foreign currency exchange rates and melon pan in the same convenient locations. 

When you first arrive in Japan, avoid the airport currency exchange vendors with their predatory exchange rates, and just find an international ATM once leaving immigration/customs. They are pretty easy to locate.

In Conclusion

I hope this all helps any potential or prospective traveler make that leap to visiting Japan, or helps you save some yen on your next trip.  While the above information is as up to date as possible, things can change fairly quickly in regards to international travel. For the most up to date information feel free to drop the  Homicidols Discord server travel channel or the r/JapanTravel subreddit.

Coffee in Shibuya.

– All photos credit to Daemon Aimless. January 2023.

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