Japan has an unfair reputation for being super expensive, and while there are loads of great places to go and spend a lot of money, you can also have a great time on the cheap.
The JR Pass can be a great cost-saver if you're taking the shinkansen a lot, but this isn't the only game in town. You can save a lot of money by choosing the bus, the local train, or even the ferry.
Where to stay
High end hotels and ryokan are expensive. You can shop around, and you might even find special offers on sites like Agoda, but they'll still probably be a splurge. If you have your heart set on a particular stay, make sure you cross check the price directly with the hotel. A right click within Google will give you the option to translate the page into English, and navigating most booking forms isn't a big deal. You can find some great deals by booking directly, especially if you're booking more than 60 days out.
But the real cost savings come when you start looking at boutique hostels rather than hotels. You'll even find that some hotels will have hostel dorms, or the option for private rooms and shared bathrooms on some floors. So you're not compromising on the facility, or the location, just the price. And a shared bathroom? Not a big deal in Japan at all.
Eating and drinking
The konbini is much lauded as a great place to grab a meal on-the-go. The one problem is that eating and drinking in public isn't done in Japan, so it can be hard to find somewhere to snack. Unless you're happy to sit in your 7/11 (and not every one has a seating area) or you're heading back to your accommodation, you can be stuck. Instead, get to know cheaper Japanese chains.
A few ideas:
Yoshinoya has the motto 'Tasty, low-priced, and quick' making it an excellent choice. You'll find branches everywhere serving quick sets at any time of the day.
Mister Donut is a place we love, and an excellent spot to sit down and enjoy a coffee and sweet treat (Pon de ring every time). Not into doughnuts? Pop in to a traditional coffee house or kissaten for a drink and a sandwich.
Yakitori chains abound, and for an easy dinner and a few drinks you won't find a better option. Torikizoku, Yakitori Daikichi, and Toritetsu are all great spots to stop in for a few sticks and a cold beer. Expect to pay no more than ¥200 for a skewer, and keep an eye out for Happy Hour offers.
Sushi trains are an amazing way to eat, and it's great fun. Check out Tokyo Cheapo's picks.
Ramen is an incredibly cheap and delicious meal. Ignore the popular chains like Ichiran and attempt a local spot. You'll purchase your tickets at the machine by the door, and hand them across the counter. Some will have pictures on the machine, others might be something of a lucky dip. That's part of the experience!
Find passes and offers
If you hunt around you'll find special deals for the things you want to do. For example, if you love galleries and museums, Tokyo's Grutt Pass will get you free or discounted entry, and it's just ¥2200. You can buy the pass at the participating museums between April 1st and January 31st of the following year.
Even the things that just seem flat out expensive will sometimes have quirky specials if you can find them. For example, Tokyo Disneyland will often have an After 6 Passport option, where you can go for as little as half price in the evening.
Pick your moments
High season is sakura season, where people are clamouring to see cherry blossoms. Accommodation can be at a premium, and everything is busy. We've always had a great time visiting Japan in December/ January which is quieter and you can often find an off-season special.
Likewise, the cost of accommodation will often change dramatically between weekends and weeknights. We've stayed in hotels where Saturday night has been almost double the cost of a Monday night stay.
If there is a restaurant you're dying to try, go at lunchtime! A lunch set is bound to be a lot cheaper than dinner, and just as tasty.
Got a cost-saving tip that we've missed? Let us know in the comments.