Five Tips for Traveling in Japan on an Empty Wallet

Note: This post was originally published on the now defunct “Writings from Abroad” in March 2014. Rather than let it go to waste, I thought Words from the Road would make the perfect home for it. Hope you enjoy!

The plane lands at Chubu Centrair International Airport, some 50 kilometers south of Nagoya. Passing through customs, I take a sharp left toward the train station . My navy blue carry-on, no larger than a boot box and stuffed to the brim with clothes, a camera, and notebooks, fits comfortably next to me as I board the Meitetsu Limited to Chiryu. It’s all I need for the month long research trip. From the bus station, it’s just a 15 minute bus ride to my host-parents’ in Kariya.


Arriving at the L-shaped house built traditionally with glass, wood, and shoji paper, I’m greeted by smiling faces, a warm, well-cooked meal of miso with clams, salted salmon steak, rice, and chopped cabbage. Bedtime comes quickly, and I think nothing amiss as I leave the bath, lay my head onto my pillow, and let the night takeover.

Checking my bank account the next morning, I find the funding for this research trip hasn’t been deposited. With $100 to my name, I fire a panicked email to my financial aid department, words like “worried” and “frustrated” peppered throughout. That evening, I receive a response. The funds won’t be transferred for a week.

Here’s how I got through:

  • Limited Public Transportation- Japan’s mass transit is internationally known for its convenience and being run on-time. You tend not to hear about how quickly it adds up. Granted, you can buy a one-day subway pass in Nagoya for around ¥800, just about $8, but when that’s a 12th of what you have to live on, you look for alternatives.

This is how I learned that traveling by foot is the best way to see the soul of a city, the backstreets with restaurants with names like Coffee & Spaghetti and shinto shrines stuffed between apartment buildings. It’s also a simple, if tiring, way to shave a few dollars a day off expenses.

  • Everything is a Hotel- Nagoya was ranked the 10th most expensive city in the world in 2012 by Yahoo! Finance. Its costly nature extends to everything in the city. The cheapest hostel I could find ran around $35 a night. If there’s one thing that traveling poor teaches you, it’s creativity. For under $20, you can rent a plush leather chair or computer desk at an internet cafe and sleep through the night.
  • Floors Are Free- Making friends in a foreign country is always a great idea. They can give you recommendations for local restaurants, sightseeing opportunities and more. What you learn really quickly is that they also tend to have free floor space. While a hard floor might be uncomfortable, it is 100% free. Just be sure to offer to cook breakfast the next morning.
  • Convenient, Varied, Cheap Food- Food is a constant nagging need, especially when you’re traveling by foot to stay on budget. Luckily, Japan is saturated with convenience stores. Lawson, Circle K, 7/11– you’ll see them all, wherever you are. Offering everything from sukiyaki to curry bowls to rice balls of every flavor, you can always find something new and tasty for a fraction of the price of eating at a restaurant.
  • When in Nagoya…- Nagoya is full of amazing locations. The city’s castle, rebuilt following the Second World War, offers a look at classical feudal architecture and a selection of samurai gear, ranging from kabuto helmets to katanas. Tokugawa Garden’s waterfalls, tea houses, and auburn, gold, and green flora offer a calming place to meditate and enjoy a warming glass of green tea. Unfortunately, even when you can buy paired tickets for these attractions for under ¥700, complete poverty approaches quickly.

If you’re willing to spend your days as a local would, you can save money and gain a deeper understanding of the culture.Being able to find joy in an old comic in a used bookstore or with a pencil in your hand and a notebook in your lap while watching farmers tend to the summer’s flooded rice paddies — these are the type of things that give you an understanding of what it means to be Japanese, while simultaneously helping you save yourself from bankruptcy.

Before this experience, there were few worse travel nightmares I could think of then trying to survive in a foreign country with a drained bank account. By getting creative and stepping outside the definition of “tourist,” I found that traveling poor is possible; it might even be a better way of doing things.

That’s not to say I want to try it again.


An Off-Morning at Rochester’s Public Market

$2 buys you a hard-glazed blueberry doughnut and a cup of forty weight, served en vogue in wax paper and styrofoam. Of course, what you’re really buying with your cup of burnt joe is access. Rochester’s historic Public Market, a Flower City staple since 1905, churns with vendors and those looking to take advantage of their cut-rate produce on the weekends. Now, at the beginning of the week with the sun just barely managing to peak over the sloping metal roofs of the market’s many buildings, it’s only freight drivers, the sudden hiss of hydraulic breaks, and the cuss-laden conversation of middle-aged men, hardened by years of early mornings in a starving city — all of this paid access only.

To take a seat outside Union Street Bakery and breathe deep the cloud of sauteing onion and garlic wafting from Juan and Maria’s nearby empanada shop, you’d better be ready to buy that mud and you’d better pretend to like it. The bakery’s owners are kind but proud people, unaccustomed to giving away the prime seats outside their glass-faced bakery that resembles an old New England wharf shop for free.

Union Street Bakery Rochester Public Market

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Nature’s Enclave in the Heart of Kariya

Tucking the still hot  U.F.O. instant yakisoba package into the plastic bin in the spartan kitchen attached to my bedroom, I pull open the door, pushing out of my host parents’ house and stepping into a small, verdant area lined with vines I never learned the name of and a yuzu tree, a sort of lime-flavored citrus fruit that masquerades under the yellow cowl of a lemon.

It’s another heavy day, thick with a visible humidity that takes whatever clothes you’re wearing and transforms them into something so tight and uncomfortable that you might as well be wearing a sweaty gimp suit as you walk. The sun climbs in a tortured crawl in the afternoon sky, painting my hosts’ garden of potatoes, peanuts, and green onions — a motley assortment  — in midday’s  fluorescence, reflecting a kaleidoscope of blues, oranges, and greens across the earth.

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