Japan was one of the destinations that we had been looking forward to for the longest. But we kept postponing it for fear of not having enough funds. You always hear how expensive it is to travel in Japan and we thought we weren’t going to be able to afford it until we saved a lot of money. And although it is true that Japan is more expensive than other destinations, especially in Asia, we could not keep holding back the urge to go! So we started looking for alternatives to cut expenses and we realized that one of the biggest expenses was transportation. Everyone recommended us to buy a JR pass for the trains and subways in Japan, but when we looked at the prices, our hearts would sink to the floor. Plus, the JR Pass options are for a 7, 14, or 21-day trip and we wanted to be in Japan for more than a month, so it did not make sense either. Finally, we decided that we were NOT going to use the JR Pass, we were going to take cheap buses and local trains and when I crunched the numbers for a tentative route only using buses and local trains, the numbers smiled at us, so we grabbed our backpacks and went to see how the Japanese live!
I highly recommend using the Hyperdia app with all train and bus routes and schedules, to help plan a trip around Japan.
Backpacking itinerary to travel around Japan by bus
This is the backpacking itinerary for our 5 weeks in Japan:
Arrival in Tokyo
We arrived at Narita airport and immediately bought our Suica cards, one per person, and put them money so that we didn’t need to buy tickets every time we wanted to take the train. To get from Narita airport to Tokyo there are different options. Besides taxis and private cars, there are a few train lines with different prices and speeds. We took the Keisei Limited Express line that took us to Ueno station in just over an hour. Keep in mind that the faster the train goes, the faster the ticket price rises.
How to get around Tokyo
Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, and although it has an excellent transportation system, it can also be very confusing because there are different companies with different train lines and different fares. It is a bit difficult to calculate how much a trip costs because it depends on the distance and the type of train used. The easiest thing is to use a Suica or PASMO prepaid card that is debited with each use and just follow the instructions on Google Maps, they are very accurate and easier to follow than the maps at the stations.
Since Tokyo is such a big city, you can spend a lot of time going from one place to the other. On average, you can spend 2 to 3 hours a day on the train if you want to visit all the interesting neighborhoods. To be more efficient with our time, and since we were going to be in Tokyo for 10 days, we decided to stay in different areas of the city. At first this may sound crazy, but in the end it was worth it not to spend hours going south to north or east to west. We stayed in the Ueno, Jimbocho and Midtown area and it worked perfectly.
Day trips from Tokyo
Day Trip from Tokyo to Kawagoe
When we were in Tokyo we really wanted to go to see Kawagoe, known as “little Edo”. There are several options to get from Tokyo to Kawagoe. The cheapest and fastest is from Ikebukuro Station, a train in the Tobu Tojo Line to Kawagoe Station. The journey took only half an hour. Once we were in Kawagoe, we walked around the entire city, it is small and everything is close so this was the best way to absorb its vibe.
Day Trip from Tokyo to Enoshima and Kamakura
To go to Kamakura from Tokyo we decided to use the Enoshima-Kamakura Free Pass, which is a pass that includes a ride on the Enoden train, a super cute train that we wanted to travel on. This pass includes a round-trip ticket from Shinjuku to Kamakura using the Odakyu and the Enoden line. You have to make some train changes. The trip was like this: train in Odakyu Line from Shinjuku to Fujisawa. We got off at Fujisawa and transferred to the Onedo line. We got off at Enoshima to get to know the city and after a couple of hours, we returned to the train station, took the Onedo line again, and arrived in Kamakura to spend the afternoon. This trip was very nice, it is well worth it.
From Tokyo to Mount Fuji
After 10 awesome days in Tokyo, we headed towards one of the places that I was looking forward to the most. The beautiful Mount Fuji. To go from Tokyo to Mount Fuji by bus, we first went to Shinjuku station and from there we took a direct bus to the city of Kawaguchiko. We chose this city because here are located the 5 lakes that surround Mount Fuji. Bus tickets can be purchased here.
To visit the entire area and the lakes that surround Mount Fuji, we bought a shuttle ticket that is valid for 2 days and covers all available routes. There is a red line, a green line and a blue line. They all have different schedules and cover a different area. This ticket can be purchased at the Kawaguchiko bus station. I highly recommend taking the blue line to Lake Shojiko at sunset. The journey is quite long but it is well worth it. It was the most beautiful lake of all.
From Mount Fuji (Kawaguchiko) to Takayama
To go from Kawaguchiko on the Mount Fuji to the city of Takayama in the Japanese Alps, we went back to the bus station and took a 5 hour bus. The bus was comfortable and the views beautiful. The ticket can be booked here.
Takayama is a relatively small city, and you can go by walking around the entire downtown and surrounding areas. In fact, there is a walk called Higashiyama Walking Course that goes through a whole circuit of temples and that crosses the most beautiful parts of the city. We always like to explore the less-touristy part a little, and just walking we were able to reach more local neighborhoods to see how people in this area live. It is a beautiful city to get lost and be surprised along the way.
From Takayama to Shirakawa-go to Kanazawa
Our next stop was Kanazawa, but we also wanted to visit Shirakawa-go which is located in the middle of the two cities. It is not big enough to stay overnight, so we decided to take an early morning bus from Takayama to Shirakawa-go, leave our backpacks in a locker at the train station, spend the day visiting the town and get to Kanazawa in the evening. We bought our tickets in advance here.
A visit to Shirakawa-go is well worth it. It is a cute little town that you can visit quickly but has so many interesting details and little things that it kept us entertained until the end of the day.
At night we took the bus to Kanazawa, which is a large city with a good public transport system. It is possible to walk to many places, but sometimes a bus is necessary. The first time we took one we didn’t understand how it worked. You have to get on using the back door, take the slip with a number next to the door. To get off, you ring the bell, you look at the price chart that is hanging in front of the bus, and match the amount to pay according to the number on the slip. You pay in coins (you need to have the exact amount) in a box next to the driver and you get off using the front door. The best thing to do is to follow the locals. Plus, they will always try to help if they see you are lost or confused. On this site, you can find the list of the most useful buses in the city. Plus, Google Maps works a charm.
From Kanazawa to Kyoto
After a couple of days in Kanazawa, it was time to go to Kyoto. We took a bus again, this time from this company. The journey took almost 3 hours and the bus was super comfortable. Individual chairs that become beds and curtains for extra privacy.
Kyoto is a huge city. The metro is ok, but the buses were much more useful, plus they are prepared for tourists with announcements in English and with recommendations of places to visit at various stops. To use public transport you can buy the rechargeable ICOCA card which is very useful because later on, you can also use it in Osaka, Kobe, Hiroshima, and Okayama.
From Kyoto to Osaka
We were in Kyoto for almost a week, it has so much to do that time goes very fast. Our next stop was Osaka, and going from Kyoto to Osaka is a breeze. This time we actually caught a train. There is a local train line (not the fast and expensive one) called Hankyu railway, the trip is 45 min and it was a very good option. Faster and cheaper than the buses we had previously considered.
Osaka is a huge city and public transportation is very good. With the ICOCA card, we were able to use buses and metros to go to the most remote places, and through the most central neighborhoods, we walked a lot to take in the madness of this city.
Day Trip from Osaka to Nara
You can get to Nara either from Osaka or from Kyoto. We went from Osaka and caught the Kintetsu Nara Line. We reached Nara in 40 minutes and explored it on foot.
Day Trip from Osaka to Himeji and Kobe
When we were in Osaka we went to see the HImeji castle, one of the most famous in all of Japan. To go from Osaka to Himeji we had to take a train on the JR Kobe line which took an hour to get there. From the train station you have to walk about 15 minutes to the castle. I also recommend visiting the park with gardens behind the castle.
Using this same train line you can also get to Kobe. We spent the morning in Himeji and the afternoon in Kobe walking around the port and Chinatown. A short but fun trip.
From Osaka to Hiroshima
We spent a week enjoying the rebel city of Japan and when it was time to leave, our next stop was Hiroshima. To go from Osaka to Hiroshima we took a 2-hour bus that we booked here.
Hiroshima has a good public transport system that is very easy to navigate. All the tourist places are gathered in the same area of the city so they can be visited walking from one to the other. To go to more remote places there is a good system of trams, buses and metros. You can also use the ICOCA card here.
Day Trip from Hiroshima to Miyajima
A visit to Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island is a must for travelers passing through Hiroshima. Getting to the island is super easy, we took a local train to the Miyajimaguchi Ferry Terminal station and from there a Ferry that leaves every 15 minutes. The ferry ride takes only 10 minutes.
Then, once you’re on the island, you can visit all the temples and the lake on foot. There are also routes for hiking, and you can go up Mt. Misen on foot or by cable car. It is highly recommended to stay on the island until sunset and see the floating Tori when the tide rises.
From Hiroshima to Okayama
We only stayed in Hiroshima for 2 days, we were running out of time in Japan. The last city we wanted to see was Okayama. I had read somewhere that it was very pretty and that was enough for me to want to go and check it out. To get from Hiroshima to Okayama we first caught a local train to Kurashiki, a city on the way that we wanted to visit. They call it the Venice of Japan because it has a canal with gondolas. It is quite small so we visit it in a couple of hours. Then we caught another local train that took us to Okayama.
Okayama is a larger and more modern city than I expected, which public transportation system is quite easy and convenient. Using the bus is the same as in other cities in Japan. Get on using the back door, take a slip with a number and pay the equivalent price in cash when you get off through the front door. The most interesting places to visit are all gathered in an area called Culture Zone, which can be explored on foot.
From Okayama to Osaka
We were in Okayama only for 2 days and just like that it was time to go back to Osaka to catch our flight. To go from Okayama to Osaka, let’s eat a bus that we booked here and that took us in 3 hours to our final destination in this wonderful country.
This is how we ended one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever had. Japan is a totally different world, everything works in such an interesting way. There were many things that caught our attention all the time, the style of doing things is very unique. Also, the Japanese are too kind and adorable, and Japan is an extremely safe place, anytime, anywhere. This trip was incredibly enjoyable. We can’t wait to go back!
Pin this image to your board so you don’t lose it when you’re planning your trip. See you in the next trip!
Pin this image to your board on Pinterest so you don’t lose it when you’re planning your travels.
See you on the next trip!