I just calculated the definitive cost of this trip. For 2 weeks of food, lodging, modest entertainment and transportation, it cost each of us about 82 000 yen. That doesn’t include our airfare, obviously. Save maybe 3000yen or so, I can imagine how you could further reduce the costs. Our biggest “treat” was a day long sumo tournament for 2000yen or something like that. But could you honestly say no to watching a live sumo tournament in Tokyo? No.
To accomplish our outrageously cheap goal, you’ll need to like walking, cook all breakfasts and occasional suppers at the hostel, take midnight buses twice and get lucky with accommodations. People will say that to save money, you need to buy a JR pass (Japan Rail passes lets you make unlimited train travel on JR owned rails). We found the JR pass to be unnecessary for what we were planning on doing. Since we stayed in one city at a time over fairly long periods, we hardly used the rails (Kyoto/Nara and Nara/Osaka). Plus our biggest amount of traveling (Tokyo/Kyoto then Osaka/Tokyo) was accomplished via midnight bus, which also saved us one night’s accommodations. I’ll tell you now though, the bus ride won’t provide you with a good night’s sleep, it’s small, cramped and loud (they turn on the lights and announce the pit stop every 3 hours), but it’ll save you a couple bucks. If you want to cover a lot of ground and see many cities while you’re in Japan, get the JR Pass, if you don’t mind relaxing in a few cities and digging it, then don’t bother.
Here’s another tip; when you go to a city, check out the volunteer tour guides. The one we got in Nara was super friendly, informative and it’s nice to talk to a local. Also, don’t go to bars. You’ll spend so much money and you might not even talk to a Japanese person. You can drink in your own country when you get back. Try drinking and talking to people at hostels, you’ll meet interesting folk, sometimes even nationals. Of course, this advice only applies if you’re on a super tight budget. If you have a bit of money, by all means, go to bars. I’m just giving advice for if you’re super cheap.
The reason for our extreme thriftiness was that we didn’t bring enough cash and I got scared of running out before we left. I had my VISA (always bring a credit card, if only just to book things online) with me, but I was as a last resort. Moral of the story, make sure you bring lots of cash if you go to Japan. You’ll need it.