Accommodation in Japan can be expensive, but that doesn’t mean that is has to be. Ranging from the predictable to the creative, I’ve listed ten ways to find free lodging in Japan. These free places to stay in Japan should help you keep your budget while traveling. On to the free accommodation in Japan!
Free Places to Stay in Japan
Price: from free to about 6,000 yen per night
The traditional refuge of the traveling poor (read: students), hostels are great cheap places to stay in Tokyo. Personally, I mostly use HostelWorld to book, but there are a ton of other sites. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that the hostel community in Japan just isn’t as vibrant and the travelers aren’t as social as in many other parts of the world. However, overall, I’ve found the hostels to be clean, well-staffed, and quiet (if that’s what you prefer!) I’ve also had the chance to meet some interesting travelers through hostels in Japan. As with any accommodation, it’s a good idea to check the reviews, hostel rules, and location. There are a few bad apples, a few rather early curfews, and a few hostels that are far away from tourist sites.
That’s the “almost free” part. Now, the free part!
If you are familiar with hostels, you may know about the practice of volunteer work exchange. This is where you do cleaning or other tasks at the hostel for a small, set amount of time in exchange for a free or reduced price bed. A few hostels in Tokyo, such as Khaosan, AsakusaSmile, 634 Musashi, and Yayoda Guesthouse, offer this type of exchange.
Just to address any confusion about tourist visas ahead of time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan states that a tourist visa covers unpaid activities. I believe that those on the American tourist visa, as well as other similar visas issued by other countries, are in the clear to participate in this type of arrangement. Please do contact the hostel and the Japanese embassy ahead of time to be sure of their requirements and the details.
2. WWOOF Japan
Price: 5,500 yen for a one year membership
Website: WWOOF Japan
Less an accommodation, more an experience. WWOOF stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms,” and is a volunteer work exchange program. You work at a host family’s home, business, or farm on average about 6 hours a day, 6 days a week (although this does really vary with the host) in exchange for food and accommodation. The membership costs 5500 yen for one year. Having paid that fee, you get access to the online list of hosts looking for volunteers. I feel that this is pretty close to free.
Honestly, the two months I spent WWOOFing in Japan were some of the most amazing times of my life. You do have to be a “willing worker,” of course. As the organization’s name suggests, many of the hosts are organic (or striving-to-be-organic) farmers, and farm work isn’t always easy. However, the hosts often take the volunteers to famous sightseeing spots, parties, or other interesting events and cultural experiences. It is a great way to meet people who like to travel off the beaten path.
There are some other websites and programs similar to WWOOF Japan, such as helpx.net and workaway.info, which aren’t quite as extensive as WWOOF, but seem to have a lot to offer in terms of free places to stay in Japan.
Price: from free to about 8,000 yen per night
When you think of camping, this is possibly what you imagine: bringing a tent or camper to a campground, renting an area to place said tent or camper, and spending some fun times with your family/friends/lover(s)/dog/cat. Indeed, there are places like that in Japan as well. The cost to rent a space seems to be, on average, about 3000 yen to 8000 yen per night.
Yet this wasn’t quite the camping I was going for. Notice how the price I listed says, “free places to stay in Japan”
Slightly less legitimate than your typical bonfire-and-s’mores affair, this is a camping experience a WWOOFing couple told me about. Armed with a tent and some Japanese learned from animated Miyazaki movies, the couple would attempt to hitchhike to their next WWOOFing location. Whenever they were unable to get to the next scheduled location by nightfall, they would ask to be dropped off in a semi-populated area. Then, they would proceed to ask local residents if they could pitch tent on their farmland. To my amazement, they said that they got permission a number of times. In addition, they met some interesting people. If this bohemian way of traveling doesn’t intimidate you, it’s worth a try! Be certain to be respectful and conscientious if you want to go this route. The townsfolk aren’t exactly in the business of actively providing free places to stay in Japan.
Not at all recommended and probably not even legal, is something called nojuku, which is basically just sleeping in a park or field. Equally cautioned against is ekine or STB/station bivouac, which means to sleep at a station overnight. Those who have been to Japan before have without a doubt seen drunk businessmen or the homeless sleeping at the station. There are even entire websites devoted to the endeavor. There are obvious dangers associated with this practice, one of which is having your picture taken by someone amused by your plight. Please don’t put saving money before your safety.
Couchsurfing is staying at a friend, family, or acquaintance’s dwelling for free, presumably sleeping on the couch. Couchsurfing.com has turned this into an art. You create a free profile, filling in details such as name and hobbies and whether you are willing to host, and then you’re good to start sending messages to hosts requesting lodging. There are ways to get “verified,” by providing proof of identify, and a section for reviews, which make you look more trustworthy as a host and guest. I’ve known some people who were lucky enough to find hosts who’d let them stay at their place for weeks or let guests have run of the house while the host was away on vacation. It’s really a fascinating project! Plus, it’s a great way to find free places to stay in Japan or anywhere in the world.
5. Love Hotels
Price: 6,000 yen and up per room per night (or free)
The infamous love hotels of Japan make for an interesting place to stay the night. Since love hotels are aimed at couples looking to for a place to well, you know, love hotels typically charge by the hour or have “specials” for a night. Many love hotels run at around 6,000 yen or more per night (but if you stay with a “friend,” that’s only 3,000 yen per person!), so they might not be the best option for serious budget travelers, but, with their charming (some might say “gaudy”) theme rooms, it is guaranteed to be an experience.
Plus, if you can convince your partner to pay for it, then, well, it is sort of kind of free, right? Disclaimer: I do NOT suggest shoving the bill on your significant or not-so-significant other. Okay, I kind of cheated on this one, as far as the “free” part.
Check out Shibuya’s Dogenzaka, known as Love Hotel Hill, in Tokyo for some love hotel action, or check out Japan’s Love Hotels website.
Price: free to about 50,000 yen per month
Homestays are a wonderful way to experience the Japanese lifestyle short-term and visit Japan without putting a strain on your budget. There are websites devoted to matching travelers with households looking to host. Also, although homestays are often thought of as options only for students and the young, don’t let age be a factor in whether you look into doing a homestay, as there are many hosts happy to have you stay, regardless of your age. Here are just some of the websites that help bring travelers and hosts in Japan together in addition to providing free places to stay in Japan:
7. Japan McDonald’s
Price: the price of food (ex: about 700 yen for one value meal)
Website: McDonald’s [in Japanese]
You may think I’m joking about sleeping at McDonald’s in Japan, but, sadly, I’m not.
One day, soaking wet from the rain, running on two hours of sleep, and miserable because my hotel reservation had been mixed up, I needed to sleep. Since the hotel I had found didn’t allow check-in until much later in the day, I wandered, dead-eyed, around the city. Luckily, I stumbled upon a five story McDonald’s. I looked up absently at the higher floors and that’s when I saw it: dozens of people asleep in their chairs in the McDonald’s upper floors. I couldn’t believe it. Needless to say, I rushed inside and ordered a shaka-shaka chicken. Then I made a beeline for the third floor, where I had seen the most people asleep. Many of the people there were students who had fallen asleep on their books. So, I got to it. After eating my shaka-shaka chicken, I took out a book and promptly fell asleep. I got a good three or so hours of sleep there. I’m not proud of this fact, but I can honestly say McDonald’s saved my life — or at least my sanity. Seriously, thank you, McDonald’s.
Granted, fast food restaurants aren’t exactly the most recommended place to sleep. Sleeping there certainly could get you kicked out. It is common practice in Japan to ask someone to leave a restaurant if they’ve been there for a long time and if there are people waiting, even at fast food places. So, while I can’t say that I readily advocate sleeping there, I will say that it is at least a good place to have a shaka-shaka chicken and prop up your feet for a while.
I hope that this list has given you some idea of the free places to stay in Japan. Happy travels!
A version of this post was featured on Gaijinpot, hurray!