The country of Japan has a reputation for being a very expensive country to visit, and this reputation is not totally unwarranted. Everyone has heard horror tales about the $50 glass of beer and the $100 steak they had while visiting Japan.
However, you can avoid these and other pitfalls and at the same time see more of Japan inexpensively than you would if you spent a small fortune. How to accomplish this may vary depending on whether your visit to Japan will be brief or extended. It may also depend on how good your memory is, and your sense of adventure, if you don't read Japanese. Here are some tips for an inexpensive trip to Japan.
Cheap Transportation in Japan: For a short stay, rent a JITENSHA (bicycle) for $10-30 a day. If you need to take public transportation on occasion, use the station bicycle parking lot -- and a good lock. Remember while visiting Japan that subways are cheaper than trains, and buses are cheaper than subways, but any town sophisticated enough to have a subway system probably has signs in ROMAJI (our alphabet) and buses rarely do. Thus even resident foreigners tend not to take buses, which is unfortunate for them, because buses go to a lot of places that subways don't (and outside of large metro areas, there simply aren't any subways). Naturally, a bike will get you where even the buses don't go, and you'll never get lost.
If you do rely on public transportation while visiting Japan, the larger metro areas will usually offer passes and multi-trip tickets. Be sure to inquire at the station. (Bring student I.D. if appropriate; it may afford you some discounts.) Most stations house tourist information facilities whose staff can help you figure out what you want and how to ask for it. If you end up in a taxi, try to share a ride in order to share the cost, and remember: there is NO TIPPING in Japan!
For long-distance travel in Japan, the SHINKANSEN (Bullet Train) is the fast and pricey. The whole of Japan is about the size of California, it's not huge as nations go but it's also not one island but several.
Keep in mind that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, so your bus stop is across the street from where you think it is! Ride your bike in the street in Japan, unless everyone else on wheels is using the sidewalk. Don't be surprised if you encounter a subway employee whose job it is to shoehorn folks into crowded trains. Regardless of how you go, you might want to write down the KANJI (Chinese pictograph character, used in Japanese alongside native KANA, or syllables) for your destination.
Cheap accommodations in Japan: For a long stay in one area of Japan, consider a homestay, arranged before you arrive. Contact the International Center of the city or town of your choice; failing that, even small towns usually have a tourist office. For a short stay or series of short stays in Japan, don't pay for a western-style hotel (expensive), RYOKAN (Japanese-style inn -- a better experience but only slightly cheaper) or a business hotel (cheap but nasty -- a bit like sleeping in a locker). Instead, check out a youth hostel (you can join on site if you're not a member) or a MINSHUKU. Each will probably include a Japanese-style breakfast (often green or brown tea, fish, soup, rice and a raw egg to mix with the rice, along with some thin wafers of seaweed in which to wrap the mixture), require you to put away your own bedding each morning, and provide communal toilet and bath facilities. About baths: conservation-minded Japanese families share their bath water, and MINSHUKU guests are, at least to that extent, considered part of the family; you bathe in private, but the water isn't discarded or refilled. Locals have done this their whole lives and built up their immunity to each other's normal bodily bacteria, etc., but that same innocent effluvia may knock you for a loop. Determine that your facility has a shower as well as a bath.
Cheap sightsseeing in Japan: Guided tours in Japan are fun within a city. You can find the highlights yourself with the help of the local tourist office, and with the aid of a map you can see the off-the-beaten-path Japan as well. Find out in advance when local Japanese festivals are located. They are usual outdoor affairs, often on temple, shrine or park sites, usually open to the general public.
While visiting Japan, if you are feeling especially adventurous, take the following day trip: buying the cheapest ticket, hop a local train and get off at the next small stop that looks interesting, paying the fare difference (if any) as you exit. There may be a bus stop at the station; you may wish to explore on foot or go where the bus goes (often up a mountain, Japan is mostly mountain!) Be sure to ask where to stand to catch the return bus (and whether there even IS a return bus!) Wear a backpack or at least a waistpack to keep all the maps, schedules and souvenirs you collect in Japan.
Cheap meals in Japan: You don't have to pay $50 for a beer! They're only a couple bucks at a beer machine (outside many shops) in Japan, or from the refrigerator case in a convenience store. If you're not planning to cook while visiting Japan, supermarket prices are reasonable. Also eat where regular folk eat in Japan and avoid tourist traps. Almost all Japanese eateries have wax or plastic representations of their meals in the window, along with prices, so you shouldn't find yourself unpleasantly surprised. Some of the best and least expensive food in Japan can be found at noodle shops. Try a huge bowl of UDON (big noodles in soup) or DONBURI (a meat of your choice atop a bowl of rice) and OKONOIMIYAKI shops. Okonomiyaki is like a cross between a pancake and an omelette (the Japanese will tell you it resembles a pizza) and you get to choose the ingredients. There are also inexpensive sushi mills, such as Atom Boy, where a conveyor belt sends a selection around past your counter seat and you're charged, at the end, based on a dish-count. (Be sure to look at the pictorial menu to find out which kind of plate costs how much) Tea is generally included with all Japanese meals, and so are the condiments (such as pickled ginger). As with taxis, there is no tipping in Japanese restaurants.
Vending machines are all over the place in Japan, even out in the boonies. Save money by bringing a thermos and fill it with the beverage of your choice, purchased at a supermarket in Japan. Likewise, if you're going hiking in Japan, select portable edibles at the market and prepare them in advance. You can also find ready-made O-BENTO (lunchbox meals) at train stations (expensive) and in the supermarket (less expensive). You can enjoy an inexpensive trip to Japan.