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A commonly cited reason for travellers and travel agent clients avoiding Japan as a travel destination is that “it’s so expensive”.

There’s a perception that a visit to Japan is going to break the bank, and you’re getting more bang for buck in most other destinations. So, what are more common travel destinations instead?

Popular choices are Greece, Italy, Spain, or France. Higher-end destinations for sure, that are often 4x or more the cost of destinations like Vietnam, but certainly perceived to be cheaper than Japan and regularly opted for instead.

Let’s do a quick comparison to see if this belief holds up, and see how Japan truly compares to one of these European nations. Today, we’ll compare Italy and Japan.

The categories of comparison

We’ll go for the highest impact categories:

  1. Return flights to each destination from Johannesburg, South Africa (a relatively central point).
  2. A train pass, i.e. the EuRail vs the JR Pass.
  3. Cost of food at regular restaurants.
  4. Cost of accommodation at a mid-range hotel.
  5. Cost of entry to popular sites, such as churches / temples.

Let’s go!

1. The cost of return flights for each destination

According to SkyScanner’s Everywhere Search function, looking at the cheapest months to fly, these are the results:

Italy: Departing for Rome on May 7th and returning to Johannesburg on May 14 with Ethiopian Airlines – $400.

Japan: Departing for Tokyo on May 22nd and returning to Johannesburg on May 30th with Singapore Airlines – $540.

Winner in overall cost: Italy

Winner in cost per mile: Japan

Winner of quality to price: Japan
(Based on various airline ranking websites, Singapore Airlines ranked as the world’s top airline for 2019 and is consistently ranked in the top 5 year-on-year, while Ethiopian Airlines is ranked as the best in Africa, but overall hovers around 22 – 25 in the world.)

2. The cost of tourist train passes per country

Cost of a EuRail Train Pass: $260 for a EuRail Italy Pass that allows travel for 6 days in a one month period in second-class.

Cost of a JR Pass:  $255 for a Japan Rail Pass that allows travel for 7 days in a one month period in ordinary class.

Winner in overall cost: Japan

Winner in cost per day: Japan (at $36 per day, versus Italy at $42 per day)

Winner of quality to price: Tied, with Japan leading slightly with a lower price.
The Frecciarossa, Italy’s high speed train, is similar in speed and quality to Japan’s various shinkansen (bullet trains).

3. Cost of food at regular restaurants per country

Fortunately, both countries have comparable dishes which are staples: pasta and men (noodles). Additionally, both countries love pizza!

Cost of a carbonara in Rome: $15 – $19 per plate.

Cost of a bowl of ramen in Tokyo: $4 – $8 per plate.

Cost of a pizza in Rome: $8 – $11 per pizza with toppings.

Cost of a pizza in Tokyo: $8 – $12 per pizza with toppings.

Winner in overall cost: Japan

Winner of quality to price: Hard to say. Both countries have an incredible food culture. Japan’s overall food culture and Italy’s pizza are both listed by the UN on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List. Definitely a tie.

4. Cost of accommodation at mid-range hotels per country

Doing a search on Booking.com with the same search criteria (City Central, 3 star hotel, 8+ star rating, ordered by lowest price first), here are the top 3 results for each country.

Rome:

  1. Raeli Hotel Reggio (8.2 stars): $90 per night.
  2. Hotel Piemonte (8.1 stars): $100 per night.
  3. Hotel Mariano (8.3 stars): $98 per night (including breakfast).

Tokyo:

  1. Mustard Hotel Shibuya (8.4 stars): $87 per night
  2. The B Tokyo Ochanomizu Jimbocho (8.2 stars): $90 per night.
  3. Henn na Hotel Tokyo Hamamatsucho (8.2 stars): $90 per night.

Winner in overall cost: Japan

Winner of price to quality: Japan, just barely.

5. The cost of entry to popular tourist sites:

Italy:

  1. Tivoli’s Roman gardens, Villa d’Este: $9 for non-EU citizens, $4.50 for EU citizens.
  2. The Colosseum in Rome: $13 per person.
  3. The Uffizi Art Gallery in Florence, home of many famous artworks: $13, free on the first Sunday of every month.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, displayed in the Uffizi Gallery.

Japan:

  1. Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s three famous gardens: $2.60.
  2. Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion, one of Japan’s most famous temples: $3.
  3. Tokyo’s Sumida Hokusai Museum, one of Japan’s most famous artists: $2.80.

The Great Wave, created by Hokusai.

Winner in overall cost: Japan

Winner of price to quality: It’d be unfair to say. It depends on your background, interests and prior knowledge of each country.

Final verdict

Although comparable all together, Japan edges out Italy overall in total travel costs for all major trip costs while on the ground, with a slightly higher price for flights to get there.

Does Japan deserve the reputation it holds for being hellishly expensive, or do you think it’s an unfair tag attached to it that discourages travel to the beautiful Land of the Rising Sun?


If you’re interested in visiting Japan and don’t want to do all the planning yourself, while still staying within budget, head over to Visit Japan Planet Africa Tours.

You give them your budget, and they can tailor-make a trip for you. They’re also one of the only companies that sell JR Passes in South Africa, making it simple and easy to get your train pass. Go check them out!

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