Doing Tokyo Cheaply

An article from the Washington Post that my brother passed along to me.

Tokyo Is Expensive

Well, it can be. Our reporter spent a week there for under $1,000 -- including air. And he only had to sleep in an Internet cafe once.

By Ben Brazil

Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 25, 2006; Page P01

To those of you of modest income, lacking the means to visit a city as distant and expensive as Tokyo, please refrain from envy as you consider my lunch of March 13, 2006.

I'm sitting by the corner window 32 floors above the Japanese capital, enjoying one of the menu's most expensive lunches in the world's most expensive city. A bouquet of flowers at my elbow, I nibble a piece of sashimi and dreamily watch the metropolis stretch toward a hazy, distant line of mountains.

So the view's okay, if I had time to enjoy it.

But I'm due to meet my two tour guides in 15 minutes. And while it's nice that I'm their only guest, I also went on a private tour of Tokyo yesterday, and, if not for my commendable interest in Japanese culture, would be feeling a bit blase about the whole private-tour-of-Tokyo thing.

Before you start decrying the excesses of the leisure class, allow me to add a few details: My lunch costs less than $6, the flowers are fake, the sashimi could be fresher and I'm eating with bureaucrats on lunch break in the dining hall of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Also, all of my tour guides are volunteers, meaning I pay only their expenses, which don't amount to much.

And I guess I should disclose that my week-long trip to Tokyo cost less than $1,000, including round-trip airfare.

Oh, and I told one baldfaced lie. Tokyo is not the world's most expensive city anymore.

It's fallen all the way to No. 2.

* * *

If New York never sleeps, Tokyo never even dims the lights.

Entering this city of 12 million residents -- 35 million if you count the Connecticut-size greater metropolitan area -- feels like entering a room full of TVs, all with the volume cranked up, and trying to watch every channel at once. In the liveliest districts, multistory projection screens top buildings, flashing and pulsing. Red, green and yellow signs ascend from sidewalks, transforming streets into glowing canyons swollen with rivers of people.

Everywhere, the people-watching fascinates. I saw jean-jacketed male hipsters carrying Louis Vuitton purses; Japanese Goth girls vamping around the teenage fashion street Takeshita Dori; sinister-looking tough-guys with auburn-dyed hair, square-toed boots and long black jackets. My favorite, though, was a dignified elderly woman in a pink kimono, a model of tradition who was text-messaging on her cellphone in a subway station.

I never expected to see any of it. A budget traveler, I usually frequent chicken buses and $3 hostels in inexpensive Latin American countries. Tokyo, in contrast, just ended a 14-year reign as the world's most expensive city, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's rankings. Oslo claimed the top spot earlier this year, but flying around the globe to visit the world's second-most-expensive city still didn't strike me as a cheap vacation.

Then I chanced upon a $484 round-trip fare to Tokyo from Atlanta, where I live. So I took a deep breath, booked and immediately started scheming ways to see Tokyo on the cheap.

It was surprisingly easy. For five of seven nights, I paid $17 for a dormitory bunk at a small hotel in an older part of town. I ate $5 meals at countertop restaurants and Japanese fast-food chains (think rice and noodles, not burgers), never spending more than $15 anywhere. And I sought out free showrooms, cheap Kabuki and all the gratis sightseeing I could pack into a week.

What I quickly discovered, however, is that Tokyo's assault on your senses comes complimentary.

Nowhere did the onslaught come more literally, viscerally and exhilaratingly than in Tsukiji, home to one of the world's biggest fish markets. If this doesn't sound like a tourist attraction, it doesn't really try to be. Arriving just after 6 a.m. -- this is an early-morning affair -- I dodged rickshaws carting 300-pound frozen tuna, tiny flatbed carts puttering like lawn mowers and restaurateurs shouldering their way down narrow walkways lined with every edible sea creature imaginable.

There were metal trays of bloody eels, Styrofoam boxes of purplish octopus, tanks of live lobsters and all sorts of fish staring, cold and one-eyed, from beds of ice. Forging into the market's bowels, I found workers slinging torpedo-like frozen tuna across a concrete floor with hooks, then decapitating them with circular saws. A little gruesome, maybe, but I still had plenty of appetite for $11.50 worth of ultra-fresh sashimi at a stand on the way out.

The market, I realized, summarized how Tokyo intoxicates: by overwhelming your mental filters and exploding across your neurons as pure sensation. The effect can be confusing, disorienting, alienating -- you need a human connection, a translator to decipher the impossibly foreign world whirling past you.

Luckily, you can get it almost free.

* * *

Tomoko Ikeuchi, a then-28-year-old gerontology graduate student, met me by the Shinjuku Metro station just after 10 a.m. on a windy Sunday in March. She'd first e-mailed me a week earlier, shortly after I contacted Tokyo Free Guide, one of several guide services that charge only the costs of their volunteers' subway fares, admission fees and other expenses.

In our e-mails, I'd waffled about what I wanted to see, at first mentioning an interest in Kichijoji, a hip, collegiate area near Tomoko's home. But my senses needed a break, so I'd finally told her I wanted something peaceful -- temples, gardens, maybe an old part of town.

She led me to Shinjuku Gyoen, a 144-acre park with British, French and Japanese-style gardens. We strolled across the straw-colored winter grass, watching families picnic beneath the season's first cherry blossoms and chatting easily in English.

After lunch -- a $4.65 bento , or boxed lunch, from the basement of the Takashimaya Times Square shopping complex -- we took the Metro to the Kagurazaka neighborhood. Narrow, stone-paved alleys led to red-painted neighborhood shrines and temples. Incense sometimes hung in the air; wind rattled skinny wooden planks called sotoba, inscribed with the posthumous, Buddhist names of the dead.

Touring finally degenerated into hanging out, and Tomoko and I got coffee, then dinner, chatting about everything from our significant others to race relations in the United States. By then, Tomoko, a year younger than I, felt as much like a friend as a tour guide. In all, my day with her cost $26, counting my meals (Tomoko bought her own food) and our Metro fares and park admission fees.

My guides the next day, Masako Kuroi and Kinuko Hattori, felt more like doting middle-aged aunts. They met me at the Tokyo Tourist Information Center, a city-run facility that offers a slate of 10 inexpensive tours, all led by two volunteer guides. Each can accommodate up to five people, but I was my guides' sole charge for the day.

We went to the old, atmospheric Asakusa district and visited Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple that's one of Tokyo's biggest tourist magnets. Masako, an outgoing part-time language teacher and mother of three, wrangled free samples of dried seaweed, crackers and sweets from the vendors lining the approach to the temple.

"She's a good negotiator," said Kinuko, a more reserved mother of two with a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the statues, paintings and religious symbolism on our route. Both women spoke nearly flawless English, though Masako occasionally consulted an electronic translator for exactly the right word.

Our tour ended in the restaurant supply shops of the Kappabashi district, where we examined the plastic food used in Tokyo's ubiquitous window displays. I found a fake mug of Kirin beer complete with bubbles, as well as a red plastic steak with white plastic marbling.

What was real? What was fake? Part of Tokyo's mystique is that you never quite know for sure.

* * *

The city works to seduce you. Some of the seductions are capitalist, aimed at your wallet. Any cheapskate's trip to Tokyo will include visits to showrooms -- I listened to Sony music, gawked at Nissan cars and climbed onto Honda motorcycles (bolted to the floor, of course).

Other seductions are cultural. My biggest single sightseeing extravagance was a $7 ticket to one 55-minute act at Kabuki-za, a famous and ornate Kabuki theater whose curving, green-tiled roof stands out from the modern offices and high-end shopping in the Ginza district. From a seat near the ceiling, I watched white-faced actors stomp, sing and mime their way across the stage, accompanied by a warbling chorus.

Then again, some of Tokyo's seductions are, well, seductions.

At night, the touts and hustlers emerged, mostly African- and Caribbean-accented men trying to lure me into strip clubs and bars with no cover. In the night-life area of the Roppongi district, as well as in sleazy but harmless Kabukicho, I ran gantlets of women who grabbed my biceps, fluttered their eyelashes and breathed, "Special massage-y?"

Nope, no special massage-y for me. The fiancee would disapprove, and think of the cost!

Still, I wanted to sample Tokyo's night life, and I knew that nothing would shred my budget faster. It's not just the pricey drinks that kill you ($7 and up seemed standard at clubs) but the fact that the Metro stops running at about midnight, leaving cabs and walking as the only transportation options. In fact, it cost one of my hostel roommates $36 in cab fare to get home one night -- more than double the price of his bunk.

To avoid this pitfall, there are two obvious options: Go home early or party till dawn.

I started a Saturday night at What the Dickens!, a bar in the Ebisu district that charged no cover to hear a band of slouching Japanese dudes and a screaming Welshman tear through a set of punk and rock covers. I officially missed the last train home while at Matrix Bar, a well-regarded hip-hop, trance and reggae club that I found mediocre.

Rather than flag down a taxi, I chose a surprisingly popular alternative: sleeping at a manga kissa, or combination Internet cafe and comic book ( manga ) library. For about $6.50, I got a high-speed connection, all the comics I could handle and three hours' sleep in a small vinyl armchair.

When I left, about 5:30 a.m., crowds were drifting past a man promoting an after-hours club. As I passed him, I felt a hand on my arm.

"Special massage-y?" a voice asked hopefully.

* * *

Yes, you can melt a credit card in Tokyo. Yes, you could bankrupt yourself in a week. One undiscounted night in the Park Hyatt, the "Lost in Translation" hotel, would have cost me about $500, more than my entire month's rent.

My biggest lodging splurge -- about $55 -- went for a night in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, where the rooms have tatami-mat floors and futons instead of beds. I chose an establishment called Homeikan, where I padded down hallways of polished black stones and lacquered wood. My building even wrapped around a small garden, complete with koi pond and stone lanterns.

The garden was charming; such hidden nooks and small surprises are part of Tokyo's romance. But on one of my last nights in town, I wanted the macro view, with all the city lights arrayed below me. So I returned to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, whose twin towers both have free observatories on their 45th floors.

From above, the city was an immense microchip, channeling chaos and energy into lines of pulsing, fluid light. It looked orderly, square, predictable -- but I knew better.

Where else, I wondered, can you go to an electronics store and get a wonderful, free massage from a chair? Where else does your (heated) toilet seat contain as many buttons as your PlayStation 2 controller? Where else can you sleep in a plastic capsule the size of a clothes dryer, except with an interior about six feet deep?

That's what I did my first night in town, when I'd crashed at a capsule hotel. For about $38, I joined hundreds of Japanese businessmen who'd missed the last train home in two-high rows of tubes slightly roomier than an MRI scanner.

I thought it would be an interesting experience but a very poor lodging value. Then I discovered that my six-story human warehouse also included three saunas, a huge communal bath, at least three massage rooms and little luxuries such as pumice stones and disposable toothbrushes with toothpaste embedded in the bristles. A great value, but it was 2 a.m. and I was suddenly too excited to sleep.

No matter. This was Tokyo, and no one else was sleeping either.

DETAILS Budget Tokyo

GETTING THERE: I found an amazing fare for $563.76 round trip -- including fees and taxes -- from Atlanta to Tokyo during a United Airlines winter sale to Japan. Admittedly, that sort of fare doesn't pop up too often. To get airfares from Washington to Tokyo's Narita International Airport for close to $1,000, you have to book at least six weeks in advance. Nonstops start at about $1,050 from Dulles on All Nippon Airways. Numerous airlines provide connecting service from Reagan National, Dulles or BWI from about $1,085.

The airport is about 40 miles northeast of central Tokyo; a cab costs about $180. But several economical bus and train options exist. Japan Railways' "rapid train" gets you to Tokyo Station in 80 to 90 minutes for a bit more than $11. The reserved Narita Express gets you there in just under an hour for fares starting at $25.50. I took the cheapest option: the Keisei Electric Railway's "limited express," which gets you to the Keisei Ueno station in northeast Tokyo in about 1 hour 15 minutes for about $9.

ADDRESSES: Tokyo addresses don't use numbers and street names but rather a hierarchical system that moves from large wards (ku) to smaller districts (cho) to smaller divisions (chome) and finally to blocks and buildings. For example, 1-29-2 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, denotes building 2, block 29, chome 1 in the Kabukicho district of the Shinjuku ward. To make things more confusing, "ku" and "cho" are not always used. My advice: Ask for directions. Better yet, get a good guidebook with maps, or at least get a free map from a tourism office.

WHERE TO STAY: A good way to find and book inexpensive lodging is through Hostelworld .com (  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ), which allows comparison shopping and has user reviews.

I spent five nights at the pleasant, subway-convenient Oak Hotel (6-1-2 Higashi Ueno, Taito-ku, 011-81-3-5828-0551,  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ), with private and dorm rooms that have in-room baths. Dorm bunks start at about $26, $18 on the Internet.

For some of the city's cheapest private rooms, head to the Hotel New Koyo (2-26-13 Nihonzutsumi, Taito-ku, 011-81-3-3873-0343,  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ). The tiny shared-bath rooms come in Western (bed) and Japanese (futon) varieties. Singles begin at $22, doubles from $42.

For a splurge, go to a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, with tatami-mat floors and futons instead of beds. I spent a night at Homeikan (5-10-5 Hongo, Bunkyo-ku, 011-81-3-3811- 1181,  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ); my building had an interior garden and hallways of black stones and lacquered wood. Rooms begin at about $55 for a single, $100 for a double.

Another Japanese-style alternative is Taito Ryoka n (2-1-4 Nishi Asakusa, Taito-ku, 011-81-3-3843-2822,  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ), which combines the prices and privations of a youth hostel with the dark wood, tatami mat floors and sliding doors of a ryokan. Solo travelers may have to share a room; it's not luxurious, but it is cheap ($26 per person).

At capsule hotels, geared toward one-night stays, your bed is a tube big enough for one person. They often accept only men, tend to cluster around subway and train stations, and frequently ban anyone with a tattoo (which are associated with yakuza gangsters). The men-only Green Plaza Shinjuku (1-29-2 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, 011-81-3-3207-4923,  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ) is a six-story facility in Shinjuku, near the Seibu Shinjuku train station, with public baths, saunas and masseuses. Standard capsules run $38 a night.

WHERE TO EAT: Eating cheaply in Tokyo is easy, thanks to the profusion of chains and countertop restaurants.

The ubiquitous and now international Yoshinoya chain features countertop seating and lots of beef or pork and rice dishes, generally costing $3 to $5.50. With similar prices and food, Matsuya is Burger King to Yoshinoya's McDonald's. Unlike Yoshinoya, its signs generally aren't in English, but you'll develop an eye for the yellow-and-blue signs and learn to order from its vending machines.

If you need a cheap sushi fix, stop by a kaiten-zushi , where plates roll by on a conveyor belt. Among the cheapest is Kaiten-zushi Shion (3-25-9 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku), in the same building as Kirin City bar. All plates are either $1 or $2 and usually contain two pieces.

My favorite dining experience was at Sometaro (2-2-2 Nishi Asakusa, Taito-ku), an atmospheric place where you cook your own okonomiyaki -- a cross between a pancake and a supreme pizza. Seating is on tatami-mat floors, around a table with a griddle. Most diners will need at least a couple portions, which run $3.50 to $7.

For cheap lunch, try the employee dining area on the 32nd floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building One (2-8-1 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku). The assembly line vibe isn't great, but the view is. Rice bowls, noodle bowls and small sushi plates run $3 to $6.

For nighttime dining with a view, the nearby Shinjuku NS Building (2-4-1 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku) has several reasonable options on the 29th and 30th floors. One is La Pausa (30th floor), an Italian-food chain where you should make reservations (or have someone make them for you). Entrees are $3.50 to $8.

In the Shibuya ward, go to the huge Takashimaya Times Square (5-24-2 Sendagaya, adjoining the Shinjuku rail station). Bento , or boxed lunch, runs $4 to $11.50; a boxed sandwich runs $2 to $3.50.

VOLUNTEER GUIDE SERVICES: Several Tokyo organizations offer services that require you to pay only the guides' expenses -- or nothing. The Tokyo Tourist Information Center (see Information below) offers tours with two guides and no more than five guests. Costs range from free to $32 (per-person cost falls as the group size increases). Tokyo Free Guide (  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ) is more informal, pairing you with a volunteer guide who will listen to your interests and plot a relevant itinerary; e-mail it at least two weeks in advance.

Japan also has a network of volunteer Goodwill Guides. In Tokyo, they offer free, English-language tours of the old, traditional Asakusa neighborhood, as well as the Ueno district, home to many museums and parks. Info: the Tokyo Metropolitan Area SGG Club in the Asakusa Cultural and Sightseeing Center (2-18-9 Kaminarimon, Taito-ku, 011-03-3842-5566). Information is also available atthe  HYPERLINK "" \l "tokyo" \t "" Japan National Tourist Organization Web site, the JNTO offices or the Tokyo Tourist Information Center (see below).

INFORMATION: Japan National Tourist Organization, 212-757-5640,  HYPERLINK "" \t "" . Check the Web site of the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau (  HYPERLINK "" \t "" ). The Tokyo Tourist Information Center's main office (2-8-1 Nishi Shinjuku-ku, 011-81-03-5321-3077) is on the first floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

-- Ben Brazil

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