International Budget Guide 2013: Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, Japan, is a city of politeness, cleanliness, culinary enlightenment and notorious expense. This year Tokyo was listed as the most expensive city in the world, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, coming in at number two. But Japan being the land of extremes, there are plenty of great thrifty or outright free things to do in the megalopolis – especially now with the yen at the lowest it has been against the dollar in almost four years.

Part of the expense of Tokyo can be allayed by avoiding the excessive niceties of day-to-day Japanese life. Many of Japan’s costs come from its quest for excellence in customer service and the desire for perfection. Annual train tardiness is measured in seconds. After purchasing merchandise at a retail store, the clerk will come around from the counter and hand you your bag face to face. Taxi doors open automatically for patrons and drivers have uniforms reminiscent of pilots and butlers, complete with white gloves. You will also experience a cleanliness that will make you instantly feel filthy when you get off the plane in your home country.

The budget traveler, conversely, might consider taking the slower local trains instead of the bullet train to save a few thousand yen. Similarly, a standing room-only sushi restaurant can save some costs on dining. To that end, the food alone is enough to keep the budget traveler coming back to Tokyo. The scene extends far beyond the traditional sushi or Benihana style restaurant, with dirt-cheap ramen, okonomiyaki and udon noodle joints on many street corners and the huge amount of local specialty foods that each city of Japan has to offer.

Just getting lost in Tokyo is a voyage into oddity. Without spending a dime you can ferret out entire streets dedicated to selling kitchenware, high-rise arcades and mega-sized vending machines ready for exploration and a perfect photo opportunity. In fact, some of the best things in Tokyo are absolutely free and with a few inside tips, a trip to one of the most unique cities in the world can be quite affordable.


See modern and traditional Japan in Yoyogi Park. It’s absolutely required that you make sure you’re in Tokyo on a Sunday and make your way to Yoyogi Park. Adjacent to Harajuku, the center of Tokyo’s outrageous fashion, and Omotesando, Tokyo’s upscale fashion, Yoyogi is a place where Tokyo’s youth go on Sunday to practice and indulge in their obsessions. If there is one thing Japan thrives at, it’s its people fixating on their crafts and hobbies. An entire afternoon can be spent walking through the park, one of the largest in the city, snapping photos and interacting with the young Tokyoites.

The most emblematic of Tokyo’s bizarre subcultures, is Yoyogi’s rockabilly gang. The greasers gather near the park’s entrance behind Harajuku Station on Sunday afternoons to dance, drink and have fun. They have hairspray, leather, denim and an absolute devotion to Rock & Roll. They don’t accept tips, they typically aren’t looking to take photos with tourists, and they really just want to hangout with their friends and dance.

Continuing on from the rockabilly gang, deep inside a forest within Yoyogi Park is Meiji Shrine. Free to enter, Meiji Shrine is a quintessential Shinto shrine, and if you only visit one shrine in Tokyo, this is the one it should be. Lush trees shade the walk from the park entrance and once inside the shrine grounds, it’s not uncommon to see a traditional Japanese wedding procession.

To get to Yoyogi Park, take the JR Yamanote Line to JR Harajuku Station. Exit towards Omotesando and follow the road as it curves. You’ll find the rockabilly gang in the large, circular public space.

Wander with otaku. The epitome of how the Western world sees Japan is Akihabara Electric Town. This neighborhood is a dense amalgamation of shops selling electronics, anime, rare video games and anything else Japanese otaku are into. Just walking down along the sidewalk you will bump into women dressed as French maids and anime characters passing out flyers advertising various shops or themed cafes. Some shops are incredibly specific and dedicated to their niche; one shop sells only light bulbs and another is simply warehouse space with more than 400 capsule toy vending machines. Walking through the neon-lit alleys is free of course and is always extremely memorable.

Take the Electric Town exit at Akihabara Station, situated on the Hibiya subway line, as well as the Yamanote Loop, Keihin-Tōhoku and Chūō-Sōbu JR lines.

Get a sight of the capital as a whole. Seeing a panoramic view of a city from atop a skyscraper is essential for any trip to a metropolis. Tokyo has a number of options for you to take in the wonderful view, but only one that is worth going to is free: the not-so-romantically-named Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building offers an observation deck at no charge. From it you can see spectacular views of Shinjuku, the rest of Tokyo and even Mt. Fuji on a clear day.

The easiest way to get there is via Tochomae Station on the Oedo subway line, which is located directly below the building.


Many budget hotels in Tokyo tend to cluster near the Asakusa district, in the north eastern section of the city with great access to popular attractions such as Akihabara, Kappabashi, Ueno Park and Senso-ji. After dark, it can be fairly quiet, so if you’re looking to be close to the nightlife then look into Shibuya or Shinjuku or elsewhere. Since public transportation stops running around midnight and taxi fares are high, it pays to stay close to your focus activities.

Toyoko Inn (mind the spelling). A national chain of budget hotels targeted towards businessmen looking for basic accommodations on business trips. As with almost everything else in Japan, the rooms are small compared to those in the West, but will have the essentials. The interiors are bare bones and haven’t seen new furniture since the ’90s, but with many of their hotels extremely close to train stations, their locations are often unbeatable. Their best location is their Kabuki-cho inn, right in the middle of Shinjuku. It is a 12-minute walk from JR Shinjuku station, which is directly linked to Narita Aiport via the Narita Express, and is also an amazing starting point for getting around to the rest of Tokyo or Japan. From $63, $69 for the Kabuki-cho location. 2-20-15, Kabuki-cho Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0021.

Hotel Yanagibashi. Located in Asakusa, Hotel Yanagibashi is in a quiet neighborhood known for its traditional ningyo doll shops. The furnishings are extremely basic and the rooms are very small. However, one amazing feature is its proximity to the Sumida River, a wonderful place to walk at night and see amazing views of the new Tokyo Sky Tree. Less than two blocks away from both JR train and subway stations, it’s extremely convenient for getting to Senso-ji, Akihabara, Ueno Park and the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena. Children under 5 stay for free and ages 5 to 12 stay for only $27 per night. From $38 for a shared room. 1-3-12, Yanagibashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0052.

Quality Hostel K’s House Tokyo Oasis. Right behind a fantastic covered shopping arcade, K’s House Tokyo Oasis is a fantastic hostel that breaks from backpacking stereotypes. Most of the guests here are families. The premises are cleaner than most major chain hotels and all the furnishings are new and extremely comfortable and modern. The staff is very helpful and friendly and there are a generous amount of free pamphlets for various Tokyo attractions. K’s House also has locations around Japan, which are also highly rated and affordable. From $32 for a dorm bed. <14-10, Asakusa 2-Chome, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032.


Don’t be intimidated if you can’t read or speak Japanese; most restaurants in Japan have picture menus or even wax replicas of their dishes in the front window. Japanese people tend to be very accommodating to people that don’t speak the language.

There is no shortage of sushi restaurants and whiskey bars at which to splurge on in Tokyo, a city with more three-star Michelin restaurants than Paris. This arena is where a lot of your travel budget can mysteriously disappear. Drinking can be especially expensive in Japan, but given that virtually all bars will have a single beer on tap, it’s easy to limit yourself. Be sure to stay away from bars with “snack” in their name, as they will most likely have a seating charge upwards of $5.

Sakuratei. The best Japanese food that is virtually unknown outside of Japan is okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is often called a “Japanese pancake,” but this does it a disservice. Essentially meaning, “what you want, grilled,” okonomiyaki can fit anyone’s tastes, from vegetarians to spicy food lovers. Whatever ingredients you choose are all brought together by the egg and flour base, then topped with a deliciously savory, BBQ-esque sauce.

The best introduction to okonomiyaki within Tokyo is the restaurant Sakuratei, located in Harajuku. Somewhat mimicking the surrounding neighborhood, it has a wild interior, with crazed portraits scrawled across the walls. You cook the meal yourself on the grill, but don’t be intimidated, there are easy to follow instructions in English available and the process is great, extremely delicious fun. Meals start at $10. 3-20-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. (Japanese only)

Tsukiji Fish Market. The Tsukiji Market is often high on many people’s list of things to do in Tokyo. Get up with the sunrise to see the auctions that go on within Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market, the largest in the world, during the tiny window that tourists are allowed inside. Then, afterwards get a sushi breakfast nearby. Even if you’re not a morning person enough to see the auctions, eating some of the freshest seafood in Japan can be done at any hour in the market.

The best way to do so is in Jogai Ichiba. Immediately adjacent to the fish market, Jogai Ichiba is a series of alleys teeming with sashimi stalls each with seating space limited to a handful of stools. Each morning the stalls get their seafood straight from the fish market, which sources its stock from all over Japan. It’s best to just wander around the alleys and pick whichever stall catches your eye first, or whichever hostess is friendliest. The dish to get is maguro-don, raw tuna over rice, likely to be amongst the best, freshest seafood you will ever eat. Meals start at $6. To get there head to Tsukijishijo Station, on the Oedo line and take exit A1. To your left will be the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market and two blocks to your right will be Jogai Ichiba.

Ichiran Ramen. Eating at a proper ramen restaurant in Japan should not be confused with the instant ramen that is so prevalent across the globe. Eating a good bowl of ramen is a transcendent experience. And with a huge amount of regional varieties, as well as minor tweaks each individual restaurant gives to their own recipes, exploring the world of ramen is a journey unto itself. Best of all, ramen is an everyman meal at everyman prices. A common fixture at truck stops and train stations, it’s easy to grab a bowl almost anywhere.

A great starting point is Ichiran Ramen. Specializing in tonkotsu, pork bone broth ramen, this chain is for ramen purists. You eat in your own personal cubicle and your order is received from a clerk behind a curtain, which falls completely when the bowl of noodles arrives. Every aspect of your meal is customizable, from the amount of garlic in the broth to how thick your noodles are. One of the most convenient locations is within the Atre mall complex of Ueno Station, on the Ginza and Hibiya subway lines, and is also open 24 hours a day.
Bowls of ramen start at $8. 7-1 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0005.

Getting Around

Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for public transportation, with the largest and most used subway system in the world. But on top of the subway system are also the overland rail systems. The whole network can be quite dizzying, especially when considering all of the private railways and busses all over the city. The best way to get around is to stick to the subways and a single overland train, the Yamanote Loop Line. The most useful train line in the entire city, it connects most of Tokyo’s major attractions such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Harajuku and Akihabara. When choosing lodging, a good rule of thumb is to be within walking distance of a station on the Yamanote line.

The most convenient way to pay for public transportation is with an IC Card. The IC cards are pre-paid smart cards that enable you to bypass the need to buy individual tickets where you’d have to look up the price for your destination for each journey, occasionally without the ease of English signage. With an IC card, you can simply swipe the card at the turnstile when you enter and exit the station and you are automatically charged the correct fare. There are two IC cards that you can purchase and charge at virtually all stations in Tokyo, the Passmo and Suica cards. There is no difference between the two and each have a $20 purchase price with a $5 deposit that can be refunded by returning your card to a station ticket office. Foreign tourists can even purchase discounted IC cards at both of Tokyo’s international airports.

The card can be used interchangeably on the subway, JR line trains and most busses. You can even use Tokyo’s IC cards in other cities that have their own IC card systems around Japan, such as Osaka, Fukuoka and Sapporo. Many shops in and around stations will also accept IC cards for payment.

Hailing a taxi in Japan is done the same as in many places across the world; you simply wave an empty cab down from the sidewalk. While there is no uniform color or style for taxis in Japan, most will be the same boxy Toyota from the ’90s with a small illuminated sign on the roof and “Taxi” written on the doors in English. Vacant taxis can easily be spotted from the bright red LED sign with Chinese characters displayed on the windshield, with a green sign meaning it’s occupied. You enter the taxi from the rear left door, which opens automatically. If your destination is not a well-known landmark, an address for the driver to put into his GPS would work best.

Just like in all other service related industries in Japan, you do not tip the driver. If you do, the driver will think you’ve misunderstood the price and give you back your change. Unfortunately, Japanese taxis are notoriously expensive. Fares start between $6 and $8 and after the first 2 kilometers you are charged an additional $1 for each 500 meters. Also, after 10 p.m., rates usually increase about 20 percent.

Tokyo has two international airports, Narita and Haneda. Haneda is centrally located within Tokyo, it only takes a 20-minute, $5 ride on the Tokyo Monorail to get to Hamamatsucho Station on the Yamanote Loop Line. Narita airport is actually located in a suburb some distance from central Tokyo and unfortunately most international flights land there. The fastest way to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station is on the Narita Express. It’s a 55-minute ride and costs $32 each way. The cheapest way is on Keisei Railway’s Limited Express train to Nippori Station, which takes about 75 minutes and costs about $11.

When To Go

Tokyo’s weather rarely ventures into extremes. The only true season to avoid would be summer. Tokyo gets quite humid and walking and public transportation is a large part of life in Japan; you can often find yourself covered in a humidity-induced sweat. Making summer worse, between May and October is the rainy season, peaking in August and September. Additionally, Japanese public schools are off for much of August and that can add to the crowds in public spaces.

The best time to visit Japan as a whole would be for the cherry blossom season. The pink flowers are ubiquitous and absolutely beautiful. People take to having picnics in parks underneath the trees with the Kirin Ichiban flowing. Blossom season is very weather dependent, but it typically occurs in late March or early April. As a guide, Tokyo experienced cherry blossom blooms from March 16 to March 31 this year.


I have heard stories of people leaving their wallets at restaurants, only to come back hours later to find that their wallet had not only stayed put, but been covered in plastic to protect it from rain. I have seen people drive up to 7-11s in Japan, go in and lazily do some shopping while leaving the keys in their still running car with the windows rolled down. There should be very little fear in walking the streets alone, at any hour, for either sex. So long as you keep common sense about you, your trip to be Japan may be the safest you have felt in your entire life.

Budget Tip

Convenience stores in Japan are unlike anything you have ever experienced. The selection and quality of goods offered is better than most full-blown supermarkets around the world. From any typical 7-11 you can buy concert tickets, pay bills, order freshly cooked food, or send a fax, in addition to the typical buying of snacks. A somewhat unique aspect to Japanese convenience store culture is the limited edition snacks. On top of the typical chocolate offerings, for example, will be flavors such as blueberry cheesecake or café au lait chocolate-filled, Koala-shaped crackers. Each variant is truly only available for a limited time. Even the big beer brewers like Kirin and Asahi will get in on the limited edition flavor game.

Possibly the best tip for Japan is if you ever get lost or can’t find your destination, walk into any convenience store and ask the clerks for some help. Just say your desired location followed by “wa doko dess-ka?” (“Where is…?”) and they will gladly help you, pulling out a large map if they don’t know the location off-hand. It even isn’t unlikely that they will walk you to your destination if it’s nearby.

[Photo Credit: Masaaki Komori]

The Southern Road: 6 Tips For A Car Plant Tour

I just love visiting factories. After finishing my Southern Road trip, I’ve now been to 99. I went on my first plant tour when I was 8 years old, and my family went to visit Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

Like me, you can visit many of the car plants that have been built in the South over the past 20 years. (See here for a list – and companies are adding tours all the time.) But, what are you actually going to see?

Here are some tips to help you understand what to look for.

1) Robots. Hands down, people who go on plant tours want to see robots. And you’ll see plenty at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Pretty soon, it will have 1,000 robots in its body shop. It has some of the most interesting uses for robots of any plant in the South. It actually hands them upside down, so they’re easier to repair and maintain. Robots do a variety of things on the assembly line, but they’re primarily used to weld things together. Don’t let the sparks scare you.

2) Organization. Felix Unger of the Odd Couple would love going on a plant tour. It’s the primary example of how things are organized to reach an outcome. When you’re on a plant tour, look at how parts are arranged on the side the assembly line – and also look to see whether there are many parts at all. In some plants, big pieces of a car, like the dashboard, are now delivered to workers in one module.

3) Atmosphere. Is the plant well lit? Is it hot, or cool and does it smell? Odor is a problem in engine plants, like Toyota’s factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The women who work there don’t bring their purses inside, because the smell gets into leather. (That odor is coolant, which is used because there is so much metal being processed.) On the flip side, I don’t think I’ve ever seen cleaner plants than Toyota in Tupelo, Mississippi, BMW in Greenville, South Carolina, or Mercedes.

4) Flow. Car plants have a particular flow. The biggest ones, like Hyundai, in Montgomery, Alabama, start with stamping plants, where they make the hoods and sides and trunks from big coils of steel. All the metal pieces get put together before they go through the paint shop. Then, car companies take the doors off so that workers can get inside and underneath to add parts, without damaging the hinges (or themselves). You’ll always see a “wet test” at the end where the car gets sprayed with water to test for leaks.

5) Staging yards. Outside the factory, you may notice a huge lot filled with vehicles – rows and rows of them. This doesn’t mean the cars aren’t selling. These are called staging yards, where the cars are lined up to be put on rail cars and transport trucks. They’re busy places, with cars zooming out of the factory and into the yard. It’s fun to see how many different colors are being made and which models are the most popular.

Finally, one last piece of advice FOR you, not about what you’ll see.

6) Don’t touch anything. You’re not in danger of having anything fall on you, but please keep your hands out of the assembly line and don’t push any buttons. Also, don’t feel like you can help yourself to a free Mercedes emblem or a BMW hubcap. These things are expensive. And, many parts are lined up in sequence. If you somehow walked off with a rear-view mirror, you might wind up delaying the assembly line, and that would be some plant tour to remember.

The Southern Road: Under The Factory Roof

I can’t stop thinking about Corey Burkett. And Tonya Williams. And the Burton family.

These folks – and thousands more – are southerners who have joined automobile companies to plot new careers and, hopefully, achieve some of their personal and financial goals. And the jobs along the Southern Road aren’t just going to people who were born in the South.

During my trip, I met people with roots in Detroit who made a reverse migration from the North, landing positions at the foreign automakers. Others traveled across oceans, from Korea, Japan and Germany.

These are the people you’ll see when you take a tour of a car plant. I got to talk to a couple dozen while I was on the Southern Road, and I was struck by the similarities and differences among the people I met.

All of them, it seems, feel the auto industry is their future, and the future of their communities and their states. Numerous times people said they felt “blessed” to have landed jobs for which hundreds of thousands of applications came in.

The pay for these positions generally starts around $15 an hour, but some earn more, and promotions seem to be readily available. These plants aren’t union, and there doesn’t seem to be any overwhelming drive to organize them.

You never know, as a reporter, whether people have been briefed on your arrival. But I saw more folks smile and wave at me than in any factory I’d ever visited up north. The employees in places like Mercedes, Hyundai and BMW are also used to being interviewed. Some have even starred in commercials and on the local news.

So, who’s working under the roof?

%Gallery-164491%Burkett, who I met at Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama, plant, has some awesome responsibilities. He’s the manager of the paint line, where Hyundai paints each car that’s built in the plant. He supervises more than 140 people, including an assistant manager, three group leaders and more than 100 assembly line workers.

Before he came to Hyundai, Burkett worked at Rheem’s nearby factory, making water heaters. He was already used to industrial work, so the idea of making cars “wasn’t a big shock or adjustment,” he says. His dad, who works at a bakery, and his mom, who is a supervisor at the county jail, were excited that he was getting a chance to join the big new company in town.

Burkett started on the bottom rung in May, 2004, installing fixtures in the paint shop and working on its conveyors. “You learn a lot,” he says of the first job. Promotions rapidly followed. Now, Burkett’s day begins at 6 a.m., when he receives communications from the previous shift (Hyundai is a three shift operation).

As the other workers arrive, he makes a point to be out on the paint shop floor, talking with his employees and making sure there is enough staff on hand to cover every position. When he’s training newcomers, he’ll assign them to work with an experienced team member, so no one is left on their own.

Williams, who works in the paint shop at BMW, knows what it’s like to make a transition from another industry. For years, Williams worked at a vitamin factory in North Carolina, a short drive from where the BMW plant sits outside Greenville, S.C.

Day in and day out, Williams worked on assembly line where the tablets were measured into rows after rows of square bottles. “It was nothing like this,” she says of the gleaming BMW factory.

At BMW, she confidently takes me on a tour of the paint shop (usually off limits to visitors) where employees are applying the glistening paint that is a hallmark of the German luxury brand. The BMW workers know that their workplace is a subject of curiosity.

“You have a lot of people who come in from out of town, you have a lot of Germans that visit,” she says.

And another German company, Volkswagen, has provided opportunities for three members of the Burton family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Brothers Mark, 24, and Brian, 28, are taking part in an apprenticeship program that the auto company is sponsoring in order to groom, and eventually hire, its future technicians.

Their father, Mike, is an inspector at VW – “one of half a million people who showed up at the convention center” in Chattanooga to apply for jobs at the plant, he jokes.


Brian had been working at a local bank for nine years, while Mark was a corporate trainer at the Melting Pot restaurant chain. Their father had a background in graphic design. “The opportunities did run out at the bank,” says Brian Burton.

But when he learned of the apprenticeship program, he originally picked up a flyer not for himself, but for his brother, who has always been fascinated by the way things are put together.

Now, all three of them arrive each day at the sprawling VW facility, where over three years, the younger Burtons are being taught all aspects of work at the assembly plant over nine semesters. For four, they’ll be in workshops, for five, on the plant floor. And all they have to do is go outside to see the impact VW has had on Chattanooga.

“Everywhere you go, you see VWs on the road,” Brian Burton says. “It’s a VW town now.”

At Toyota’s engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama, Evona Mayes spends her workday in an area that’s called the “test bench.” She listens to the engines for abnormal sounds, prepares them for shipping, and conducts final inspections.

Like all of the other autoworkers, Mayes also made a transition, from the retail industry. She worked at a nearby Wal-Mart, and actually missed out on the first round of hiring at the plant, which sits a short drive from NASA’s facilities in northern Alabama.

When a cousin called to say Toyota was adding jobs, Mayes applied and was called in to take an assessment test. Although it was supposed to take three hours, she finished it in 90 minutes, and wondered if her speed meant she didn’t have the right qualifications.

She was wrong. A call came, and then a job offer. Now, Mayes has applied to become a team leader, the first step toward climbing up the ladder, as Burkett has done at Hyundai. To her, the Toyota jobs means “not having to worry,” she says. And while there are some ups and downs on the assembly line, Mayes says she doesn’t have second thoughts about exchanging a life in a superstore for her new life.

“I think it was my destiny to be here,” Mayes says.

The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial America

If you’re not from the American South, you probably have an image of it in your head. It might have squealing pickup trucks and Daisy Dukes. Or hoop skirts and cotton plantations from “Gone With The Wind.” Maybe the streetcars of New Orleans, or the twang of Paula Deen.

What if I told you that the American South has become a land of opportunity, where people no longer have to leave home to find their fortunes? What if you knew that more than a third of all the cars sold in the United States are made there? And that its population is no longer just white, black, and Hispanic, but European and Asian?

In August, I traveled 4,000 miles over two weeks across the New Industrial South. I plotted a road trip that took me to all the car and truck plants between Mississippi and South Carolina that have been built in the past two decades. I talked to autoworkers and managers, chefs and mayors, university officials and farmers, wait staff and retirees.

And I came away thinking that people up north have no idea what’s happened below the Mason Dixon line. Thanks to the auto industry, and everything that came with it, the South is full of cities where there’s been growth, where people buy new cars and homes, and send their kids to new schools and to play on new skate parks. Towns have new city halls. Instead of selling the past, economic developers are salivating over a new future.

If you only visit one of these places, say, Birmingham, Alabama, you see some of this, but not all of it. Driving the entire region, however, fills in the picture in a complete way.

Over the next weeks, we’ll be exploring the impact of the South’s new industry in “The Southern Road: Traveling Through The New Industrial South.” We’ll have lots of tips to help you plan your own southern road trip.

Most of all, we’ll provide impressions. And this was my main one.

Traveling the Southern Road made me think this is what it must have been like in Detroit, and Cleveland, and Gary, Indiana, and Pittsburgh for our parents and grandparents. While those cities are striving to write their next chapters, you can go see the story of the new American economy playing out right now, all across the South.

%Gallery-164205%The contrasts are striking, beginning with terrain. My trip began in my hometown, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Once I passed Lexington, Kentucky, en route to Greenville, South Carolina, I found myself driving around sweeping curves and up and down hills. As I crossed Tennessee and North Carolina, I was in mountains. And the geography stayed interesting as the miles clicked up, reminded me quite a bit of New England, only lush and verdant in a different way, with live oaks, moss and pines.

The variety was staggering. If you prefer to stay in luxury hotels and dine at some of the country’s top-rated restaurants, you can do that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, now the home of Volkswagen’s new plant. Or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has Mercedes-Benz just west of town and Honda within an hour’s drive to the east. Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, bustles at night, in no small part due to the BMW plant right by the airport.

Do you want to couple history with your auto town visit? Then head for Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Hyundai built its first American factory, only 10 minutes from the spot where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Near Tupelo, Mississippi, there’s a brand new Toyota factory a few exits down from Elvis Presley’s birthplace and the hardware store where he bought his first guitar.

Perhaps you’d like to see what happens to a small southern town when a car plant becomes its neighbor. Canton, Mississippi, fits that bill. So do Lincoln, Alabama, and West Point, Georgia. These towns also have gorgeous lakes and recreational areas only a stone’s throw away.

Many of the plants are open for tours, and the most elaborate, like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and VW, have visitor centers where you can drop in even if you’re not going to see how the cars are built. Several of the plants have gift shops, where you can buy golf balls, shot glasses, T-shirts and picnic baskets. (Too bad Kia’s gift shop isn’t open to the public because it had the cutest souvenirs – the toy hamster and sock monkey that have appeared in its ads.)

Other plants don’t allow the public to visit, but even if you don’t set foot in one of the factories, it’s easy to spot what happens when one of these big auto plants comes to town.

The first thing you might notice is new highway exits, new overpasses and new roads around the plants. They’re often part of the incentives that the states paid to land these factories.

The next thing to look for is development. Fast food restaurants and new hotels are the first signs of growth. But you’ll also see billboards for new subdivisions, and you’ll notice even more in the way of smaller factories – these have been opened by the suppliers to these big car companies. Often, they’re set next to the freeway a few miles down, because they often sell parts to more than one automaker.

What I found on the Southern Road is that the impact of these factories goes a lot deeper than what you can see on the surface. When you have newcomers from Germany and Japan and Korea, their culture comes with them.

That’s why you’ll find the makings for a Japanese breakfast, like miso soup and steamed rice, on the breakfast buffet at the Lexington, Kentucky, Residence Inn. That’s why you can now rent a loft apartment for business entertaining at Soby’s, the popular restaurant in Greenville – because BMW and other European companies wanted a private place for a small group.

To be sure, the South hasn’t become one big Manhattan, and no one would mistake any of these cities for Los Angeles. Southern culture is still widely apparent, from men automatically holding open doors for women, to gas station lunch counters and lots of fast driving. Divert from your Mapquest directions, and you’ll find long stretches of farmland and dusty roads.

But you can stop for Starbuck’s on the way to your plant tour. And you might even wonder, “What would it be like to live here?”

Micheline Maynard is a writer and author based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She previously ran the public media project Changing Gears, and was Detroit bureau chief for the New York Times.

Setting Up Your Trip:

These are some of the car companies that have public tours or facilities for visitors.

BMW Zentrum, Greer S.C. (plant tours, customer delivery center, and more). Open Monday-Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Call 1-888-TOUR-BMW or

Mercedes-Benz Visitor Center, Vance, AL (museum and plant tours). Museum open daily, tours given Tuesday-Thursday. Call 888-286-8762 or

Volkswagen, Chattanooga, AL. (gift shop and tour) Eight tours a week, Tuesday through Friday at 9 a.m. and 1:30 pm. Inquiries:

Hyundai, Montgomery, AL (visitors center and tour). Tours given Monday, Wednesday, Friday, also a Thursday evening tour. Call 334-387-8019 or

Nissan, Canton, MS (gift shop and plant tour) Tours by reservation. Call 601-855-TOUR.

Honda, Lincoln, AL (plant tour) Tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. By reservation at

Hotels and spas use corporate retreats for sweet financial revenge

It’s hard to tell who wants a business travel rebound: business travelers or the hospitality companies that cater to them. Routine road warrior jaunts suck, but there are executive retreats, training programs and other opportunities that do appeal even to the most jaded of the white collar folks.

So, the hotels are fighting to get business travelers back, according to Business Insider, and they’re getting creative. Luxury properties, including spas, were nailed by the financial crisis and ensuing recession. They have a lot of ground to make up. To do this, they’re coming up with new programs to get the corporate folks to open their wallets. Some of them are pretty bizarre, even retaliatory. Business Insider reports:

Their new approach is luring clients back to their bedrooms for “must-have” bonding and training sessions that put execs in compromising positions.

Retreats that specialize in corporate getaways have been cooking up programs that encourage extremely awkward and potentially dangerous bonding activities, like fake-trying to kill each other.

Call it the, “You’re putting us out of business? We’re going to push you off tall objects, hike mountains naked with 50 pounds on your back, try to kill each other and make you beg for more” – strategy.

Even with these implications, the response from the business world still seems to be a resounding, “Thank you, sir! May I have another!”

Bank of America, Google and Toyota are among the companies that have gotten on board with these programs. Some of them do get pretty weird, such as:

The icing on the cake is The Death Race, where co-workers sit for 45 minutes in an ice-broken pond, gulp a gallon of milk (even if you’re lactose intolerant), crawl under barbed wire and sprint up a greased-up ramp.

Don’t you remember when the corporate people were just interested in making money? It was all so much easier back then …

[photo by Boss Tweed via Flickr]