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.
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.
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.
The easiest way to get there is via Tochomae Station on the Oedo subway line, which is located directly below the building.
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.
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.
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
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.
[Photo Credit: Masaaki Komori]