Personally, I’ve always had a fascination for Japan and its capital, Tokyo. I find it simply amazing how one place can manage to combine the old and the new, the modern and also the ancient. I find it hard to think of another place where something hi-tech is comfortably settled in next to something that has a history that dates back hundreds of years.
For example, if you get on the metro that takes you to central Tokyo specifically Chiyoda Ward, you’ll end up smack in the middle of a very modern-looking part of the city. One moment, you’re surrounded by skyscrapers all made of clear glass and shiny steel and the next, you find yourself in front of the Imperial Palace. The massive stone walls seem to whisper the place’s history through the cracks; around you, the glass is neatly trimmed as if to add a gentle touch to the place and entice guests to come in. You won’t find a surly-looking guard barricading the entrance; instead, the gardens are open to the public and guests are free to come and go as they please.
Tokyo is a fairly big place for travelers to move around in. Sometimes, immersing yourself in this modern city may even make you feel like a member of the Jetsons. But aside from being home to a number of attractions that will make for a memorable vacation, what’s great about this place is that it’s also friendly to budget travelers. Tokyo may not seem like a cheap city at first glance, but the trick is to know which sites to visit and find the best places to feast on delicious but affordable sushi.
If you want to visit Tokyo on a budget, here are a couple of things we’d like to share with you.
FINDING A PLACE TO LIVE
First things first: if you don’t speak, read or write the local language, there’s a very small chance that you’ll be able to book yourself into a budget hotel just by taking a chance and stepping inside any hotel you find off the street. Generally, small, budget priced hotels are manned by locals who are only fluent in Japanese. English is usually spoken in expensive, five star business hotels or other luxurious accommodations that are sure to burn a hole in your pocket.
If this is your first trip to Japan, a good way to start hunting for an affordable place to live is through Agoda.com. This website specializes in helping travelers going to Asia find a nice but cheap place to stay in; and best of all, it’s in English. If you go to the website and try searching for hotels located in Tokyo, the result will turn up about a few hundred hits. If you look hard enough, you may even spot a couple of hotels that offer accommodations for about US 70 dollars per night; mind you, that’s cheap by the local standards. Don’t bother looking for US 20 dollar accommodations here; if you want to spend the night in Tokyo, you’ve got to have a bit of cash in your pocket.
At the Dormy Inn, one small bedroom will cost you about US 72 dollars per night if you book the room for three nights. Don’t be discouraged by the rates because chances are you won’t be able to find anything cheaper that’s as clean and comfortable. The room may be small, but it’s still a safe and comfortable place to come home to and the end of a long day. US 72 dollars is pretty much a bargain considering the hotel’s standard rate of US 100 dollars per night.
If you really want to stretch your budget and consider yourself as the adventurous type, you have two other options for your accommodation aside from hotels. The first one is to book yourself in any of Japan’s traditional ryokan (which is basically a small bed and breakfast); and the other one is to tuck yourself inside the small (and we do mean small) confines of a capsule hotel. To get a picture of what a capsule hotel looks like, think of the mailboxes at your local apartment, only make each mailbox big enough to fit a grown person; it’s basically a bed with a door attached at the end. As expected in such tight quarters, there’s a lot of chatter, most of which will be in Japanese.
GETTING AROUND TOWN
Fortunately for travelers to the city with no access to a car or friends living in the city who can drive them around, the underground train system in Tokyo is one of the best in the world. The fare is cheap, and you can bet that it’s going to be a safe and speedy ride anywhere you want to go.
The only problem that first time tourists will most likely encounter upon descending into Tokyo’s underground city is that the vast network of criss-crossing train lines and stations can be a bit daunting and not to mention confusing. Fortunately, each station has signs posted in Japanese and also English. Each station also has free maps of the underground system so be sure to grab one and try to study and understand it as best as you can.
If you have a full itinerary and are planning to visit a number of attractions in a single day, a good tip would be to get a metro line pass that can serve as your ticket for the entire day. To buy a metro line pass, just look for a bilingual ticket terminal that can be found in any of the train stations. A pass will cost you around 710 yen which is about US 8.31 dollars. If you’re willing to shell out a bit more cash, you can also avail of passes that grant passengers access to Toei lines, or routes that go around the city, but this isn’t really necessary.
If you’re more comfortable paying for your fare as you go along, you’ll have to guess the amount that you’ll have to pay at each station. While this isn’t a strictly impossible feat, it may very well be an exercise in futility for others. Not only will you be wasting time, you’re likely to get a headache, as well. But if you’re dead set, be reminded that passengers can enter each station just by paying the minimum fare of 160 yen, which is about US 1.87 dollars; you can just pay the difference when you arrive at your destination.
There are taxis all over the city, but you can bet that they’re expensive. Fares can add up pretty quickly too, and result in a depletion of funds.
THE OLD SIDE OF THE CITY
If you’re a budget traveler visiting Tokyo for the first time, it’s always a good idea to check out the extensive fish market of Tsukiji. It’s easy to forget about the time as you lose yourself in the market’s numerous corridors, surrounded by ice troughs that are all full of fish as big as your arm, and every now and then, biting into what very well may be the freshest sushi that you will find on the entire planet. A trip to the market is best made in the early hours of the morning. At this time, the vendors still have a lot of fish in stock for those of you who are planning to buy some fresh grub.
Travelers who are interested in getting acquainted with Tokyo’s history and heritage should definitely set aside some time in their schedule to visit the famous Meiji Jingu shrine. This particular shrine is actually a Shinto shrine built around 90 years back, during the reign of the Meiji Emperor. It was the Meiji Emperor who paved the way to open Japan’s doors to the world. Visiting the shrine is like escaping into another world where the word “stress” seems unknown. Inside the shrine, there are beautiful gardens and also lovely lily ponds; it is a quiet place where you can walk around in silence and admire your surroundings. You don’t need to pay an entrance fee when you visit the shrine; but if you want to visit the iris garden (something that we recommend), you do have to pay 500 yen (about US 5.85 dollars).
For those of you who are into shopping, visit the Asakusa temple and mingle with the pedestrians who are doing a bit of shopping on their own. Aside from being an interesting way to get a taste of the local culture, this is also your chance to splurge on a number of inexpensive goods that you don’t have back home.
If you have lots of time on your hands, go ahead and spend one whole day roaming around the grounds. Here, you will come across a number of groups quietly worshipping in private, uttering their solemn prayers; while just a stone’s throw away is a souvenir shop selling all kinds of wares and trinkets to passersby.
Are you curious about what the fates have in store for you? If so, go ahead and drop a couple of coins in a donation jar to get a detailed description of what the future has in store for you in the days to come.
Last but certainly not the least, visit the Imperial Palace to complete your journey into Tokyo’s past. Because the gardens that surround the Imperial Palace are open to visitors, you can enjoy a nice, refreshing walk around the area and imagine what it would have been like to live during Japan’s feudal era.
TOKYO’S MODERN FACE
After studying Japan’s rich history, it’s also important to get to know the modern side of the country. Besides, what other city can you think of that’s more hi-tech than Japan? To start, make your way to the Tokyo Tower and ride the elevator all the way up to the top to get a fantastic view of this incredible city. For about 980 yen (US 11.47 dollars), you can get a ticket for the main observatory, which is a staggering 492 feet in the air. On a day when the weather is clear and the skies are blue, you can even see the snow-capped Mount Fuji off in the distance. Cough up an additional 600 yen (US 7.02 dollars), and you can go inside the special observatory which is 820 feet up in the air.
If you want to get lost in Tokyo’s lights and sound, go straight to Shibuya neighborhood. This part of the city is where you will find numerous stores selling electronic products, neon lights occupying almost every square feet of the area, and an army of pedestrians making their way in different directions all over the district. Make sure you stop for a bit at the Shibuya Crossing, where you’ll find the atmosphere to be quite similar to Times Square.
Now, we anticipated that you would also be interested in the modern Japan’s shopping quarters, and fear not because we have just the answer for you shopaholics out there—the Ginza district. Even if you don’t have enough cash to spend on the glamorous items that you’ll find inside these high class department stores, the Ginza district is a good place to come and people watch. See and observe first-hand how the fashionistas in Tokyo dress themselves from head to toe; and indulge in a bit of good food that’s not as expensive.
FILLING THE TUMMY
Amid the old temples, modern buildings, and Tokyo’s gadgets and gizmos, one other thing this city has in abundance is food. To be clear, Tokyo has an abundance of cheap and delicious food that will sustain you as you explore the city. The usual grub that budget travelers can avail of is sticky rice; hot, steaming noodles; fresh fish; and the never to be forgotten miso soup. These are the usual foods that you can expect to encounter even at the breakfast table.
Fortunately for the hungry traveler, most of the food that you will find is pretty affordable. For around 500 up to 1000 yen (US 5.85 – 11.70 dollars), you can get a bowl of noodles set in warm, refreshing soup that will guarantee to rejuvenate even the weariest of travelers. Expect the servings to be generous, too; one bowl is enough to fill your tummy, and keep you going for the rest of the day. Don’t be too quick to dismiss this simple bowl of ramen; the taste will come nowhere near the stuff you used to eat during your college days.
If you’re looking forward to some fresh sushi, don’t be surprised to find out that the really good stuff commands a high price here, similar to the United States. Although this is a very popular local dish, sushi is still considered to be a delicacy in Japan. As a matter of fact, most fish served in Japan is served cooked, not raw.
That being said, don’t let the high prices discourage you so much. There are select places in Tokyo where you can satisfy your craving for fresh sushi without blowing your whole budget on a single meal. As we mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to visit the Tsukiji market for some fresh fish. Here, you can order one bowl of raw tuna along with some sticky rice and one side of steaming, hot miso soup for 1,100 yen (US 12.87 dollars) in any of the restaurants located in the area. Wash your meal down with some authentic Japanese tea and you’re good to go. If you have a bit of an iron stomach, you can save a bit of money and eat one bowl of fish eggs for half the price.