To Tokyo, without breaking the bank
Globe and Mail
Question: I’ve been daydreaming about visiting Tokyo for years but travelling there seems a bit intimidating. I’m worried about getting lost and concerned about how expensive everything could be. Any tips for a stress-free, reasonably priced visit?
As someone who lived in Japan for a year – via one of those formerly ubiquitous English teaching jobs – I share your fascination with arguably the world’s most intriguing mega-city, which is why I’ve returned several times since. A visit here is usually a mesmerizing immersion – so long as you don’t spend all your time blinking at bizarre game shows on your hotel TV.
Luckily, there’s no reason to stay in and scoff room service sashimi, according to Tim Hornyak, co-author of Lonely Planet’s Tokyo guidebook. The first issue, he says, is figuring out how to get around.
“If you’re going to do any travel outside Tokyo – for instance, to Kyoto – be sure to buy a Japan Rail Pass through your travel agent before leaving Canada,” says Hornyak, who divides his time between Tokyo and Montreal and blogs about Japan at www.timhornyak.com. “Part of the pass can also be used for getting around Tokyo.”
For Tokyo-only visits, he recommends buying a Suica or Pasmo card from machines at subway entrances – look for the machines’ English language buttons – and adding value to it as you go. Planning your route before hopping onboard is also advised. “Look over the maps beforehand and avoid rush hour crowds. And use the station number codes to navigate if you have trouble remembering names like Takadanobaba.”
Since sleeping on trains is only for salarymen who’ve had a few too many after-work Sapporos, you’ll also need a base. Hornyak recommends accommodation in lower-priced neighbourhoods such as the Sumida River area. “One of the better deals in town is also the compact Tokyo Ryokan in Asakusa. It’s about $78 per night for a two-person room with shared bathroom.”
Despite its pricey reputation, the city is also stuffed with good-value dining – just follow the locals into their favourite back street noodle, izakaya and curry-rice joints. “Slurping a hearty, delish bowl of ramen will fill your belly for less than 1,000 yen [$11],” says Hornyak. “Grab a teishoku [set meal] of grilled fish, miso soup and rice at a chain like Ootoya for not much more.” He also suggests checking outwww.tokyocheapo.com for additional money-saving tips.
As for where first-timers should go: “Tsukiji fish market – be aware that early-morning admission is first-come, first served – for its spectacular marine cornucopia; Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa for its medieval atmosphere; and Shinjuku’s Golden Gai bars for their postwar grittiness. If you’re on a budget, avoid the new Tokyo Skytree – stratospheric city views can be had elsewhere for less. And try to get outside Tokyo for a stay in a traditional ryokan with a hot spring.”
I’d also add freebie Tokyo attractions like the Imperial Palace East Garden and quirky Mega Web (www.megaweb.gr.jp) with its driving simulators, vintage car museum and prototype robots. Strolls around Ueno’s street market (radiating from the train station) and Yanaka Ginza Street also deliver adventurous al fresco grub – I enjoyed skewered scallops and sake from a streetside barrel at the latter and picked-up bags of senbei snacks for the road at the former.
And a final word about getting lost: in a sprawling, multi-district metropolis of over 13 million people – who all seem to be brushing past you at once – it’s inevitable.
But although Tokyo is one of the world’s safest visitor cities, not everyone enjoys feeling confused about their bearings. “Keep in mind your proximity to the nearest train or subway station,” advises Hornyak. “Use printed maps, GPS apps and the many sidewalk neighborhood maps showing your location. And don’t hesitate to ask for directions at a police box – although their English will be limited.”