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Tokyo On The Cheap And Not-So-Cheap

Cheap Travel Guide to Tokyo Shibuya District of Tokyo

A common impression about Tokyo is that it “has” to be expensive. While it is not hard to find Nobu, The Ritz-Carlton or Cartier in Tokyo, a set of open eyes and ears, not to mention research, will open up experiences and opportunities that won’t set you back much at all. Ultimately, much like New York City or Paris, the cost of living is in the eye (or wallet) of the beholder. You can do Tokyo on the cheap and here’s how.

Dining on a Budget

When it comes to food, there are a plethora of paths that a visitor can take and the Japanese devotion to quality means that it’s easy to find good food at any price point.

Cash-flushed travelers can eat at the excellent Les Saisons inside The Imperial Hotel (Imperial Hotel, 1-1-1 Uchisaiwai-cho, Chiyoda-ku, 03-3539-8087), where dinner starts at $120 per person, while the beer-craving diner can go the British pub fare route at the Hobgoblin Pub (3/F, Ichiban Building,1-3-11, Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, 03-6415-4244) for sides of nachos, chicken wings and calamari all in the $5 to $10 range.

For a real Japanese experience, try an izakaya, a pub that serves rustic, homey food and copious amounts of booze. There are not only chains of izakayays such as Doma-Doma and Shiro-Kiya, but great local spots like Teyandei (2-20-1, Nishi-Azabu, 03-3407-8127) and 35 Steps Bistro (B1 Shibuya City Hotel, 1-1 Shibuya, 03-3770-9835)

Cheap Travel Guide to Tokyo MOS BurgerThe family-style diner can not only find Denny’s (far more upscale than its U.S. counterpart) or T.G.I. Friday’s, but its believed-to-be-Japanese competitors Coco‘s, Jonathan’s and the Italian-themed Saizeriya. The fast food fan can not only find the big international brands nearly everywhere they go, but also domestic chains like MOS Burger (1366 outlets in Japan), Yoshinoya (which has made its way into the States), and Sukiya. And then there are the Japan-specific type of restaurants – kaitei-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi), okonomiyaki (Japanese-style pancake), yaki-niku (meat meat meat), ramen and more.

But believe it or not, the aforementioned fast food chains are not the lowest of the low-end… Convenience stores are the solution to many of life’s problems in Tokyo, giving you immediate service and bottom of the barrel prices. While you probably wouldn’t touch the ready-made food at a 7-11 in New York, you shouldn’t be that afraid at a 7-11 in Tokyo. Or at a Family-Mart, Lawson, AM/PM or other chain. While you may not want to consume a full bento box or meat-based offering, but what harm is in there in an onigiri (rice ball)? If you have no fear and wish to eat on the go, you can easily skate by on $15 per day. Around $20 if you throw in booze, because while considered rude, it is in no way illegal to be drinking with an open container in public. A further advantage of convenience store dining is that you can avoid the cigarette smoke that fills most Tokyo restaurants, since “walking and smoking” can be a ticketed offense in many parts of Tokyo.

Cheap Tokyo Travel Guide Shibuya 109

Department Store & Shopping Center Dining

Perhaps the best recommendation for economical eating lies in looking for shopping malls and department stores (depato).  A variety of “a la carte” dining options are likely to be found within and/or beside these department stores, which are generally found next to major Japan Railways train stations in Tokyo.

Remarkably close to Ebisu station, Yebisu Garden Place (website)  provides everything from Thai and Chinese to barbeque and cafes. It also includes the Beer Museum Yebisu, located in back of the headquarters of Sapporo beer. The museum does not charge admission though there is a fee for tasting in the tasting room at the end of the tour.

Walkable from any of the Roppongi train stops, Tokyo Midtown (website) includes Midtown Garden, Hinokicho Park, the Suntory Museum of Art and assorted high-end shopping. On the top floor is Billboard Live, a high-end R&B, soul and jazz-favoring music venue which also has branches in Fukuoka and Osaka. Outside, in the opposite direction, is the other side of Roppongi, which is “foreigner central” and fairly seedy, making it better for an afternoon visit than an evening stroll.

Located in Shibuya, which is arguably the Times Square of Tokyo, Tokyu Hands (website) is a department store that is heavy on exciting technology, space-saving appliances and off-beat goods. If it doesn’t do the trick, you are minutes by foot from Parco (website), Seibu (website) and Shibuya 109 (website). While there is little to eat inside of most of these depato, Parco – which also houses the Club Quattro concert venue – has domestic and international chow on its 7th and 8th floors, in addition to spots like La Fabrique Paris (Basement Level), Moph (1st Floor) , and La Maison Ensoleillé Table (5th Floor).

Located in the recently-popularized Odaiba, Decks Tokyo Beach Shopping Mall (website) is one of many attractions to be found on this man-made island. This mall is seven stories tall and includes the Decks Tokyo Brewery. Also nearby are the Palette Town Ferris Wheel, a replica of the Statue Of Liberty, the Museum Of Maritime Science and the Zepp Tokyo concert venue.

Where to Stay

Since you will be walking a whole lot – and certainly jet-lagged for the first few days of your journey – it is best for you to be staying at a hotel that is economical yet also comfortable. Unless you aim to splurge at the Mandarin Oriental, Hyatt, or aforementioned Ritz-Carlton, odds are that you also aren’t aiming for a hostel or one of those capsule hotels. In that case, there are plenty of middle-of-the-road options:

Cheap Tokyo Travel Guide Gotanda Arietta HotelGotanda Arietta Hotel & Trattoria (website) – Located in Gotanda (seven minutes by train from Shibuya), Arietta’s most inexpensive room still manages to fit a bed, a bathtub-inclusive bathroom, TV, LAN connection and work-desk into small quarters. Complimentary basic breakfast in the lobby, in which Internet-enabled laptops can be used at no cost. Within a few blocks of the Remy department store and numerous local and chain restaurants, it may not be where you make new friends for life, but it is more than just a place to sleep and shower. Doubles about $135.

Right near Shinjuku station (the busiest and largest train station in Tokyo), Shinjuku Prince Hotel (website) is a chain hotel that is slightly more expensive than Arietta with doubles starting around $150. However, being located in the Shinjuku neighborhood means that a guest would need not worry about the “last train” of the evening since the action is right outside the lobby. And by “action,” I mean proximity to Kabuki-cho, an infamously seedy area of izakayas and other late night (or all hours) establishments that will either thrill or scare you. Not to mention various shopping districts.

The “weekly mansion” concept, where a guest rents a room for a longer-term stay, in turn getting a better rate, is common in Tokyo. One resource is Weekly Mansion Tokyo (website) with two locations – Akasaka and Asakusa. Rooms include a kitchen area, which is especially helpful for a traveler who wants to save some money by preparing his or her own food. Akasaka only has single rooms and rooms with two beds – rates are as low as $80 a night for a week in a single room, $90 a night for shorter stays, more for rooms with 2 twin beds. Asakusa is just as reasonable – a double is $80 a night for a week, $110 a night for shorter stays.

If these particular “weekly mansion” locations do not strike your fancy, dozens of other weekly mansion options are out there for Tokyo.

Cheap Travel Guide to Tokyo Shinjuku Train StationMoney Saving Tips

A few more tips on saving costs when in Tokyo:

  • Tipping is generally not part of Japanese culture.  When getting the bill at a restaurant, there is no need to be wondering if local customs require 15 percent, 18 percent, or any percent. In fact, service may be included on the check itself.
  • Pay cash, when possible. It’s not uncommon for a restaurant or retail location to add their 5% credit card processing fee on top of the cost itself – in addition to what your card issuer likely charges you as a foreign transaction fee.
  • You may actually do better off bringing cash with you – it’s possible to find a strong exchange rate at the airport, which may not be a great strategy in other countries.
  • There are many companies providing train and bus service in Tokyo, each providing unique routing. However, most major hubs are routed through the train system of Japan Railways. For the Metro system (website) you can buy a “1 day open ticket” at any machine for about $7.65. If you are coming from Narita Airport, you can save even more with a “1 day for tourists pass,” approximately $6.50, available in terminals 1 and 2. Foreigners may purchase a discounted unlimited “JR pass” – enabling them to go all over the country, if desired — but may only do so outside of Japan. Talk to a company like JTB (website) or IACE Travel (website) for more information.
  • Since the train system shuts around midnight – the time of the last train depends on the operator and line, but most of them seem to be done long before 12:30am – plan your evening accordingly. Although it is possible to take a taxi – in which you do not have to tip the driver and can often use a credit card – most taxis charge a base rate of approximately $7 for the first two kilometers…and then have a meter that seems to rise every second the car is in motion.

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