Let’s make one thing clear: Japan is not a cheap place to travel. That’s unfortunate because of all the places I’ve visited while teaching in South Korea, Japan is my second favorite (the top spot belongs to the Philippines).
At the end of my contract, I wanted to take a few days to see Japan since I really didn’t get that much of a chance during my allotted vacation time. Given financial concerns and just general exhaustion, I decided to spend two days in Tokyo before heading home.
So, now that we’ve established that Japan (and Tokyo especially) is not cheap, there are a few ways you can minimize expenses and still have a great time.
What holds true for most of Asia, still holds true for Japan: hostels and guesthouses are going to be your best bet as far as a cheap place to sleep. I am of the idea that you don’t need anything fancy if you’re literally only going to be in a place long enough to get some shut eye. Now, compared to places like Thailand, the Philippines and China, it’s gonna cost more to stay in a decent hostel in Japan, but the places I researched were still cheaper than an average night at a Days Inn in the States. The go to sites for budget accommodations will be Hostel World and Hostel Bookers, but the places featured on those sites tend to fill up fast and are a bit more expensive. Another site to look at is Agoda, which is a hotel discount site. However, word of mouth and recommendations are probably your best bet so, travel message boards are also a good place to look. For me, I stayed at a place recommended by a friend and it was awesome! The place is called Koenji Guesthouse. It’s tiny; only a few rooms that will accommodate two people max and shared bathrooms, but for the price I would have paid for a dorm room at K House (the most venerated hostel in Tokyo) I got my own room. The main draw is the location. The hostel is literally two minutes from the train station and a seven minute ride gets you to Shinjuku Station, one of the major hubs in the city. The area itself is so cool with a ton of restaurants and bakeries to grab breakfast and more thrift and vintage stores than I’ve ever seen in one place. It took everything in my power not to go on a shopping spree and blow my savings. I spent most of my first night just wandering around and getting lost.
I love food and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Every travel article you read on Tokyo raves about the food scene. Unfortunately, one meal at a fancy restaurant was going to blow my entire budget. So, I got really, really familiar with noodle and ramen shops. Most noodle shops have a kiosk out front or right inside the door. You put in your money, choose which dish you want and then hand your ticket to the cooks behind the counter and a few minutes later, you get a nice, filling meal. One meal can run anywhere from 400-700 yen ($4-$7). Most of the time, the kiosk are all in Japanese, but most restaurants have display cases with corresponding numbers and you can choose from there. If not, pick one and see what you get; it could be awful or it could be delicious (I ended up one for one in that regard.)
Another place to get cheap meals is Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain. The food is nothing fancy; literally meat on top of rice, but like the noodle shops, it gets the job done. There are a variety of these shops everywhere so you’ll have no trouble finding one wherever you decide to stay. There is always McDonald’s (and Japanese McDonald’s is reputed to be the best), but aside from a cup of coffee and sausage biscuit my last morning, I avoid them like the plague. Granted, this diet is not the healthiest for you, but for a few days, it won’t kill you.
I allowed my budget to have one splurge meal so I got my ass out of bed at a ridiculously early hour to head to the Tsukiji Fish Market for a sushi breakfast. At the edge of the market are a handful of sushi restaurants that sit maybe 10 people at a time. The place I chose had the longest line and the local I talked to said it was the best (hence the long queue.) The golden rule of eating in Tokyo is that if the locals are queuing to get in, then it’s good. I waited two and a half hours and paid $40 for 11 pieces of sushi, but it was so worth it. The tuna itself was reward enough. I mean it was so fresh, it was practically still swimming.
Seriously, just hop on a train and get lost. That was my recommendation from a friend who studied in Japan and it’s the best advice I can give. Considering the train and subway system looks like a cluster and a fuck decided to have lots of babies, it’s not that hard. The good thing about Tokyo is that there are a ton of things to do for free. Ueno Park is beautiful, though the trees were bare when I went. There are a ton of museums that ring the park that are affordable if you choose to not see any special exhibits. I lucked out that someone leaving the Fine Art museum gave me a ticket for the El Greco exhibit for free. The Ueno Zoo is affordable (I got a tourist discount with my passport and only paid $6) and who doesn’t love pandas? The Imperial Gardens are also nice to visit and it was a beautiful day when I went. For a free view of the city, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings are great. My favorite free thing to do; however, was Shibuyu Crossing. It’s the famous five-way intersection that’s just nuts. There’s a Starbucks at the corner of one of the crossings and I was able to snag a table by the window and spent a good half hour just watching people cross the street from all directions.
A couple of other tips:
- Do NOT take a taxi unless you absolutely must. The fares were more than my daily budget.
- Drinking is expensive. Many bars charge you a cover for just sitting down. If you want to have a drink, take advantage of happy hour specials and make sure the place doesn’t charge cover. For my part, I just grabbed beer from the convenience store and drank on the roof of the hostel.
If you ever get a chance to go to Tokyo, DO IT! You won’t ever regret it.