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Two Days in Tokyo on the Cheap(ish)

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.

Accommodations

Thrift store with a variety of merchandise displayed outside
I could have spent sooo much money in places like this.

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.

Food

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.

Fresher than fresh sushi.
It was practically still swimming.

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.

Sightseeing

Busy streets of Shibuyu Crossing
Shibuyu Crossing: You have to be there to believe it.

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.

By Stephens

Florida girl, would-be world traveler and semi-permanent expat. Her main strategy of life is to throw out the nets and hope something useful comes back, but many times it's just an old shoe. She also really, really hates winter and people who are consistently late.

7 replies on “Two Days in Tokyo on the Cheap(ish)”

Dad and I stayed at the Sakura Ryokan (http://www.sakura-ryokan.com/english/ehome.html) when we were in Tokyo in August 2004. We bought stuff like bread and jam for breakfast at the convenience story just down the street, and then ate out the rest of the time, at places such as Yoshinoya or local noodle shops, or just street-food.

We never took the subway. Everywhere we had to go was accessible through the circle route, or we’d simply walk.

The only time we took a cab was to get our luggage from the Ryokan back to Shinjuku where we caught the night bus back to Osaka.

We went to the Ueno Zoo, and to the National Museum, and walked around the Imperial Palace and Asakusa (all on different dates)…One of the neatest things was the kitchen wares street, especially the store where they sold the plastic food they use for displays.

We also made a day trip to Yokohama and the Studio Ghibli museum, and another to Fuji, but we were there for about a week.

Fond memories!

All the sea food is reason number two why Asia isn’t in my number one traveling spot. Reason number one is a fear of no-one understanding me (of course I’m the kind of traveler that tries to get some standard words in, but still). But zoos and gardens ..I’m such a zoo girl. If only had a million euros.

I studied abroad in Tokyo and love the city, so I’m so glad to see you post. For food, in addition to Ramen shops, there’s just tons of little side walk vendors out, especially in Shinjuku, which is a great way to get a taste of local snacks. There was a place near the station that sold little octopus balls that my friends were crazy for (I don’t eat seafood — yes, it was a challenge in Japan). Was the Papa Beard’s still there? Those are some ridiculously good cream puffs.

The only piece of advice I’d counter is the idea to just ‘get lost’ on the trains. In general, I found most people ran into to speak a little English and be fairly helpful, but I got myself into several situations where I was completely lost and unable to navigate my way back to my apartment my first couple of weeks there. A good guide book is invaluable.

Also, if you’re going for a longer stay and are of, let’s be nice ‘American proportions’ and especially if you’re female, find clothing that will fit is a major challenge if you’re planning on shopping. (I had a sort of epic meltdown in the middle of a Gap while I was there.)

I saw the vendors in Shinjuku, but after a couple of bad experiences in China, I was wary of street vendor food. I don’t doubt it’s a good value though (and probably won’t give you the issues I had in China). I didn’t notice the Papa Beard’s though.

I get you on the train situation though. I just happen to have a pretty good recall of where I’ve been and can get back easily. It’s more like pick a stop, head above ground and see what’s around :)

I also hear you about the sizing issue. I ran into the same problem while living in Korea and I’m considered “slim” by American standards. Also, finding shoes was a major issue. Most shops never got over a size 8 American and I wear a size 10 shoe. Thank goodness for mothers who are willing to ship a pair of black ballet flats when I wore through a pair.

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