Budget Tokyo

December 18, 2007 1 Comment »

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Since I only had 4 days in Tokyo, and little money left for traveling, I had a challenge – how do you stay in Tokyo on a budget. After months of living a simple life – I think I was up to the challenge. The first big accomplishment was finding a reasonably priced hotel amongst the sea of business travelers on company expense budgets. I was lucky enough to find Sawonoya Ryokan – an oasis surrounded by the old neighborhoods of Tokyo. For $40 a night I stayed in a small room, slept on a straw mat on the floor – but had plenty of comforts such as television, tea, free internet, and a shared Japanese bath. In addition, they served breakfast in their lobby area – western style for $4 and an authentic Japanese breakfast for the same price.

If you are on a budget, then the subway is a must. After spending a day lost in the subway, I became much more at ease with the Tokyo subway for the remaining 3 days. All of a sudden, it all made sense, as I looked around I even noticed English signs that seemed to escape me the first day in my confusion and panic. The subway rides range from $1.60 to $3.00 depending on the distance you are traveling. This is a bargain compared to the one cab-ride that I took which lasted about 20 minutes and cost $25. However, I found that my favorite way to get around was on foot. It is really the way to see neighborhoods and culture and Tokyo.

Photo: Man feeding birds in Ueno Park
feeding timeMost days I chose one or two neighborhoods to explore. I would take the subway to one and then walk all day around it or into others and then subway home. My walking took me to many wonderful places where I was able to explore at my pace. I learned that if you want to experience ‘old Tokyo’ – then you need to spend time in Ueno and Asakusa. I spent a whole day walking through these neighborhoods to simply watch and understand Japanese life. I started off walking around the neighborhood, the little back alleys sprinkled with bikes and green plants. The first thing that struck me is that there were many bikes in Tokyo – however none of them appeared to be locked up. I knew that Tokyo was safe – but I couldn’t fathom leaving bikes outside not locked up…that seemed ludicrous. I thought for a moment that I had walked into this safe haven utopia! However, after day two and a little closer inspection of the bikes, I realized that they had a wheel lock built in – no separate piece – it was already attached to the wheel and then went through the back spoke. Granted – the locks still weren’t prohibiting anyone from picking up the bike and carrying it away…indicating that Tokyo is safer than most large cities. In addition, I found it funny that everyone rode their bikes on the sidewalks amongst the pedestrians. As a pedestrian, you always had to be on your toes. No one seemed upset or mildly concerned about the bikes intermixed with the pedestrians on foot. It’s not like the sidewalks were abandoned, quite the opposite – however somehow the bikes and people intermixed successfully – a site you really wouldn’t be able to see in much of the world…certainly not in the US!

I wandered into temples in the various neighborhoods – the uniqueness of the temples called me inside. I watched people as they went through their rituals that all seemed extremely foreign to me. I didn’t really understand much of it, but there was definitely a process that was to be followed. I later learned that before entering a temple, there was always a water ‘trough’ with long handled ladles hanging above it. These ladles were used for ‘cleansing’ yourself before entering the temple. Once you enter the shrine, you are to throw money in the offering box, ring the gong, pray, clap your hands twice, bow, and then back away from the shrine. Of course – since I learned about these rituals after the fact – I’m positive that I will go to Japanese hell (banished to karaoke bars) for not doing these things! Hopefully the Japanese Buddhists or Shinto’s will give me a pardon. burial sticksMany temples were surrounded by cemeteries. I love how cemeteries vary by country and religion, and I had never seen a cemetery like the Japanese ones. There were gravesites all closely placed together, and they were kept up very well. The gravesites were normally surrounded by flowers, and a bunch of tall, flat, narrow sticks with Japanese writing on them. Each gravesite had about 5 to 10 sticks behind it sticking up tall into the air – as if they were reaching for the sky. They honestly reminded me of giant popsicle sticks. From what I later learned – the giant sticks were Buddhist name markers, yet I still never really understood the significance of them.

Next I came to a huge park filled with people, fountains, fall colors, musicians, and lots of birds.
Take offsitting ducksblack birdfeathers
I found vantage points and simply sat and people watched for a few hours throughout the park – photographing some of the locals and many of the birds. Shinobazu Lake in Ueno Park was full of old men feeding birds – which made it feel like a bird sanctuary. The lake was surrounded by the modern buildings of Ueno, giving the whole place a Central Park feel to me. I then went to a market area in Ueno – one of the last authentic goods markets in Tokyo, Ameyoko Market. It was a post WWII black market that had survived the influx of post WWII department stores – this market survived on old style bartering and selling to locals. When I think of Asia – I think of markets. I loved Ameyoko market – it was my first real glimpse of Asia in this very non-Asian feeling city. It was filled with people hawking fresh fish, clothing, spices, and individually shrink wrapped shoes and boots. I was baffled by why the shoes were shrink wrapped (each one separately), but was never able to communicate my question as to “why?”

sushi lunch

Street Sushi

I was starting to get hungry again and decided to try to find some place to eat in the myriad of Japanese signs. I came across a shop stall that had many people hovering around it – so of course I was curious. I noticed a big board with pictures of sushi bowls…instinctively I went to look at the pictures knowing they would be my only way of communicating. I stared at the pictures for a while and finally landed upon one that looked like it might be a bowl of tuna sushi over rice. I watched how others ordered and when I got to the front of the line, I pointed to my tuna bowl – and within 5 minutes I was sitting eating sushi and drinking free tea at an outdoor stall with the locals. Everyone stared at me as I was the only tourists sitting there eating – however I received nods of recognition instead of stares of confusion. I was on top of the world. There’s no better feeling than overcoming the unknown and fitting in. I felt invincible as I sat eating my delicious sushi bowl! My sushi bowl was $6 and it was my favorite lunch I had in all of Tokyo…because it was an authentic experience – and it fit my budget!

I walked around the market some more bombarded by colors, sounds, and lights – most of which were coming from the multiple vending machines on ever corner. Not just one vending machine – normally about 5 or 6 lined up – selling any drink (hot or cold) or food that you could imagine. Instead of Starbucks at every corner, Tokyo had vending machines. I decided to become one of the vending community and stopped to get a juice for a $1. After consulting my multiple maps, I took a long walk towards Asakusa.

plastic food

Plastic Food

Between the two neighborhoods was a stop that was a ‘must see’ for me – Kappabashi-Dori. Kappabashi is the kitchenware shopping district that supplies locals with every imaginable kitchen/restaurant item that you could dream up. Specifically, I was there to see the plastic food models. Japan is a culture that loves their plastic food. In every restaurant window you can find realistic looking food models showcasing their menu. I of course gravitated to the restaurants with food models not only because I thought they were cool, but it was the only way I could order! I was on a quest to see the plastic food stores – so when I got to Kappabashi street and turned down it – I started to panic since there was no plastic food to be found! However – I realized after I went about 4 blocks, turned around and came back on the other side…there were plastic food shops – however they were all on the right side of the street – not the left….crisis avoided! I surveyed the food, in awe of it’s authenticity and even more in awe of the cost. I quickly realized that plastic food wasn’t in my budget…that is if I ever wanted to eat any more real food meals in Tokyo for the remainder of my stay!

drum museum

Japanese drum

I continued on to Asakusa with a quick stop at the drum museum – which was a bit of a let down – but worth a photo. Asakusa is the home of the famous Sensoji Temple. The temple seems to be surrounded a tourist market selling Japanese crafts and snacks – worth a stop, but I tried not to linger. The temple was where the great people watching was. A large caldron of incense burned outside the temple. The smoke from the caldron is said to heal any bodily ailments – which explains why I saw a woman putting the smoke behind her ears as if it were Chanel No. 5. I finally called it a day after walking back to Ueno, stopping at a tempura restaurant and eating at the little bar for $8. All in all – a very cheap day, but full of great people watching, learning, and photography.

holy smokeThe next day after my early morning trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market, I wandered around Ginza. The area seemed to be peppered with high end stores, an area that didn’t really fit my budget – however I did find a wonderful photography gallery (Kodak Photo Salon above the Leica Camera Store in Ginza) that had exhibits free for the public. I had to search for it for about 40 minutes and then finally realized that I was within a block of it the whole time…typical Tokyo. Next I made my way to the Imperial Palace Grounds. Once I realized that you couldn’t actually get onto the Imperial Palace grounds, it kind of lost it’s interest for me, but I continued to wander the huge park area that was surrounded by a moat and filled with runners (not the moat, the park). There was even a fountain section that was well worth a stop. Next I stopped at the electronics neighborhood, Akihabara – it was as if Best Buy had exploded and reproduced itself into millions of little electronics stores – duty free, and eager to sell. They bombarded you with amplified voices, flashing lights, and techie music. I felt as if I was walking down Las Vegas Blvd. I felt myself heading down the electronic wormhole – I knew I needed a break and a chance to get off my feet – I had been up since 3AM. It was time to find some lunch. I have to admit – I was in desperate need of some food…any food…which is how I landed at McDonalds…but at least it was a cheap lunch! My favorite part of McDonalds was that they had extensive recycling bin instructions – even to the point of a special recycling place to throw your ice and straw…and of course everyone followed the directions exactly…ensuring that Tokyo stays ultra clean and environmentally responsible.


Skyscrapers are free to look at!

Upon my last day in Tokyo, I decided to go see how the other half lives…the ex-pats. Roppongi. As I stepped out of the Roppongi subway – I knew that I had entered a different world….all you had to do was look up. The buildings were massive, shiny, steel fortresses – protecting the ex-pats from the rest of Tokyo. I did find it funny (and very nice) that there were more English signs in this area of Tokyo than any I had experienced before…in addition – there was a Banana Republic…the real sign of western infiltration. I wandered up the hill and to the Mori Art Museum. I decided that I should include a bit of refined culture into my Tokyo experience.

cell photoThe museum wasn’t cheap – $15, however it did include a

ticket for the Tokyo Tower and the view that went along with it. I love contemporary art, so I decided to splurge – and I can say that it was well worth it. The art was fascinating, strange, and generally thought-provoking and the view was spectacular. As I was looking at the amazing view, a class of teenage students on a field trip came through the tower and museum. I could have watched them interact for hours…phones glued to their hands, big stuffed animals dangling off the phones, and constant giggling…teenagers seem to be the same all over the world.

I had to race back and grab my bags to catch the long train ride to the airport for my departure. On the way I stopped as a road side stand and bought some sushi for $8 – I had to have it one last time, plus a stop at a vending machine for a drink. As I sat and ate my last Tokyo meal, I took an inventory of my time in Tokyo. I covered a lot of ground – 9 different neighborhoods, I ate with the locals, I ‘mastered’ the subways, I ate for under $10 for nearly every meal, I relaxed in Japanese baths, and I saw the local markets (from the past to the present) – I felt like I had really seen Tokyo, in my 4 short days. Plus, I proved that you can see Tokyo for less than $60 per day (including lodging) and have an amazing time…which is a real bargain!

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