People often ask me for suggestions on holiday spots and I often offer Tokyo as a possibility. The usual response I get back from people is that they heard that Tokyo is too expensive.
What people say about the pricing in Tokyo is true, if you holiday like a Westerner. However, if you do a lot of things the Japanese way, you will save a considerable amount of money. That doesn’t mean you have to adapt your entire Tokyo holiday to be Japanese style, but at the same time, what is the point of travelling somewhere just to do everything the same as you would back home.
Saving number one – Accommodation
Tokyo is a mega-city and the most highly populated metropolitan area in the World (population 37.8 million). As a result, space in the city comes at a premium price, especially in the most popular city areas like Shinjuku (business area), Tokyo central, Ginza (entertainment district) and Yokohama (shopping and amusement).
The first trick therefore is to stay a bit outside of these popular areas, given this is where space really is in short supply and also where most of the international chain hotels are. I therefore often stay closer to Shinagawa (half-way between Tokyo central and Yokohama). There aren’t many international chain hotels here.
Instead, I tend to stay at local business-traveler type places. You can even sign up as a member to one of the chains for further discounts. The price for a room per night… about US$80, Japanese breakfast included. Take note that room size is pretty small and bathrooms are quite cramped. However, they do manage to fit in a queen size bed and writing desk, and everything is modern… with heater/air con, tv, fridge, and best of all… the digital toilet in the bathroom.
Saving number two – Transport
Notwithstanding the massive population of Tokyo, I have never witnessed any traffic congestion around town. The reason is that almost everyone uses the train. The train system in Tokyo really is incredible in the sense that no matter where you are in Tokyo, there should be a train station within walking distance.
When you arrive in Tokyo, either from Narita or Haneda airports, avoiding heading to the taxi area and instead go underground to the train station to catch a train into town instead. This may seem a little daunting to some, because so much of the signage is in Japanese, you don’t know your way around and not many locals speak English. However, Tokyo has special airport trains (Narita Express), and you can buy tickets for them from a special counter, rather than having to use machines. The staff at the airport train counters speak English and will give you a pamphlet explaining the train system and all the stops, including where you need to get off, switch trains etc.
If you are truly on a budget, don’t catch the airport train, but go for the local trains as the passenger fare is significantly cheaper (about one third of the price). However, read up a little on the local trains before you arrive so that you understand where to switch trains, where to get off and what the fare for your ultimate destination is. To give you an idea of cost difference. The Narita Express into Tokyo central station will cost about 2,800 yen (US$24.00) while a standard JR train will cost about 1,000 yen (US$8.30). The normal JR train will take a longer time compared to the Narita Express and Narita Airport is a considerable distance. For those landing in Haneda, this airport is in town, so no excuses.
For getting around Tokyo generally, whether you want to or not, you will basically find that you are propelled to use the rail network. Its all part of your Tokyo experience anyway and you will be amazed at what you discover down in the massive underground train stations. Using the normal JR trains is incredibly easy. At each train station you will see a large map of the network, with each of the coloured lines. All you need to do is find your intended destination and you will see the fare for that destination. Go to a ticket machine and press the fare that you need, pop in the coins and take your ticket. The tricky bit is remembering which line and which direction on that line gets you to your destination, because once you go through the turn-styles, you will need to know which platform to head for and which side of the platform to wait for your train. Once on the train though, you will know because there is usually a screen showing the current train location and the upcoming stations in order. If you get on the wrong train, then simply get off at the next station, cross to the other side of the platform, head back and try again.
Also, if you change your mind about your location (or just got your fare wrong for your ticket, or you didn’t know what the fare was to begin with so you just guessed your fare), don’t fret. Just before the exit turn-styles, you will find a “fare correction” machine. These are really handy because you stick your ticket in and it will tell you how much more to pay (I also assume it gives you a refund if you over-payed, although I never tested it this way).
Saving number three – Food
In the main tourist areas you will find international chains as well as local restaurants catering to foreign tastes. For example, we stumbled across McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Hard Rock Cafe etc. However, there aren’t nearly as many international restaurants as you would expect in a city of this size and most places tend to be local food. The Western places tend to be pretty expensive (although obviously McDonalds will hardly break the bank for those days that you need some comfort food).
You are in Japan to experience Japanese culture, so learn to eat like the Japanese. Most of the Japanese places are cheap. There are local fast-food chains like Mos Burger (a bit like McDonalds but cheaper than Tokyo McDonalds). There are also a variety of other chains that offer sandwiches and the like. In addition, you get the hole in the wall little sushi bars and noodle places. They are nothing more than a bench under some awning, where you sit, order, eat and leave, but these are the cheapest eating options.
Be careful though, as some local restaurants can be incredibly expensive. Always check the prices. For example, a bunch of us went to a restaurant located upstairs in the Ginza district. We had Kobe beef plus sake and the bill (for four people) was close to $1,000. Fortunately, it was a work expense.
Those three tips alone should save you a bundle in terms of your Tokyo holiday. I could go further, such as how to save money on alcohol, but I won’t because you are on holiday after all, and you don’t want to skimp too much. I have at least shown you how to save money on the necessary costs and it is then up to you how much you want to spend on the other items (eg stick to the main tourist attractions like the Imperial Palace, let your hair down in the clubs of Ginza, or go on a shopping spree in Akihabara).
Happy travels 🙂