Tokyo on a Dime

City Visited: Tokyo
City Rating: 8 (Safety, cultural attractions, great mass transit system, friendly people, but watch out! Tokyo is expensive!)
Our AA Abroad: Brian Peters, a former corporate nine to fiver who abandoned his corporate cubicle to start a website chronicling his low-cost travels around the world, NoDebtWorldTravel.com.

Should you visit Tokyo? Our AA says YES! Here’s why:

Even in these tough economic times, I walked away from my job and decided to do what college kids have been doing for years: travel the world without going into massive debt. After launching the website that chronicles my travels and expenditures, I set out on a six city trip around the world, first stop, Tokyo!

Anyone who is interested in electronics, Sony, or “geek culture” phenomena like the Japanese art of anime, Nintendo, Godzilla or ninjas will feel drawn as I did, to visit this epicenter of Japanese culture. While I did experience a few double takes and stares, I’d say that in this city of twelve million, one of the last things that should worry you is being an African-American traveler. You’ll find that unless you ask for assistance, most people will completely ignore you which, when you’re traveling can sometimes be good thing!

Despite its large population, Tokyo’s distinct neighborhoods can give it a smaller feel. As a New Yorker, I felt right at home and visitors from smaller locales will likely find the polite, shy nature of Tokyo residents appealing. The locals are used to foreigners and during my short stay here I felt absolutely no animosity or ill will. Whenever I seemed lost in the train station, for instance, someone would ask if they could help, and several women I met on the train asked where I was from and wished me a pleasant stay.

While I worried about the language barrier before I arrived, I found that most people in Tokyo speak some English. If you’re looking for a quick tutorial, try Pimsleur CD’s. It covers Japanese as well as other languages. Devote thirty minutes every day for a few weeks and you’ll learn enough conversational Japanese to get you started.

The best place to get cash is at the numerous 7-11 or AM/PM convenience stores located throughout the city. You’ll find them on every other block and can use your ATM card to withdraw cash. Credit cards are sometimes accepted, but aren’t as ubiquitous as in the States. Visa is the most commonly accepted, then MasterCard. American Express, Discover, and other credit cards, however, are not widely accepted. It’s always a good idea to have cash on hand as some establishments operate on a cash only basis.

You’ll find it relatively easy to get around in Tokyo: if you can read a map you should be able to get anywhere in the city without a problem! Coming from Narita International Airport http://www.narita-airport.jp/en/index.html at 3100 yen (about $30 US) the train is cheapest way to get into the city. (Haneda Airport, the other airport that serves the city, is generally for domestic flights.)

Best advice: Unless you know exactly where you are going, don’t bother with buses or taxis. Oddly enough, only major streets in Tokyo have street names. Sometimes even the taxi drivers won’t know where you want to go when you tell them!

If you plan to be in town for more than a few days, I would suggest buying a versatile PASMO card. Once you purchase a PASMO, you need only press the credit card sized pass against a turnstile in the rail station to access all of Tokyo’s train system: a combination of the Tokyo Subway System, the TOEI System, JR (Japanese Railway), and several other trains. (Each train is owned by a different entity and issues its own tickets.)

The PASMO turnstile. Hit the green button and you're good to go!

PASMO cards are useful because they can be used with any of the major rail lines and can help you avoid insufficient fares. You can purchase 5000 yen ($50 US) at a time on a PASMO and the relevant fare is automatically deducted as you exit the station. PASMO’s are also great, because they can be used like debit cards at vending machines and subways kiosks. Just scan the card against the reader and your purchase will be deducted. You can refill it using cash at any train station.

Best advice: Be sure to hold on to your PASMO card. If you lose your wallet, a PASMO card could be vital link between you and a hot meal or a good night’s sleep!

Note that while etiquette is generally prevalent throughout Japanese society, it can be starkly absent on board the mass transit trains. Groping of female passengers has become such a serious problem that separate cars have been designated as “women only” during rush hour.

Tokyo’s other major form of transportation is the bicycle. Bike rentals go for about 500 yen ($5 US) a day and allow you to cover a lot of ground. One of the city’s most unique sights is the rows of bicycles you’ll see parked outside buildings and train stations, as many people ride their bikes to the stations, then take the train. If you are biking in the city, however, there is really no need for bike chains and locks. Bicycle theft is extremely rare in Japan. In Tokyo, businessmen, mothers, children, and even the elderly seem to travel everywhere by bicycle without concerns about theft.

Sidewalk bikers

City streets are wide enough to support both pedestrians and bicycles so it’s important to be alert when you’re walking. Tokyo residents think nothing of riding a bicycle down a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians. Be sure not to cross the sidewalk suddenly or you could find yourself in a violent collision. Keep in mind that cyclists, like pedestrians and motorists, stay to the left.

Japanese etiquette is one of the curious and signature qualities of the country’s culture. The Japanese have emphasized politeness and honor since feudal times. If you look up the words politeness and courtesy in a Japanese dictionary, you’ll find an image of the Japanese islands next to the terms. When making a purchase, don’t be surprised when you are expected to place your cash or credit card in a shallow tray. The cashier will take the tray, carefully wrap your purchase, hand it to you, bow, and place your change or credit card back in the tray.

One side of Japanese etiquette: no traffic in sight, yet no one dreams of crossing the street

 

Japan is known for its collectivist nature that prioritizes others, including family and community, over individuals. Another telling aspect of Japanese culture is the sight of Japanese citizens wearing little white masks while walking around town, shopping, or going to school, like a nation of surgeons and nurses! When I asked whether people wore the masks to protect themselves from germs or pollution, I learned that they were actually wearing them to protect others from their germs.

When in Tokyo...

One thing you will absolutely not want to miss while in Tokyo is sampling some of the delicious food! Japanese food is salty, spicy, and everything in between. You’ll find all the usual suspects: rice, sushi, Kobe beef, and every kind of fish imaginable. If you’d like to sample the equivalent of Japanese comfort food, try okonomiyaki, a great tasting Japanese pancake made with batter meat or fresh vegetables. If you’re dining on okonomiyaki, though, be prepared to be both diner and chef!

Okonomiyaki on the griddle. Yum!

One place to prepare and sample this traditional favorite is Sometarou (03 3844 9502), a moderately priced restaurant in the Asakusa neighborhood. After removing your shoes and placing them in a plastic bag, be prepared to sit on the floor in front of a griddle that sits about one foot off the ground. You will oil the griddle, pour a little batter, give it ten minutes to brown, flip, ten more minutes, then you’re ready to dig in. Your server will often give you two rounds of okonomiyaki followed by different third course. A Japanese friend and I had pork and vegetables in the first course, cheese and tofu in the second, followed by a simple stir fry with noodles to finish. Try it with a cold beer–okonomiyaki makes a great meal.

A Matsuya beef bowl

Another popular option for cheap comfort food is a “beef bowl”. One place to try, if you’re on the run, is Matsuya a chain restaurant found in most neighborhoods. Before you sit down at the counter, you’ll go to one of Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines to place your food order. Deposit money into the machine and you’ll receive a ticket with your order along with your change. Once you make your purchase, you’ll sit at the counter and hand your ticket to the attendant. Five minutes later, soup’s on! Though you should definitely give up on any notions about changing your order, substituting beef for chicken, or brown rice for white. Once you place your order at the machine, you’re committed! Take comfort in the fact that the food is plentiful and filling at about 500-1000 yen ($5-10 US).

One of Tokyo

Before you leave Tokyo, be sure stop by the Harajuku neighborhood, Tokyo’s hotspot for shopping. You’ll find everything from indie clothing stores to high end shops. And keep an eye out for hip hop and R&B music producer, Pharrell’s store, Billionaire Boys Club. If you’re looking for a uniquely Japanese cultural phenomenon, Harajuku is also the spot where people to dress up as a favorite anime character and act out scenes on Sunday afternoons.

Harajuku at night

The Asakusa neighborhood is dominated by the Buddhist Sensoji temple, one of the most famous in Japan, popular with Japanese and tourists alike. Leading up to the temple itself is a shopping area called Nakimise. A fantastic place to find gifts or souvenirs, the Nakimise market stalls are brimming with Japanese crafts, trinkets and food. You can walk the entire Asakusa area in a few hours—it’s an excellent way to get a good taste of old Japan without spending a lot and is especially pretty at night.

Another neighborhood you won’t want to miss is Akihabara also known as Electric City. Akihabara is the center of Japanese computer, video game, and electronic retailing. Multilevel stores and street level stalls owned by both individual proprietors and multinational corporations sell everything here from cell phones, televisions and cameras to individual circuits and electronic components. You may find discounts on small items like memory cards for cameras, but I did not find discounts on big ticket items like camcorders and iPods.

Japanese anime

Akihabara is also becoming known as the place to buy the unique Japanese amination form known as anime (if you remember “Speed Racer, you know anime), and manga and other “geek culture” items. If you hear the term “otaku” in Japan, this refers to hardcore fans of anime and manga. So, if you’re looking for any of these “geek culture” finds, you’ll be right at home in Akihabara where numerous stores cater to this clientèle.

While duty free shopping is available in Akihabara, keep in mind that it is only available at certain stores so be sure to ask before you buy. To make duty free purchases, you’ll need to show your U.S. passport at the time of purchase–a pretty simple way to save about 5%. I purchased a digital camera at a discount from the Onoden store (03-3253-4742) using my passport.

Best advice: Make sure your duty free purchase has an on-screen menu or an instruction book in English. Your new purchase won’t be much good if everything is written in Japanese, and there is no way for you to change it!

Before leaving Tokyo, you will likely want to visit the Imperial Palace, where the Japanese emperor and his family live. Take note that you can only make this visit via a guided bus tour that costs about 6000 yen ( $60US). The Palace is located in the middle of Tokyo and its Imperial Gardens are free and offer great views of Central Tokyo from their well manicured grounds.

The Big Buddha, Kamakura, Japan

If you’d like to take a quick jaunt out of town, there are many options for day trips outside of Tokyo. One to try is the quaint seaside town of Kamakura, the site of the second largest Buddhist statue in all of Japan. You’ll also find small gift shops there and traditional Japanese restaurants lines the streets. Kamakura is a great option for a nice for a day trip or a breather from the pace of Tokyo for a few hours. I traveled there with an American expat friend by way of the Yokuska train line. Once in Kamakura, we took the Enoden line to the Daibutsu, or Big Buddha 0467-22-0703 . Viewing the Buddha costs 300 yen ($3 US). Any available special exhibits will usually require a separate entrance fee. You can also spend a day in Kamakura, touring the religious temples and viewing ancient artifacts from the region.

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