The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tokyo (or at least how I did it)

A couple of weeks ago, I got messages from friends who are planning to go to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in bloom next year. One of their concerns (as it was mine) was keeping the expenses down. I wrote about seeing Kyoto on a budget for in-flight magazine, Smile, last July, and I thought it would be good idea to list down some ideas to keep costs down in Tokyo while still seeing a lot of what that huge metropolitan city has to offer. So here’s another entry, my gift to my Japan-bound friends–minus my long Japan travel tales of Days 1 to 10. 🙂

Explore the streets. No better way to witness the pulse of the Japanese capital than walk its busy (as well as its quiet) streets where you can be among the ultra-fashionable, the throngs of salarymen, or fellow tourists in awe of Tokyo. To minimize transportation costs, it’s best to explore the city per area. The extensive metro rail of the city has stops for most of the popular spots in Tokyo, anyway. And bring your most comfortable shoes!  (There were days though when I did succumb to “vanity over comfort” mentality with a pair of boots that just looked nicer. Tsk, tsk.)

Heading down Takeshita-dori. Hello, crowd.

1. Harajuku. Head down Takeshita Dori, which is just across the JR Yamanote line exit of Harajuku Station. Walk down this narrow street lined with trendy boutiques, shops where cosplayers likely shop, a 100 yen store, some restaurants and a lot of crepe stalls. Check it our during a Sunday to see Japanese teens get all dressed up. Walk further south and you’ll end up in Omotesando, where the crowd is past their adolescence and has a different kind of style–less costumey, more chic.

Akihabara in the afternoon. An even better sight in the evening!

2. Akihabara. Tokyo’s Electric Town and ground zero for geekery with all the manga and toy stores, gadgets galore, and maid cafes to gawk at. You can get out of the JR Akihabara exit and start checking out the stores from there. (Here is the very detailed Akihabara map we were given on our walking tour. Here is another one from Tokyo Tourism that might be helpful. They have 53 Ways to Explore Tokyo on Foot; most tourist spots are in areas A, B, C, and D.)

Pedestrians waiting for the green light at the Shibuya Crossing

3. Shibuya. Where you can find the tourist-draw of a crossing, that little Hachiko statue, sharply dressed young Japanese women (makes you feel you want to go back to your inn and put on something nicer) and so many department stores for a consumerist high.

An alley in the Golden Gai in Shinjuku–one of the most interesting night spots in Tokyo

4. Shinjuku. Where skyscrapers, more department stores, and night spots, including a red-light district, abound. Must check out the alleys and pubs of the Golden Gai, though a visit in one of the bars will set you back a cover charge or admission fee between Y700 to Y2000. (FYI: To fellow Pinoys, there is a bar nearby called Champion Bar and it is co-owned by a Filipino and frequented by Pinoys working in Tokyo. Our friend pointed it out to us, but we didn’t get a chance to go inside.) You can also just head to one of the big chain stores, like Takashimaya (with a large Tokyu Hands branch inside), Isetan (must stop for the basement food hall), or Yodobashi to drool over electronics.

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Tokyo, Day 9: The day we didn’t go to Ghibli Museum

On the ninth day, we had originally planned to head over to the Ghibli Museum. We knew you have to book months ahead if you plan to go during the peak tourist season, which was when we were going. Purchase of the tickets can only be done at certain travel agencies in certain countries—the Philippines not included. This meant we had to ask someone in Japan to buy our tickets in a Lawson’s convenience store. So we did. Two months before we arrived. But by the time our friend headed over to Lawson’s to get the tickets, the only ones available were for sometime in May. My Studio Ghibli dreams were crushed. (But check out this one blogger who got to go.) Oh, but there remained a silver lining. We were still in Japan and it was a free day without anything planned. (Pardon the low-res photos, my net connection sucks so these are easier to upload.)

Bandai mothership calling

P had originally wanted to see the life-sized Gundam statue that was erected in Odaiba a year before. But it had been moved out of Tokyo and into Shizuoka. So when he spotted the Bandai logo on top of a building as we were about to cross the blue bridge over Sumida River, it was like the mother ship calling out to him. I have friends who’ve gone to Paris and who headed to the Eiffel Tower just by keeping it in its sight. (Not a recommended thing to do.) This is how we ended up across the street from what looked like the Bandai office building, where statues of Bandai characters lined the sidewalk—including Ultraman and Kamen Rider. P had a nerdgasm. We took an embarrassing amount of photos before going inside, where toys and more Bandai characters were in display on the ground floor.

 

Kamen Rider equals nerdgasm for P

Hello, Ultraman

My favorite sight inside the Bandai building--it's the sergeant!

Keroro toys, hmmm.

Of course we had to go inside. (Too bad you can't take pictures inside)

When we got out, it started raining. We were hungry and I was still craving for tapsilog (which is a Filipino breakfast consisting of tapa or cured salty beef, sinangag or fried rice and pritong itlog or sunny side-up egg) or any –silog for the matter. I didn’t want tea, miso soup, beef bowl, ramen or onigiri that morning. Without a Filipino restaurant in sight, we ended up in McDonald’s.

Then with our one-day Metro card (bundled with the limousine bus ticket we bought in Narita the day we arrived) and our JR Pass, we took the Ginza line from Asakusa to Ueno, then from Ueno we took the JR line to Harajuku. Yes, we were creatures of habit and Harajuku seemed to be a pretty straightforward and manageable area to explore for the day as Meiji-Jingu and Yoyogi Park were also just short walking distance from the station exit. (I just promised P we were not going to set foot in crowded Takeshita-dori again.)

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Kyoto to Tokyo, Day 8: A few days before going home

Waiting for our bullet train back to Tokyo

Four days in Kyoto was just too fast. While we got to see most of the places we wanted to go to being the dutiful tourists that we were, we didn’t get to simply wander around most of the areas (downtown Kyoto, Nanzen-ji, I know you still have so many little corners to be explored). I was in love with this city and it was time to break up. (Or at least engage in a long-distance love affair, which is sort of the whole point to these blog entries, really.) The plus side to leaving Kyoto was getting to ride the shinkansen again (this time I knew how to close the lock in the toilet to avoid anymore dreadful flashing incidents), and eating the bento lunch we bought at one of the glorious food stalls at the depachika of Isetan at Kyoto Station.

P's bento lunch in the shinkansen

I got chicken karaage with some kind of fish tempura, while P got chicken teriyaki. Both came with rice, some shredded cabbage, some tsukudani and those cute cut-up vegetables in a plastic bento. I thought, if we’re to judge a culture’s level of refinement by how it prepares take-out food, the Japanese will likely win hands down. The only downside to it—where do all those nice, little packaging go after we’re done with them. (A quick web search on Japan’s garbage situation would immediately lead to articles on its effective waste management and recycling process.)

When we got to Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, we took the JR Yamanote line to Ueno (where we could still use our JR Pass, yay!), then the Ginza line to Asakusa. Considered one of the city’s few districts that retain the supposed vibe of the old Tokyo, Asakusa is also home to a number of affordable guesthouses and hostels—in one of which we got a room for our remaining two nights in Japan. Asakusa is also where you can find the popular Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, and the popular hanami spot of Sumida Park. So after P and I checked in and got settled in our room, we headed out.

Sumida Park

There’s always joy in trying to find your destination—unless you’re lugging a heavy baggage or your companion/the weather is miserable. That afternoon, our bags were stashed, the weather was fine, and P and I were happy to be back in Tokyo (even if it did mean saying goodbye to Kyoto) and to not have to wear four layers of clothing (only three this time). We got a bit lost on our way to Senso-ji, but ended up in Sumida Park, another popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. After a stroll in the park, we finally found Senso-ji.

Kaminarimon, entrance gate to Senso-ji

If I thought the number of tourists in the temples of Kyoto were a lot, standing in front of Senso-ji, by its large entrance gates (Kaminarimon), I realized we had stumbled upon the mother lode of Tokyo tourists—bus loads and boat loads (coming from the nearby river cruise). With the free admission and located right along a busy avenue, Senso-ji attracts multitudes and is considered the most popular of Tokyo’s temples. (The fact that it houses the golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, supposedly fished out of Sumida River in year 628, might also have something to do with it.) The crowd thickens even more past the first gate and into Nakamise-dōri, a shopping street of 250 meters lined with shops selling souvenirs and local delicacies.

Even after only spending a week in Japan, a visit to its restaurants, marketplaces and shopping streets should clue you in that the country is big on rice and beans and all its byproducts. Like other Asian countries, rice figures heavily in its meals. Then there are its byproducts—sake (rice wine), mochi (rice cakes made of glutinous rice), and rice flour used to make dango, various wagashi (Japanese sweets) and crackers. And because of Japan’s rich Buddhist history, the bean or mame is also big. It’s the source of Japanese staples such as tofu, yuba (soy milk skin), miso, soy sauce and anko (sweet paste made from azuki beans).

Nakamise Shopping Street—so this is where all the Tokyo tourists are

At Nakamise Shopping Street, stalls selling snacks and boxes of local goodies seem to be only made up of those two things. There were rice crackers of different shapes and sizes and Japanese sweets (such as ningyoyaki) filled with red bean paste. (I admit, I originally thought the red-brown filling was chocolate, which prompted me to buy a bag to snack on.)

Want some rice crackers?

Homemade fried bean-jam bun

Japanese sweets such as ningyoyaki, which is pancake or waffle batter filled with red bean paste and cooked in a mold

After P and I got through the crowd of Nakamise (though not without losing each other at some point), we got to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon. The crowd had thinned considerably and only then did we realize that the main hall of the temple was already closed for the day. We contentedly took photos of the five-storied pagoda next to it (no other tourists on the background!) and the less crowded Hozomon gate. It was closing time, after all.

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