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 to Kyoto, Day 5: In slumber and snow (and a bullet train in between)

Shibuya Crossing on a quiet and rainy Monday morning

Our shinkansen ride to Kyoto was scheduled a few minutes past noon, but we left C’s apartment early. From Sangen-jaya, we had to go to the Shibuya train station to take the Yamanote line to Shinagawa station, where we would take the shinkansen. We wanted to have more than enough time to find Shinagawa and we also thought it would be a good idea to kill some time exploring Shibuya. After stashing our luggage in one of the lockers in the station by eight am, we headed out. (There are only a few station lockers for big pieces of luggage so if you want to grab a hold of one, be there early.)

Outside the Hachiko Exit of Shibuya Station

There was the statue of Hachiko outside the Shibuya station exit named after the loyal Akita dog, all by its lonesome, minus the constant hordes of people who have made it a popular meeting spot. The Shibuya Crossing on that cold, rainy Monday morning seemed reluctant to come to life without the multitude of pedestrians. Its blinking video screens and neon lights still in slumber. It was like our first glimpse of Tokyo from the airport. As we walked the streets of Shibuya, the entire district, which is crammed with many department stores and little boutiques, seemed to be in no hurry to wake up. There was not much activity save for a camera crew shooting a group of dancing girls for what looked like a commercial. When we spotted an open gyudon restaurant an hour later, we ducked into it for some breakfast.

One of the reliable eateries for thrifty travelers in Japan are the gyudon-ya, which serves the popular donburi dish of gyudon (rice topped with beef and onion), along with some pork variations (butadon and tondon) and salmon for around ¥500. You either pay for it at the counter or via vending machine by the restaurant’s entrance. The vending machines often don’t have an English menu so you have to rely on the photos (though it’s sometimes hard to tell the beef and pork bowls apart). The gyudon typically comes with the Japanese set meal staples of miso soup, pickled vegetables, and hot tea.

In our entire trip to Japan, the gyudon has always been a dependable and satisfying meal, so we were surprised when less than three hours later, we were seated in one of the restaurants inside Shinagawa station having another meal. We still had an hour before our train arrived so we decided to explore the station. It was filled with stalls selling bento boxes, an udon place filled with salarymen hunched over their bowls of noodles, a restaurant serving “homemade curry” as it claimed on its doorway, and a bunch of other eateries that made us crave to have an early lunch.

Hello, shinkansen!

At 12:10 pm, the shinkansen Hikari line we were to board for Kyoto pulled up in front of the platform in all its sleek, steel gorgeousness…as much as a train can be gorgeous. (Or, judging from my past entries, I could be biased for everything Japanese.) Via the shinkansen, the 460-plus kilometer distance between two cities is covered in a little over two hours. (Taking the bus would have taken it around eight hours.) I felt like I was going on vacation from a vacation—from the rapid pace of Tokyo that can leave anyone breathless (I’m sure my itinerary didn’t help) to a slower and historically-rich Japan of surreal golden temples, well-preserved castles, and Zen gardens. I was going to get a taste of traditional Japan and my mouth was watering.

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Tokyo, Day 2: Sushi, sakura and Shibuya

Sakura!

Waking up before 5 a.m. during one’s vacation is never an easy feat. Especially when you’ve spent the night before stuffing yourself until past midnight. But we had to if we wanted to see the action in Tsukiji Fish Market. Known as one of the world’s largest fish market, it handles over 2,000 metric tons of fresh seafood every day. It’s also become a tourist attraction—much to the supposed chagrin of the workers there—for the tuna auction held every 5:30 in the morning. But first we had to get there on our own.

It was a Friday and C had to go to work. My husband and I were not going to smoothly maneuver our way around Tokyo’s busy stations the way we did last night—with our very tall friend as our guide. He took our map of Tokyo Metro and told us where we should transfer and what train we should take. We had to take the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya, from Shibuya take Hanzomon Line to Aoyama-itchōme, and from there take the Oedo line and go down Tsukijishijo. As much as I would end up loving the efficient train system of Japan, on that first morning, I suddenly missed the simple linear MRT and LRT lines of Manila. Being the designated navigator of the entire vacation, I was furiously taking notes. My husband kept asking, “Do you get it? Do you know it na?” I suddenly had a flurry of images of fighting couples in Amazing Race.

Once we got to Sangenjaya Station we headed to the ticket counters. There are maps on top of the vending machines dispensing the tickets in all the stations in Tokyo indicating the stops and the fare, but for a few seconds I could only stare at it blankly. Wondering what it all meant. When in doubt about the ticket fare, C advised us that we could just buy the lowest priced ticket and check the difference at the fare adjustment machine on our destination station. It also sounded complicated, but it was a problem we could figure out once there. After getting our tickets, we were faced with the dilemma of what platform to take. “Do you know where to go?” My husband asked. To the left or right? I approached the uniformed train station employee by the manned gate, showed him the map and asked, “Shibuya?” He pointed to the platform on the left and bowed.

“Domo arigato!” Two of the four Japanese words I knew. I would be uttering them every time whenever I’d show my map to a train station guard throughout the trip. It only didn’t serve us well once when I was faced with an intercom and the Japanese at the other end couldn’t point to where we were supposed to go.

Finding our way to the Tsukiji Market

When we finally got out of Tsukijishijo Station, it was the same problem. To the left or right? This time there was no uniformed train station employee to ask. I looked at my notes and 19-page itinerary, where I had included directions and a map. I also looked at the print-out I had of a DIY tour of Tsukiji Fish Market. The main entrance of which is supposedly in front of the Asahi Shinbun building. From where we stood, I couldn’t see the Asahi Shinbun building. Wasn’t Tsukiji Fish Market just above the Tsukijishijo Station? I was stumped. We paced up and down the block, not sure at what street we should turn to. Then my husband spotted a couple of Caucasians with cameras hanging down their necks heading down the street on our right, next to a gasoline station. “Let’s just follow them.” And so we did. The street was lined with a few carts and parked delivery trucks. Save for some Styrofoam boxes stacked in a pile, it was very clean like many of the streets of Japan.

In the Inner (Wholesale) Market

Then slowly the market revealed itself. Forklifts and motorized carts started rushing past us and it’s your duty to get out of their way. We entered a large warehouse, which turned out to be the market’s famed wholesale area, and there it was—stall after stall of every fresh seafood known to man. Those huge tuna being sliced with large band saws. Boxes of crabs, oysters, shrimp. In some stalls, prime tuna cuts were encased in a glass display like the precious commodity that they are. I felt like I was going around a museum. Each stall an installation art, with its prized seafood and workers performing their routine quietly, precisely. Fellow tourists taking pictures, observing, gawking, resisting the urge to touch the sea wonders.

We didn’t reach the famed tuna auction, but we decided to have some sushi for breakfast. As our friend reminded us before leaving his place, “Eat only in the restaurants with the long lines!” Judging by lines, Sushi Dai is probably the most popular sushi bar in the market. It always has a long line of people waiting to be served. And the wait can take an hour or two. But we here hungry and we had to meet some other friends to go to Ueno Park. So we simply parked ourselves in front of the counter of one of the eateries at the outer market. It served 11 types of sashimi, including maguro (tuna), ebi (prawn), ika (squid), fish eggs, sake (salmon) and uni (sea urchin) on top of a cold bowl of rice. Though bleary-eyed the entire morning and feeling a bit disoriented, the hot tea and the cold, raw seafood roused and reminded us of where we were: In Tsukiji, Tokyo, having sashimi. How could the day get any better?

Tsukiji breakfast: a bowl of rice topped with different kinds of sashimi

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