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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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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Kyoto, Day 7: In its kitchen, alleys, and castle (and another temple)

Take me to a place once and I usually know how to get there again. I make a mental map in my head and I’m good. But apparently I cannot read an actual map. That morning, we had more than an hour before we were to meet our guide Atsuko from VisitKansai.com, who was going to accompany us around Nishiki Market, and I thought it was a good idea to look for the streets of Ishibei-koji, Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. They were part of the Lonely Planet guide book’s Southern Higashiyama Walking Tour that we wanted to follow on our first afternoon in Kyoto, but couldn’t because it was so freaking cold—which was, by then, taking its toll on me. So even though I woke up with a headache, a stuffy nose, and a sore throat, I insisted to my husband that I was fine. I was determined to find those streets. Or at least one of them.

How can you not go inside?

After we went inside Yasaka Shrine, I tried to make sense of where we were in the map. We were not on a main road and there wasn’t a street sign I could understand. I thought maybe I was looking at the map in the wrong way. Minutes of standing in the cold wasn’t helping my map-reading skills, so we decided to simply walk down the street to the right of Yasaka Shrine, because it seemed like it was the right direction. We kept walking until we saw a quaint, little alley with a short covered walkway. It piqued our interest. We saw three elderly folks enter. It didn’t look like a private property so we followed them. We figured if they lived there they would have turned us away. But they ignored us. So we kept walking along that almost empty, narrow cobbled street lined with shrubbery over a long concrete wall.

Ishibei-koji

P and I didn’t know where in the map we were or where we were going, but it didn’t really matter at that point. Aside from the fact that we could easily retrace our steps, for the first time, we felt like we were exploring Kyoto on our own. Searching for a place and anticipating what we would actually find. Then we saw two girls dressed up as geishas turn to another alley. We followed them and there it was Ishibei-koji. Though there was no street sign, I knew it was the street Lonely Planet calls, “perhaps the most beautiful street in Kyoto,” because (1) it was indeed beautiful (though not sure of being ‘the most’) and (2) because I had been watching this video on Kyoto hundreds of times before flying to Japan and for a few seconds it shows Ishibei-koji—an immaculate cobbled alley lined with traditional Japanese inns and restaurants. Sometimes, even without a map, you end up where you’re supposed to be, anyway.

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Four-hundred meter heaven: Nishiki Market

I was going to write a part of the trip for my editor in a food magazine so I wanted to explore Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market with a guide/translator. We met our guide Atsuko at a train station along Shijo-dori before walking to the centuries-old marketplace dubbed as the Kitchen of Kyoto. Atsuko, who lives in Osaka is a licensed guide who teaches English. The tours are a way for her to practice her English and she was very patient answering our questions, such as: What were those pasty or powdery concoctions covering the vegetables and the fish? (Answer: nuka, which is rice bran, or miso) What were the tasty black beans called? (Answer: Kuromame. You can eat it as a snack or cook it with rice for flavoring) What did you call those gelatinous, salty-sweet preserves of seaweed, fish, or meat served as a side dish to many Japanese meals? (Answer: Tsukudani).

We explored the 400-meter long marketplace lined with around 140 stores. It was a food (and kitchen) paradise; I would be happy going there every single day. We tasted some kuromame and tsukudani. Checked out the knife shop dating back to 1560 that sold a variety of hand-crafted knives. Saw how bonito flakes looked like before they were, well, flaked. Found our mouths watering at the sight of mochi, onigiri, fish cakes, sashimi tuna on a stick, and the one I looked forward to the most after months of stalking Kyoto-based food blogs, the tofu doughnuts.

One of the shops I love since it sold those sweet-salty Japanese side dishes called tsukudani. Feel free to sample each one.

At the Aritsugu knife shop, where you can find all sorts of knives—for meat, fish (even for a particular fish), sushi rolls, noodles, vegetables, etc.

Nishiki has several shops selling Japanese sweets like mochi and daifuku

Pickled vegetables covered in nuka or rice bran

All sorts of seafood--from fresh to pickled to ready-to-eat

Throughout our Japan trip, P saw a number of small dolls left on the doorways and gates. This one was outside a shop in Nishiki. Anyone know what it's about? (Update: Blogger Tokyobling gave me this explanation: "I think it is meant to be a frog, and as we all know, frog in Japanese is “kaeru” or カエル, which happens to be the same as come back, return, 帰る. So a lot of Japanese stores, cities, temples, stations have some sort of frog symbol near their exit to welcome visitors back.)

Yolk and bean jam buns. I didn't enjoy this one so much.

Onigiri happiness!

Want tuna sashimi on the go? Have it on a stick!

The best Nishiki Market snack for me: Konnamonja’s tofu doughnuts 🙂

After ogling at so much food (even though we bought and snacked on some octopus on a stick, kuromame, bean jam buns and tofu doughnuts), by the time we had walked from one end of Nishiki Market (Teramachi) to the other (Takakura) we were hungry for lunch. Atsuko recommended her favorite sushi-ya in Kyoto—at the basement food hall of the Daimaru Department Store. (Now, a basement food hall or depachika is another food/consumerist phenomenon in Japan altogether. Check this article from Food & Wine.) We walked past shiny stalls of every Japanese food and western delicacies packaged and presented so elaborately, and found the corner sushi-ya Atsuko was talking about.

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Kyoto, Day 6: “The Japan of your imagination” (plus, lots of tourists)

Kinkaku-ji

There it stood, stunning and gleaming on the edge of a serene mirror-like pond—an intricately-designed temple covered with gold-leaf. The Rukuon-ji Temple, or more popularly known as Kinkaku-ji or Golden Temple, was our first stop on our second day in Kyoto. A retirement villa built in the late 14th century, converted into a temple, and centuries later, reconstructed after it burned to the ground, it is one of the more famous cultural sites in a city dotted with 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shintō shrines. So famous that guide books will tell you that the UNESCO World Heritage Site attracts hordes of tourists almost any day of the year. If you want some semblance of serenity while beholding the gilded Zen temple, be there early before the bus-loads of tour groups arrive, or before the temple closes. P and I, along with our two friends from Manila, were there a few minutes after it opened and, though we were amidst quite a number of fellow tourists, it thankfully hadn’t reached Tokyo-train-station-on-a-rush-hour proportions just yet.

One of the most ubiquitous contraptions in Japan

After viewing the temple, we followed the path leading through its vast gardens, climbed a few steps overlooking it, passed a traditional teahouse, and a small shrine called Fudo Hall. Nearby are a few shops selling souvenirs, sundaes, matcha tea, and Japanese snacks like dango balls. We didn’t stop to have any of those. We did stop by one of the many vending machines outside the temple for a drink. Keeping in stock every kind of drink—water, coffee, tea, cider, soda, beer (and sometimes even food)—vending machines are found in almost every street corner in Japan.

If you’re just going around Kyoto, take note that the city buses are green

From the northwestern part of Kyoto, where Kinkaku-ji is, we had to go east to Northern Higashiyama area where we planned to spend the rest of the day—walking the Philosopher’s Path from Ginkaku-ji to Nanzen-ji. We walked to the Kinkakuji-michi bus stop to catch either bus no. 102 or 204, which both stop at Ginkakuji-michi. The way the bus network of Kyoto is mapped out, it appears as efficient and intricate as the railway system of Tokyo, with most of the former imperial capital’s attractions easily accessed by taking a bus. While the city has a helpful railway system, which you can opt to take to avoid downtown traffic or cover longer distances, it is not as elaborate as Tokyo’s. Also, in some train stations you might have to walk quite a distance, take a bus or a taxi to get to where you want to go.

A bowl of ebi tempura for lunch

Once we reached Ginkakuji-michi, we stopped by a restaurant to refuel with tempura-soba and tempura-don. Outside, the cherry blossoms beckoned. Tetsugaku-no-michi or the Path of Philosophy is a wonderful vision in spring with the cherry trees in bloom lining the pedestrian path that follows a canal. It was supposedly where Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaro practiced meditation while he walked from his daily commute to Kyoto University and it’s easy to see how it could be a perfect place for contemplation. But following his footsteps nowadays may not be that easy, especially in spring, when you have to stroll the path with many other cherry blossom-seeking tourists. Being part of that group, I didn’t really mind.

Setting of many a scenic stroll, especially during sakura season

When we came upon a fork in the road, we kept to the left before continuing our Path of Philosophy stroll. The road, crowded with more tourists and lined with souvenir stores and food stalls, leads up to Ginkaku-ji.

One of the many stalls on the way to Ginkaku-ji selling Japanese sweets like yatsuhashi

Known as the Silver Pavilion, the Zen temple is another popular sight in Kyoto. It was built as a retirement villa and was meant to be covered in silver, which was never completed. It isn’t exactly a bad thing as the two-storey temple of white and brown is a soothing sight, especially next to the beautifully raked white sand. The only thing to spoil the very Zen-like scenery were us tourists huddled together, taking snapshots and getting in each other’s shots. The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Kyoto as a place “where you will find the Japan of your imagination.” Just from seeing the two popular temples and the Gion area the night before, the description definitely rings true. Just be sure to include crowds of tourists in your imagined Japan.

Ginkaku-ji, another must-see World Heritage Site in Kyoto

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