Tokyo on a Budget

With a bit of planning and a sense of adventure, clients really can have more fun for less money

By: Roger Allnutt

TOKYO They came tripping down the escalator of the Tokyo subway station, a large group of schoolgirls aged about nine, neatly dressed in their distinctive navy blue school uniforms with brightly colored backpacks completing the outfit. They appeared happy, relaxed and at ease negotiating the daunting network of underground passages, ticket machines and station platforms.

Apparently many such kids travel long distances each school day on the hectic Tokyo subway system without concern. I can’t imagine many parents in the U.S. being prepared to let their young daughters (or sons) undertake similar journeys. If they could do it, then I saw no reason why I, a seasoned traveler, couldn’t manage to see the sights of Tokyo using the fast, efficient network.

Tokyo, like the rest of Japan, is usually regarded as a very expensive place to visit. However, I found that with a bit of planning and the use of information readily available from the Japan National Tourist Organization, it was possible to take in the major sights without breaking the bank.

Outside the rush hours (7:30-9:30 a.m. and 7-9 p.m.) when passengers are often packed into subway cars like sardines, trains provide an easy and inexpensive way to get around the Japanese capital. Stations and routes are clearly marked in English and, despite the fact the network is run by four different companies covering different lines, the purchase of tickets and finding the right platform is relatively easy. Passes are available for one or more days, but it is often cheaper just to purchase tickets for individual journeys.

The train is also a good, inexpensive option for clients traveling to and from Narita International Airport, about 40 miles from downtown Tokyo. The Keisei Limited Express is the cheapest option costing about $10 and taking about 70 minutes; there are also slightly faster trains and limousine buses that cost more than double. (I would highly recommend if clients are only staying in Tokyo for a few days to pack all they need in a small case and leave any large luggage in storage at the airport.)

Ryokans: An Affordable Option
The top hotels in Tokyo are equivalent to those in all major cities of the world. Five-star establishments like the Palace Hotel, Imperial Hotel, Hilton, Royal Park and Le Meridien offer luxury accommodation and facilities with prices to match. In recent years reasonably priced “business” hotels have become popular (especially among Japanese business people when the economy slumped) and these are usually well placed close to railway stations in business and major sightseeing areas like Asakusa and Ginza.

For a chance to stay “Japanese-style” at a budget price, however, I would recommend lodging at a ryokan. Here, each guestroom is simple in design and floored with tatami straw matting.

Bedding is stored in a closet until laid out in the early evening. Usually bathroom facilities are separate, and the hot, deep Japanese baths are very welcome after a days’ sightseeing.

I stayed at Sawanoya Ryokan close to Nezu station (the Chiyoda line on which the station is located is central for sightseeing) and would strongly recommend the comfortable establishment run by the Sawa family. English-speaking they were a fount of information providing advice, maps and documentation to assist the traveler. Western and Japanese-style breakfasts are available at very moderate prices, and tea, coffee and water are free of charge to all guests.

Sawanoya Ryokan is located in a residential area (but only three stops from the Imperial Palace area and Ginza) full of traditional wooden houses, narrow alleys, small shops and shrines. A stroll in the local area gives the chance to observe the Japanese following their typical routine, taking a walk in the local park or shopping.

The Ueno Zoo, the oldest in Japan, is close by and it features giant pandas, the first of which arrived from China in 1972. Located in the adjacent Ueno Park area are the Tokyo National Museum, Metropolitan Art Museum and National Science Museum. Shinobazu Pond, famous for its lotus blossom, is a nesting area for migratory birds.

Hit the Streets
Eating out in Japan can be frighteningly expensive, but there are plenty of reasonably priced alternatives. Japanese noodle restaurants, and Chinese and Korean restaurants especially away from the main tourist areas usually display pictures of popular dishes and prices so you don’t have to be bamboozled by the Japanese writing on menus. Some even have English translations. For a quick, inexpensive meal a couple of chains, Yoshinoya and Matsuya, offer a limited range of tasty, filling dishes usually rice with a curry sauce, chopped pork or beef or vegetables. At about $4 for a large bowl, together with a cup of green tea, it’s a real bargain. Another option is to join the locals and sample the affordable and colorful street vendors in Asakusa or Ginza.

When it comes to attractions, there are a few tricks for making these affordable as well.

In many cases the major sights are grouped quite close together and walking is a good option for covering the distances between them. To help your clients plan their sightseeing, the useful booklet “Tokyo & Vicinity Walking Guide,” available from tourist offices in the city, presents a number of suggested walks together with directions and details of opening hours and entry fees. At the famous Ginza shopping area, Mitsukoshi is the best known of the large department stores. Mitsukoshi started out as a shop selling kimonos, but now sells just about everything you could possibly want or need. Its main entrance is modeled on Harrods in London complete with two large lion statues guarding the doorway where the original owner went to learn the art of merchandising.

Close by is the Kabuki-za Theater, the traditional form of Japanese theater recreating grand historical events using dance, play, ornate sets and costumes and music. Tickets for the morning one-act shows (starting at 11:40 a.m.) can be purchased at the theater and it is worth renting the headsets for an excellent English explanation of the action.

The Imperial Palace, formerly Edo Castle (the original name for Tokyo was Edo), covers a huge area in central Tokyo. Home of the Emperor and his family, it is surrounded by a moat.

The East Garden, which includes the remaining part of the central keep of Edo Castle, is the only part open to the public and is especially attractive in May for the irises and azaleas and November for the autumn foliage.

The attractive double Nijubashi Bridge where the Emperor and family appear on special occasions is the approach to the main entrance and is a popular photographic spot with Japanese.

Asakusa is “downtown” Tokyo for locals its narrow streets lined with shops selling traditional items. The covered shopping arcade Nakamise Dori leading to the Asakusa Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) Temple is a great place for souvenirs.

There are many shrines and temples throughout Tokyo and many of these are very special places for Japanese and tourists alike. The Meiji shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji who is credited with opening Japan to the outside world in the 1860s, is a fine example of Shinto architecture.

The Yasukuni shrine commemorates Japanese war dead and is situated next to the Yushukan museum. The foyer displays a carrier-borne Mitsubishi Zero fighter aircraft used in World War II, while the collection in other rooms presents a history of Japanese involvement in wars from the days of the samurai, through various Sino-Japanese conflicts to the Great East Asian War (1939-45). The portrayal is written from a very Japanese point of view.

Despite its reputation as one of the more expensive capital cities in the world, it is possible, with a bit of careful planning, you can help your clients enjoy Tokyo’s many attractions while sticking to their budget. All they have to do is follow the lead of those happy schoolchildren I saw on the subway staying and eating locally and taking advantage of public transportation and your clients will enjoy a memorable visit.


Japan National Tourist Organization, in Los Angeles:
515 S. Figueroa St., Suite 1470
Los Angeles, CA 90071

JNTO, in San Francisco:
1 Daniel Burnham Court, Suite 250C,
San Francisco, CA 94109

Sawanoya Ryokan
2-3-11, Yanaka, Taito-ku,
Tokyo 110-0001
(03) 3822-2251, fax: (03) 3822-2252
Most ryokans offer 15 percent travel agent commission.