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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
515 S. Figueroa St., Suite 1470
Los Angeles, CA 90071
JNTO, in San Francisco:
1 Daniel Burnham Court, Suite 250C,
San Francisco, CA 94109
2-3-11, Yanaka, Taito-ku,
(03) 3822-2251, fax: (03) 3822-2252
Most ryokans offer 15 percent travel agent commission.