I made a video where I share all my best tips on Japan budget travel. Watch this and save a lot of yen!
Kimono girls at Senso-ji Temple
DJ Makai at Club Velours
Chefs at Maguro Bito, a restaurant that serves kaiten sushi ("conveyor belt" sushi)
Writing my Japanese name in kanji characters for a calligraphy lesson
"Show me your Tokyo," I said to my friends who lived there. They answered the call.
Big cities are a challenge. Tokyo is uniquely difficult. It has the most complex subway system I've ever seen; has acres upon acres of tiny lanes with no addresses; and has the Japanese language itself, which is notoriously impenetrable to outsiders.
I was counting on my friends to lead me through the labyrinth of the "Eastern Capital," which is the literal meaning of Tokyo's name (東京).
Shibuya at night
John was an Australian surfer/translator who was open to sharing the secrets of his city with me. We'd met at the famous World Scholar House in Taipei, a shabby but lovable hostel where I made most of my long-term friends in Taiwan.
Getting a good view is key when visiting a big city. I read that the Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office were good spots. "Follow me," John said. He knew a much better vantage point.
We took the metro to Shinjuku station and went into the Takashimaya Times Square department store. In the elevator, John pushed the button for the 14th floor.
When the elevator doors opened, we strode out. John pointed and said, "Men's restroom. Best view of Tokyo." We smacked open the door and entered.
An old man was pissing at a urinal. He ignored us as we climbed up onto the ledge. The men's restroom had a wall of glass facing the skyscrapers of Shinjuku. I immediately started snapping pictures.
"What if women want to see this?" I wondered. "Does the women's restroom have the same view?"
"Can't say," John said, laughing. "I've never been!"
Later, we went to the 13th floor outside terrace for more views.
Me and John on the 13th floor terrace
Next, John knew of a place that was geek heaven. Akihabara, I thought. Instead, he led me to Nakano Broadway. While I checked out the shops, I told him: "In America, maybe there would be one store in the whole mall that carried this kind of stuff. But this is the whole mall!"
John with cosplay costumes
Me having a close encounter
Dragon Ball Z animation cels
Dinner was next on the agenda. My choice was ramen noodles. In America, it was what we lived on as university students. In Japan, it's a much higher form of cuisine. John knew of a great Fukuoka-style ramen joint.
My favorite part was that each table had a shelf of condiments. The best one was a bowl of fresh garlic cloves and a garlic press. We wasted no time in adding pressed garlic to our ramen.
John using a garlic press
Me using a garlic press
The noodles were much softer and more filling than their inferior American cousins. The real highlight was the broth: rich, savory, and packed with flavor.
John and I would have far-ranging conversations, often comparing Taiwan and Japan. He was quite adept at describing the quirks of Japanese people. "They're all about giving a good performance," John said. "When they face a situation, they try to give the best performance of how they're supposed to act. If it's a new situation, they get very uncomfortable. Even being uncomfortable is another performance for them."
I talked about how Japanese and Taiwanese had different approaches to money. "Japanese are long-term investors. They'll buy a stock and hold onto it forever. That pisses off stock brokers, because they make their money on transaction fees from trading. So I read this Taipei Times article about how foreign banks want to expand in Taiwan. Taiwanese will buy and sell at the drop of a hat."
The pricing system at Maguro Bito. At the end of the meal, the waiter counts your empty sushi plates to calculate the bill.
What about drinks? Drinking is expensive, but Tokyo can be extra painful. Luckily, John had inside knowledge of a small bar hidden in Shibuya.
"It's kind of an izakaya pub where you order small snacks as you drink. Like the Japanese equivalent of tapas bars in Spain," he explained. That sounded really cool, like the places I went to in Barcelona. He said this bar had a good mix of Japanese and foreigners. The really Japanese joints aren't always so welcoming to foreigners, he warned. His bar was an exception.
When we arrived at Tasu Ichi, John replied to a text message from work while I looked over the extensive snack menu.
John at Tasu Ichi bar
The place was standing only, with no seats and tall bar tables. John said this was to encourage customers to move around and socialize more. It worked. Japanese really let loose while they're drinking. All that quiet politeness disappears! Conversations in multiple languages drifted around us. Ah, this was what being abroad was all about.
Another friend, Christina, took me around Akihabara. Some of her friends had started Tokyo Realtime, which sold audio tours of popular neighborhoods in the city.
Most of my readers are friends I know personally. Christina was different. She had found my blog through a mutual Japanese friend. She contacted me via e-mail, and I hadn't met her until I got to Tokyo. Did I have more fans that I don't know about?
I thought I'd be disappointed by Akihabara. I've already seen electronics markets all over Asia. My laptop came from Guanghua Computer Market in Taipei, my old Casio camera was from Pacific Digital Plaza in Shanghai, and my USB stick was from Plaza Low Yat in Kuala Lumpur.
What attracted me was the party atmosphere. Other electronics markets are pure businesses. Akihabara felt much more fun, like a carnival as much as a market. There were lots of geeks doing "cosplay," dressing up as comic-book and anime characters. I thought fans of Star Trek and Dungeons & Dragons were dedicated, but the Japanese otaku (geeks) have got them beat.
Christina arranged for me to be a test subject for an audio tour of Akihabara. My favorite stop on the tour was Super Potato, a vintage video game shop.
Me playing Super Mario Bros. on the original NES
Christina playing on a giant Gameboy
The place was a museum of video-game history. Old consoles I haven't thought about in years, like the Sega Genesis and Turbo Grafx-16, were on sale. John had once told me that the Japanese were the perfect collectors, paying for quality products and being meticulous about maintenance. Every console still had its original packaging in mint condition, like it was straight from the factory.
Japanese Super NES consoles
Super Mario Bros. plush dolls
After the tour, I got interviewed by the creators of Tokyo Realtime. They wanted to collect testimonials about their product.
Me getting interviewed about the audio tour
Encouraged after seeing Nakano Broadway and Akihabara, I wanted to indulge my inner nerd. Tokyo was the world's best place to be a geek. No matter what you were into, Tokyo had it: comics, video games, electronics, etc. What did I want to check out?
Then I remembered something Aaron said. He's a Canadian friend who had mentioned that Tokyo was a mecca for vinyl records. I did some research, and came up with Udagawa-cho. It's an area of independent record shops in Shibuya, scattered around the Tokyu Hands department store. I looked up the best shop for hip-hop music and went in for a visit.
Manhattan Records, street view
Customers checking out hip-hop records. The guy on the left is wearing a Run DMC hat.
A customer at a listening station
A lot of dance clubs in Asia play the same Top 40 music. So I was excited to hear new songs and mixes thundering from the turntables. There were DJs on both floors spinning records. The music was so thrilling that I wished the place was a club, so I could bust out some moves.
In-store DJ pumping out the jams
Original record of "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy
The Wall of Fame: famous rappers who've visited Manhattan Records
My other passion is movies, so I went to La Jetée, a bar dedicated to world cinema. It was in the Golden Gai bar district, an area I wanted to check out anyway.
The Golden Gai
Frenchman at La Jetée
Me chilling out at La Jetée
The unspoken contract I have with my readers is that I won't say something is cool when it's not. I had high expectations, because this bar is mentioned in all the guidebooks and gets rave reviews.
I'll be honest and say that La Jetée was a letdown. Way too small and expensive for what they offer. The average independent cafe in Taipei is much nicer, bigger, and cheaper for the same funky bohemian atmosphere. The lanes of Shida and Gongguan are filled with better places.
On a positive note, I did get to talk to some nice French people. When you're crammed that closely together, you'll meet people whether you want to or not!
I had better luck with clubbing. John had referred me to Honza, a Czech grad student who partied a lot. Honza invited me to join him and his friends for a night out at Club Velours.
"What do you study?" I asked Honza.
He screwed up his face to ponder the question. "It's hard to explain," he said. "I was an engineering student. But now I'm studying green energy, because I mean, I'm trying to save this world!"
Multiple DJs spun records that night. My favorite act was Nobis, an electro band. Their heavy use of a synth keyboard sent me back to the 1980's.
Nobis rocking out at Club Velours
The last DJ played a great set. Sorry guys, I've tried to match who I saw with the DJ schedule, but I can't find her. She looked like a Western girl. Anyway, she put on some awesome breakbeat and drum & bass songs. Not quite hip-hop, but close enough to get me dancing in full effect.
Japanese guys started dancing off against me, and Japanese girls would try to copy my moves. No one really spoke English, but that was okay. Dance needs no translation.
Me and Kimie at Club Velours
Getting into the city
There are several trains that serve Narita Airport. The Narita Express goes to the most convenient stations and is the most expensive. The cheapest option is the Keisei Limited Express (NOT the Keisei Skyliner), which costs 1,100 yen and takes 75 minutes to get to Ueno station, the last stop.
To get to places in western Tokyo like Shinjuku and Shibuya, get off at Nippori station and transfer to the JR Yamanote line (green line). To go to eastern Tokyo places like Asakusa, get off at Aoto station and transfer to the Tokyo metro Asakusa line. Simply walk across to the other side of the platform at Aoto.
If you're only carrying a backpack, taking the Keisei Limited Express, JR train and Tokyo Metro is the cheapest way to get downtown.
If you have more money and luggage, you might want to take a limousine bus. Cost is 3,000 yen (US$33) and the time varies depending on the destination and traffic. They serve many of the major hotels. Or you can do a combination of limousine bus with a short taxi ride to a cheaper hotel.
Tokyo has an extensive (actually too extensive) network of private and government-run railway lines. You'll never need to take a bus. Taxis are best avoided unless you can share the cost with other people.
If you'll be staying in Tokyo for more than a few days, it's worthwhile to get a Suica card or Pasmo card. They're smart cards that you can load with cash. The cards make it super-easy to pay public transport. The scanners on turnstiles will automatically subtract the correct fare from the card. You'll save time from having to look up fares and dig up the right amount of money.
In any case, get a metro map as soon as you can. I used my metro map more often than my street map!
This is important to know if you're staying out late: the metro trains are usually start departing at 5:30 a.m. What I'd do is stay in a club until it closed around 5:00 a.m. Some metro entrances open earlier than others. If an entrance is still closed early in the morning, follow the rest of the after-hours crowd to another metro entrance.
Can't stay up till sunrise? Don't take a taxi by yourself, it's cheaper to stay in a capsule hotel or 24-hour Internet cafe. Internet cafes offer "all night" deals where you can get a semi-private cubicle, reclining chair, and sometimes shower facilities.
Where to stay
Most hostels are clustered around Asakusa, the traditional area in the northeast of the city. Beware of any cheap places in popular areas like Shibuya, Shinjuku, or Roppongi. They're likely to be bad or not as well-located as they advertise.
I've stayed at K's House Tokyo and K's House Tokyo Oasis. K's House is clean, has good facilities, and is only a 10-second walk to Kuramae metro station exit A-6 on the Oedo line. (Note: There is another Kuramae station for the Asakusa line). Big common area, very social. The only downside is that it's very much a Western-style backpacker hostel, with little Japanese character.
The other branch, Tokyo Oasis, feels like a boutique Japanese-style inn. Tastefully decorated, lots of atmosphere, and quieter than K's House. The main disadvantage is that it's a 10-15 minute walk to Tawaramachi metro station on the Ginza line. Most of the lively areas are in western Tokyo, so I used the metro a lot. Really felt inconvenienced by the location. Guests don't hang out in the common area much, so it's harder to meet people other than your roommates.
K's House has branches throughout Japan, and I'd recommend them. Book in advance, as they're highly rated on hostel websites and popular with backpackers. Actually, this is good advice for Japan in general, since the cheap places fill up fast.
If you're traveling with one other person, you might want to split the cost of a room in a "business hotel" (minshuku in Japanese). It's a different concept from the West, where business hotels are for CEOs and conventions. Japanese business hotels are no-frills operations for local "salarymen." Two of the biggest chains are Toyoko Inn and Superhotel.
The Hotel Asia Center of Japan is a good choice. This business hotel is near Aoyama Itchome metro station. It's only 1 stop from Roppongi, 2 stops to Shibuya, and 3 stops to Shinjuku. The rooms are simple and the single rooms are like walk-in closets. I stayed there in 2005 and thought it was good. The central location was great.
If cost is your main concern and you don't care so much about location, look around Minami-senju. It's an area in the northeast of Tokyo. Minami-senju has the cheapest hotels in the city. Private single rooms (no bathroom) start at around 3,000 yen (US$33). That's the same price as a dorm bed in most hostels! But be prepared for Japanese-style facilities, as in sleeping on the floor and group showering rooms. Here's a list: Economy hotels in Tokyo.
The Kangaroo Hotel seems to be the nicest one in that area. I've never stayed there, but read good reviews of it on TripAdvisor.com. The rooms seem like walk-in closets, but look clean and stylish in the photos.
However, most Japanese consider Minami-senju to be a ghetto because there are a lot of homeless people there. Still eminently safe compared to major U.S. cities. It's Japan, after all.
To find reasonably priced business hotels, traditional inns, etc. in other parts of Japan, visit the Japan Inn group.
Japan and South Korea are two of the only countries where you can't just pop a SIM card into your cell phone. Both use CDMA networks. Everywhere else, you can slide a SIM card into an unlocked quadband GSM phone and start making local calls.
Buying a phone isn't really viable either, for a short trip. You usually have to go through some bureaucracy and register as a foreigner before you're allowed to buy a phone.
The best solution is to rent a phone. Most major airports will have some kiosks representing the major Japanese telecom companies.
I got mine through Rentafone Japan. It was started up by an American expat who couldn't find a place to rent phones for friends and family who visited him. The company offers a really convenient service where they'll mail your phone to your hotel or hostel before you arrive. So when you check in, the clerk will hand you the package with your cell phone. Easy instructions. Make sure to dial their special prefix number to get discounts on calls and text messages. When you're ready to leave, just mail back the phone in the self-addressed stamped envelope. I sent mine from Narita airport just before I got on my plane.
If you visit Japan a lot, it might be better to buy a secondhand phone from a foreigner who is moving out of Japan soon. Look through the classifieds sections of English-language publications like Japan Today and Metropolis Magazine. You can get good deals if the person is desperate to sell their phone fast.
Another thing different about Japanese phones is how they handle text messages. For some carriers, you can send a message to a cell number. But many Japanese phones have a separate "mobile e-mail address." You dial a phone number to call a friend; you send text messages to their mobile e-mail address. So when you make a new Japanese friend, make sure to get both their phone number AND mobile e-mail. It's cheaper to send e-mails than make calls. Most Japanese know this and will write these down if they give you their contact information.
What to buy
If you're going to somewhere like Thailand later, save your shopping for when you get there. There are not too many bargains in Japan.
One exception is electronics, especially secondhand goods. Japanese always need to have the latest gear. As soon as a new version comes out or if something gets scratched, they rush out and buy. Japanese also take good care of their possessions, so even pre-owned products are in good condition.
Akihabara is the place to go. I was seriously tempted to get a used SLR camera. Remember to check if you can get an international warranty and whether the electric plugs are compatible with the outlets in your home country. If you're buying something expensive, you might qualify for a tax refund at the airport before you leave Japan. Ask the clerk for the right paperwork before you buy.
To get an idea of Japanese electronics prices, look at this website: Kakaku.com. It's in Japanese and prices are in yen. You can navigate fairly easily using the picture icons. A computer for the computer section, a camera for the camera section, etc. Use the Universal Currency Converter to get home currency values.
For traditional Japanese crafts, go to flea markets. Temple markets offer excellent deals, but they are typically only held once a month on a weekend. Check your guidebook for which temples will hold markets during your trip.
The Arai Yakushi Temple Market is one of the more local hotspots, which fewer foreigners know about.
Oedo Antique Market is one of the biggest official markets. Another major one is the Heiwajima Antique Fair, which is held five times a year.
For more touristy souvenirs, go to the shops around Sensoji Temple and in the Oriental Bazaar. The Japan National Tourism Organization has a handy master list of Tokyo flea markets.
Where to party
The scene in Tokyo changes too fast for me to recommend specific bars and clubs. I'm better off discussing certain areas of the city.
Roppongi is the main spot for foreigners. More English-friendly, but can also feel more trashy.
Shibuya and Shinjuku are more Japanese and high-class (except for Kabukicho, which is more like the seedier parts of Bangkok).
Golden Gai is a really local area packed with interesting bars. But they can sometimes be unfriendly to new customers. Space is tight, so the bar owners rely heavily on their regular customers.
Yurakucho is a good spot for working-class izakaya bars and yakitori barbeque restaurants.
The best source of information is Metropolis, an English-language magazine aimed at expats. You can find it in most expat bars and bookstores.
The Metropolis Visitor's Guide is excellent. It's better than most guidebooks for shopping, dining, and nightlife leads. This was where I found out about the Udagawa-cho record shop district.