THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE
Last-Minute Long-Haul: Tokyo
With airlines slashing fares at the last minute, we pitted two travelers against each other in a competition to have far-flung adventures on seven days' notice. The mission: fly eight hours and stay four nights—for $1,200.
One day I hoofed it to Shinjuku Station, the world's busiest train stop, and watched some of the 3.4 million daily commuters walk in near silence through the cleanest subway on the planet. Aboveground, I wandered the Shinjuku district's skinny alleys, the kind that in other cities would instill fear but here are immaculate and lined with flame-spitting yakitori counters, where skewers of chicken and veggies are grilled to order. I bought a $10 standing-room ticket to see the Yomiuri Giants that afternoon at the Tokyo Dome (1-3-61 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, 011-81/3-5800-9999, tokyo-dome.co.jp/e) and stood sipping BYO Sapporo with thousands of fans singing the team song. Next door to the baseball stadium is the Thunder Dolphin Roller Coaster (Tokyo Dome City, next to the stadium, tokyo-dome.co.jp/e/laqua/attraction.htm, $10.50), and, as I found out, there may be no better vantage for appreciating the Tokyo skyline—so vast it makes Manhattan look like downtown Albuquerque, N.M.
With a pair of comfortable shoes, I discovered, Tokyo is surprisingly walkable, despite its immensity. I strolled the East Garden of the Imperial Palace (the palace itself is off-limits to the public); the Ginza neighborhood, where Gucci and Armani stores commingle with bonsai gardens; and the Asakusa neighborhood, where tourists throng the 1,381-year-old Senso-ji Temple and shop the Nakamise Market (next to the Senso-ji Temple, near the Asakusa station) for souvenirs—and where I hopped a $9 boat down the Sumida River to the 17th-century Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien gardens. I ended the day at Maki and Kiyoshi's favorite sento, or traditional bathhouse: shiny-clean Sengoku-Yu, near my hotel in Hatagaya, where I paid the old lady at the door $7 and spent an hour soaking in three hot pools.
Those were all worthy adventures, but none of them topped dragging myself to the 5 a.m. train bound for the Tsukiji Market (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3542-1111, tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm), the largest fish market in Japan. I got there in a downpour that added to the cacophony created by the beeping electric carts transporting tuna the size of wild boars. Inside, buyers with flashlights inspected the tuna, row upon row of them, and then gathered around an auctioneer to bid on the day's catch before selling it to market stalls and restaurants throughout the city.
Maki and Kiyoshi invited me to keep my Friday evening free and join them at Saito Sakaba (2-30-13 Kamijujo, Kita-ku, 011-81/3-3906-6424, small plates from $3.25), their favorite izakaya, or traditional happy-hour pub, near the Jujo station. An izakaya, as Maki explained, "is where people go at the end of the week to drink and smoke and say bad things about the boss." From where I sat, at a communal table just wide enough to hold fast-arriving plates of tuna and mackerel sashimi, as well as an endless parade of sake and beer, everyone seemed to have forgotten their gripes.
Maki and Kiyoshi exchanged my-country-your-country observations with me the way people do when language is a barrier-and soon enough, the young man across from us chimed in. I couldn't understand a word he said, except for this: "Randy Newman," and then "Jackson Browne." And then "David Bowie." The conversation turned to the films of Wes Anderson, and before long, our new friend bowed to Kiyoshi and insisted on taking us to a different bar. His name was Sho. "To meet you and not take you to this wonderful bar would be a shame," he said (Maki translated). "It is my favorite place in all of Tokyo." And so we left the izakaya for a tiny bar called Stories on the Odakyu line. (2-9-13 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, 011-81/3-3465-6843)
The final reckoning
Maki and Kiyoshi were long gone by now, having made the wise decision to catch the last train home. Sho was nowhere to be seen. So I sat in silence, listening to Joni Mitchell on the turntable and waiting for the day's first train, at 5 a.m. This, I realized, is the risk that comes with putting your trip in the hands of strangers: They have lives to get back to and you can be left hanging. I paid the tab ($40), and by the time I got back to my hotel, packed up, and took some cash out of an ATM to get myself Stateside, I was $50 over budget. Then again, I had just spent four days in one of the world's most expensive cities for less than it usually costs just to get there.
Mike's top tip: Hang with the locals
"I always get the best travel tips when I'm not expecting them—talking to a stranger or listening to a long story. If I hadn't let Maki and Kiyoshi befriend me on my first night in Tokyo, I'd never have known about the traditional Japanese sauna, or the boat ride from Asakusa, or the izakaya they took me to later that week. Those were the highlights of my trip!"