20 Secret Bargains of Tokyo

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If your plan is to dine on scarce, succulent (and usually nonfatal) fugu fish, shop for designs by Issey Miyake, or score box seats for the Yomiuri Giants, you'll pay through the proverbial proboscis in Japan's capital city. If you're willing instead to brush up on chopsticks, learn to use a city map, and plan each step you take, you'll spend as little as you could (with a little help from the improved dollar-to-yen exchange rate) in many less expensive cities. After living penniless for my first six months in Tokyo, I realized the only way to thrive was to do my homework and legwork - and cut all spending by half. Herewith, the fruits of my labor; lift a cup of sake for me. (To call these numbers from the United States, first dial 011-81-3. Within Japan, but outside Tokyo, first dial 03.)


The worldwide Japan National Tourist Organization offices (JNTO, jnto.go.jp, japantravelinfo.com/offices.html) have an excellent brochure called "Your Traveling Companion Japan: with Tips for Budget Travel." Upon arrival, head to the Tourist Information Center (TIC) at Narita Airport (Terminals 1 and 2) or in town at the Tokyo International Forum (3-5-1 Marunouchi, 3201-3331; JR Yurakucho station) for other useful brochures. The Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site (tcvb.or.jp) offers museum discount coupons ranging from ¥100 ($1) to half off admission to top museums: Print out and flash at the door. At bookshops or hotels, pick up freebie mags such as Tokyo Classified, Tokyo Noticeboard, and (for ¥600/$5) Tokyo Journal for decent bar/restaurant discounts.


Don't miss a Japanese sento (public bath), not only for a hearty scrub but also for a taste of old Japan; it can be single-sex or mixed, and towels, shampoo, and soap are provided (look for a chimney or a chimney logo). Some picks: Azabujuban Onsen (1-5-22 Azabujuban; Azabujuban station; closed Tuesdays), from ¥360 ($3); Tsuruno Yu (3-44-3 Yamatocho; Koenji station; closed Thursdays), ¥360; Asakusa Kannon Onsen (2-7-26 Asakusa; Asakusa station; closed Thursdays), ¥700 ($6).


Surely you've heard of those capsule hotels -- tiny rooms only big enough for a bed, lamp, and alarm clock. They're mainly men-only, but one or two welcome both men and women -- try, for example, Hotel Kawase (2-9-14 Kamiarimon, Taito-Ku, 3843-4910; Tawaramachi station), with doubles for ¥9,600 ($79), and Hotel Asakusa Capsule (4-14-9 Kotobuki, 3847-4477; Tawaramachi station) with singles at ¥2,600 ($22) and (very cozy!) semidoubles at ¥7,000 ($58). Some budget ryokan (inns) let you pack 'em in, too; Sakura Ryokan (2-6-2 Iriya, Taito Ku; 3876-8118; Iriya station) sleeps up to six people in a room at ¥3,600 ($30) per person. Bookings can be made through Welcome Inn Reservations. Alternatively, rent a tent at Wakasu Seaside Park (1 Wakasu; 5569-6701; Shin-kiba station), adults ¥400 ($3.50), children ¥200 ($2).


The cheapest way in from Narita (New Tokyo International Airport) is by Keisei Limited Express (info: JNTO Tourist Information Center at the airport) in the basements of Terminals 1 and 2. This costs ¥1,000 ($8.50), leaves every 20 minutes, and terminates at Ueno. From Ueno, the JR (Japan Railways) Yamanote line loops around central Tokyo, stopping off at major stations like Shinjuku (¥190/$2), Shibuya (¥190/$2), and Tokyo (¥150/$1.50). Second cheapest is the 80-minute JR Rapid train (terminal basements) direct into Tokyo station for ¥1,280 ($11). A prebooked JR East pass will cover Narita to Tokyo, Ikebekuro, or Shinjuku stations free of charge (normal fare from ¥2,940/$24.50) on the more luxurious Narita Express. This pass must be purchased outside Japan. Visit the Web site (jreast.co.jp/jrp/north.htm) for North American sales.


Before leaping onto the subways or trains, make sure that traveling from A to B cannot be done on foot; most neighboring stations are just minutes away. Ginza to Higashi Ginza, for example, takes five minutes (exit A5, Ginza station), to go from Ginza to JR Yurakucho (for the TIC), simply cross the road, JR Yoyogi to JR Harajuku is a pleasant ramble across the park, and Meiji-Jingumae to Omotesando is a ten-minute stroll past art galleries (mostly free), cafes, and designer boutiques. Not only is this an excellent savings, it also helps break the jumbo city into bite-size chunks. (Just make sure you've got a good map to follow!)


Avoid the subways and trains and you miss out on the vast, buzzing, underground world of shopping malls and cheap eats. Minimum fare is ¥160 ($1.50), but that won't get you far. If you have several journeys in mind and know where you want to go, the Teito Rapid Transit Authority (TRTA) one-day open ticket offers unlimited travel on all nine TRTA lines for ¥710 ($6); the Toei and Odakyu subways or JR train lines require separate payment. Most efficient and simple: a Passnet or SF Card (or for the JR lines, the IO card), from ¥1,000 ($8.50). They don't discount, but do save a lot of time and bother; you can buy them from ticket machines (there's usually a button in English). The fare is deducted automatically, so there's no fumbling for change. Also remember that most big hotels have regular free shuttle buses to nearby subway and train stations.


Every Sunday, first come first served, you can get a free bike at the Imperial Palace (1-1 Kokyo Gaien; Nijubashi-mae station, exit 2) or the Meiji Shrine (10 Kasumigaoka; JR Sendagaya station) and cycle around the gardens.


Find discounted budget accommodation in business/Western hotels, ryokan inns, or youth hostels through the Welcome Inn Group (itcj.or.jp). Most budget hotels in Tokyo are members of this group (and some can be booked through its Web site), with daily rates not exceeding ¥8,000 ($66) per single, ¥13,000 ($107) double. They're clean, and most have English-speaking staff; the cheapest are likely to have communal bathrooms. Also: The Asia Center of Japan (10-32 Akasaka 8-Chome; 3402-6111; Nogisaka station) offers Western-style twins for ¥6,800 ($56); Yoyogi Youth Hostel (3-1 Kamizonocho; 3467-9163; Odakyu-Sangubashi station) has rooms at ¥3,000 ($25) per person and lets non-Hostelling International members stay for an extra ¥600 ($5). A rock-bottom option with singles at ¥2,500 ($21) is the New Koyo Hotel (2-26-13 Nihonzutumi, 3873-0343, newkoyo.com; Minowa station). Finally, the Hotel Hotline (jgl.biglobe.ne.jp/english) offers savings of up to 60 percent on more deluxe accommodations.


Escape the busy weekend streets by catching a free (sometimes subtitled) blockbuster movie Saturdays and Sundays at 4:30 p.m. at the Sony Building (5-3-1 Ginza, sixth floor; Ginza station; book at 3573-5234). Movie theaters usually have a Wednesday "Ladies Night" when women pay ¥1,000 ($8.50). For English-language flicks, check out Yebisu Garden Cinema (Nibbankan 1F; 5420-6161; JR Ebisu station), Nihon Gekijo Cinema (Marion Building, 11th floor; 3574-1131; JR Yurakucho station), Marunouchi Piccadilly (2-5-1 Chiyoda-Ku, Yurakucho; 3201-2881; JR Yurakucho station). Movie listings can be found in the Tokyo freebie mags.


Convenience stores are the backbone of Tokyo life, and AmPm, 7-Eleven, Lawsons, Food Mart, and many others sell bento boxes -- compartments of cooked rice, vegetables, and meat -- for ¥300 ($2.50) to ¥700 ($6). For drinks, Japan is a land of vending machines -- ¥120 ($1) buys hot or iced coffee, green or black tea, and soft drinks; ¥220 ($2) gets you beer or sake.


Since interactivity's all the rage, spend an afternoon free of charge at the Sony Building (5-3-1 Ginza; Ginza station) with the latest PlayStation. Or head to the Cosmetic Garden showroom (1F Harajuku Piazza Building, 4-26-18 Jingumae; Meiji-Jingumae station) for a free total makeover. And try the free samples in food halls in basements of departments stores like Isetan (3-14-1 Shinjuku; JR Shinjuku station), Tokyu Plaza (1-2-2 Dogenzaka; JR Shibuya station), and Keio (2F 1-1-4 Nichi Shinjuku; JR Shinjuku station).


Sushi doesn't come cheap in Tokyo; ¥6,000 ($49.50) to ¥10,000 ($82.50) a head isn't unusual. To indulge heartily for a tenth of the cost, eat at kaiten zushi bars where raw fish (different color plates indicating prices) whirls around on a conveyor belt; pick, pile the plates, and tally it up. Dishes range from ¥120 ($1) to ¥240 ($2), and the green tea's free; your bill should be around ¥1,000 ($8.50). Try Heirokusushi (Omotesando 5-8-5, Shibuya Ku, just below Coffee Chat Noir; JR Harajuku station), Himawari (Yasukuni Dori Jinbocho; Jinbocho station, exit A7), or Sushi Bar (JR Yurakucho station, opposite Colorado Cafe). Wander the streets around the Tsukiji fish market (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; Tsukiji station) for little sushi joints from ¥2,000 ($16.50), plus free samples of tofu and fish balls at stalls. Mitsukoshi Department Store (B3, 4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo-Ku; 3562-1111; Ginza station) offers generous portions at ¥1,100 ($9) a plate, as does Hachiku (3-11 Yotsuya; 3351-8989; JR Shinjuku station) for around ¥2,700 ($22.50) a head.


No matter where you go, from trendy Shibuya to the neon lights of Akihabara, you're never far from a noodle bar, where a bowl of miso ramen (noodles in soup with vegetables or meat), mo-ri soba (cold buckwheat noodles dipped in a soy-based broth), and shrimp tempura soba (noodles with deep-fried shrimp) will run ¥400 ($3.50) to ¥900 ($7.50). Places with plastic food models outside tend to be cheaper (and easy to order in; just point). Cheap, tasty noodle bars abound at JR Shinjuku station between the Toei and Marunouchi lines (ten-minute walk; follow the signs), JR Tokyo Station in the Yaesu shopping mall, and around the pedestrian bridge at JR Harajuku station.


Make international calls from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. and the cost drops by 20 percent; from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. by 40 percent. International phone cards (IC) can be bought from any convenience store or vending machine in ¥1,000, ¥3,000 or ¥5,000 denominations (use them at phone booths labeled "International" or "ISDN").


Head to the Hotel Okura on the 25th of each month for free classical concerts with musicians from the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, plus glasses of complimentary champagne (Main Building, 2-10-4 Toranomon; 3582-0111; Toranomon station). For a performance, activity, or concert any weekend afternoon, visit the central square of Yebisu Garden Place. The Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music gives regular free recitals (phone 3201-3331). On a very different note, for a bizarre eyeful go to Harajuku street near Meiji Park on Sunday, where teenage girls congregate en masse, dressed up in outrageous costumes from Goth to "injured patient" -- complete with eye patch and imitation blood; the best view's from the pedestrian bridge.


Check your e-mail, portfolio, and Tokyo restaurant listing at the free cybercafes that are popping up everywhere, allowing unlimited use and selling refreshments. Five centrally located choices: Yahoo (5-11-2 Jingumae, Shibuya Ku; JR Shibuya station), Marunouchi Cafe (3-2-3 Fuji Building, Marunouchi Chome 3; JR Tokyo station), Cultural Center (Tokyo International Forum, 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-Ku; JR Yurakucho station), and Net Square (1-15-6 Chuo-Ku, Ginza; Ginza station). Caveat: After signing in, expect to wait anywhere from five minutes to an hour for access.


Recycling is a new concept in a city that considers "old" to mean six months. Keio Department Store (2F 1-1-4 Nichi Shinjuku; JR Shinjuku station) has a secondhand section called "With You" for cheap(ish) clothes, handbags, and shoes from ¥2,500 ($21), and Kigawa (2-28 Kanda-Jinbocho; Jinbocho station) sells discontinued and secondhand cameras, watches, videos, etc. Browse the used bookshops on Yasukuni Dori in Jinbocho. Get food bargains at Ameyoko Market (6-10-7 Ueno; JR Ueno station) around 6:30 p.m. before it closes; while there, peruse the clothes stalls for secondhand denim.


Open daily except Monday, the bemusing little museums of Sumida Ku are often no bigger than a bus shelter yet offer insight into Japanese culture (look for the colorful rainbow-style logo indicating "museum"). Offbeat freebies: the Tabi Museum of split-toe socks worn with kimonos (1-9-3 Midori; Ryogoku station), the Sumo Museum (1F, 1-3-28 Yokoami; Ryogoku station), the Rubber Baseball Museum (2-36-10 Sumida; Kanegafuchi station), the Meguro Parasitological Museum (4-1-12 Shimo, Meguro; Meguro station), and the Meguro Museum of Art (2-4-36 Meguro; Meguro station). Cheapies: the Beer Museum (Yebisu Garden Place; JR Ebiso station), with a history of Sapporo Brewery and limitless samples for ¥200 ($2), and the Tobacco and Salt Museum (1-16-8 Jinnan; JR Shibuya station) for ¥100 ($1). All of these and more can be found in a very helpful book called Tokyo for Free, by Susan Pompian (Kodansha International, $19.95).


Cheap and fun: "Do a loop" of the Yamanote rail line. It takes a little over one hour to circle central Tokyo, costs ¥160 ($1.50), and passes major sites en route. Relax in pre-twentieth-century Tokyo on the Waseda Tram, a relic from the past, which also for ¥160 takes you past temples, cemeteries, and museums on the Toden Arakawa line; pick it up opposite JR Otsuka station. Finally, you can actually visit a Japanese home by booking the day before with the TIC (3201-3331); your sole expense will be a gift (make sure to wrap it first).


At the ubiquitous Uni-qlo stores, think Gap, then think of good-quality T-shirts, shirts, jeans, and skirts for half the price - all below the ¥3,000 ($25) mark (two central locations: 1-30-1 Kabuki-Cho; JR Shinjuku station and 16-17 Udagawa-cho; JR Shibuya station). Akihabara (a.k.a. "Electric Town") near JR Akihabara station is the place to haggle for all things plugged in; head especially to the heavily advertised Duty Free shops (take your passport). Flea markets are held on Sundays at many temples and shrines, where you can pick up unusual Japanese souvenirs-coins, swords, teapots. Two good ones: Hanazono Shrine (weekly, at 5-17-3 Shinjuku; Shinjuku-sanchome station) and Togo Shrine, three Sundays monthly (at 1-5-3 Jingumae; Meiji-Jingumae Station). For year-round sales, check out the sixth and seventh floors of Isetan department store (3-14-1 Shinjuku; JR Shinjuku station) and the eighth floor of Mitsukoshi (4-6-16 Ginza; Ginza station).

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