September 11, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
MENTION to any traveler that you’re headed to Tokyo and be prepared to hear a litany of warnings: hotel rooms in Shinjuku equal to the cost of a month’s rent in New York, breakfasts that can cost more than dinners at Per Se. Even the most in-the-know travelers persist in believing that Tokyo is a destination fit only for the superrich.
But given today’s strong euro, Tokyo can actually be less expensive than some major European cities (and even cheaper than New York) – if you know where to go and what to avoid.
One weekend in June, I had a chance to test this theory. My goal was to enjoy two days in Tokyo on a total budget of just $500.
One thing that would help is that low-priced hotels are surprisingly easy to come by in Japan. Most of them cater to Japanese businessmen and are clean, safe and conveniently situated; just don’t plan on doing any jumping jacks in these tiny rooms. I opted for the Hotel Excellent Ebisu ($86 for a single, at 106.38 yen to the dollar, the exchange rate in June), a highly functional if slightly shabby establishment just 30 seconds away from a major transport hub in Ebisu, a popular stop on the Yamanote Line, the city’s main transport artery.
I started my weekend with cash in my wallet fresh from the A.T.M.: five crisp 10,000-yen notes and some small change. The Japanese prefer cash, not credit cards; also, the notes would make it easier for me to track my expenses and know when I was beginning to reach the end of my stash.
My first stop, on Friday afternoon, was Restaurant T, an organic establishment opened by Shinya Tasaki, Japan’s most famous sommelier, that serves only food grown in Tokyo prefecture. It has a serene setting: perched high above the city in the Atago Shrine complex, it felt miles away from the bustle below.
There were just three choices for lunch, which was helpful given that the menu was in Japanese. The best Tokyo bargains are found in places geared to Japanese customers, not foreigners, which means no English menus, price lists or written explanations. How to cope? I pointed, asked questions and hoped for the best.
The pickled fish served over a bed of rice ($14 for the set lunch) tasted like smoked salmon gone mad and came with a small sautéed spinach starter, a big bowl of daikon radish soup, unlimited iced tea and a final cup of strong coffee. Many restaurants offer free, unlimited hot or cold tea with the meal, but charge extortionate prices for à la carte soft drinks or coffees.
I finished with a walk in the garden surrounding the restaurant, wandering along a rocky path that circled a small pond filled with hungry koi. Supposedly salarymen are granted success if they sprint up the main staircase that connects this shrine to the city streets below, but I didn’t have the energy to attempt that feat on a full stomach.
Navigating the trains and subways of Tokyo proved easier than navigating the menus, since every station had maps and signs in English. I took the JR Chuo line west to Kichijoji to visit Tokyo’s hottest new museum: the Ghibli ($9.40 admission). On the edge of vast, green Inokashira park, the museum is devoted to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s master animator, whose Disney-distributed movie “Howl’s Moving Castle” recently hit American theaters.
The museum chronicled the development of animation – from flipbooks, to spinning dioramas, to Claymation – with displays that transformed abstract history into tangible form. The desk and workspace of Mr. Miyazaki were meticulously recreated, though it seemed a bit strange that he had let himself be deified in this way.
Back in Shinjuku, I stepped into a Japanese dream of the 1970’s: Samurai, a bar run by a haiku master who caught the jazz bug. The tiny bar has lucky cat statues everywhere, and the experience of listening to great and long-forgotten jazz tracks with thousands of little white cats staring me down and waving their paws was nearly mystical – especially after a stiff drink ($12 including cover charge). One thing to be aware of is that a cover charge is leveled at many Japanese bars and restaurants, which usually ranges from $4 to $10; service is always included in menu prices.
Later that night, I journeyed to Milk Wonton, in Yurakucho. Set under the railroad tracks in a tiny storefront, Milk Wonton was a great place to sample home-style Japanese cooking. Regulars walked in and the omakase feast began: 14 small dishes cooked right behind the counter and served in a sequence that always comes around to the house specialty: milk wonton, handmade dumplings in whole milk ($25 for the meal, plus $7 for a large beer). Milk Wonton serves some challenging fare for the Western eater – things like grilled eel fin twirled on a stick, natto (fermented, stinky soybeans) and sticky yam – but these foods are well worth sampling.
After a huge meal, I made a mad dash for the subway; ending up stranded would have left me with the prospect of an extremely long walk or a $50 taxi ride back to my hotel.
I set up a Saturday morning rendezvous with a service called Tokyo Free Guide. (The name says it all.) The guides are English-speaking locals who want to show foreigners around their hometown and brush up on their language skills.
I met Kaz, the woman who founded Tokyo Free Guide, in Sugamo, a neighborhood she picked out when I told her I wanted to see an old-fashioned section of town. We wandered through the neighborhood, peeking into small shrines with tiny statues shrouded in bright cloth, browsing in miso-paste shops and watching the many clothing stores get ready for a big shopping day in a place known as the Grandmas’ Harajuku. (The real Harajuku is a famous shopping area for teens.)
Next, we hopped a tiny train, the Toden Arakawa Line ($1.88), a one-car affair, which navigated the worlds of the future and the past, snaking through backyards where grandpas tended their gardens, into a neighborhood with an ultramodern shopping complex.
After a few very Japanese meals, I needed a break. Tokyo’s range of great global cuisine is surprising considering that Japan has one of the most ethnically homogeneous populations in the world. But Japanese chefs are brilliant and meticulous mimics and, in everything from pasta to pâté, the copy often outshines the original. I ended up at If, in Ebisu, where the cuisine (pasta followed by veal cheeks, $33.50 with two beers) was nearly as delightful as the cutting-edge interior design.
An hour later, after a much-needed nap, I awoke and decided to hit a hipster enclave called Naka-Meguro, a half-hour walk from my hotel. I walked whenever I could in Tokyo. Constant train transport makes the city disorienting, and even locals seem to understand Tokyo more as a series of train stops than as a unified whole.
Naka-Meguro is beautifully situated on the Meguro River, which is shaded by old trees that hang across its banks. At Cowbooks, a strikingly well-designed little bookshop, I found the perfect purchase: a small cloth bag ($17.75) meant to carry just one book, embroidered with a barely English sentence: “Everything for the Freedom.” A giant L.E.D. display flashed questions around the bookstore as earnest readers browsed.
I wanted to plunge back into the city center for Saturday night, so I rode the train to Shibuya. I stepped out into the Shibuya night, filled with over-made-up teenagers, Japanese hip-hop posers and gaijin like me. One of the primal (and free) thrills of Tokyo is being swept up in the crowds of people that parade through the neon-drenched streets and feeling the rush as you ride the human wave across the alleys and boulevards.
I had picked Kuu in nearby Shinjuku, a charcoal-grill restaurant towering above Tokyo on the 50th floor of the Sumitomo Building, for a snack with a view. A friend told me that the Japanese have a saying: “Stupid people love high places.” Call me stupid, but the view from the top of Tokyo was breathtaking, and the illuminated high-rises that stretched far into the horizon on every side made New York, Paris and London all look like tiny towns.
At Kuu, the grilled chicken served with a yuzu paste was the signature dish ($26.85 including cover charge, food and two beers). The Japanese prepare their chicken medium-rare, still pink in the middle, so if you prefer it cooked well-done, ask.
The izakaya is Japan’s answer to the tapas bar. Originally places to drink sake accompanied by some simple snacks, nouveau-izakaya cuisine is now sweeping Tokyo, incorporating fine wines, Western food and high-concept design into a traditional line-up of sake, shochu and Japanese standards.
Ofuro in Shimo-takaido, a wine-centered izakaya with masterful food, was hard to find – three blocks from the train, around a corner and downstairs. Like Ofuro, many Japanese bars and restaurants turn inward not outward and are in the basement or on an upper floor, making it difficult to assess places from the street – and making recommendations even more important. When I asked, in English, for a suggestion off the Japanese-only menu, the waiter pointed to one dish and said only “corn.” Fluffy, sweet and delicious, this divine incarnation of the corn fritter was a perfect complement to the crisp Sancerre I was drinking (meal total: $34.75).
For the last morning of my Tokyo weekend I wanted to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which had been much in the news recently because every year Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continues to visit this place, which enshrines Japan’s most notorious war criminals. As I got closer, I saw some activists too young to have ever fought in the war dressed in old Japanese army gear, and a young family decked out in fatigues and camouflage.
The museum ($7.50 admission) was an interesting exercise in historical revisionism, observing, among other things, that the Japanese had in fact inspired the anticolonial struggles of Southeast Asia. My Japanese friend Miyuki was so sickened by this propaganda that she insisted we visit the nearby tomb of the unknown soldier, Chidori ga Fuchi Senbotsusha Boen, which was a serene antidote to Yasukuni.
With transport, snacks, a few more meals and convenience store purchases totaling $131, I managed to come in $7 under my $500 limit.
I wrapped up my weekend convinced that even when experienced on a budget, Tokyo, with its speed, energy and constant flux, its local delights and its celebration of the cosmopolitan, deserves a place of honor among the world’s great cities of the 21st century.
THE BOTTOM LINE
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Excellent Ebisu, 1-9-5 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku, (81-3) 5458-0087; www.soeikikaku.co.jp. Singles are $86; doubles, $105.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Restaurant T, Atago Shrine, 1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku, (81-3) 5777-5557. Closed Monday.
Samurai, Shinjuku 3-35-5, Shinjuku-ku, fifth floor, (81-3) 3341-0383.
Milk Wonton, 3-7-9 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku,(81-3) 3215-1939.
If, 3-2-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, (81-3) 5739-0848.
Kuu, Nishi-Shinjuku 2-6-1, Shinjuku Sumitomo Building, 50th floor, (81-3) 3344-6457.
Ofuro, 4-45-10 Akazutsumi, Setagaya-ku, (81-3) 5300-6007.
WHAT TO SEE
Ghibli Museum, 1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka Shi, (81-5) 7005-5777, www.ghibli-museum.jp. Reserved timed tickets; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Tickets available at Lawson convenience stores in Japan or JTB Travel Agencies; www.jtb.co.jp/eng/ghibli/ticketsystem.html.
Tokyo Free Guide, www.TokyoFreeGuide.com, has English-speaking residents who offer free guided tours.
Cowbooks, 1-14-11 Aobadai, Meguro-ku, (81-3) 5459-1747, www.cowbooks.jp. Open noon to 9 p.m., closed Wednesday.
Yasukuni Shrine, 3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda-ku, (81-3) 3261-8326, www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/index.html. Grounds open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; museum 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (5 p.m. winter).
Chidori ga Fuchi Senbotsusha Boen, Sanbancho 2, Chiyoda-ku.