It seemed rather apt that our first glimpse of the Land of the Rising Sun should, indeed, be as the sun rose off the tip of our airplane wing. As the sky painted itself pink, rose and golden we descended into Japan. Although we were going to be seeing Tokyo on a budget, we were really excited about making Japan a last minute addition to our travel itinerary. A combination of curiosity, a cheap (ish) flight offer and – between you and me – a crash in the pound:yen exchange rate had almost made the decision for us. Budget travel does turn you into a bit of a vulture, I’m afraid.
Having flown in from Myanmar, the culture shock was pretty pronounced. But in the nicest way. The immigration queue flew by thanks to the super-fast wifi, which we pounced on with embarrassing enthusiasm. Even the budget-friendly transport option – the airport coach – was fast and comfortable, and we enjoyed a welcome nap as we glided into Tokyo. As we stepped off the coach, we glanced down a side road. The whole street was covered in a canopy of pristine white blooms. What a beautiful welcome.
Our first task – hunting for food – was a roaring success. Cautiously, we stepped into a small cafe next to the bus stop and obeyed the the First Rule of Hunting for Food in Foreign Lands: watch and see what everyone else does. In this case, they were pressing buttons on a kind of vending machine which had PICTURES of the food. Result! This was well within our abilities, and we excitedly pushed an interesting-looking picture and took a seat. Shortly, we were presented with a delicious dish of chicken, rice and egg, our first proper meal for about sixteen hours which, needless to say, we almost inhaled.
Next, we decided to head to the public park that forms the outer Imperial Palace gardens (the Imperial Palace is only open over New Year and the Emperor’s birthday). Walking through the swarming chaos that is Tokyo station, we passed shops dedicated to Tamagotchi (remember them?) and the Moomin cartoons (remember them too?!). Even though I had no desire to purchase an imitation cuddly hippo with a hair do, or indeed a pocket sized digital pet, I was delighted to see these strange and niche parts of my childhood still enjoying a dedicated following. How very Japan.
We’d landed in Japan on 31 March – the peak of cherry blossom season which is also known as sakura. The park – which was free to walk around – was decorated with enormous trees in puffy white and pink blossom. People were sitting under them enjoying picnics, so we followed their lead and sat enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful blossoms.
One of the main challenges to doing Tokyo on a budget is accommodation, particularly in cherry blossom season when visitors flock to the cities to enjoy the stunning blooms and prices escalate accordingly. We’d opted to stay in the Ace Inn in Shinjuku – a capsule-inn style hostel where you got your own enclosed wooden bunk for a mere £19 per night each. Despite there being 28 bunks to a dorm, they offered a surprisingly peaceful nights sleep and we’d recommend them to budget travellers heading to Tokyo.
One of the things I love most about huge cities is the skyline – the futuristic patchwork of skyscrapers, the field of lights by night and the interesting and varied architecture. There are a couple of options to see Tokyo’s skyline, such as the Skytree which costs abut £20. Thankfully, we’d found a more budget-friendly option at the Metropolitan Government Building Observatories, which have a free observation deck on the 42nd floor. There were barely any queues and they are open until 11pm, so we visited a second time to take in the night time panorama.
Tokyo is famous for shopping and I’d probably hand it the mantle of Best Shopping City in the World. And I should know – I lived in London for seven years. There is everything you could want, from high-end designer goods to bento lunch boxes to intricate paper goods and everything in between. The best known shopping district is Shibuya and, despite not having the budget for shopping, we had a great time strolling through the area and making a mental list of things we would buy when we aren’t, you know, unemployed bums. Highlights included Tower Records for everything musical and Tokyu Hands for basically everything – including the worlds BEST stationery section – an entire FLOOR dedicated to the stuff. I spent a happy hour browsing and planning my next home office (I don’t work from home). We also got to watch a sea of humanity ebb and flow at the famous Shibuya crossing – the worlds busiest pedestrian crossing. Starbucks offers ringside views, but we managed to find a window in the station complex: no need for a pricy coffee.
Although we didn’t indulge in shopping, we DID make a purchase. Whilst hunting for the Tokyu Hands department store, we stumbled across a small food stand selling ice cream sandwiches. Yes, we did a double take as well. A sweet bread roll still warm from the oven combined with cold vanilla ice cream is, I can confirm, the food of the gods. We took a seat opposite the hut to savour our amazing treat; eating while on the move is considered a bit of a manners faux pas in Japan.
Eager for a moment of calm after the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, we took a walk through to the Meiji Jingu shrine, which is dedicated to the Emperor Meji and Empress Shoken. The temple is set in a complex of gardens, and we savoured the serenity of the paths which meandered through the grounds.
After four months of visiting Buddhist temples in various guises, Craig put his foot down. Eleventy billion temples was enough for him, his spiritual education was complete and he did not wish to visit any more. So instead, we swapped temples for a different kind of altar – one with louder noises and bigger flashing lights. Club Sega, in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, is a six story arcade with every game you can think of on hand. We spent a happy hour or two playing on flight simulators, Left 4 Dead, Mario Kart and some of the more “unique” Japanese games like TYPE OR DIE – a rather bizarre game where you kill monsters by speed-typing the words that flash up on the screen. Given that they are Japanese words, this makes for some tense gaming.
Even if you aren’t into gaming (I’m not), a stroll through the smoky arcades still makes for an interesting visit. The deafening music and beeps from the machines even becomes oddly soothing after a while. The customers are a diverse bunch, from teenagers dripping with sweat as they push for a personal best on virtual drumming machines to men the same age as my Dad intently playing fruit machines or Tekken, which is a jarring sight. The idea of my Dad (whose interest in computers doesn’t go beyond “doing the Google” for football results) playing a beat ‘em up video game is about as strange as the idea of Craig take up flower arranging. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Some of the guys in suits were clearly settled in for the night with drinks, cigarettes and earphones to tune out the cacophony around them. Given the relatively small size of Tokyo homes, it seems like some of them come here whereas we’d go home and flop on the sofa to enjoy our gaming.
One of the easiest aspects of doing Tokyo on a budget was the food. You’d have to try immensely hard to have a bad meal in Japan and “tourist restaurants” didn’t really seem to exist – every restaurant we visited had Japanese diners in and every meal was delicious. The “push button” restaurants were great and available almost everywhere; we had ramen, dumplings washed down with beer and delicious tempura although not all at the same time.
The only time we came a cropper was at the end of a day, when we wanted a beer and some snacks. We pressed a button ordering some dumplings, a couple of Asahi beers and what looked like some snacks. The chef came out and said something in Japanese. Alas we still, at this point, did not speak Japanese. In these circumstances we find it best to smile, look enthusiastic and nod, in the hope that they will decide what is best to do. He sighed, went away and came back with a plate of what we’d selected. We’d accidentally ordered a plate of noodle toppings, which was perhaps taking the budget eating a bit too far.
If you plan to do Tokyo on a budget
- We’d recommend the Ace Inn, if you are happy sleeping in a dorm. They can be contacted here.
- The Meiji Jingu shrine is free to enter. We paid ¥1,000 to visit the Inner Garden, which is particularly worthwhile in June when the irises are in bloom, apparently. I liked the garden, Craig would like the record to show that he did not.
- Given the high standards of hygiene in Japan, we found it safe to try any street food and budget restaurants we fancied. Don’t be scared to try something new!