For years all The Frugal Diva heard was how expensive it was to visit Japan. It wasn’t even an option. Coffee was $12 and rooms were over $400. Indeed this is true if you stay at all four star hotels and buy your coffee at their cafe. However if you travel like a middle class Japanese person this country is very reasonable. Start with hotels such as the Hokke or APA chain and book in advance, way in advance since this is a busy town. The rooms are the size of postage stamps by American standards however they are modern, clean, and have the best toilets in the world (more about that later).
The one thing that I was not prepared for was the lack of crime. The Frugal Diva is a bit more paranoid than average and always guards her purse and personal possessions. It took several days for me to relax and realize that there is no petty theft on the streets of Japan. The Frugal Dude left his travel bag on a bench at the train station and it was returned the next day through Lost and Found, Starbucks customers venture outside for a bit of fresh air and leave their laptops on the communal table, and T shirts wait for fans taped to each seat at the baseball game.
Our first subway stop was the Shinjuku station where 3.9 million people pass through EVERY DAY! We came up with our luggage and made it to the street starting in the direction of our hotel. We asked a young gentleman about the exact location. He not only called the hotel and determined we were one block away, he took us there. The next day we struck out on our own. It was daunting however the ticket buying machines have an English screen which makes purchases easy. After a few days of looking at the maps, you are a pro and can maneuver anywhere in the city. As a bonus the train cars and station bathrooms are very clean, it is culturally unacceptable to make noise once aboard, and there are delicious food kiosks everywhere. Each station has a counter where you can ask questions or make gestures on the map to ascertain if you are on the right path.
One of our important purchases before leaving was the JR (Japan Railroad) Pass. This gives you unlimited travel on some subways and the Japan Railroad all through the country and must be bought before you enter Japan. There is both coach and first class. Since we were spending only a week traveling, the seven-day coach garnered us reserved seats for every leg of the trip. This is one of the great bargains if you intend to travel to multiple cities. The trains are spotless, comfortable and a nice way to see the countryside or take a nap between stops.
Our first day took us to Ueno Park which encompasses the Tokyo Zoo, various Japanese national museums, boat rides, and views of the cherry blossoms if you come in the springtime. There was a delightful cafe on the edge of the park that was our first introduction to the fantastic coffee of Japan. Even though it is a tea country, they have gotten on board with the coffee shop idea and upped the cuteness factor. This started our tour of Tokyo and we hit all the high points-the Edo Museum, Meiji Shrine, Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa Shinto Shrine, and Imperial Palace Gardens. One niche place that was wonderful was the Sumo Museum located directly next door to the Edo Museum. I had been searching for some small souvenirs to bring back and their gift shop was a bonanza of unique magnets, towels, and booklets.
The only organized tour we took was up to a viewing point for Mt. Fuji which also went to the resort town of Hokone. It was a bit of a splurge but worth it for the informative guide and the ability to just sit back for one day with someone else doing the planning. There was no way we could have covered all this area efficiently and still enjoyed the vistas.
There are many great websites that will give you a list of tourist attractions so you can build your own tour. These are a few more of the places and things that made the trip memorable for us. The Harajuku area where Tokyo teens come to see and be seen. Kagurazaka, a small neighborhood in central Tokyo, that is home to the French expat community and is the location for Paul, a great French bakery. The Ginza where you can see all manners of upscale brands and view the fabulous food courts in the basement of department stores. You can attend just one act instead of the entire play and sit in the far balcony of the Kabuki Theater. There may be no record stores in the US however don’t miss Tower Record in Tokyo. They are an official outpost of the departed American chain with seven floors of merchandise and a cafe.
Fun ways to eat without spending a lot of money. Check out 7-11 and get inexpensive snacks and sundries. They restock every day with yummy bento boxes perfect for taking to the park for lunch. Meiji dark chocolate bars became a favorite. Try the soft serve ice cream for a refreshing treat. We enjoyed conveyor belt sushi where we could choose our meal without reading a menu. Learn how different a bowl of fresh noodle ramen tastes from the cup of noodles experience. After many days and nights of eating Japanese food we tried an Indian restaurant named Dhaba that had more variations on Indian food than we ever experienced in Los Angeles. For days when you are missing home there are Starbucks, Subways, McDonald’s, and even an Australia-born Mexican chain called Guzman y Gomez.
You may wonder why The Frugal Diva was so taken with the bathroom experience. The toilets are fantastic with warmed seats and bidet like sprays for all areas. This was true for all levels from the hotel to the museums to restaurants. I don’t know why this has not caught on in the US since we love all other manners of gadgets.
On to Kyoto!
Photographs by Dr. Ira Nathanson