Hacking Japan: Inside Tokyo for Less than New York


(Photo: e-chan)

Several dozen of you asked for Tokyo hacks after the How to Live Like a Rock Star in Buenos Aires how-to guide.

Summer is upon us, and to encourage all of you to dream of traveling eastward, this is Part 1 of a 2-part series on hacking the world’s foremost cherry-blossom-meets-Bladerunner playground.

To begin: Most of what you hear about Tokyo is either a vast exaggeration or massive understatement.

The world’s most expensive city? Ridiculous. You can have an incredible meal and full night out for less than in NYC (try anything above floor 5 in Kabuki-cho in Shinjuku), and no tipping to boot. Certainly nowhere near the mind-numbing prices of London. Japanese weirdness? Most definitely. Quirky and futuristic, light-hearted but oddly Dilbert, Tokyo is a fusion of inventiveness and eccentricity found nowhere else on earth.

I’ve lived in Tokyo four or five times since 1995 and consider myself more Edokko (Tokyoite) than Californian. Here are a few of my tips for hacking it—seeing the real deal with real Japanese—while keeping the wallet (mostly) intact…

The Most Unusual Top 4

Ghibli Museum: This is the real-life Alice in Wonderland. The most incredible museum I have ever visited, hidden in a park and designed by animation powerhouse Ghibli Studios, this gem is a homerun. Get tickets at a Lawson convenience store well in advance.

Tsukiji Fish Market: Get up EARLY (around 5am) and see the largest fish market in the world. A single tuna for $40,000 USD? That’s low-end. Wrap up eating the best sushi in the world for breakfast in the outer market. Unforgettable.

Takeshita Doori: The kids and fashion here must be seen to be believed. Indescribable, especially sitting right next one of the most beautiful shrines in Tokyo. Red contacts and outfits that make Marilyn Manson look like Pokemon? Prepare to be amused.

Akihabara: From “maid cafes” (you can sit in a mock living room and have maids at your beck-and-call for food, newspaper, coffee, etc.) to electronics years ahead of the US, this “computer city” is the mecca of geekdom. Otaku central. Moe moe kyuuuuu!

7-11 in Japan is Not 7-11 at Home

Looking for a cheap and healthy meal? Grab some o-nigiri (rice balls, wrapped in dry seaweed and filled with various meats, vegetables, or fish) at 7-11, Sunkus, or Lawson. Delicious and a full meal for less than $3 USD.

Becoming an “Ekisupaato”

If you’re in Japan, you have to use the trains. Take a cab once just to giggle at the automatic doors and white gloves, then get on rails. For convenience, consider getting a SUICA card (“Super Urban Intelligent CArd” – sooo Japanese), which is prepaid and can be swiped across the turnstile for almost all major train lines. Not sure how to get from one place to the next, which trains to take and where to switch? Get a map and consider using the site Eki-supaato, which is a pun — it sounds like “expert” in Japanese “eki-su-paa-to” but is written with the character “eki”, meaning train station. Here is the equivalent in English from reader Ken Uno, and a second — somewhat odd — English version. Beware that most trains stop running around 12 midnight.

Three Must-Learn Suffixes

Getting to the right station (-eki):
-eki means station, as in Shibuya-eki, Tokyo-eki

Getting to the right line (-sen):
-sen means ‘line’, as in Yamanote-sen, Ginza-sen, Hibiya-sen, etc.
(They will direct you with a platform number. Confirm with number of fingers if unsure.)

Getting out the right exit (-guchi):
nishi-guchi = west exit
higashi-guchi = east exit
minami-guchi = south exit
kita-guchi = north exit

[Continued in Part 2: housing, restaurants and delicacies, and escapes]


Please Buzz and Digg if you like this kind of post.
Special thanks to Philip Ashenden for his help with this two-parter.

Posted on: June 8, 2008.

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55 comments on “Hacking Japan: Inside Tokyo for Less than New York

  1. How about 7-11′s lower-key localized competitor, Lawson Station? Steaming Udon Noodle Bowles for 450 yen! How can you go wrong!

    Next time you see a 7-11 look around for a Lawson Station. That’s the local’s fav.


  2. I used to eat at Shakey’s Pizza in Tokyo (Kichijoji area) that had all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for 600 yen (over ten years ago). Also, Yoshinoya used to have a great little meal for between 400 and 600 yen.


  3. I lived in Japan for a few years about, well a few years ago. I lived in Northern Japan, but traveled often to Sendai by Shinkansen. Went to Tokyo a few times and even climbed Mt. Fuji. I was engaged to a Japanese woman down there and she lived about 5 hours away from me. So I would usually set up a hotel down there and we’d walk around Sendai. What I found particularly useful was this site I found from a few co-workers down there, and it helped me save a ton of money. Look up “Rakuten Travel”, and it’s possibly the best site I used to set up hotel reservations, often at half the usual cost. Some places cost $70 if you did it through regular channels, but through there you were able to spend $30 a day or even less at times if you booked early enough. I don’t really have a ton of tips as far as saving money. I still remember Sunkus and Lawsons, they were really “convenient” stores, not like the stuff you see here. People are amazingly friendly and as long as you make an attempt to respect their customs they’ll smile and be friendly with you. God I miss living there, but I plan on going back someday. I want to Climb Mt. Fuji again and travel further south than Tokyo this time.


  4. I love Japan! It is not expensive there; getting there tends to be the expensive part. Tho I did save $400 using priceline.com’s “name your own price” feature. Thanks, Tim! Keep the Japan posts coming please!