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]


Special thanks to Philip Ashenden for his help with this two-parter.

Posted on: June 8, 2008.

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

  1. Very Cool. How long has it been since you were in Japan? This is definitely going to make one of my top places to visit list. Don’t forget to travel south to Nicaragua. Cool place to visit.

    Pura Vida!!!!!!!

    Jose Castro-Frenzel


  2. I heartily second the 7-11 recommendation. Even their egg salad sandwiches are delicious and not at all like the 7-11s in America.

    I stayed in Osaka (south of Tokyo but still a major city) for awhile, and they have fantastic udon shops where you can get a very filling meal and a Sapporo beer for less than $3. Then you can wander the grounds of Osaka-jo (Osaka castle) and read, write, or brainstorm for hours and hours on end. (And play with the wild kitties for a break!) Curry places are also a good bet for cheap fare — tons of rice and meat for just a few dollars.


  3. Love this entry.
    After reading the 4HWW and this blogpost, I can’t wait to get a job ( still a student ) and apply the aspects I read in your book. I want to visit Tokyo !
    Nice post


  4. Hi Tim.

    Thanks for sharing. I had a similar experience when I visited Tokyo for the first time.
    Coming from London it was a reminder of how much sweeter life can be when the essentials are reasonably priced. The various ramen and donburi joints were a real culinary pleasure for me. Had my reservations about paying for my meal using a vending machine but once I saw what I got for my money, I promptly got seconds.

    One question for you, I was fortunate enough to find accommodation at a friend’s but for those without that option, what’s a good way to stay on the cheap. Having looked at a few of the prices I could see that this seriously scupper any plans for a long stay.


    p.s. great to meet you at the London book signing. Loved the message.
    “Jia You!”


  5. We were recommended the fish market by an older friend of ours. At first, we thought it was a bit crazy, but we got up early one morning (didn’t hurt that we were staying within walking distance) and went and damned if he wasn’t right. Really really interesting. I can still hear the auctioneers’ songs in my head.


  6. Long time reader, been a while since posting. I just wanted to put in a few words about your post. You might want to warn people about Kabuki-Cho. It is the sleaze pit of Japan. Prostitution and Yakuza are rampant, and today’s yakuza are nothing like the idealized ones you see in the movies. They are mostly low life money lending thugs. Shibuya, Roppongi (how could you have missed mentioning Roppongi?), and Shinjuku are far cleaner and nicer places.

    I laughed when you mentioned 7-11 onigiri. I like them as well, but they are 40% preservatives. That konbini fare is some of the most synthetic stuff in the world. There aren’t any books in English on the subject yet, but the ones in Japanese make Fast Food Nation look like a comic book.

    Takeshita Doori is a great place. It is also surrounded by very cool places. It is in the middle of Yoyogo Kouen (park), and that borders the ultra high fashion Harajuku. Two more places equally worth mentioning, and free to boot. Well, unless you shop, but the street food in Yoyogi park is not only good it is also cheap, and you don’t have to worry about buying a beer and drinking it while sauntering in the park while you eat your takoyaki.


  7. I’d add, head to one of the parks on the weekend: they offer a cross-section of Japanese culture, wall to wall people doing all the things they can’t do in their midget apartments. Kendo, tai chi, badminton, drumming, playing with their band, frisbee, singing, picnics… I recommend grabbing a crepe from Takeshita-dori and heading over to Yoyogi-koen for a while. There’s also a fleamarket in the next-door carpark once a month. Sugoi!

    And Tim, I hope you’re going to put ramen places in Part 2? I loved getting a ticket from the vending machine and sitting down with sararimen to slurp to a Doris Day soundtrack.


  8. Tim,

    I went to Japan last year, and I must say – I’m sure I have you beat! I went for free! ;-)

    I was fortunate enough to go for a week for business – the law firm client paid for our stay up front. However, my colleague and I completed the work in half the time, so we had over three days to explore. We saw Hachioji, Tokyo, Kyoto, Akhiabara, and took a Japanese language tour of some of the old temples. (We took the bullet train to Kyoto – an experience in itself!) I highly recommend Japan to anyone.

    I learned enough Japanese prior to going that I was able to get by – using your method without knowing it! I went to learn-japanese.info, and was able to de-construct enough of the language to get by pretty well. I don’t remember most of it a year later, but I’m sure that if I had to go back tomorrow I’d be able to pick it up again on the plane ride.

    I took over 1,000 pictures while I was there. (If anyone wants to see the pictures, email me at fhww [at] thomasquinlan [dot] com.) I recommend Akhiabara (though with the unfortunate incidents today, I recommend proper caution), as well as Asakusa. The kobe beef is as good as everyone says so if you can spring for that it’s worth it!

    If anyone has any questions, and I can answer them, I’d be happy to do so at the above address.



  9. Great article, and quite accurate. For anyone visiting in Japan, print this out and take it with you!

    However, for those looking for the listed convenience stores, it is Sunkus, and not Sunkist. (It is actually pronounced as “sanks,” which is the Japanese pronunciation of “thanks”)

    Another great place to go is the Tama Zoo. You can even ride in a truck surrounded by lions (of course, that is all up to the temperament of the lions), and the whole thing will set you back 5.00 US.

    For those of you coming over, have a great time!

    Takuin Minamoto


    Thanks, Takuin! Damn, I always make that “Sunkist” mistake :)

    Pura vida,



  10. Hi, I just came back from Japan actually.

    I have to chime in here with support that Japan is actually affordable these days. Also the lack of the ability to speak Japaneses is not so important these days. But give yourselves plenty of time to get around. If you get lost be brave and ask for help, most Japanese are very helpful. Just know the key words.

    I would suggest though you pay a little more for a better hotel, with good service. From there you can get great recommendations for good and cheap restaurants and directions to go where you need to go.

    Go by train for sure, it is cheaper than a cab.

    The Fish Market is a must go, but it is not quite clear, that tourists are NOT allowed into the fish auction that runs from 5-6am. Infact tourists are not allowed in most of the areas we see pictures of. So my advice is to get off at Tsukiji station, and sneak in the back way. Also prams are not allowed and the place is not child friendly at all. Needless to day, we learned the hard way, but got to see it all.

    My other pick is Akihabara, the electronics city. If you are a foreigner, shop at a large chain store to get duty free, ie a 5% discount. Also do shop in the small stores as they often have massive discounts of products up to 50% off for the older but still new products compared to western shops. Most Japanese electronics brands launch in Japan first before the rest of the world.

    Oh one more thing, bring cash and keep your coins so that you can buy drinks from vending machines all over the place. They are the cheapest way to go. They clock in anywhere from 100 to 150 yen for a bottle of coke or ice green tea.

    Good Luck and Enjoy!


  11. I’m planning a trip to the Kodokan, so I hope you mention it in your next entry.

    Training martial arts around the world has been one of my “things” since 19, where I went to train Muay Thai in Thailand. I’m 20 now and heading to Korea for TKD and Judo. The Kodokan is next.


  12. Great post. And if you want to go a little bit upscale, go out for a sushi lunch at one of the big department stores. You can usually get a really good sushi lunch for around $20-$25.


  13. Having done 2006 and 2007 in Europe in this past May in Japan, Tim is right on with everything he’s posted here. We had fantastic meals in Kyoto, in really nice restaurants, for less than back home in Seattle. The no tipping makes a big difference here.

    While in Kyoto we had breakfast every morning at Daily Yamazaki (a kind of 7-11) that baked fresh bread and pastries in the store each morning! If you grab a non-meat onigiri (musubi if you’re from Hawaii) you can pack it and have it as a mid-morning snack while you decide where to eat. You also will find many hole-in-the-wall udon, ramen, and yakitori joints that are awesome.

    Another must do is to bike it in places like Kyoto and Nara. We never felt we were in danger since you can ride on the sidewalks in Japan. It only cost us $5 to rent a bike in Nara for the whole day! Biking is a great way to see the temples and the little nooks and crannies because it’s so easy to just stop and get going again on a bike!