Hacking Japan: Inside Tokyo for Less than New York – Part 2

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(Photo: Sprengben)

This is part 2 of 2 and a continuation of Part 1, which covered the top 4 unusual experiences, must-learn suffixes, budget-saving and healthy fast food, and more.

Below I explore choosing location, 5-star food for 2-star prices, drinking, and day trips from the concrete jungle of Tokyo…

Living on the Pulse: Yamanote or Chuo?

Choose accommodation close to major subway or surface lines, with first choice as Yamanote line and second choice as Chuo line. Shibuya is an excellent base for Shibuya/Harajuku/Shinjuku/Roppongi/Akasaka, and therefore cheap to get around and back to, even late at night. It has direct train lines also to Ginza, Asakusa, and numerous other places.

If you’re adventurous and without family, consider www.globalfreeloaders.com or other couch surfing options for free housing and a genuine local experience. If not, look at Tokyo rentals on Craigslist as a starting point for speaking with brokers and individuals.

Getting 5-Star Food for 2-Star Prices: Senmonten vs. Jack-Of-All-Trades

The best restaurants in any price range are those that specialize in just one type of food. Besides getting the true taste of each as it should be, you can experience the unique atmospheres (e.g. robatayaki restaurants are quite different from sushi places). Look for—and ask for—areas with noren, small curtains hanging from horizontal poles in the restaurant doorways, which shows the specialties of each.


Noren curtains (Photo: yomi955)

Look for one at dusk busy with young people, just as people get off work to drink and dine with friends. It’s the most fun time of day in Tokyo, and one that foreigners miss by eating at hotels or formal restaurants. Here are nine variations to start with. If in doubt, ask someone where you can find “many noren restaurants” or a “[fill in type below] senmonten,” or specialty shop:

* Yaki-tori: chicken and veggies on skewers, grilled. Ask for true meat items like sho-niku, momo, mince, and other low-fat, low-skin items.

* Robata-yaki: charcoal grilled meat/fish/veggies. Cheap friendly environment usually.

* Tonkatsu: pork deep fried in special batter. Hirekatsu is the lean fillet.

* Tempura: deep fried at very high temperatures. Fish and veggies.

* Sushi and sashimi (the former can include almost anything atop vinegared-rice, but it’s generally sliced uncooked fish)

* Teppan-yaki: meat/fish/veggies grilled on hot plate.

* Nabemono: fish & veggies cooking in water in a pot. Suggest yose-nabe, a typical nabemono dish.

* Shabu-shabu: Japanese fondue with thinly sliced beef (ask for low/no fat)

* Suki-yaki: beef in pan in very sweet stock. Ask for low/no fat, or go for shabu-shabu instead. Dip in the raw egg provided, which should be whipped in a bowl.

The last 3 of these specialties are often found at one restaurant that specializes in these 3 types.

How to Not Look Like an Idiot While Drinking

If you dine or drink with someone, watch their glass because … you pour theirs and they pour yours. Pour for older men first. Offer to pour again when their glass is half empty, and lift your glass off the table when they pour. If you don’t, it’s like treating them as a server or someone of lower status—not recommended. To stop drinking, leave your glass at least half full and decline top-ups.

Bite-Size Escapes from the Concrete Jungle

One of the best places to roam around for a look at the older, cultural side of Japan is the leafy, historic town of Kamakura, nestled among green hills, one hour by suburban train from Tokyo.

It’s a wonderful counterbalance to the concrete and cars of Tokyo. Some good spots there are Zeni-arai Benten (take a cab there and tell them to wait so that you can move easily on to the next place), Daibutsu (Giant Buddha), Hachimangu-Shrine, and Komachi-dori shopping/dining street, especially at dusk.

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There are about 128 million people in Japan, and at least 100 million of them are happy to help foreigners learn to know and love Japan.

Just start a conversation with ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) and then ask the question when you have them listening. Finish with ‘domo arigato’ (thank you). If you want to keep chatting with someone friendly a bit longer, ask them if they want a cup of coffee. You buy the coffee, they write down more suggestions, you both swap name cards, and go on your way.

Tokyo is like NYC but full of Mr. Rogers-like eagerness to help… if you make the effort with a few words of Japanese first.

The most important thing to remember is: Don’t be afraid of Japan.

It is a joy to get lost and have to ask a stranger where the koban (police box used by everyone for directions) is. If you’re not uncomfortable at least once a day, you aren’t experiencing Tokyo fully or interacting with the locals. Step outside the norm and INTERACT WITH JAPANESE PEOPLE. The worst that will happen is someone latches on to you to practice English. The guaranteed result is stories that you will have for the rest of your life.

Happy hacking.

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Special thanks to Japan expert Philip Ashenden for his help with this two-part series.

Posted on: June 9, 2008.

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49 comments on “Hacking Japan: Inside Tokyo for Less than New York – Part 2

  1. Excellent two-part series. I’ve never been to Japan before, but now I really want to go!

    I should point out that the link to more info regarding Kamakura leads to a page with no information on it.

    Like

  2. I would also recommend, at least for males, staying in Capsule hotels if one is nearby. They’re usually for drunken businessmen caught out late and just needing a place to crash, but the one I stayed at in Osaka was VERY peaceful and comfortable. You get your own locker, there’s a lounge for TV and snacks, and the capsule room is dead quiet (all sorts of acoustic insulation). The capsule itself had a buckwheat pillow and a down comforter, a roll-down shutter once you get yourself tucked in, and there’s a TV, radio and alarm clock inside.

    Best of all, it’s CHEAP for Japan… I think I paid 2900Y (About 29 dollars) for the night.

    Like

  3. Ok,

    Tim, this really sounds like a true cultural experience. Your tips are extremely handy. I like how you have implemented a search box for keywords. This has helped me find lost posts that I needed at a later time, for example the clear card.

    Best & Have Fun at Boulevard 3, its probably gonna be a smash!!!

    Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  4. Great tips. Thanks Tim and Phillip.

    Shibuya has a HUGE intersection that usually has throngs of people crossing in all directions. (You have probably seen it in the movies, I believe that I saw it recently in Babel.) It’s similar to Times Square in NY with massive neon signs and video monitors. Very cool. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shibuya,_Tokyo

    I really miss yakitori. Easily my favorite Japanese snack. I also recommend trying yakisoba. (Note to the health conscious: it’s high in sodium). Here is a nice little paragraph I found that pretty much sums it up:
    “Yakisoba is my favorite Japanese dish. Simply put, it’s just fried noodles with a special kind of sauce and some meat and vegetables. It can almost be described as Japanese junk-food, the Japanese version of hamburgers or whatever. In Japan yakisoba is sold at all kinds of restaurants, and vendors drive around with their carts and sell it to stressed sarariman. It’s also a popular “nightsnack” for drunk people on their way home.”
    Source: http://www.algonet.se/~otsu/yakisoba.html

    If you’re in Japan on a Sunday, you’ve gotta check out Yoyogi Park. (Remember what Tim said about “outfits that make Marilyn Manson look like Pokemon”?

    http://neilduckett.com/harajuku-bridge-to-yoyogi-park/

    Like

  5. Tim…….. thank you for the interesting blog post about Japan. YES! most of us, Japanese, want to help travelers!!!! but the problem is, at least I think, we are shy…… and we don`t want to make mistakes in conversati in English. We basically have 6 years of english study in school, so we know how to speak English! wow ! right? so PLEASE don`t hesitate to talk to us……. and I bet you will have true experience of Japan.

    About convenience stores, we are so proud of that. THE best place on Japan. You name it, you can buy it there. And lots of people say that it is very costy to go Japen. I would say yes, but think this way: You are on vacation, so spent it! same as you spend a lot in Hawaii. if you don`t want to pay a lot, you just need a little resarch, that is all and Tim`s blog is good way to start for some resarching!

    good people are living here in Japan! so come to Japan and have a good time with us!

    Like

  6. Good tips – I especially agree that Kamakura is worth a trip, but I disagree with your tip on the taxi at Zenarai Binten. There is actually an excellent walking/hiking path from Kita-Kamakura station (the station one above Kamakura) that goes there, and then if you continue, takes you through some beautiful hills and then dumps you out at the Daibutsu, after which you can walk across the street to Hase-dera, which is also great. Because most people skip the walking path, it’s pretty quiet and serene, and helps get you in the right frame of mind, and a little bit away from the maddening crowds.

    A suggested plan for a day is to go really early (the temples all open crazy early, and are much better in the morning). Get off at the Kita-Kamakura station, take the walking path through to Zenarai Binten and on to the Daibutsu, go see Hase-dera, then hop on the nearby Enoden-line to Kamakura station (it’s a cute train, and worth the 10 minute ride). Thats about lunchtime – there is a great street right to your left out the main exit to go look for lunch (many “noren bearing shops”) At the end of that street (about a 10-15 minute walk) is Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, which is pretty cool. If you walk back after that, you’ll be on the train and back in Tokyo in time for dinner and a night out. And the whole trip will be pretty cheap.

    Special note on Kamakura – go as early as you can get up. The temples are quiet, restful, and beautiful in the mornings. They are loud and full of giggling schoolgirl tourgroups in the afternoons.

    Like

  7. Thanks for the info. on Tokyo. It brought back great memories – i lived there for a year. Just wanted to fine tune a definition you posted:
    (Wikipedia)
    n Japanese cuisine, sushi (??, ?, ?, sushi?) is vinegared rice, usually topped with other ingredients, including fish (cooked or uncooked) and vegetables. Outside of Japan, sushi is sometimes misunderstood to mean the raw fish by itself, or even any fresh raw-seafood dishes.[1] In Japan, sliced raw fish alone is called sashimi and is distinct from sushi, as sashimi is the raw fish component, not the rice component. The word sushi itself comes from an outdated grammatical form of a word that is no longer used in other contexts; literally, sushi means “it’s sour.”

    There are various types of sushi: sushi served rolled inside nori (dried and pressed layer sheets of seaweed or alga) called makizushi (??) or rolls; sushi made with toppings laid with hand formed clumps of rice called nigirizushi (???); toppings stuffed into a small pouch of fried tofu called inarizushi; and toppings served scattered over a bowl of sushi rice called chirashi-zushi.

    Have to let other vegans out there knowthat there are plenty of options for us in Japan!

    Thanks.

    Like

  8. I’ve been expecting this kind of entry since I read 4HWW (The part you mispronoucing “Okosu (wake)” as “Okasu (rape)” was really funny).

    After I read those entries, now I’m convinced that you are a real Edokko(Tokyoite). :-)
    As a native Edokko myself, I’d like to add some cool spots:

    Karaoke box

    If you miss the last train, just go to Karaoke box. Usually they have “All Night plan” with all-you-can-drink service, the total cost will be 20-30 bucks each. They have a lot of English songs, and unlike Karaoke bar, you don’t have to sing in front of strangers. You sing in a small room with your friends.

    Manga Kissa (Manga/Internet Cafe)

    Actually this place has “All night plan” too, which costs only 15 bucks. You have private partitioned area (not exactly a room), where you can enjoy internet, DVD, comics, and softdrink for free.


    I have much more on my list, so I’ll add them here when I have time.
    Let’s hang out next time you visit Tokyo!

    Oh, I also want to list the URL of “Train Route Finder” website (in English), which is pretty useful.

    http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae/

    Like

  9. there is not much to add but i think it can not hurt putting things here that make tokyo a great omoi-de (memory) are: shopping – ameyayokocho (or short ameyoko) located at ueno-station (yamanote-line, ginza-line) one of asias biggest markets. there you can buy from food to souvenirs everything, at reasonable prices. and do not fear the 100- or 1000yen-shops. if you run short on things like tissue, nail-clippers, batteries, post-cards or if you just need a notebook to write down what you want to remember… its all there.
    hotels – if possible do not stay in western hotels. if you can not find a ryokan (japanese inn) that fits your target-price-range, at least ask for a japanese room and eat japanese breakfast. ok, that one might set you back a little more, but trust me, it is great.
    eating: try everything. most of the food-stores offer samples. try them. most department-stores do have food-markets with local specialities in the basement. go there! tako-yaki is a great snack to eat on the way to the next sight. try okonomiyaki (omelette with vegetables or noodles) and omu-raisu (rice wrapped in an omelette), when eating sushi, order uni (sea urchin) … japanese tend to take you serious if you tell them, you even ate uni. for most westerners its more challenging then fugu (pufferfish).

    Like

  10. I’ve been expecting this kind of entry since I read 4HWW!

    After I read those entries, now I’m convinced that you are a real Edokko(Tokyoite). :-)
    As a native Edokko myself, I’d like to add some cool spots:

    Karaoke box

    If you miss the last train, just go to Karaoke box. Usually they have “All Night plan” with all-you-can-drink service, the total cost will be 20-30 bucks each. They have a lot of English songs, and unlike Karaoke bar, you don’t have to sing in front of strangers. You sing in a small room with your friends.

    Manga Kissa (Manga/Internet Cafe)

    Actually this place has “All night plan” too, which costs only 15 bucks. You have private partitioned area (not exactly a room), where you can enjoy internet, DVD, comics, and softdrink for free.

    —-
    I have much more on my list, so I’ll add them here when I have time.
    Let’s hang out next time you visit Tokyo!

    Oh, I also want to list the URL of “Train Route Finder” website (in English), which is pretty useful. http://www.jorudan.co.jp/english/norikae/

    Like

  11. Great post, Tim! Made me want to go back to Tokyo!

    Smiled at the bit about asking people for help with “sumimasen”. I found I could do almost anything/get anywhere with “sumimasen” and “domo arigato”!

    One thing people don’t talk about is how safe Tokyo is! I would NEVER just stand on a street corner with purse slung on my arm and a map open looking dumbfounded in New York. In Tokyo, you’re sure to have someone (honestly!) come offer to help you within 20 seconds…and most of the time I found they’d even walk me to where I wanted to go (instead of just pointing or telling me).

    Like

  12. My experiences are similar to Tara’s. I was on tour there a few years ago and felt incredibly safe, despite being wonderfully out of my depth. It was a really nice feeling. I’m lucky enough to have played all over the world, yet I’ve never felt so far away from home, but not in the slightest bit homesick!

    I’ve been hatching plans to go back and live there ever since. I’ll be referring back to these articles when I do, Tim. Thanks!

    Like

  13. I enjoyed the articles, Tim. As a 20-year+ resident of Japan, a few comments:

    1. Correction: Yamanote and Chuo lines are surface lines, not subway. (Slip of the keyboard, I’m sure.) There are also many, many subway lines.

    2. Minor note on sushi/sashimi: Someone will no doubt point out that sashimi is raw meat (usually fish), but sushi is defined by the vinegared rice, not fish/flesh; it may use vegetables, cooked fish, or something else entirely. Still, it’s true, sushi made with raw seafood is most popular (and usually delicious).

    3. Nabemono: “Stew” is an easy one-word description – though I think stew typically implies long cooking times, which isn’t typical of nabemono. If anyone wonders about the difference, just order it and find out! Great stuff in winter.

    All in all, a good quick bunch of suggestions.

    ###

    Thanks for the comment, Traveler! I always mix up subway and surface trains, as I’m accustomed to thinking of surface trains for long-haul travel. Thanks again!

    Tim

    Like

  14. Thanks for these hacking Japan posts, Tim. When I wrote about Japan, I got 27,000 visitors from StumbleUpon, and a number of comments from people who were furious I suggested that Japan is a nice place to visit. It has some disadvantages obviously, but it’s a great experience, and there are many aspects of their culture I wish we had in the U.S. “Sumimasen” will indeed serve you well, and while I hear they don’t like foreigners to stay too long, I found the people to be very friendly when you approach them.

    Like

  15. Hey Tim, what fun! I’ve always wanted to visit Japan…right after China, France, England, and Ireland…man, seems like it’s going to take forever.

    I wanted you to know about my four day media fast. I made some serious discoveries about myself and wanted to thank you for the inspiration to be comfortable doing something that I wasn’t previously comfortable with. I wrote a post about my media fast and thought you might like to read it.

    Like