Tokyo for Two
There were many times when Tokyo seemed as familiar to us as any large city we have visited. We used the expansive subway system when our feet were too tired to continue walking and it was easy to find a grocery store, restaurant or a good pint of beer.
Then there were those moments when we were quickly reminded that we were in a country far away with different traditions and culture. Kimono wrapped brides paraded around Shinto shrines. A picnic lunch in the park was noodles and sushi rather than a baguette and cheese. Food orders were taken from a vending machine and tickets redeemed for a steaming bowl of ramen noodles. Street attractions were large robots and small bears (yes, a real live bear).
Tokyo was the first time in four months where I felt really intimidated. My Japanese language skills were close to zero and English was spoken much less commonly than in Cambodia or China. It was easy to get lost among the ever crossing streets or as we changed train lines underground. A moment of panic overcame me when we arrived at one of our first subway stations. I looked up at the map and all the stops were in Japanese - no English translations. After the initial shock, I soon realized we just needed to know the cost of the fare and we could easily buy the ticket from the machine that had an English option. A very quick and necessary lesson in riding the rails in Japan.
We had a terrific introduction to the city from my good high school friend and his family on our second day. Jeff, Bridget, Caroline and Liam welcomed us out of Shinjuku Station (the busiest subway station in Tokyo) and we spent a gorgeous day strolling through a park and indulging in our first sushi and ramen experiences in Japan.
Our daily allowance of $125 didn't get us very far with Tokyo prices, but we were able to find a few no or low cost activities to pass our days. The most expensive thing for us was eating (and drinking). Let's be serious, we didn't come to Japan to starve ourselves.
Tokyo gets mixed reviews given its size, cost and overall vibe. We found a city that was celebratory and joyful at the tail end of Japan's Golden Week holidays. The beautiful weather allowed us to spend most of our days outside in the fresh air which was priceless. It was a great first stop in Japan and I'd go back in a heartbeat.
A few tips for Tokyo
Before we got to Japan, I rented a SIM card for free from Mobal Communications to use in my unlocked iPhone. We easily picked up the card at their desk at Narita airport. I was only using the SIM card for calls and texts, but you can get data if your phone is capable (it's expensive though). An even better option is to use a Pocket WiFi device. The apartment we rented in Tokyo had one and I carried it around in my purse everywhere we went, allowing us to easily jump online to see train schedules, check directions on Google Maps and keep Dave up to date on the latest scores from home. Google Maps was essential for navigating Tokyo, especially since we walked the majority of the time. Given its size, a regular paper map would be difficult to manage. You can rent the Pocket Wifi devices at the airport in a similar fashion as the SIM card. We fell in love with it and are looking to buy one for the rest of our trip.
Learn the subway system
Hyperdia is an English language online train guide for Japan that is invaluable. Simply plug in your starting and ending points and it gives you the route, times and cost of the trip. I would search for different options before we left the house and write them down so I knew what time the train would leave, what line we'd be on, or transferring to, and how much each leg of the trip would cost. The trains in Japan are always on time so even just knowing what time your train leaves will help you find the right track at the station. Also, really know what line you are traveling on. There are 13 subway lines in Tokyo, some private, some on the Japan Railway line and they go to all different points throughout the city (and they don't all have easy transfers).
Eat on the cheap
If you have the money, by all means indulge in the delicious international fare that the restaurants in Tokyo have available. The food in the city is world class. But, if you're trying to save some money like us, there are plenty of options. We had great bowls of ramen for less than $10 and our fill of sushi from a conveyer belt for less than $20. We also had a full picnic including wine for less than $20 from a local convenience store. There are bakeries and little shops around every corner where you can grab a quick snack for less than $2. What's not cheap is craft beer and we had to suck it up and share pints or get half pints to not kill our budget on $10 beers. Boo!
See the free sites
Being there in May for Golden Week, we had fantastic weather that allowed us to be outside most of our time. We had great strolls and picnics in Shinjuku Gyoen park, Yoyogi Park and through Meiji Jingu Shrine. We only had to pay 200 yen ($2) each for entrance to the Shinjuku park. The rest were free.
I also had dreams of toasting over a glass of wine at the top of the Park Hyatt Hotel a la Lost in Translation, but at $20 a drink, we just couldn't stomach it. Instead, we took the free elevator up to the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office building to see a similar view.
I'll post more on how our budget fared once we get through all of our Japan stops, but as you can imagine, it's been slightly damaged so far!