The expat's guide to Tokyo

Inside tips on pursuing business and pleasure in Tokyo without breaking the budget.


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Mary Beth Maslowski
December 16, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Most business travelers don't know that in Tokyo it's possible to find a free tour guide, book a reasonably priced hotel room and get paid to eat a meal. By following a few tips, you can find travel to the capital -- whether for business or pleasure -- unexpectedly affordable.

If you're coming to town for an extended stay, you should know about a week-long air-and-hotel package that offers a tremendous value, a deal that was unthinkable two years ago, when the dollar was trading at only 80 yen. Both Airport Travel (800-310-5549) and Travis Pacific (800-227-4352) are offering one-week stays in Tokyo with round-trip flights from the U.S. on Singapore Airlines and accommodations at the Tokyo Hilton for $999. A half-day tour of Tokyo is included as well.

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If you're not traveling on a package deal, of course, you're on your own getting from the airport to downtown. What are the options? Well, you can always take a taxi -- but even if you're getting reimbursed, $200 for 40 miles of traffic seems excessive. The NEX (Narita Express) train is faster and a ticket costs only about $25. (All figures in this article are calculated using an exchange rate of 125 yen to $1.) The slower Keisei line costs even less. Another option that is slightly cheaper than NEX is the Limousine Bus. While it might take a little longer than the train, the big advantage of the bus is door-to-door service from Narita Airport to most major hotels.

One of those hotels, the Keio Plaza Inter-Continental, offers business travelers an especially good deal. Members of the hotel's "Executive International Club" can take advantage of guaranteed U.S. dollar rates starting at $190 for a single room. Membership offers a variety of other perks, including full American breakfast, health club passes and extended check-out time. And if you want to take a client out for drinks, the Keio's second-floor "Let's Bar" offers a budget-friendly happy hour special: Between 5 and 7 p.m. weekdays, all drinks are 600 yen (about $5).

Other Tokyo hotels such as the Okura, Tokyu and Four Seasons also have membership clubs and offer special rates and package deals. In addition, prices at the Prince chain are always good. Rates start at 13,000 yen (about $104) per night at the Sunshine City Prince and 14,500 ($116) for a room at the Shinjuku Prince.

In your travels around Tokyo, taxis should be avoided, except for short jaunts. The subway is faster and much cheaper, and the new automatic fare cards make it even easier to navigate the extensive train system. If you're in need of help, most ticket-takers can offer rudimentary guidance, or look for stations marked "Information" in the main subway stops. Of course, many passersby can also speak English and will be happy to help a lost traveler.

At the end of the business day, a good way to get rid of stress
is by plunging into a traditional Japanese bath. The Jakotsu baths
in the wonderfully old-fashioned Asakusa area of Tokyo have indoor and outdoor pools, as well as a rock garden and
waterfall. A plunge into the past is cheap too -- less than $5. (For information within Tokyo, call 3841-8645; from outside Tokyo, add the prefix 03.)

If you're shy about getting naked with the natives, there are other things
to do, many of them free or surprisingly inexpensive. The Edo Tokyo museum
(03-3626-9974) is a huge complex that chronicles the city's history
between the years 1603 and 1868. Admission is $4 and there's a taped
guided tour available at no additional cost. For a frothy diversion, visit
the Suntory Beer Plant (0423-60-9591) in Fuchu -- about 20 minutes by subway from downtown Tokyo -- for free tours and beer
sampling. Window-shopping illuminates another side of Japan. Try walking the streets of the Ginza for mind-boggling department store displays; Shibuya for specialty boutiques; or the aforementioned Asakusa for temples and traditional shops.

For an inside look at a traditional sport, visit a sumo
training session. Tickets to the wrestling matches themselves are expensive and hard to come by,
but visits to the Kasugano (03-3631-1871) or Azumazeki (03-3625-0033)
sumo stables are free. Before you go, have your hotel concierge call
to make sure the wrestlers are in town. And while you're at the
stables, remember that no photographs are allowed -- and that excessive noise bothers the big guys. You wouldn't want to get on a sumotori-san's wrong side.

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A more conventional way to get up close and personal with the Japanese is to arrange a free guide through the Tokyo Metropolitan Student Goodwill Guide
Club (03-3201-3331). The Home Visit Program is another terrific complimentary
service that arranges for foreign visitors to spend a few hours in a
Japanese home. A little advance planning is required in this case: You have to apply in
person 24 hours or, preferably, two days in advance at the Tokyo
Information Center (First Basement Floor, Tokyo International Forum,
3-5-1, Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku). Highly recommended. In Tokyo, call 3201-3331 for details.

Of course, road warriors do not live by window-shopping and people-meeting alone. Sometimes you have to eat. When it's time for a meal, here are a few tips. Look for a teishoku (pronounced TAY-sho-ku); this is a set menu meal with drink, side dishes, entree and dessert all
included. Most restaurants offer them, and they are always the best deal. Department store restaurants
are generally not too expensive and usually have plastic food displays in
their windows, great for pointing and ordering.

Many Japanese hotels also have surprisingly good and affordable buffets and set
menus available. The Palace Hotel buffet lunch in its Swan
restaurant starts at 3,000 yen ($24) for lunch and 4,000 ($32) for
dinner. The elegant Park Hyatt Hotel has a set menu Japanese lunch in
the gorgeous Kozue restaurant for 3,700 ($30). A set dinner at the
hotel's Girandole is about the same. The Top of Ginza, at the Ginza
Dai-Ichi Hotel, offers buffets that cost about $16 for lunch and $38 for
dinner.

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Big eaters can take advantage of all-you-can-eat restaurants such as
Sutamina Taro (03-3604-9689) in Adachi. For around $20 diners can stuff
themselves with sushi, grilled beef, rice curry, salad, cake and drinks.
If you really want to impress your colleagues, show your sutamina by taking on one of Tokyo's eating contests: The
Ramen Koshin restaurant (03-3412-2531) challenges diners to eat a jumbo
bowl of ramen in 30 minutes. This $20 ramen is big enough for 4 people --
but if you finish it, it's free. If you can put away two big bowls, you get 30,000
yen ($240 bucks!).

The Japan National Tourist Organization offers a wealth of free information on cost-cutting and culture-exploring in Tokyo. For an extensive list of inexpensive restaurants, and a rich range of other tips, visit the JNTO Web site.

If you live in the United States or Canada, you may also want to contact the following regional JNTO offices:

One Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250

New York, NY 10020

(212) 757-5640


jntonyc@interport.net

401 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 770

Chicago, IL 60611

(312) 222-0874


jntochi@mcs.net

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360 Post Street, Suite 601

San Francisco, CA 94108

(415) 989-7140


sfjnto@aol.com


624 S. Grand Avenue, Suite 1611

Los Angeles, CA 90017

(213) 623-1952


jntolax@interramp.com

165 University Avenue

Toronto, Ontario M5H 3B8

(416) 366-7140


TorontoJNTO@Inforamp.net


Mary Beth Maslowski

Mary Beth Maslowski has lived, worked and traveled extensively in Japan for the past eight years. She recently moved to Berlin.

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