Japan seems like an expensive country for a tourist to visit. But in comparison to other tourist cities such as London, Paris, or New York, the same amount of money stretches much further in Tokyo. Can a tourist stay in a decent hotel in London for less than $100? Can someone have a full-course lunch in Paris for less than $10? Or travel two hours on a clean and comfortable train--like the Amtrak--for less than $30? In Tokyo, all this is possible.
Tokyo has been chosen the most expensive city in the world many times by Mercer Human Resource Consulting's renowned Cost of Living worldwide survey. According to this survey that covers 144 cities by measuring the comparative cost of over 200 items in each location, in 2005, Osaka was the second most costly city in the world, preceding London (number 3), Paris (number 12), and New York (number 13). But these statistics include rent, groceries, clothing, toiletries and cleaning products, and telephone and energy utilities--items that apply to long-term residents. For a tourist who will be there for only a few days, Japan offers some very good deals, as shown by a brief study of costs of transportation, lodging and food.
First arriving in Narita Airport, one has the option of a number of transportations to reach Tokyo. Both the Narita Express, a comfortable and fast direct train (less than an hour), and the Tokyo City Air Terminal (TCAT) Airport Limousine bus service will arrive in convenient Tokyo train stations for 3000 yen (=$26)*. The train and metro system within Tokyo has prices that are comparable to cities in the U.S. or in Europe. The Japan Rail Pass is a bargain, because it is applicable not only to inter-city bullet trains that travel from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto, for example, but also to trains within Tokyo that are run by Japan Railway (JR). A 7-day ticket is priced at 28,300 yen (=$244) for an adult. The Tokyo subway system also offers discount one-day passes for a mere 710 yen (=$6), providing unlimited use to all their lines.
There are many affordable hotels for tourists visiting major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, and Kobe. So-called "business hotels" are geared towards men on business trips, and are around 5,000 yen (=$43) per night. Japan, unlike the U.S., charges a fee per person rather than per room, so it would not be a financial loss to travel alone. For the more adventurous lone travelers, the famous capsule hotels, where one lies down in a locker-like space, provides a unique option for lodging for less than 4,000 yen (=$34). Ryokan, or traditional Japanese-style inns primarily built for the countryside, also exist in cities and are often affordable.
In Japan, it is not difficult to find a good place to eat with minimal prices. Many restaurants and eateries focus exclusively on businessmen on the go, who want to grab something very cheap very quickly. An epitome of this culture is tachigui soba, the eatery where one eats a bowl of buckwheat noodles while standing. Such a design saves space in the restaurant (they tend to be packed around noontime on weekdays) as well as time for everybody. The price of a noodle bowl here is around an astounding 250 yen (=$2). There are many yatai, or tiny eateries on wheels (only up to three customers can eat at any given time--they look like hot dog stations except that 1) there are seats 2) the seller actually cooks the food, and 3) the cook and the guests are divided with a noren, a short cloth curtain, so that they can avoid looking at each other), usually specializing in noodles or oden, a hotpot dish that includes daikon radish, eggs, fishcakes and seaweed. These are inexpensive and are popular late at night during the winter. For those who prefer reliable taste, fast food chains thrive in Japan, too--some are indigenous to the country and serve uniquely Japanese dishes, such as burgers sandwiched in packed rice instead of bread buns (about 300 yen, or $2.50), or gyudon beef bowls (about 400 yen, or $3.50).
For those who would like to have a slow, sit-down proper meal, there are many cafe-like restaurants that serve full meals. Many come in a set--Japanese meals tend to come with miso soup and pickles to begin with, but western dishes are also often combined with a cup of coffee, dessert and perhaps a side of salad for a total of about 850 yen (=$7). The category of eateries called "family restaurants" in Japan offer menus exclusively for not only children but for women as well--the "ladies' menu" tends to be smaller in quantity and perhaps a bit more health conscious. An added bonus for tourists who may not be familiar with the Japanese language or some of the traditional dishes: many restaurants and cafes have menus accompanied with photos, or display exact wax replicas of their dishes and combination meals in glass cases outside the entrance.
Japan is not that expensive compared to other countries that tourists might visit. With the current strength of the U.S. dollar compared to the yen, a tourist armed with enough planning and insider information on which spots to visit will be able to enjoy a very affordable trip.
*According to the yen-to-dollar exchange rate of December 16, 2005: 116.01 yen/USD.
The 2005 Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, by Mercer Human Resource Consulting: http://www.mercerhr.com/pressrelease/details.jhtml?idContent=1142150