2015-08-25

5 Ways I Saved Money in Tokyo

Japanese yen
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Whether with a touch of fascination or an edge of skepticism, people often ask how I managed to visit Tokyo and do nearly everything I wanted without returning from my vacation with an empty bank account. I understand their sentiments. Tokyo is commonly crowned as one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, I believe this is only a cause of concern if you live in Tokyo. As a visitor, I found Tokyo to be rather inexpensive, especially since the yen is experiencing a decline. For Americans, now is the best time to travel to Japan (as I type this post, $1 equals 119 yen). Nevertheless, no matter where you're from or what the exchange rate is, if you plan your trip to Tokyo carefully and implement simple money-saving techniques you will be surprised how cheaply you can enjoy one of the most popular cities in the world.

Honestly, if you want to travel anywhere, you have to set your priorities straight. I worked three part-time jobs and didn't over spend on luxuries for three months before I traveled. Oftentimes, when people think they "cannot" travel because it's "expensive", they fail to see how much money they're spending on unimportant things. For example, nixing fast food from your daily life saves tons. But I digress.

I feel it's important to note that I present these tips as a low maintenance traveler not a comfort-seeking tourist. In other words, I focus on the sites and immerse myself in my surroundings when I travel; I prioritize these things over comfort.

Your accommodations

1. Rent a cheap apartment/hostel over a hotel

Decorations outside the main entrance
of Kurumi Weekly Mansion.
Many people see their accommodations as one of the best aspects of going on vacation. A large comfy bed, flashy lights in the bathroom, room service. However, these perks are irrelevant to a budget traveler. In fact, in regards to size and perks, your accommodations should be as basic as possible as you should mainly be showering and sleeping there. There's too much to see in Tokyo to stay inside all day! 

Now, that doesn't mean you have to subject yourself to a capsule hotel even if you are claustrophobic. A good option would be to log onto AirBnB, TripAdvisor, or a similar site to find cheap yet well-rated living quarters for your stay. 

I recommend Kurumi Weekly Mansion. The rooms can be small, the walls are thin, and the building is on the older side, but for a small space for yourself at a price that rivals most hostels it is a great deal. Kurumi also has wifi and a free laundry room with complimentary detergent! Plus, the owner is extremely kind, knowledgeable about the area (he provides you with a map with all points of interest in the neighborhood labeled), and fluent in English so you can ask him anything.


2. Don't stay in Shibuya, Ginza, or any other "happening" area of town

A quiet neighborhood park in Koto City where I stayed.
It's natural to have the urge to stay in the center of Tokyo, especially in the more bustling areas of the city where the excitement is only a five minute walk away. However, fun and entertainment is usually situated on prime real estate which means accommodations in those areas are likely to be expensive—not good for a budget traveler.

If you are looking for cheaper accommodations, I suggest you explore what your options are in the edges of town or even suburbs. You will have a longer train ride to get to certain attractions, but unless you're staying outside of Tokyo City proper, you shouldn't expect to travel more than 40 minutes one way. I don't suggest you zip across town several times a day as that will be a waste of money; I will expand on this point in a future post.

I highly recommend Kōtō City as there are several Tokyo Metro subway stations in the area, and it is not far from the Tokyo City Air Terminal where the Tokyo Shuttle Bus arrives (see #3). In addition, Kōtō is five minutes by train (about 30 minutes on foot) to Akihabara and just under 10 minutes by subway from Tokyo Sky Tree and Asakusa, so for at least two days you will not have to travel far if you're situated in Kōtō. Tsukiji Fish Market and Tokyo Station are around five minutes (about a 30 minute walk) by train from Kōtō as well. I walked from Kōtō to Tokyo Station and back twice and it was pretty fun!

Generally, choosing an accommodation away from the city center will save you money, but not isolate you from what you'd like to see.

Transportation

3. Take the Keisei Limited Express train from the airport (Narita)

While Tokyo has two airports (Haneda and Narita), this tip focuses on Narita airport where I arrived.

Tokyo Narita Airport is about an hour away from Tokyo by road when traffic is moderate to low, and up to 90 minutes away at worst. You can get to the city by train, bus, or taxi, though I would avoid the last option like the plague because taxis are extremely expensive in Tokyo, and you're trying to save money, remember?
Train lines which connect to the greater Tokyo Metro system.
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I suggest you take the Keisei Limited Express train from the airport to the city. It's 1,190 yen one-way, and although it stops a few times before entering Tokyo-proper, it took me only about 50 minutes to arrive at Aoto Station (青戸駅)where I transferred to TM Hanzomon Line. However, the company claims it can take up to 90 minutes to get to Ueno Station(上野駅), so I suppose the timing fluctuates depending on the time of day, day of the week, ect. 

The Tokyo Shuttle Bus is also a good option at 1,000 yen one-way (900 yen if you buy your ticket online. The site is Japanese-only, but I suppose one could figure things out using an online translator for assistance if they wanted to save those few cents!). I took the shuttle bus to catch my return flight as I was running behind schedule and wasn't confident I would make my flight if I had to transfer at Aoto Station.

I still recommend the train. It's just under $2 more expensive than the bus, but the view on the train is better than that of the bus ride, and I enjoyed commuting with the locals. Additionally, if you have nothing but a backpack, it might be more convenient for you to start off in the Tokyo subway system rather than to exit a bus and find a station. 

Naturally, there are other train and bus options, but they are more expensive and the costlier bus systems do not get you to the city any faster.

4. Get a Pasmo or Suica card

Suica and Pasmo cards.
Like most subway systems in the world, the Tokyo Metro and its associated privately owned train lines are accessible on a ride-by-ride basis as customers can buy tickets to board the train before entering the gate. However, buying a ticket every time you want to ride the metro isn't very convenient. Therefore, I suggest anyone traveling to Tokyo acquire a Pasmo, Suica, or other type of metro card. 

You can put enough money to travel around on your metro card and simply touch it on the sensor before entering subways gates or the bus. The cards can be used at most convenient stores like a debit card to pay for things as well. If you need to add money to your card, they're convenient to refill at subway stations or convenience stores. Best of all, you can return them at the airport just outside the subway gate and reclaim all the money left on the card as well as your deposit (500 yen) before you catch your flight back home!

When I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport, I got a Pasmo card from the B1 level of terminal 1 outside the metro gate where the trains to Tokyo arrive. Japanese skills aren't required to get a card as the clerks speak basic English, so don't feel nervous about asking for one. I put 6,000 yen on my card, and used it seconds later to enter the subways gates and begin my journey!

Note: Pasmo and Suica cards are only usable in the greater Tokyo area (i.e., Tokyo, Niigata, and Sendai). If you are traveling to a city outside of the area, say Osaka, you will have to buy a ticket to that city then acquire another regional card.


5. Walk as much as possible

Trains passing through the huge Ueno Station(上野駅).
Riding the train is convenient, but not always necessary.
If your next stop is only one or two subway stations or a 10 minute bus ride away, foot it! Unless you are going to a place that is about to close, or you have a reservation for one reason or another, you shouldn't worry about the time it takes to get from one location to another. Enjoy your surroundings, you're not filming an episode of The Amazing Race! Walking is slower, but it's a good opportunity to exercise and see the little things you might otherwise miss. As I stated in a previous post, I walked from Asakusa to Ueno. Naturally, I could have gotten from one place to the other in five minutes or so by train, but I would have missed out on the interesting places between those two major sites.

You don't want to take my advice because you hate walking? Fair enough, just know you will eventually pass through Tokyo Station, Ueno Station, Shibuya Station, Ikebukuro Station, as well as other what I like to call "monster" stations during your stay in the city which require up to 10 minutes of walking before you emerge at street level, depending on the exit you need to take. Also, several tourist attractions like Character Street demand a bit of walking, so you may as well get used to walking almost everywhere! If you're still not convinced, I ended up spending under $50 for transportation over six days, including the money I spent to get to and from the airport. I put this down to all the walking I did.

I hope you found these five tips helpful. Watch out for a future post with five more Tokyo money-saving tips regarding site-seeing, food, and shopping!

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