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Postcards from Japan: Surprising cultural differences and the beginnings of 'Tokyo Cheapo', with Chris Kirkland

Chris 'being a hobo enterpreneur' in Thailand 2016

Chris moved to Japan in search of a change from his life in the UK and Tokyo delivered with what he calls a “A Disney remake of Blade Runner”. Together with a fellow enterpreneur Greg Lane, he created the popular website Tokyo Cheapo with tips for tackling the bustling metropolis on a budget. We had a chat about the various projects he's involved with, how to be cheap and smart on a Japan holiday, and his favourite place to visit!

Hi, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Thanks for inviting me! 

I’ve never really had a job and after a few years struggling to be a musician I taught myself web programming, then became a “hobo entrepreneur”. I’ve founded several businesses whilst living between Tokyo, Berlin, London and a few spots in South East Asia. Highlights include founding of artweb.com - a platform and gallery for tens of thousands of artists; Co-founder of the infamous Tokyo Cheapo (and now London and Hong Kong Cheapo too); Podcast co-host and writer on HoboCEO.com; plus being an investor and advisor in a number of start-ups and funds including the Calm Company fund.

Steamy Shibuya - the classic Disney Blade Runner experience

What drew you to Japan? How did you find living there?

I came to Japan because I wanted a change, and it certainly was a change from life in the UK. To sum up in a sentence I describe life in Tokyo as “A Disney remake of Blade Runner”. Beyond Tokyo and the other big cities, the countryside is very different - mostly sparsely populated countryside or mountains, with a relaxed and mostly older, more traditional population.

However life in Japan is in many ways quite similar to life in any other developed country. Once you get over the immediate visual differences of the Tokyo cityscape and the local residents (compared with say London or Berlin), the really interesting differences emerge more gradually over time. 

Some random examples include, the bizarre background music in super markets, the etiquette around using lifts, people not laughing out loud in the cinema, trains being so utterly precisely on time, the complexity around sorting domestic waste, how humble everyone is, the inflexibility of the menu in restaurants, breakfast time at a ryokan being 6am - 7am and the many unspoken social rules. 

Hiking in the countryside just outside of Tokyo

So many of the differences come from cultural differences and as a foreign resident it can be hard to come to terms with all of them. I remember the first year or so feeling convinced I could influence my Japanese friends with my “modern” Western ways. Only after a number of years did I gradually start to grasp and (mostly) respect the cultural differences - also one book I found helpful as a newbie learning to fit into Japanese society was “Kata: the key to understanding and dealing with the Japanese”.

Apart from an up-and-down relationship with many of the cultural differences and societal rules, I generally enjoy the challenges and appreciate the opportunities arising from being a somewhat rare foreign resident of such a gigantic city. And of course I like all the “basics”, like how calm and generally safe Tokyo is, how amazing the food is and how I’m continually learning and discovering new things.

Chris, Greg, and friends at a Tokyo Cheapo office party

How did Tokyo Cheapo come about?

I was having a drink with my good friend and fellow tech entrepreneur Greg Lane. We were discussing our various new business ideas, and after talking through various complex software ideas we came up with the idea of doing a blog about Tokyo on the Cheap. At the time most media coverage on Tokyo seemed to be boasting how expensive Tokyo was, and aimed at luxury travellers or rich expats. This seemed silly from our own point of view - where were the articles about 100 yen per plate sushi? What about all the clean, cute and militarily efficient cheap business hotels?

A few weeks later Greg set up a no-frills wordpress blog, I’d made a logo in 30 seconds and between us we’d drafted about twenty articles. The site was an almost instant hit. The catchy name, useful but tongue-in-cheek articles and the occasional photoshopped kitten or dog into the background of our badly taken photographs kept readers coming back for more. After a few years we’d expanded to have a significant editorial team in Tokyo, London and Hong Kong with millions of readers every year.

Cheap eats - soba with ground walnuts

What kind of advice can you share with people planning their first trip to Japan on a tight budget?

The most popular times of year for tourists are the Sakura (cherry blossom) season in April/May and Autumn. If you travel outside these times you’re likely to find it much easier to book affordable accommodation, flights and experiences. Actually December is a surprisingly good time to visit If you’re coming from the UK. The winter is especially dry in Japan, and although it can be cold the skies are blue much of the time, so a nice contrast to a wet and dark Britain.

For cheap eats, look for shops with vending machines instead of a waiter/waitress; standing sushi bars and “kaiten” (conveyor belt) sushi restaurants; any Japanese curry, ramen or soba noodle shops; go to fancier restaurants for lunchtime deals - set lunch is almost always cheap. If you’re really strapped for cash, hover around supermarkets mid afternoon (3ish) or after dinner time (8ish) and pick up a bento box with a half price sticker. You don’t need to worry much, the food is good everywhere in Japan, even at motorway service stations.

For cheap accommodation, there’s quite a lot of comfortable and trendy concept youth hostels these days. But for the real hardcore cheapo experience you’ll want to spend at least one night in a capsule hotel, or better a Manga cafe.

There’s tons of things to see that won’t cost you a thing, and if you’ve never been to Japan before, almost everything has some novelty value - observe staff operate lifts in high end department stores and the greeting ritual to customers who enter the store at 10am opening time; trains that run on time!; see if you can get lost in some of the large underground connected walkways at the major urban train stations; board a morning commuter train for a few stops and experience the squeeze; attend a traditional festival; people watch in central Tokyo or Osaka.  

Although the countryside isn’t always as idyllic as say the cotswolds (there’s few old buildings left in Japan), there’s still plenty of great hiking, hot springs, many national parks, an abundance of temples, traditions and traditional festivals plus excellent public transport connecting it all together. If you’d like city hopping and want to see a lot of the country in a short space of time, then the JR rail pass is a great money saver. 

And of course, I have a mountain of thrifty tips on Tokyo Cheapo and Japan Cheapo.

Chris up a mountain

What’s your favourite spot to visit in Japan and why?

I like the Japanese Alps, particularly the Northern Alps. I’m a regular hiker and there’s some great multi-day ridge hikes with panoramic views, and plenty of very well equipped mountain lodges along the way making for a much easier hike (as you don’t need to carry much food or gear). For example, there’s the four day trek to Takamagahara Onsen, Japan’s most remote hot spring. Or these a series of ridge hikes connecting Mount Hotaka and Mount Yari with surrounding routes up through the Alps.

Mount Fuji is overrated as a hiking trip - it’s stunning to look at from a distance, but you can’t really appreciate it when you’re clambering up its slopes, plus the few weeks in the summer when it is open for hiking tend to be the few weeks it is most likely to be hidden in cloud!

Thank you!

You can read some interesting articles on Tokyo Cheapo's website. They are also on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube!



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