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Japan on the Cheap


Welcome Cat

I'll splurge every couple years for that perfect Issey Miyake outfit (it travels so well!), but all my friends know I'm a cheapskate at heart. That's why I consider the economic recession that hit Japan in 1992 - while bad news for those who lost their jobs, including many politicians - the beginning of a new Japan for frugal travelers. In contrast to the heady days of the 1980s bubble economy, when only designer goods would do and expense accounts seemed unlimited, today's Japan is a bargain hunter's delight. Thanks to recession fallout, we have 100 Yen stores, shops selling used designer wear, buffets virtually everywhere, inexpensive set lunches in even the toniest of restaurants, startup regional airlines, and virtually every prefecture trying to figure out how to lure more international travelers. There are deals across the country only for foreigners. For the cheapskate, there's never been a better time to visit Japan than now. Of course, real cheapskates like me have long known how to see Japan on the cheap. I wouldn't dream of traveling through Japan without a Japan Rail Pass, but now there are a slew of other passes as well, such as regional passes for areas like Kyushu or Hokkaido. Long-distance buses that travel overnight or during the day are even cheaper. And discounted subway, bus, and local train passes are available in most major cities. Starting March 28, a new discounted combination ticket that includes the ride into Tokyo on the Narita Express, plus limited rides on most local trains, will make its debut, sold only at Narita Airport and available only to foreigners.

Meals don't have to be expensive, thanks to boxed lunches, noodle stands, kaiten (conveyor-belt) sushi restaurants, take-out food in department stores, inexpensive fast-food chains, Japanese-style bars selling snack food like yakitori (skewered grilled chicken), and set meals for lunch. Even coffee has become cheaper in Japan, with the ubiquitous Starbucks on seemingly every corner. What better way to while away an hour or two, sitting at a sidewalk cafe, watching the world stream by. I especially love the rooftop beer gardens that sprout up all over Japan in summer, offering beer and reasonably priced dishes.

Inexpensive lodgings include Japanese-style minshuku (with simple tatami rooms and shared bathrooms down the hall), pensions (Western-style B&Bs), People's Lodges (called a kokumin shukusha and found primarily in national parks and rural areas), and even Buddhist temples. In Okayama Prefecture, there are International Villas, located mostly in rural settings and available only to foreigners and their accompanying Japanese guests, at very modest prices. Business hotels, which used to be rather grim, smoky affairs 20 years ago with nary a female in sight, have upgraded their services and facilities tremendously, offering miniature rooms that are nonetheless clean, bright, and cheerful, attracting all genres of travelers. And though I've never stayed in a capsule hotel, I've seen several: it might be worth staying in one just to get a picture of yourself in one of its coffin-sized berths, complete with television, radio, and phone (some even accept women nowadays).



As for attractions, the lesser known temples and shrines are usually free, except for an adjoining museum or garden, and it could be argued that you haven't seen Japan unless you've experienced one of its many festivals. Some cities or regions, such as Hiroshima and Fukuoka, sweeten the deal with Welcome Cards, providing foreigners with discounts at participating restaurants, hotels, and attractions. In Matsue, all foreigners have to do to get 50% discounts at major attractions is flash their passports. There are also free attractions everywhere, from office-building observatories offering great city views -- like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Tokyo's Shinjuku district or Kobe's city hall -- to showrooms sponsored by companies like Panasonic and Toyota. Window-shopping is always free, and there is no shortage of things to look at. Akihabara in Tokyo and Den Den Town in Osaka, chock full of huge and tiny electronics shops, always surprise the heck out of me with products I've never seen at home.


(Akihabara in Tokyo) The 100 Yen shops are great for all kinds of Japanese souvenirs, from chopstick holders to weird snack food (squid chips anyone?). There are weekly flea markets (in all the big cities, usually on shrine grounds, where you can pick up used kimono and other goods for a song. And in department stores, I always head straight to the so-called Promotion Floor, where sales are held for everything from regional foodstuffs to shoes, clothing, and crafts. I'm still waiting, however, for Issey Miyake to lower his prices. In the meantime, you'll find me scouring those second-hand designer shops.



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