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You can thank the 2020 Summer Olympics, to be held in Tokyo, for making Japan more affordable than it’s been in 50 years. Airfares are down, the US dollar is pretty strong against the yen — it now trades at about 114 yen to the dollar — and lots of deals await for getting around and enjoying hotel rooms in major cities.
As an added treat, because the Japanese eat out a lot — as much as every lunch and dinner — that means fierce competition and lower prices for everyone. And we’re not talking student fare like ramen or oden (kind of a stew) in greasy joints and alleys. We’re talking delicious, fresh and healthy sushi; buckwheat soba noodles served cold or in simple, hot broths; grilled chicken; terrific vegetarian dishes; and absolutely first-rate French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Indian and American regional restaurants that are often better than what’s found in their places of origin, thanks to the high quality of ingredients and famous Japanese hospitality known as omotenashi. The Japanese are gearing up and want more visitors from North America. Translation: It’s a window of opportunity to save big for the next three years.
Use Points, Miles and Deals Whenever Possible
Depending on the time of year, you can get from the US to Narita (NRT) or Haneda (HND) airports, the two main points of entry for Tokyo, for between $800 and $1,200 on major carriers like Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, Delta and United. Check Google Flights and TPG’s Deal Alerts page often so you never miss out.
If you are not renting a car, for which you must have an international driver’s license, the two principal ways of getting around are by train and plane. You’re better off not driving: The people here tend to drive slowly and politely, but on the left side of the road, which can be confusing for American visitors. ANA offers discounted airfares between major cities from $130 one-way, while Japan Rail offers a range of passes for foreigners that enable travelers to see the country fast and hassle-free — note that both of these must be purchased in the US and are only available to those who aren’t citizens of Japan. It makes sense if you’re planning on traveling to a lot of places, but even you are limiting your time to major cities, it’s still a break-even proposition that makes travel more convenient.
Hotel stays throughout Japan are amazingly well-priced. No nation is more relationship-driven, with face-to-face meetings de rigueur. Business people are on the road a lot, which means you can find inexpensive rooms in just about every town and city. If you’re lucky enough to have points to use, hotels that are part of Starwood, Hyatt, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton await. While high-end properties within these brands can run between $500 to $900 per night, for less than $150 a night, simple accommodations are still great. The Richmond chain of hotels is a great option, and the mix of Western décor and overall Japanese vibe — subdued and deferential — is truly cinematic, offering a sort of working person’s version of Lost in Translation, which, by the way, was shot at the Park Hyatt Tokyo.
Within Tokyo and Kyoto, using the subways and JR city trains are the easiest way to get around. Buy a Pasmo Card — a transit pass you can also use to purchase items from vending machines in the stations — but first, download a Tokyo subway app for your phone. Kyoto, flat and bisected by the Kamo River, is a bicyclist’s urban paradise and as long as you don’t pedal up the steep, temple-dotted hills, there is no more pleasant way see the city. You can rent bicycles at various venues and, unlike in many cities, drivers here respect cyclists — who, in turn, obey the law or risk getting fined.
Visit an Epic Food Hall
Exploration in Japanese cities is extremely stimulating, and between visiting shrines, temples, jazz clubs, coffee salons, baseball games, sumo matches, traditional theater, rave clubs and museums, you’ll always return to the matter of food. For a variety of cultural and economic reasons, Japan’s cuisine is paramount to the nation’s way of life. Food isn’t just food, it’s a way to communicate. Start with the astonishing food halls that can be found on the subterranean floors of every luxe department store, where you’ll be treated to free samples dispensed by smiling, effusive staff. The choices can be dazzling and a little overwhelming. $10 gets you a meal of really fresh tuna sushi, yakitori, baguettes, curries and so on. Or if you’d like, ride the elevator up to the dining floor that each department store has as well, and decide among extremely good restaurants with options ranging from tempura to burgers.
Go Where the Locals Go
Keep in mind that most restaurants are cash only, so make sure your wallet is prepared before you go out. And while many Japanese banks do not accept US bank cards, you can still use the ATMs at convenience stores. Most restaurant staff do not speak English either, so it might be a good idea to bring along a phrasebook or ask someone at your hotel to write down what you want to order in advance. Many restaurants request reservations, which you can also ask your concierge to make for you. It’s the height of rudeness in Japan to not show up, so it’s essential to call and cancel if you really need to — some places even require a deposit, which will be forfeited if you don’t appear. If you can see the sign for a restaurant at street level, it’s probably not very good, as most of the best restaurants are hard to find. Fortunately, locals often face the same dilemma and are usually happy to help lost souls find what they’re looking for.
Avoid most of the Michelin-starred places: A few are extremely good, to be sure, but are typically filled with tourists. If you want to dine in a room of locals, check food sites like Bento.com or the terrific food section from The Japan Times, where Robbie Swinnerton writes about the very best. Whatever you do, don’t hire a food guide — this will cost you hundreds of dollars for less than a day and you’ll often wind up at places where the bill is equal to the guide’s fees. That said, if you’re the kind of person who hires a food guide in a European city where you’ve never been and don’t speak the language, go for it in Japan; otherwise, it’s just a colossal waste of money. Japan, at this point, is easily navigable for non-Japanese speakers. The government recently initiated a program to train people in the tourist industries to speak English, too, in anticipation of the 2020 Olympic Games.
You Don’t Have to Eat Japanese Food in Japan…
Restaurants range from Smokehouse in Tokyo, where great American barbecue for lunch or dinner without drinks costs about $50 for two, to spectacular French food at places like L’As, where an eight-course tasting menu will set you back about $50 per person, plus wine. Tax and tip are always included in Japan, so compared to high-end French food in the West, this is the deal of the century. Pizza as good as what’s found in Naples is also found all over Japan, while Italian cuisine is as popular as the national dishes. “Kyo-Italian” is what the cuisine is called in Kyoto, and nothing tastes better. It makes sense: Italian and Japanese gastronomies have a lot in common — they’re highly seasonal, vegetable-driven, include lots of noodles or rice and often feature very fresh fish and seafood.
… But You’ll Want To
Japanese meals for about $25 per person — half that for any noodle dishes — plus beverages, can be found everywhere, with typical choices being udon noodles, soba noodles, grilled unagi (freshwater eel), tonkatsu (fried pork) and izakaya (pub food served like tapas). One of the most fun things to do in Japan is to buy ekiben for about $10 — bento boxes with regional dishes like pressed salmon on rice wrapped in bamboo leaves or fresh crab from Hokkaido. These are typically sold at train stations and in department-store food halls. Every day at noon, you can hear the sound of boxes being popped open, chopsticks snapping apart, and the exquisite silence of a group of train passengers lost in their lunches.
Live in the Here and Now
“Ichi–go ichi–e” is Japanese for “the here and now,” or “a fleeting moment,” and it applies to the country’s fascination with things that last a short span, like cherry blossoms, autumn leaves and life itself. You can create your own version of ichi–go ichi–e by booking a trip to this faraway land that is at once strange and familiar. The values won’t last, and now’s the time to take advantage of good pricing for a memorable journey.
What are your secrets to finding value in Japan? Tell us about them, below.
Featured image courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organization.
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