While Tokyo is not nearly as unaffordable as common wisdom would have it, it's certainly not a cheap place to visit – starting with the four-figures-and-counting price of the airfare to get there. But with a little bit of insider knowledge, you can enjoy Tokyo – including some of its ritizier trappings. Here's how to do it.
While gaijin houses (dormitory-style accommodations) abound, finding more sophisticated accommodations in Tokyo at a reasonable price is tricky. We do have a few recommendations, however:
In the Roppongi district, but away from its noisiest sections, the b roppongi offers airy, boutique-style rooms with free WiFi and breakfast for rates starting at ¥21,100 ($208). There are several other b hotels in the city, including in the nearby neighborhood of Akasaka. Also in Akaska, the Hotel Monterey is designed to look like a classic London townhouse and offers rates from ¥17,500 ($175) per night. Wifi is free, and you'll get a 30 percent discount when you book two consecutive nights.
A good way to save money and dive into traditional Japanese culture is to spend a night at a ryokan (traditional inn). Staying in a ryokan requires that you follow somewhat strict etiquette – such as removing your shoes, donning a yukata (like a lightweight kimono), and following bathing rituals – but it is an experience you should try at least once in Japan. Japanese Guest Houses offers a booking service for ryokans across the country. (Ryokan owners often speak limited English and/or do not offer online reservations.) and lists Tokyo ryokans priced between ¥7,000 and ¥30,000 ($70 - $296) per night, usually including a traditional breakfast.
High Culture, Low Prices
The Roppongi district, which for decades had a reputation for crime and rowdy expat bars, has been reinventing itself as a cultural center over the past 10 years. In 2003, the contemporary art-focused Mori Art Museum (entrance ¥1,500, or $14.50) opened on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills development. This was followed in 2007 with the opening of The National Art Center, Tokyo (admission varies depending on the exhibit) and the Suntory Museum of Art (¥1,300, or $12.70). The three museums collectively form the "Art Triangle Roppongi," which has a popular discount ticket system called “ATRo Saving”. Visitors retaining an entrance ticket stub for any of the three museums are entitled to a reduced entry price at the other two galleries: ¥200 off admission to the Mori Art Museum, ¥100 off at the Suntory Museum of Art, and a variable discount at the National Art Center. Occasionally you will find discount vouchers for the museums in the Starbucks at the Tsutaya book store on Keyakizaka-dori (at the western end of the Roppongi Hills complex) and at the Aoyama Book Center on Roppongi Dori.
Tickets for kabuki performances at the esteemed Kabuki-za theater usually start at around ¥10,000 ($100), but the theater also offers a system called "makumi," whereby you can purchase a ticket in non-reserved seating on the fourth floor, and see a single act for around ¥1,000 ($10). These tickets are sold only on the day of the performance from the box office.
A Great View Without the Cover Charge
The New York Bar at the luxury Park Hyatt Tokyo was made famous by the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. To this day, the 52nd-floor bar draws a steady stream of tourists and locals alike, all of whom are looking to take in the panoramic city views from the floor-to-ceiling windows. If you want to make your own pilgrimage, you can save some money by leaving before 8 p.m., when the ¥2,220 ($22) cover charge takes effect (7 p.m. on Sundays). You'll still be able watch dusk settle in and, with cocktails priced at around $20 each, you'll be thankful for the savings.
In the Shibuya neighborhood, at the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel's Bellovista Bar, it will cost you ¥1,155 ($12) to sit at a table after 7 p.m.. Avoid the table charge simply by sitting at the bar instead.
If it's the view you're interested in, rather than the cocktails, the observation decks on the 45th floors of both the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building's north and south towers are free to visit. The decks are open until 11 p.m. and, on clear days, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance.
When you've had your fill of the city, head out into the other, quieter parts of Japan. Visit the temples, palaces, and gardens of former capital Kyoto, hike through preserved Edo-era towns in the Kiso Valley, take a dip in the hot springs of the onsen towns, relax on the islands of the tranquil Inland Sea, and visit monasteries at Koya-San, one of Japan's holiest mountains. Getting across the country is very affordable with the purchase of a Japan Rail Pass. Passes are valid for unlimited travel on all Japan Railways services (including the high-speed Shinkansen) for seven, 14, or 21 consecutive days, but they must be purchased before you arrive in Japan. Prices start at $280 for a 7-day pass.