Over four surprising decades of innovation and progress, Tokyo has experienced an amazing period of growth. On frequent trips to the Japanese capital, I have been astounded on encountering my first automatic doors in buildings and on taxis, first automatic faucets, first heated bathroom mirrors, first heated toilet/bidet combinations, and so on. The most technologically astounding item on my last trip? Cell phone readable bar codes on watermelons, complete with the farmer's photo, the farm's history and the dates of picking and shipping. Japan is still the nation where the future is now.
According to a survey by The Economist, Tokyo is the most expensive city in the world. But as our Frommer's Tokyo and Frommer's Japan guides show, you can economize easily by staying in moderately-priced hotels and eating in moderately-priced restaurants, just like the locals do. You can also find discounts that are offered exclusively to foreign travelers on items like railpasses and museum admissions, free walking tours and reduced rates on stays in decidedly non-touristy neighborhoods.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government publishes the splendid Welcome to Tokyo -- Handy Guide. It certainly is handy, but even better, it contains 44 discount coupons good at an equal number of attractions. The list includes about a dozen gardens, two wildlife parks, five amusement parks and 23 museums. Among the better-known cultural havens are the Tokyo National Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Edo-Tokyo Museum, the Suntory Museum of Art, the Science Museum and the national museums of Western Art and of Modern Art. Discounts in museums range from ¥50 to ¥200 (50¢ to $1.75) on tickets costing from¥400 to ¥1,030 ($3.75 to ¥9.75), many costing ¥420 ($3.75). That's about 12% to 19% saved.
Gardens worth seeing include the Hama-rikyu built by the Tokugawa shoguns and Rikugien, a daimyo lord's garden from the Edo Period (1615-1868). Garden discounts range from ¥30 to ¥80 (25¢ to 75¢) on tickets costing from ¥150 to ¥400 ($1.25 to $3.75). Savings represent about 20% across the board. All coupons are good through March 31, 2006.
The Handy Guide has maps of several areas that are growing in popularity with suggestions for what to see and do in each. Highlighted neighborhoods include Odaiba (the "island of the future"), Shiodome (east of Tokyo Tower). Ginza, Marunouchi, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Roppongi, Akihabara, Ueno and Asakusa. Ask for the booklet when in Japan at the Tokyo Tourist Information Centers at Haneda Airport, the Keisei Railway Ueno Station (where you alight from the Narita Airport train) or at the Metropolitan Government headquarters in Shinjuku. Their website is www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp.
Walking is Still Free in Tokyo
The Japan National Tourist Organization, in cooperation with the Tokyo government and the capital's visitors bureau, have a booklet of self-guided walking tours. The free pamphlet, Tokyo & Vicinity Walking Guide, also has a good subway and Japan Rail (JR) map of the metropolis, access map for the airports and two pages on how to get around the city.
The tiny tome contains information on the Tokyo Free Ticket (¥1,580 or $15) for unlimited one day use on almost every form of transport (JR, subways, buses and trams) with a few limitations. There's a Tokunai Free Pass from JR East which allows unlimited travel for one day on all their lines within the city limits, costing ¥730 ($7), and five more "free" passes, ranging from ¥500 to ¥100 ($5 to $10).
There are also some important information contact listings, including that of the JNTO's Tourist Information Center near Yurakucho Station and the Tokyo Tourist Information Center in the Tokyo Government Office in Shinjuku. Get a copy through JNTO or the information centers mentioned.
Tokyo: Past, Present and Future
I walked three of the tours featured in the publication that took in the Imperial Palace, Asakusa and Roppongi. Asakusa is one of my favorite neighborhoods, I used to live across the street from the palace, and my last home in Tokyo was near the Roppongi intersection, so none were new to me (which is why I picked them - it's never a bad idea to test someone else's knowledge against my own). They sum up a lot of Japan's appeal, the palace representing the past, Asakusa the traditional present and Roppongi the frenetic future.
The Imperial Palace tour takes just over an hour -- not counting any time you might spend taking pictures, entering the museums or pausing to enjoy the scenery. Formerly Edo Castle, the palace is still surrounded by what was its innermost moat. You can't get inside the palace, though you can see marvelously handsome gates and turrets, and you can walk in its East Garden. Just beyond it are the museums of Modern Art (open Tuesday-Sunday except New Year's Day; ¥400 or $4) and Science (open daily; ¥600 or $6). There are a couple of sights along the path of the tour not mentioned in the handbook, but worthy of note: General MacArthur's former headquarters in the Dai Ichi Insurance Company building (soon to disappear, I hear); and the notorious old Kempeitai (Secret Police) headquarters (long since demolished), overlooking the East Gardens.
For the Asakusa walking tour, the booklet allows 75 minutes, but you surely will take longer as there is so much to see, not to mention the shopping arcade that leads up the Asakusa Kannon Temple (Buddhist), the chief attraction on this route. You also will see Shinto Asakusa Shrine, Sumida Park along the river, and the Edo Shitamachi Traditional Crafts Museum (shitamachi meaning "downtown"). If you like kitsch, you might want to be photographed in a man-drawn jinrikisha (a two-wheeled carriage pulled by a single person), parked at the shopping arcade entrance strictly for tourist purposes.
On the Roppongi walking tour, the booklet allows you just 30 minutes, but you should take more. Highlights of the walk are two tall edifices, the 333-meters-high Tokyo Tower (1958), and the new Roppongi Hills built in 2003, standing 250 meters high. The Tokyo Tower area is genteel, with residences and Buddhist temples interspersed among smaller commercial buildings and embassies. But Roppongi Hills is something else, a giant development towering over the neighborhood like a Star Wars villain, offering hundreds of expensive shops, the Virgin cinema complex and a great modern art museum, the Mori (currently offering an excellent China exhibition going on through September 4, 2005.)
Roppongi Hills Models
If you are interested in the future of urban living, you should take in the Mori Urban Institute for the Future exhibit now at the Roppongi Hills (through November 23, 2005), on the 50th floor of the Mori tower. I have seen plenty of models of towns and cities, and this beats them all. Absolutely perfect models of Manhattan (below 89th Street), Shanghai's Pudong District and most of central Tokyo are on display. It's all done at 1:1,000 scale, and with it, you can view two outstanding films, Tokyo Scanner and Tokyo Vein, each lasting around 15 minutes each. A ticket to City View, the enclosed 360-degree viewing deck on the 52nd floor, also gets you in to see these models and films, as well as to the Mori Art Museum on the 53rd floor. Admission ¥1,500 ($14.50, less for students and children). More information on www.roppongihills.com.
A City within the City
Opposite Tokyo's wonderful old Central Station (soon to be rebuilt with its 19th century façade intact), is the new Marunouchi Building, which bills itself as an interactive city. Arranged around an atrium with an entertainment stage, the Maru Biru (its Japanese nickname) has 36 floors: Four devoted to 40 restaurants, five to 99 shopping outlets, two to for an Interactive Zone (for meetings, conferences, fashion shows and the like), and the rest devoted to office space. One hint: the cheapest restaurants, many of them Japanese and specializing in lunch for the building's office workers, are in the basement.
The building is linked via Nakadori, a tree-lined street, almost European in ambience and boasting the most expensive shops (many from the Olde Worlde), with Yurakucho, an amazing shopping center in its own right. More info can be found at www.marubiru.jp.
The People's Tokyo
Many guidebooks, including Frommer's Tokyo, pay a great deal of attention to the exciting and beloved neighborhoods of the metropolis that are most favored by foreign visitors and residents alike. Just naming them conjures up their images: the Ginza, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Roppongi, Harajuku, and now, Odaiba.
Many neighborhoods, however, are overlooked completely. They include Ikebukuro, Bunkyo Ward and Shinagawa. Frommer's Tokyo does at least contain an excellent description of Ikebukuro's two main department stores and the Metropolitan Hotel.
At its busiest, Ikebukuro's rail and subway station rivals Shinjuku's -- traditionally Tokyo's most-used terminal (housing two subway lines, the JR Yamanote and Saikyo lines and two private railway lines to the suburbs). Towering over the rails are the huge Tobu Department Store (three buildings, 3,000 clerks and about 200,000 customers daily), its affiliated Spice building crammed with over 55 restaurants, and the Japan Traditional Craft Center, a must for lovers of folk arts. On the other (eastern) side of the tracks is another huge shopping haven, the Seibu Department Store, and a few blocks farther on, the tremendous Sunshine Prince Hotel.
With fewer foreign visitors, Ikebukuro seems more like the people's Tokyo; its crowds are larger than those in the Ginza and Marunouchi, comparable mostly to those in Shinjuku and Shibuya. And the shops are decidedly pro-budget, with bargains galore and not too many deluxe European or American imports in sight. For visitors, the atmosphere here is decidedly middle class, and therefore, more typically Japanese.
Staying in Ikebukuro
The Crowne Plaza Metropolitan Tokyo hotel is surprisingly cosmopolitan, with English-speaking staff, a 24/7 business center (with eight computers and free Internet access) and six restaurants (including Italian, Chinese and Japanese). Located just opposite the western entrance of the giant Ikebukuro station, the hotel also has a fitness center, shops and a spacious lobby. In the shopping arcade, you can get an MRI at the in-house clinic or buy a wedding ring, if the needs arise. A good-sized standard double runs from ¥25,410 to ¥26,500 ($245 to $255), consumption tax and service charge included. (Remember, you don't tip in Japan!) Children age 19 and under stay free in parents' room. Non-smoking rooms are available. Crowne Plaza is part of the InterContinental group of hotels. Check out their website for specials at www.metropolitan.jp.
The Sunshine Prince, one of Tokyo's biggest hotels with 1,066 rooms on 38 floors, and its surrounding Sunshine City complex loom over the Ikebukuro neighborhood on the other side of the tracks from the Metropolitan and Tobu properties, with standard internet double prices of ¥17,000 to ¥18,000 ($165 to $170), marked down from the regular rate of ¥23,100. The figures include service charges and consumption tax, and are good through December 30, 2005. The hotel has a ladies-only floor (the 22nd), four restaurants, and a business center, where Internet connection costs ¥500 ($5) for 30 minutes. Contact them at www.princehotelsjapan.com.
Eating in Ikebukuro
Although the area is saturated with hundreds of small restaurants featuring Western, Japanese and other Asian cuisines, I suggest you head for the Spice Building for a new experience. Part of the giant Tobu Department Store, it consists of eight floors (11th through 17th and first basement) of nothing but restaurants, 55 of them, with a wide range of Japanese and non-Japanese food, most of them moderately priced. A typical dish might be a big pork cutlet, Japanese style (tonkatsu), with rice and miso soup, for ¥1,600 ($15.50). If you can guess from the pictures what kind of food you want, ask for the restaurant map, please ("rehstoran mappu, kudasai") at the Tobu information desks scattered around the complex. The desks also have an English-language map of the three Tobu buildings and their wares in the department store complex.
The Hotel Metropolitan has an all-you-can eat lunch buffet, with both Western and Japanese dishes, daily, costing ¥2580 ($25), with a ¥200 discount for aged 65 and over, ¥1,580 for children ($15, aged 4 to 12), and wildly popular with locals.
For more information on Japan and Tokyo, go to the website of the Japan National Tourist Organization, www.jnto.go.jp or www.japantravelinfo.com. The Visit Japan Committee website is www.japanwelcomesyou.com. As mentioned earlier, the website of the Tokyo government's Visitors Centers is www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp.
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