Tokyo, Japan Vacation on a Budget

My recent vacation to Tokyo, Japan on March 7 – March 13 had to possibly been the hugest culture shock I have ever encountered. It was also by far one of the best vacations I have ever had. I’m not sure if it was the city lights, the fast-paced streets, the countless things to do or just the politeness of every single Japanese person there, but the city was very well-received in my eyes.

To travel from a country that view holding your significant other’s hand as a courtesy, to a country that finds that same public act as taboo, or provocative, was definitely something worth witnessing. The streets were beyond clean, smoking in non-designated area was prohibited, and traveling around Japan — though was confusing at first — can be easily done through their train system which is by far the best and organized system that exists, I think.

If you thought you’ve experienced sushi or real Asian food in America, THINK AGAIN. The sushi was not smothered in mayo or all that other crap sauce that sushi restaurants in America are notorious for. You are literally eating raw food, healthy food, Japanese-people skinny food.

Being the person that I am, one of the most important thing for me was to keep in contact with my family and the outside world. Not only was I able to keep in contact via voice calls, but I was also able to update everyone across the country with photos through Facebook and Instagram of everything that I was doing — so that they could enjoy it as much as I did.

My main reason for this trip to Tokyo was to celebrate my one year anniversary with my boyfriend. Throughout highschool he had a huge interest in Japan and also studied Japanese. During our earlier phases of dating he got me hooked on Asian drama television series. The first drama we ever watched together was a Japanese drama called “1 Litre of Tears” which was based around a character named Aya who was suffering from a rare cerebral disease. I’ve never cried so hard watching a tv show. It was unbelievable and the story was heartbreaking. That created my first interest in wanting to visit Asia. Three months later my boyfriend and I adopted a puppy and named her Aya and that was the start to our new life together. 11 months later we were in Japan having the time of our life.

Staying Connected While Visiting Japan

Many options exist for staying connected in Japan. You can either use a pre-paid SIM to use in your un-locked phone which will allow voice calls, and sometimes limited data, or rent a mobile hotspot unit for data. I obviously went the mobile hotspot route because of the different ways I can use it.

I highly recommend eConnect Japan when renting a mobile hotspot. Their customer service email is amazing and not only do they deliver the device straight to your hotel the day before you are set to arrive, but they also include an already paid return mailer so you can just drop it back into the mail at the airport on your way back to your home country.

The device itself was a no-brainer to use. You turn it on, set your computer or phone to connect to it, enter the pre-set encryption key, and voila. If you think this is a waste of money, you are totally wrong. With my limited Japanese linguistic skills (none) we heavily relied on the Google Maps app on our phone for everything. With the device and Google Maps we were able to coordinate our routes by foot, train, or bus. The Google Maps train route was extremely helpful in figuring out which station to change platforms and also the fares so that we can make sure we have enough money to make it all the way through.

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With the mobile hotspot it also supports the usage of Skype. I was able to keep in contact with my mom and dad through video and also give them a walkthrough of Tokyo so they could experience what I was seeing. Please keep in mind to not keep your Skype logged in to your phone otherwise it’ll drain both your phone’s and hotspot’s battery.

Now you’re probably wondering about about voice calls for emergency or on the fly contacts — for Android users I have found the perfect solution, GrooveIP. I used the FREE version the entire time I was in Japan and not only was I able to make phone calls out, but if you set it up with your Google Voice account correctly, you can also set it to receive calls through your Google Voice number. It uses none of your minutes and everything is done directly through your hotspot data plan.

Getting Around Japan

This section is going to be pretty short. When traveling around any parts of Japan you basically have two choices for budget-minded people: train or walk. The train is your best option as it gets you to your destination fast and the wait time at each station is usually less than 5 minutes until the next train comes. Fare ranges anywhere from 50 Yens and up depending on the distance of each station. The most I spent on a single train ride was 1250 Yens from Shinjuku Station to Narita International Airport and that was for a two hour train ride.

You can also opt to walk, but let me warn you now, if you plan on being on your feet for more than 8 hours a day, or 14 hours a day in my case, lose the fashionable flat sole shoes and get yourself some comfortable running shoes — you will thank me, trust me. Of course take some nice shoes for nights out and dinner time, but for the general exploration of Tokyo, those hideous Crocs will be your best friends.

Using Cash or Debit cards internationally in Japan

Before I started my trip to Japan I took a great deal of time researching through many different travel websites and blogs regarding the best way to handle your money overseas. At the time of this writing $1 = 92 Yens.

I decided to take out some initial spending money for essentials once I landed in Japan just in case the currency exchange office was closed or the vendor didn’t accept the major credit/debit cards. I took out $354.66 worth of yens through Travelex. In return I received 28,000 yens exchanging it through Travelex which basically meant, if $1 = 92 yens, they charged me a service fee of 4578 yens, or $49.65. If I have just used my credit/debit card directly through a normal point of sales, I would have only been charged a service fee of $9.13, a total of $313.48. So pretty much Travelex ripped me off.

I want to let all of you traveling from America to Japan know now that there is a CitiBank ATM machine at the Narita International Airport. I repeat, there is an ATM machine at the airport. Do not get ripped off exchanging US Dollars to Yen currency at those booths. Below are sample rates that Bank of America charged me. Confirm with your bank what their ATM fee + international transaction fee is because all banks charges differently.

Bank of America, Japan International Transaction Fee
Point of Sale Transaction: 30,000 Yens = $326.09. The bank will add on a 3% conversion fee. Your total for this transaction is $335.87. This 3% charge is added per transaction of swiped purchases.

ATM Withdrawal Fee: 30,000 Yens = $326.09. The bank will charge an ATM Fee of $5, plus a conversion fee of 1%. Your total for this transaction is $334.35. Of course when using an ATM machine, you would always want to pull out your max daily limit, up to your set budget for the trip, so you don’t have to come back later and get charged $5 + 1% again and again.

As you can see from the sample rates, in this instance, even with the $5 ATM fee the total transaction amount was still lower than directly using your credit/debit card at a point of sales. Using these real-life numbers, I will leave it up to you to determine which option will benefit you best.

What I did while in Tokyo

Japan is huge, so huge, extremely huge that you’ll need more than a month to fully explore it. But like the rest of us, we unfortunately have jobs and bills to pay back at home. During my week in Tokyo I was able to see some of the most beautiful scenery like it was right out of a book. Never would I have imagined to walk along the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, or see kinky blowup Sailor Moon dolls in the Akihabara district. Here are some must-see’s for all the Japan newbies out there that are free (minus the cost of train fare to get there):

Shinjuku

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This was the district our hotel was in and is one of liveliest in terms of things to do during the day and its nightlife. The streets are packed with people and vendors till the crack of dawn. All the shopping and food shops you can want can be found in Shinjuku. Be wary though, if you go too far down the street you may have walked into their red light district where all the hustlers come out to try and sell you their “show girls”. I think this is more suited for our politicians and businessmen.

Meiji Shrine

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I’m not one to be dumbfounded by a religious venue and I certainly didn’t know what to expect when visiting the Meiji Shrine. It was extremely beautiful and very captivating to see the locals come and do their prays. Tourist can even take part in the water washing at the entrance of the shrine and then write their prays to the Japanese Deities.

Yoyogi Park

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Right next door to the Meiji Shrine, this huge park is definitely a must visit whether it be for a casual stroll or for the Cherry Blossom ceremony. During my visit the Cherry Blossoms were barely starting to bloom — I wish I could have seen the full thing in action.

Harajuku

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The fashion district — in Harajuku you can find anything from cheap underground fashion lines to your typical Hermes. This is the district to visit especially on Sunday mornings where a huge crowd usually gathers dressed up to impress in the lastest fashion wear. This is also home to the biggest costume, for the lack of a better word, anime crowd.

Pokemon Center – Yokohama

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A visit to Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without paying a homage to the Pokemon Center. There are several throughout Tokyo, but since this particular one is near other attractions like an outdoor amusement park and is seaside, this one gets my vote.

Chinatown

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This is a great place for pictures, but I honestly wasn’t too impressed with the vendors there. I was looking for great knock off items, but it wasn’t even up to par to the Chinatown in San Francisco. Great things to see and eat though.

Imperial Palace

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Duh, who wouldn’t want to see where the Emperor of Japan lives? Though the Palace itself isn’t open to the public for obvious reasons, the gardens and ground surrounding the palace itself is open to tourism. Beautiful, that’s all I can say. The history of each landmark on the palace ground dating back to beyond the 1600s kept me in awed.

Akihabara

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For all you tech geeks and everything anime lovers, this district will be your dream land. Any consumer tech that exists, Japan more so than often already has it. Want a life size figurine of Sailor Moon? Done. At this district you can get all the cheap iPhone cases and hardware parts that you want.

Best time of my life

Even with the limited places I mentioned above, there were also passing districts that I didn’t have time to write about or I wished I had enough time to stop by and checked out. There was just so much to do and see in such little time! Though my trip was short, I fully appreciate the culture I was lucky to have submerge myself into and is now awaiting for my next journey to a new world that I have yet to discover. Please let me know your thoughts or any questions you may have regarding visiting Japan.

Till then, sayounara.

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