An Affordable Vacation in Japan? It Can Be Done...Really!

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By Michele McDonald

TOKYO -- Japan is promoting itself as a budget destination. Yeah, right. In a country where people pay as much for a golf club membership as an American might pay for a second home, the land of the $35 hamburger, the idea is not as far-fetched as it appears. Armed with a little knowledge and self-discipline, a visitor can eat well and have a good time without robbing a bank. The three necessities, accommodations, food and getting around, can be kept under control; the rest is up to the traveler.

The first fiscal crisis any visitor to Tokyo faces is the notorious $175 cab ride from Narita Airport into town. This one is simple: Don't take a cab. Two rail services and nine bus routes offer a much more sensible alternative, running about $19 to $24. The bus services are probably the best bet for first-time travelers. The Narita Airport pamphlet, readily available around the airport, shows which route serves which hotels. Tickets can be purchased in the arrivals lobby.

For getting around Tokyo, the subway is clean, safe, easy to figure out with the aid of a subway map and, above all, is cheap. Tickets start at a little over $1. If a ticket value is inadequate for the trip, the difference can be paid at the destination.

Cabs are not cheap. The fare is more than $5 for the first two kilometers. Budget-conscious travelers probably will want to treat themselves to a cab once or twice after a night on the town, but relying on cabs for routine trips will add up quickly.

The question of budget accommodations sometimes requires a decision by the travel agent to forgo a commission on this piece of the trip. Participating hotels in the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, one of the easiest sources of affordable rooms, do not pay commissions for individual bookings. For groups, the booking can be handled by a Japanese land operator, and a commission is paid.

The Directory of Welcome Inns, available from the Japan National Tourist Organization, lists several types of properties that are not only affordable (ranging from about $33 to $65 per person), but also offer a Japanese experience that is not shared by guests in large, Western-style hotels. A ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, offers a large, undivided room with tatami matting and futon bedding. Bathrooms usually are shared, and guests remove their shoes and wear slippers in communal areas; stockings and bare feet only are allowed on tatami. There is often a communal bath; it's for soaking, not soaping, and Japanese wash first, soak for a while, then wash again, then soak again.

Minshuku are the Japanese version of bed-and-breakfast inns, usually run within a private home. Budget accommodations also can be found in the Western mode at "business hotels," which provide the basics, and pensions.

A great Japanese meal, with three or four courses, can be had at a Japanese "pub" for about $30. It might include sushi, steamed crab legs, Kobe beef and dessert. The favored beverage is beer, and Japanese beer will not seem terribly foreign to the American palate. Not only does it compliment the food well, it will not break the bank.

Skip the imported Scotch and after-dinner drinks; they mark the road to financial ruin.

A few pointers:

*Carry cash. For all its financial sophistication, Japan is not yet addicted to plastic, and even some small hotels do not accept credit cards.

*Wear your best socks. Japanese pubs require the removal of one's shoes upon entering, and patrons sometimes have to step down into sunken banquettes. Skirts and pantyhose are nightmares under these conditions, and old socks won't do. A good rule of thumb is that when you see polished wooden floors or tatami mats, take off your shoes.

*There is no tipping in Japan, for food or cab service is considered its own reward, so a small splurge every now and then is no cause for guilt.

*Pack light and bring a luggage carrier if necessary. Porters are almost nonexistent, and negotiating trains and buses will be more pleasant without tons of luggage. The well-packed traveler will be less tempted to break down and take a cab.

*A couple of pamphlets, both available from the JNTO, will make life easier for the budget traveler. One is called Japan for the Budget Traveler and includes a list of affordable restaurants with brief descriptions of the type of food served. The other is called Japan Travel-Phone. This is especially nifty for anyone who has ever looked at a foreign phone or ticket machine and felt like a dimwit. It includes diagrams of how to use telephones, subway ticket machines and bus fare receptacles. It also has phone numbers that a befuddled traveler can call for assistance in English.

*For more information, call (212) 757-5641; fax (212) 307-6754. The JNTO's e-mail address is jntonycinterport.net. The organization has a Web site at http://www.jnto.go.jp.

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