If you had to list the all-time great oxymorons of the travel business, what would they be? The leading candidates would probably include such classic promises as "a quiet room near the airport," "a scenic tour of Newark" and "a cheap vacation in Japan."
We have yet to find an airport hotel that really is quiet, and the beauty spots in downtown Newark remain well concealed. But that last contradiction in terms, cheap travel in Japan, is actually not so contradictory. Getting around the Japanese islands on a tight budget is nowhere near as impossible as most people seem to think.
Sure, sure -- we all know the horror stories: the $150 taxi ride downtown from Tokyo airport; the $29 bacon-and-eggs breakfast; the $150 greens fee at a fair-to-middling golf course. These stories are horrible, all right. They're also true.
And yet, most of the rip-offs can be avoided by the canny traveler. If you're willing to go a little bit native -- if you're willing, say, to try salt-fried sea bream and sake in place of steak and scotch -- you can still navigate Japan rather comfortably on $100 a day or less, not counting whatever it costs you to get to Tokyo and back.
That $100 a day won't buy many of the kimonos or wood-block prints you'll want to bring home for friends (but, hey -- that's what credit cards are for). It will buy you comfortable room and board and the passage necessary to see and feel a lot of Japan. And you'll be seeing the real country too -- not some travel packager's Westernized version of this fascinating hunk of Asia. The bargain route not only saves money, but gives you a feel for everyday Japan that is sometimes lost amid the French restaurants and American boutiques in the Western-style hotels.
How, then, to cut expenses in this most expensive of countries? You have to work at it. The Japanese tend to think all Western tourists are rich, so they'll naturally quote the first-class luxury price to any American asking for advice. But you can generally find cut-rate alternatives if you stick to a few basic rules. Lesson One:
Americans tend to feel that taking a cab is a simple little extravagance that pays off in time saved. Taxis in Japan can be extravagant, but they generally don't save much time. The entire island nation is so heavily crisscrossed with train, bus, ferry and subway lines that public transit is always available and almost always faster than battling the traffic in a cab.
Your first chance to save time and money from Lesson One begins during your first hour in Japan, when you face the formidable chore of traveling from the remote international airport at Narita to downtown Tokyo. The cab fare really does run somewhere around 20,000 yen, or $155. A taxi will take anywhere from 80 to 240 minutes, depending on traffic, and the route follows a pretty ugly set of crowded highways.
Every day at Narita you can see American business people jumping into cabs for Tokyo. The Japanese, meanwhile, head off to the quick, comfortable train called the Keisei Skyliner, which takes one hour, 15 minutes from the airport and costs $12.05. Or they ride the "Limousine Bus" -- really just a big bus -- which takes an hour and a half or more, depending on traffic, and costs $21 to downtown hotels or the city airline terminal. Beginning next month, the Tokyo-area Japanese Railway (JR) will run a direct train from the basement of Narita Airport to Tokyo Station in the heart of downtown, about one hour and $15.
For other travel, too, you can almost always find a relatively inexpensive way to get where you're headed on Japanese public transit.
Once you've arrived downtown and need a place to stay, Budget Travel Lesson Two kicks in:
No to Hilton, Hyatt and Intercontinental Hotels. No to the Japanese equivalents, like the Prince chain, the Okura chain or the New Otani. These are all fine hotels, but at prices of $150 and up per night, they're budget busters. Why bother, when you can find adequate lodging anywhere in Japan for nightly rates ranging from $60 down to $25?
Ask your travel agent to find you a room in a "Business Hotel," pronounced "Beejeenesu Hoteru." This is a relatively new species of clean, comfy hotels with unassuming lobbies and fairly small rooms that go for about $40 per night, often with breakfast included. They have Western-style baths and, usually, telephones that let you call anywhere in the world. If your travel service in America can't find one, don't worry. Every Japanese city has business hotels by the dozen.
If the business hotel is too expensive, or too dull, you can step down a notch to a "capsule hotel." Not for the claustrophobic, these places provide you a metal cubicle about the size of an upper berth on a Pullman car. Inside there's a bed, a shelf, a TV and a reading light. You wash up in the communal bath, hang your clothes in a locker outside your capsule and then climb in for the night. Above and below, you hear your neighbors snoring inside their cubicles.
I stayed in a capsule place rather aptly called the Cockpit Hotel near Tokyo's Meguro Station not long ago. It was not pleasant, but it was clean and bearable, and it cost only $25.
A bargain route to Japanese lodging that is somewhat more adventurous is the "love hotel" -- a place that offers two-hour specials for couples, married or otherwise, who need some privacy, a rare commodity in that crowded country. You can usually tell a love hotel, sometimes known as a "fashion hotel" or a tsurekomi, because its name will be painted in purple, a color that signifies passion.
These places were designed to accommodate midday trysts, but many offer a special all-night rate of 5,000 yen or less to those who arrive after 10 p.m. When I took this route, my 4,600 yen ($36) room was big, clean, comfy and quite normal except for the rose-tinted mirror over the bed and the filthy movies on the TV. A traveler can find a similar deal in any big Japanese city by hopping into a cab about 10 p.m. and asking the driver to go to the nearest love hotel ("ichiban chikai rabu hoteru").
One of the weird cultural anomalies of modern Japan is the long line of foreign travelers you're apt to see waiting for tables at the steak houses that have proliferated in Japanese business districts. Why would anybody travel 9,000 miles from New York to Tokyo and then go out looking for a New York strip steak? You could have stayed home and had the same thing for a lot less than the $76 it will cost you in Japan.
Which brings us to Lesson Three:
You can eat cheap -- well, sort of cheap -- in Japan, but you have to go Japanese-style. Imported anything -- steak, wine, even grapefruit or papaya for desert -- means a mega-yen outlay. Still, the bargain-basement traveler in Japan will find terrific food in the tiny restaurants that line the streets and alleys of every city.
You can't go much more than 100 yards in any direction in Japan without running into a ramen shop, like the one in the famous movie "Tampopo."
Ramen is a rich noodle soup stocked with various meats and vegetables. It comes piping hot in a bowl so big that one serving is a generous meal -- although you might want to consider an order of garlicky Chinese dumplings (known in Japan as gyoza) on the side. At a fairly typical joint, Ten-ka-ichi Ramen ("One Step From Heaven Ramen") near Tokyo's Roppongi district, a giant, delicious bowl of ramen, an order of dumplings and a large bottle of beer will cost 1,500 yen, or $11.50.
No traveler should leave Japan without stopping in a sushi bar -- partly for the fun of watching the sushi chefs moving at breakneck pace to keep up with an unending stream of shouted orders from customers, and partly for the culinary pleasure of tasting real Japanese sushi, which no American sushi place has yet matched.
Top-grade sushi bars can be expensive, but here too there's a bargain-basement approach. There's a fast-growing chain called kurukuruzushi, a play on words that might be translated as "coming-at-you sushi." In these places, there's no menu. You sit at an oval bar, and the various plates of sushi and other items shuttle past on a long conveyor belt.
When something you want goes by -- shrimp sushi, tuna, octopus, whatever -- you snatch the plate off the belt and eat your fill. When you're ready to leave, a busboy counts the number of empty plates at your place and computes your bill.
The standard charge is 120-150 yen per plate, and eight or 10 plates of sushi make for a fairly hefty meal. Green tea is free, as are pickles, ginger and other condiments.
As a result, for 1,000 yen or so (about $7.50) you can have a fun and filling dinner -- and something quite unlike anything you'd find on the American side of the Pacific Rim.
To keep the restaurant bills down, there's an important corollary to Lesson Three. To wit:
Coffee, or cohee, is not the same kind of drink in Japan that it is here. The Japanese drink and savor coffee like fine brandy. "A cup of coffee" in Japan is a tiny china cuplet holding a minute swallow of the brew which is meant to be sipped at for half an hour or so. This thimbleful of java generally costs 400 yen ($3) or more. If you want a refill, known as a kawari, you pay again.
Once when I took the bullet train to Kyoto, I had a pleasant breakfast (about $9) in the domed, two-story dining car. I watched the deep green rice fields and the grimy industrial towns of central Honshu slide by the train. Then, just as I finished my meal, majestic Mount Fuji came into view.
I didn't want to give up my seat in the dome car while we were passing that splendidly graceful mountain, so I quickly ordered a second cup of coffee.
The waitress looked at me as if I were King Midas himself. A second cup of coffee! Such extravagance! She brought me a second thimble, filled it with coffee, and gave me the bill -- but only after a long conversation with her waitress colleagues about the strange ways of these foreigners.
Actually, Western ideas of food, beverages and the prices that should be charged for them are less and less strange in Japan these days. One of the reasons the Mister Donut chain has been a runaway hit in Japan -- a country that used to prefer the salted rice ball to the sugared doughnut -- is that Mister Donut sells an American-sized cup of coffee for the bargain rate of 250 yen ($1.90) and then gives you kawari (refills) for free.
Such indulgence remains rare, though. If you're going to Japan with a thin wallet, you'd better plan to forgo the java and stick to green tea.
In fact, that's a good metaphor to follow in every aspect of your trip to Japan -- transit, lodging and dining. No to coffee, yes to green tea. With that simple rule, you can achieve two worthwhile purposes. You can see Japan the way the Japanese see it, and you can do so, believe it or not, on a budget.
For more information, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 2101, New York, N.Y. 10111, 212-757-5640.