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What's so Great--and Cheap--About Tokyo


By SHIRLEY BRADY

Though Hong Kong now tops the lists of the world's most expensive cities, Tokyo is still perceived as a pricey and potentially overwhelming destination by prospective visitors. Put those fears to rest. Japan's capital has much to offer outsiders, particularly first-time guests with a little curiosity and the energy to take in the city's farflung treats.

Perhaps the best item to pack is the courage to get lost. Wandering through Tokyo's back streets brings unexpected pleasures, like a snack at a stand-up noodle bar followed by a taste of green tea ice cream. If you're expecting Bladerunner, you'll be disappointed, as Tokyo is less urban noir than hustle and bustle. So get in the spirit, and do as the locals do: head to a 7-Eleven for a $5 bento box lunch, or join the shoppers cruising the Tokyu Hands department store for clothespegs and other household objects.

For a glimpse of Tokyo's Shitamachi, an old entertainment and working-class district, catch the Toden Arakawa tram. The line stretches for 12 km, starting from Minowa, near the Ueno station on the Yamanote train line in the northeast. The 45-minute trip to Waseda passes eel restaurants, rice cracker shops and public baths. Buy a $6, one-day pass on board and hop off en route to explore stops like Sugamo-Shinden. Expect to be jostled by the elderly women scrubbing the local temple's resident jizo, or guardian deity of children, for luck.

Another fun way to see the real Tokyo is by train. It takes about an hour to circle the city the sneaky way--buy a one-stop ticket on the Japan Railway Yamanote line for $1 and travel to the next station in the opposite direction. Become a seasoned rail passenger by crisscrossing your map to take in Shinjuku by night or to attend an art gallery opening in Ginza. Or follow the crowds heading to Rinkai Fukutoshin, or Rainbow Town, on board the Yurikamome monorail from Shinbashi station. A $7 one-day pass lets you explore this manmade island on Tokyo Bay. You can't miss the ship-shaped maritime museum, and you shouldn't miss the view from its observation deck (included in the $6 admission fee).

You can see more of the floating world developing around Tokyo Bay by taking the Sumida River cruise, a modern water bus that passes cherry blossoms in spring and illuminated bridges at night year round. One option for early risers is to begin your day with a sushi breakfast at the Tsukiji Central Fish Market (the earlier the fresher) followed by a stroll around the detached palace gardens (among Tokyo's finest) at Hamarikyu. From here you can pick up the cruise on its way to Asakusa--45 minutes and $5 later, you'll find yourself swept up in the busy streets around the Senso temple. A 10-minute walk brings you to Kappabashi, famed for its restaurant supply stores, where you can purchase samples of the lifelike sampuru (plastic food) on display--they'll be the life of your next dinner party--as well as cooking accessories to bring home.

If all this food is making you hungry, by all means grab lunch here. Consult Robb Satterwhite's Tokyo Food Pages, listing more than 1,000 restaurants along with recipes, Sunday brunch reviews and "brew news" of pubs and bars. You'll find it online within his Tokyo Meltdown website (www.twics.com/~robbs/tleisure.html).

Another smart start to a memorable experience is to contact the Japan National Tourist Organization at their website www.jnto.go.jp. This one-stop cybershop will fill you in on festivals like the Tori-no-ichi "rooster days" taking place at Shinto shrines around the city this month, as well as museum happenings, Japan Rail Passes (which must be purchased outside the country), jazz clubs and much more. Its free Welcome Inn service arranges affordable accommodation at youth hostels, private homes, family-run inns or business hotels--all for less than $80 a night. There are Tourist Information Centers at Narita and Kansai airports, and in the basement of the Tokyo International Forum--a good opportunity to see this stunning glass edifice. Call the JNTO hotline at 81-3-3201-2911 for weekly happenings. Susan Pompian's book, Tokyo for Free, will also guide you around with flair.

If you feel like splurging, stay at the Park Hyatt. This award-winning guest-spoiler in West Shinjuku is offering a platter of specials through next year. Its Great Deal promotion (with deluxe rooms at $318 and up, from Nov. 15 until the end of February) can be booked through any Hyatt reservations line, while its "Top of Tokyo Collection" of packages (from $228 per guest, through March 31) must be booked directly by calling 81-3-5322-1234. Its famed New York Grill offers a memorable city view--and one of those only-in-Tokyo experiences you'll treasure long after you're home.

With reporting by Hiroko Tashiro/Tokyo

Note: The Tokyo Park Hyatt's room rates for the "Top of Tokyo Collection" packages are priced from $228 per guest based on double occupancy. Contact the hotel for other rates and details on their various promotions for 1998/99.

Click here for links to useful Japanese websites




OFF THE SHELF
Purist that he is, the American-born writer Alex Kerr was reluctant to translate his original Japanese version of Lost Japan into English

WEB CR@WLING
Just click on the icons to navigate this user-friendly directory of what to see, what to eat and where to sleep in Tokyo

SHORT CUTS
Disneyland Tokyo is celebrating its 15th birthday this year by adding another member to its Japanese family, Tokyo DisneySea

DETOURS
Fuji National Park is a memorable side-trip from Tokyo

HOT TIP
There's more to Tokyo than what's new--the city is a treasure trove for those who love searching for second-hand bargains

MAIN FEATURE
Tokyo is still perceived as a pricey and potentially overwhelming destination by prospective visitors. Put those fears to rest--Japan's capital has much to offer outsiders

SEARCH TRAVEL WATCH
For previous articles on Japan



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