Can you visit Tokyo on a budget?

Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world but it’s certainly possible to visit Japan’s capital without breaking the bank. If you’re thinking about travelling to Japan, don’t be put off by stories of how expensive it is. Below are some great suggestions to help turn your dream into a reality so you’ll be able to experience one of the most fascinating countries in the world.

o If you arrive at Narita airport you’ll need to get a taxi, a bus or a train into central Tokyo. Never jump into a taxi, especially during peak hour because it’s extremely expensive and the longer you’re held up in traffic the more costly it becomes. Catching the train would be my second option but if you don’t speak Japanese you could get confused when you have to change for the Yamanote Line at Tokyo Station. My number one suggestion is to get the Airport Limousine Bus. It takes about 1.5 hours to get into the heart of Tokyo but it only costs ¥3000 and the bus stops at many of the major hotels and popular areas.

o You can find some reasonably priced three star hotels in Tokyo with comfortably furnished rooms. You can always book these on the internet via websites such as expedia.co.uk but if you’re backpacking or short on cash there are lots of friendly hostels or guesthouses in popular tourist areas that offer excellent and cheap accommodation. There may be a minimum age requirement and some house rules but those are there to ensure everyone has a calm and comfortable stay. The Guardian newspaper has provided a list of ten budget hotels in Tokyo ranging from ¥3,000 to ¥20,000 per night. Check it out and you’ll surely find somewhere that meets your needs.

o If you love shopping but you can’t afford the Ginza prices, there are other places to pick up bargains. You should head for the Nakamise shopping street in Asakusa (see picture below) which leads up to the Buddhist Sensō-ji Temple. Here you’ll find souvenirs like yukatas, masks and fans etc. from about ninety different stalls. The Asakusa Cuture Tourist Information Center has just opened up next to Nakamise Street if you need tourist-related help or advice. Another great place for cheap knick-knacks is Akihabara, the district for all things electronic, and you can check out all the latest technology at the same time. If you’re looking for stylish but well-priced clothing then you should head for Shimokitazawa – an area favoured by local students, artists and musicians.

Nakamise Street

o When it comes to eating out, everyone knows food shopping certainly eats into your budget (excuse the pun – I couldn’t resist that one!). You often see photos for Japan of businessmen eating in fancy Japanese restaurants served by women dressed in elaborate kimonos but Tokyo is actually a beehive of cheap dining options. Ramen, yakitori, curry houses, udon noodles, gyudon (a very popular beef on rice dish – look out for the popular Yoshinoya chain pictured below) and other cheap eateries can be found everywhere in central Tokyo. My suggestion is to stay away from business districts as well as Ginza and tourist areas like Roppongi. Instead you should head for Shibuya, Harajuku and Shimokitazawa where there are hundreds of small restaurants, bars and cafes specialising in well-priced but filling meals. You’ll also find cheap eats in the food courts down in the basement of many department stores and if you’re really hungry look out for the all-you-can-eat and drink restaurants which are just starting to become very popular in central Tokyo.

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o Ameyoko Market is another great place to explore. This open-air flea market is situated under the Yamanote Line between Ueno Station and Okachimachi Station. It started out as a black market after World War II but it’s now completely legitimate. The word ‘Ameyoko’ derives from two words ‘Ameya Yokocho’ meaning ‘Candy Store Alley’ so if you have a sweet tooth you’ll love the bundles of popular candy and snacks sold at reduced prices. You’ll also find American style clothing, sportswear, spices, bags, cosmetics, seafood, alcohol, brand knock-offs and cheap souvenirs and gifts at rock-bottom prices. As well as this, it’s a multicultural area offering lots of very cheap places to eat and drink.

o The most popular tourist attraction at the moment is the view from the top of Tokyo Skytree but it costs ¥3,000 to get to the top. Alternatively, you can get a great view of Tokyo from Tokyo Tower for ¥1,420 which will take you up to the Special Observatory.

o One of the loveliest places to visit with free entry is the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace (pictured below), home to Japan’s Emperor. There are also lots of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples scattered around Tokyo and entry is often free. Next to Harajuku Station is the very popular Meiji Shrine. Here you’ll discover why Tokyo is a city of contrasts. The spiritual shrines and temples act as a back drop to the fast-paced and materialistic lifestyles favoured by many Tokyoites.

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o If you’re planning on visiting other areas besides Tokyo, the Shinkansen Bullet Train is an exciting way to travel. The locals often opt for an overnight bus instead. These are surprisingly comfortable and a much cheaper way to travel. You should ask your local Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) about this option.

o You should also give some thought to what time of the year you plan to visit Japan. Prices for hotels go up during cherry blossom season (early April) and New Year.

I hope these suggestions above have put your mind at ease, especially if you’ve been putting off a trip to Japan because you’re afraid it might be too costly. Tokyo might be depicted as one of the most expensive cities in the world but I can honestly say that after living in Japan for several years and having visited the place many times, I really think you don’t have to spend a lot if you want to have a great time in this enchanting country.

Great Opportunities for Foreigners who Study at Universities in Japan

A couple of weeks ago I watched a program on NHK called ‘Cool Japan’ which focused on the benefits for students studying at universities in Japan, in particular at Kanagawa University located in Yokohama. For the past few years, Japan has been actively promoting internationalisation and the facilities on offer for students from abroad who come to Japan to study at university.

Below are some of the benefits that impressed me the most:

o Most university courses in Japan take four years to complete but Japanese students start investigating future employment opportunities when they are in third year, unlike students from overseas who are more likely to leave this until after they graduate. In Japan, the universities really support their undergraduates and provide heaps of encouragement in a way that I never received when I was studying at tertiary level. For two years before they graduate, students are able to attend seminars on employment. They can participate in twenty minute mock interviews with staff from the university who offer advice on every part of the interview process. Kanagawa University also offers rooms with computers set up solely to provide employment information and for something a bit different girls can even take part in make-up lessons to help them prepare for interviews.

In Japan, students will often apply to be interviewed by forty or fifty companies so there is obviously a lot of stress attached to this. Students can feel a lot more confident about the whole job seeking process knowing they have the on-going support from their teachers while they are at university.

o There are some really amazing areas of study available to students who decide to attend universities in Japan. One course which is gaining worldwide recognition is the Humanoid Robotics Institute. Students can study this fascinating subject at Waseda and Kanagawa Universities. Lecturers and students in this field of study are leading the way for the rest of the world in the area of robotics. They are not only creating robots, they are also looking at different ways they can assimilate robots into society in a way that benefits people in areas where human contact is disadvantageous.

o Students can also take subjects in Japan that you wouldn’t normally see offered by other universities overseas. For example, you can take Physical Education as an elective. This is really good for students because after a PE class they have stimulated their bodies so they feel less sluggish and they have also relieved mental stress through exercise. This can help them to feel more invigorated for their other lectures and tutorials.

o Often students in Japan live alone in apartments close to their chosen university and they don’t have the time, inclination or skills to cook their own meals. At university cafeterias, students can get a complete well-balanced meal for only about ¥400 ($4.50/£2.90). This is often made with the ingredients from the universities’ very own market gardens.

o Once a year, universities in Japan also organise cultural festivals. This gives students the opportunity to display their artistic achievements and hold exhibitions at this time. Shops from the surrounding area can also sell their food and other goods and this all helps to develop better relationships with the students and the local community.

Studying at a university in Japan would obviously be an amazing opportunity. If you’re interested in finding out more then please visit the Global 30 website.

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Do you need to learn Japanese if you want to teach English in Japan?

Many people ask me this question when they are thinking about teaching English in Japan and I usually answer that it’s not necessary but it does help a lot. Most people who visit Japan to teach English wish to do so because there is something about the Japanese culture that they find interesting – this is great because if your only ambition is to make money and you know nothing about the Japanese culture then I’m afraid you might not like living in Japan at all.

NIHONGO

The majority of people who ask me about working in Japan don’t speak any Japanese at all and that’s not really a huge problem. I’ve been interested in the Japanese language and culture for about twenty-five years and I truly believe that an understanding of the Japanese culture is more important than learning the Japanese language. The reason for this is that a lot of Japanese people have basic to intermediate English language skills and the Japanese people who work in administration at English Language schools often speak English very well.

Below are a few suggestions if you’re worried about working in Japan without Japanese language skills:

o Try to arrange a homestay with a Japanese family for a few weeks before you start work as a teacher but check that at least one person in the family can speak some English. This is a great way to understand the culture better and you’ll learn very quickly about some of the customs in Japan – you’ll soon realise how important it is for you to learn these customs if you don’t want to be seen as being rude or ignorant. It’s also a great way to make friends with a Japanese family who are keen to know more about your country and they could end up being friends for life. I was seventeen years old and I’d only studied Japanese for one year at university when I visited Japan for the first time. I stayed in the Kanto and the Kansai area for six weeks and although my Japanese language skills were very poor at this time, I did learn a lot about Japan simply by spending time with several Japanese families as part of a homestay program. One wonderful benefit for me was that I met a lovely host mother who lives close to Tokyo. I still visit her every time I’m in Japan and I also try and telephone her once every couple of months and I’ve been doing this for over twenty years. We always speak in Japanese and she has helped me so much to broaden my understanding of the Japanese culture.

There are companies like Homestay in Japan with programs that can help you arrange a homestay.

o Read about Japan as much as you can. There are lots of books available on Amazon such as Etiquette Guide to Japan: Know the Rules that Make the Difference! By Boye Lafayette de Mente.

o Read my Guide to Tokyo and my book Tokyo Hearts: A Japanese Love Story – I’ve weaved lots of interesting facts about life in Japan into the novel!

o Get some private tutoring from a Japanese teacher before you go or while you’re working in Japan. If you do this, you’ll pay extra for private lessons so you’ll need to be very clear about what you want to learn. Tell the teacher that you need to learn everyday phrases and be ready with a list of English expressions that you want to know how to say in Japanese or you could spend hours discussing lots of grammar points when you really need to know some basic Japanese phrases as soon as possible.

o You may think that you’ll make friends with lots of Japanese people very quickly and that you’ll be speaking in Japanese as soon as you get off the plane. Most Japanese people who want to be friends with foreigners really just want to practise their English so you might want to reconsider those private Japanese lessons. If you start dating a Japanese person and you’ve never learnt Japanese before then you might start to pick up some interesting habits. There are lots of words and expressions in Japanese that are only said depending on your gender. So for example if you’re a boy from England and you start dating a Japanese girl and you begin to mimic her Japanese expressions then there is a good chance that you’re going to start sounding like a very effeminate boy and that might be embarrassing – so take care and get some structured lessons!

o Look up websites that have a list of basic Japanese phrases for tourists. The Japanese translations of every day expressions are often written in English and they are easy to read and pronounce without any Japanese lessons.

Why I think it helps to learn Japanese at university before you go and live in Japan:

I’ve had the advantage of being able to speak Japanese for many years. I really enjoyed spending three years full-time at Monash University studying the Japanese language and the Japanese culture. The language component included grammar, conversation and learning to read and write hundreds of Japanese kanji characters. We also had to learn about Japanese literature, traditional music, sociology and history as part of my Japanese Culture major.

In my twenties, I spent two years teaching English in Japan and since then I’ve visited Japan many times for work or as a tourist and I’ve absolutely loved every experience. I’ve never had any problems making friends in Japan or any trouble finding out more about how to enjoy my time in Japan because of all my studies. Studying the language has also helped me to understand quite a bit more about the way Japanese people think and behave and knowing more about the language has heightened my appreciation and understanding of the many traditions and customs in Japan. Furthermore, a lot of job opportunities have opened up for me because of my language skills. I’m really pleased that I took the time to spend many years learning the Japanese language as it has also helped me to communicate with many more people on social networking sites. Apparantly, Japanese is the third most popular language on the internet after English and Chinese.

Kotatsu (heated table) – The Centre of Domestic Life in Japan

The kotatsu is a low wooden table with a heat source attached underneath. It is covered by a futon or heavy blanket with a table that sits on top. In winter, Japanese families gather around the kotatsu, sitting with their legs and feet underneath the blanket, to keep warm. It is often the heart of the home.

I think the kotatsu is a wonderful idea and I’m surprised it’s not more popular overseas. When I lived in Tokyo, I used to rush home from work, switch on the kotatsu as soon as I walked in the door and then read a book or watch TV for hours under the futon. I remember how relaxing it was to feel the warmth of the heater on my legs and toes and how the kotatsu was always so snug and comforting. I also remember the many happy hours I’d spend on a winter’s day, sitting under the warmth of the kotatsu heater with my friends around me, drinking tea and sharing snacks. I’d always think how nice it was to feel so cosy and comfortable. The kotatsu would always help to melt away the pressures of my working day and it would always bring friends closer together.

When I was browsing the Rakuten Global Market, I came across this stylish ‘Oxford Kotatsu’ (pictured below) which can be shipped to the United Kingdom. My husband doesn’t like the idea because he prefers to sit on the sofa, but if you live in a small apartment in London or Tokyo then this might be perfect for you.  It costs £171.62 or ¥24,799 and although it’s quite expensive it does look like it is very good quality. If you do invest in this, I guarantee you’ll enjoy a very snug, happy and warm winter!

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