Tokyo was ranked the second most expensive city in the world this year following after oil-rich city, Luanda, Angola according to Mercer’s cost of living research (http://www.mercer.com/costofliving). The recent upstream of the Japanese currency, Yen, is emphasizing the impression even more. Accordingly, trip to Tokyo “can” cost you a fortune. $300 per night for stay in a brand name hotel. You can easily spend $50 for a meal if you go out with your colleagues to a loud smokey places where portions of food are minimal. As a local resident of Tokyo who’s been researching of how to maximize the utility of living in Tokyo, I can give some tips to those who are coming to the city on how you can spend less money, and still get the qualities that the city of Tokyo offers throughout this website. However, before you jump into conclusions, I think you should read what Tokyo is like, which makes the travel much more enjoyable.
Reading a travel book gives you a good description of what to do in Tokyo, but the experience you will have in Tokyo does not exactly match to your expectation. Every person has their own interpretation of Tokyo. “Lost in Translation” filmed in 2003 directed by Sofia Coppola have a great description of the city. Two people without any common besides being foreigners in Tokyo, a celebrity man in mid-life crisis and a pretty young woman whose boyfriend would rather spend time with his camera than her met each other in a stylish bar in Tokyo. They both don’t speak Japanese. They both didn’t know what to do in the city besides sleeping or exercising. They were both feeling lost in the city. But then they start exploring the city and at the same time discovering themselves. Also they share an “indefinable strange bonding” with each other. If you want much less complicated and PG-13 version, you should look for an Academy awarded animation movie “Spirited Away” by Hayao Miyazaki.
No matter how you expect what is like being in Tokyo, you will never know until you get here. Therefore, my recommendation for you is maybe just to jump in and lose yourself in Tokyo. Get yourself drawn in the culture of drinking and neon lights. You might see someone as lost as you are, and maybe he/she might be the one that you have an ”indefinable strange bonding” with.
After being a Tokyo resident for almost two years, I concluded that Tokyo is composed of mixed contradicting characters. Traditional and new-age. Conservative and open-minded. Mass conformity and individualism. Quiet and loud. Rich and poor. Love and hate. S&M…etc. All the elements are intertwined and living together creating one unique giant city that you never see anywhere else in the world. Inside soulless forms of concrete apartment buildings closely standing next to each other, most of people are making their own living. Average 20~30 square meters space of one studio apartment, people are living by themselves or with their partners. Meanwhile, a handful percentage of people (expatriates, Japanese celebrities and etc…) are living in two bedrooms modern apartment in central part of Tokyo spending $5000 per month. (According to Mercer’s cost of living research.)
If you go through the city along with the circle of Yamanote-line of train, you will already see different characteristics. East around Ueno / Asakusa is a zone of Japanese tradition and culture. Most of well-known Japanese museum can be found in this area. After your visit to this area, you may never go back to think that Japanese are quiet. At Ameyoko market street in Ueno, passing through the crowd being squeezed, you see people at each booth yelling to get attention from passengers. If you go to Asakusa at night, you see a street filled by outside pubs where people are sitting on a improvised chair in front of a barrel table talking loud, and of course mostly drunk. This is the traditional local culture of Japan. If you go down alittle bit on Yamanote-line, Akihabara‘s electric city is a well-known “Otaku” place where technology and anime fans gather up and geek themselves out with each other. Even more south, Ginza, located near financial districts around Tokyo station, is a place for high-end boutique stores, nice restaurants and high-class hostess clubs, which have remained since even before the Japanese booming economy in 80’s.
In west side, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku area, you will be soaked in the new-age Japanese contemporary culture. In Harajuku, you will see Goth and Lolita girls in their antique wicked clothes standing out and passing by through the popular fashionista street, Takeshita-dori. Between Harajuku and Shibuya, there is Yoyogi park where diverse people gather for common activities such as Guiter playing, Dram rythming and Techno dancing. You can also visit beautiful Meiji-shrine, and feel the scale of old Japanese temple. As you are walking through the big gateway Torii, and going deep in the gravel road surrounded by side trees, you are getting carried back to the world of Shinto. In Shinjuku, the most notorious place is a red-light district called Kabuki-cho. You see Japanese young men in suit with mismatchingly light brown-colored long hair. They are not Japanese business men. They are male hostess looking for girls who buy fantasies that is being surrounded by fine young men.
In northern part of Tokyo, Ikebukuro, Sugamo and Komagome, you might notice that they are more residential than any other locations. Many people who want to avoid high cost of living, but still want to be close to central part of the city live in this area. As this area grew into more residential, it developed local’s most common interest: eating. Ikebukuro is often considered as a default gateway to suburbia as it is close to the next prefecture, Saitama. Sunshine-city mall has a ”nanja-town” that constitutes from a few different food museums such as Gyoza (Potsticker) Stadium, Ice Cream museum and Dessert city where you can find more kinds of gyoza and sweets than you can ever imagine. Take a JR Yamanote-line and get off at Sugamo station. There’s a street called ”Jizo-dori Shotengai.” This street is popular among older generation as they have good street food and a Koganji-shrine which is known to pray for good health and long life.
If you walk around southern part of Tokyo such as Roppongi, Ebisu, Akasaka and Omotesando, you can see the expatriates life of Tokyo. On the cleanest streets, modern glass-covered buildings are displaying Louis Vuitton, BMW and all other western luxury brands advertisements. Inside, they have stylish bars and lovely cafe with artistic design of cakes. Fancy restaurant has a selection of bottle wine which cost from $300 to unlimited price. You see the international crowds, but you may still not be sure if you are part of it or not. In Roppongi, Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown are well-known shopping centers where you can enjoy shopping overpriced chocolate or designer furniture and clothes.
Thus even by the locations, Tokyo has wild mixed characters. And there is no designated definition of Tokyoite because most of the people who claim themselves are originally from outside of Tokyo (I am the exhibit A). You will see from international people to conservative Japanese. Some people seem really cold-hearted and impolite. They might even carry out ignorant misbehavior, that leave you speechless such as pushing you on a crowded train and saying “your ass is interfering my mobile reception.” But you also see the greatest people that may become love of your life. My friend said something heart-melting the other day when he seemed frozen outside without jacket and offered one from my another friend. ”It’s warmer not to be around heater, but to be around heart.” That’s the nature of this city. Moment to moment, you will never know what is going to happen. For those who are coming to Tokyo, I really wish that you have a great time in Tokyo. By great time, I mean extraordinary and surrealistic that brings new wind to your life. And when you leave the city, I hope that you realize yourself being different from who you were before. That’s the beauty of being in Tokyo. By losing yourself, you may find something new about yourself.