I'm interested in going to Japan to visit my son, who is teaching English over there. We've never been to Asia before, but we've heard that Japan is very expensive. Do you have any tips on ways we can save money in Japan (in Tokyo and/or Kyoto)?
–Phyllis, Flushing, N.Y.
A: Japan is definitely expensive, but not as expensive as it used to be, so the sticker shock won’t be too bad. But here are a few tips to help you out:
Fortunately, Japan is known for having excellent, clean, and efficient subway, bus, and rail systems, usually with English instructions, so there’s no need to waste money on taxis to get around. A taxi ride from Tokyo’s Narita airport into the city would cost well over $100 and would take about two hours. By contrast, a ticket on a non-express train costs $10-12 and takes around an hour and a half.
The main subway line in Tokyo is the Japan Railways Yamanote Line, which circles the major points in the city. You can opt for one of several day-passes—for example, the "Tokyo Free Kippu" will cost you ¥1,580 (about $16) and includes unlimited use of all subway lines and trains operated by Japan Railways (actually, that is, most of them) in Central Tokyo, and on certain buses and streetcars. You can also buy prepaid cards that aren’t limited to just one-day use.
If you're planning on traveling throughout the country and making stops other than Tokyo or Kyoto, look into a Japan Rail Pass (http://www.japanrailpass.net). A seven-day pass costs about $375 and offers unlimited travel on the majority of rail lines throughout the country (including those cool bullet-trains!).
Dining in Japan can be pricey, but the good news is that there are plenty of affordable options—you just have to know how to find them. Familiar Japanese fast-food chains include Matsuya and Yoshinoya; they're about as authentic as you can get, and a beef bowl or a plate of curry only costs a few dollars. And, since chances are you'll want to try sushi, there's no need to go to a high-priced restaurant. Something called "kaitenzushi" is a sushi restaurant where the food comes around to you on a conveyor belt, served on plates that are color-coded to indicate price. When you're out of money, stop eating. Last, keep in mind that in some Japanese restaurants, if the waiter brings you any kind of appetizer, you have to pay for it—even if you didn't order it. Don't be afraid to say no and send it back.
If you haven't booked a hotel yet, Japan is known for its inexpensive "capsule hotels." Of course, you have to be OK with small spaces! Also check out a business hotel chain called Super Hotel (http://www.superhotel.co.jp/en), which has locations in both Tokyo and Kyoto. This chain offers bare-bones hotel rooms (you may not even have a phone) for extremely reasonable rates—as low as $25 a night.