I walked out of Tokyo Station, the big commuter hub in the city’s Chiyoda district, and turned to look up at its gorgeous brick facade. I was lost. I couldn’t find the Tokyo Station Hotel — a well-reviewed luxury property that was renovated in 2012. My mistake, it turned out, was leaving the train station at all. The hotel and the train station coexist in one long, outstretched building, which was completed in 1914 and offers a refreshing prewar architectural counterpoint to the glittering glass-and-steel skyscrapers Tokyo is now known for.
I looped back in and found the hotel’s lobby, as well as its chief concierge, Marie Antoinette Mori, who greeted me at her desk. Originally from the Philippines, Ms. Mori became fascinated with Japan during its big 1980s economic boom. She studied international tourism in Japan, married a Japanese man and began working in the hospitality industry, where her career took off. “I became one of the favorites of Mr. Stringer” — the former Sony chairman Howard Stringer. “I was the only one who wasn’t afraid of him,” she said with a laugh.
Ms. Mori had prepared an itinerary for a fictitious guest, spending $1,000 (about 110,000 yen) over the course of a day in this often-pricey city. My goal was to remake the itinerary on a budget of $100 — necessarily cutting a few corners, but hoping to retain the spirit of the original.
HIGH Ms. Mori escorted me to the top floor of her hotel, into a huge room where sunlight flooded in through large skylights. Guests grazed on a large, comprehensive morning buffet. Ms. Mori recommended the Tokyo Station Hotel breakfast (3,800 yen), where they could enjoy standard Western fare (eggs made to order, coffee, pastries) or regional Japanese staples, where the Tokyo Station really excels: Ishikari-nabe (hot pot from the northern Hokkaido region), traditional rice porridge, soybean milk skin, and boiled rape blossoms. Ms. Mori said many luxury hotels in the area had comparable buffets. The Shangri-La, she said, specializes in pastries. “Over there they have a, uh … what do you call it?” she asked. “A Cronut.”
LOW From one buffet in a huge train station to another, I went to the considerably cheaper Bar Marche Kodama in the Shinagawa train station in the Minato ward. It’s also a little tricky to find: Don’t exit the station once you get off at the Shinagawa stop. Go into the Ecute department store and you’ll find the small restaurant in the back corner. Once there, I feasted on an eclectic, mostly Italian-inspired buffet of prosciutto, green salad, fresh corn, pasta Bolognese, crispy fried rice and, for dessert, Italian wedding cookies. The inclusion of the salad was particularly nice — Japanese cuisine is healthy, but not necessarily heavy on raw, leafy greens. Total cost: 620 yen.
HIGH Ms. Mori quoted a price of roughly 15,000 yen to have a private sedan with a driver for three hours to ferry our faux big-spender around the city. The Tokyo Station Hotel goes so far as to meet guests at train platforms and escort them to the hotel — a service that comes only with staying at the hotel, of course, which can run over $1,000 per night.
LOW Logistics are tricky for those unfamiliar with the city. Get to know and love the train, because you’ll be spending quite a bit of time with it. Tokyo’s system is expansive and can be, in a word, daunting. There are over 100 different railway lines in Tokyo, and most of them are privately held by competing companies. The two big ones you’ll need to know are JR East, the largest railway system in Japan, and the Tokyo Metro, the city’s busiest subway system.
If you’re planning to use only the subway or JR lines, there are passes for that. A combination ticket, though (which can be purchased in JR stations), is the better way to go. For 1,590 yen, you’ll be able to use several lines for one day, including all of Tokyo’s JR lines and the Tokyo Metro. Another option is to buy a Suica or Pasmo card (available at ticket vending machines in major train stations), reusable cards on which you load money; you touch them to the turnstile each time you ride.
There is a 500-yen deposit to pick up one of those cards, but it’s worth it — you won’t have to deal with individual tickets, you’ll get a small discount on rides and you can even use it to make purchases in some stores and at the city’s ubiquitous vending machines.
Related pro tip Get a SIM card for your phone — data only. You won’t want to be without a maps app when you’re walking around. Cards in the $15 to $20 range are widely available. (Make sure you get the right size: the latest-generation iPhones, for example, use nano SIM cards, not micro SIM.)
HIGH The Asakusa neighborhood is known for its Sensoji Buddhist temple, Tokyo’s oldest. Ms. Mori recommended a rickshaw tour of the neighborhood, passing along Sumida Park, one of the many places in Tokyo to see sakura, or cherry blossoms, in the early spring. A two-hour tour costs 16,250 yen.
LOW I set out to do some exploring on my own, and see some sakura in the process. A follower of the Frugal Traveler Twitter account recommended the Nezu Museum in the Minato district. While the Nezu’s collection of Buddhist art and Chinese bronzes was interesting, I was most impressed with the lush garden out back. The garden — about four acres — is shockingly big in a place where space is so precious. It truly feels like an escape from the city. Admission was 1,000 yen.
From there, I hopped a couple of trains over to the Korakuen station and walked up to the University of Tokyo’s Koishikawa Botanical Gardens. After paying admission (400 yen) I headed from the southeast entrance to a huge open expanse in the center of the garden. I found families picnicking, children playing and people lining up for coffee and tea from the ramshackle snack bar called Coffee Time (a coffee is 300 yen). All were enjoying the budding cherry blossoms and cool spring weather.
HIGH Ms. Mori recommended the omakase tasting menu at — where else? — Sukiyabashi Jiro. The 90-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono’s already formidable status was made outright legendary with the release of the 2012 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The 10-seat restaurant is difficult to get into, but Ms. Mori can make the arrangements. “We can get you into Jiro,” she said, “but then you have to go. You have to. We can’t have no-shows at Jiro.” The price for lunch (or dinner) is 30,000 yen.
LOW Jiro received three Michelin stars; Tsuta received one. It was the first Japanese ramen shop ever to receive such an honor. The small, unassuming space, close to the Sugamo station on the JR Yamanote line, is difficult to get into for different reasons: They take no reservations and operate on a ticket system. I went early one morning, around 7:30 a.m., and waited outside the restaurant with a handful of other people. Eventually the door slid open and a man came out with a handful of small, laminated tickets. He handed me one: “Come back,” he said. “Between 12 and 1 p.m.” He took a 1,000-yen bill as a deposit, then went back inside and closed the door. When I returned at noon, I was treated to the best bowl of shoyu (soy sauce-based) ramen I’d ever eaten. The broth was deep, intense and slightly sweet. The accompaniments — soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoots and pork slices — were done perfectly. The basic ramen bowl at Tsuta is 950 yen — I paid a total of 1,250 for three extra slices of pork.
HIGH Who doesn’t like a little costume play built into their vacations? Ms. Mori recommended something called a “kimono experience and photo shoot,” wherein the patron pays for elaborate kimono dress (in one of several styles: oiran, maiko or geisha), as well as hair and makeup. A photo shoot follows. Men, don’t think you’re getting out of this: There’s a samurai option for you. The oiran set with two kimonos costs 27,000 yen.
LOW I found a different way to incorporate both ceremonial clothing (of sorts) and culture into my visit: taking in a Japanese baseball game. I bought my ticket at one of the many 7-Elevens in Japan. (7-Eleven is owned by a Japanese company.) It was a complicated process, one that involved a helpful clerk trying to spell my name in the Japanese alphabet — buying at the stadium probably would have been easier. It also involved deciding what “cheering section” I wanted to sit in. I decided on an outfield ticket on the side of the home team, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
The game was positively raucous — at one point, everyone in my section produced tiny umbrellas and began thrusting them up and down and chanting (a pro-Swallows chant, I assumed) while a small brass band backed them up. The stadium grub selection was great, too — a big bowl of ramen could be had for 750 yen, yakitori for 100 yen, and a whiskey and melon soda for 600 yen. My ticket cost a reasonable 1,800 yen.
HIGH Seiji Yamamoto is the chef at Nihonryori RyuGin, a modern kaiseki restaurant that was awarded three Michelin stars. Mr. Yamamoto is known for incorporating modern culinary techniques with the refined, traditional kaiseki dinner. The descriptions of RyuGin’s courses are wonderfully abstract: Dishes have names like “Coolness Warmth Playfulness Nostalgia and Temptation” and “A Message From the Coast of Japan.” Dinner costs 27,000 yen.
LOW I was also in search of a taste of the coast of Japan, in the form of a sushi dinner. I met up with my friend Mayumi, a Tokyo native, and presented her with my annoyingly specific parameters: something good but not that good; cheap but definitely not poor quality. She good-humoredly took me to a small place near the Kyodo train station in her neighborhood, about a 20-minute ride from Shinjuku: Midori Sushi, an unpretentious restaurant next to a KFC. The chef Ken Hosono’s 10-course omakase menu featured an exceptionally silky-smooth squid, along with barracuda, fatty tuna, uni and a wonderfully buttery scallop, among other pieces. The cost was 3,000 yen per person. Not only was it one of best sushi dinners I’ve had in recent memory, but it was among the cheapest — a difficult-to-hit sweet spot that every frugal traveler seeks out.
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