THE BUDGET TRAVEL CHALLENGE

Last-Minute Long-Haul: Tokyo

With airlines slashing fares at the last minute, we pitted two travelers against each other in a competition to have far-flung adventures on seven days' notice. The mission: fly eight hours and stay four nights—for $1,200.

By Mike Kessler, Tuesday, Aug 18, 2009, 12:00 AM

Mike's new friends Sho and Kiyoshi having one more sake at Saito Sakaba, a traditional happy-hour pub

It was 4:00 in the morning when I realized I was suddenly alone. Well, not alone, exactly. I was sitting at the bar in a one-lightbulb Tokyo dive; there were other patrons, but I didn't know any of them, and together they looked like a casting call for a David Lynch film. There was a stern-faced guy in a samurai kimono and haircut; a 50-ish androgynous man with perfectly brushed shoulder-length hair that rested on his flowing, red-silk blouse; a grumpy 30-something salaryman in a wrinkled brown suit. I had been at the bar for several hours—those Tokyo hours after the trains stop running at midnight and there's nothing else to do—with Sho, a 30-year-old children's TV writer I had met earlier in the night. Together with the rest of the bar, we'd been singing along to every song the craggy-faced bartender played on the old turntable. I couldn't have been having a better time. Sho, however, had too much fun, pogoing up and down, singing louder than the rest of us, saying who knows what, and eventually he was escorted out of the bar and off into the night.

It took me a moment to size things up. The trains wouldn't start for another hour, I was almost out of money, and I didn't even know what neighborhood I was in—much less how to get back to my hotel....

The great transpacific dollar stretch
The trip started innocently enough, with the recent trend of outrageous last-minute travel deals sparking dreams of faraway adventure. I had heard about $400 fares to Mumbai, $300 flights to Moscow. Would I accept the Budget Travel Challenge and see if it was all as good as it sounded? You bet.

An absolute must when looking for last-minute deals is flexibility—on your destination as well as your dates. I started my search at the three giants of Web-based booking: Travelocity, Expedia, and Orbitz, and detoured to so-called meta-search sites like Kayak and SideStep, which troll many of the other booking sites for you. I tried Cheapoair, which appeared to have some of the lowest rates by far...until I clicked through and saw the astronomical taxes and fees. There were deals, sure, but they were outnumbered by snags. L.A.–Houston–Caracas for $560 (Priceline) sounded good. But, oops, that's not eight air hours, a requirement of this competition. L.A.–Marrakech direct for $610? Yes, please. Oh, wait—that deal was valid only in the off-season, which ended 12 hours ago. I tried the recommended 30-percent-below-market-rate ­formula on Priceline and never scored. Pop-up ads dangled juicy-looking deals that fell apart in the fine print.

Finally, deep into day two, buried beneath two dozen browser windows, I came across search results from igougo.com. IgoUgo is a social network/travel-planning site that lets you compare fares from online travel agencies. Among those is vayama.com, whose results looked like this: L.A.–Vancouver–Tokyo R/T Air Canada, $333. Wow. Add taxes and fees (of course) and the whole thing totaled $537.55. Not bad, considering it usually costs double that to get to Tokyo on anything classier than a tuna boat.

I did some quick math: After airfare I had $662.45 left in my $1,200 budget. Adding a hotel was going to make it tight. But I took my chances and booked it. As luck would have it, one of those pop-up ads proved useful. It read: Sakura Hotel Hatagaya, Tokyo, $70 per night (1-32-3 Hatagaya, Shibuya-ku, 011-81/3-3469-5211, sakura-hotel-hatagaya.com, from $72 with breakfast). The room looked tiny, maybe 8 feet by 10 feet, but it was charming, with a platform-style bed and striped duvet cover and a hyper-compact bathroom. I reserved it free of charge for 24 hours, looked at my options (mostly $100 and up for an equally decent shoebox), and confirmed.

I now had $391.73 remaining. I set aside $40 for each day of air travel (bringing me to $311.73), which left me with $77.93 for each of my four days on the ground—a challenge in any big city.

Maki, Kiyoshi, and comfortable shoes
The cheapest way from Narita airport to central Tokyo—by train—takes two hours and costs $18. The city's transit system charges by distance and per transfer, making it perfectly easy to spend $10, $15, even $30 a day if you're not careful.

I kept my spending down by using a three-pronged method: eating at establishments that don't employ waiters, never taking a taxi, and engaging with the locals. This is how I met Maki and Kiyoshi, a couple in their late 40s who occupied two of five counter seats at Yoshimasa (2-28-4 Nishihara, Shibuya-ku, 011-81/3-3467-1580, small fish plates from $5), a narrow diner a few blocks from my hotel. Maki spoke enough English to help me order a plate of deep-red tuna sashimi and shrimp tempura; with two Sapporo drafts, dinner cost $23. If Maki, a marketing consultant, and Kiyoshi, a hydro-engineer, were giving me a show of typical Japanese hospitality, then travelers are in luck—the friendly couple helped me map a simple walking itinerary, punctuated by a few only-in-Tokyo activities each day.

One day I hoofed it to Shinjuku Station, the world's busiest train stop, and watched some of the 3.4 million daily commuters walk in near silence through the cleanest subway on the planet. Aboveground, I wandered the Shinjuku district's skinny alleys, the kind that in other cities would instill fear but here are immaculate and lined with flame-spitting yakitori counters, where skewers of chicken and veggies are grilled to order. I bought a $10 standing-room ticket to see the Yomiuri Giants that afternoon at the Tokyo Dome (1-3-61 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, 011-81/3-5800-9999, tokyo-dome.co.jp/e) and stood sipping BYO Sapporo with thousands of fans singing the team song. Next door to the baseball stadium is the Thunder Dolphin Roller Coaster (Tokyo Dome City, next to the stadium, tokyo-dome.co.jp/e/laqua/attraction.htm, $10.50), and, as I found out, there may be no better vantage for appreciating the Tokyo skyline—so vast it makes Manhattan look like downtown Albuquerque, N.M.

With a pair of comfortable shoes, I discovered, Tokyo is surprisingly walkable, despite its immensity. I strolled the East ­Garden of the Imperial Palace (the palace itself is off-limits to the public); the Ginza neighborhood, where Gucci and Armani stores commingle with bonsai gardens; and the Asakusa neighborhood, where tourists throng the 1,381-year-old Senso-ji Temple and shop the Nakamise Market (next to the Senso-ji Temple, near the Asakusa station) for souvenirs—and where I hopped a $9 boat down the Sumida River to the 17th-century Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien gardens. I ended the day at Maki and Kiyoshi's favorite sento, or traditional bathhouse: shiny-clean Sengoku-Yu, near my hotel in Hatagaya, where I paid the old lady at the door $7 and spent an hour soaking in three hot pools.

Those were all worthy adventures, but none of them topped dragging myself to the 5 a.m. train bound for the Tsukiji Market (5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku, 011-81/3-3542-1111, tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm), the largest fish market in Japan. I got there in a downpour that added to the cacophony created by the beeping electric carts transporting tuna the size of wild boars. Inside, buyers with flashlights inspected the tuna, row upon row of them, and then gathered around an auctioneer to bid on the day's catch before selling it to market stalls and restaurants throughout the city.

Maki and Kiyoshi invited me to keep my Friday evening free and join them at Saito Sakaba (2-30-13 Kamijujo, Kita-ku, 011-81/3-3906-6424, small plates from $3.25), their favorite izakaya, or traditional happy-hour pub, near the Jujo station. An izakaya, as Maki explained, "is where people go at the end of the week to drink and smoke and say bad things about the boss." From where I sat, at a communal table just wide enough to hold fast-arriving plates of tuna and mackerel sashimi, as well as an endless parade of sake and beer, everyone seemed to have forgotten their gripes.

Maki and Kiyoshi exchanged my-country-your-country observations with me the way people do when language is a barrier-and soon enough, the young man across from us chimed in. I couldn't understand a word he said, except for this: "Randy Newman," and then "Jackson Browne." And then "David Bowie." The conversation turned to the films of Wes Anderson, and before long, our new friend bowed to Kiyoshi and insisted on taking us to a different bar. His name was Sho. "To meet you and not take you to this wonderful bar would be a shame," he said (Maki translated). "It is my favorite place in all of Tokyo." And so we left the izakaya for a tiny bar called Stories on the Odakyu line. (2-9-13 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, 011-81/3-3465-6843)

The final reckoning
Maki and Kiyoshi were long gone by now, having made the wise decision to catch the last train home. Sho was nowhere to be seen. So I sat in silence, listening to Joni Mitchell on the turntable and waiting for the day's first train, at 5 a.m. This, I realized, is the risk that comes with putting your trip in the hands of strangers: They have lives to get back to and you can be left hanging. I paid the tab ($40), and by the time I got back to my hotel, packed up, and took some cash out of an ATM to get myself Stateside, I was $50 over budget. Then again, I had just spent four days in one of the world's most expensive cities for less than it usually costs just to get there.

Mike's top tip: Hang with the locals
"I always get the best travel tips when I'm not expecting them—talking to a stranger or listening to a long story. If I hadn't let Maki and Kiyoshi befriend me on my first night in Tokyo, I'd never have known about the traditional Japanese sauna, or the boat ride from Asakusa, or the izakaya they took me to later that week. Those were the highlights of my trip!"

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