Tune In, Tokyo
I was stooped over the bar in a one-lightbulb Tokyo dive, two fingers into a three-finger pour of Jack Daniels, when I saw Sho being ushered toward the door. It was a subtle move–a bit surprising, but hardly cause for alarm. Not at first anyway. As the black-teethed, ponytailed, 56-year-old history professor sitting next to me noted in pidgin English between drags from a Hope cigarette, “Your friend… he is good guy…but very, very irritating.”
It was 4:00 in the morning, and Sho, a 30-year-old children’s TV writer, and I had been at the bar for many hours–those Tokyo hours when the trains stop running and there’s nothing to do but something that could incriminate you later. The other patrons looked like something out of a casting call for a send-up of a David Lynch film. There was a stern-faced guy in a samurai robe and haircut; a 50-something androgynous man with perfectly brushed shoulder-length hair that rested on his flowing, red silk blouse; a grumpy, 30-something salary man in a wrinkled brown suit whose wife was home asleep; a 60-ish dude with a Sam Donaldson-hairpiece; and a 50-something guy who looked like a Japanese Ned Flanders in a fishing hat, but probably could’ve pierced my windpipe with his pinky.
I speak no Japanese except for arigato (thank you) and campai (cheers). They spoke little to no English, but were fluent in the transcontinental language of crooner ballads like Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” and the entire first side of Tom Waits’ “Closing Time.” For hours we’d sung along to every cut that the craggy-faced bartender played on the old turntable, and I couldn’t have been having a better time. Sho, however, was having too much fun, pogoing up and down, singing louder than the rest of us, slurring who-knows-what through a smile that could swallow the Tokyo Dome. That’s when Samurai and Salary each grabbed one of his elbows and headed for the door.
“He is a good guy, but very irritating,” repeated the professor, extinguishing a butt and flicking another one loose from the packet.
“They’re kicking him out for being a happy drunk?” I asked. “Where can he go? The trains aren’t running.”
“Do not worry,” he said, lighting up. “Sho is not leaving. They will talk to him. When they return, he will no longer be irritating.”
It took me a moment to do the math. Sho wasn’t being sent home–Samurai and Salary were taking him outside for a tune-up. I asked the professor to call off the event. Using cool-headed barfly diplomacy, he urged me to mind my own business. But humanitarianism got the better of me. I had to help Sho. To not intervene would be un-American. I got off my barstool and walked swiftly but calmly toward the door. Hairpiece and Flanders barely looked up from their drinks. The bartender puffed away on a Kool. Walking past them, I noticed that Joni Mitchell was playing on the stereo, which I found quite strange. I took a deep breath, prepared myself for the worst, and stepped outside into the steamy Tokyo night.
* * *
The trip started innocently enough, when a magazine editor called me at my Los Angeles home office with a challenge: You have seven days to board a plane bound for an international destination at least eight air-hours away. You must stay in your destination for four nights. You may not go to Europe. (No, not even Croatia.) You may not stay in a hostel. You have a budget of $1,200 to cover airfare, hotels, the works. Yes, that’s all you may spend–$1,200.
The editor explained that the current economic unpleasantness had forced carriers to take drastic measures. They were keeping prices high until the last minute, and then selling seats in bulk at fire-sale prices to travel websites and vacation-packaging outfits. Better to sell a bunch of cheap seats than no seats at all. Hotels were doing the same. He’d heard about $400 tickets to Mumbai and respectable digs for $50 bucks a night.
As a courtesy, I was allowed to use flexible travel dates–three days on either end of departure or return–an absolute must when looking for last-minute deals. I started my search at the three pillars of web-based discount travel: Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline, and detoured to sites like Kayak, Sidestep, Orbitz, and Cheapoair, to name a few. Indeed, there were deals, but they were outnumbered by snags. L.A.-Houston-Caracas for $560 (Priceline) sounded good. But, oops–that’s not eight air hours. L.A.-Marrakech direct for $610? Yes, please. Oh, wait–that deal was only valid in the off-season, which ended 12 hours ago. I found a ticket from L.A. to Ho Chi Minh City for under $800 (Orbitz), which was steep, but my remaining $400 would surely get me a decent room and a back-alley tattoo in Saigon. The snag? You need a visa for Vietnam, and a rush job costs $200 or more. This went on for approximately two days. A false lead here, a vanished deal there. Priceline laughed me out of the game every time I made an offer, even though I used the recommended 30-percent-below-market-rate formula. A company called wholesaleflights.com berated me for calling their toll-free number. Pop-up ads dangled juicy-looking deals, but they turned out to be nothing burgers or fine-print sandwiches.
Finally, deep into an afternoon search on Day 2, buried beneath two-dozen open Safari browser windows, I came across search results from IgoUgo.com. (I’d discovered the site earlier in the day, entered search terms, and been promptly distracted by the spoils of cyberspace.) Igougo searches multiple sites, including one called vayama.com, whose results looked like this: L.A.-Vancouver-Tokyo R/T AIR CANADA, $333. Now we’re cookin’. Add taxes, fees, and a $30 travel-insurance offer, and the whole thing totaled $537.55. Not bad, considering it usually costs close to two grand to get to Tokyo on anything classier than a tuna boat.
I did some quick math: $1,200 minus $537.55 equals $662.45. Add a hotel and it was going to be tight. But I took my chances and booked it. As luck would have it, one of those pop-up ads proved useful. It read: Sakuro Hatagaya Hotel, Tokyo, $70 per night. The place was tiny, maybe 8 feet by 10 feet, but it photographed well enough, with its platform style bed and striped duvet cover and tiny-but-clean bathroom with tub. I reserved it free of charge for 24 hours, looked at my options (mostly $100 and up for an equally clean, glorified coffin), made sure I wasn’t missing any vacation rentals on craigslist or Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO), and confirmed.
I now had $382.45 remaining. I set aside $40 for each day of air travel (bringing me to $305.42), which left me with $75.60 for each of my four days on the ground–a challenge in any big city, let alone Tokyo, which holds the distinction of being the world’s largest (30 million-plus) and the second-most expensive, behind mafia-controlled Moscow. When I told people how much I had to spend in Tokyo, they all just laughed and wished me luck.
* * *
The cheapest way from Narita airport to central Tokyo takes two hours and cost $18. The city’s train/subway system charges by distance, and per transfer, making it easy to spend $10, $15, even $30 a day if you’re not careful. Throw in a few trips to one of Tokyo’s ubiquitous vending machines (piping-hot ramen, anyone?), and you might find yourself gutting monkfish to pay off a dinner bill.
I avoided hemorrhaging yen ($1 = 100 yen) by using the standard three-pronged method when traveling on the cheap in an expensive destination–eat at establishments that don’t employ waiters, never take a taxi, engage with the locals. This is how I came to meet Maki and Kiyoshi, a couple in their late 40s who occupied two of five counter seats at a narrow eatery a few blocks from my hotel in the quaint Hatagaya neighborhood. Maki spoke enough English to help me order a plate of deep-red tuna sashimi and light shrimp tempura; with two Sapporo drafts, dinner cost $23. (Though the cook, a kindly woman in her 60s, comped me four baked anchovies, each the size of a my index finger.) If Maki, a self-employed marketing consultant, and Kiyoshi, a hydro-engineer, represent typical Japanese hospitality, then travelers to the Land of the Rising Sun are in luck. For it was the lovely couple who helped me map a simple itinerary, which consisted of many miles on foot, punctuated by a couple of only-in-Tokyo activities each day.
If you’re headed for Tokyo with a small fistful of yen, chances are you’ll meet your own Maki and Kiyoshi, and personalize the trip as you go. But you might as well know this: With a comfortable pair of shoes, you can spend a day hoofing it to Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest, and watch some of the million-plus commuters walk in near-silence through the busiest–and cleanest–subway station on the planet. Above ground, you can, and should, turn down the Shinjuku district’s many alleys, the kind that would instill fear in any other large city, but here are immaculate and inviting. These alleys are so skinny you can barely avoid bumping into a nameless, flame-spitting yakitori counter, where skewers of chicken and veggies are made to order. (If you’re lucky, like I was in an alley near the station’s west entrance, a friendly gentleman next to you will buy you a beer before leaving.) If you’re in Tokyo during baseball season, you can buy a $10 standing-room ticket to the see the Giants at the Tokyo Dome, where you and several thousand otherwise repressed salarymen can sing the team song and toss back a few B.Y.O.Sapporos. (Management even provides plastic cups for the BYO crowd.) Should you ride the roller coaster next door to the Dome? Damn right, you should. How better to see a skyline so vast it makes Manhattan look like downtown Albuquerque?
Another can-do Tokyo drift. Walk the East Garden of the Imperial Palace (the palace itself is off-limits to the public), then heel-toe an hour east to the Ginza neighborhood, where Gucci and Armani stores commingle with manicured bonsai gardens and the kinds of buildings you’ve only seen in Saturday afternoon samurai movies. From there you can walk an hour north to the park at Ueno station and slow-drip a few more bucks at the zoo or any of the museums that line the park’s walkways (I opted to save my yen), then drop down the hill to seek out Moses Kabab, located on the walk street just south of Ueno station, where the happiest Turk in all of Tokyo will make you the savoriest $6 chicken gyro sandwich you’ve ever eaten. Or skip the sandwich, pop into a noodle bar, pay $7 or $8 at the vending machine by the door, bring your ticket to the counter, and slurp down a Japanese staple like soba noodles in broth with a veggie-tempura patty on the side. (These establishments are as common to Tokyo as bodegas are to Manhattan.) Amply refueled, walk 45 minutes east to the Asakusa neighborhood, Tokyo’s most charming tourist market and home to the 1,364-year-old Sensoji Temple, before hopping the $9 boat down the Sumida river to must-stroll 18th-Century Hamarikyu Onshi gardens. Sore? Ask a local to recommend a traditional bathhouse, or Senjo. I went to Maki’s and Kiyoshi’s favorite, 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 before crashing for the night.
Those are a few things you can do. But there are a few Tokyo musts for the traveler, no matter the budget. First, resist the urge to sleep off a sake hangover or a pair of sore legs and get yourself to the 5:00 a.m. train to the Tsukiji fish market, the source of Tokyo’s daily seafood. I trekked there in a downpour, which added to the cacophony of noises created by electric carts driven by men in rubber boots who transported tuna the size of wild boar. Head in the direction from which the carts race, and you’ll find the famed tuna auction. Some warehouses store tuna that were frozen on the boats. Others have the fresh stuff. Row upon row, buyers inspect the tuna with flashlights and then gather around an auctioneer to bid on the day’s catch before selling it to market stalls and restaurants throughout greater Tokyo.
Must-do number 2: Keep your Friday evening free, and take the time necessary to get a recommendation for an Izakaya, or traditional happy-hour pub. Better yet, go with a local. I was lucky enough to be invited by Maki and Kiyoshi to their favorite, Kushi Katsu, which gets only a handful of Westerners per year. An Isakaya, as Maki explained, “is where people go at the end of the work week to drink and smoke and say bad things about the boss.” From where I sat, along a community table just wide enough to hold fast-arriving plates of tempura and tuna and mackerel sashimi, everyone seemed several Sapporos past disgruntled. Over an endless parade of sake and beer and raw fish, Maki and Kiyoshi and I exchanged my-country-your-country observations the way people do when language is a barrier.
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.” And in case I didn’t hear him the first time, “I rike-a-Randy Newman. He do music for Monsters, Inc.”
The conversation turned from American singer-songwriters from the 1970s to the films of Wes Anderson to Sesame Street, and old programs like Barney Miller. Before long, our new friend bowed to Kiyoshi and insisted on taking us to his favorite bar. “It would be my honor,” he said. [Maki translated.] “To meet you and not take you to this wonderful bar would be a shame. It is my favorite place in all of Tokyo. The people are wonderful.” And so we left the izakaya (the bill was remarkably low $50) for a tiny bar called Stories, not far from the bustling Shibuya district. On the way to the subway, I asked our new host his name. “I am Sho,” he said. “Like TV. Show.”
* * *
I opened the door to the street to find nothing but steamy asphalt and the buzz of street lights. I looked left, right, left again. I listened for the sound of Sho being walloped by our otherwise friendly bar mates. Nothing. Maki and Kiyoshi were long gone by now; they’d had the good sense to catch the last train home. Side one of Joni Mitchell’s “For the Roses” was still playing when Sho came back inside and took the seat next to me. He had a big, fat shiner and a clean laceration over his left eye that could have used a butterfly bandage or two. Not much blood though. Samurai and Salary took their seats and the bartender freshened their drinks. He gave Sho a glass of ice water and bottle of antiseptic for his eye, and everyone sat there as if nothing had happened. Sho was still smiling, singing, drunk as man can be without falling down. I helped him clean his wound; it stung, which made both of us laugh hysterically. The professor tapped me on the shoulder, raised his glass for a toast, and said, “Your friend, he seems liberated.”
Time passed. Records played. More singing. I looked at the clock to learn it was 7:00 a.m. I gave the bartender 5,000 yen to cover my and Sho’s tabs. He gave me 1,000 yen back–the last of my $1,200 budget. By the time I walked in my front door, 36 hours after leaving the bar, I was $50 over budget, having forgotten to set aside money for a taxi and a tip for the driver.
A few days later I emailed Sho from home. I wanted to see how the rest of his evening went, and to get the bloody details from the fight. “I do not remember what happened to my eye,” he wrote.
To jog his memory, I sent him a photo I’d taken of the man in the suit. I also made a few recommendations for quality American television shows.
“I do not know Weeds or the Wire. But I like the Sopranos,” he replied. “I do not like the man in the suit.”
[Ed. note: A different, shorter version of this piece appeared in the magazine Budget Travel.]
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