NOTICE: Follow the advice in this guide at your own risk. I take no responsibility for you being mugged, stabbed, arrested or conned into a life of prostitution by a Nigerian pimp.
If you know nothing else about Tokyo, you must know that it is one of the most expensive cities in the world. So even though I am a total cheapskate, I set a pretty liberal budget when I found out that I would be spending two days and one night there. I figured about a hundred dollars a day should get me through the experience. But my first day there it was revealed to me (for reasons I will go into) that I would be spending FOUR days and THREE nights there. If you’re going for a Visa run in Tokyo to teach in Korea you’ll have to spend the same amount of time.
Now, my initial plan of attack was to NOT shill for a hotel room at all. I was just going to caffeine up and stay up all night, then maybe catch a nap at the airport the day I was flying out. Because I was going to be staying out all night in a strange city I didn’t want to have too much cash on me. Also, for various reasons, I don’t have any debit or credit cards at all. So the cash I brought for my “short trip” was IT — all I had. A bit less than twenty thousand yen, or $200.00. That’s not even enough money for a night or two in a crappy hotel room!
So how did I get into this predicament to begin with? My school (and pretty much the entire internet) told me that it would take about 24 hours for my visa to be processed. Just keep that in mind as we step off the airplane and venture forth to the…
Public Transportation (good but not nearly as good as Seoul’s)
To be fair, I have become spoiled by Seoul, which has one of the best subway and bus systems in the entire world. Japan’s subway system is extensive, but it is very poorly documented in English and the ticketing machine system is confusing and stupid. From Kyoto Airport you have to ride the monorail into town. This costs about five bucks but there are two different kinds of ticketing machines – one for monorails / commuter trains and one for the subway system. I never did figure out how to tell the difference between the two so every time I bought a ticket at a commuter station it was like playing a slot machine to see if I was buying the right kind of ticket. If you screw up it’s a five dollar mistake, but you can’t win if you don’t play!
How to get to the Korean Embassy
So I made it to the Korean embassy in Tokyo fairly easily just using Google Maps directions. I literally just typed in “from Kyoto Airport to Korean Embassy” and it gave me decent public transit directions.
BUT… Don’t go to the Embassy, go to the Consul
When I showed up at the embassy in Tokyo, the Korean dude outside told me in half English/half Korean (which was refreshingly familiar) that I needed to go to the consulate, which I suspected would be the case. He gave me a map which is terrible but fortunately I was able to decipher it enough to make it to the consul. So I was told that it would take about THREE days to process and that they only accept applications in the MORNING. It’s the stupidest way to do anything ever, but basically from 9am – 12pm they accept visa applications and from 1pm to 5pm they hand visas out. I showed up just after noon on a Monday so they told me I’d have to come back Tuesday morning and wouldn’t be able to leave until Thursday night. Gah.
WI-FI (there isn’t any)
So after panicking and freaking out for an hour or two and looking EVERYWHERE for free wi-fi (from what I can tell, there is no free wi-fi in Tokyo, at least not for people who can’t read Japanese), I bit the bullet and activated the regular wireless capabilities of my phone. I did this so I could inform my school that I would not be able to fly back the next day as planned and that I would have to stay until Thursday. I don’t know exactly how much using my Korean phone for five minutes in Tokyo actually cost me because my school handles my phone bills, but it wasn’t too much because my paycheck seemed about the same as usual the next month. Your mileage may vary.
Now, I learned how to read the Korean alphabet in a couple of days, but Japanese kanji? Forget about it. So there are tons of Wi-Fi hotspots with names like “Free Public Wifi,” but when you log in you get a screen that is all in Japanese and even with Google Translate none of it made any sense to me. Fortunately I had my ebook with me. Which reminds me…
Bring an eBook or lots of books
You will have so much free time if you are slumming through Japan like I did that one novel is simply not enough. I recommend reading William Gibson while you’re in Tokyo. It’s pretty awesome to be able to see the neighborhoods he talks about in Burning Chrome and Neuromancer, both of which I easily finished in my first two days. If you want to buy a book when you get to Japan, be my guest. There are book/manga stores everywhere… but a) they’re expensive and b) English-language books and magazines seemed non-existent at the places I browsed through.
Ropongi (Being Homeless for Three Nights)
Now, Japan seems pretty safe. It doesn’t feel as safe as Seoul but for the most part I never felt particularly in danger. At the same time, I spent most of my time in Rapongi, which is a red-light district very close to the consul and the only place I could find an affordable internet cafe.
Ropongi has a lot of advantages for destitute travelers. There are lots of cheap places to eat, there is a lot of good people-watching (free entertainment), and lots of beautiful guys/girls to look at. The disadvantages are the temptation to drink (and man, does Tokyo ever make me want/need a good strong drink) and the scores and scores of prostitutes and pimps who will constantly assault you if you are an American male.
Of course anywhere there are pimps and prostitutes there is likely to be other sorts of criminal activity so keep your wits about you at all times. I kept my expensive belongings in a subway locker (about three dollars) when I was tooling around Ropongi, especially at night. Just be careful, is what I’m saying.
I did spring for a beer at a bar my first night because I was so frazzled. It was at a joint called Club Gas, or something, right next to the Don Quijote, and they have really cheap happy hour drinks but you’ll be the only person drinking there and they really don’t want you to take too long with one drink. They start looking at you like you’re an asshole after you’ve been sipping whiskey for about half an hour even though you’re the only person there. So I had another $3 whiskey and slipped out for dinner at…
McDonalds (your headquarters)
I won’t say that I’m a fan of McDonalds, nor am I one of those people who hates the golden arches. I eat there from time to time because it’s cheap and reminds me a little bit of home. But in Japan McDonalds is AWESOME for two reasons:
1. You can get coffee for 100 yen. Coffee will become ESSENTIAL to warm you up (if you’re there in the winter), and it’s also your ticket to the upstairs/back section where most places don’t seem to give a shit if you take a nap for a while. Yes, that’s right…
2. You can sleep there. I slept at about seven different McDonalds while I was in Tokyo. I was afraid to do it at first until I realized that the Japanese people themselves sleep at McDonalds like crazy. I only saw an employee bother someone who was sleeping ONE time and it was in some fancy high-end shopping area. The McDonalds at Rappongi might as well market itself as a hotel for all the drunk/hungover people that sleep there regularly.
3. The food is cheap and filling. This is the same reason poor people eat fast food back in America. It doesn’t taste horrible, it’s pretty damned cheap and it keeps your stomach full. If you’re homeless in Tokyo for five days you’re only going to get two or three meals a day and a snack is a luxury, plus you’ll be walking constantly, so just eat the effing Big Mac and keep moving.
I discovered my final night there that Wendy’s is also great. the food is a little more expensive and you don’t get as much of it, but you get FREE DRINK REFILLS!!! That was super awesome, to be able to keep sipping diet coke for hours while I read pulpy sci-fi and looked out over the Tokyo bar crowds.
CyberCafes (your bed)
So, there are net cafes / Manga libraries throughout Japan (actually pretty hard to find outside of red light districts) where you pay by the hour to get a nasty little cigarette-smoke-infused cubicle with a tiny sheet protecting you from the rows and rows and rows of pornographic manga. You can sleep here for six hours for about ten bucks.
Now, I’m a crazy bastard, and the only reason I forked over the cash for the cyber cafe was because I was in Tokyo in the DEAD of winter and it was REALLY EFFING COLD. If I were there during a warmer month I probably would have opted to simply sleep outside like the homeless deadbeat that I was. As long as most of my cash and my expensive belongings were locked in the subway tunnel I think it would probably be pretty safe to sleep in a park in Tokyo. In fact…
Day Time Nappin’
I did sleep in parks a lot during the day time when I could find a nice rock or patch of grass or bench in the sunlight. I also slept at McDonalds and other fast food places a lot. You will have to slip into a polyphasic sleep cycle, catching naps whenever you can. This, ladies and gentlemen, is truly what it is like to be homeless.
Boredom (your enemy)
If you don’t have any money then it is quite a challenge to have fun in Tokyo, but I managed to do it. There are lots of nice parks to stroll through and the crowds themselves are pretty interesting. I also found some awesome markets but honestly most of Tokyo is just a big shitty shopping mall with the same luxury brands you could find anywhere else in the world. Don Quijote actually has some cool, relatively affordable stuff but remember that the exchange rate could very likely be terrible if the yen is strong while you’re there (like it was when I was there). Don Quijote is a good place to spend at least a couple of hours at, though, as are the Pachinco Parlors, arcades, and other entertainment venues. (Of course you won’t be able to afford to actually PLAY the games, but that’s not really the point here).
Basically you will spend most of your time just walking around. The subway is fairly expensive to ride (almost $2, even for a short trip), so just hoof it. You will have PLENTY of time. Just forget about time and enjoy the sight-seeing. If you are a writer or a photographer it’s a great experience just wandering around, getting lost, then finding your way again without internet access or any knowledge of the local language.
I walked so much while I was in Japan that I lost about five pounds — and that’s eating fast food combos for literally almost every single meal.
So basically that’s it. I really did spend four days in Tokyo for less than $200 and I even had a little money left over to buy myself a hip Japanese man-bag as a souvenier. The last couple of days I even splurged for a couple of cans of crappy roadie beers. You have to be shrewd and divide your money out very carefully. Don’t forget that when you go to pick up your Visa you will have to buy a stamp that is around $40-$50 (and apparently the price keeps increasing), and don’t forget that you will need to pay for the $5 monorail ride to get back to the airport. I ended up walking through security with 150 yen in my pocket (that’s about $1.50), so I cut it razor-close. Of course a smarter person might just bring an international debit/credit card but if I were smart I would probably have gone to Fukuoka like most sane people, which, while expensive, isn’t as crazy-ass-expensive as Tokyo.
*Sorry, but even after nearly two years in Asia I can’t help but make L/R Confusion Jokes!