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Hacktreks in Japan

J.T. in Tokyo
Your essential guide to bargains in Japan.

A McDonalds' hamburger for 49 cents. $29.50 a month for ADSL internet service. Four bucks for a Champion sweatshirt. Okay, the sweatshirt was taken from a clearance rack. But how about a set of six AA batteries for 83 cents.
Take that, Walmart.

This is a story about Japan on the cheap. And that's not a typo. The prices cited above are real, and there are more where they came from, which amazingly, is here in the land of the falling sums (and falling puns; there are more where that came from too.)

Though Tokyo continues to top the list of the world's most expensive cities, such calculations are largely skewed by looking at the costs a business person on an expense account would incur, either by visiting or residing in a given city. That means anything from tuition at international schools for the children, to posh, often full-service residences in centrally located districts, to reimbursements for taxi rides in from the airport.

Well, most of us don't live in a world of perks and expense accounts. When we take a taxi, we pay for it ourselves. Therefore, here in Japan, I don't know anybody who takes a taxi in from the airport.(Which, incidentally, would be expensive. New Tokyo International Airport[Narita] is not in Tokyo. It's two hours away in the prefecture of Chiba. In Japan, we hoi polloi take trains.)
Speaking of travel, let's look at what has happened to the travel industry in these parts. Starting in the 1990's, deregulation started to take hold. Now, Japan is actually one of the cheapest places in the world to buy air tickets and package tours. Take a look at some of these round-trip economy air fares for early March, 2003:
Tokyo to.... New York > $332 (39,800yen)
L. A. > $325 (39,000yen)
London > $621 (74,500yen)
Cancun > $748 (89,800yen)
Shanghai > $308 (37,000yen)

All fares were quoted from the website of Number 1 Travel (, one of the biggest of several discount travel agencies in Japan. Through a different agency, H.I.S. Co., Ltd(, info mostly in Japanese), I've just booked a six-day, four-night holiday in Waikiki for my family from February 28. For air and hotel, I'm paying a mere $415 per person. Yowsa! So, if you're a traveler passing through Japan on your way to other destinations, buying ongoing plane tickets or even booking package tours here is an option to seriously consider.

Speaking of options, although this next one is not available to me or anyone residing within Japan, I highly recommend the Japan Rail Pass to anyone planning a visit that includes traveling about within this country. As you might guess, for a fixed number of days and corresponding price, the Japan Rail Pass allows you to take any of the quasi-government operated trains, but also buses and ferries throughout the entire country.

(Some commuter trains for short hops within specific metropolitan areas are privately owned, thus requiring separate fares. But any travel between regions, and much within the cities, is done on publicly operated railways.) To give you an idea, one round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Bullet Train (Shinkansen), ordinarily costs the equivalent of $220. A seven day Rail Pass will cost $236 (half for kids), thus almost paying for itself just on that trip. Any and all other trips taken on the Rail Pass, essentially become free. To look directly at the price list and different options, go to From there, you can browse around the rest of the site and find out where in your country you can obtain the Japan Rail Pass.

Hotel accomodations also have become quite reasonable. Single occupancy rooms in clean, centrally located hotels can be had from the $40 range, with quite of few choices kicking in from the $50’s. Double, and triple occupancy rooms are likewise cheap and available, as are rooms in traditional Japanese inns. The latter, a nice experience I recommend for at least one night to anyone venturing into Japan for the first time. A search on Yahoo! under "Japanese business hotels" yields several reservation services; one worth checking out is e-hotel Japan (
If that takes care of your shelter needs, how about food and clothing? Yes, these two essentials for existence have come down aplenty, as well. A price war has been taking place in the fast food and casual dining industry. And the winners of this war? Consumers! While you may not be interested in coming half way around the world just to dine in McDonalds (though for a quick fix of homelike pabulum, this place is now cheaper than in the US.), there are other dining options which, if not quite exotic, are certainly different and considerably tasty.

Try a beef bowl: a topping of simmered beef slices, onions and spices over a bowl of steamed rice for $2.16. How about conveyor belt sushi, which is just as it sounds -endless plates of sushi circulating by conveyor belt around a counter of customers who take whatever catches their eyes as it passes by(prices start at 83 cents per plate of two pieces). There are noodle shops -both Japanese and Chinese(the latter, my personal fave), pork cutlet chain restaurants, and many, many other places dotting the landscape, trying to compete for your yen. Except for the sushi, you can fill up at these places for between four and six dollars. Those fishy little plates add up pretty fast. I usually blow a whoppin' $10 when I dine there. How decadent.

When it comes to apparel, once again Japan wins hands down over my home, the US, and from what I gather, Europe and Down Under too. Why? Because while it can be said that the Japanese have never met a fashion trend they didn't like, they're manifestly more price conscious than ever before. Plus, the apparel industry also has been deregulated(which is not something that my country can claim.). The upshot: clothing -fashionable and well made- is now a better value in Japan than in North America and Western Europe. `

Courtesy of the bad economy are sales, sales, sales. From a 2 for 1900yen ($15.83)' rack, I got myself two pairs of slacks this morning. And then I almost broke down and bought a sharp looking Benneton Formula One fleece jacket marked down to an incredible $12.33! But, alas, I already have two fleece jackets.

Now, before you cancel that beach holiday in Phuket and come barreling into Japan, waving this article around and demanding bargains, know that not everything has become reasonable just yet. A box of 20 measly aspirin still costs $3.25. And if you intend to stay for a while, be prepared to make do with, at most, one third of the living space for about the same amount of rent you pay back home.
Furthermore, these sinking prices I glorify come at, well, a price. And that is the sinking, of the whole economy. What we're seeing is the long overdue breakdown of protectionism, subsidies, and the state sponsored collusion which propped up a system benefitting the powers that be for decades. Even now, thirteen years into this no growth morass, the politicians and bureaucrats, and the captains of industry that stink the most (banking, insurance, construction....and many more) still drag their feet. They may well drag the rest of the country down into the pooper along with them. While the exorbitant prices and cushy profit margins are fat that deserves to be be cut, because doing so was put off for so long, live muscle tissue is being hacked away too. People are already both jobless and underemployed at post-war records. Most of those who retain work, have seen their bonuses and incomes lowered across the board. The malaise in society is palpable. The possible implications of this sclerosis at the top are out and out spooky. But more on that subject another day.

Fat had to be cut. The consumers of Japan -the housewives, the younger generations- weren't going to silently go on forever paying eight dollars for an apple just to make some middleman rich. Finally, people are demanding, and getting, value for their yen. It's logical. And necessary, if Japan is to straighten out its disfunctional economy.

So I say, "Viva la Deflation!" And you too, can get in on the fun. Should you happen to be passing through Japan sometime soon, explore a 100 yen shop where everything is only 83 cents, pick up some clothes, enjoy the food, get an ongoing plane ticket. Oh, and lest I forget -electronics- Japan's specialty. The photo accompanying this dispatch was taken with a nifty little digital camera I just purchased the other day It's a Kyocera four megapixel, 3x optical zoom Finecam S4 for which I paid 33,800 yen (US$282). Double yowsa!
Note: all $ prices are in US dollars, converted at the exchange rate of 120 yen per $.

Feb 5th 2003
© J.T.

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