Budgeting in Japan takes ingenuity


“Exchange rate” does not mean much in our workaday lives.  But we develop a functional understanding in short order when traveling abroad.  There it hits home that “exchange rate” is “money,” a term so meaningful that it runs a close second to whatever is in first place.

Any shift at all in the exchange rate seizes the traveler’s attention.  A favorable shift can bring a bonanza: I was in London on Nov. 18, 1967, when a devaluation of the pound suddenly enabled me, a strapped student, to check into the Regent Palace Hotel and buy a fur hat I’d wistfully admired.

By the same ephemeral token, an unfavorable shift may require that funds earmarked for the unfettered consumption of material goods be diverted to survival.

Touring in Tokyo these days provides a basic functional understanding of a ghastly exchange rate getting worse.  Tangling with a sumo wrestler must be a similarly stunning experience.  My husband and I went through the especially notable week of July 21-28, 1978, when the dollar plunged through the psychologically significant 200-yen barrier.  This performance is part of an overall decline of 21 percent since January.

All the horror stories that you may have heard about prices in japan are true.  Some museums charge an entrance fee for each exhibit.  As we heard an American sigh, eyes round as zeroes after another startling computation on his pocket calculator (which he ruefully noted had been made in Japan), “It makes you appreciate the high prices back in the States.”

But hang the expensiveness!  With some economizing in lodging and eating, coupled with a return to the basics of traveling—walking and watching—a good time can be had in Tokyo without declaring bankruptcy afterward.

To find a hotel to your liking and budget, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization (624 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles 20017).  Many hotels boast of their Western style, so specify if you wish accommodations identifiably Japanese.  Arrangements can be made at reasonable rates to stay at minshuku, private homes that take in guests.

A stay at a ryokan, a Japanese inn, can be the quintessential Japanese experience.  After some budget massaging, we freed $50 to reserve a room at a ryokan whose name rang with authenticity.

Imagine our surprise when we were welcomed by the hostess wearing a sundress, not the expected kimono.  In lieu of the traditional tea ceremony, she served iced tea.  And in our room we found a TV set, a hair dryer, a massager—all coin-operated! Whereupon we buckled onto the tatami mats.

Eating in Tokyo can lead to all manner of cost and cuisine—French, German, McDonald internationale.  Good eating is always assured in the popular Chinese restaurants.  As for Japanese food, our most pleasurable eating experiences were simple fare in the backways.  We ate well and joined in the human spectacle.

Poking around the Ginza’s backways led us to our favorite find—Yakitori Torigin—where we were soon hailed as regulars.  All our senses were quickened there by the smell of charcoal and beer.

Finding Torigin does take hunting, since addresses are assigned not according to linear sequence but by construction date of the building.  This tiny old hole-in-the-wall is in an alley off the alley directly behind the sleek, enormous Sony Building.  Nice irony.

If we may offer an outrageous economy tip: In the basement of the Mitsukoshi department store is a market with colorful displays of every Japanese food imaginable, set in motion by spirited vendors hawking their free samples.  Properly managed, an entire meal can be assembled, beginning with a seaweed appetizer, proceeding to the smoked pork entrée, followed by a chocolate trifle, all washed down with green tea.  Enough said.

Next, transportation: Though walking is recommended, for the purpose of discovery and economy, getting around this metropolis of 11.5 million requires faster means, such as the subways and the oh-so-fast taxis.  Both are reasonable.

Not so the Shinkansen, the “bullet train” that can make the trip from Tokyo to the western end of japan in seven hours.  Example: Two round-trip, coach-class tickets Tokyo-Kyoto, altogether a six-hour trip, cost a princely $180!  A far less expensive alternative is the Old Tokkaido Express, the “student train,” which, however, takes 10 hours to chug half that distance.

Some economy advising that won’t pertain much longer: Upon our late-afternoon arrival in Kyoto, we hopped the trolley that circles the city.  At 50 cents apiece, it was an excellent 2-hour introduction to Japan’s cultural capital.  And at dusk it was quite romantic.  Unhappily, the trolley line is slated for removal within the year.

Finally, Japan’s generally astronomical prices notwithstanding, we can report a goldmine for lovers of contemporary Japanese graphic art, though we are loathe to speak of art as investment.  We refer to the Tolman Collection.

Former American diplomats Norman and Mary Tolman personally know the artists they represent and carry their best works in limited editions.  Prices of these works acquired in Japan are about half what the Tolmans must set when they periodically bring the collection to the United States.

Impressed with the Tolman Collection and mindful that original art is duty-free, we came away with more prints than we planned.  Our wildly unfettered consumption of material goods was made possible, however, only after rigorously “ricing it” on the services.

Seaquist is an equal opportunity officer for the City of San Diego and lives in Coronado.