Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Tokyo on a dime

Spend a week in the Japanese capital without taking out a second mortgage

The fishmonger screams to the fruiterer that his mussels are so fresh they sparkle; the fruit guy shouts to the fresh tofu lady that his peaches are the juiciest ever; and the tofu lady hollers back that her tofu chunks taste the way silk feels.

An open market in a small provincial town in Japan? No, I'm in the basement of the splendiferous, 15-storey Takashimaya department store, in the heart of Tokyo's up-all-night/shop-all-day Shinjuku pleasure quarter. The hawkers singing each to each create a great cacophonous chorus to background one's food shopping experience.

I'm down here because it's one of the best places for lunch or take-out supper in the city. "Supermarket" doesn't begin to describe the place. It's so long you can't see from one end to the other. Here you can buy pastries from Fauchon of Paris, cheeses by Peck of Milano, bratwurst from Dallmayr of Munich. But this imported stuff, tempting though it is, is pricey.

Local foods aren't. Well, if you skip that $126 muskmelon glowing on its plinth. This is a presentation fruit as opposed to an eating fruit. You gift another with it -- your host, your boss, your prospective father-in-law. If you want to eat your fruit, rather than give it away, however, you can buy an enormous pink peach for $3, which sounds a bit pricey until you bite into it -- the Japanese do peaches better than anyone else.

There are lunch counters here where you can sit down to a plate of sushi for $10, or a selection of veg tempura and yakitori (chicken on a stick) for about the same price. A can of Kirin beer and a daifuku, a soft rice cake stuffed with sweetened bean paste, and you've just had lunch in the heart of Tokyo for under 15 bucks.

But if you're feeling really flush and in the mood for a sit-down, full-course meal, you can take the elevator up to Takashimaya's (5-24-2 Sendagaya, take the New South Exit from Shinjuku Station; tel: 011-81-3-5361-1206; top three floors, where there are an array of moderately priced restaurants, everything from Chinese to Italian to Japanese traditional. Lunch here will run you $20 to $30.

Everyone's heard the Tokyo horror stories: the $18 thimbleful of orange juice, hotel rooms that start at $650, the $1000 steak dinner for two and the round-the-block taxi ride for $40.

True, if you're so inclined or on a generous expense account, you can still spend this kind of money in Tokyo (although taxis are suddenly affordable again). But if you really want to do Tokyo on the cheap, it's not only possible -- it's a great way of seeing the city. And you won't have to sleep in dives or eat lousy food.

The big thing that's happened for Canadians travelling in Tokyo is our dollar. I've been going regularly to Japan since the mid-80s, and the exchange rate -- 110 yen to the dollar -- has never been more favourable. On one memorable break-the-bank visit, the rate had dropped as low as 64 yen to the dollar. I ate a lot of noodles that trip.

The more often you visit this dazzling megapolis, the more you learn how to do Tokyo without taking out a second mortgage. On all those visits when I haven't been travelling on an expense account and/or a per diem, I've learned how to make my money stretch.

Sleeping Capsule
For instance, if you stay at an American chain hotel in Tokyo -- a Hyatt, a Hilton, a Marriott -- you're going to pay through the nose to have the same hotel experience you'd have had back home. Who wants to cross the Pacific for that? Also, unlike most Japanese hotels, the American chains don't include breakfast.

Is the only alternative staying in a modular plastic room with all the spaciousness of a coffin at one of the capsule hotels that have sprung up around the city's train stations? It can be fun for a night, something to blog about, and dirt cheap -- usually somewhere between $20 and $40 -- but bring your earplugs. This is where Japanese salarymen go to sleep it off when they've missed the last train home after a night on the town. The noise of 200 sake-sodden men snoring in unison is not easily forgotten. The bathroom is communal, everybody smokes everywhere and only a handful of these hotels accept women.

The Capsule Hotel Fontaine (4-3-5 Akasaka, Belle-Vie exit from Akasaka-Mitsuke Subway and walk five minutes south along Hitotsu-Dori; tel: 011-81-3-3583-6554) is one that does accept women, but only on weekends, when they are allotted a separate floor. The hotel is clean, if a bit shabby, with separate saunas for men and women. Rooms are $45 a night.

What foreign travellers overlook or have never heard of is the business hotel. These are no-frills places aimed at middle management and downward. They're scattered all over Tokyo and range from spartan to very comfortable. Running from $80 up to $200 for a double, breakfast included, rooms in these hotels tend to be small, but this is Tokyo: apart from sleeping, how much time are you going to spend hanging about your room? The bathrooms are often modular plastic, but thoughtfully accessorized: free toothbrushes, toothpaste and razor, along with a small, deep-soak bathtub.

In Aoyama, one of Tokyo's most desirable neighbourhoods, the Hotel President (2-2-3 Minami Aoyama; tel: 011-81-3-3497-0111;, an upscale business hotel, has 200 comfortable and well-maintained rooms, many with lovely views. There's also Orto, a fine, in-house organic restaurant. The neo-baroque Akasaka Palace, where visiting dignitaries stay, is right across the street, and the Canadian embassy is a 10-minute walk away (visit its wonderful roof garden). $132 for a single room.

Try a Tatami
Ryokan -- traditional Japanese inns -- can be daunting for first-time visitors to Japan. All those rules about how to use the communal bath, which tiny slippers you wedge your big feet into for what occasion, when and where to wear your yukata (the cotton robe available in all ryokan and many hotels), not to mention the expense. High-end Tokyo ryokan weigh in at $300 or more, although this is a bargain compared to regular hotels going at this price, since breakfast and multi-course dinner usually are included in the tariff. For a total-immersion experience in Japanese tradition, they can't be bettered.

The Andon Ryokan (2-34-10 Nihonzutsumi Taito, a five-minute walk from Minowa Subway station; tel: 011-81-3-3873-8611; fax: 011-81-3-3873-8612;, however, updates the ryokan experience for the 21st century traveller. Designed by a renowned Japanese architect to resemble a large Japanese lantern, the five-storey inn uses concrete, glass and metal mesh to create a sleek, sophisticated look. It's located near Tokyo's Ueno Park, the site of six major art museums.

The rooms are seven metres square (just over the legal minimum for Japanese hotel rooms), but with indirect lighting and in-room DVD players, think of it not as a small room but a cunning cocoon. Doubles start at a jaw-dropping $74, continental breakfast included along with Jacuzzi privileges, and the Asakusa open market and Buddhist shrine -- the heart of old Tokyo -- are close by.

If your heart still longs for a proper hotel with a bit of style and luxury, don't go looking in the usual areas where tourist hotels predominate, like the popular Akasaka and Shinjuku districts. Turn instead to the nearby Shibuya district. Shibuya is youthquake central for Tokyo, with giant screen videos mounted high up on multi-storey department stores as well as a labyrinth of curving lanes revealing trendy shops, vast gaming arcades, cinemas and some of the hottest dance clubs in town.

Right next to bustling Shibuya Station is the boutique-style Cerulean Tower Hotel (26-1 Sakuragaoka-cho, Shibuya Ku, right next to Shibuya Station; tel: 011-81-3-3476-3000; Located in an office tower, the Cerulean's 414 rooms occupy the 19th through the 37th floor. The views of Tokyo by night are stunning, and the service is exceptional. A double starts here at $250, if you book on the net. Not cheap, but worth every penny: every room has a visit of neon, enormous video screens and elevated trains passing in the night.

Harajuku Girls
In terms of getting around, anyone who takes taxis in Tokyo is a mug, or heedlessly rich. The subway system ( is fast, efficient, clean and, in summer, air conditioned. It goes everywhere you need to get to and, given the customary gridlock of central Tokyo, gets you there faster than any taxi will.

Almost identical in layout to the London Underground, Tokyo subway fares vary depending on which district you wish to visit. Buy a $30 Suica electronic money card, good for subway, buses and most trains, and it will allow you to travel inexpensively without having to calculate complicated fares. You can buy Suica cards from vending machines in subway and train stations all over town. When your card's running low, you simply top it up with your credit card or cash at one of these machines.

As for entertainment, Tokyo is one big unending spectacle, day or night. But its sprawl and 17-million people, all of them seemingly thronging the same sidewalk as you, can prove overwhelming. Choose a district and explore.

The best people watching can still be found on the venerable Omotesando, a tree-shaded boulevard in fashionable Harajuku. The shops here are high-end international -- Louis Vuitton (Japan is the French luxury house's biggest market), Prada, Dior. But it's the promenaders who are the real dazzlers here: teenage girls in tiny lace skirts and tops accessorized by black lace parasols and black-and-white striped knee socks, boys in mini-fedoras, burgundy striped silk pyjamas and steel-toed work boots.

Three of Japan's greatest designers have boutiques here -- Rei Kawakubo's Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake (the pioneer of fanciful pleats) and Yohji Yamamoto. Their clothes aren't cheap, but they're beautifully made, will last forever, and cost a fraction of what they would in North America.

Artful Dodgers
| The Roppongi district once had a rather louche reputation--popular during the American Occupation as a steamy meeting place for Western servicemen and Japanese panpan girls. The area became disco fever headquarters in the 70s and 80s. It's gone considerably upmarket in recent years. The five-billion-dollar Roppongi Hills luxury "town" complex comprises a number of interlinked shopping malls, the swank new Grand Hyatt, the Mori Art Museum (Mori Tower 53F, 6-10-1 Roppongi; and observation deck, a beautiful rooftop garden and a monumental Louise Bourgeois spider, a menacing sister to the one in front of Ottawa's National Gallery.

When the Mori Art Museum opened in 2004 on the top five floors of the 53-storey Mori Tower in the Roppongi Hills, it was pooh-poohed as an "instant art museum." The brainchild of Minoru Mori, Japan's richest development magnate, the museum is so heavily-funded that it's since featured an array of world-class exhibitions of contemporary and modern art.

Its most recent blockbuster was a superlative survey of the life and works of the influential Swiss architect Le Corbusier, which stylish young Tokyoites flocked to, their outfits rivalling the art and architecture. Admission to the Mori is $15, about what you would pay for entry to a museum of this caliber in North America. Be sure to check out the adjacent observation deck with its panoramic views of the city.

A 10-minute walk from Roppongi Hills brings you to the undulating glass and steel window walls of the new National Art Center (7-22-2 Roppongi, Exit 6 from Nogi-Zaka Subway; Designed by one of Japan's greatest architects, Kisho Kurokawa, the museum's vast lobby features two restaurants atop enormous concrete cones. The bigger of the two, Brasserie Paul Bocuse le Musée, is the first overseas branch of celebrity chef Paul Bocuse's legendary brasserie in Lyon. The food is as extraordinary as the price: $25 for the prix fixe menu. If that seems steep to you, the other concrete cone houses the Salon de Thé Rond, where a panini, a cup of tangy gazpacho and the world's best pound cake will set you back $12. Entrance to the National Art Center and its cutting-edge gift shop is free. Exhibitions -- I saw a memorable one called "Flesh + Bones," about the interplay between fashion and architecture -- run between $8 and $15.

If a day of sightseeing, shopping and art viewing leave you peckish, the best place for a reasonable Roppongi dinner is the nearby Gonpachi (1-13-11 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: 011-81-3-5771-0170; Ordinarily I wouldn't recommend a theme-restaurant that's also a franchise, but Gonpachi is gaudy, raucous fun.

Designed to replicate a feudal Japanese treasure house, its weathered wooden staircases, walkways and semi-private dining alcoves give way to an open courtyard where cooks prepare grazing food: beef, chicken or seafood yakitori, homemade soba and udon noodle dishes and, my favourite, pumpkin and coconut soup with a scoop of ice cream. Okay, it's more like dessert than soup, but washed down with a glass of cold, dry plum wine, who cares?

It's the spirit of the plaace, a slightly kitsch version of Old Japan, that counts. If you don't feel like dining, stop at the bar for a black lacquer box of sake -- your seat is a wooden sake barrel. Every time a new customer enters, the hostess in her happi coat and checked bandana belts out a lusty "Irasshaimase!" (welcome) and is quickly echoed by the scores of waiters who scurry about the cavernous room: "Irasshaimase!" And all this for about $30 a pop.


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