Out of Japan: Guide books help in battle against the mighty yen

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - Picture the dismay of Mr Everyman who has just flown into Japan, and been foolish enough to get a taxi from the airport to the centre of Tokyo - the fare was pounds 200, possibly more if the traffic was bad.

Trying to forget the pain of handing over a small fortune to the taxi driver, he has scouted out a sushi restaurant near his hotel for some of that famous raw fish he was told about, only to find that the cheapest set dinner costs about pounds 50. Everyman retires to a bar, and orders a beer which, he discovers, sells for pounds 10 a pint. He could be forgiven for wanting to get on the next plane out - except for that horrendous taxi fare back to the airport.

With the yen continuing to appreciate against most foreign currencies - a consequence of Japan's enormous trade surplus - foreigners are finding the already high prices now verging on the absurd. When I came to Tokyo nearly three years ago, pounds 1 was about 250 yen, and dollars 1 was hovering around 125 yen. Now pounds 1 fetches a mere 159 yen, and dollars 1 last week briefly dipped below 100 yen for the first time.

The pathology of the high yen leads to three different human reactions. Some foreigners living in Tokyo - the paranoiacs - spend their entire waking lives talking, worrying and complaining about the high prices. Others - the psychotics - blow their foreign currency salaries in a week-long binge at the beginning of the month, and remain poor, underfed or in debt for the rest of the time. And then there are the milder neurotics, who are determined to seek a middle way, surviving against all the odds. For them a series of books have come out recently, dedicated to a cut- price, economic gravity-defying, reasonably humane existence in the shadow of the mighty yen.

Living for Less in Tokyo - and Liking it] proclaims itself to be the guide to 'the smartest, least expensive way to enjoy life in Tokyo'. This starts with the cheapest transport between Tokyo and Narita airport: pounds 5.86 on the slow Kesei railway, or pounds 18 on the faster Narita Express line. The book has maps of discount shopping districts, and suggests restaurants for cheap, filling meals: for instance, the Takeya in Ueno, which offers all the sukiyaki grilled beef you can eat at pounds 11.25 for women, and pounds 12.50 for men.

A cheap way of getting to China? Forget the overpriced airfares - take the ferry from Yokohama to Shanghai. At pounds 156 one way, it is half the price of the plane. Similarly, overnight buses to Kyoto ( pounds 44.38) are about half the price of a bullet-train ticket. A Japan rail pass can save huge amounts on the country's railway system, but it must be bought outside Japan at a Japan Tourism office or Japan Airlines outlet.

Japan, A Budget Travel Guide, written by Ian McQueen, has some more off-beat suggestions: how about a month's Zen meditation session with the monks of Shinsho-ji temple in Hiroshima? Board and lodging included (albeit vegetarian food) is a bargain at pounds 700. Cheap noodles can always be sucked up at stands in or close to railway stations at about pounds 3.75 for a steaming bowl. And if you really want to buy a kimono as a souvenir or a present, watch out for special sales of used wedding kimonos at department stores: they are often knocked down from the new price of more than pounds 6,000 to as little as pounds 62.50.

And if you are stuck for a cheap hotel, try going to a 'love hotel', designed for short-term assignations, late at night. After about 11pm business tails off, and for as little as pounds 37 you can have a bed for the night, provided you can put up with the mirrored ceiling, harem decor, porno video library and condom vendor in the corner.

Japan, Cheap and Easy, by Robert Magee, has a helpful list of Tokyo's pawn shops for those who are stretched financially. There is also a section on rental shops - where to rent suitcases, formal clothes, karaoke sets, golf clubs and anything else you might not want to buy at yen prices. Magee also suggests that buying household goods from other foreigners who are leaving Japan is an easy way of saving money when setting up home: the English-language papers have ads from departing expatriates every Sunday.

Finally, Eating Cheap in Japan: the Foreign Gourmet's Guide to Ordering in Non-tourist Restaurants sets out to help newcomers save money while eating well. It includes such information as the ingredients of 43 different noodle dishes. If only Everyman had read some of these books before he arrived he wouldn't be taking all those tranquillisers.