TOKYO – In the early 1960s Village Voice co-founder and avant-garde writer John Wilcock showed up in Tokyo with a commission from New York’s travel publisher Frommer to do one of its famous $5-a-day books on Japan.
Wilcock did a yeoman's job on the book, and it put Japan on the map as a new destination for the growing horde of backpackers and other budget travelers who had been swarming throughout Europe since the end of World War II, and were beginning to show up in India, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.
The good old days when one could actually do Japan on $5 a day have, of course, long since gone (John’s book became Japan on $10 a Day about a decade later). But, the heart-stopping stories about Tokyo hotels charging $8-$10 for a cup of coffee that began cropping up in the late 1970s, and gave rise to a kind of paranoia about the cost of traveling in Japan, were unfair and have plagued the country’s travel industry ever since.
This is not to say that there were no $8 coffees in Japan at that time. There were — and still are! And one could pay as much as $100 for a run-of-the-mill steak dinner— even more for a Buddhist style vegetarian meal in an elite ryotei (rio-tay-ee) Japanese style restaurant.
But even in those days, the great majority of Japanese who ate out, as well as the typical traveler, whether Japanese or foreign, did not spend that kind of money for their meals. There were dozens of categories of restaurants, from Chinese, Japanese and Korean to European, where full courses of chicken, fish, meat, vegetables, soup and bread or rice could be had for $6 or $7.
There were other restaurants specializing in soba and udon noodles and a variety of rice dishes topped with chicken or beef curry where millions of people ate daily for 75 cents to $1.50.
As for the cost of hotel accommodations, in addition to name brand, luxury class hotels such as the Imperial, the Okura, the New Otani, the Hilton, and so on, Japan has long had a much larger number of first-class hotels whose room rates are twenty to thirty percent lower than the elites.
And below this selection of first-class hotels, there was — and still is — an even larger number of so-called business-class hotels, which in fact, are often first-class in their facilities and services, that cost from one-third to one-fourth of what brand name hotels charge. Finally, there is a whole national network of strictly budget-class hotels in Japan, with room rates that are lower still.
Then there are Japan’s famous ryokan (rio-kahn), or inns, of which there are some 70,000 in the country. Many of these inns cater to foreign visitors with packaged rates that make them a viable choice for budget travelers.
Both the image and the reality of Japan being a high-cost travel destination came about because in those days virtually all tourists handled by travel agents were automatically funneled into the most expensive hotels, the most expensive restaurants, and the most expensive modes of travel.
Over the course of the last 10 years, hotel room rates have slowly inched up in most of the world's major markets, in some cases far surpassing the rates formerly charged in Japan.
In today’s Japan, not only is the cost of hotel accommodations lower than what it was a decade ago, the number and variety of restaurants is astounding, including virtually every American and European fast food chain you can name, plus dozens of equivalent Japanese chains, and the cost of full Western style meals has plummeted.
Transportation, the third most important cost factor in doing Japan, remains high by American and European standards, but here too, there are options that make it possible to reduce this cost by 30 to 50 percent, by taking advantage of discounted passes available for tourists, by choosing ordinary or express trains rather than super-express trains, by using the marvelous subway system instead of taxis, and for the more adventurous, renting cars.
One can visit and enjoy Japan today without spending a small fortune by the simple process of knowing what accommodation, dining, and transportation choices are available, and choosing a level that fits one’s budget.
In addition to the cost benefits of eating, traveling, and sleeping like a Japanese citizen, an argument could be made that this would ensure one's experience of "the real Japan" would be far better because of more opportunities to interact with the people, who are, after all, the country’s greatest attraction.
Editor's note: Boyé Lafayette De Mente (1928-2017) first came to Japan in 1949 as a member of the occupation forces. He held a degree in economics and Japanese from Tokyo's Sophia University, and a BFT from the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Arizona.
He was best known as the author of a highly successful series of books on social and business customs in Japan, China, Korea and Mexico. As a journalist with the Japan Times, and later on as editor of 'The Importer Magazine,' he witnessed at close hand the rapid growth of Asia's 'tiger' economies. His guidelines to westerners wishing to do business in the new post-war Japan were widely recognized as ground-breaking.
I am indebted to Mr. De Mente for sending the above article to republish here in Japan Perspectives.