Tokyo for Digital Nomads
My first stop as a digital nomad (aka Expat 2.0) was Tokyo. I was quite interested to survey it from the perspective of a digital nomad. Most feedback I received from other Americans had to be considered in the context of said Americans visiting as 4-5 star premium/luxury tourists. My other sources were Australians and New Zealanders going on ski holidays in Hokkaido. How would Tokyo be from the perspective of someone not frittering away ¥10,000 notes ($90) on every meal with the time to relax and enjoy the city?
I offer a quick guide based on my observations and experiences of a couple of weeks. I’ve tried to cover certain basics. Your mileage may vary, so to speak.
I based myself at Chapter Two Hostel, located in Asakusa steps from the local train station. I avoided the much more famous districts of Ginza and Rappongi. The former reminds me of Fifth Avenue near Central Park, and the latter of Times Square (i.e. tons of tourists clogging the streets). My accommodation cost ¥3,100 per night. My rate was somewhat reduced as I had booked in excess of two weeks. A light breakfast (boiled egg + toast) was put out in the common area each morning.
Subway/train rides tended to run ¥200-700. The 700-ish ride took me from Tokyo to visit my friend in Yokohama. A number of different companies serve Tokyo, so hopping A-B on Company 1 and taking B-C on Company 2 means that you’re paying fares to both. It’s important to note that there is no maximum daily fare, so a tourist frenetically rushing around Tokyo could run up high charges on their card. (Note: get a SUICA/PASMO card for your stay. It works on all trains and can be used at convenience stores for purchases).
The limited express train running between Narita and Haneda costs ¥1,290 to Asakusa. The faster Narita Express runs ¥2600-ish.
Taxis tend to be cheap for short rides, but rapidly go up in price if taken at night or for trips over 4km.
Variable, in a word. In my own searches and chats with other travelers, hostels and other shared accommodation starts at US$25/day. Private hotel rooms start at $60, though at that price, they’re small enough to feel quite cramped if two people are traveling. Airbnb in Japan is in turmoil right now, with many bookings being cancelled and throwing travel plans into chaos.
This part is the most variable (that word, again), and in my opinion, the area most laden with misconceptions. I would remind my readers here that my perception of cost is colored by my American upbringing. I found ample options at every price range from ¥300 lunches up to many thousands of yen.
Assuming that you aren’t cooking for yourself for whatever reason (lack of desire or access to a full kitchen should cover most possibilities), the cheapest eats come from your nearby convenience store (konbini) – 7/11, Family Mart, and Lawson. Fresh fruit, hot foods, take-away meals like katsu curry, spaghetti, salad, dumplings, and onigiri (filled rice balls) await your pleasure. Expect to pay ¥100-180 per onigiri, ¥280-300 for a can of Sapporo/Asahi/Kirin beer, ¥400-530 for a sushi, karaage, or curry meal, and ¥105 for a banana.
At the next level are quick-bite restaurants that serve roughly the same function as a US diner: cheap, fast comfort food. Ramen & gyoza restaurants are by far the most common. Other small noodle and onigiri restaurants fall in this category. A meal will run you ¥400-1000, with ramen tending on the cheaper side. Kaiten (conveyor) sushi and premium quality noodles (yes, there is a perceptible difference between a ¥1100 bowl of “good” soba/tan tan/udon versus ¥450 ramen vs cup noodles) occupy the next level between ¥1000-2000 depending on location, ingredients, and your appetite.
Before this drags on, the quick summary: pick a sum between 500 and 50,000 yen, and you’ll find lots of tasty options.
This wasn’t a huge area for me, but I’ll pass on what limited info I picked up. Most of what I drank here was sake. I was in Japan, after all. Sake at a restaurant typically began at ¥650 and went all the way up. A premium sake like Hakkaisan (my favorite) would cost ¥1300 for a 180mL portion. I didn’t do much cost research on bottles to bring home, as I tend not to drink solo at home.
Beer at a konbini ran ¥280-300 per can. Out and about, ¥300 for a cheap mug/happy hour is the bottom end, whereas my most expensive turned out to be ¥1000 at a in Roppongi. The overwhelmingly common price was ¥500-700 depending on size. Note: these prices were for Japanese domestic beer. Expect to pay a considerable premium for craft and import.
I found the process of a sim card byzantine and expensive considering phone band compatibility and the ¥3000 for the card. I elected to go with scrounging whatever wifi I could. This turned out to be a reasonably doable option for a short-term visit. I found internet at convenience stores, train stations, restaurants, Starbucks (as always), museums, and around major landmarks. Free. I had one situation in 3 weeks where I was cursing at my ill-luck, which is remarkably excellent in the greater scheme of life (for me). Otherwise, connectivity of some sort is fast, stable, and nearly ubiquitous.
I am embarrassed to admit that I did not get to assess this part. Caffeine is ubiquitous, but I was turned off of visiting cafes, as ¥500 for a basic beverage was standard at an independent café. $4.50 for an Americano is a turn-off.
This is where Tokyo shines. When I wanted to get away from my screen in order to rest my eyeballs and refresh my brain, Tokyo delivered numerous options. I found the Asakusa area jam-packed with stuff. Sensoji temple merited a wander or two. My favorite option included exploring one of Ueno Park’s attractions on a given day. There’s a shrine/temple for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the zoo, and multiple museums covering modern art, Euro-American/western art, Asian art, Japanese artifacts, natural history. The Tokyo National Museum and Ieyasu’s shrine are personal favorites.
Beyond the big stuff, I highly recommend walking around and exploring. I “found” small shrines, parks, and public gardens. It helps to be in an old district of Tokyo, I suppose, but I loved stumbling on a small park or garden.