Since we like nothing better than talking about Tokyo, saving money and learning from some of the best travelers out there, we jumped at the chance to put some questions to the founders of the Poor Traveler Blog about their time here in Japan.
The Poor Traveler is one of the biggest travel blog communities around, and started from very humble beginnings. Founders Yoshke and Vins were once your regular full-time workers from the Philippines who enjoyed spending any spare time and money on travels, before eventually quitting to travel full time. Although they may sound like any other bloggers, their success lies in their honesty and relatability. They talk about falling for tricks, over-spending and getting lost—and want others to learn from their mistakes. Simply, they are like most of us, and don’t pretend to be worldly #travelers who found their inner-selves in a temple in Bali. Reading their blog is like asking a seasoned traveler friend for advice, and getting the best information with a warts-and-all approach: something we definitely agree with! They have guides for all over the world, as well as subjects like how to become a travel blogger, so be sure to check them out!
1. What was your absolute best budget find in Tokyo?
Vins: Electronic goods seem to be cheaper in Tokyo than in Europe, North America, or even here in the Philippines. We were able to save a lot, almost $200 on a brand new mirrorless lens. But reliable second-hand shops take gadget hunting to another level. I find Akihabara a great place to shop for pre-loved gadgets including camera bodies and lenses. What I like the most is that sellers are very transparent about the items and potential weaknesses.
Aside from ramen and sushi, what traditional Japanese food do you love?
Yosh: Kakigori. We spent most of our lives in the tropics, so naturally we have a certain fascination with cold treats, which is how we choose to combat intense heat. It was mid-summer when we visited Japan for the first time, and we just found ourselves craving for this shaved ice concoction as soon as we laid eyes on one. It’s also a bit familiar. The most popular dessert in the Philippines, where we grew up, is halo-halo, whose roots can be traced back to kakigori. Apparently, our very halo-halo was heavily influenced by kakigori when the Japanese introduced beans in syrup on ice before WWII.
What can you experience in Tokyo that you couldn’t anywhere else in the world?
Yosh: The phrase “city of contrasts” have been used to describe a lot of other urban hubs around the world to the point that it has become cliché. But that phrase can’t be any truer in Tokyo. Tokyo is the only city we have set foot in where the oxymoron “organized chaos” is easily observable: from the rush-hour train rides to the pedestrian traffic at Shibuya Crossing. When sightseeing, Tokyo can easily flip-flop from strictly traditional to genuinely futuristic in a matter of seconds.
What would be your top 3 things to see in the city?
Vins: Akihabara. It’s just bursting with character and the otaku in us is happy whenever we’re here. It’s modern, quirky, and crazy, undoubtedly Tokyo. And Tsukiji Market, for a look at the auction and good sushi.
Yosh: Market/supermarket. We always encourage our readers to visit any random market, supermarket or grocery store on their first day in Tokyo because there’s just a lot to find there like cheap decent meals. But more than that, I find a trip to the market quite enlightening. I remember how entertained I was at the differences in appearance, taste, popularity and prices of items like fruits and vegetables. It gives a glimpse into the daily routine of locals and a clear picture of the cost of living in the city.
How did Tokyo surprise you when you first arrived?
Vins: Our first hour in Tokyo had not elapsed but we already had our first boo-boo. We didn’t realize that we forgot to pick up the ticket on the other end of the gate when we fed it to the reader. We were already approaching the platform when a local came running after us, telling us that we left our tickets. She could barely speak English, but she really made sure that we understood, even walking us back to the gates.
Yosh: We’ve met friendly locals in many parts of the world, but they’re often in rural areas. In our experience, city locals are more oblivious, but we were surprised that locals here would go out of their way to help others. We’re pretty sure it’s not exclusive to Tokyo locals, though, because the same thing happened to us in Osaka. We’re starting to believe that the Japanese in general are naturally helpful and friendly.
Does Tokyo continue to surprise you on return visits?
Vins: Yes, in varied ways. We experienced snow in the middle of November last year, totally unexpected because it was just November!
Yosh: Every now and then we stumble upon a sale that we never knew coming. The last time, I was able to take home a brand new overcoat for only 1,000 yen.
Was there anything you decided wasn’t worth the money?
Yosh: Not anything specific but we find that fancy, gimmicky restaurants, which tend to be pricier, are not really worth it. Based on experience, small straight-to-the-point community eateries are better even when they are cheaper. For example, tourists are often attracted to ramen chains and conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, but simple hole-in-the-wall-type places often provide tastier and more satisfying food at a lower price.
Another example, I made another trip to Tokyo last spring to take photos of the cherry blossoms, so I visited the usual destinations like Ueno Park and Shinjuku Gyoen, but I found more picturesque sakura spots at some much smaller parks in random residential areas all around the city.
What is your most memorable experience in Tokyo?
Vins: I will never forget my first sight of the cherry blossoms because it’s something I had always wanted to see since I was a child. And it’s funny because I had been to Japan multiple times before, but a spring trip was always elusive because flights tend to be higher, so we would always fly to Japan in summer, autumn or winter. So when it finally happened, I was just extremely happy.
Yosh: Most of the time, we do backpacking. But my most memorable experience would be the only time I traveled to Tokyo with family, when I traded the backpack with a suitcase temporarily. I treated my mom, niece, and nephew to a trip and we had a grand time doing things that many would call too “touristy” like visiting Disneyland/DisneySea and checking out anime museums (Ghibli, Doraemon). Although I enjoy traveling alone, it really feels different traveling with family and with kids. It just proves to me that Tokyo is indeed a family-friendly and kid-friendly destination.
What are your top budget hacks for the city?
Yosh: Walk when you can. Just because there are train/subway passes available doesn’t mean you have to get them. Many of our readers automatically assume they would save a lot when they avail of them. Yet, when we ask them for the list of attractions they plan to visit, most of them lie within walking distance of each other and do not require train rides each time. For example, Meiji Shrine, Yoyogi Park, Takeshita-dori, and even Shibuya Crossing are next to each other and can easily be explored on foot. Even Akihabara, Ameyoko, and Ueno Park. It’s just a matter of building your itinerary.
Vins: Your hotel location matters. Tokyo is huge and train rides here are NOT cheap. Your choice of hotel matter a lot if budget is a concern. Picking a slightly cheaper hotel/hostel that is located far from the attractions can end up costlier than a slightly pricier hotel at a great location. List down the places you want to visit, check where they are on the map, and choose a hotel in an area that makes the most sense for your itinerary.