Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lolita On Location: Preliminaries

Yep, that's right- in case I haven't been obsessing loudly enough and you've somehow missed it...

I'm going to Tokyo!!

Finally! After almost four years, I'll be making my triumphant return to the Land of the Rising Sun for my fourth visit the most fabulous city in the world. Seriously, no matter how much I love-love-love New York City, nothing can ever compare to Tokyo. I've been having weird, almost homesick bouts of nostalgia ever since I returned in 2007, and I've always intended to go back as soon as my money situation was stable enough to save up for it. About a year ago, my boyfriend and I were sitting discussing travel, and we made vague plans to go to Japan at some point in the future; a few weeks later, we decided that it was official, and that we would seriously start saving up and planning for the trip. After money issues on my side caused us to push our trip back three times (sorry, love!), we finally bought our tickets in September for my spring break 2011- so much better than Cancun!

Obviously, all of the tips I'm offering here are currently heresay; this will be my first time going to Japan on my own, without the guidance of a school group and chaperones. The high school I attended hosted a magnet school called the Center for Global Studies, which taught the language, literature, history, and culture of China, Japan, and... I guess you could say the Middle East/Arabia? Anyway, not only did we host foreign exchange students for two weeks, but we had our own two-week exchange program to whichever of the three programs you were studying- Beijing for Chinese, Morocco for Arabic, and of course, Kyoto/Tokyo for Japanese. It was an amazing experience that was made possible by absolutely fabulous people, and I am honored to have been given the opportunity.

But the nostalgia never stops. It's the little things that trigger it. Sometimes when the spring breeze trickles past me, it carries on it some kind of perfume- the same perfume it carried down Takeshita-Doori; or looking up at the innards of a black umbrella in a certain light reminds me of the year it rained every day we were in Kyoto. I can't fight it, and last year I decided to stop trying, stop whining, and start planning and saving. Here's the main problem, though: I had no idea what to save! My hand was held so much in high school that I really didn't know how much to expect a trip to cost. So here I am; a year of planning, saving, researching, and budgeting, and I've decided to write the guide I wanted to see. This is the preliminary stage: all of my plans, ideas, and thought patterns behind my trip, and since I'm officially leaving two weeks from today, I figured this was as good a time as any. I'll follow up afterward with how it actually turned out, but for now, here are my tips on the first, most important stage of your trip to Japan, or anywhere: planning.

Some websites will tell you that it costs no less than $6,000 to go to Tokyo. Such a fallacy! While Japan can be one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit, Tokyo is just like any other city- it has lots of price ranges. My school trips never cost over $2,500, but that wasn't enough to put me totally at ease because I knew that they got group rates on flights and hotel, which would be my biggest money-drain. That being said, having experience in Tokyo helped me a lot- I know I can eat decently for $30 or less per day, for example, and I know that there are plenty of traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) that are basically a bit better than hostels and can cost as little as $30 per night. A little travel-savvy can get you a long way, and let me tell you, I milked mine for everything it had!

Here's my budget (in USD):
Plane ticket (purchased in September for a March vacation): $880
Ryokan: about $70 per night for a two-person room; total about $250 each for 6 nights
Food: Breakfast- $5, Lunch- $10, Dinner- $15; Total $30/day or about $210 each
Transportation: $100-$150
Emergency: $100
Entertainment: $100
TOTAL: ~$1640-$1690

Okay, so we're not going to be living the high life in Tokyo. While ryokan are often very sophisticated, classy establishments that can include meals and hot springs, there are also many that cater to budget-conscious travelers and poor students. The one we're staying at was a referral from my brother, who called it "a glorified hostel." However, it's in the middle of Ikebukuro, only a few blocks from a large train station, and we get our own 4.5-tatami-room (which is tiny for two people. Seriously, tiny. But it's Japan, so really, you take what you can get space-wise); we're going to bring a can of bed bug spray and cut our losses. And yes, you can feed yourself in Japan for $30 a day! We did it every year in high school, and going above that meant paying out of pocket with our precious spending money- so yeah, we stuck to that budget pretty devotedly! Here's what I'll probably be eating: breakfast will be an onigiri (riceball) or pastry from a convenience store or supermarket, lunch will be a crepe or bowl of ramen, and dinner will be something cheap-y and probably fast food-y. Healthy? No, not really. Tasty? Yes. Cheap? Double yes! We'll probably also try to find a nearby supermarket and try to pick up bread or produce to snack on inexpensively- we'll be there for six days, but we're probably not going to have a refrigerator in our room, so anything we get will have to be kept at room temperature.

Another oft-overlooking aspect of budgeting is an emergency fund. This is incredibly important, whether you're taking a weekend at the beach or a three-week vacation abroad- no matter how close to home you are, you just never know what could happen. What if you bust a tire, or lose your bus pass, or miss curfew and have to stay in a capsule hotel? Okay, maybe that last one is really just one of my personal paranoias about my trip, but honestly- you never know what could come up, and the last thing you want to do is chose between your safety and eating for the rest of the trip. If it's the second-to-last day and it seems like you won't be needing it, start slowly using up your foreign currency and treat yourself to a little bit fancier dinner or buy some extra souvenirs for friends (hello, 100-yen store!)

You'll also notice that I didn't portion in any spending money. As a lolita, this will sound like suicide, but hear me out. Since I haven't had a stable source of income these past six-or-so months, I haven't been able to accurately estimate what I'd be able to save by mid-March. In fact, I only just met my minimum far more recently than I'd been hoping, and since I didn't want to have to worry about meeting an exorbitant budget, I set my sights as low as I could to make sure I got the basics covered. Even though I've met my minimum, I'm still going to keep saving, and everything I add thereafter is going to be counted as spending money. I don't recommend this method for big shoppers! To be honest, if I were to go again (and I hope I do!!), I'd make myself a budget and then save all my money up before I even made any arrangements or bought the tickets. It would really save me the stress, and since I'm sure I'll be a big girl once again with an apartment and bills and rent when I make the trip again, saving it all up first would be the best thing for me to do.

My biggest concern is the flight. A few months after buying the tickets, I took a tumble on some icy pavement this past December and set off what my doctors are calling a case of "congenital spondylosis"- it has a fancy medical definition I'm sure, but all it means to me is that I can't sit for more than an hour (if that) without intense pain that goes all the way from my mid-back to my knees. I'm in physical therapy, but I'm very worried about having to be on a plane for fourteen hours straight; if I could have, I would've book a flight with a stopover or two, but it's too late for that. Adding to my worry is that I'll be flying an America-based airline instead of a Japanese one, something I told myself I'd never bother to experiment with. While I've had some perfectly comfy flights on a plethora of American airlines,  they really just cannot compare to ANA or any other Japanese ones I've used. Not only is there a small TV screen on the back of every eat, which you use a Wii-style controller to change the channel and sometimes play video games, but stewardesses come around every few hours with (if I remember correctly) iced tea, hot tea, and warm broth- and they wear the cutest uniforms! It was always so worth it. This time, though, I'll be flying Continental. We'll... see how that goes. I'll keep you posted.

Like I said above, I'll be doing another post of a follow-up to this budget: was the ryokan worth it? Can one live off onigiri and ramen alone? Until then, here's an older article I wrote about Traveling in Lolita: Packing. And if anyone has anything to add to this, please let me know in the comments! Anything from suggesting places in Tokyo for me to visit to telling your own stories of traveling in lolita is welcome!

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