Several weeks ago, when the value of the Japanese yen plummeted to a rate of 100 to the U.S. dollar, people in the travel industry awoke to the emergence of a new destination for cost-conscious Americans. Most of us had last visited Japan when we received far less than 90 yen to the dollar, and the experience was a searing one: Japan was a costly place to visit. At a higher 100 to the dollar, it became moderately priced, on a level with most European nations.
Then, more recently, when the yen fell further, to 110 to the dollar, travel professionals became giddy. And many of them began planning major tour programs there, especially when some financial experts predicted that the rate would eventually reach a level of 125 yen to the dollar.
Well, would you believe that the yen is now priced at 118 to the dollar (and still, apparently, growing weaker)? When you combine that exchange with a general, decade-long deflation that has independently lowered the price of Japanese hotels, restaurants and theaters even further, and when a rate of 125 to the dollar no longer seems impossible, Japan becomes a low-cost “must-see” for all avid American travelers.
Airfares, when bought from Kintetsu, Momondo, Kayak and others, generally will get you round-trip from Los Angeles to Tokyo for about $1,000 in most months. Round-trip rail fare from Tokyo to popular Kyoto on a modern bullet train (shinkansen), bringing you there in two hours and 20 minutes, will add about $160. And similar prices will bring you to the next-most-popular Japanese location among Americans, which, amazingly enough, is Hiroshima.
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While the atom-shattered Hiroshima is perhaps an odd choice for many, Tokyo and Kyoto almost always satisfy. The giant city of Tokyo is a center of remarkable playhouses, and most visitors will want to visit the Kabuki National Theater (where earphones with English translations are lent to tourists) and the Takarazuka All-Women’s Theater, where giant musical productions are performed by an all-women cast (the exact opposite of the Kabuki’s all-male presentations). Playgoing is preceded by equally remarkable meals in superb Japanese restaurants. The predominant Japanese diet of fish and rice is sometimes given credit for the remarkable longevity of the Japanese population (84.5 years is the averge survival rate, the highest in the world), although Japan’s universal-health-care programs are cited for that phenomenon to almost the same extent.
Subways in Tokyo contain bilingual signs, making them easy to negotiate. Subways service the awesome parks and gardens scattered through the city (one of the largest on Earth) and also bring you to famous shopping areas where department store attendants at entrances and elevator doors bow to you respectfully when you approach to shop. Residents are invariably polite to visitors, and those few who speak English go out of their way to help you. When my wife and I were once directed to the wrong train by a Japanese businessman of whom we had asked instructions, and we were waiting for its departure, he came sprinting back a half-hour later, all drenched in perspiration from the run from several blocks away, to apologize and redirect us.
As for Kyoto, who could resist a city where geisha in white pancake makeup and exotic, colorful dress are often found walking along the public sidewalks, on their way to a party? And where ancient buildings and Shinto gardens transport you to another age? Kyoto is the well-preserved, former imperial capital of Japan, a place of temples and shrines by the many hundreds, and utterly enchanting.
You haven’t known the world until you have traveled in Japan. And now you can do so for an amazingly small cost.
Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at frommers.com.