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Sunday, April 15, 2001

TOKYO FREE-FOR-ALL

A yen for thrift


Staff writer

There was a time when Japan prided itself on its thriftiness. Hard times after World War II produced the need to save money and cut every corner. Children were taught that each grain of rice was sacred and not to be wasted. Sardines and mackerel were standard fare, beef reserved only for special occasions. Little Sister got Big Sister's hand-me-downs, and eating and sleeping in the same room was the norm.

Over time, though, as the economy got back on track, people learned to enjoy consumption and even developed a taste for luxury. Then in the '80s, like a kid itching to buy that new shiny, red bike, Japan broke open the piggy bank and blew its hard-earned savings. In Tokyo in particular, extravagant spending became commonplace. Consumption had to be conspicuous. Rich lifestyles -- and imported, high-status accouterments -- were breathlessly touted in the media. Consequently, tourists became terrified of high-flying Tokyo and its legendary 800 yen cups of coffee.

It's a different story in the Japan of 2001.

While Tokyoites were once reluctant to admit to having to scrimp and save, thrift is no longer a dirty word. Cheap coffee shops and 100 yen stores can be found in any neighborhood, even Ginza. The media regularly covers the ingenuity of spendthrifts, and books about simple lifestyles top bestseller lists. The Gap and Uniqlo have moved next door to Hermes and Gucci, and words such as gekiyasu (super cheap) appear regularly in advertisements.

Could it be that virtues of thriftiness are returning to the most expensive city in the world?

A recent poll of 2,000 people aged 20 to 69 by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a think tank affiliated with advertising giant Hakuhodo Inc., found that more people in the metropolitan area were leading simple, frugal lives and trying to cut back on daily expenses. Of those polled, nearly 37 percent said they planned to reduce the amount they spent on groceries, nearly 32 percent wanted to spend less on everyday clothing, while 42 percent said they were reluctant to spend money on eating out.

Masakazu Ota, a researcher at HILL, says that Tokyoites are now much more savvy with their money. "People these days are looking to spend less on goods and services, but not at the expense of quality," he said. "They want products of reasonable quality that are functional and have style, but cost as little as possible."

This desire to cut back on costs has fueled a boom in discount shops. Leading discount company Daiso 100 yen Plaza, which boasts 2,000 stores across the country, last year recorded sales of 215 billion yen, while discounter Don Quijote, which opened its first store in Fuchu, western Tokyo, in 1989, now has 31 outlets in the Kanto region and recorded sales last year of 72.5 billion yen.

The food industry has also been quick to respond to people's desire to make their yen stretch further. Fast-food restaurants have slashed their prices: McDonald's Japan has halved the price of a hamburger to 65 yen on weekdays, and earlier this month Yoshinoya began selling regular-size gyudon (beef on rice) for 250 yen -- 150 yen lower than the previous price.

As well as cutting back on daily necessities such as food and clothing, people are also looking to reduce the amount they spend on entertainment and leisure activities, an area that can take a sizable chunk out of a monthly budget: Thirty percent of the Hakuhodo poll respondents said they wanted to cut back on the amount they spent going out with friends to bars, clubs and other entertainment venues.

But is it really possible to spend less and still have a good time in a city where movies cost 1,800 yen and concert tickets are among the most expensive in the world? The answer is that it's easier than you think. There are hundreds of things to do in Tokyo that won't blow your budget -- in fact, they won't cost you anything at all.

No one knows this better than American author Susan Pompian, whose 1998 book "Tokyo for Free" is packed with cost-free activity ideas.

A resident of Tokyo for over a decade, Pompian was constantly asked by family and friends abroad how she managed to make ends meet in such an expensive city. When she realized that many people keen on visiting Tokyo held back because of fears of cost, she decided to write articles about some of Tokyo's fabulous free offerings. She ended up finding so many great places that cost little or nothing, many unknown even to Tokyoites, that she wrote a whole book.

Pompian's information-gathering was powered by her curiosity. "I read everything I could find, asked questions of everyone I met, studied maps and closely observed every street I walked down."

She said she acquired a different perspective by developing a new sense of appreciation for such things as parks, gardens and cityscapes.

Things that people usually take for granted or never even pay attention to "are really quite fabulous once you stop to notice them," she said. "This is what I tried to convey to people with the book. Do take the time to look around at all the wonderful things that surround you every day."

So close your wallet, open your mind and read on for details of just a few of the many ways you can explore Tokyo on the cheap . . .



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