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TRAVEL INSIDER : How to Survive a Trip to Land of Rising Yen : Japan: Although the country is more expensive than ever, various lodging, dining and transportation options can make it more affordable for Westerners.


For months now, the yen has been rising, the dollar falling. And anyone planning a trip to Japan--especially a first-timer--should be paying close attention.

Japan was already known as one of the planet's most expensive places: As of Jan. 1, the U.S. State Department was allowing government employees up to $200 per night for lodging in Tokyo and $92 per day for meals and other expenses. And much of the historic run-up of the yen's value against the dollar has come since then.

Back on Nov. 29, 1992, $1 bought 117.4 yen through Thomas Cook Foreign Exchange. As of June 23, the company was selling yen at 105.4 to the dollar. The figure was even more extreme before the trend cooled earlier last month, but even so, the Nov. 29-June 23 fluctuation amounts to a decline of roughly 10% in the dollar's buying power.

This trend is potentially good news for those worried about this country's trade deficit with the Japanese; a weaker dollar effectively raises the price of Japanese goods here and cuts the price of American goods in Japan. But neither Japanese tourism officials nor American travelers will be much consoled by that.

Last month, the travel consultant firm Runzheimer International found that a whole chicken cost $4.28 per pound (four times more than in Los Angeles); a 6.5-ounce can of tuna cost $2.40 (almost three times as much as in Los Angeles); a two-liter soft drink cost $5.73 (more than four times as much as in Los Angeles), and a liter of vodka cost $24.27 (more than twice as much as in Los Angeles). A 24-exposure roll of color film, on the other hand, cost $4.33--three cents less than in Los Angeles.

Japanese tourism officials say it's too soon to tell how much effect the exchange rate slide will have on American travel business, or to tell when rates will stabilize, but anxieties are rising. After running flat at 2.1 million tourist arrivals in each of 1991 and 1992, Japan could face a downturn in visitors.

"We're still receiving the same number of phone calls," says Maria Heffner, spokeswoman for the Japan National Tourist Organization in New York. "I don't think people are backing out of trips if they've already made plans. What people are doing is asking more questions about affordable restaurants and affordable transportation and other things."

The tourist office's response: Heffner and her colleagues are pushing the 2-year-old, but often-overlooked Welcome Inn Reservation Center program. Callers to the agency's Los Angeles or New York offices (telephone 213-623- 1952 or 212-757-5640) can request a Welcome Inn directory of 421 lodgings in Japan with rates under 8,000 yen (roughly $80) per night. Most of the listings are in Tokyo and Kyoto, but less populous areas are included as well.

With at least two weeks of advance time before departure, reservations can be made via mail through an address listed on the Welcome Inn brochure. Welcome Inn reservations centers are also located in Tokyo and Kyoto, and in Narita Airport, about an hour outside Tokyo.

Many of the least expensive lodgings in the country are traditionally Japanese in design, which means Westerners need to adjust to a new series of words: Ryokan are Japanese-style inns with tatami mats and futons rather than beds. Minshuku are family-run inns that more closely resemble Western bed and breakfast operations. Kokumin shukusha are more rustic lodgings in national parks, run either privately or by the government. Americans should also note that a Japanese "business hotel" does not necessarily charge the high-end rates found at American hotels that cater to corporate clientele. (Those hotels are often in business districts, but tend to be Spartan and strictly functional.)

Beyond that, much of the usual advice to budget-minded tourists anywhere applies: Don't take taxis or eat in hotels if you can avoid it; don't automatically turn up your nose at food sold by sidewalk vendors, and study guidebooks to learn the lay of the land.

Like all Lonely Planet publications, the new "Tokyo City Guide" ($8.95) pays particular attention to the interests of the low-budget traveler. (It also reminds readers just how wildly U.S.-Japan economic relations have fluctuated over the years: Before World War II, the yen traded four to $1; four years after Japan's defeat in 1945, the rate was 360 yen to $1.)

Other money-saving strategies will be less obvious to new hands in Japan. For instance, there is no tipping--not in restaurants, not in hotels, not in taxis.

Maria Heffner of the tourism office points out that most large department stores in Japan have restaurants. The prices are usually reasonable--a substantial meal for $15 or less. As is common in Japan, these arrangements usually include plastic window displays to help non-speakers of Japanese choose their dishes.

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