Asia: A word from the cheap seats

By Kris Shannon

Kris Shannon gets the budget experience

For budget travellers doing a lot of walking, Tokyo's Shibuya crossing is the busiest in the world and a sight to see. Photo / Getty Images
For budget travellers doing a lot of walking, Tokyo's Shibuya crossing is the busiest in the world and a sight to see. Photo / Getty Images

Nothing quite says "budget" like being able to simultaneously touch the opposing walls of your hotel room - with your elbows.

Or being unable to sit up in bed without fear of hitting your head. Or being woken in the middle of the night by the hiccups of an inebriated businessman sleeping on top of you.

The Capsule Value Kanda in Tokyo is a traditional Japanese capsule hotel, providing everything a traveller needs (bed, television, communal showers) and nothing they don't (minibar, room service, privacy).

Capsule hotels can resemble a morgue - with a dozen or so pods stacked along a wall - but the occupants are a lot livelier. In addition to no-frills travellers, they were designed for locals who have had one sake too many and are reluctant to go home to face their spouses.

You have to expect a bit of noise with rooms costing only NZ$45 a night, but a combination of jetlag and a few Kirin beers ensured a good night's sleep.

Which was just as well, because I soon discovered that experiencing Tokyo on a budget involved an inordinate amount of walking.

The guide on our Backstreets walking tour (group tours start at $160 a person) was akin to a drill sergeant, marching her troops all over the sprawling city. Never has a seat been so savoured as when one was secured on the metro rides, which took us from one tourist hot spot to the next.

Among the highlights on a busy, budget-friendly day: Rikugien Gardens, a lush oasis nestled in the heart of the concrete jungle; Electric City, a Disneyland for technophiles; and the Shibuya Scramble, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.

With those destinations free of charge, the only significant cost came in the form of fatigued feet.

There was plenty of time to relax on the three-hour flight to Shanghai the following day, though there was nothing relaxing about a maiden experience of Chinese public transport. Squashed into a metro cabin that was a reminder the city is home to 18 million people, there was only one way to exit at the desired destination - push.

Forming a rolling maul, we squeezed between stubborn pensioners forcing their way on to the train and found a narrow corridor through which to escape. While recovering from the ordeal, our host, a Shanghai local, turned and summed up the madness: "Welcome to China."

Thankfully, there was more space at the Zero Page hotel, a backpackers just off The Bund, which provided individual rooms with bathrooms. It may not have been as glamorous as the Waldorf Astoria across the street but, for $60 a night, it was functional.

The following day we learned Shanghai is a shoppers' paradise, even on a budget.

There's the fabrics market, where suits and other attire are custom-made at bargain basement prices. There are DVD stores, stocking everything from new releases to film festival darlings for $2 a pop. And there's the fakes market, featuring false walls behind which you can find Prada purses of questionable authenticity.

Local cuisine can also be enjoyed without breaking the bank. For lunch, a 10-minute wait outside Yang's Fry-Dumpling whets the appetite and assures you of quality. For dinner, the Reel Plaza Foodcourt caters to all tastes, providing a 10-minute search for a seat is successful.

There are all the usual suspects for those seeking more familiar fare - but with improvements. After another short flight to Hong Kong, we found that those enjoying Burger King can quench their thirst with a beer. Beer? In a burger franchise? One can only imagine the carnage if this were implemented in New Zealand.

That particular restaurant apparently was one of the more picturesque locations for fast food. Atop Victoria Peak, a diner enjoys sweeping views of Hong Kong Island on a clear day. On the day we went you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

Fortunately, the tram ride up was only $6, so it wasn't much of a sunk cost. That ensured there was enough in the budget for an Urban Adventure walking tour ($70 a person) in Kowloon - the most densely populated area in the world but still with enough space for specialised bird markets, flower markets and adult toy markets.

The budget, however, allowed no purchases.

Kris Shannon travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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