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Stretching The Yen

As Japan's trade barriers begin to fall, more and more business travelers are learning expensive lessons.

All you have heard about prices in Japan is true. But don't let that spoil your plans for a trip to the 'land of the rising sun'. Measuring almost 4,000 kilometers from north to south, Japan is a fascinating and varied country, waiting to be enjoyed by visitors with a modicum of initiative.

Concerned by declining visitor figures, the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) has produced a number of useful publications for the benefit of budget travelers. These provide information on accommodations and the Japan Rail Pass, which must be purchased outside the country. The 16 overseas offices of JNTO are the best sources of information when planning a trip. In Japan itself the numerous JNTO offices provide free leaflets, maps and lists, and can help with booking accommodations in any price range.

Accommodations will probably be the most costly element of any stay in Japan. Western-style hotels provide a familiar environment for unadventurous travelers, or perhaps for your first night after a long flight, but they offer no real feeling of being in Japan. At the top end of the scale standards are luxurious, with very high prices. The so-called business hotels have lower rates, appropriate to their compact rooms. You will, however, find better value for money and more local color in other types of lodgings.

Japan's hospitality industry dates back to time immemorial, thanks to centuries of ritual pilgrimages. The typical ryokan (Japanese style inn) enshrines the highest possible standard of comfort and aesthetic delight for the honored guest. A few ryokans are so exclusive that guests require personal introductions - charges are equally exclusive, upwards of ¥60,000 a night. The average ryokan, however, will charge somewhere between ¥8,000-12,000 per person, per night, including two splendid meals and excellent individual maid service.

Guest rooms are sizable, with fragrant, springy tatami (rush-covered matting) floors. The walls will likely be of wood in older buildings, adorned by at least one well-placed scroll and a meditation corner complete with ikebana flower arrangement. A low table may have a built-in electric foot warmer and legless zaisu chairs. Depending on the size of the room, there may be arm-chairs if the ryokan prides itself on catering to foreigners. A big cupboard doubles as wardrobe and daytime storage for the futon (traditional mattress and duvet-type quilt). The idea of sleeping on the floor may seem abhorrent, but Japanese-style it's actually very comfortable, although you will probably prefer a rolled-up sweater in place of the hard, cylindrical Japanese pillow.

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