February 01, 1988 12:00 PM

Americans traveling abroad these days are witnessing an amazing spectacle: the rapidly shrinking purchasing power of the once-almighty U.S. dollar. The dollar has dropped 18 percent against the British pound over the past 12 months and 15 percent against the Japanese yen. While prices on foreign-made cars and electronic goods creep upward in the United States, the biggest case of currency shock comes when travelers call for the check in, say, Rome or London. Nowhere is the greenback in worse shape than in Japan, where the dollar has halved in value during the past three years, and a $10 bill lasts about as long as a cherry blossom in a gale. We asked writer Michael Ryan to play tourist in Tokyo for a day, or less if the money ran out. His report:

Tokyo. There are only two essentials for an American traveler who wants to spend an enjoyable day in this city: a Japanese phrase book and the proceeds from a second mortgage on the family home.

The dollar-yen exchange rate had not been of riveting interest to me until this month, when a business trip to Southeast Asia forced me to change planes and spend a night in Tokyo. Now, poorer and wiser, I have learned the great secret of the Orient: how to have an enjoyable, typical tourist experience in Japan for just a shade over $1,000 a day—with just a little penny-pinching.

The fun begins when you arrive at Narita airport, 40 miles outside Tokyo. Angry Japanese rioted when the government confiscated farmland to build this place; angry American tourists should have joined them. To save money I took the airport bus, a bargain at only Y2, 600—$20.80. (Those exchange rates you may see on the evening news are bank rates: If the dollar trades at about 130 yen, an individual traveler gets about 125.)

The airline had arranged for me to receive the discount rate at a skyscraper hotel that stands on the site once occupied by Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent Imperial Hotel. The original came down because the land under it was too valuable for a building so small—making Frank Lloyd Wright the first American who couldn’t afford to stay in Tokyo. In any case, that discount rate at the new place, also called the Imperial, came to about $230, including 20 percent for service and tax. That covered any number of amenities—like heat, running water, a single bed with sheets, a view of a construction site and a color TV.

Flushed with success at having been in Japan more than two hours and having spent only $250, I walked over to the Ginza for some window-shopping. I did not buy my wife the $220 cotton sweater at a department store; I passed up the chance to own a white formal shirt for $360—studs and cuff links extra, of course. Nor, at $20 a ticket, did I take in a movie. I went back to the hotel, bought the International Herald Tribune for $2.24, called home for a reasonable $6.80 and turned out the lights. There is no tax on sleep in Japan.

Morning is a delicate time for an American abroad. You awake in a strange bed in a strange country, and you long for the comforting sights and tastes of home. A good hotel will salve those yearnings, as the Imperial did with the hometown paper (the New York Times, $11.20 for a four-day-old copy) and an American-style breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, juice and coffee ($22). A slight case of sniffles was coming on, checked by Contac (20 capsules for $17.60). Armed with two rolls of film ($9.80), I roamed the Ginza for an hour, then arrested my jet lag with a cup of coffee ($5.20, no refills).

No American should visit Japan without seeing a Kabuki play, so I went to Kabuki-za, the great old theater in Central Tokyo. I snagged a medium-price ticket for the morning performance for $96. I rented an earpiece for simultaneous translation ($4.80). Like most Americans, I lasted about half an hour before I skulked out.

Now came the first of several taxis ($6.32 for about two miles). The first stop was a bookstore, for a map of the city ($12) and some reading matter (the year-end double issue of PEOPLE: $8.80). Then a $7.60 taxi to a restaurant that advertises itself on the English TV channel in the hotel with a commercial showing smiling chefs, friendly waiters and a couple of delighted Americans laughing a lot and having fun.

The Americans must have been Tokyo Rose and her cousin Norbert. The tempura lunch—six fried shrimp, two tiny fried mystery fish, a few gingko nuts, some scallops and baby vegetables, followed by a slice of melon—came to $100. Without doggy bag.

After a morning in Tokyo, a visitor begins feeling dissatisfied. The central city, with its glass towers and its traffic, could just as easily be Hong Kong or Houston. One solution to a yearning for atmosphere is the $10.16 cab ride to the tranquil Yasukuni Shrine, where a pilgrim can put 40 cents in a machine to buy bird feed for the white doves. That works out to about $1.60 a pound; back home, a 20-pound bag is about $3.69. After an 80-cent donation to the shrine and a $3.36 cab ride back downtown, there’s time for an afternoon snack. The fruit stand I found in the Akasaka district was a marvel of mirrors and marble that made me feel almost comfortable paying $12 for a single apple the size of a softball. They gift-wrapped the fruit, as well they might.

An afternoon apple demands an afternoon cup of coffee—a rich, high-caffeine, jet-lag-fighting cup. Alas, the coffee at the fashionable Caffea Arabica isn’t all that strong, although the $12 bill for one cup has a way of awakening a dozing patron.

A tourist must buy souvenirs, of course, but the Matsuya department store does nothing to win an American’s heart with its gigantic “Yes, Yen” posters. Still, a cotton kimono and sash at $48 are not unspeakable—just double what they were a few years ago. Ornate napkins for the Japanese tea ceremony—like the one in Shogun—cost $80 a piece. I settled for a single plain one at $18.40. Some undistinguished modern woodblock prints bought for $32.80 calmed my shopping demons for the rest of the day.

Before dinner it was easy to resist the $300 Sony Walkman in the electronics district, and the $2,000 Toshiba refrigerator held no charms that my $649 GE at home is lacking. In fact, helping tourists resist temptation of any sort is one of the few major benefits of the powerful yen. Who wouldn’t quit after just one $12 gin and tonic, or give up smoking at $2.25 a pack? And the young women who advertise themselves by pasting up fliers in phone booths—at $400 for two hours—may find that marital fidelity is becoming the great American pastime.

As the sun set over the Ginza, I went off to the Hama steakhouse in Tokyo’s renowned Roppongi district. A traditional Japanese dinner—New York cut steak, miso soup and salad followed by green tea and ice cream—cost $141.39. By now the $14.40 for cabs to and from the restaurant and later the $160 cab ride back to Narita airport seemed entirely reasonable. I thought that nothing in this country would ever shock me again. Then I reached the departure gate at the airport. There, a smiling man informed me that it would cost me $16 in tax to get our of the country. As I boarded the plane to leave Japan—and to leave behind $1,030 I had arrived with only the day before—a half-remembered verse from the New Testament ran through my mind:

I was a stranger, and you took me in.

The friendly fellow sitting next to me on the plane to Bangkok was a Japanese businessman—sitting next to me, I learned, only because this aircraft had no first-class cabin. He went out of his way to express his admiration for things American—the people, the culture, the country. “I love America,” he said. “I go there every few months. My favorite place is San Francisco. It is an amazing city, you know—you can get a hotel room there for just $300. You can get breakfast for only $12. I can’t believe that it is so cheap.”

I looked in my phrase book. It did not contain the Japanese words for “Oh, shut up.”

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