Tokyo is undoubtedly one of the most exciting cities in the world. However, as one of the most expensive cities in the world, budget-conscious travellers may be hesitant to visit Tokyo. Don’t fret—there are many ways that you can enjoy all the city has to offer without throwing your budget out the window.
Make the most of public transport
Tokyo’s maze of train lines can be intimidating to first-time visitors, but once you get the hang of it, the trains offer the most time-efficient and budget-friendly way to travel around the city. Many travellers have heard of the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited rides on most shinkansen (bullet trains), other JR trains and Tokyo Metro trains. 7-day passes start at 29,650 yen (NZ$453), but you need to realise that the ultra-fast shinkansen are predominantly for travelling long distances. It’s great value if you plan on travelling extensively outside Tokyo, but it’s a waste of money if you plan on staying in the Tokyo metro area.
A great cost-saving option is a one-day open ticket offered by Tokyo Metro. At only 600 yen (NZ$9) per day, you can ride on Tokyo Metro subways an unlimited number of times giving you easy access to just about anywhere in central Tokyo. If you plan on venturing a little outside the heart of Tokyo, another cost saver is the Seishun Ju Hachi Kippu, which gives you unlimited rides on all JR (Japan Railways) local trains in Japan for a little over 11,500 yen (NZ$175) for five tickets, which can be used five different days or can be shared with travel companions to use at the same time.
Extra transportation tips: If you are riding trains, Hyperdia’s indispensable website and app give you easy-to-understand train routes and timetables in English. For the real Tokyo experience, try jumping on a train at a major station at rush hour and you can live the fabled craziness of Tokyo’s jam-packed trains! If you want to avoid the crowds, note that the evening rush usually peaks around 8:00 or 9:00 PM on weekdays.
Cut costs on accommodation
This is where the line in the sand must be drawn if you want to stick to a budget. Tokyo tempts tourists with numerous luxurious hotel options, but you can actually find an unexpectedly wide range of cheap accommodation as well. If you are looking for a standard hotel experience infused with a little Japanese culture, try the Juyoh Hotel, which has some small gardens and the option of a traditional Japanese tatami mat room. Another solid option is the Tokyo Ueno New Izu Hotel, which offers single rooms within a 5-minute of walk of Ueno Station.
If you want to stay at a youth hostel, check out Hotel Sakura Jimbocho. The dormitory-style accommodations make it a great place to find travel mates. They have a 24-hour travel desk with multilingual staff members and a café open 24 hours a day.
If you prefer the Japanese version of a hostel utilised by businessmen all over the country, you have to try to a capsule hotel. The Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside, gives you a sleeping pod in a central location. Another popular option is the 1 Night 1980 Hostel. The design is a hybrid between sleeping capsules and hostel-style bunk bends.
Make the most of free activities
If you are in Shibuya, be sure to check out the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in front of JR Shibuya Station. It is always packed around rush hour and is an especially cool place to watch raucous fans celebrate national sports victories. If you happen to be here at the end of October, hordes of people wearing costumes gather here for one of world’s craziest Halloween events.
There are an astounding number of free and cheap ways to go sightseeing in Tokyo. Walk around the Akihabara district, which was originally famous as a place where techies could pick up parts to build computers and gadgets. Nowadays it is filled with many regular electronics stores, maid cafes and shops selling anime and manga goods. You don’t need to buy anything here — walking around and observing this unique subculture is free.
A fun place to visit outside central Tokyo is Odaiba, a man-made island in the Tokyo Bay. Here you can see beautiful views of the Tokyo Rainbow Bridge and enjoy free admission into places such as the Panasonic Center, a massive showroom of the company’s latest products, Fuji TV Building, which is one of Japan’s biggest TV networks, and Toyota Mega Web, where you can see their latest models and technology as well as older cars.
If you are looking for some traditional culture, head to the Sensoji or Asakusa Kannon Temple, the oldest temple in Tokyo (founded in 628). Take a photo under the huge, red paper lantern and gaze at the impressive detail of this temple. Try to hold off on buying anything at the touristy gift shops here.
While many dream of seeing sumo wrestling in Japan, the grand tournaments only come to Tokyo a few times a year (January, May and September) and tickets can be quite expensive. However, the Arashio Sumo Stable invites everyone to view their intense morning practices for free all year round (whenever a tournament isn’t being held). Anybody can watch practices through the large viewing windows outside the practice facility. Check out details in English here.
If modern Japanese culture is more your thing, head to Harajuku to see the heart of Japan’s extreme youth fashion and culture. Take a stroll around Takeshita Dori to check out funky stores, trendy fashion boutiques and young people in outrageous outfits.
You might surely want to do some shopping while you are Tokyo. Feel free to walk around the ultra-fancy department stores such as Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi or the fancy boutiques in Ginza, but don’t buy anything unless you want to blow up the budget. Whether you forgot to bring something or you want to shop for cool, cheap souvenirs, head to one of Tokyo’s many 100 yen stores known as hyakkin. You may be skeptical, but these stores have amazing products ranging from cool stationary to travel items and even traditional Japanese toys and decorations that you would never think could only cost just a dollar each. The biggest hyakkin chains are Daiso and Seria.
One of the coolest and most fun places to shop is discount chain Don Quijote. The store sells everything under the sun including cosmetics, alcohol, appliances, luggage and clothes. Don Quijote is a great destination if you ran out of time for souvenir shopping during the day or just prefer to go shopping late at night – almost all Don Quijote stores are open well past midnight and many are open 24 hours. They even have an English website where you can view their products and pre-order now for pick-up after you arrive in Japan.
Extra tips: If you want to see Tokyo with an English-speaking guide, check out this tour guide service run by the Tokyo Convention & Visitors. You only pay for the guide’s transportation expense and admission fees – the guides’ services are free. One recommended free tour is the observation deck on the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The entrance fee is free of charge and the volunteer guides can explain about the buildings and surroundings.
Eat and drink like a local
If you need to remember one Japanese word, remember this: konbini. It means convenience store, and they serve as the essential pit stop places for you to grab a quick meal to go. Beware: some of the food is not really that cheap, so stick to local favourites. One great choice is onigiri, which are triangles of seaweed-wrapped rice with various fillings such as salmon, chicken teriyaki and pickled plum. Other economical and tasty options are niku-man, Chinese steamed buns filled with pork, and kareman, which are steamed buns filled with Japanese curry. The best part is that onigiri, niku-man and kare-man cost around 120 yen (NZ$1.80) each, meaning you could easily grab lunch for under 300 yen (NZ$4.50). Konbini are all over the place and open 24 hours. Popular convenience store chains include Family Mart, Lawson’s and Circle K.
One cool area to grab a cheap bite to eat is Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho. Its narrow streets are filled with a hodgepodge of food stalls and tiny counter-only restaurants. Popular foods here are yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers), ramen and yakiniku (grilled meat). If you want more of a restaurant, try a traditional izakaya, where Japanese people share small plates of various foods and wash it down with beer and sake. If you are worried about that budget, go with one of the 15 yakitori spots here since it usually costs only around 100 yen (NZ$1.50) per skewer of chicken (as well as other grilled meats and veggies on skewers).
You obviously have to try sushi while you are in Tokyo, but many of the best sushi bars in Tokyo come with staggering prices. If you want to splurge on good sushi, head to Tsukiji, the world’s biggest and busiest fish market. If you get there by 5:00 AM, you may be able to catch the famous tuna auctions.
For a budget sushi experience in the heart of Tokyo, try kaiten-zushi. These are conveyor belt sushi restaurants, which offer huge varieties of tasty sushi and other dishes at extremely cheap prices. Try the Genki Sushi chain, which features over 80 items that are only 100 yen (NZ$1.50) per plate, futuristic touch screen ordering and English menus. The shop’s name is usually written in Japanese, but keep an eye out for their logo–an angry, round-faced character.
If you are looking to sample some of Japan’s sake, head to the Sake Plaza, which is a sake museum and showroom. Entrance is free and there are English-speaking staff along with an informational video about sake in English.
Shinjuku’s Golden Gai is one of the coolest places to get a drink in Tokyo and feel like a local. Golden Gai’s collection of about 200 tiny bars makes you feel as if you went back in time. Most bars here have cover charges of around 1000 yen (NZ$15.25) per person.