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Tokyo has this reputation of being an expensive place ato visit, but you’ll be surprised to learn that Tokyo on a budget is possible. If you’ve decided to make Tokyo your next destination, you won’t be disappointed. However, I warn you now, visit once and you’ll immediately wonder when you’ll be back. It’s not the neon lights that’ll draw you back, it’s the culture.

What makes Tokyo such a great city is that it’s a sensory overload. Walk in any direction and you’re guaranteed to come across something interesting within a few minutes. Don’t forget to look up, Tokyo is a vertical city with many of the best restaurants and shops located right above your head. Tokyo on a budget can be done while still experiencing ancient traditions, local culture, and great food.

Tokyo on a budget - Transportation

Tokyo on a budget – Transportation

The Tokyo metro map may seem intimidating but it’s really not that hard to navigate. All stations have English signs making navigating easy as long as you know what line you want.

IC cards

Tickets can be bought for point to point travel, but it’s much easier to pick up a prepaid IC card. In the Tokyo area, a Suica or Pasmo card is your best bet They’re interchangeable and can both be refilled at machines located in every metro station. You don’t save any money by using these prepaid cards, but it’s really a matter of convenience.

JR Pass

If you’re travelling around Japan there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with a JR Pass which can be used on any JR line while it’s still valid. Within Tokyo, the two JR lines are the JR Yamanote and the JR Chuo line. Stick to these lines if you have an active pass so you don’t need to pay extra. There will be times that you’ll need to use your IC card to get you to your final destination.

Japan trains are always on time so you can use Hyperdia to plan your trip in advance, or the app Japan Trains when you’re there. Remember, walking is always an option too since you’ll never know what surprise you’ll find around the corner.

Taxis

If you’re trying to see Tokyo for as cheap as possible, you’ll likely want to avoid taxis but it’s worth mentioning. The metro closes quite early compared to other networks around the world, so if you’re out late, you may have to take a taxi. The good news is that they’re not crazy expensive and there’s no tipping (just round up to the nearest Yen). Taxi drivers rarely speak English so have a map of where you want to go or your address in Kanji.

Tokyo on a budget - Accommodations

Tokyo on a budget – Accommodations

Like any major city, Tokyo will have plenty of options when it comes to cheap accommodations. Interestingly enough, you can find reasonably priced stays in popular parts of the city so you won’t need to travel too much.

Hostels

Hostels will be your cheapest option and there are plenty to choose from in Tokyo. You can find hostels in Shibuya, Asakusa, and in many other locations. Hostels often come with free breakfast and have happy hour for drinks. Some of the best hostels in Tokyo include:

Capsule hotels

The novelty of staying in a capsule hotel may be appealing to some. You’re literally just getting a tiny space where you can sleep with limited amenities. It’s not for me, but the prices are reasonable. Some of the best capsule hotels in Tokyo I recommend include:

Budget hotels

The thing about Tokyo is that there are actually a lot of hotels that are reasonably priced. Rooms might be small, and they might not be in the best locations, but you’ll get a clean room. I personally think budget hotels are a good value since they’re similar in price to capsule hotels. Some of the best cheap hotels in Tokyo include:

Airbnb

Airbnb is a good option since you get to live like a local. Prices vary depending on your requirements, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find a private apartment for under $150 a night; you’ll pay much less if you opt for just a private room. Note that Airbnb in Japan is highly regulated so you may need to send a copy of your passport in advance of your arrival. Use my Airbnb referral code to get $50 off your first stay.

Tokyo on a budget - attractions

Tokyo on a budget – Attractions

Catching the 5 am tuna auction at Toyosu Market is considered a must do, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to get in. Only a limited amount of visitors are allowed in, and lining up at 4 am no longer guarantees you a spot in front of the action. That being said, it’s still worth strolling around the inner and outer markets where can dine on some of the freshest sushi possible.

For free sweeping views of the city, make a trip up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The north observatory is open from 9:30 am – 11 pm so you can catch the sunrise or sunset; on a clear day you can even see Mt. Fuji.

Although the inner grounds of the Tokyo Imperial Palace aren’t normally open to the public, visitors can still visit the east gardens every day except Mondays and Fridays. There are guided tours available of the palace grounds are offered, but they must be reserved in advance through the imperial household agency.

A trip to Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Sensō-ji Temple located in the Asakusa area. This Buddhist temple was founded in 628 for Kannon, the goddess of mercy and is free to visit. Nakamise shopping street which leads to the temple is especially popular with tourists since you can purchase a variety of souvenirs and snacks. Just across the street is the recently opened Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center which will give you a good view of the temple grounds and of the Tokyo Skytree which is on the other side of the Sumida River.

Exploring neighbourhoods

Seeing Tokyo for cheap is easy since there are so many awesome neighbourhoods to explore. You’ve probably heard of Akihabara which is popular for electronics and anime, but in recent years, there’s been an explosion of maid, cat, and owl cafes. The cafes aren’t free, but they’re a pretty unique experience which should be experienced by visitors. For another look at the culture, head over to Takeshita Street in Harajuku where you’re bound to come across a few lolitas – a fashion subculture that originated in Japan.

If you’re looking for “old Tokyo” then make a quick trip to Yanaka Ginza where you won’t find any skyscrapers. This is a mostly residential area which will give you a good feel of how the locals live. Within walking distance is one of Tokyo’s most famous graveyards, Yanaka Cemetery which is picturesque during cherry blossom season.

Areas off the beaten path are definitely worth checking out since it shows the “real” Tokyo. Daikanyama is where hipsters hang out; it definitely has an L.A. feel to it and is walking distance from Shibuya station. Over in Kagurazaka you might think you teleported to Paris; although this area has a heavy French influence, the sleepy backstreets and temples nearby are definitely of interest.

Tokyo on a budget - Food

Tokyo on a budget – Food

Generally speaking food in Tokyo isn’t very expensive. The prices are on par with North America, but tipping is considered rude in Japan so you’ll save a bit there. Here are some of the best cheap eats in Tokyo.

Conveyor belt sushi

Conveyor belt sushi is considered fine dining in many countries, but in Japan, they treat it as “fast food” which is great for budget travellers. Prices are charged by plate colour so it shouldn’t be too hard to keep track of your spending. For something a little more fun, try Genki Sushi in Shibuya. Sushi is ordered via tablets and then it gets delivered to you on an “electric train” via a track which makes a good story when you return home. You should have no problem filling up for about US $10.

Ramen

Ramen is a favourite meal for the Japanese and can be had for less than $10 a bowl. Honestly, I’ve never had a bad bowl of noodles in Tokyo, but there are a few chains that you should keep an eye out for. Ichiran is a popular spot for both locals and tourists, just don’t expect an intimate dining experience since everyone is seated at individual booths. Afuri ramen also gets great reviews and has multiple locations around the city. Just about every ramen shop requires you to buy a ticket from a vending machine in advance, but don’t worry there are always pictures.

Bakeries

Bakeries can be found at just about every train station where buns can be found for US $2-3. You’ll find traditional treats such as croissants, cinnamon buns, and sandwiches, but they often have them infused with Japanese flavours. For example, you can get a matcha or red bean bun. If you’re not sure what’s in a bun, be sure to ask as it might be fish.

Bento boxes

In grocery and convenience stores, you can purchase bento boxes which is a set meal of small dishes. You’ll usually get a combination of beans, potatoes, rice, and a protein for about $5-7. Although buying this kind of a good from 7-Eleven or a train station may sound weird for tourists, the quality is excellent.

Gyudon

One traditional Japanese dish that isn’t very common overseas is gyudon. The dish is shaved beef and onions on rice. It’s a very simple meal, but it’s cheap. You can get a full portion for US $4-6. Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya are the major chains that sell gyudon.

Final thoughts

There’s no doubt that you can do Tokyo on a budget, but don’t cheap out just for the sake of it. You can enjoy many attractions in the city without spending any money, but treating yourself to good food is always recommended.

For more inspiration, check out these budget guides on Bali, Dubai, Amsterdam, Paris, Italy, and Disney World.

Tokyo on a Budget

24 Comments

  1. Tawcan on December 9, 2015 at 1:58 PM

    Great tips. I actually think Tokyo can be a pretty cheap city if you plan ahead and eat the Japanese “fast food. “

    • Barry Choi on December 9, 2015 at 3:48 PM

      Tawcan,

      Yes and in Japan Izakaya’s aren’t very expensive. Honestly, I spent less per day in Tokyo compared to Chicago.

    • Lex on July 4, 2019 at 4:04 PM

      Hi. So a pasmo card is better than the all you can ride cards for 1-3 days? Pls advise. Thanks.

      • Barry Choi on July 4, 2019 at 4:34 PM

        Pasmo is for local travel and you pay per trip. If you think you’ll be riding transit a lot, get an unlimited pass.

  2. Jaymee @ Smart Woman on December 11, 2015 at 2:39 AM

    Awesome tips Barry! My boyfriend really wants to check out Japan during our family trip next month and these tips may help make that a possibility without breaking our budget 😛

    • Barry Choi on December 11, 2015 at 1:15 PM

      Jaymee,

      Even if you do Tokyo for just a few days, it’ll be worth it. I warn you though, you’ll want to go back right away.

  3. MrFireStation on January 3, 2016 at 4:03 PM

    Very timely post for us. We just booked flights to Tokyo for 11 days in July. We are retiring (@49) on April Fool’s Day, and this will be our first big post-retirement travel. Thanks for the post!

    • Barry Choi on January 3, 2016 at 4:38 PM

      MrFireStation,

      Japan is a great place, you’ll have a fantastic time! If you have any questions feels free to reach out.

  4. Sammy on February 10, 2016 at 9:58 AM

    Tipping isn’t considered rude in Japan… it’s simply just not done.

    Also I’ve stayed in quite a few business hotels and none of them had shared bathrooms.

    • Barry Choi on February 10, 2016 at 10:10 AM

      Sammy,

      My guide books have failed me. All this time I assumed it was something rude.

    • ethan on July 2, 2017 at 3:29 AM

      Tipping is indeed considered rude in 90 percent of cases. It is seen as flaunting wealth. It is generally not done though except in very very rare places.

  5. Kate on December 12, 2016 at 10:56 AM

    Thanks for the help, What camera were your photos taken with?

    • Barry Choi on December 12, 2016 at 11:00 AM

      Hi Kate,

      I have a Sony A-6000 Mirroless camera. I used the stock lens but all the photos were edited in lightroom.

  6. Kate on December 12, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    Thank you so much !

  7. Tatiana on January 4, 2018 at 9:26 AM

    HI! Is car renting recommended? Or is it cheaper and easier to travel by rail? Thanks!

    • Barry Choi on January 4, 2018 at 9:41 AM

      Hi Tatiana,

      Travelling by rail is cheaper and much faster.

  8. […] This list of 10 free things to do in Tokyo includes some of Japan’s most popular parks and temples. To reduce your travel costs even further, grab a discount one or two-day travel pass allowing unlimited travel over Tokyo’s rail and subway networks. This will both save time and money as you enjoy these ten free attractions in Tokyo.  If you want more tips on budget travel in Tokyo, check out this article here:  Tokyo on a Budget […]

  9. […] which means experiencing the heart of the city can be as cheap as you make it. There are plenty of free things to do and places to visit, including the Tsukiji Fish Market, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, […]

  10. Gabi on January 20, 2019 at 8:08 PM

    My husband and I are planning our first trip to Japan in September. Which 3 cities would you recommend seeing and how long would you recommend staying in each?

    • Barry Choi on January 21, 2019 at 6:23 AM

      Hi Gabi,

      It depends on how much time you have in Japan but most people do Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka for their first time. You could also stop in Hakone on the way to Kyoto. Day trip options are Nara and Hiroshima.

  11. Gabi on January 21, 2019 at 10:08 AM

    We will be spending a week and half to 2 weeks in Japan. Any other advise. Is there a train line that can get us to all 3 locations? Is it hard navigating Japan without knowing the language? How many days would you recommend in each location?

  12. Sasha on May 23, 2019 at 11:59 AM

    Hi,
    Thank you for this!! My son will be graduating from college next year. I would love to take him to Japan. He’s always been fascinated by the culture. Can you do Japan on your own or will we need a guide?
    Thanks

    • Barry Choi on May 23, 2019 at 2:11 PM

      Sasha,

      Japan is pretty easy to do on your own, but some people prefer a guide.

      I think you should talk to your son about what he wants to see in Japan and then figure out your options from there.

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