Tokyo has this reputation of being an expensive place ato visit, but you’ll be surprised to find that this futuristic city doesn’t mean you’ll be paying astronomic prices. 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.
Free things to do
Catching the 5 am tuna auction at Tsukiji Fish 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 to 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.
Tokyo on a budget 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 cafe’s 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 which 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.
Food on the cheap
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.
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 iPads and then it gets delivered to you on an “electric train” via a track which makes a good story when you return home.
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’s always pictures.Related: Food in Japan to try
Tokyo on a budget – Accommodations
Hostels will be your cheapest option and there are plenty to choose from in Tokyo. While the novelty of staying in a capsule hotel may be appealing to some, it most likely won’t be practical for the majority of travellers. A more realistic option is business hotels which are moderately priced but are no frills – some but not all have shared washrooms.
Personally, I recommend using Airbnb. Not only because it’s cheaper, but because 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. Use my Airbnb referral code to get $50 off your first stay.
If you avoid the super popular areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Roppongi, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a moderately priced hotel. Public transportation is excellent in Tokyo, so staying in less popular areas like Ebisu or Ikebukuro can save you 25%. The key is to just pick an area that’s only a few stops away from the major areas so you’ll still have quick access to anything you need.
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. 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 are your best bets, 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.
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. These passes are best used for the shinkansen (bullet trains), but if you an active pass, use it to minimize your costs.
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.
Tokyo on a budget is incredibly easy, but that doesn’t mean you should strive to save every dollar. Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra or to splurge on an experience. The last thing you want is to regret the choices you’ve made.