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
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 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.
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.
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
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 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:
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:
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 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
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.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.