Tokyo, Japan, is a city of politeness, cleanliness, culinary enlightenment and notorious expense. This year Tokyo was listed as the most expensive city in the world, with Japan’s second city, Osaka, coming in at number two. But Japan being the land of extremes, there are plenty of great thrifty or outright free things to do in the megalopolis – especially now with the yen at the lowest it has been against the dollar in almost four years.
Part of the expense of Tokyo can be allayed by avoiding the excessive niceties of day-to-day Japanese life. Many of Japan’s costs come from its quest for excellence in customer service and the desire for perfection. Annual train tardiness is measured in seconds. After purchasing merchandise at a retail store, the clerk will come around from the counter and hand you your bag face to face. Taxi doors open automatically for patrons and drivers have uniforms reminiscent of pilots and butlers, complete with white gloves. You will also experience a cleanliness that will make you instantly feel filthy when you get off the plane in your home country.
The budget traveler, conversely, might consider taking the slower local trains instead of the bullet train to save a few thousand yen. Similarly, a standing room-only sushi restaurant can save some costs on dining. To that end, the food alone is enough to keep the budget traveler coming back to Tokyo. The scene extends far beyond the traditional sushi or Benihana style restaurant, with dirt-cheap ramen, okonomiyaki and udon noodle joints on many street corners and the huge amount of local specialty foods that each city of Japan has to offer.
Just getting lost in Tokyo is a voyage into oddity. Without spending a dime you can ferret out entire streets dedicated to selling kitchenware, high-rise arcades and mega-sized vending machines ready for exploration and a perfect photo opportunity. In fact, some of the best things in Tokyo are absolutely free and with a few inside tips, a trip to one of the most unique cities in the world can be quite affordable.
See modern and traditional Japan in Yoyogi Park. It’s absolutely required that you make sure you’re in Tokyo on a Sunday and make your way to Yoyogi Park. Adjacent to Harajuku, the center of Tokyo’s outrageous fashion, and Omotesando, Tokyo’s upscale fashion, Yoyogi is a place where Tokyo’s youth go on Sunday to practice and indulge in their obsessions. If there is one thing Japan thrives at, it’s its people fixating on their crafts and hobbies. An entire afternoon can be spent walking through the park, one of the largest in the city, snapping photos and interacting with the young Tokyoites.
The most emblematic of Tokyo’s bizarre subcultures, is Yoyogi’s rockabilly gang
. The greasers gather near the park’s entrance behind Harajuku Station on Sunday afternoons to dance, drink and have fun. They have hairspray, leather, denim and an absolute devotion to Rock & Roll. They don’t accept tips, they typically aren’t looking to take photos with tourists, and they really just want to hangout with their friends and dance.
Continuing on from the rockabilly gang, deep inside a forest within Yoyogi Park is Meiji Shrine. Free to enter, Meiji Shrine is a quintessential Shinto shrine, and if you only visit one shrine in Tokyo, this is the one it should be. Lush trees shade the walk from the park entrance and once inside the shrine grounds, it’s not uncommon to see a traditional Japanese wedding procession.
To get to Yoyogi Park, take the JR Yamanote Line to JR Harajuku Station. Exit towards Omotesando and follow the road as it curves. You’ll find the rockabilly gang in the large, circular public space.
Wander with otaku.
The epitome of how the Western world sees Japan is Akihabara Electric Town. This neighborhood is a dense amalgamation of shops selling electronics, anime, rare video games and anything else Japanese otaku are into. Just walking down along the sidewalk you will bump into women dressed as French maids and anime characters passing out flyers advertising various shops or themed cafes. Some shops are incredibly specific and dedicated to their niche; one shop sells only light bulbs
and another is simply warehouse space with more than 400 capsule toy vending machines
. Walking through the neon-lit alleys is free of course and is always extremely memorable.
Take the Electric Town exit at Akihabara Station, situated on the Hibiya subway line, as well as the Yamanote Loop, Keihin-Tōhoku and Chūō-Sōbu JR lines.
Get a sight of the capital as a whole. Seeing a panoramic view of a city from atop a skyscraper is essential for any trip to a metropolis. Tokyo has a number of options for you to take in the wonderful view, but only one that is worth going to is free: the not-so-romantically-named Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building offers an observation deck at no charge. From it you can see spectacular views of Shinjuku, the rest of Tokyo and even Mt. Fuji on a clear day.
The easiest way to get there is via Tochomae Station on the Oedo subway line, which is located directly below the building.
Many budget hotels in Tokyo tend to cluster near the Asakusa district, in the north eastern section of the city with great access to popular attractions such as Akihabara, Kappabashi, Ueno Park and Senso-ji. After dark, it can be fairly quiet, so if you’re looking to be close to the nightlife then look into Shibuya or Shinjuku or elsewhere. Since public transportation stops running around midnight and taxi fares are high, it pays to stay close to your focus activities.
Toyoko Inn (mind the spelling).
A national chain of budget hotels targeted towards businessmen looking for basic accommodations on business trips. As with almost everything else in Japan, the rooms are small compared to those in the West, but will have the essentials. The interiors are bare bones and haven’t seen new furniture since the ’90s, but with many of their hotels extremely close to train stations, their locations are often unbeatable. Their best location is their Kabuki-cho inn, right in the middle of Shinjuku. It is a 12-minute walk from JR Shinjuku station, which is directly linked to Narita Aiport via the Narita Express, and is also an amazing starting point for getting around to the rest of Tokyo or Japan. From $63, $69 for the Kabuki-cho location. 2-20-15, Kabuki-cho Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0021. toyoko-inn.com
Located in Asakusa, Hotel Yanagibashi is in a quiet neighborhood known for its traditional ningyo doll shops. The furnishings are extremely basic and the rooms are very small. However, one amazing feature is its proximity to the Sumida River, a wonderful place to walk at night and see amazing views of the new Tokyo Sky Tree. Less than two blocks away from both JR train and subway stations, it’s extremely convenient for getting to Senso-ji, Akihabara, Ueno Park and the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena. Children under 5 stay for free and ages 5 to 12 stay for only $27 per night. From $38 for a shared room. 1-3-12, Yanagibashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0052. hotel-yanagibashi.jp
Quality Hostel K’s House Tokyo Oasis.
Right behind a fantastic covered shopping arcade, K’s House Tokyo Oasis is a fantastic hostel that breaks from backpacking stereotypes. Most of the guests here are families. The premises are cleaner than most major chain hotels and all the furnishings are new and extremely comfortable and modern. The staff is very helpful and friendly and there are a generous amount of free pamphlets for various Tokyo attractions. K’s House also has locations around Japan, which are also highly rated and affordable. From $32 for a dorm bed. <14-10, Asakusa 2-Chome, Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032. kshouse.jp/tokyo-oasis-e
Don’t be intimidated if you can’t read or speak Japanese; most restaurants in Japan have picture menus or even wax replicas of their dishes in the front window. Japanese people tend to be very accommodating to people that don’t speak the language.
There is no shortage of sushi restaurants and whiskey bars at which to splurge on in Tokyo, a city with more three-star Michelin restaurants than Paris. This arena is where a lot of your travel budget can mysteriously disappear. Drinking can be especially expensive in Japan, but given that virtually all bars will have a single beer on tap, it’s easy to limit yourself. Be sure to stay away from bars with “snack” in their name, as they will most likely have a seating charge upwards of $5.
Sakuratei. The best Japanese food that is virtually unknown outside of Japan is okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is often called a “Japanese pancake,” but this does it a disservice. Essentially meaning, “what you want, grilled,” okonomiyaki can fit anyone’s tastes, from vegetarians to spicy food lovers. Whatever ingredients you choose are all brought together by the egg and flour base, then topped with a deliciously savory, BBQ-esque sauce.
The best introduction to okonomiyaki within Tokyo is the restaurant Sakuratei, located in Harajuku. Somewhat mimicking the surrounding neighborhood, it has a wild interior, with crazed portraits scrawled across the walls. You cook the meal yourself on the grill, but don’t be intimidated, there are easy to follow instructions in English available and the process is great, extremely delicious fun. Meals start at $10. 3-20-1 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. sakuratei.co.jp
Tsukiji Fish Market. The Tsukiji Market is often high on many people’s list of things to do in Tokyo. Get up with the sunrise to see the auctions that go on within Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market, the largest in the world, during the tiny window that tourists are allowed inside. Then, afterwards get a sushi breakfast nearby. Even if you’re not a morning person enough to see the auctions, eating some of the freshest seafood in Japan can be done at any hour in the market.
The best way to do so is in Jogai Ichiba. Immediately adjacent to the fish market, Jogai Ichiba is a series of alleys teeming with sashimi stalls each with seating space limited to a handful of stools. Each morning the stalls get their seafood straight from the fish market, which sources its stock from all over Japan. It’s best to just wander around the alleys and pick whichever stall catches your eye first, or whichever hostess is friendliest. The dish to get is maguro-don, raw tuna over rice, likely to be amongst the best, freshest seafood you will ever eat. Meals start at $6. To get there head to Tsukijishijo Station, on the Oedo line and take exit A1. To your left will be the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market and two blocks to your right will be Jogai Ichiba.
Ichiran Ramen. Eating at a proper ramen restaurant in Japan should not be confused with the instant ramen that is so prevalent across the globe. Eating a good bowl of ramen is a transcendent experience. And with a huge amount of regional varieties, as well as minor tweaks each individual restaurant gives to their own recipes, exploring the world of ramen is a journey unto itself. Best of all, ramen is an everyman meal at everyman prices. A common fixture at truck stops and train stations, it’s easy to grab a bowl almost anywhere.
A great starting point is Ichiran Ramen. Specializing in tonkotsu, pork bone broth ramen, this chain is for ramen purists. You eat in your own personal cubicle and your order is received from a clerk behind a curtain, which falls completely when the bowl of noodles arrives. Every aspect of your meal is customizable, from the amount of garlic in the broth to how thick your noodles are. One of the most convenient locations is within the Atre mall complex of Ueno Station, on the Ginza and Hibiya subway lines, and is also open 24 hours a day.
Bowls of ramen start at $8. 7-1 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0005. ichiran.co.jp
Tokyo is one of the best cities in the world for public transportation, with the largest and most used subway system in the world. But on top of the subway system are also the overland rail systems. The whole network can be quite dizzying, especially when considering all of the private railways and busses all over the city. The best way to get around is to stick to the subways and a single overland train, the Yamanote Loop Line. The most useful train line in the entire city, it connects most of Tokyo’s major attractions such as Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Harajuku and Akihabara. When choosing lodging, a good rule of thumb is to be within walking distance of a station on the Yamanote line.
The most convenient way to pay for public transportation is with an IC Card. The IC cards are pre-paid smart cards that enable you to bypass the need to buy individual tickets where you’d have to look up the price for your destination for each journey, occasionally without the ease of English signage. With an IC card, you can simply swipe the card at the turnstile when you enter and exit the station and you are automatically charged the correct fare. There are two IC cards that you can purchase and charge at virtually all stations in Tokyo, the Passmo and Suica cards. There is no difference between the two and each have a $20 purchase price with a $5 deposit that can be refunded by returning your card to a station ticket office. Foreign tourists can even purchase discounted IC cards at both of Tokyo’s international airports.
The card can be used interchangeably on the subway, JR line trains and most busses. You can even use Tokyo’s IC cards in other cities that have their own IC card systems around Japan, such as Osaka, Fukuoka and Sapporo. Many shops in and around stations will also accept IC cards for payment.
Hailing a taxi in Japan is done the same as in many places across the world; you simply wave an empty cab down from the sidewalk. While there is no uniform color or style for taxis in Japan, most will be the same boxy Toyota from the ’90s with a small illuminated sign on the roof and “Taxi” written on the doors in English. Vacant taxis can easily be spotted from the bright red LED sign with Chinese characters displayed on the windshield, with a green sign meaning it’s occupied. You enter the taxi from the rear left door, which opens automatically. If your destination is not a well-known landmark, an address for the driver to put into his GPS would work best.
Just like in all other service related industries in Japan, you do not tip the driver. If you do, the driver will think you’ve misunderstood the price and give you back your change. Unfortunately, Japanese taxis are notoriously expensive. Fares start between $6 and $8 and after the first 2 kilometers you are charged an additional $1 for each 500 meters. Also, after 10 p.m., rates usually increase about 20 percent.
Tokyo has two international airports, Narita and Haneda. Haneda is centrally located within Tokyo, it only takes a 20-minute, $5 ride on the Tokyo Monorail to get to Hamamatsucho Station on the Yamanote Loop Line. Narita airport is actually located in a suburb some distance from central Tokyo and unfortunately most international flights land there. The fastest way to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station is on the Narita Express. It’s a 55-minute ride and costs $32 each way. The cheapest way is on Keisei Railway’s Limited Express train to Nippori Station, which takes about 75 minutes and costs about $11.
When To Go
Tokyo’s weather rarely ventures into extremes. The only true season to avoid would be summer. Tokyo gets quite humid and walking and public transportation is a large part of life in Japan; you can often find yourself covered in a humidity-induced sweat. Making summer worse, between May and October is the rainy season, peaking in August and September. Additionally, Japanese public schools are off for much of August and that can add to the crowds in public spaces.
The best time to visit Japan as a whole would be for the cherry blossom season. The pink flowers are ubiquitous and absolutely beautiful. People take to having picnics in parks underneath the trees with the Kirin Ichiban flowing. Blossom season is very weather dependent, but it typically occurs in late March or early April. As a guide, Tokyo experienced cherry blossom blooms from March 16 to March 31 this year.
I have heard stories of people leaving their wallets at restaurants, only to come back hours later to find that their wallet had not only stayed put, but been covered in plastic to protect it from rain. I have seen people drive up to 7-11s in Japan, go in and lazily do some shopping while leaving the keys in their still running car with the windows rolled down. There should be very little fear in walking the streets alone, at any hour, for either sex. So long as you keep common sense about you, your trip to be Japan may be the safest you have felt in your entire life.
Convenience stores in Japan are unlike anything you have ever experienced. The selection and quality of goods offered is better than most full-blown supermarkets around the world. From any typical 7-11 you can buy concert tickets, pay bills, order freshly cooked food, or send a fax, in addition to the typical buying of snacks. A somewhat unique aspect to Japanese convenience store culture is the limited edition snacks. On top of the typical chocolate offerings, for example, will be flavors such as blueberry cheesecake or café au lait chocolate-filled, Koala-shaped crackers. Each variant is truly only available for a limited time. Even the big beer brewers like Kirin and Asahi will get in on the limited edition flavor game.
Possibly the best tip for Japan is if you ever get lost or can’t find your destination, walk into any convenience store and ask the clerks for some help. Just say your desired location followed by “wa doko dess-ka?” (“Where is…?”) and they will gladly help you, pulling out a large map if they don’t know the location off-hand. It even isn’t unlikely that they will walk you to your destination if it’s nearby.
[Photo Credit: Masaaki Komori]