How To Do Tokyo On A Budget: Things To See & Do

Contrary to popular opinion, there are plenty of cheap (and even free) things to do in Tokyo, so a trip there doesn’t have to burn a hole in your wallet. As I explored in Part 1, I had to manage survival in Tokyo on a budget of less than £20 a day, so found myself being more selective about what I did and where I ate. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of cheap attractions on offer.

IMPERIAL PALACE

The Imperial Palace is the official residence of the current emperor, Akihito. I didn’t realise this, but much like the United Kingdom, Japan is a constitutional monarchy, so the emperor doesn’t have any substantial political power. While you can’t go inside the residency, the palace grounds are free to walk around, and there is a park, bridges, and moats to admire. Free tours are run by the Imperial Household Agency most Tuesdays through to Saturdays (some exceptions July-Aug or public holidays) at 10:30am or 1pm and last around 75 minutes. On Sundays (weather dependent), from 10am-3pm, you can rent bicycles for free to take for a 3km lap around the Imperial Palace. The palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle and within the beautiful East Gardens where you can see remnants of the original castle fortifications which still stand.

PARKS

Despite being a bustling, futuristic metropolis, like London, Tokyo has a number of beautiful parks to explore with a camera or relax with a picnic. Shinjuku Gyoen (this one charges a small admission fee), Kasai Rinkai, Showa Kinen – the list is endless. My two favourites, however, were Yoyogi and Ueno. Yoyogi park is perfect for people watching and is where you will find cliques like the Harajuku girls on a Sunday.

The area of Harajuku itself is also worth an explore, with quirky fashion street Takeshita nearby which then juxtaposes with the boulevard lanes of Ometasando lined with designer stores (window shopping is entirely free!) The Louis Vuitton building also has a gallery at the top called Escape. Even if you don’t fancy the current exhibition being shown there, you can get a great view on the city!

Ueno was conveniently located right next to my hostel so I had ample opportunity to explore it. It is free to go into, and is also one of Tokyo’s oldest parks (it was established in 1873). It has a beautiful pond, spacious grounds, a large collection of museums and a shrine (although the latter two vary in admission procedures).

MUSEUMS & GALLERIES

A lot of museums and galleries are free, or at least have good student discounts. In the park just mentioned, Ueno, there are a whole host of choices: The National Science Museum, The Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (TMMA) and the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). I went to the latter two, and with a student card, I paid ¥410 for the TNM, and was granted free entrance to the TMMA. You could easily spend a day in Ueno combining these two, the TNM alone takes a while to get around as it has five exhibition halls.

I also checked out the Mori Art Museum which was hosting the Charming Journey exhibition by N.S Harsha which explored post-colonial India, philosophy and the effect globalization has on human rights and trade. What was on at the National Art Centre didn’t appeal to me (and I was still bitter about just missing the Yayoi Kusama exhibition), but usually they have pretty good stuff. You have to pay for admission, but prices are reasonable. At the moment, both galleries are hosting Contemporary Art from South East Asia 1980s to Now and it’s ¥800 for a student ticket to both, or 500 for a student to ticket to one (around £3).

Mizuma is an art gallery which doesn’t charge any admission, is a good size, and also has branches in China and Singapore. When I was there it was exhibiting Lust by Matsukage.

SHRINES & Temples

Most shrines and temples are free to visit. Meji Shrine is free and is located next to Yoyogi park, so it’s ideal to combine the two. It’s dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken who used to frequent an iris garden in the location that it is built.

Nezu Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. Even if you don’t believe the legend that says that it was created around 2,000 years ago, it is proven to be dating from at least 1705, which is still quite impressive.

Yasakuni Shrine is dedicated to those who served for their country, but is also deemed quite controversial as it enshrines even those who were found guilty of being war criminals. It also has a museum next to it, Yushu-Kan, about Japanese military history which some find to be a nationalistic and a skewed representation.

Ueno Shrine is inside Ueno Park, and you need to pay to enter inside the walls, although you can walk around the grounds for free. It retains its structure from the Edo period so is well worth a visit.

Akagi-jinga might be particularly interesting to those who are into architecture, as it remodelled to make it look more contemporary and now has a glass box for its main shrine building.

The oldest buddhist temple Senso-Ji and it’s charming grounds are free, although you can pay ¥100 to discover your fortune.

VIEWING PLATFORMS

Along with Escape, there are plenty of other places to get a great view of the city on the cheap. You can, for example, access the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is made up of two towers. Both towers have observatories at the top that are open from 9am-11pm, making it perfect for tagging on the end of a long day of sightseeing.

Paying for entrance to the Mori Art Museum grants you access to the exhibition and a viewing platform. You can pay also a little extra to go up to the sky deck on nice days which provides you with an open air view, unrestricted by windows.

In part three we’ll be looking at cheap places to eat. Bear in mind though, these suggestions are just the beginning! Tokyo has so much on offer, and there were other cheap attractions that I didn’t get round to. For example, rather than paying to go to a sumo match you can go to see a morning training session in a stable. There are around 45 stables in Tokyo, and the training sessions usually commence early and last for a few hours. You can read more about that here. Something else I wish I had time for was the Tsukiji fish market which holds a famous tuna auction you can attend for free, before treating yourself to a fresh sushi breakfast. Again, it starts early (about 5am) and only a limited number of people can fit inside the auction area. You can read more about that here.

How To: Do Tokyo on a Budget

It’s no secret that Tokyo is a particularly expensive city. The fourth most expensive in the world to be exact. Tell someone that you’re planning to visit Tokyo (or Japan in general) and the first thing they’ll warn you of is that prices are extortionate. However, I was recently in a rather tricky situation in which I was forced to be on a strict budget. Basically, my card had been swallowed by the ATM in my student dormitory, again. This is something which will most likely happen to you if you move to China from the UK. The ATMs here eject your cash first and only produce your card upon prompting (whereas in England both are ejected automatically). If you don’t manually eject it, wave goodbye to your card. Luckily, people come to empty the machine every few days and you can retrieve your card from them. Not so luckily, I was departing for Tokyo the next morning, so I had no choice but to go with the cash I had on me and take my chances, then pick my card up when I returned to Shanghai.

Now, those of you who may know me are probably well-aware that my travels don’t always go smoothly. During my last two trips (to Hong Kong and Seoul), one involved me ending up in hospital after cracking my head open and needing stitches, and the other one culminated in a missed flight (sorry dad, I’ve learnt my lesson ok.) Safe to say, without my bank card in either of these situations, I would’ve been screwed. So it probably wasn’t the best risk to take to travel sans a safety net, but I had spent too much on my flight and thought probability wise, things can’t get much worse than they already have been. I had about £200 on me to see me through five nights, including accommodation, so how did I manage? The article will be split into two parts, with us firstly looking at accommodation and transport.

the basics

Currency: Japanese Yen
Language: Japanese
Time Zone: UTC +9
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

ACCOMODATION

Pick a time of year that’s low-season. I visited in late May, after the rush of Golden Week and before the summer holidays. This mean I missed the height of cherry blossom season, but beggars can’t be choosers. Consequently, my overall experience (and especially my hostel) was more affordable – in Tokyo terms. I paid around £13 a night for a basic six bed dormitory in Hotel Graphy Nezu which turned out to be one of the best hostels that I’ve ever stayed in. The facilities were luxurious for a hostel. It had two common rooms, a cafe, terrace, living room with books & a large screen TV, a beautiful kitchen, clean rooms, powerful showers and A BATH

Living in a student dorm, long gone are the days when I could take a bath on a whim, and so I spent every evening in the bath trying to make the most of it. It was like a budget version of an Onsen. They also have fancy hair and body wash which most hostels scrimp on (if they provide it at all.) So while it was more expensive than I’m accustomed to paying for a hostel, I had no qualms about coughing up the cash. It’s admittedly out of the way of the centre, but only a 5-min walk from a metro station and in an area that deserves to be explored in its own right (next to Ueno Park with the National Museum, shrines and other galleries.) After paying for this, I worked out that I had around ¥3,000/£20 I could spend a day.

Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
TRANSPORT & GETTING AROUND

Transport is notoriously expensive in Japan. First and foremost, never take taxis. Even the metro is expensive, so you can imagine the taxi prices. Also, from Tokyo Narita International Airport, rather than taking the sky train into the city, I just took the cheapest option which was the Keisei line. This cost around ¥1,000. **Disclaimer** the £200 I had for my budget in Tokyo does NOT include the flights. The round trip from Shanghai was ridiculously expensive, I paid £420 for mine. I’d been looking at flights since last autumn and waiting to pounce on a cheaper option, but one never came. 

The only way to get it cheaper would be to go on the flights that arrive/leave at ridiculous times in the morning, but then you’d still have to pay to taxi from the airport to Tokyo which would cost you what you’ve saved anyway. I suspect they do it on purpose because either the Chinese government don’t want people going to Japan, or the Japanese government want to make it inaccessible. A girl that I’d met had paid LESS for her round trip from LONDON (she went via Hong Kong). So if you have the choice, don’t fly from China.

Schoolgirls on the metro in Tokyo

During my stay in Tokyo, I walked to my destinations as much as possible. If you’re on a tighter schedule this might not be as possible, but as I had four full days (not inc. Friday evening or Wednesday morning), I essentially dedicated each day to exploring a 1-3 neighbourhoods on foot. On the handy Lonely Planet Guide Travel App that I swear by, they split Tokyo into 11 districts:

1) Shibuya & Shimo-Kitazawa
2) Ginza & Tsukiji
3) Harajuku & Aoyama
4) Ueno, Yanesen & Komagome
5) Marunouchi & Nihombashi
6) Ebisu, Meouro & Around
7) Asakusa & Sumida River
8) Shinjuku & NW Tokyo
9) West Tokyo
10) Akihabara, Kagurazaka & Korakuen
11) Odaiba & Tokyo Bay
12) Roppongi, Akasaka & Around
 Obviously walking may not be physically possible for everyone, but if you can do so, then I would definitely recommend it. I’ve stumbled on many interesting and beautiful sights through walking most places. Then, at the end of the day, I’d usually buy a single ticket on the metro back to my hostel (single tickets are about ¥200-¥300.)

On my last full day in Tokyo, I thought I’d treat myself and buy a 24-hour metro pass and use it as much as possible. It wasn’t until after purchasing it that I realized a lot of the central essential stations were actually on the Toei Line rather than the Tokyo Metro Line. In London, if you buy a (admittedly expensive) day pass for the underground, it is all inclusive, even for the DLR. Can’t Tokyo just make it more simple and have them all under one ticket? Anyway, this could also be a frugal option, but unless you plan to use the metro more than twice a day, then I don’t think it’s worth it. Also, bear in mind that the metro closes around 11pm. If you want to go out at night and are on a budget, then your best bet is to stay out until public transport opens again at 5am.

In Part Two and Three we’ll be looking at cheap things to do and places to eat. In the meantime you can start planning your trip by checking out flights here, Hotel Graphy’s website here, or more hostel options here.

Happy Planning!