Exploring Tokyo on a budget is not as difficult as one might imagine if you know where to look for cheap and tasty food, cool accommodation and fun activities that don’t break the bank.
Words: Jasmine Phull
A shopping mecca, Tokyo is a city gleaming with retail strips and department stores. It may surprise some, but this destination is easily embraced on a budget. There are an abundance of cheap fuel-stops all over town with pokey little izakayas selling yummy Japanese food for no more than the pocket change hastily wrapped in that last receipt!
For those considering a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, here’s a list of the top activities that afford the budget-conscious traveller much to do for very little Japanese yen.
LEAVE THE WALLET AT HOME
It is easy to soak up the culture of this former fishing village without a single yen as Tokyo boasts an eclectic range of weirdly wonderful attractions. Choose your own adventure with museums showcasing sumo wrestlers, parasites, Yebisu beer and even ancient advertising. For Hayao Miyazaki fans, a trip to the acclaimed director’s Ghibli Studios (1-1-83 Simorenjaku, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181-0013) offers a behind-the-scenes look at some of the best anime, all for just a USD10 ticket! Once you’re done, tip your hat to some of the biggest names in film photography with a visit to Fuji Film Square (7-3 Akasaka, 9-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 107-0052), Canon (3-9-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061) and Kodak (1-3-3F Ginza,Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061) to view their free and ever-changing photo exhibitions.
Most shrines and temples in Tokyo including the famous Yasukuni Shrine (3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda, Tokyo 102-8246) and the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa offer free admission. On a sunny day, wander the grounds of the Imperial Palace (1 Chiyoda Tokyo 100-8111); as the home of the Emperor, the royal palace dates back to the Edo period and is a truly stunning site surrounded by a large park, moats and stones walls. It’s said that when it was built in 1457 – before the erection of the city’s spread of high-rises – it was possible to see Mt Fuji. A tour of the palace is free but must be reserved in advance. If your legs are aching for a rest, relax with a stunning bird’s eye view of the city from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (2-8-1 Nishi- Shinjuku, Shinjuku, Tokyo Prefecture 160-0023, Japan). Take the elevator to the 45th floor. Admission is free!
Another great insight into Japanese culture is the traditional Kabuki Theatre (4-12-14 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo); its male-only cast has been capturing the hearts and minds of audiences since its 17th century beginnings. With a five-hour running time, I suggest purchasing a single act Makumi ticket available for USD8 to USD20 per person – a fraction of what you would pay to watch the entire show (USD40 to USD230). Be warned; you will have to line up at least two to three hours before show time in order to nab one of the 250 seats!
With Tokyo’s extensive metro system, it’s not hard to get around the city; but why ride the rails when you can walk or take a bus? If you really want to see the Big Sushi the way the locals do, walk; the slow route will highlight things a moving train would not. As most streets don’t have names, navigating the numbered blocks could see you walking around in circles. Fortunately, friendly locals are always happy to point you in the right direction. But if you really want to get the wind behind you, jump on a bike – the most common mode of transport here. Early Sunday risers can secure one of the 250 free bikes on offer at the Imperial Palace Cycling Course (1 Chiyoda Tokyo 100-8111), but if you’re looking to veer off course and explore the winding streets, a two-wheeler from Tokyo Bikes, costs USD20 per hour or USD40 for the day. These sturdy bikes are available at the concierge desk of Westin Hotel Tokyo (1-4- 1 Mita, Ebisu Garden Place, Meguro, Tokyo Prefecture 153-8580). When going long distances, such as toand from the airport, do not take a taxi; opt for the more affordable, and sometimes faster, Narita Express train, which leaves from most major stations.
PARKS & MARKETS
Despite its clusters of high-rises, Tokyo boasts some beautiful parks with large lakes and gorgeous seasonal blooms. After browsing around Shibuya’s shopping precinct, take a short stroll to Yoyogi Park and meet Harajuku girls showing off their Sunday bests while perusing the brick-a-brac market for kitsch trinkets. Some of the better antique markets include Azabu-juban Antique Market (Ikebukuro), Nogi-jinja Flea Market (8-11-27 Akasaka Minato-ku, Tokyo) and Roppongi Antique Fair (Rapiros Roppongi Oribe Hall 8F, 1F, 6-1-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo). If you’re looking for one-off treasures, a 30-minute train ride from central Tokyo to Kichijoji station and a short walk will take you to Inokashira Koen Park’s (1-18- 31 Gotenyama, Musashino-shi) Sunday market. When you’re done, hire a bike and cruise along the river or enjoy a swan boat ride with friends.
It may be surprising to hear but eating out in Tokyo is a five-star affair at a fraction of the price! With so many 7-Elevens around town you’re never far from a freshly-made USD1.20 onigiri or USD4.50 katsu curry, but for something pre-packaged, I recommend hunting down a depachika, or department store food hall. These are places where mouth-watering free samples are just enough to hush a rumbling tummy. Good ones to target include Isetan in Shinjuku (3-14-1 Shinjuku, Shinjukuku), Mitsukoshi in Ginza (4-6- 16 Ginza) and Takashimaya in Nihombashi (2-4-1 Nihonbash).
For dinner, try the novel approach of ordering your food from a vending machine before handing the receipt to the waiter. At Menya Musashi (7-2-6 Nishishinjuku; 03-3363-4634) a bowl of noodles and green tea will set you back USD8. To really immerse yourself in the dining culture of Tokyo, the little-known-to-tourists yet popular-with-the-locals Izakaya Imanari (3-20-1 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku) serves up thirst-quenching beers (USD1.80) and a bevy of dishes for less than USD10! Be warned; this is a non-English restaurant so if you’re stuck with the all Japanese menu, point to the pictures or to other people’s meals!
As a tourist in a foreign country, it’s very easy to hand over more money than necessary. But the good news is most museums, galleries and theme parks offer student and senior citizen rates! Those over 60 years of age are entitled to Tokyo Disneyland admission discounts but if you’re a museum fan, it’s best to buy the Grutt Pass (USD20), which allows you two months of free or discounted entry to more than 60 museums, zoos and aquariums. For the traveller on a schedule, head to Ueno Park for a cluster of great museums, including the impressive Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, the National Science Museum and Ueno Zoo. Don’t forget that most museums and galleries are closed on Mondays.
For those on a strict budget, visiting during the low-season (late January through mid-March, late August through mid-October and late November to early December) can save you a bundle. Often off-peak is ruled by unruly weather so do your research before booking a flight.
A PLACE TO REST YOUR HEAD
The great thing about Tokyo is that nothing is predictable and you’re never too far from your next ‘experience’. Accommodation is no exception.
Originally conceived to provide couples a private space for sexual activities, Love Hotels have since been embraced as a novelty for local and international visitors. The short-stay rooms range from standard to wacky and outlandish meaning your desire to sleep ‘under the sea’ or in Hello Kitty Land can quite easily be fulfilled. A wide variety can be found on Shibuya’s Love Hotel Hill with Hotel Casanova (www.chapelhotel. co.jp/hotel/h08/) offering a safe, fun environment with affordable prices. Couples can book a private room for two to three hours of ‘rest’ during the day (approximately USD50) or an overnight ‘stay’ (around USD80). Reservations don’t exist so be prepared to look around before paying through a one-way window.
If you’d rather steer clear of the kinky craze, book at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn complete with tatami-matted floors, futon beds and sliding paper walls. For a more affordable option there’s scarcely a better bedroom bargain than Japan’s capsule hotels. Usually located next to major train hubs, sleeping ‘pods’ are stacked atop each other – similar to bunk-beds – complete with mini TVs, lights, air vents and a privacy curtain. You probably won’t want to do this more than a night or two. Claustrophobes need not apply. Asakusa Hotel Wasou offers a selection of ryokans, a twin room costs USD72 and single pod is a mere USD22.
A prominent landmark of Shibuya is the epic intersection in front of Shibuya station’s Hachiko Exit. Stand here on a weekday evening or weekend and you’ll easily be able to imagine a population of 13.2 million. With 10 stores to satisfy a single urge you’ll need a couple of days to explore the towering fashion epicentre. A great place to start is Shibuya 109 (2-2 9-1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya, Tokyo 150-0043), a trend-setting fashion complex and an icon of the Shibuya district with more than one hundred boutiques on 10 floors. Heavily decorated, neon advertisements and giant LED screens beam down on crossing pedestrians while blaring tunes and over-the-top shop girls offer a spectacular sight complete with crazy outfits and even crazier hair. For more bows, frills, garters, sideways caps and sky-high heels, a must-visit is the infamous Takeshita Mall in Harajuku. Battle congested crowds and you’ll add to your collection of frilly accessories, separate-toed socks and glitzy iPhone paraphernalia.
Proving that Tokyo unruly does have everything you never knew you needed, eight-floor department store Tokyu Hands offers do-it-yourself products, crafts, travel goods, stationery and lots more.
For the geek within, head to Akihabara Electronics (Akihabara station), the gizmo suburb of the world; its thousands of shops stretch from department stores to tiny booths. Stocked with every DVD player, mobile phone, laptop, model train and general electronic product conceivable and in every price-bracket, even the least technologically savvy will find something they ‘need’. Perhaps an electronic toilet seat or USB memory stick shaped like sushi? Shops here generally operate between midday and 8.00pm.
Tokyo certainly lifts the curtain on a surprising world; with quirky attractions and some of the most polite people on earth, it’s easy to stay a while when a city’s as cheap as this!