Renowned for being one of the most expensive places in the world to visit, Tokyo wasn't an obvious choice for our budget backpacker destination list. But we desperately wanted to go. So we made the decision to just suck it up and see how cheaply we could experience the capital city of Japan.
And wow are we glad that we did because we managed to do it on a budget of just over £50 per day. Here's everything we know about Tokyo budget travel!
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Tokyo Budget Travel Guide
- Avoid Holidays. At certain times of the year Tokyo is busier and so inherently just more expensive. Avoid December and January. It's the emperor's birthday on the 23rd of December and on the 2nd of January he opens up the royal palace each year to welcome thousands of visitors. Stay away from late April to early May as everyone gets 9 days off work in a holiday called 'golden week'. Don't plan a trip in August either as this month hosts the annual Buddhist event of Obon.
- Utilise 7 Elevens. In Tokyo 7 Elevens are found everywhere and are a great resource for the budget traveller because they provide free toilets and free wi-fi as standard. As a tourist you can also register for 45,000 hotspots across the city in the airport when you land, if you are flying into Tokyo. You just need to present your passport.
- Forget the JR Rail Pass. Although very convenient this is not the cheapest method of travel around Japan. Overnight buses are. The best deals we found were with a company called 'Willer Express' where you can buy bulk journeys across a huge network of routes.
- You need to search widely and well in advance for accommodation. With space at such a premium in the metropolis this will definitely be your biggest expense. There are lots of crazy options from tiny capsule hotels to overnight stays in manga cafes. You need to be open minded to get the best deals. We actually found the cheapest place during our visit to be a camping shop that we found through hostel world - yep that's right we slept in a shop!
- If you are into your museums, the best option is purchase a 'Grutt Pass' which will give you access to 79 attractions across the city for a one off reduced price.
- Unlike other countries in Asia, it is completely safe to drink water from the tap in Japan. So even though it's not a massive expense, everything helps.
- With Japan being widely known as the culinary capital of the world, if you're anything like us you'll be wanting to stuff your face as soon as you get to Tokyo. Our advice would be to be flexible with your choices and don't just jump in the restaurant you see because there are some great deals to be had. Street food around Asakusa and Tsjuki are very reasonable at a couple of quid per dish. For sushi, head to the conveyor belt restaurants which are surprisingly very good quality and fresh. There's also bargains to be had in the 7 Elevens, supermarkets and at fast food chains.
Getting Around Tokyo Cheaply
- There's an abundance of completely free stuff to do in Tokyo but you need to have a plan. The place is just too big to go and wander around, hoping to stumble upon such attractions.
- Choose which and how many neighbourhoods you want to explore based on how much time you have there – we would suggest no more than 2 per day otherwise you’ll just be running around places and thats no fun. Then get yourself a metro map with English names on from one of the offices and mark on the neighbourhoods you want to hit. You’ll no doubt find some are within walking distance of each other and can be visited in the same day to save on metro fares.
- Be mindful of where your accommodation is located if you go out exploring later at night - the last thing you need as a budget traveller is an expensive cab ride.
- Many visitors find the metro overwhelming. Yes it’s huge and each station seems to have about a million exits, but there’s plenty of signs in English so it’s pretty easy to navigate. Just get yourself a pre-payment Pasmo card (to avoid having to queue at ticket machines every time) and hop straight on. Anything you don’t spend will be refunded when you hand it back.
- Make sure you have a map downloaded to your phone so that you can find where you are easily, if you only have a few days the last thing you want to do is spend your time chasing your tail.
Cheap Things To Do In Tokyo
We spent an awesome 5 days exploring Tokyo and even though we'd have loved to stay longer, we felt like got to see a lot of different sides of the city. Definitely enough to know we'll be back to explore more one day. In order to help you plan your time and complete this budget travel guide to Tokyo, here's a run down of all the neighbourhoods we visited and all our favourite things that we did - on the cheap of course!
Tsukiji and Ginza (Ginza Stop on the Ginza Line)
For our first stop in this neighbourhood we wandered around the vibrant and fascinating markets in Tsukiji. There's tons of delicious, reasonably priced street food around here so we enjoyed a delicious beef bowl before wandering over to the grand, Indian style Tsukiji Hong-wanji Temple.
Then we headed down the busy shopping street of Chuo-dori in Ginza where we randomly got interviewed for Japanese TV about Brexit! There are some crazily huge toy stores that are really fun to explore. Top tip - if you're here in summer keep popping into the odd air-conditioned department store for some respite from the heat. The sunshine was relentless the day we were exploring here.
Next we strolled over to Tokyo Imperial Palace and Gardens (note: entrance to the Palace is closed on Mondays and Fridays). We were there on a Friday so didn’t get to go in, boo! But it was still impressive to look at from the outside. There’s lots of pretty green shaded areas around here so we had a rest for a while and enjoyed a couple of iced coffees from a nearby 7 Eleven.
Nearby is Hibaya Gardens, a really pleasant spot to wander and watch the herons looking for their next catch and terrapins basking on the rocks in the sun. For dinner we meandered back to the restaurant district under Yurakucho Station train tracks. The place is full of smoke, life and laughter. We had a very enjoyable evening sharing some beers and tapas style BBQ food with some guys who had just finished work and invited us to join their table.
Asakusa (Asakusa Stop on the Ginza Line)
On weekends free walking tours run from the Asakusa Tourist Information Centre at 11.00am and 1.15pm. They last a couple of hours and the one we went on was very good. Really informative and shows you a side of the area you would only get from someone who lives there. And did I mention it’s free?
The building also has free wifi and air-con so it’s a good place to know about, the structure of it is pretty cool too. The same architect is building the Olympic Stadium for the 2020 games.
They also run free monthly events at the Asakusa Tourist Information Centre and we were lucky to get to see a geisha show where I won a prize in a tense rock, paper, scissors game standoff with another tourist!
We had our fortunes told at Tokyo's oldest temple, Sensoji Shrine, for a couple of quid which was fun – apparently I shouldn’t trust employment or marriage! Ha! Most of the temples and shrines in Tokyo are free to enter and wander around which is really great for budget travellers.
You can take original rickshaw rides from outside the shrine. This mode of transport originated in Japan and from there spread across the rest of Asia. Asakusa is now the only place in Tokyo that that they are allowed to operate. Prices can be bartered but are still steep at around £15 for 10 minutes so we didn’t partake, but it looked like a lot of fun and is cool to watch. The guys were super fit!
Next we wandered down the main street Nakamise-Dori and checked out all the ‘Geishas’ wandering around. Many people come to this neighbourhood to rent kimonos for the day and have their hair and makeup done in traditional styles. The cheapest we saw this for was around £30 so we didn't play dress up ourselves but it’s just as fun to observe. And most people are happy to pose for photo's too if you ask nicely.
There’s lots of street food sellers around Asakusa so we got a delicious lunch of chicken katsu curry with rice for £2 each. Seriously, it was so good. And went and ate by Sumida River which offers a great view of the iconic Tokyo Skytree and Asahi Buildings.
Funnily enough, the designer of the building on the far right hadn't intended it to look like that. The golden shape was supposed to be upright but it was too heavy so it was left like this and has since earned the nickname of 'dog poo building' for obvious reasons. Ha!
Shinjuku (Shinjuku Stop on the Shinjuku line)
We spent an afternoon in Shinjuku and first had a wander around Shinjuku National Gardens which are very green and picturesque. The entrance is a bargain at only £1.50 each (open 9am-4pm and closed on Mondays). Then we had a walk down Chuo-dori into the skyscraper-packed business district. It’s mad busy around there and you feel so small amass the sea of people and towering buildings.
There are two Tokyo Metropolitan Government Towers which, if you time your visit right, you can go up for free to see panoramic views over the city (the north building allows access on the 2nd and 4th Mondays each month and south building on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday each month). At the back of the towers is also Shinjuko-Chuo Park which provided some much needed shade for us, because it was another super sunny June day when we were exploring this Tokyo neighbourhood.
We then walked back into the shopping area of the neighbourhood for the evening. By this time everyone had left work and we could hardly move on the streets for how busy it was with people. We grabbed a really tasty dinner at one of the many budget ramen restaurants for £3.50 each. As the evening set in and the area transformed into a sea of neon lights we explored some of the alleys off the main streets.
Omoide Yokocho and Golden Gai were our favourite spots. The smoke filled, interconnected back streets were like rabbit warrens crammed with traditional restaurants and tiny bars each seating no more than 10 people. Cover charges were steep at £7 and drinks were a minimum of £3.50 a pop so we didn’t indulge. But I’d recommend a wander around just to soak in some of the atmosphere, even if you don’t partake in a beverage.
Yoyogi Park & Shibuya (Yoyogi-koen stop on the Chiyoda line)
Being a Sunday and another sunny day (we really lucked out with the weather during our visit), it was a perfect day to have a saunter around one of Tokyo’s largest parks. People were out in force having picnics and playing games with their families and friends but there was still plenty of green open space.
There were also quite a few performances going on, from dramatic drumming acts to teddy boys dressed up in full gear giving it their dancing all. They must have been sweltering in their jeans and denim jackets!
Next we meandered through the impressive 12m high Tori gate and up to the Meji Jingu Temple, stopping to purify ourselves at the cleansing station. A wall of wooden tablets allows visitors to hang written messages of gratitude and personal wishes on. It really is quite a special place. For lunch we grabbed some scrummy treats from a bakery. These are a very inexpensive way of lunching in Japan and way better than Greggs in the UK!
Determined to get a snap with a Harajuku girl next, we headed to the area around Harajuku Train Station (it’s just over the road from Yoyogi Park but between the metro stops of Shinjuku and Shibuya on the Yamanote line). Reputed as the hang out spot for Japan's most extreme teenage cultures and fashion styles, we searched in vain up and down Takeshita Dori but unfortunately didn’t spot any. They must have been hiding out of the glare of the sun. If you go and see one let us know!
Next we strolled down Omotesando which is also referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees and onto the famous Shibuya crossing. With 10 lanes of traffic and 5 major walkways converging, there’s no wonder it’s rumoured to be the busiest crossing in the world. Apparently you are no longer able to take photos from the Starbucks overlooking it – even if you buy something! But there’s a great spot from the metro station walkway anyway. We rounded off a completely free day entrance-fee-wise by eating at one of our favourite cheap and delicious Japanese fast food chains – Yoshinoya.
Other places worth noting for Exploring Tokyo On A Budget:
• Whilst not the tallest building in Tokyo, the Bunkyo Civic Centre at the Kasuga stop on the Mita Line, has excellent views from its observation deck at 130m and other than your metro ride there, it’s completely free. There’s not much else around here so we just stopped off on our way back one day. Observation decks in Tokyo's grander skyscrapers are pretty expensive and we don’t feel like we missed out at all hitting this one instead but there is a full list here.
• With Japan being the manufacturing centre of electronics, we also stopped in on the electronics neighbourhood at the Akihabara stop on the Hibiya Line because we were on the lookout for an affordable drone at the time. Turns out just because they are manufactured here, they are by no means more affordable – for us anyway. So whilst it was fun trying out the super duper cameras, it's probably not worth it if your intention is to hunt for a bargain.
And there you have it. Our budget travel guide to exploring Tokyo. Be sure to check out our video on ‘Top Tips for Budget Travel in Japan’ for further information and this post about how to travel cheaply throughout Japan. With such an eccentric and interesting vibe, this metropolis really should be on every travel lover’s wanderlust list, whatever your budget.
If you have any questions or want any more advice on budget travel in this top capital city, please feel free to ask in a comment below and we will do our very best to help you plan your trip!