Japan’s capital is an extraordinary city where modern high-rises meet traditional Shinto shrines, and cherry trees bloom right next to Michelin-starred restaurants and techno bars. From cafés decorated in style of the Moomin Valley during the day to robot-themed entertainment shows by night, Tokyo is full of surprises! The good news is, you can try it all without breaking the bank, read on to find out how to enjoy Tokyo on a budget.
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The best time to visit Tokyo
Some of the most remarkable images from Tokyo show Sakura – time of the cherry blossoms. Public parks and gardens fill up with delicate pinkish flowers and… tourists! The Sakura season is very short (which is why in Japanese culture the flowers are associated with the passing nature of life). In Tokyo the trees start blooming in late March.
In early April they will reach “Mankai” (cherries in full bloom), and most of the flowers will be gone after only about a week. The Sakura season is one of the most popular times for tourists to visit Tokyo, so prepare yourself to be one of many, but with absolutely spectacular sights! Another time for breathtaking views in Tokyo is the summer, when all the Hanabi take place. The word itself means “fire flower”, and is the commonly used name for Japanese firework festivals.
Remember that the Japanese capital is only 2 hours away from Mt. Fuji. Every year in late July the mountain (which is actually a volcano) becomes home to the unique Fuji Rock Festival. If you are a music lover, try combining an exceptional music gig with your trip to the Japanese capital.
Budget things to do in Tokyo
Tokyo is a great place to study the Japanese traditions by exploring temples and shrines, and we have listed some of the most impressive ones in the next section. The Japanese capital is also a hub for contemporary arts and culture. Pay a visit to The National Art Centre; the architecture will amaze you! There is no entrance fee to the museum itself, and only special exhibitions are ticketed. The Mori Museum located in the heart of the trendy Roppongi district is ticketed too, however the impressive Mamman sculpture (giant spider that seems to wabble on its thin legs) by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois is placed in an open area and accessible to the public.
Tokyo also has a variety of outdoor options and many parks to stroll around in the daytime, but it also offers countless nightlife adventures after the sunset. For your night out, a true budget jackpot is “Three Hundred Bar” in the shiny neighborhood of Ginza. Between elegant malls, exclusive boutiques and Michelin-starred restaurants, you will find “the standing bar” where one ticket is 300 yen (2,6 USD). You purchase you tickets as you enter (there is even a “buy 10 and get 1 free” deal!) and exchange them for snacks or drinks at the bar. Meet a mixed crowd of locals and expats, ready for an unforgettable night out is guaranteed!
If you aren’t in the mood for a party, and would rather just enjoy a drink in a bar, try exploring Golden Gai area in Kabukicho. The area is quiet, even family-friendly by day, but the atmosphere changes at night. Kabukicho is referred to as Tokyo’s “Red Light District”, but the place has now become a tourist attraction, so as long as you keep your rute to bars and thank no to sellers offering you cheap accommodation in love hotels, you will be safe. Take your friends to one of the tiny bars in Golden Gai, but do note that there will almost always be a cover charge on top of the price of your drink!
If you are an early bird, and late-night escapades aren’t your thing, Tokyo will have something very special for you. As early as 5 AM the Tsukiji Outer Market (not to be confused with Tsukiji Inner Market which has now moved to a more modern location in Toyosu!) opens up. Go to Tsukiji in the morning to experience the fishermen who gather and trade over 400 different kinds of fish and seafood, and finish up with a sushi-breakfast at one of the rather affordable restaurants / food stalls.
Places to visit in Tokyo on a budget
For your Tokyo budget itinerary we recommend you to explore cultural sites in the city. Beautiful gardens around The Emperor’s Palace or the Meiji Yingu and the Yoyogi Park just next to it, are great places for a relaxed stroll. If you choose to stay in the Asakusa neighborhood (which is also our recommendation for inexpensive accommodation in Tokyo), you must pay a visit to the Sensoji Temple. Beautifully lit up by night, it hosts a vibrant food-market by day, and it’s one of the most remarkable temples in Tokyo. The lucky ones can sometimes catch a glimpse of a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony when visiting a shrine!
From the Meiji Shrine, you can continue walking to the Harajuku area to experience the one-and-only Takeshita Street. Prepare yourself for a drastic change of scenery though! From a serene park you will be thrown into a bustling urban area filled with teenagers in peculiar outfits; cosplay dresses and extravagant clothing style is exactly what Harajuku is famous for! The teens are often happy to be photographed, so do not be shy to ask them if you may take their picture.
Takeshita Street is the crown of the Omotesando Street – a shopping avenue with high street brands (some call it the Champs-Élysées of Tokyo). While shopping on Omotesando does not qualify for Japan budget guide, taking a stroll down the Omotesando boulevard is absolutely free, and it gives you a chance to experience some of the most architectonically impressive buildings and shop facades in the world. Note the Hugo Boss building designed by Japanese architect Norihiko Dan or Prada’s breathtaking facade by Swiss architect firm Herzog and De Meuron.
End your stroll down Tokyo’s most spectacular shopping avenue in… a rat hole! Rat Hole Gallery is located in the end of Omotesando, and you can enjoy exhibitions of contemporary art completely free of charge.
If shiny shopping windows and boutique displays intimidate you, go to the Shinjuku for change of scenery! You won’t escape the crowds (as three and a half million commuters pass through Shinjuku train station every single day), but you will find yourself in a vibrant neighborhood with a variety of affordable restaurants, cafés and bars.
Where to stay in Tokyo on a budget
When booking your Tokyo accommodation, you can choose between hostels, hotels, apartments and AirBnb, but be aware that the latter can be frowned upon. Minpaku, a law addressing private home-sharing, was introduced in June 2018, and big part of AirBnb listings had to be removed from the website. With a decreasing number of properties on the site, we recommend checking in to a hotel or a hostel. We have also written an extensive guide on Where to Stay in Tokyo.
Luckily cheap hotels in Tokyo are easy to find (use one of the major booking sites like agoda, booking.com or hotels.com). If you are interested to try a truly Japanese phenomenon, instead of looking for a Tokyo hostel, you can try the Japanese Capsule Hotels (also known as Pod Hotels)! They are very inexpensive, and with they sci-fi look, a night in a Capsule Hotel might be a cultural experience in itself. Every pod is like a self-sufficient mini-hotel, equipped with a bed, lights, shelves, and maybe even a TV or a radio.
Usually the price of the accommodation most of all depends on the location of the property, so if you need to watch your finances, you should stay outside of Tokyo’s most popular districts like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza or Ebisa. These are great to explore, but try booking your accommodation in the Asakusa neighborhood. The area is easy to get to with public transportation, and even though you won’t find it on top of travel guides’ lists, there are still plenty of things to do there. Besides taking a relaxing stroll along the Sumida River, you can also visit the Sumida Park – especially popular during the cherry blossom season! You will find the cute Moomin Valley-themed café filled with huge Moomin-toys is in the Sumida area too!
Since Asakusa is not one of the central districts, Shinjuku might be a better accommodation choice if you only plan to stay in the Japanese capital for a few nights. It would definitely be a good option for Tokyo backpackers! When choosing to stay in Shinjuku you will save time and money on travelling within the city, and there are plenty of interesting things to explore; go to the beautiful garden of Shinjuku Gyoen by day and swap it for the Kabukicho bar area by night!
How to get around Tokyo on a budget
Even though it’s a big city, Tokyo (and its central areas in particular) is very walkable! Save your money and try going on foot, especially if your itinerary is within one district.
The city’s metro system works very well too, and it is easy to navigate for tourists who do not speak Japanese. You start with buying a Suica or PASMO card from a vending machine on one of the metro stations. Suica/PASMO is a pre-paid card you can use to get around the city and when shopping (you must deposit 500 Yen to get the card and then top up). Like in other major cities, you simply tap the Suica card on a dedicated reader before entering the undergrund station or on the bus, and the fare gets deducted automatically. Compared to the metro network, busses might seem more confusing for someone who doesn’t speak the language, but they are still a safe and reliable transportation option.
Taxis are not a budget-friendly choice in Tokyo, as they usually cost 710 – 730 Yen for the first 2 kilometres, and after that the fare rises with 90 Yen for each 280 metres travelled. Also keep in mind that taxis usually have surcharges between 10 PM – 5 AM. To avoid evening fees and if you prefer cashless payment (Tokyo taxis should accept cards, but tourists are always advised to carry cash anyway), you can try Uber. It is not the most popular option in Tokyo, and also more expensive than the public transportation, but if you are travelling with luggage or getting home at night, Uber might be a solution.
Cheap tours to do in Tokyo
When in Tokyo, a must-do is a trip to Mt. Fuji, also referred to as “Fuji-San”. This incredible site will be a great adventure for experienced hikers as well as for less adventurous tourists, who instead of going to the peak, prefer exploring the adjoining Fuji Five Lakes at the northern base of the mountain.
A day trip from Tokyo to the city of Kamakura is also worth recommending. Going from the capital, you can reach the coastal town of Kamakura by Odakyu Railways, JR Yokosuka Line or JR Shonan Shinjuku Line (one way trip takes approximately one hour and costs 920 yen = 8,20 USD). The town is a popular tourist destination for those who wish to escape the bustling capital, but what also draws people to Kamakura is the famous statue of Great Buddha. Made entirely of bronze, It is the second largest Buddha statue in Japan, and the curious ones can even go inside the statuary!
Additionally, tourists in Japan can enjoy a few travelling perks. Non-Japanese residents are eligible for buying Japan Rail Pass (usually referred to as JR Pass): a very cost effective rail pass, perfect for long distance travels in Japan. With a JR Pass even long-distance trips (like a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto) become easy to do in one day. Note that the pass needs to be booked in advance from your country of residence and activated once you land in Japan.
Recommend budget tours in Tokyo:
- Mt. Fuji Day Trip Including Lake Ashi Sightseeing Cruise from Tokyo
- Tokyo Day Tour: Meiji Shrine, Asakusa Temple and Tokyo Bay Cruise
- Tokyo by Night: Japanese Food Tour
- Nikko National Park Day Trip from Tokyo
- Kyoto Rail Tour by Bullet Train from Tokyo
- Kamakura and Tokyo Bay Day Trip from Tokyo
- Walking Food Tour of Shibuya at Night
- Tokyo: Must See Experience with a Local Host
- Tokyo: Cherry Blossom ‘Sakura’ Viewing Tour by Bus including Lunch
- Fujiten Snow Resort and Lake Kawaguchi Day Trip from Tokyo
- Tsukiji Fish Market Visit with Sushi Making Experience
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