Tokyo has recently been put at the top of the list as most expensive city in the world. Whether it’s actually true or not (after all, it’s all relative and depends on the currency rate and other varied factors), Tokyo is definitely an expensive place to live.
The good news is, it’s one of those cities where you can have lots of fun for very little money, or none at all. Vivian Morelli finds plenty of cheap (or free!) things to do in Tokyo on a tight budget.
Cheap eats and drinks
Although it has various branches around Tokyo, my favourite is the original one, located in the traditional, lesser-known area of Yanaka, a few steps away from Nippori station. Sit outside with a cup of their frothy and tasty espresso, which comes with the low price tag of ¥190. You can catch a glimpse at the daily life of locals, and take a trip back in time to old Tokyo.
First heading out in my search, I was not sure what the name was, but rumour had it that a new place in Shibuya sold full pizza pies for ¥350. The name was Napoli’s, and they’ve opened a few branches around Tokyo. To my surprise, the dough rivals some that cost triple the price, and the Margarita pizza has the perfect ratio of tomato sauce, cheese and basil. Don’t expect a fancy decor, but for that price, no one will notice.
Make your own gyoza
Try your hand at a delicious staple in Japanese and Chinese cuisine, gyoza. The dumplings are relatively easy to make, and very cheap! You can invite a few friends or get the whole family to participate, and turn it into a party. All you need is: sesame oil, dashi (fish stock), vinegar, soy sauce, miso paste, negi (green onion), nira (garlic chives), hakusai (Chinese cabbage), minced pork (or tofu for vegetarian alternative), and ready-made gyoza skins. You may already have most of those ingredients in your kitchen; have a look at this useful photo tutorial.
There are loads of cheap curry spots in Tokyo, many of which offering a one coin lunch. My favourite is a little nook full of spicy goodness on the north side of Shimokitazawa. The friendly Nepalese staff, the outdoor tables and the ¥500 vegetable curry are what make me go there regularly. Truth is, it may not to be best curry in Tokyo, but for that price and with a huge, fresh piece of naan, Nan Station is the place to stop to take a break from too much vintage shopping in Shimokitazawa.
Sadly, many people shy away from the Park Hyatt Tokyo, dubbing it too expensive or too posh. If you want to re-create those scenes from Lost in Translation while giving your wallet/purse less of a bashing, instead head a few floors below the famed New York Grill and stop on the 41st floor Peak Lounge.
It features a sky-lit bamboo garden as the centerpiece, dim lighting and plush seats. Needless to say, it offers a stunning view of Tokyo, especially at nighttime, and a very reasonable price tag: unlimited drinks and the chef’s seasonal specialties for only ¥4500 (women)/ ¥5200 (men).
A few steps away from the Shibuya downtown core, drop by after work for a quick drink: a nice wooden decor, an open patio for those balmy nights and, most importantly, ¥400 glasses of house wine – your choice of red or white – and it’s actually good quality.
Accompany it with ¥500 tapas (try the olives and feta cheese), and while you might leave with the potential for a headache in the morning, you’ll not have broken the bank.
For those days when the thought of another ¥400 (and upwards!) cup of passable espresso seems unnecessary. Head out to Mister Donut, where for half that price you can get free refills and nosh on some of their sweet doughnuts (I must admit, I’m a fan). May be filled with high school kids, but at least it’s a far cry from the stroller parking lot that is Starbucks next door.
And more doughnuts. Hara Donuts hail from the city of Kobe, and they are combining tofu and soy milk in the batter. I know this may sound like an odd mix, but it really is scrumptious, and not to mention ‘healthy’. When is the last time you had a healthy doughnut? They have an assortment of flavours, ranging from mocha to tomato, but the best is the original kind, for ¥120.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
Perhaps the best view in Tokyo, for free. You can see all of Tokyo from the popular 202-meter high observation decks, located on the 45th floor of Main Building No. 1.
The South Observation Deck is best during the day, as you can see toward the popular Odaiba entertainment district.
The North Observation Deck, which is open until 22:30, is great for enjoying Tokyo at night, complete with drinks at the deck’s café and bar, where a variety of boozy treats (perhaps not that cheap but, well, the entrance was free…) are available.
Parasite Museum in Meguro
A quirky adventure in Meguro, not for the weak: The museum displays some 300 samples of 45,000 parasites collected by Kamegai Satoru, a doctor whose practice was overwhelmed by patients afflicted by parasites due to poor sanitary conditions during the post-war period in Japan. Don’t miss the 8.8m tapeworm display and buy a souvenir parasite preserved in a plastic keyring.
It’s free to get in, of course, so you are sure to get your money’s worth even if you don’t like bugs! (4-1-1 Shimo-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo)
It’s a free zoo. The animals are not the most exotic, but it’s a great chance for kids to pet farm animals. The petting zoo here lets you play with rabbits, guinea pigs and dogs, and ponies are available for riding, at ¥150 per ride.
Other attractions in the park include rowing boat rental (costing a mere ¥100 per 30 minutes for a boat) and a ping-pong area. A perfect activity for family day, especially with younger kids (or if you really like ponies…)
A treasure chest of secondhand clothes and accessories, in the heart of Harajuku. Get lost for a few hours in a jungle of colourful, vibrant items to desire, and revamp your wardrobe without hurting your wallet.
Thick knitted jumpers embalmed with a Canadian hockey team logo for ¥1200, fruit-print pajama tops for ¥900, nearly brand new jeans for ¥1500 – just be careful, as you may actually walk out with a banana-print shirt.
A store that doesn’t try to sell you anything – we love it. Catering to the important fanzine scene in Japan, the shop has a central table of free papers, for your perusal and pick up. They also keep an archive of free papers from around the world in their gallery section at the back, some of them being quite rare.
There’s also a section for handmade/non-commercial papers, so if you run a free paper you are welcome to display it there. It’s a first come, first serve basis, so get there on time to get the best selection. With a convenient location at the end of Cat Street in Shibuya.
No time or resources to get to Mount Fuji? Too late in the year anyway? Stay local and climb Tokyo’s own Mount Takao. The densely wooded mountain takes only 50 minutes to reach from Shinjuku (370 yen), and your only cost will be that train fare, a few bottles of water and some snacks. A network of numbered and well marked hiking trails, ranging from the broad and paved hiking trail to narrow nature trails, lead up the slopes and through the valleys of Takaosan.
The peak is 599 meters above sea level and offers views of the city and Mount Fuji on a clear day. A beautiful temple stands at the top of the mountain, which you can reach in under two hours.
Imperial Palace 5km run
The Imperial Palace may be the most gorgeous and most interesting place to run in Tokyo. Follow the 5km loop around the Palace for an effective workout with a view of Tokyo Tower and the lush green Imperial Gardens.
The Imperial Palace is popular for beginners and marathon runners alike – the path is safe, well-lit, and lined with a large moat and bushes. The most interesting part?
To encourage you along the circuit, there are even markers on the paving representing each of Japan’s prefectures, so you feel like you’re racing the length of the country. And, of course, it’s free, so lace up your sneakers and burn some calories.
Riding trains around
For the mere sum of ¥190, you can purchase a JR ticket and theoretically ride the Yamanote line on a loop, and see some major Tokyo sights. The 29 stations of the Yamanote line cover an important part of Tokyo, going through interesting parts such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Tokyo station.
Plus, most stations have a distinct jingle you can hear when the train arrives. The most interesting part are the lesser-known stations, as there is always a new area to explore, if you pick a random station and get off there. A complete loop takes between 59 and 65 minutes – not a bad way to spend an hour?
If you want to feel luxurious without spending any money, visit the gorgeous T-Site bookstore in Daikanyama; a playground for grown-ups. Browse endlessly through their extensive collection of international magazines and thick, glossy art books. I think this is the perfect idea for a date – just stay away from the second floor cafe if you don’t want to spend too much!
Picnic at yoyogi
Pack a leisure sheet and a basket full of homemade rice balls (or take out burgers!), snacks and refreshments: Yoyogi Park is the place to be on a sunny afternoon, as you can lounge and be idle for hours without feeling too lazy because you’re actually out. Bring a ball to throw around or take a stroll to Meiji Shrine.
In the right season, purchase the the brilliant Seishun 18 train pass, which offers unlimited rides all over Japan on local trains. Do yourself a favour and pick one up, as it’s one of the best deals in Japan. With a price tag of ¥11,500, it is valid for five days that do not need to be consecutive and allows you to, theoretically travel the length of Japan using just local trains.
You might rewarded by the chance to see a lot of Japan that the Shinkansen would just whizz you past. Click here for more details and dates to buy it.
Text by Vivian Morelli
Main image: raitank on flickr.