In the world of international travel, Tokyo has a bad rap as one of the most expensive destinations. Even so, it’s also one of the most exciting. Visitors enjoy the tasty dishes, big-city feel and the overall culture of the city. This keeps Tokyo on most people’s bucket list, and they eventually bite the bullet, pull out their credit cards and prepare for the high prices. However, there are ways to enjoy an affordable Tokyo trip without skimping on fun and good food.
Saving up before visiting is one obvious first step, but there are many great attractions in the area that are inexpensive or even free. If you’re willing to forego eating at fancy restaurants, to venture into a few back alleys and focus on Japanese culture in its traditional form, you can save a lot of money.
Tokyo Things To Do
1) Cross the Busiest Street in the World
When you think of busy streets, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris and London most often come to mind. However, there is one busy street in Asia that has all these locations beat. The world’s busiest street is actually Shibuya Crossing and crossing it is a rite of passage for every traveler who visits Tokyo.
There are more than 9 million people living in Tokyo and, when you visit this crossing, it feels like everyone has come out at exactly the same time. In reality, estimates say that, during peak times, more than 3,000 people are attempting to cross the street in multiple directions. This can cause the intersection to look more like a gathered crowd than a crossing.
Keeping up with the changing lights and fast-paced crowds can get confusing. So, not surprisingly, some people prefer to watch the beautiful chaos from a distance. You can do this from the rooftop at Mag’s Park. If you planned on getting good pictures of the hustle and bustle though, you might be disappointed to learn that you’re boxed in by plexiglass. Still, with good skill and great luck, you can still get some great bird's-eye photos of the masses.
As you might expect, the cost of visiting this crossing is free. There’s also plenty to do nearby. Check out Takeshita Street to see even more of the busy city, or stay closer to the crossing and visit the Hachikō Memorial Statue.
Pedestrians in Shibuya Crossing
2) Eat Authentic Japanese Food
To be honest, this is probably the most expensive thing you’ll do in Japan. If you’re lucky enough to get accommodation that includes at least one meal, you can save a lot of money. However, even if you don’t, the trick is to opt for street food instead of fancy sit-down restaurants. You can also find many restaurants that fall somewhere in the middle that won’t break the bank.
Most of the cheap street food you’ll find are not full meals but snacks that you can pick up along your route while you explore. If you love red meat, you’ll enjoy beef menchi-katsu. It’s fried and crispy on the outside but tender and juicy on the inside. If you prefer seafood and love sushi, don’t forget to try onigiri. It’s like sushi but much bigger and covered almost completely in rice. Another common favorite is yakitori, which is essentially chicken on a stick.
Ramen can be harder to find on the streets, but there are several great restaurants where you can eat this and other complete meals at reasonable prices. Kin-No-Torikara along the Shibuya Center-Gai is a great place to get fast food or a takeout lunch. If you’re specifically on the hunt for ramen, many travelers point to Ichiran in Shibuya as the best in its price range. Finally, for coffee and cakes, stop by Koffee Mameya.
Eating Ramen in Small Ramen Restaurant in Tokyo
3) Check Out the Art Scene
After enjoying the culinary skills of Japanese chefs, you might want to move on to a different type of art. Unlike many European countries, there are actually several free art galleries in Tokyo. Here are some of the best galleries when visiting Tokyo on a budget and what you can expect to find there:
Espace Louis Vuitton: This is a modern art gallery bathed in light, showcasing the work of daring artists. The gallery also showcases minimalist pieces, highlighting its contemporary focus.
Ota Fine Arts: Minimalism plays a significant role in traditional and contemporary Japanese culture, so it should come as no surprise that yet another gallery features this style of visual arts. This gallery showcases multimedia artwork and predominantly features Asian artists.
WISH LESS: This gallery is a lot less structured and more on the edgy side. The curators behind it mix products, fashion, traditional visual arts and even live music under one roof.
IMA Concept Store: For something even more original, this photography magazine evolved into a bookshop and art gallery. Not only will you find artwork but you can also attend workshops and lectures.
If you plan to visit multiple museums, you can purchase the Grutt Pass for just ¥2,200 (US $20.27). It’s valid for two months starting from the first time you use it. During that time, you get free entry into some museums and pay highly discounted fees for others.
Art Installation at TeamLab Borderless Museum
4) Visit Local Shrines
Buddhism and Shintoism are the two main belief systems in Japan. Religion in Japan doesn’t follow the more restrictive path of organized religion, so many people consider themselves a member of both groups or neither group. Shrines tend to be Shinto and visiting them is free.
The most popular shrine is known as Meiji Shrine, near the Harajuku Station and is often recommended by past visitors, residents and locals. Weddings often occur at these shrines on Sunday in the late morning or early afternoon, so this a great time to visit if you would like to witness one. If you want alone time, it’s a good idea to visit during the early mornings.
If you have never visited a shrine before, you may worry about offending people or behaving in a way that is considered inappropriate. Keep these simple tips in mind:
- Traditionally, people who are mourning, sick or have an open wound are considered impure and should not visit the shrine.
- At the entrance to the shrine, you will find a fountain with ladles. Use these to cleanse your hands and mouth. Pay attention to the locals to ensure you follow the steps correctly.
- Many shrines do not allow pictures to be taken inside, but you should be able to take a few photos outside.
- Remain calm and show reverence with respectful behavior.
Torii Gates Tunnel at Hie Shrine in Akasaka
5) Use Public Transportation
Needless to say, renting a car in Tokyo won’t do your pocket any favors. The good news is that Tokyo has a sophisticated public transportation system that can get you anywhere you need to go inexpensively. The system incorporates both buses and trains and costs a fraction of what you would pay to hail a taxi. If you’re traveling with children, some of them may even be able to travel for free. This may vary by line, route and transportation vehicle, so be sure to double check when planning your trip.
To keep costs even lower, get a Pasmo or Suica prepaid card at the airport, which can be used for the following:
- Riding public transportation
- Paying for items at certain stores, vending machines and kiosks
- Getting a locker or paying for parking
- Paying for taxi rides
Some travelers worry about their credit and debit card information getting stolen while overseas. This is a valid concern and one that these cards can reduce, especially if you use them exclusively. That said, they don’t eliminate the need for basic safety measures when securing your personal bank cards. Keep an eye on your purse or wallet, and consider the pros and cons of locking up cards you don’t need in a safe or locker.
Book Your Flight
Depending on where you are in the world, one last caveat in cost is booking your ticket. Flights from New York to Tokyo can drain your bank account of up to $1,500. When flying from Los Angeles, you might be able to save a few hundred dollars. This upfront cost is what deters many people from visiting Tokyo, causing them to push it to the bottom of their list.
However, there is a way to reduce the cost and make it all possible. Whether you’re a travel photographer and influencer (like Jord Hammond who’s featured in this article) or just a person with generous family and friends, you can book your trip to Tokyo without spending your own money. In the months ahead, instead of asking for gifts on special occasions, ask for skyhours.
Family, friends and acquaintances can help you fund your Tokyo trip for just $1 per minute of travel time, starting at 30 minutes ($30). Over time, those contributions can pile up. Ask for skyhours for birthdays, holidays, graduation, a job promotion or an engagement or wedding gift. And share your adventures with your community.
You’d be surprised by how many people step up to the challenge to make it happen. With any luck, you’ll get there just in time for the Tokyo Olympics 2020.