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The Budget Traveller’s Guide to Tokyo, Japan

With its towering skyscrapers and dizzying metro system, Tokyo the epitome of a buzzing metropolis. It's one of the most exciting cities you could travel to, but also one of the most expensive in Asia.

No worries – it’s still possible to have an unforgettable experience exploring the city without breaking the bank. Skyscanner Australia walks you through budget travel in Tokyo.

Where to stay in Tokyo on a budget

Although Tokyo loves to tempt its tourists with an array of luxurious five-star hotels, there are plenty of cheaper options in the city centre or a short train trip away. For the travellers that remain unswayed by the glamorous options, there’s a wide range of budget accommodation to choose from.

For a standard hotel experience tempered with a bit of Japanese culture, the Juyoh Hotel is a great option at the standard price of 6,600 yen a night (AUD$74.60). The hotel has a few small gardens and a selection of both Western style and Japanese tatami mat rooms. The Tokyo Ueno New Izu Hotel has single room offerings within a 5-minute walking distance from Ueno Station, with prices starting from 6,000 yen (AUD $68).

Hostels are always a fun option and Hotel Sakura Jimbocho offers dormitory-style accommodation starting at 3,300 yen (AUD$37.40) per person. They also provide a 24-hour travel desk and café, serviced by multilingual staff.

Best-rated hostels in Tokyo

Capsule hotel in Tokyo
Capsule hotel in Tokyo. Photo credit : Eric Montfort / Flickr

Something you definitely need to experience whilst in Tokyo is a night spent at the Japanese version of hostels – the famed capsule hotel. The Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside charges an astonishingly low 2,150 yen (AUD$24.30) for a sleeping pod in a very central location. The 1 Night 1980 Hostel is another popular option, the design being a sleeping capsule and bunk bed hybrid. The hostel’s name is synonymous with its price, but with taxes and fees, it comes to about 2,300 yen (AUD$26) per night.

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Cheap transportation

At first glance, Tokyo’s metro system is systematic chaos – an undecipherable maze of train lines and never ending streams of commuters. To live the fabled Tokyo rush hour insanity, try hopping on a train at a major train station on a weekday evening – it’ll be a ride you’ll never forget.

tokyo cityscape

Once you get the hang of it, the trains are the cheapest and quickest form of transport around. Keep on top of routes and timetables with the Hyperdia website or app.

Long distance trains

Most people planning a visit to the city have heard of the Japan Rail Pass. It allows for unlimited travel on most Shinkansen (bullet trains), Tokyo Metro trains and other JR trains. A 7-day pass starts at 29,110 yen (AUD $329). It’s good value if you’re venturing beyond Tokyo, as the ultra-fast Shinkansen bullet trains are mainly for travelling long distances. However, if you’re planning to stay mostly within the metro area, your money would probably be best spent elsewhere.

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3 trains in Tokyo
A subway and two Japan Railways trains in Tokyo. Photo credit: jamesjustin / Flickr

Local trains

Tokyo Metro offers a one-day open ticket and it’s a great money-saver. For only 600 yen (AUD $6.80) a day, you can have an unlimited number of rides on the subways, giving you easy access within central Tokyo.

If you intend on exploring a little further, another cost saver is the Seishun Ju Hachi Kippu, providing unlimited travel on all JR (Japan Railways) local trains for just over 2,000 yen (AUD $22.60) per day. Please note that you need to buy tickets in a set of five, which can be shared among friends or used on different occasions.

Free and affordable things to see and do

Tokyo is a vibrant fusion of the old and the new, and fortunately observing this mishmash of cultures is an activity that often won’t cost a cent.

shibuya malls

For starters, check out the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in front of Shibuya Station. It is always packed and is the best place to people watch, be it daily commuters, raucous sports fans or, on 31 October, hordes of costumed Japanese. If you happen to miss the Halloween period, you can head straight to Harajuku to see Japan’s extreme youth fashion and culture. Stroll about Takeshita Dori and you’re guaranteed to find truly funky stores, fashion boutiques and Tokyo’s youth in outrageous outfits.

cosplay girls

Tokyo is also known for its technology. The Akihabara district, originally famous as a place supplying techies with computer parts to build all sorts of gadgets, is now filled with regular electronics stores, maid cafes and anime and manga shops.

If you’d like to explore a little out of Tokyo, Odaiba is a man-made island in the Tokyo Bay where you can enjoy free admission to places like the Panasonic Centre, Fuji TV building and Toyota Mega Web and spend your afternoon perusing the latest in technology, car models and one of the largest TV networks in Japan. The island also affords a beautiful view of the Tokyo Rainbow Bridge.

Asakusa Temple

For those seeking the more traditional elements of Tokyo, head to Sensoji or the oldest temple in the city – Asakusa Kannon Temple. Gaze at its intricate detailing, or take photos under the huge red paper lantern.

If you’re feeling more adventurous, wander over to the Arashio Sumo Stable. While sumo wrestling grand tournaments only come to Tokyo in January, May and September (and tickets are rather pricey) you are welcome to view the practice facility’s intense morning practices for free all year round – save for tournament periods, of course. Check out further details here.

Free things to do in Tokyo

  • Visit the Imperial Palace. On Sundays, free bikes are offered to allow you to cycle around the ancient building.

  • Visit the wooded grounds around the Meiji-jingu shrine.

  • Visit the Origami Kaikan, a workshop where you can see the art of Japanese paper making. Origami lessons are offered for a small fee.

  • Visit Yanesen, an area of Tokyo that shows what the city looked like in the 1940s.

  • Visit Meguro Parasitological Museum, and see some of the world’s longest tapeworms.

  • Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and climb up to the viewing platform.

Shopping

While in Tokyo, you’re bound to want to do some shopping. However in ultra fancy department stores such as Takashimaya and Mitsukoshi or Ginza boutiques, you might want to restrict yourself to window shopping so that you won’t blow the budget. A more affordable option would be to head to one of Tokyo’s many 100 yen stores known as hyakkin. The two biggest chains are Daiso and Seria and they sell everything from cool stationary to travel items, traditional Japanese toys and decorations. Whether you forget some travel essentials or want to shop for cheap souvenirs, these 100 yen stores are the way to go.

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Another fun place to shop is discount chain Don Quijote. The store carries everything under the sun, but the major bonus here is that almost all Don Quijote stores are open well past midnight and a fair few are open 24 hours. Check store hours and locations online. They even have an English website where you can shop online and pre-order for pick-up after your arrival in Japan.

Don Quijote in Shinjuku
Don Quijote in Shinjuku. Photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson / Flickr

Cheap food and drink

There are few words in the Japanese language as important as this one, so remember it well: konbini. It means convenience store and it’s going to be your number one pit stop when you want to grab a meal on the go.

Not all food at the convenience store will come cheap, so stick to tried and tested local favourites. Onigiri is a tasty triangle of seaweed-wrapped rice with a variety of fillings ranging from salmon, chicken teriyaki and pickled plum. Other economical but delicious options are niku-man, pork filled steamed buns, and kareman, curry filled steamed buns. The real kicker here is that onigiri, niku-man and kare-man all cost around 120 yen (AUD$1.35) each.

Onigiri lineup at a convenience store in Tokyo
Onigiri lineup at a convenience store in Tokyo. Photo credit: Joey Rozier / Flickr

A particularly cool spot to get a cheap bite to eat is at Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho. Its narrow lanes are crowded with food stalls and standing counter restaurants that serve yakitori, ramen and yakiniku. For more restaurant-like vibes, try a traditional izakaya, where people share plates of food and wash it all down with a beer or sake.

When in Japan, sushi is an obvious must-try, but the best sushi bars in Tokyo come with corresponding staggering prices. Sushi worth splurging on is found at Tsukiji, the world’s biggest and busiest fish market. If you arrive by 5am, you might be able to catch the famous tuna auction.

The streets are lined with many reasonably priced offerings featuring fresh catches of the day, so you can enjoy a sushi breakfast after your early market wanderings. It’s worth noting that Tsukiji is closed on Sundays.

tsujuki market

Conveyor belt sushi restaurants, or kaiten-zushi, is a budget eat that combines quirkiness with excellent taste. Try the Genki Sushi chain, which serves more than 80 items at only 100 yen (AUD$1.13) per plate, replete with futuristic touch screen order systems and English menus. For ease of locating these joints, keep an eye out for the Genki Sushi logo – an angry, round-faced fella.

In terms of post-sightseeing drinks, try some of Japan’s famous local delicacy at Sake Plaza. Both a museum and showroom, entrance is free and you can sample five different kinds of sake for only 540 yen (AUD$6.10).

Alternatively, drink like a local at Shinjuku’s Golden Gai. It is one of the coolest places in Tokyo with a collection of about 200 tiny bars that will really take you back in time. Most bars here have cover charges of around 1000 yen (AUD$11.30) per person. If you want to experience Golden Gai but don’t want to spend too much, try Ace’s. There is no cover charge, drink prices start at 500 yen (AU$5.65) and, to top it off, the owner speaks English.

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Golden Gai in Shinjuku
Golden Gai in Shinjuku. Photo credit: Big Ben in Japan / Flickr

Now that you know how to enjoy Tokyo on a budget, you can book your flight and search for great value hotels using Skyscanner Australia.

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