For many travellers, a trip to Tokyo represents an impossible dream: one they cannot realistically hope to realise until many years into the future when they are financially secure. Its reputation as one of the most intriguing but expensive cities suggests that one cannot afford to consume Tokyo’s exhilarating, complex culture without a sizeable travel budget. This, though, is a myth: with some planning and a bit of cautiousness, one can visit Tokyo and have an incredible time without breaking the bank. Whilst buying a lot of Hello Kitty and dining in Michelin-star sushi restaurants is a good way to assure yourself that you are having an authentic Japanese experience, Japan’s culture can be accessed and enjoyed without spending much money at all. Here are a few tips.
Wandering aimlessly around foreign cities with nothing but an ipod is probably my number one pastime, and Tokyo is the number-one place in the world to wander around in: clean, spacious, and endlessly, endlessly interesting (not to mention the vending machines located on just about every street corner for a convenient hot green tea). As many travellers might agree, just walking around is one of the best ways to experience a city, and this is as true for Tokyo as anywhere else, if not more so: there is just so much to see! Tokyo is best thought of not as one huge city, but one place comprised of many little cities, each with its own unique appeal and visual character. Harajuku, for instance, as the hang-out spot for Tokyo’s fashion kids, is perhaps best for people watching; whereas places such as Ueno and Asakusa reveal Tokyo’s more ‘Asian’ side. Shibuya is exciting just for the sheer volume of people. And, as one goes beyond the high-density, glossy shopping areas such as Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ginza, one discovers the more eclectic districts, loved by the residents of Tokyo, such as Shimokitazawa and Koenji (or Akihabara for fans of anime); districts which have a more intimate atmosphere and where shops and cafes are cuter, cooler, weirder, and a bit cheaper.
If walking does not appeal or if you want to cover more ground, a fun and not-too-expensive way to explore the city is to hire a bike for the day – hire fees range from 500 yen to 1000 yen. The subway is not so expensive if you buy and use a day pass, and provides the best way to see the city by night (in particular the Yamanote Line).
Go to temples, shrines and parks
It’s easy to become dragged in by Tokyo’s overstimulating environment and forget the reverse side of Japanese culture, which focuses not on high-pitched cuteness but upon spirituality and creating an atmosphere of serenity. Temples and shrines are to be found everywhere in Tokyo – in some cases even wedged between stores in the busy shopping districts – and allow one to come face to face with ancient Japanese tradition. You can do as the Japanese do by meditating or say a prayer, (whilst respecting the proper praying etiquette) or simply enjoy the peaceful surroundings. In nearly all Tokyo temples, entrance is free. If you happen to be visiting in spring or autumn, parks are also a must in order to partake in ohanami (‘the viewing of the cherry-blossom’), or koyo (‘the viewing of the autumn leaves’); both very serious and important Japanese traditions, and both free, of course!
Hostels are your friend
Since accommodation can be such a huge cash-burner when planning a trip, it is necessary to opt for the cheapest option if one wants to visit Tokyo on a shoestring and make it work: which can be quite heartbreaking since there are so many incredible alternatives such as ryokan (Japanese-style guest houses) or capsule hotels. Luckily, hostels in Tokyo are – in my experience – clean, comfortable, friendly and in general hassle-free. Whilst you have zero privacy, staying in a hostel gives you the chance to meet other foreigners and swap tips about fun places to go and cheap things to do.
Cheap food = good food
Of course there is an incredible variety of fine-dining opportunities in Tokyo, if you have the money to spend. But if you don’t, there is no need to resort to McDonalds. It is still possible to explore Japanese cuisine and enjoy good-quality food, if you are prepared to be a little adventurous. Cosy local restaurants offering delicious and low-priced meals can be discovered by wandering away from the prominent areas and delving into the narrower streets. Another reliably cheap option is to choose places with vending machines or kenbaiki, which conveniently take away the necessity of having to speak Japanese when ordering your meal: you simply present them with a ticket. If you are looking for something quicker, supermarket sushi is inexpensive and again, delicious; and onigiri or rice balls are available at any convenience store and are a filling snack. And if you are really in a bind then there is always instant ramen, or, the McDonalds 150 yen menu.
One of the nice things about taking the spendthrift approach to visiting Tokyo is that you are able to focus completely on taking in the city itself: the infinite number of wonderful details, the Japanese way of life, and in general the cuteness of your surroundings! Another bonus is that when you do make occasional deviations, such as visiting art galleries or the Ghibli Museum (worthwhile but quite expensive), they will be twice as fun and guilt-free. Happily, whether you visit Japan on a high budget or on a shoestring, your mind will be blown either way.