Home to roughly 37.5 million people, Tokyo is the most populated city in the world. The minute you arrive, you may feel a sense of deep overwhelm, with hoards of people brushing past you in the train station, at every street light, and in every bar. However, unlike any other city in the world I’ve visited, Tokyo has a palpable sense of order and peace. There is an almost eerie quietness to the city.
How could I be standing on these crowded subway trains or walking across Shibuya crossing, the busiest street crossing in the world, and hear almost nothing from the people around me?
During the day, people don’t bump into you, people don’t talk to you, and the sprawling, jam packed city often feels empty. Then the night comes. The bright lights buzz and flash, and tiny, one-room bars and restaurants are filled with people and laughter. The streets have a new energy, with men in suits and large groups drinking high balls or beers while walking.
Tokyo is it’s own world-—incomparable to any city, and yet nothing like I expected. When I visited in 2019, I was flat broke and living in Kyoto. I almost didn’t take the famous bullet train to Tokyo because I didn’t think it was in my budget, but I knew I couldn’t come this far and not go to a place I had always wanted to visit. So I went, and surprisingly, I was able to spend less money per day in Tokyo than I was back in Kyoto.
If you’re trying to visit the second most expensive city in the world, but you’re stressing about money, let me assure you, you can still go. Below I’ll cover how to have a blast in Tokyo while on a budget.
Where to Stay in Tokyo on a Budget
Accommodation is one of the most expensive things about visiting Tokyo. I won’t lie, it’s not cheap, but there are alternatives.
Stay in Capsule Hotels or Hostels
One of the best things about Japan are capsule hotels. These pod hotels are essentially just that, a little room big enough for a bed—usually with no windows—and storage similar to that of a train (in the walls). These are perfect for the budget traveler and they truly embody the minimalist culture that is so beloved in Japan.
Staying in a capsule hotel is a wonderful way to check off a bucket list item while also saving some serious cash. Plus, there are so many unique options; you can find some spectacular ones with great common spaces and amenities.
Another budget alternative is to stay in a hostel. In general, the standards for cleanliness are incredibly high in Japan. Staying in a hostel will most likely be a better experience than you’re used to if you come from, well, most other countries in the world. Plus hostels are often located right in the heart of things.
How to Get Around Tokyo on a Budget
While walking is absolutely your most affordable bet, Tokyo is a massive city. There are ways to get around without breaking the bank and without forcing you to stay in one neighborhood.
Be Public Transportation Savvy
Taking public transit is not only a budget friendly option, but it’s also an incredible experience in itself. The Tokyo transit system is amazing, innovative, clean and provides the best people watching and sightseeing around. There’s no better way to get a feel for a place than to do as the locals do, and the locals take the train.
In Tokyo, you can purchase a metro card at any station and choose the best transport package for your trip. It’s important to note that certain zones have different fares, so when it comes to maximizing your budget, plan accordingly.
There are often many different routes to get to the same place and the only difference is money and time. Typically the more time it takes, the cheaper the route. You can travel almost two hours and only pay $3 if you plan your route correctly. A little research and a little planning go a long when it comes to sightseeing on a budget.
One thing to note is that the train doesn’t run very late in most neighborhoods. As a local told me, they close early so the train noise doesn’t disrupt the residents. Look up the operation hours on your route beforehand. Most trains stop running by midnight and taking a taxi in Tokyo will definitely blow your entire budget.
Plan Your Sightseeing By Neighborhoods
A great way to maximize your budget—and your time—is to plan your day via metro zones or neighborhoods. Take the time to research what you want to see in each area beforehand and plan to only spend that day in the same area. This way you can easily walk to everything or take an affordable metro ride, and you won’t be wasting time and money by running all over town each day.
Where to Eat and Drink in Tokyo on a Budget
While Tokyo is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, many places come with a hefty price tag. Trying local food is one of the best parts about traveling and there are ways to do just that without breaking the bank in Tokyo.
Choose Izakaya and Happy Hour Options
Izakaya is essentially both Japanese tapas and pub grub. You choose from various small plates of traditional and delicious dishes at an affordable price. Izakaya is meant to be enjoyed with drinks, and Izakaya restaurants tend to have fantastic drink specials.
Another great budget option is to look for happy hour deals. Tokyo boasts some fantastic happy hours. This is the best way to try out restaurants that might normally be out of budget, without spending too much.
Eat All the Lunch Specials
Lunch was by far my favorite meal in Japan. Tokyo, like most big cities in Japan, has fantastic lunch specials for half the price of a typical dinner. Lunch specials usually include very large portions and a variety of dishes, so it’s a great way to try local food while getting the most bang for your buck. A quick google search will help you locate some great lunch specials in your area.
Utilize Convenience Stores
711 was my best friend when living in Japan. It is nothing like the ones I know in the United States. In Japan, 711 has pretty good sushi for an even better price, affordable coffee, all the best snacks, and you can even buy a decent amount of groceries here.
When I simply just needed to eat and wasn’t able to spend money on a memorable meal, convenience stores were a tasty and cheap way to get by. They are everywhere in Japan, including the best places in town.
I recommend picking up a cheap meal at 711 near a beautiful park or historic sight and eating your meal there—you get the best of both worlds for a fraction of the price any restaurant in the area would charge.
Drink on the Street
It’s legal to drink on the street in Tokyo, which is music to any penny pinchers’ ears! Instead of spending all your money at bars, go to 711, grab a highball, beer or bottle of sake, and explore! You can both sightsee and drink with friends at the same time. Plus, there’s nothing like walking around Tokyo at night, with the lights, the people and the energy.
9 Free or Low-Cost Things to do in Tokyo
There are so many monumental sights in Tokyo that have little to no entry fee. Wandering the streets in Tokyo costs absolutely nothing and provides so much value and experience. Aside from that though, there are plenty of free activities you can do that give you a great taste of the city. Here are some of my favorites:
Window Shop in Harajuku
One of the most famous—and unique—areas in Tokyo is Harajuku. Known for being on the cutting edge of fashion, art, and Japanese culture, this is a fantastic area to people watch and windowshop. Plus, it’s home to several iconic landmarks, art installations, and great parks.
Wander through the Outdoor Markets
Even if you can’t afford anything, exploring the outdoor markets in Tokyo is a memorable experience. Filled with handcrafted items, traditional goods, local vendors, or food stalls, each market is a great introduction to Tokyo and its culture. If you do choose to shop, markets will often be much lower cost than retail stores—and they support the local vendors directly.
Food markets are also home to some of the more affordable food options in town and most places will offer samples, however, I do recommend supporting the businesses as well. Check out Nakamise Shopping Street, one of the oldest markets in Tokyo, or Tokyu Food Show for one of the best underground food stalls.
Picnic or Walk Through the Many Parks and Gardens
Tokyo is filled with beautiful parks and gardens that are a completely free and photogenic place to hang out. Not to mention, a nice relaxing respite from the chaos of the city. Many parks host events or markets as well as street performers. They often include beautiful ponds, rivers, or temples.
Some notable parks to check out are Shinjuku Garden, Yoyogi Park, Inokashira Park, and Shiba Park, which gives you a nice view of the Tokyo Tower.
Visit all the Free Museums
There are so many museums throughout Tokyo it can feel impossible to know where to start. If you’re on a budget however, why not narrow it down by looking at the free museums first? Some interesting and unique options include Origami Kaikan, The Advertising Museum or the Fireworks museum.
Create your Own Architecture Tour
A quick google search will reveal notable architectural landmarks and art installations all throughout Tokyo. This is a great way to learn fun history facts and see different parts of the city. Some great places to start include the many skyscrapers in town, the Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Midtown or Dear Jingumae. Don’t forget a visit to the beautiful Imperial Palace as well, which is free to the public.
Soak Up Some City Views
There are numerous viewpoints throughout Tokyo, including some free observation decks. This is a great way to get some awesome photos and marvel at Tokyo’s full beauty. I recommend checking out Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which has the highest free observation deck in Tokyo. Bunkyo Civic Center is another great free observation deck option.
Admire the Historic Temples and Shrines
Most temples and shrines throughout Tokyo are free. If they aren’t, you can usually still admire the outside for free. Some of the most famous temples in Tokyo are Meiji Jingu or Sensoji. Some temples also include incredible gardens, like the ones at Nezu Shrine.
Experience a Traditional Sento
Not to be confused with an onsen, sento’s are traditional public bath houses. You can enjoy any sento in Tokyo for a maximum of 460 yen, but many charge even less than this.
Sentos provide a lovely respite from the city and an introduction to Japanese culture. Most include saunas and various hot and cold pools. If you have tattoos however, you may not be allowed to soak in some. Be sure to check beforehand.
Tokyo city is surrounded by spectacular nature only a short train ride away. Pull out your handy metro map and look at the trails along the lines you want to ride. Mount Takao is one of the easiest places to get to.
No matter your travel preferences, Tokyo has something to offer. To find out more about travelling to this global city (and others in the Land of the Rising Sun), read our articles about Japan.