We find the best things to do in Tokyo, without spending a fortune!
Known as one of the world’s most expensive cities, two days in Tokyo doesn’t have to cost the earth and with so many things to do in Tokyo that are free or cheap, you can still get an authentic Tokyo experience on your tour of Japan without blowing the budget.
Narita airport is a two-hour drive from central Tokyo, and a taxi can cost literally hundreds of dollars. If you have a rail pass (for travelling between cities in Japan) and the exchange office in Narita is open (6:30am to 9:45pm) you can get the train to Tokyo station included on your pass, then take the JR (Japan Rail) to your hotel. Many hotels are on the JR Yamanote rail line which also links Tokyo station to Shinagawa, Shibuya, and Shinjuku and other popular stations. The airport bus can be pre-purchased before you leave for $30USD per person and transfers you directly from the airport to most hotels.
We recommend a prepaid IC card. The cost is the same as buying single tickets but you can ride virtually any train or bus in Greater Tokyo (and many other major cities in Japan) with a swipe over a card reader. Day passes and multi-day passes are usually overpriced and cannot be used on all lines.
When to Go: The best time to go to Tokyo depends on your preferences. Japan has four distinct seasons. Winters are cold with a light snowfall and summers are hot and humid, with rain in June. Spring and autumn are very popular, especially cherry blossom season which falls around the end of April to early May, when bookings must be made at least 6 months in advance. If you are interested in Sumo wrestling there are competitions in January, May and September.
4:30am: Attending the tuna auctions at the Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the best things to do in Tokyo and completely free, but it takes some commitment. To get a ticket, you’ll need to arrive at about 4:30am. At this time of day public transport is extremely limited and a taxi can be very expensive so your best bet is to stay nearby. We recommend the Hotel Villa Fontaine, just a 15 minute walk away. Register for tickets on the 1st floor of the “Fish Information Center”. The counter opens at 5am, but if it is busy they will open earlier and may be sold out by 5am. There are only 60 tickets for the 5:25 – 5:50 viewing and 60 for the 5:50 to 6:15 viewing. There are no babies or strollers allowed and you must wear proper footwear.
An early morning visit to Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest in the world.
7:00am: If you don’t want to get up at 4am to see the tuna auction, try to get to the markets by about 8am and you’ll still catch lots if action, although entry to the wholesale area inside the markets is limited. This is the largest fish market in the world and each day around $19 million worth of produce is sold. Business is still done in much the same way as it was when it opened in 1935 but this is set to change with plans to move to a new location in 2016. If you would like to try a traditional sushi breakfast, the stalls around the markets sell the best and freshest at great prices.
8:30am: Tsukijishijo station is a five-minute walk from the markets where you can take the Oedo line directly to Shinjuku, which takes around 30 minutes.
9:00am: If you are looking for a well-priced Western breakfast in Shinjuku try Royal Host (open 24 hours) a few blocks from the train station or for something a bit more upmarket try Sarabeth’s (open 9am), straight from New York’s Upper West Side, on the second floor of the Lumine 2 building above the railway.
10:00am: There are a few places in Tokyo where you can get a great bird’s eye view of the city, but the observation deck at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building (TMGO) has the finest views – and it’s free! Look down from the 45th floor for a 360 degree view of Tokyo city. On a clear day you can see the distant snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji.
11:00am: Shinjuku is full of interesting shops and wandering the streets is perfect for people watching.
The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in Tokyo.
12:00pm: Stop by the Takashimaya department store right next door to Shinjuku station, then head straight to the basement level to pick some tasty take-away treats from the gourmet food hall, a vast space filled to bursting with the latest food trends. While more expensive than the convenience stores, the food here is top notch and on-trend. Walk five to ten minutes to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, the most beautiful gardens in Tokyo, with French, English and Japanese style commons.
2:00pm: From Shinjuku station take the Fukutoshin line to Kitasando station, then walk ten minutes to the Meiji shrine. Walk through the massive torii gate into the peaceful shrine; one of Japan’s most popular. If you come on a weekend you are likely to see a traditional Shinto wedding taking place. The Treasure House displays many of the Emperor and Empress’ personal belongings and the inner-garden is most popular in June when the irises bloom.
3:00pm: Meiji shrine is inside Yoyogi Park. This precious green space in central Tokyo is a fine retreat from the busy streets and the perfect spot for people watching. Head to the east side entrance on Sundays to find the rockabilly gangs bopping along to American 50s music or rent a bike from the cycling centre. Riding around the park you’ll see how the locals spend the weekend in Tokyo: practicing martial arts and break-dancing, families picnicking and dogs dressed to the nines.
5:00pm: Crossing the road doesn’t top most people’s “things to do” list but the now famous Shibuya crossing is a must-do in Tokyo. Take the JR Yamanote line from Harajuku (near the east entrance to the park) to Shibuya station. Just outside the station is a giant intersection where traffic is stopped from all directions at once to let hundreds of people cross the road. In one corner, in the Tsutaya building on the crossing's north side, is a Starbucks with an excellent view of the organised chaos below.
This famous crossing is a giant intersection in Shibuya just outside the train station.
6:00pm: From here head to the nearby Uobei. Like a sushi train in a Sci-Fi movie, order from the multi-lingual touch screen and your sushi will be shot towards you via a high speed chute. All dishes are just 105 ($1 USD) Yen each, great for a fun dinner on a budget.
8:00am: With just two days in Tokyo you’ll want to get going early. Many of Tokyo’s residents eat their breakfast at the train station. Almost all of the bigger stations will have a good selection of Japanese dishes and Western style baked goods.
9:00am: For a taste of old Tokyo, head to Yanesen, the name given to the neighbourhoods of Yanaka, Sendagi and Nezu. Spared from much of the bombing of WWII, it transports you to pre-war Tokyo. The streets are filled with Edo-period buildings housing well-preserved shrines, galleries, cafes and shops along with the impressive Yanaka graveyard. Start at the small tourist centre with information in English to help you plan your visit to the area. Take the train to JR Nippon station, served by the JR Yamanote line amongst others, then walk west for about 10 minutes.
12:00pm: Try a traditional lunch whilst in Yanesen. If you haven’t been tempted in to one of the lovely café’s you’ve passed, try Kamachiku, a family run Udon (noodle soup) shop near the Nezu shrine. Arrive early as this Udon is so good they often run out.
1:00pm: Today your train will feel like a time machine. From Nezu take the Chiyoda line then transfer at Nishinippori station to the JR Yamanote line heading south to Akihabara station. Akihabara is known as the centre for Otaku, typically known in the West as computer nerds or geeks.
The streets are lined with stores selling high-tech gear and anything to do with anime and manga. Otaku and computer types from around the world flock to Akihabara for the gaming centres where floors upon floors of arcade games attract the best gamers around. Stop by the Animation Centre to the right of the station (open until 7pm) for displays about animation and gaming. On Sundays the main street of Akihabara is closed to traffic and becomes a platform for cosplay (short for costume play) where local youths dress up as anime characters. The local obsession with anime and manga has led to the rise of “maid cafes”. These are cafes where young Japanese women dressed as anime French maids serve food and drinks as though a household servant. These alternative cafés originally sprang up to cater for men but has become a popular thing to do for couples, tourists and women. If you feel like something more traditional Akihabara also has its own temple. Turn left off of Chuo-dori as you walk towards Ueno.
Local youths engage in cosplay, or costume play, and can be found in Harajuku Park or the main street of Akihabara on Sundays.
5:00pm: A national pastime, a visit to a Karaoke joint in Tokyo is great way to experience local culture. Unlike most Karaoke in the West, groups go into a private room rather than crooning to a crowd of strangers. Uta Hiroba is a chain found all over Tokyo and if you visit on a weekday before 6pm, prices start from just 240 yen an hour (about $2.50 USD), including soft drinks. After 6pm the prices rise to around 700 Yen an hour.
7:00pm: An authentic Tokyo experience is dinner and drinks at an izakaya. Mostly found in Shibuya and Shinjuku, they are also in many other areas, so find one that is convenient to your hotel. The Japanese equivalent of a pub meal, these originated as Sake shops that allowed drinking on site. Now they are low cost drinking houses that serve Japanese food tapas style. Choose from traditional tatami mat seating or western style tables, with seats also available at the bar. Filled mostly with locals going for cheap drinks after work, prices vary but many places offer a set price, such as 270 yen (about $2.70 USD) for each drink or dish. There is often a seating charge of around 400 yen ($4 USD). Make sure you remember to remove your shoes before entering.
Do you think Tokyo is an expensive city? Have you got any tips for cheap or free things to do in Tokyo?