This article was co-created with my late wife in 2010
Last year we decided to go to Tokyo for a week for the very first time. Granted we didn’t book a package holiday, but we did do the tourist stuff such as staying as high up as possible in a posh hotel, eating at fancy restaurants and visiting the tourist sights.
However, we also went off the beaten track and explored other areas of Tokyo and we realised that actually Tokyo can be visited relatively cheap.
So this year we decided a go again but do it cheaper and here are some tips on how we did it.
While this guide doesn’t require you to a be a seasoned traveller, it does require a certain adventurous can-do attitude as Tokyo isn’t the most tourist friendly city and English isn’t widely spoken, a fact that is even more true for the more local places we will cover in this article.
In this article:
Japan is a wonderful place to visit, but it is on the other side of the planet and as such a very different place. So with that in mind researching what you want to do before you go is a really good idea.
- Search the Internet for Japan related sites such as Wikipedia.org, japan-guide.com and wa-pedia.com.
- Also look for sites that covers what you want to see, for example if you like art use tokyoartbeat.com, for fashion look at tokyofashion.com and if you are into otaku stuff dannychoo.com is a good place to start.
Tokyo isn’t tailored to tourists so some of the really good stuff (and much of the really cheap stuff) need local knowledge and input as they are not advertised… yes, the best bars and clubs do not have signs to show they are there!
Fortunately there are loads of good Tokyo articles, blogs and tweets out there. Be aware that in our experience some of the things we found during research were already closed by the time we arrived so make sure you have back-up plans in place.
We bought a bunch of tourist books, but the ones we found vital were:
- Bi-lingual Tokyo atlas. This is worth gold as Japanese people can read the Japanese words while you can read the English word next to the Japanese characters.
- Lonely Plant Tokyo encounter guide
We wrote out own itinerary of what we wanted to do on which days. This is a really good way of fitting in events that may only be open certain days such as plays, shows, concerts, sport events etc.
We also listed a range of fall-back options in case the planned event for the day for some reason turned out to be unavailable.
A little Japanese can go a really REALLY long way in Tokyo. Not only do Japanese people appreciate you taking the effort to try, they are themselves also more open to respond in English and often their English is better than they themselves think.
We used two very good and very different sources of learning Japanese:
- learnjapanesepod.com – Awesome podcasts with Beb and Alex teaching you some more natural Japanese. Don’t try to learn it all but pick up the juicy phrases such as how to order beer in a de-feminised fashion!
- Collins Easy Learning Audio Course – Very good to learn basic text book Japanese and quickly give you a foundation for understanding the structure of the language.
- Collins Easy Learning Japanese Phrasebook – Great for quickly looking up useful phrases.
If you know any Japanese people in real life ask them about Tokyo. They will be able to give you some local insight. For example an old colleague of mine pointed us to Ebisu Garden Place which is an office area with loads of good and cheap restaurants.
However, if you don’t know any Japanese people try to hook up with Japanese residents on the many forums on the Internet. Try to find forums revolving around your hobby, interest or profession (for me Linkedin.com worked really well from a professional point of view).
There are ofcourse different prices for different flights depending on time of the year, airline and stop-overs you are willing to accept, but fundamentally the plane ticket is the most expensive part of going to Tokyo, there’s no way around that and we can’t really help you with this one… but if you have a tip for us please let us know :-)
One thing to be aware of is that The Japanese are into their details, that goes for weighing your hand luggage as well! And they will charge your for overweight if it is ever so slightly over the allowance and that is expensive so make sure you weigh your luggage before you head of and if you have any over weight it is cheaper to send the extra kilos home using the post office.
Where to stay?
The first time we went to Tokyo the big skyscraper hotels was a big attraction, but it is important to say that you can get at the top of the world much cheaper and even for free. Some of the places to get high in Tokyo are:
- Mori Art Museum in Roppongi Hills which gives you the option to step outside on top of the 54 floor high building.
- Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building has observation decks at the top floor free of charge.
As expected hotels are the most expensive accommodation, but Tokyo hotel service is truly top-class. So even if you go on the cheap it is worth considering staying in a hotel one or two nights.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese guest houses. Make no mistake! These are for luxury stays often with meals included and they are as expensive if not more expensive than hotels.
We haven’t had any experience with hostels so cannot comment on their prices.
Neither have we tried staying in one of Tokyo’s Love Hotels but we have seen them being recommended as a cheaper option for shorter stays for backpackers… not sure how sound proof they though ;-)
But what we can recommend is renting a flat in Tokyo!
Compared to hotels they are surprisingly cheap and with the kitchens they help lower food costs as well. We’ve used Live in Asia which was very good with constant communication before we arrived and a person on the spot to receive us when we stepped out of the train station. Read our full review of this particular flat here.
Tokyo has the largest collection of michelin star restaurants in the world… but that doesn’t mean the rest of the food is bad, far from it.
Most Japanese restaurant food easily compare to better restaurants in London but the price starts as low as 300 Yen for a full meal and many places have plastic models of their food or picture menus making it easy to order even though you don’t speak Japanese.
There are lots of cheap eating places scattered around Tokyo that can be easily recognised by kenbaiki (vending machines) where you purchase a ticket for your chosen meal. The vending machines are almost always in Japanese and many have no pictures of the food, but if you ask the staff they are almost always ready to help and as all Japanese staff they tend to be very friendly.
Hanging out in the most prominent areas of Tokyo means the prices are more expensive, but going to places not featured in the tourists guides is often worth it both for the food and the experience.
We like the food streets running parallel (on the right side) to Nakano Broadway. Don’t just take the first and the best you find but do go further in and explore there are lots!
The business towers in Ebisu Garden Place also offers great cuisine. In fact it seems lots of office buildings have publicly available restaurants at the top where to office workers eat their lunch.
We Flook’ed some of the restaurants we really enjoyed. Check them out at flook.it
Fast food chains
Don’t bother. You can get both better and cheaper food at the above mentioned places.
Don’t be afraid to get Sushi from supermarkets. It is very good and cheap.
Avoid using roaming on your phone. Either find wifi spots in Tokyo. Starbucks and MacDonalds are possible spots but also look at www.travel-island.com/ travel.wireless/ japan.html. If you have an iPhone, the app Free Wifi in Tokyo is a good help as well.
At the time writing this we recommend you get a Post Office credit card or similar credit which offers you 0% commission on overseas transfers.
For best exchange rates we found that it is better to find out which post office in Tokyo as foreign withdrawal ATMs amd withdraw Yen there than exchanging here in the UK.
If you plan on going out of Tokyo, for example to Kyoto, make sure to buy a Japanese Tourist Railpass before you go. It cannot be bought once you are in Japan and the tickets are more expensive to buy there. You can get them here in London from My Bus where we also bought our tickects for the Studio Ghibli Museum.
As mentioned above only get JR rail pass if you go out of Tokyo and back, but make sure you make most of it if you buy one as it covers all JR lines within Tokyo including the main JR line.
If in doubt, always buy the minimum ticket fare. All Tokyo stations have ticket top up machines to take your ticket up to the correct cost.
Tourist guides warn you against buses. yes, they are not as easy as trains and take a bit of courage to use, but we did successfully use them a couple of times for example to get to Studio Ghibli Museum and Anime Museum.
Expensive and taxi drivers do not read or speak any English so make sure to have your destination printed in Japanese.
At the end of the day…
We hope you’ve enjoyed this article and perhaps shown you that Tokyo actually is viable destination for your next holiday.
This article is based on the two very different holidays we have had to Tokyo so we do not consider ourselves experts by any means.
So if you have some tips to how to visit Tokyo on a budget then please do share them with all of us in the comments below or send us a mail.