The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tokyo (or at least how I did it)

A couple of weeks ago, I got messages from friends who are planning to go to Japan to catch the cherry blossoms in bloom next year. One of their concerns (as it was mine) was keeping the expenses down. I wrote about seeing Kyoto on a budget for in-flight magazine, Smile, last July, and I thought it would be good idea to list down some ideas to keep costs down in Tokyo while still seeing a lot of what that huge metropolitan city has to offer. So here’s another entry, my gift to my Japan-bound friends–minus my long Japan travel tales of Days 1 to 10. 🙂

Explore the streets. No better way to witness the pulse of the Japanese capital than walk its busy (as well as its quiet) streets where you can be among the ultra-fashionable, the throngs of salarymen, or fellow tourists in awe of Tokyo. To minimize transportation costs, it’s best to explore the city per area. The extensive metro rail of the city has stops for most of the popular spots in Tokyo, anyway. And bring your most comfortable shoes!  (There were days though when I did succumb to “vanity over comfort” mentality with a pair of boots that just looked nicer. Tsk, tsk.)

Heading down Takeshita-dori. Hello, crowd.

1. Harajuku. Head down Takeshita Dori, which is just across the JR Yamanote line exit of Harajuku Station. Walk down this narrow street lined with trendy boutiques, shops where cosplayers likely shop, a 100 yen store, some restaurants and a lot of crepe stalls. Check it our during a Sunday to see Japanese teens get all dressed up. Walk further south and you’ll end up in Omotesando, where the crowd is past their adolescence and has a different kind of style–less costumey, more chic.

Akihabara in the afternoon. An even better sight in the evening!

2. Akihabara. Tokyo’s Electric Town and ground zero for geekery with all the manga and toy stores, gadgets galore, and maid cafes to gawk at. You can get out of the JR Akihabara exit and start checking out the stores from there. (Here is the very detailed Akihabara map we were given on our walking tour. Here is another one from Tokyo Tourism that might be helpful. They have 53 Ways to Explore Tokyo on Foot; most tourist spots are in areas A, B, C, and D.)

Pedestrians waiting for the green light at the Shibuya Crossing

3. Shibuya. Where you can find the tourist-draw of a crossing, that little Hachiko statue, sharply dressed young Japanese women (makes you feel you want to go back to your inn and put on something nicer) and so many department stores for a consumerist high.

An alley in the Golden Gai in Shinjuku–one of the most interesting night spots in Tokyo

4. Shinjuku. Where skyscrapers, more department stores, and night spots, including a red-light district, abound. Must check out the alleys and pubs of the Golden Gai, though a visit in one of the bars will set you back a cover charge or admission fee between Y700 to Y2000. (FYI: To fellow Pinoys, there is a bar nearby called Champion Bar and it is co-owned by a Filipino and frequented by Pinoys working in Tokyo. Our friend pointed it out to us, but we didn’t get a chance to go inside.) You can also just head to one of the big chain stores, like Takashimaya (with a large Tokyu Hands branch inside), Isetan (must stop for the basement food hall), or Yodobashi to drool over electronics.

Other areas worth a walking tour: Ginza and Roppongi Hills for sleek version of Tokyo, Asakusa for the ‘old’ Tokyo, and Odaiba for theme-park Tokyo. Ryogoku is supposedly an interesting place to check out during sumo season.

Shrines and temples to see. For all of Tokyo’s big-city appeal, I love that it also has many areas of greenery and silence (when not overrun by tourists like me). Admission in Tokyo’s most popular shrine and temple is free.

It was a rainy, weekday afternoon when we stumbled upon a quiet Meiji Jingu with only a few people walking outside the grounds

5. Meiji Shrine. As I previously mentioned in Day 9 entry, I love the fact that the vast, quiet grounds of this shrine is just right next to the crowded streets of Harajuku. According to fellow WordPress blogger, Tokyobling, who resides in Tokyo, Meiji Shrine is also a great spot to take colorful photos as many weddings are held there during the weekend. (Update: The shrine also gets really crowded during New Year’s Eve for the Hatsumode event.) You can walk the shrine from the JR Harajuku exit, right beside Yoyogi Park.

In front of Kaminarimon, the outer gate of Senso-ji, with hordes of other tourists

6. Senso-ji. While the walk to the Meiji Shrine was all about peace and quiet, the walk towards the Hozomon gate to the temple’s main building was as crazy as a marketplace. Mainly because there is a market (Nakamise) in between the two gates where you can buy Japanese souvenirs and local snacks.

To the public parks! If it’s cherry blossom season, a visit to one of Tokyo’s many parks is a must. While a friend, who used to live in Tokyo, recommended having hanami (cherry blossom viewing) at Shinjuku-gyoen (admission Y200), there are other parks where you can go in for free.

Cherry blossoms in bloom at Yoyogi Park and people getting ready for hanami

7. Yoyogi Park. The park with the least number of locals getting ready for hanami and hardly any other tourists when we went there early April. It looked a bit run down and there were some trash that littered the pathway (one of the few, if not only instance when I saw garbage littered on a street in Japan), but cherry blossoms were just lovely.

Take a walk under the blossoms at Ueno Park

8. Ueno Koen. Another public park. This one gets really crowded and it might take you an entire afternoon to explore. Aside from the path above lined with cherry blossom trees, there are several museums, a zoo and a shrine (all with varied admission fees). We were more than happy just looking at the blossoms though.

More hanami at Sumida Park

9. Sumida Park. Located on both sides of the Sumida River and another popular hanami spot. You can take a river cruise, but if you prefer not to spend, just walk the stretch of the park where the trees get lit up in the evening. We loved the food sold in the stalls here.

Konbini is your friend. Not counting how much we spent for transportation, I think we spent most of our budget for food. A bowl of ramen in neighborhood restaurant is around Y700, which is cheap if you’re in Japan. In the Philippines, that’s around PHP350, something we don’t normally spend on a regular day for a typical meal. And don’t even get me started on dinners or drinks at a bar where your bill can amount to Y15,000 (PHP7,500) or more. (Thank God for our friend C who treated us most of the time!)

10. Lawson’s, Family Mart, Ministop, 7-Eleven. The cheapest food you can get is probably in the convenience store or konbini. You can have onigiri for around Y120 (PHP60), a tray of sushi for Y300 (PHP150), a tray of microwaveable meal starting at Y320 (PHP160), a sandwich for less than Y200 (PHP100) and other pretty decent, often times delicious Japanese ready-to-eat.

To my friends heading to Japan next year, this list is for you. I’ll see if I can think of anymore budget-friendly tips before your trips. In the meantime, Happy New Year, you lucky bastards! 🙂


18 thoughts on “The Cheapskate’s Guide to Tokyo (or at least how I did it)

  1. I really enjoyed this post! I think because we hardly have any decent parks here that we tend to overlook them as perfect places for sightseeing, where we also get to rest our weary traveling feet without having to spend money or to miss out on people watching. On my weekends in Berlin, I’d walk all the way from the apartment near Alexanderplatz to the garden in front of the Reichstag, take out my blanket and lunch or coffee, and just lie down with my book. Nothing beats looking up from the page to the sight of magnificent and historically charged architecture. (Bummer to find out that this garden has been sealed off, but the sprawling and uber-impressive Tiergarten is nearby.)

    Apart from parks, I suggest going to see the rivers. They have such amazing history, have been around for ages, and will never fail to reinvigorate. A little research will go a long way in appreciating them. There are usually benches along the banks. The locals loved trooping to a spot along the Spree where they sunbathe and drink beer from the Turkish imbiss nearby. Great place to watch and meet people, too, and the food and drinks are comparably cheaper than any resto. (Siempre naki-inom lang ako ng beer, wala pa akong lakas ng loob mag-bikini sa gitna ng siyudad, hehe.)

    If your friends are traveling as a group, I suggest they look for short-term apartments or inns with kitchens. It’s so much cheaper than eating at a resto for every single meal, and you get to cook with ingredients are still top-notch.

    • That’s what I thought–that we need more parks or gardens here in the Philippines. I should start looking for some and posting what we do have here where you won’t fear for your safety. Because as much as I don’t want to admit it, some of our local parks have a dark, creepy vibe from years of neglect I guess.
      Thanks for the additional tip! I also want to add checking out marketplaces or grocery stores–you get to buy local ingredients (if you decide to cook in the kitchen of your hostel or guesthouse) and see what’s in season, the quality of their food, what the locals like to eat, and how they handle food.

  2. Hey, there’s a sister-date idea right there! Let’s go take the Pasig River cruise. Vince was supposed to take me but we just got really busy. We board at the Guadalupe station then get off at Jones Bridge, see a bit of dear Escolta, and walk to Chinatown and eat at the estero! 🙂 Let’s do it soon, while the weather cool. I’m excited!

  3. super like post!!! 🙂 don’t forget the small restos with food vendo machines (i saw a lot in asakusa area), food price ranges from 360 – 750 yen 🙂

    river cruise is safe and relaxing. 45 pesos for the guadalupe-escolta trip – 1 hr traffic-free ride 🙂

  4. Yay, thanks for the info on the river cruise! We’re really looking forward to the ride (and the eatin’ that comes after).

  5. when people ask me if Japan is expensive, i always say it can be cheap too. If you try to compute your expenses, it would be cheaper to get unlimited ride on shinkansen, trains, bus, etc. Food can be shared as it’s mostly large serving. Shopping is great too, some items are on sale, and if you take time to look around, you’ll find cheap funky clothing! I love Japan, and i can’t wait to come back. After, i saved some money. Sapporo, i am targeting next!

    • Yah, Japan on the cheap is doable though it’s not as cheap as the Philippines or other South East Asian countries. We really have to save up for it! Hehe.
      Oooh, Sapporo all the way up in Hokkaido. Do you plan to go during the popular snow festival? I want to see Furano (also in Hokkaido) for its lavender fields 🙂

  6. Pingback: Numbness and Night | Her Spacious Soul

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