Top 10 Things to Do to Experience Tokyo on a Budget

By: Tony Fitzpatrick

Tokyo is a city of contrasts, with equal amounts of high tech and ancient tradition, which makes it a fascinating place to visit or live in. We often hear about life in Japan and Tokyo in particular but not many get to experience it first hand or to feel what it is like to live in this bustling metropolis. We are also led to believe that Tokyo is a very expensive city to live in, well while it can be if you choose to live an expensive lifestyle there are plenty of low cost activities you can do to expereince the heart and soul of Tokyo. Following is a list of things to do to experience the real Tokyo like a local.

1. Ride the Metro at Rush Hour

We have all seen the images on TV or in movies of commuters being squeezed into subway carriages, but it is something else being there and seeing the mass of humanity moving through the busy subway stations to and from their homes. For the best experience catch a subway to or from Shibuya or Shinjuku Stations any evening between the hours of 4:30pm and about 7:30pm. Just hold onto your hat, prepare to be pushed and shoved and enjoy the experience, thankful that it is not something you have to do everyday back home.

2. Shibuya Crossing

This is one of the busiest crossings in the city and is worth making the effort to experience, especially at night when it is lit up with huge LED screens and plenty of neon lights. It seems as though the entire population of a large town or small city are poised to cross the moment the lights turn green and once they do turn green look out, the crossing turns into a seething mass of humanity with everyone looking to get to where they are heading. It is best to work out on which corner of the intersection you want to end up on and position yourself for the optimal approach, as once you are into the crossing it can be hard work changing direction.

3. Go to a Noodle House

With Japanese food now included as an Intangible World Treasure by the UN, you can't come to Tokyo and not experience authentic Japanese cuisiene. It is all very well doing this in an expensive upmarket Japanese restaurant, but for the real feel of Japan find one of the many noodle houses in a side street. They are generally small but always offer a good value delicious feed and often even the beer is cheaper in these places than elsewhere.

4. Visit a Park

Japan is famous for its beautiful gardens and Tokyo is no different with many outstanding parks and gardens to visit.  Whichever you choose you won't be disappointed as no one does tranquility better than the Japanese. There are many parks and gardens worth visiting within walking distance of many major metro stations. In the Spring Ueno Park is especially beautiful to take in the cherry blossom, while in the autumn you can enjoy the various shades as the trees shed their summer leaves ready for the hard winter ahead.

5. Check out Omotesando Dori

The street leading up to Meiji Shrine, stretching from Omotesando Station to Harajuku Station is an architectural showcase with numerous buildings housing the world's leading fashion brands designed by a collection of the world's most renowned modern architects. There is so much to see along this stretch of Avenue, whether it is browing through Prada, taking in the buildings themselves or just watching the well heeled of Tokyo go about their daily business. With its location next door to trendy Harajuku you will see a mix of the fashions walking the sidewalks here also. If you have half an hour or so to spare and you are there at a weekend you could join one of the ridiculously long queues to enjoy popcorn or waffles at some of the obviously popular shops along here. Since you have made it this far, once you have finished in Omotesando Dori, check out Takeshita Street in Harajuku.

6. Go Shopping in Ameyakocho Dori

One of the oldest markets in Tokyo located close by Ueno Station, this is the home to some of the best bargains in Tokyo.  Selling everything from fresh fish and foodstuffs, to clothing, shoes, accessories, electronics and sports gear this is a real experience for the senses.  My favourites are the sportswear shops where you can pick up quality brand name sports wear at crazy prices, just be prepared to search through huge bins and crowded racks of clothing for that particular item that appeals to you. Once you have worn yourself out with bargain hunting, there are also plenty of great little Japanese style restaurants and cafes to fuel yourself up for more.

7. Check Out Akihabara Electric City

As home to some of the most advanced electronics in the world no trip to Japan is complete without seeing what is on offer.  You will often see products on the Japanese market that will never be released anywhere else in the world, so head on down to Akihabara Station and follow the signs to Electric City. Along with the electronics there is also a lot of alternative Japanese culture here, you know the stuff, cute girls dressed up as cartoon characters (Anime as they are called here in Japan) and whole cafes aimed at devotees to the Anime culture.

8. Ride the Shinkansen

Japan introduced the world to the high speed train with the introduction of the Shinkansen (Bullet train) in the 1960's. These have advanced over the years getting faster and faster with each new iteration, so why not take a day trip to Odawarra on the Shinkansen and enjoy the view of Mount Fuji (if visible) on the way. Generally you don't need to book in advance, and heck sometimes you don't even have to pay till you get off as I found out once when running late to catch one back to Tokyo and was handed a slip of paper, ushered through the turnstile and told to sort it out when I got off... only in Japan).  If you want to save some money you can ride back on a normal train, such is the extensive nature of the Japanese rail network.

9. Play Pachinko

This is a Japanese game of chance which is a cross between a slot machine and a vertical pinball game. Pachinko parlours are easily recognised by their size, the bright lights and noise eminating from inside. God only knows how the game actually works, but from my experience you are trying to drop some small ball bearings through a forest of pins into some holes and collect as many balls as you can. Once you get a ball into a hole you also can set off some other features in the game. the object is apparently to collect as many balls as you can, after a while, if you have been successful you will have collected buckets full of small ballbearings which you then trade for a prize.  Alternatively as gambling for cash is still illegal in Japan, you may be given a token or 2, ushered out side and down a side street where you present the tokens to someone through a small window in the wall, who then hands you some cash. So whether you win or lose, its worth chucking 500 yen into a machine and see if you can master it.

10. Visit a Shrine or Temple

Tokyo is full of ancient shrines and temples, not only are they found in the middle of large gardens, they can also be found sitting shoulder to shoulder with some of Tokyo's most modern buildings. These are always tranquil places with the smell of incense often wafting through the air, so are another great way just to enjoy the peace and tranquility that can be Tokyo. For 100 yen there is always the opportunity to ask for a blessing as well, or you can just while away the time imagining what it must have been like living here in the days of the Samurai.

It somehow seems inherently Japanese that some of the best things to do to experience Tokyo (or Japan for that matter) are not the things that cost you the most but the simple things, maybe it comes with that Zen philosophy of the simplest things being the most beautiful, or whether it is the fact that they live in one of the busiest metropolises in the world and the only way to escape is to enjoy the simple things.  Whichever it is, enjoy Tokyo for all it has to offer and soak in the atmosphere for it is a unique modern city.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingTony Fitzpatrick is a New Zealander expat living in Japan. Blog description: Tales from a family from the countryside of New Zealand who packed everything up and left on the adventure of a lifetime, so far having taken in Moscow, Helsinki and now Tokyo. Follow our adventures as we discover the big wide world.
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Contest Comments » There is 1 comment

Ken wrote 5 years ago:

Great article, have always wanted to visit Japan and your descriptive tour makes it even more desirable as a vacation destination.

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