Awesome, cheap things to do in Tokyo

11 Jan

Tokyo — the city of $300 sushi meals and $1000 hotel rooms. Yes, it does have these things. As does New York, London, Toronto and numerous other cities. But Tokyo can be enjoyed on a budget. Food and drink can be found at very reasonable prices, as can accommodation. On my last visit, we stayed at Sunlite Shinjuku for 7000 yen a night (an Agoda special). It had a business hotel vibe, but was just five minutes from Golden Gai and had many tourists staying. Sakura Hotel also has a chain of affordable hotels across the the city. I’ve stayed in the Hatagaya location, which is centrally located, and the Asakusa hostel, which I don’t recommend since it’s a distance from Shinjuku and Shibuya, and I’ve gotten too old for hostels. Both were clean with a welcoming atmosphere and provide a good base to meet others.

Over three visits to the city, I’ve started to warm to it. It’s quite different from Osaka. It’s so big, that everything is very spread out and days must be planned accordingly. The people in Osaka are outgoing, curious and fun-loving, whereas Tokyoites can sometimes appear reserved and cold to foreigners. But Tokyo has much more art culture and other strong subcultures. It also has more foreign food and better coffee. What more do I need?

Here are some of my favourite things to do in Tokyo with little yen:

Lounge in the park and be entertained by greasers

On each of my trips to Tokyo, I’ve spent time in Yoyogi Park — a large green space right next to Harajuku. It contains Meiji shrine, deep in the forests of the park, as well as numerous ponds and green grass to sprawl on. During the summer the park is filled with people picnicking, playing sports and instruments, and practicing their dance moves.

Unfortunately during my last visit, most of the park was closed due to a dengue fever outbreak. Most infected had spent time in Yoyogi, though, previously, the virus hadn’t been found in Japan since 1945.

While this was disappointing, I also was able to finally see the greasers, those slippery characters that I’d been searching for for the past two visits. The greasers are a group of mostly leather and denim clad men, but also a few women and children, who rock pompadours that would make Elvis jealous and great dance moves. They congregate at the south entrance to the park nearly every Sunday, dancing to Japanese rockabilly between cans of beer. The moves range from synchronized line dancing to all out air guitar and high jumps, kicks and pseudo break dancing.

The greasers don’t ask for money, they do it for the love of the culture and the spectacle, as illustrated in this great song and music video –Peter Bjorn and John’s Nothing to Worry About featuring the lads in leather.


The greasers killing it in Yoyogi Park.

Have a fishy morning

Tsukiji market has become quite touristy, but it’s still a lot of fun and neat to see the biggest fish market in the world in action. It also remains completely free to visit. Read my blog post about my visit to Tsukiji.

Drop a bit more dough: Taste the market’s finest with sushi for breakfast. Be prepared that the waits for restaurants can be long — for 30 minutes to 3 hours. A decent amount of sushi can be had for 3000 or 4000 yen though ($30/40).

The big kahuna of the fish market -- tuna.

Drop by someone’s local

I can’t get on the shinkansen out of Tokyo without visiting Golden Gai at least once, if not twice. This is a small neighbourhood, about four alleys wide, with a hodgepodge of tiny bars, stacked on top of eachother. Some only fit about five people. They more or less all have themes. Some are devoted to certain types of music or films or… to trolls. Some of the bars have seating charges, generally around 500 or 1000 yen, as they have many regulars. But there are a number which are free to enter and drinks are generally cheap, starting at 500 yen. Golden Gai attracts a range of characters and I’ve met some very interesting people here, including drag queens, Australian oil barons, Japanese soldiers and wide-eyed travelers. It’s almost a guaranteed good night out.

Drop a bit more dough: Possibly the most famous bar in Golden Gai is La Jetée. It’s owned by a former film distributor with walls covered in movie posters. Like an old neighbourhood izakaya, customers can buy bottles which are stored on shelves around the bar. Here, the bottles are drawn on and if you snoop around, you can find bottles of some more well-known drinkers, like Coppola and Tarantino. The bar has a seating charge, possibly 1000 yen, and more expensive cocktails. (I’m not sure how much we paid and I may or may not have taken a sneaky drink from Quentin’s bottle.)

A Coppola bottle at La Jetee.

A Coppola bottle at La Jetee.

Visit Tokyo’s oldest temple and eat some chicken

Asakusa, about twenty minutes from Shibuya, is one of the most touristy places in the city, with the newly constructed, very expensive to ascend Tokyo Skytree and Sensoji temple, the oldest in the city. The area has an “old Japan” feel to it, with small old shops and shopping arcades. It has the added bonus of many very attractive rickshaw drivers hanging out on the main street.

The entrance to Sensoji is marked by a large gate with a huge red lantern. Past this is a small street leading to the temple buildings. This street is absolutely packed with tacky tourist shops and temple food. I recommend purchasing an ice cream, buying a fortune at the temple (tying the bad ones to the posts) and then wandering to the pretty garden in the back.

Note that this temple is absolutely absurd around New Year’s time, with millions of people visiting. I made the mistake of staying at the Sakura Hostel behind the temple one winter holiday and it was an inconvenience, to say the least.

Drop a bit more dough: Exiting the grounds to the left of the temple, when looking head on, there is a side street that runs parallel to the inner tacky tourist street. This street is lined with small izakaya restaurants with open fronts and tables spilling onto the street. This is a great place to have drinks, eat cheap greasy food and meet some locals.

The massive lantern at the gate to Sensoji temple, in Asakusa.

The massive lantern at the gate to Sensoji temple, in Asakusa.

Watch the scramble

The large multisided crosswalk outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya station has become a landmark image of modern Tokyo and is featured in nearly every movie with a scene shot in the city. Five roads meet at this intersection and when the lights go red, people spill out from all directions to cross. But, this being Japan, the scramble is perfectly ordered chaos.

The Starbucks at the intersection is said to be one of the busiest in the world — they only sell tall sizes because of this. The second floor is a great vantage point to take in the scramble from above.

Take in art and city views

Away from the terrible American food chains and bars that fill Roppongi, is the Mori Art Museum — a contemporary gallery on the 53rd floor of a skyscraper. General admission is around 1500 yen depending on the exhibitions (or 1000 yen if you went to grad school five years ago and kept the student card). When I was there, there was fantastic photography and some really neat installations.

Also included in the admission price is access to the observation deck overlooking the city.

The Tokyo skyview at Mori Art Museum.

The Tokyo skyview at Mori Art Museum.

What are some of your favourite things to do in Tokyo on the cheap?

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