Much to the dismay of student travellers, Tokyo has recently been ranked as the world’s most expensive city. However, while studying abroad for a year in central Tokyo, I discovered various money-saving methods in order to spend as little yen as possible.
I became a somewhat professional in saving yen after investing in a bike for touring around the city instead of paying train fares (it does add up quickly at 200 yen – £2 a ride!) and explored the central areas, suburbs and even neighbouring prefectures via this method. Summarising my insider’s know-how, I’ve created a condensed guide for fellow Tokyo-dreamers on a budget!
Accommodation is likely to be the largest expense during a stay in Tokyo as finding an affordable place to stay can be difficult in all capital cities, but is increasingly more so in Tokyo as it is a densely populated city. Booking in advance can save you a lot of money on hotel rooms or hostels.
Tokyo’s ‘capsule hotels’, which are tiny box-like hotels offering beds for £25+ a night is a more unusual, affordable option. Checking out Airbnb is also recommended to find good deals!
It is possible to get overnight deals on private karaoke rooms for around Y2000 (£14) per person. Although there are no beds and it may mean waking at 5am, it can be a great last minute and enjoyable stay. I did also spend one night camping in central Shinjuku, but would not really recommend it!
One option for food is Hanamaru Udon, a chain restaurant serving a variety of udon noodle dishes. Some Japanese may be required, though staff will often try to assist you in English. Alternatively, you could gamble and point to a random meal option on the menu. The price varies depending on your chosen meal, but starts from just Y140 (£1)!
In most Tokyo districts, you can find kaiten zushi restaurants. These are sushi restaurants where the sushi is served using conveyor belt systems, and touch screen menus (usually with English options) are used to order dishes. You can get a wide range of sushi as well as noodles, desserts and drinks. Prices start at just Y108 (£1) per plate in most places. Some common chains are Kappa Zushi and Genki Sushi, but others can be found in the majority of city areas. Vegetarian options are usually available too!
Convenience shops and supermarkets can be great to pick up breakfast or snacks, with onigiri (rice balls) and bento (prepared lunch boxes sold) for around Y100-500 (£1-£3.50). There are definitely cheap options for finding Japanese food, so you don’t need to resort to a McDonald’s!
For a glimpse at traditional Japan, visits to shrines and temples are recommended! You can see traditional architecture, Buddhist and Shinto ornaments and feel the cultural atmosphere of Japan. In Tokyo, most of these are free. The most impressive temple may be Sensoji in Asakusa, which features a large red gate, huge lantern and traditional street of shops selling snacks and souvenirs. As for shrines, Meiji Shrine in Shibuya is a popular shrine with large surrounding gardens. Both of these are free and can be fantastic days out.
Another great activity at shrines are festivals. These are held regularly (big monthly events, if not more often) and involve many stalls of street food and goods for sale, as well as traditional performances or events. Festivals are almost always free and can have lively atmospheres – I attended festivals around Tokyo by bike most weeks!
As an alternative to Sky Tree and Tokyo Tower (which both cost around Y2000 (£14) for their city views from the top floors), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building offers a free view of the skyline from the 45th floor. It is open during the day through to 10:30pm, allowing you to get both a daytime and nighttime view of the cityscape.
Tokyo has districts known largely for their nightlife and youth, major ones being Shibuya, Roppongi and Shinjuku.
Like most cities, Tokyo offers a range of bars and nightclubs which can be amazingly fun as well as a great way to meet local people. Even better, there are often discounts or even free entry for international visitors (particularly females)!
For drinkers, I found a lot of money could be saved by first buying drinks from supermarkets or convenience shops and pre-drinking in the British style before heading to events. For example, one drink in a nightclub may cost Y600 (£4) or more, while a cheap 180ml bottle of whisky can be bought from a convenience shop for less than Y300 (£2)! But drinking is definitely not a necessity to enjoy the range of parties in Tokyo!
Finally, some general tips:
- You can buy almost anything, from duct tape and hammers to mugs and plates, at one of the many Y100 shops. Common examples include Daiso, Can Do and Lawson 100. You can also pick up towels, scarves, gloves and other necessities here to save luggage space, depending on the season you visit. Plus, they’re a great place to get all those Japan-esque souvenirs for your friends and family.
- Do an online search for ‘foreigner events’ or ‘free events’ in Tokyo near the time you are visiting to find upcoming activities that can be affordable – for instance: international parties, aforementioned festivals or any discounts on entry fees. Ueno Zoo and some Tokyo museums have free days where admission fee isn’t charged!
All that said, my biggest recommendation is: don’t let money and numbers compromise your experience in the city. Splash out on those things you want to do that are quite unique to Japan – for example, Ikebukuro’s owl café, a traditional tea ceremony or a visit to an izakaya (restaurant/bar). Explore what the city has to offer and let yourself enjoy the atmosphere!
Images courtesy of Hazel Andrew.
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