20 free things to do in Tokyo

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Exploring the Big Sushi is a mind-blowing experience, but one that can also blow your budget. Don't despair  there’s an abundance of things to do and see in Tokyo which don’t cost a single yen and won’t leave you feeling short-changed on the best of this hyper-active, multi-faceted metropolis.

Decorative battledore paddle, stall on Nakamise-dori, Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely PlanetDecorative battledore paddle, stall on Nakamise-dori, Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet.

1. Jog or pedal around the Imperial Palace

Slip on your sneakers and join the joggers following the broad moats and park paths that surround the Imperial Palace. On Sundays there are also 250 free bikes offered for pedaling along the Palace Cycling Course (www.jbpi.or.jp).

2. Cast your bid for Tsukiji

Want to witness the famous tuna auctions? Then set your alarm for well before 5am when registration for the maximum of 120 daily viewing places starts. Check the website (www.tsukiji-market.or.jp) before setting off as the market doesn’t operate every day.

3. Visit Senso-ji

Follow in the footsteps of countless pilgrims by approaching Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most famous Buddhist temple, in Asakusa, along Nakamise-dori lined with colourful stalls selling all manner of souvenirs from giant rice crackers to exquisitely decorated battledores.

4. Explore Harajuku

Also great eye candy is Harajuku. Stroll ginko-tree lined Omotesando, a glam boulevard of upscale boutiques housed in contemporary architecture; check out the arty explosion at funky Design Festa Gallery (www.designfesta.com); pose and dance along with the youth subcultures around Yoyogi Park.

5. Chill out in Meiji-Jingu

When Harajuku threatens sensory overload, escape to the densely wooded grounds that envelope the capital’s premier Shinto shrine. Come on festival days to spot guys and gals in gorgeous kimono.

6. Oh my, Odaiba!

This island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay is linked to the city by the Rainbow Bridge. Walk over the 918-metre-long single-span suspension bridge to or from Odaiba where, weather permitting, you can sunbathe on a man-made beach and view a scale copy of the Statue of Liberty.

Copy of Statue of Liberty, Rainbow Bridge in the background, Odaiba, Tokyo. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely PlanetCopy of Statue of Liberty, Rainbow Bridge in the background, Odaiba, Tokyo. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet.

7. Learn origami

Lessons in the art of paper folding are offered gratis at the Origami Kaikan where you can also view artisans making washi (Japanese paper) in myriad shades and patterns.

8. Cross at Shibuya

Every few minutes a wave of humanity swarms across Shibuya Crossing. An ideal vantage point is the bridge corridor linking Shibuya Station with the Shibuya Mark City complex. Here you can also view Myth of Tomorrow, a monumental piece of modern art by Okamoto Taro.

9. Advertising Museum Tokyo

One of the city’s most interesting free museums is ADMT (www.admt.jp). The montage displays of old ads provide an illuminating visual history of commerce in Japan over the last century or so.

10. Be amazed by Akihabara

Diehard fans of Atom Boy, Evangelion and Gundam will want to swing by the Tokyo Anime Centre (www.animecenter.jp) as part of their explorations of Akihabara (aka ‘Akiba’), geek central for electronic goods emporiums, ‘maid cafes’ and all things anime and manga.

[Tokyo-Anime] Tokyo Anime Centre, Akihabara, Tokyo. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely PlanetTokyo Anime Centre, Akihabara, Tokyo. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet.

11. Contemporary art crawl

Based in a former junior high school, nearby Akihabara is 3331 Arts Chiyoda (www.3331.jp), hosting a score of free contemporary art galleries offering a mix of exhibitions and interactive installations. Also worth searching out are the galleries of the Bakuchoro area, several of which including Taro Nasu Gallery (www.taronasugallery.com) are gathered in the Agata-Takezawa Building.

12. Political junkie tour

Art and anime not your thing? Then how about a free tour of Japan’s seat of governance, the National Diet Building (www.sangiin.go.jp), to view the wood-panelled, leather-bound and gilded interiors and the gardens planted with species from across the country.

13. Flower power

More beautiful foliage and horticultural skills can be admired in Tokyo’s traditional gardens. Free ones include those attached to the New Otani Hotel in Akasaka and the Four Seasons Chinzan-so as well as the lush grounds of Happoen, near Shirokanedai Station.

14. Attend a festival

Every week (and sometimes daily) there’s a festival (matsuri) on somewhere in Tokyo – from cherry blossom viewing parties to fire walking and grand parades of costumed participants holding aloft mikoshi (portable shrines). For details of upcoming events see www.tourism.metro.tokyo.jp and www.tcvb.or.jp.

Hiwatarisai fire festival, Yakuo-in temple, Takao. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely PlanetHiwatarisai fire festival, Yakuo-in temple, Takao. Image by Simon Richmond / Lonely Planet.

15. Amble around Yansen

The streets of Nezu, Yanaka and Sendagi – three areas collectively known as Yanasen – provide an idea of what pre-WWII Tokyo was like. Here you’ll find small temples and shrines, craft shops, galleries and cafes and Yanaka Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest graveyards. Interesting galleries include Oguraya in a former pawnbrokers, and SCAI The Bathhouse (www.scaithebathhouse.com) in a 200-year-old public bath.

16. Graze a depachika

The nickname for department store food halls is depachika. They’re mouthwatering places to explore and you can sate your appetite with the free samples on offer. Good ones to target include Isetan in Shinjuku, Mitsukoshi in Ginza and Takashimaya in Nihombashi.

17. Play with tomorrow’s technology

No need to resort to industrial espionage. Sony, Panasonic (panasonic.net/center/tokyo) and Toyota all have public showrooms displaying their latest gadgets and technology. Sony’s showroom occupies a prominent corner in Ginza while Panasonic and Toyota set out their stall on Odaiba.

18. Rock around Roppongi

This fabled nightlife ‘hood is also a treat to explore in daylight. There’s plenty of public art scattered around the glitzy commercial complexes of Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown as well as dazzling contemporary architecture at the National Art Centre, Tokyo (www.nact.jp).

19. Feel squeamish

Need an excuse to get cosy with a loved (or potential loved) one? Then follow a Tokyo trend by escorting your squeamish partner on a date to the creepy Meguro Parasitological Museum displaying record-breaking tapeworms and gruesome photos of their victims.

20. Get high on an observation deck

Survey the city 202 metres above ground from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Come at dusk to catch spectacular sunsets and the city burst into neon-lit action.