You don’t have to live off vending-machine coffee and rice to experience the grandeur and excitement of Japan’s singular capital. Here are our tips for doing Tokyo on the cheap.
- Shop around online months ahead for hotels, as rates can fluctuate dramatically. The best deals tend to be on the east side of town, in neighbourhoods such as Ueno and Asakusa. Avoid the peak domestic travel times of New Year, Golden Week (late April to early May), and Obon (mid-August), or book well in advance if you can't.
- While business hotels tend to lack character – rooms are compact and functional – in some cases they can be a better deal than private rooms at hostels, especially if you’re travelling as a couple. There are several good budget business hotels that offer double or twin rooms from around ¥8000 (US$80). One of the best value is the Toyoko Inn chain.
- Tokyo hostels are known for being clean and well-managed, catering for younger and older travellers. Most have a mixture of dorms and private rooms and can be a good option for families on a budget. Expect to pay about ¥2800 (US$28) for a dorm and ¥7500 (US$75) for a private room (double occupancy).
- Capsule hotels offer rooms the size of a single bed, with just enough headroom for you to sit up. Most are men-only (such as Capsule & Sauna Century), though some have floors for women, too. Prices range from ¥3500 (US$35) to ¥5000 (US$50), which usually includes access to a large shared bath and sauna.
- All-night manga kissa (cafes for reading comic books) double as ultra-discount lodgings, some with private cubicles, showers, blanket rental and vending machines for food. A 'night pack' (for nine to 12 hours) starts at around ¥1500 (US$15). Gran Cyber Cafe Bagus (bagus-99.com/internet_cafe), with branches in Shinjuku and Shibuya, is one of the nicer chains. You probably wouldn't want to spend many nights like this, but one or two would free up some yen.
- You can have an overnight stay at a love hotel, known in Japanese as rabu hoteru, from ¥6500 (US$65); you can't stay consecutive nights, though. Some love hotels have over-the-top interiors (and amenities that range from costumes to video-game consoles). There are dozens of options on Dōgenzaka in Shibuya.
- Many spas and saunas – Spa LaQua and Ōedo Onsen Monogatari included – have 'relaxation rooms' with mats on the floor or reclining chairs where you can overnight for an extra fee (about ¥1500 to ¥2000).
- Check out the full range of budget Tokyo accommodation options.
Food & drink
- Get good-value meals at shokudō, inexpensive, all-around eateries, usually found at train stations and tourists sites. A filling teishoku (set-course meal) usually includes a main dish of meat or fish, rice, miso soup and salad, for around ¥1000 (US$10).
- You can fill your belly with a steaming bowl of noodles at tachigui, stand-and-eat noodle bars in and around train stations, for as little as ¥350 (US$3.50) per bowl. If you prefer to sit while you eat, you can get a bowl of ramen for under ¥1000 at one of Tokyo's many noodle joints, such as Nagi in Shinjuku.
- Try kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi), for a casual sushi lunch or dinner. Individual plates are priced from ¥100 to ¥500.
- Fortify yourself with a drink and some small bites such as yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) at street stalls and izakaya, the Japanese equivalent of a pub.
- Look out for lunch specials. Restaurants that charge several thousand yen per person for dinner often serve lunch for just ¥1000.
- In the evenings, grocery stores, bakeries and depachika (department-store basement food halls) slash prices on bentō (boxed meals), baked goods and sushi. Two depachika to try are Isetan in Shinjuku and Mitsukoshi in Nihombashi.
- Convenience stores (major chains include Lawson, 7-Eleven and Family Mart) stock sandwiches, onigiri (rice balls), hot dishes and drinks, which you can assemble into a very affordable (if not exactly healthy) meal.
- Food trucks gather around the Tokyo International Forum at lunchtime on weekdays, with a range of goodies for under ¥1000. They also make an appearance at the weekend farmers' market in Aoyama. And listen out for Tokyo’s original food trucks: the yaki-imo (roasted whole sweet potato) carts that rove the city from October to March crooning ‘yaki-imohhhhh…!’.
- Beer can be bought from a vending machine at half the price of one at a bar.
Out & about
- If you plan on visiting a few museums, the Grutt Pass (rekibun.or.jp/grutto) is excellent value. The pass costs ¥2000 and allows discounted admission at 79 attractions across the city.
- Shop tax-free at a number of stores; these are noted with a 'tax-free' sticker in English on the window. You need spend a minimum of ¥5000 in the store and show your passport to collect the tax refund at the time of purchase (items must remain unopened until you leave the country). See the Japan Tax-Free Shop guide (tax-freeshop.jnto.go.jp) for more.
- Stock up on just about everything (household goods, souvenirs, toiletries, snacks) at hyaku-en (¥100) stores, where all items cost – you guessed it – ¥100 (or thereabouts). There are many hyaku-en shops around; Daiso is one of the biggest chains.
- A prepaid train pass – the interchangeable Suica and Pasmo – is recommended. It saves users a couple of yen per journey compared with buying individual tickets, but also makes travel a breeze as you can pass through ticket gates of any train or subway station without having to work out fares. Suica and Pasmo can also be used on buses and to pay for things in some convenience stores, station kiosks and vending machines.
- Read up on 21 things to do in Tokyo that will cost you nothing at all: from watching sumo practice, to getting a free panoramic view across the city.