Exploring the Big Sushi is a mind-blowing experience, but it can also blow your budget. Don't despair – there’s an abundance of things to do and see in Tokyo that don’t cost a single yen. From gardens and temples to contemporary art, sumo practice and a world-famous fish market, you can experience some of the best of Tokyo for free.
Head up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for stunning free views of Tokyo and beyond © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
Stroll (or jog) around the Imperial Palace
Follow the broad moats and park paths that surround the Imperial Palace for views of its famous bridges and medieval keeps. All total, it’s 5km around the palace grounds – a popular local jogging course.
Cast your bid for Toyosu
Want to witness Tokyo’s famous tuna auction at Toyosu Market? Set your alarm early because it starts at 5am (and finishes by 6:30 am). A limited number of visitors who apply in advance can watch from a viewing platform near the market floor; check the market website for details.
Soak up the atmosphere at Tsukiji
Though the wholesale market moved to Toyosu, Tsukiji Market still has a bunch of old stalls selling dried laver, pickles, bamboo rolling mats and more. Come early to get breakfast from the food vendors and to bask in some old Tokyo ambience.
Sensō-ji in Tokyo is one of many free-to-visit temples and shrines in Japan © Anek / Getty Images
Follow in the footsteps of countless pilgrims by approaching Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s most famous Buddhist temple, in Asakusa, along Nakamise-dōri. The way is lined with colourful stalls selling all manner of souvenirs, from giant rice crackers to exquisitely decorated battledores.
The neighbourhood of Harajuku is also great eye candy. Stroll zelkova-tree-lined Omote-sandō, a glam boulevard of up-scale boutiques housed in contemporary architecture; check out the arty explosion at funky Design Festa gallery or hang out in Yoyogi-kōen (Yoyogi Park), with its dancers and drum circles.
Chill out in Meiji-jingū
When Harajuku threatens sensory overload, escape to the densely wooded grounds that envelope the capital’s premier Shintō shrine, Meiji-jingū. If you’re lucky, you might spot a traditional wedding procession.
Cross the Rainbow Bridge for a little entertainment in Odaiba © Witaya Ratanasirikulchai / Shutterstock
Oh my, Odaiba!
This island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay is linked to the city by the Rainbow Bridge. Walk over the 918m-long single-span suspension bridge to or from Odaiba, where you can sunbathe on an artificial beach (weather permitting), see a Statue of Liberty replica, or gaze upon a larger-than-life Gundam statue.
Watch washi making
Lessons in the art of paper folding are offered for a fee at the Origami Kaikan, but you can view artisans making washi (Japanese paper) in the workshop here, and peruse the gallery, for nix.
Try to keep up at Shibuya Crossing, one of the world's busiest pedestrian crossings © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
Do the Shibuya scramble
Every few minutes a wave of humanity flows across Shibuya Crossing. Join the masses or stand back and watch. An ideal vantage point is Mag's Park, on the roof of the Shibuya 109-2 department store. Here you can also view Myth of Tomorrow, a monumental piece of modern art by Okamoto Tarō.
Advertising Museum Tokyo
One of Tokyo's most interesting free museums is the Advertising Museum Tokyo (ADMT). The montage displays of old ads provide an illuminating visual history of commerce in Japan over the last century or so.
He's behind you! Godzilla on the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku © witaya ratanasirikulchai / Shutterstock
Geek out in Shinjuku
Fans of kaiju (Japanese monster flicks) will want to pay their respects to the giant Godzilla that lords over the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. While you’re here, pose for photos with the robot ladies outside Robot Restaurant.
Contemporary art crawl
Based in a former junior high school, near Akihabara, is 3331 Arts Chiyoda, which houses a score of free contemporary art galleries offering a mix of exhibitions and interactive installations. Be sure to check out the galleries of the Bakuchoro area such as Taro Nasu Gallery.
Political junkie tour
Art and anime not your thing? Then how about a free tour of Japan’s seat of governance, the National Diet, to view the wood-panelled, leather-bound and gilded interiors and the gardens planted with species from across the country.
Take (free) time out in the landscaped grounds of Tokyo's Happō-en © ztsaries / Shutterstock
Beautiful foliage and horticultural skills can be admired in Tokyo’s traditional gardens. Free-to-enter gardens include those attached to the Hotel New Ōtani in Akasaka and the Hotel Chinzanso, as well as the lush grounds of Happō-en, near Shirokanedai Station, and the Imperial Palace East Garden. Tokyo also has excellent public parks, from the central Yoyogi-kōen, to Inokashira-kōen in west Tokyo (near the Ghibli Museum).
Attend a festival
Almost every week there’s a matsuri (festival) of some kind 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 gotokyo.org.
Locals picnic beneath the cherry blossoms to celebrate spring in Yoyogi-kōen © Lottie Davies / Lonely Planet
Amble around Yanesen
The streets of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi – three areas collectively known as Yanesen – 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-reien, one of the city’s oldest graveyards. Interesting galleries include SCAI the Bathhouse, in a 200-year-old public bath.
Watch sumo practice
Even if you can't make a sumo tournament, you can see sumo wrestlers going through their training drills at a sumo 'stable', such as Arashio Stable, where visitors watch the morning practice session (asa-keiko) through windows on the street.
It's possible to visit a sumo stable to watch wrestlers practice for free © Lottie Davies / Lonely Planet
Play with tomorrow’s technology
No need to resort to industrial espionage: at Toyota’s public showroom, Mega Web you can test drive prototypes of the automaker’s Winglet – a Segway-like personal mobility vehicle. At METoA Ginza, check out the latest technologies on display from Mitsubishi Electric.
The Roppongi Hills complex boasts contemporary architecture and public art © cowardlion / Shutterstock
Public art and architecture in Roppongi
This fabled nightlife neighbourhood 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 Center Tokyo.
Time for a beer break
The Yebisu Beer Museum, run by one of Japan’s largest brewers, covers the history of beer in Japan, including displays of cool vintage posters and bottles. Tastings sadly aren’t free, but a serving here is only ¥400.
Get high on an observation deck
Survey the city 202m above ground from the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – on a clear day you may catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji. Come at dusk to catch spectacular sunsets and the city burst into neon-lit action.
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Last updated May 2019