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One of the most dynamic cities in the world, with over 12 million inhabitants, Tokyo is a sheer delight to see. Not that it is among the world’s most beautiful cities, but it definitely strikes a chord with its subtle balance between the past and the present. Take a stroll in any direction, and you are sure to stumble upon something most unusual and weird―something that you never knew existed. And yet, you will find the Japanese people being passionate about it, speaking of it with an intense sense of belonging.
In fact, the Japanese are passionate about everything, from their traditions and culture to all things new. And this is precisely the reason why the Japanese capital comes across as a complete package―a classic example of ‘old meets new’. Plus, the warm and ever-helping nature of the Japanese people will urge you to extend your stay, and make you regret if you don’t.
Tokyo on a Budget
It is a well-known fact that Tokyo is expensive. In fact, according to the recent Business Insider survey (2014), Tokyo has been ranked as the 19th most expensive city in the world after Melbourne, Australia. Owing to this, it is but obvious that a vacation to the Japanese capital will make you shed a lot of bucks; however, those traveling on a tight budget, need not be disappointed. I brings to you some useful tips to help you plan a vacation to the capital of the shōgun without having to burn a hole in your wallet. Here’s how.
When to Go
◆ As with most cities of the world, Tokyo’s high season and low season depend largely on its weather.
◆ Most tourists opt to travel to the city either during spring (March to May) or autumn (September to November). During these two seasons, the weather is very favorable―pleasant, warm days and of course, beautiful cherry blossoms and dramatic foliage all around.
◆ However, this is also the season when most accommodations around the city are full, and very expensive as well.
◆ Winter (December to February) and summer (June to August) comprise the city’s off-seasons.
◆ In winter, temperatures often drop below the freezing point, and summer is very hot and humid. Moreover, the city experiences torrential rains around late-June, and August is still worse.
◆ While these seasons witness a much less tourist influx, these are great times to be in the city for budget travelers (if you are ready to face the adversities of the weather, that is).
◆ You will not only be able to escape the crowds, but also get the best possible bargains on accommodations, and maybe even crack an affordable last-minute deal.
Where to Stay
◆ As a form of budget accommodation, the concept of capsule hotels is very famous in Tokyo (and in the other Japanese cities). These are low-budget lodgings, made of modular plastic and/or fiberglass blocks in the form of small capsules, placed one above the other. Each of these capsules can accommodate only one person at a time, and are equipped with basic amenities like a sleeping mattress and a small television set.
◆ It, however, needs to be noted that capsule hotels lack basic safety standards, and are mostly men-only, but few also accommodate females. On the contrary, hostels often prove to be cheaper and more comfortable places to stay, even if they mean compromising a bit on one’s privacy.
◆ While hostels located in and near the city center and popular spots can be a bit pricey, look for those located on the outskirts instead. These will offer you the same kind of facilities at lower prices.
◆ For those planning to spend a majority of their time within the city center, opt to stay near it, in order to save money and time on transportation, which is also on the expensive side in Tokyo.
◆ Budget travelers, looking for a homely atmosphere may also opt for a hospitality exchange. You get to stay with a local family for free, and there are also ample opportunities to meet and interact with the other locals. Hospitality exchange is particularly popular with youngsters, traveling on frugal means.
How to Get Around
◆ By far, the cheapest way to get around Tokyo (or any city, for that matter) is by foot. It is lovely walking around the city―take any random lane, and you can discover some of the most unexpected, yet exciting things about the city. And, it is needless to say that strolling is free-of-cost.
◆ Another good option to travel around Tokyo on the cheap is to rent a bike. Cheap bike rentals are available in different parts of Tokyo and its suburbs, and they are very convenient, in that you can plan your own custom biking tour across the city.
◆ The Tokyo Subway System, the city’s extensive network of underground rail routes, is also a pretty inexpensive mode of transport, by Tokyo standards. However, you are charged according to distance so, the longer the distance, the pricier will be your ticket price. But they are tourist-friendly, in that there are a lot of signboards and announcements in English language. Nonetheless, there are some cons as well. These trains are very crowded, especially during peak hours, so much so that the crowds may deter you from getting onto one of them. Moreover, each of these metro stations closes down at about 1am and starts operating at about 5am in the morning so, time your travel so that you do not get stranded; isolated stations can be unsafe.
◆ Buses are also cheap, but if you do not have basic knowledge of Japanese, it may get extremely difficult for you to navigate. Especially, communicating with the bus conductor gets very tough, as more often than not, he will not know English or any other foreign tongue. Plus, like trains, even buses are crowded, but they are well-connected and can take you to literally any corner of the city.
◆ Unless extremely necessary, never ever go for hiring a taxi. Taxis in Tokyo are indeed very expensive, so much so that a single taxi ride can completely destroy your budget.
Where to Eat/Drink
◆ Eateries and restaurants located in downtown Tokyo and in the city’s popular parts tilt towards the expensive side. For a wholesome budget meal, head to one of the blue-collar areas of the city such as Ueno or Ikebukuro.
◆ Areas with large populations of youngsters and students, like Yoyogi and Harajuku, are also good places to find food on the cheap. You will find numerous fast-food joints in these areas, alongside several cheap restaurants, offering full, good quality meals.
◆ The conveyor belt sushi restaurants are located in several parts of the city, wherein you can choose your own sushi from the conveyor belt. These are often busy, owing to their inexpensiveness and fast service, but you will get some really tasty meals in there.
◆ A good number of Japanese curry houses, fast-food, and ramen shops are spread across the city, even in the city center, from where you can buy small, but filling budget meals.
◆ Tokyo is famous for its street food, which offers delicious local flavors at affordable prices. Budget travelers can also buy packaged meals from grocery stores, which cost much less than restaurants.
◆ While in Tokyo, you cannot ignore the numerous vending machines, found in large numbers, everywhere around the city. These coin-operated machines sell hot beverages, juices, sodas, cans of beer, apart from typical Japanese meals (curry and rice) and ready-to-eat soups.
What to See/Do
In the clockwise direction, starting from top-left―Rainbow Bridge, Minato, Tokyo; Tokyo Imperial Palace, Chiyoda, Tokyo; Tokyo cityscape with illuminated Tokyo Tower; Yoyogi Park, Shibuya, Tokyo.
◆ While most attractions in Tokyo charge an admission fee, the good news is that there are several cheap and free things to see and do in and around the city. As mentioned before, a free stroll can give you an insight into some of the most fascinating aspects of the city and its culture. But, there is more!
◆ Most shrines, temples, and palaces of Tokyo do not have an entry fee. This also includes, apart from the other attractions, the Tokyo Imperial Palace, which may be accessed free if you plan to take a self-guided stroll, rather than a guided tour.
◆ Moreover, the Sensō-ji temple, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, can also be accessed without any charge by all the visitors. There is a 200-meter-long shopping street in front of the temple gate, which has several O-mikuji (fortunes written on strips of paper) stalls, visited by a good number of tourists. You can also try out your luck here!
◆ Furthermore, the fourth-largest urban park in Tokyo, the Yoyogi Park, is also a free attraction. It is a great place for a quick morning jog and to listen to live performances by street musicians.
◆ Another great place to be, especially if you are a fish lover, is the Tsukiji fish market. It is located very close to the Tsukiji train station, and so is an easy walk up there. Every morning, at about 5 a.m., there is a tuna auction held here, which is quite an interesting experience. Though you can visit the auction for free, remember that they let a limited number of tourists in each day, and so, you have to reach the spot really early. However, if you miss out on the auction, you can still roam around the market, and gorge on some delicious sushi and sashimi for breakfast.
◆ Harajuku boasts of a very lively shopping and entertainment scene. There are a lot of specialty stores around the area from where you can buy items such as books, electronics, and souvenirs for cheap. Apart from these, Tokyo also has a good number of open-air antique and flea markets operating on the weekends near major shrines.
Other Money-saving Tips
◆ Bowling alleys and cinemas in Tokyo tend to be on the expensive side. Instead, head to the Sony Building in the city’s Ginza ward, and indulge yourself in some free console games.
◆ Most cinemas and museums in Tokyo offer discounted rates for students, seniors, and children. Keep looking for such offers to save money.
◆ If you are planning to city-hop from Tokyo, purchase the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) well in advance before you leave home. It is meant for long-distance train travel, and can be used only by foreign tourists. It comes with the validity of 7, 14, and 21 consecutive days, and is not available for sale in Japan.
Though people always find it oxymoronic to spend a budget vacation in Tokyo, it is possible to do the city on the cheap. Planning ahead and wisely is the key, and one of the most expensive cities in the world can turn out to be an affordable package. So, if you thought that Tokyo probably wouldn’t fit into your budget, it’s time you think again, and get going to one of the most dynamic cities in the world.