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Somewhere along the way, Japan got the reputation of being super expensive, a code-word among travelers for instant death of one’s wallet. When the Simpsons visited, Marge even moaned she was down to “her last million Yen.” The reality: If you’re looking for super cheap, you’re better off heading south to Taiwan or Thailand. Having said that, Japan’s capital city (and future host of the 2020 Olympic games) won’t force you to mortgage your future in the name of a little fun. Similar to some of America’s big cities you might have to spend a bit more in Tokyo than you’re used to get the most out of your experience, but when it comes to quality food or sleeping arrangements, you’ll be impressed with the country’s ample budget-friendly options. Read on to learn how to make the most of your time in Tokyo.

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Shebuya | PHOTO: Laura Studarus

For the love of all that’s good, don’t take a taxi

Tokyo is an extremely walkable city with a very low crime rate and a very high level of interesting things to explore. If you’re blessed with good weather and sturdy shoes, this is your chance to put on some serious miles, particularly in the areas between Shinjuku to Harajuku. However, the answer to sore feet is not a taxi. With rates starting at 700 yen and ballooning 90 yen for every 400 meters traveled, you could easily pay about $10 per mile. (Uber functions strictly as a taxi hailing app—so ride sharing won’t save you.) Instead, try the extremely efficient city subway system. (Overwhelmed? This app will help untangle all those colored lines.) Each trip will cost between one and four dollars depending on how far you’ll be traveling. Pre-loaded touch cards Suica and Pasmo, available at most subway ticket machines, will save you a few yen on each trip. But even better, they’ll also save you the headache of having to pre-count your change and dealing with paper tickets.  

Skip the bullet trains and embrace the JR Line

The bullet train is an emblematic part of Japan, and will get you where you’re going with a speed that’s not only efficient, but extremely impressive. They’re also very costly. If you’ve got more time than money (or just a desire to see the countryside at something other than an impressionistic blur), avoid them. If your game plan includes taking multiple trips out of Tokyo, consider investing in a JR line pass. Just keep in mind that the $260 only entitles you to seven days of consecutive travel, even if you only travel one or two of those days. So, do a bit of basic math and plan your jaunts accordingly. Bonus: The JR line runs through Tokyo proper, so keep your pass close (just show it to the attendant) and save yourself on inner city runs as well.  

Rice balls

Rice balls | PHOTO: Laura Studarus

Don’t write off a convenience store meal

Yeah we know—you didn’t fly all to Japan live on potato chips. (Even if they do have flavors like roe, mayonnaise, and soy sauce!) But hear us out, Japanese convenience stores are a whole different ball game than the rotating hot dogs and Slurpee show you’re used to stateside. Sure, you can fill up on chips and cookies (no judgement—traveling is hungry work), but this is the place you can also stop for high-end bottles of tea, buns in both traditional flavors like pork and less traditional dessert varieties, rice balls (onigri), and bento boxes filled with noodles or curry. Depending on how hungry you are, your meal or snack will usually cost between $1-5 dollars. noodle bar - tokyo

Use your noodle

So, you’ve skipped the taxi in favor of a walk, and restaurants in favor of a onigri or two for the road. But now it’s dinner time, your dogs are barking, and the only thing on your mind is taking a load off over a hot meal. Good news: You can be frugal and full. You can’t go wrong with Tokyo’s noodle bars, be it the ramen-lover’s paradise Ichiran, or just the local udon place—most which will cost you less than $10. Just be sure to carry cash, as many traditional establishments will have you order via a large vending machine out front before sitting down. (This is where the Google translate app on your phone will come in handy.) Don’t forget: Tipping is considered rude, so keep your coin collection in your wallet.

Soak selectively

Bathing culture is a big part of Japanese life, which means heading to an onsen, a public bath with natural hot spring water, to socialize, relax and unwind in gender-segregated pools. It’s nude, so yes, your wobbly bits will be on display, and no—no one cares that you skipped abs day. Many establishments around Tokyo have positioned themselves as the Disneyland of bathing, and likewise come with a Happy Place on Earth-sized price. To save a few yen, soak where the locals hang and where entrance fees will generally be well south of fifteen dollars. Even in smaller facilities, you’ll still find impeccably-clean locker rooms, ample bath products, and small cafes where you can snag a snack or meal. Test the waters at Sayano yu Dokuro, Kotobuki Yu, or Somei Onsen Sakura.  

robot restaurant in tokyo

Flickr CC: Eddy Milfort

Say “domo arigato” to the Robot Restaurant for less

When it comes to big-ticket splurges like the famed Robot Restaurant (a Vegas-style floor show featuring dancing, wild costumes and—as one would assume given the name—plenty of robots), it pays to plan ahead. A walk-up ticket to the event’s evening performance will cost 8000 Yen or about $72. (Pricey, but totally worth it for this ridiculous, over the top spectacle.) However, by pre-booking, you’ll save 750 Yen. However—insider alert!— CheapTickets has them for $59. Lesson: No matter what your entertainment of choice is, make that your Tokyo mantra: Book ahead to save…and check out CheapTickets for deals like the champ you are.

Tokyo viewing platform

Tokyo viewing platform | PHOTO: Laura Studarus

Get high—via a viewing platform, of course!

Tokyo is a huge city, something that while you might be able to appreciate in the abstract, you’ll never fully grasp until you see it from the air. To make the most of your trip to the tippy top, start at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and Shibuya Hikarie, which will give you views of the Shinjuku neighborhood and the Shibuya crossing for free. However, the real jewel is the view from the Roppongi Hills building, which overlooks the iconic Tokyo Tower. The price can be a bit higher than other viewing platforms (about $16 dollars), so to make the most of your time, show up about 45 minutes before sunset, and get a front row view of the sky turning pink and the city lights slowly switching on. 


Temple | PHOTO: Laura Studarus

Realize the best things in life are free

Tokyo is a unique city because with its insular culture and unique visual style (hello neon signs!) you could easily get by on an entertainment budget of zero. Go to the Shibuya crossing and people watch to your heart’s content. Stroll through the streets of the Akihabara district during Sunday road closures, and gawk at the video game aesthetic come to life. Or seek your zen at any one of the local temples. Stops like Gōtokuji Temple with its rows of waving cats (pictured above) or Toyokawa Inari with its pack of stone-cold foxes, make for a great photo opp.

Capsule Hotel Transit Shinjuku

Capsule Hotel Transit Shinjuku

Become one of the pod people  

While the idea of hostels may conjure visions of college dorms better forgotten, in Japan—where pod hotels were essentially invented—they can be utopian experiments in group living. For between $25–$80 a night (prices vary by season) you’ll get a sleeping pod (usually about the size of your bed—although some facilities offer more space), slippers, robe, WIFI, storage locker, and access to bathing and lounge facilities. For some of the city’s more notable options—all bookable via, try one of First Cabin’s multiple locations for larger private rooms that measure almost 27 feet. Nadeshiko offers a women-only establishment, with special packages for those looking to don a kimono and dine over the city. And Book and Bed (located in the neighborhoods of Ikebukuro, Asakusa, and Shinjuku) caters exclusively to bookworms (hence the name) and even offers a room specifically designed for two guests. For an even cozier experience, try the centrally located Capsule Hotel Transit Shinjuku.


Tagged: Destinations, International, Types of Travel

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