Tour Tokyo on the cheap
The Japanese capital is famously pricey – but there are ways to dine, collect souvenirs and see the city from high above without emptying your wallet
With tales abounding of $200 watermelons, $9 coffees and other eye-popping expenses, Japan has earned a reputation as an expensive vacation destination. Not surprising – considering that Tokyo is often ranked as the most expensive city in the world. But it's not all $300 plates of sushi and visitors need not necessarily break the bank. Indeed, the glittering Japanese capital has a multitude of free and low-cost activities, as well as other attractive features for the budget-conscious traveller.
Here are some tips on how to get there, be cheap (or at least not come home to a crushing credit-card bill) and still have fun.
Savings start before even setting foot in Japan. While one might expect the 12 1/2-hour, 10,000-kilometre flight from Toronto to Tokyo to significantly lighten one's wallet, airlines frequently offer jaw-dropping discounts. For all its bad press, United this year offered spring and summer flights for as low as $635 (Canadian). While a connection in Chicago is often required, the trans-Pacific portion of United's Japan routes is often operated as a codeshare by renowned Japanese carrier ANA. Air Canada, too, often offers steep discounts, including round-trip direct flights earlier this year for just $675.
Foreign visitors to Japan are also eligible for heavily discounted domestic flights with Japan's two national carriers. The Experience Japan and Welcome to Japan fares from ANA and JAL, respectively, offer flat-rate flights for $245 – a fraction of the normal price and a steal for going to far-flung locations such as Okinawa. Flights to Hokkaido enjoy even greater discounts, with round trips costing just $120.
Getting into town
For those flying into Narita Airport – some 65 kilometres from Tokyo – transfers into the city can be a costly endeavour. The Narita Express and Keisei Skyliner are direct rail options, but start at $36 and $30 a person, respectively.
Airport buses do offer discounted round-trip fares to overseas visitors, but prices still range from $30 one-way to $54 round-trip.
The lower-cost option is the Keisei local rail line, which departs Narita for two of Tokyo's major transfer points: Nippori and Ueno Stations, providing easy connections to the rest of the city. Transit time is comparable to airport bus options and the price can't be beat: $14 a person.
See it from above: The massive scale of Tokyo is best enjoyed from on high, and there are several pricey options available. The venerable Tokyo Tower offers tickets to its observatory for $11. The new Tokyo Skytree – the world's tallest free-standing tower – offers admission between $25 and $35. But there is an alternative: The massive Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, located just a short walk from Shinjuku Station, offers two free 45th-floor observatories with sweeping views of the city below. On clear days, Mount Fuji is distinctly visible in the distance.
Hanami: A rite of spring for many Japanese in late March and early April are cherry-blossom viewing parties, known as hanami. In a country with an unusually strong picnic culture and balmy spring weather, spending an afternoon picnicking and enjoying the peaceful scenery of fields of cherry blossoms is a particularly enjoyable experience. Shinjuku Gyoen offers perhaps the best views with considerably fewer crowds than other parks in the city. Elsewhere, the Meguro River in the heart of Tokyo features approximately 800 trees blooming in unison and provides the best spot for yozakura – evening cherry-blossom viewing.
Dining al fresco: For those arriving after hanami season, Tokyo and its surrounding areas offer excellent picnicking opportunities through the end of October. Yokohama's Yamashita Park – about 30 minutes by train from Tokyo – is an especially popular spot among locals. With dazzling flower and garden exhibits, top-notch street performers and some of the best people-watching in Japan, Yamashita Park provides an excellent low-cost afternoon.
Stamp rallies: Inordinately popular with young and old alike in Japan, "stamp rallies" are a fun diversion, particularly for those with youngsters in tow. Located at most train stations, landmarks and other points of interest, small kiosks offer free commemorative ink stamps. The JR East rail line has intricate stamps at 77 of its stations across the Kanto region, and stations often partner with professional sports teams and television programs for limited-edition stamp series. While most locations provide a commemorative sheet on which to place the stamp, blank albums are also available for sale at department stores and 100-yen shops (equivalent to dollar stores) across Tokyo, providing colourful reminders of one's stay in the city.
Everyone has heard the horror stories: fruit selling for hundreds of dollars; sushi costing an arm and a leg. All true, but also lacking context. "Gift fruit," for example, does indeed sell for extraordinary amounts, but is generally presented as business gifts or for special occasions – not for everyday consumption. Despite its reputation, Tokyo offers both high-quality and reasonably priced options.
Set menus: Japan's version of prix fixe, set menus offer significant savings versus individual meal options, particularly at lunch. Featuring rice, salad, soup and a surprisingly large entrée and drink, set-menu options at restaurants provide excellent bang for the buck.
Michelin-starred meals on the cheap: Tokyo's Shinjukukappo Nakajima restaurant offers lunch sets for just $10. For ramen lovers, head to Nakiryu in Tokyo's Toshima district, where lunch starts at just $9.50.
Sushi: Reasonable options abound. Sushi Zanmai is one particularly low-cost option, offering à la carte sushi lunch and dinner options at locations around Tokyo that run about $10 a person.
Even cheaper options can be found in Japan's innumerable kaiten-zushi shops – also known as conveyor-belt sushi. Often located near train stations, kaiten-zushi provides flat-rate pricing of just 80 cents to $1.50 a plate for its handmade rolls (one to three rolls per plate).
Casual dining: Japan's casual-dining chains have been embroiled in a heated price war for several years now. The main belligerents – Sukiya, Matsuya and Yoshinoya – feature an array of meals starting under $5 a person. Others, such as CoCo – a Japanese curry chain – and Jonathan's – serving both Western and Japanese dishes – also offer tasty Japanese meals at bargain prices. While one might balk at dining at casual-fare chains, Japan's strict rules around food freshness and quality, as well as exacting presentation standards, make even casual dining a high-quality affair. Indeed, a long-running source of amusement among expats in Japan are the rave online reviews posted by first-time visitors to Japan of what is often just run-of-the-mill chain fare.
Fitting of a truly world-class city, stays at even mid-range hotels in Tokyo can reach into the hundreds of dollars a night. With a work culture that frequently results in missing the last train home, however, a wide range of safe, comfortable and convenient hotel options exist.
Known as "business hotels" and located near virtually every train station in the city, these hotels offer simple, clean – if a bit cramped – rooms well-suited to individual travellers and couples. While traditionally geared toward a mostly Japanese clientele, business-hotel chains such as Toyoko Inn (toyoko-inn.com) and Daiwa Roynet (daiwaroynet.jp) are nonetheless affordable and welcoming choices for overseas visitors to the city, with rooms from as low as $70 in winter months.
For all its technological innovations, Japan has, until very recently, eschewed the idea of public WiFi hotspots. This trend has thankfully reversed as Tokyo gears up to host the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Summer Olympics in 2020. Free public WiFi now abounds, including hot spots available only to tourists. Both the bustling Shibuya and Shinjuku wards offer free WiFi for tourists, with registration available at department-store and train-station customer-service desks.
As well, Japan's ubiquitous convenience-store chains – 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson, among others – all offer free WiFi, requiring only simple, multilingual online registration. Train and metro stations also provide free connections – with the Tokyo Monorail and Toei Subway lines even offering on-board service.
Tokyo's labyrinthine rail system can be daunting for even experienced travellers. HyperDia (hyperdia.com) offers free, customizable English-language schedules on its website and app that cover both private and public rail lines, and often include platform numbers for departures from larger stations.