• Fri. Jul 1st, 2022

How to Visit Tokyo on a Budget

ByDebra J. Aguilar

Apr 20, 2022

When you think of budget travel destinations, Tokyo rarely jumps to the top of the list. But while Japan’s capital frenzy can have very detrimental effects on your bank account, it also offers yen counting alternatives that don’t necessarily require a drop in quality.

Michelin-starred cuisine at less than $10 per meal, nomihoudai (at will) and tabehoudai options (at will) to izakaya (gastro-pubs), capsule hotels that combine quintessentially Japanese quirks with cheap prices and affordable off-season flight rates let you get the most out of Tokyo without having to stretch your credit cards to the max.

So, for all the necessary insider tips, check out our guide to traveling Tokyo on a budget.

Fly in low season or catch a connecting flight to save on airfare

Tokyo experiences high tourist season for long periods of the year, especially in the spring Cherry tree (cherry blossom) and autumn koyo (fall foliage), during which flight fares are increased based on growing demand. This is especially true when traveling direct from the US or UK. Traveling to Tokyo in winter or during the rainy season from mid-June to mid-July will save you a few bucks, while thrifty travelers from the UK should consider connecting via the Middle East or Europe center for cheaper rates.

Off-season travelers benefit from cheaper accommodations

The aforementioned low seasons also result in much cheaper accommodation. But beware, Tokyo is relatively dead during Shogatsu, the start of the New Year, when many businesses close for employees to spend time with family and make votive offerings at hometown shrines.

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If you’re willing to sacrifice space, you can stay in a capsule hotel for as little as $20 a night © electravk / Getty Images

Opt for a smaller accommodation

It may be cliché that Japanese living spaces aren’t as spacious as their Western counterparts, but if travelers make similar sacrifices, they’ll benefit from extra spending money. Capsule hotels are the epitome of Japanese space austerity, with dormitories containing multi-level stacked spaces, or pods, in which guests can sleep (these are usually equipped with shelves, charging ports and reading lamps). Lockers are available for larger luggage and sanitary areas are shared. Capsules can be as cheap as $20 per night.

Alternatively, popular hotel chains like PAA, Dormy Innand MyStays have locations across the city, and while your room might barely be big enough to swing a wand in, your bank account will be thrilled.

Also note that even though Airbnb is not very popular in Tokyo, it tends to offer better accommodation deals than the big hotels.

Use IC cards and day tickets to travel seamlessly on public transport

Suica and Pasmo prepaid rechargeable cards, also called IC cards, work on all city trains, metros and buses. You can buy them from machines at any station. They require a ¥500 ($4.55) deposit, which will be refunded (along with any remaining fees) when you return the pass at any ticket counter. While paper tickets only cost a few yen more per trip, it’s also possible to get refunds on IC cards when you go through the wrong gate at a station (common even for savvy commuters); paper tickets do not offer the same benefit.

Tickets for unlimited rides are also available: the Tokyo Metro ticket allows unlimited rides on the Tokyo Metro and Toei subway lines, with 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour options available. Japan Rail lines, however, are not included.

A white man walks through a Tokyo street lined with neon signs and paper lanterns
Get to know Tokyo better as you stroll between neighborhoods © JohnnyGreig / Getty Images

For shorter journeys, take to the streets

It’s easy to default to using trains in Tokyo: the rail network is extensive, efficient, punctual and quite affordable. But there is no cheaper means of transport than your own two feet. Are you going from Shibuya to Shinjuku? Instead, walk through the ancient cedar forest of Meiji-jingu. Heading south from Asakusa? Watch the Sumida River Boardwalk to direct you on your way. A dinner in Roppongi followed by a cocktail in Ginza? Collect a few yen with an illuminated walk between the two ultra-chic neighborhoods.

Taxis are expensive: don’t miss the last train home

Trains from Tokyo stop around midnight every night of the year, except December 31. If you miss your last train home, the alternatives can be biting. Taxis in Tokyo are expensive at the best of times, not to mention late-night surcharges; Uber is generally no longer competitive. You can walk, but it probably depends on the length of the trip and how much sake you drank with dinner. Or you can sit in a karaoke bar or restaurant that’s open all night until the first morning train (usually around 5 a.m.), while incurring the required fee. Google Maps has a last train option to work out your best route home – adopt it.

Tokyo has many fantastic and cheap places to eat

With some of the best haute cuisine on the planet, Tokyo restaurants sure know how to get their hands on it: a time slot in Sukiyabashi Jiro is an infamously brief sushi-eating experience that costs several hundred dollars. But with some estimates Tokyoites have around 150,000 restaurants to choose from, yen-saving options abound.

Several izakaya throughout the city, especially chains such as Torikizoku Chicken Specialists and Showa-style restaurant Hanbey, nomihoudai (all you can drink) are available – the nomihoudai the menu typically includes beers, mixers, highballs, and soft drinks. Other chains, such as cheap and cheerful Kin no Kura, have tabehoudai (all you can eat), which tend to feature everything the cuisine has to offer, from sashimi and edamame to yakitori (grilled chicken) and slices of pizza. While dining on kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi is a cheap alternative to omakase (chef’s choice) sushi tasting menus.

Dine on Michelin-starred ramen

In 2022, 203 restaurants in Tokyo received at least one Michelin star. But perhaps surprisingly, some of the city’s highest quality restaurants are also among the cheapest. For Michelin-starred ramen, head to Nakiryu (The Crying Dragon) for its spicy dishes dandamen soup, or take a seat at Konjiki Hototogisu for a pork and fish broth filled with umami and smothered in truffle sauce — both restaurants offer signature dishes for under $10 a bowl.

Convenience stores serve cheap and tasty meals

Convenience store food around the world often leaves something to be desired, but quick and tasty meals are standard fare at Tokyo’s 7-Elevens, Family Marts, and Lawsons — and you’ll find one on almost every street corner. For a few hundred yen you can grab a Cup Noodle and add boiling water to the kettles in the store, buy a selection of onigiri (rice balls), or treat yourself to hot chicken and steamed buns at store counters. Tokyo konbinias convenience stores are known locally, are open 24/7, making them perfect stops for late night meals.

A dark, narrow alley lined with bars and lots of blurry figures moving around
Beware that many bars have cover charges and a night of bar-hopping will seriously eat away at your yen © VTT Studio / Shutterstock

Watch out for cover charges in bars

In some nightlife areas, including the maze of Showa-period alleyways in Shinjuku known as Golden Gai, cover charges of up to ¥1,500 per person are commonplace. Especially if you plan to hit the bars – as most Golden Gai drinkers do – it can add up over the course of an evening. Keep your eyes peeled for signage outside that says “No cover charge” or try asking the bartender before you sit down.

Picnic when the weather is on your side

Belying its label as a concrete metropolis, Tokyo has beautiful green spaces. In public gardens, such as Rikugie-en or Shinjuku-gyoen, however, all visitors must pay an entrance fee. During Hanami (flower viewing) in spring, you can save a few hundred yen by immersing yourself under the drifting petals at free parks, like Yoyogi-koen or Inokashira-koen. Public consumption is also allowed in Japan, so you can have a liquid lunch without spending any money.

Shop at the best thrift stores in Japan

Japan is one of the best places in the world to buy retro products. Thrift stores exist all over Tokyo, with items that are usually impeccably maintained, and if you know where to look, bargains abound. For consumer electronics and musical instruments, check out mega-channels Difficult and To book. For video game hardware and software, Super Potato and Retro Game Camp in Akihabara are the go-to places. Shimokita is Tokyo’s hipster hub of vintage clothing stores: Stick Out sells each item for 700 yen ($6), Mode Off is a bargain-hunting hive (albeit with sometimes questionable quality), while Flamingo specializes in Americana and usually has great deals.

Discover the neighborhoods of Tokyo

A Guide to Daily Costs in Tokyo

  • Berth in a capsule hotel: $30/$40
  • Basic hotel room for two: $60/80
  • 1-day transit ticket: $5 (not all trains included)
  • Coffee: $3
  • Ramen: $10
  • Conveyor belt sushi: $20/$30
  • Pint at the bar: $7/$10
  • All-you-can-eat menus: $20
  • All-you-can-eat menus: $20
  • Mid-range dinner for two (with drinks): $100