Affordable Tokyo

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It has a reputation as a holiday destination which comes with a hefty price tag, but there are ways to enjoy Tokyo without having to take out a mortgage to cover your costs. 

It's a city of great contrasts; the glitz of Ginza, the neon of Shinjuku, and the ancient history of Asakusa. But if you ask many people if they’ve ever considered a holiday there, the response you’ll often hear is: “I’d love to, but it’s too expensive.”

The myth of Tokyo being a hyper-expensive city still pervades, but there’s a lot you can see, and eat, without taking it costing you a small fortune.

Take getting around, for example. Forget taxis, the cheapest and quickest way to get around is using the subway system and JR train lines. The Yamanote subway line rings the inner city, making most major sights accessible to visitors in under an hour. The stations have signs and maps in English, and the trains are frequent, clean and safe to ride. 


When it comes to the major sights, you could spend a week in Tokyo and still not see everything, but at least many of the top attractions are free. 

For people-watching, the Shinjuku district is a great initiation into the neon-lit craziness of Tokyo. If you can pick your way out of the subway station at dusk (tourists routinely wander its cavernous interior looking for the exit) then above ground the reward is a maze of streets and alleys inhabited by the hip young Tokyoites. In amongst the department stores and designer boutiques are restaurants, ramen houses serving noodles and back alley bars which make this one of the most interesting districts in the city.

The Golden Gai is an alley with tightly packed nomiya, or stand-up drinking bars, which sell beers for around 700 yen ($A7.75) and is a real throwback to the city’s past.

A few blocks away from the Golden Gai is the “pleasure” district of Kabuki-cho. It has the craziest nightlife of all Tokyo, and is packed with restaurants, strip joints, love hotels, peep shows, hostess bars, massage parlours and pachinko parlours. Young women call out to the hordes of “salarymen” who wander the streets after work in their suits. 

Glitzy Ginza is another district where people-watching and sightseeing blend perfectly and the main drag, Ginza-dori, has earned the nickname the “Fifth Avenue” of Tokyo. On the weekends Ginza-dori is closed off to traffic and transformed into a pedestrian haven. This elegant boulevard is lined with designer boutiques such as Prada, Chanel and Louis Vuitton and the ladies that prance along the street are desperately keen to show off their newly-purchased labels. 

But it’s not all fashion and flouncing. There are some contemporary art galleries, excellent restaurants, traditional Japanese pubs or izakaya, traditional tea houses, and interesting architecture.

For a different slice of Tokyo life, the Tsukiji Fish Market is the perfect antidote to designer-chic shopping districts. Much of Tokyo’s fish and seafood transits its cavernous halls, with some 14,000 retailers converging six days a week to sell their wares. It’s a colourful, noisy, chaotic and a real-life workplace where workers yell, chop blocks of ice, make sushi, smoke, chatter, bone an eel, and then yell some more. It’s all about the sights, sounds and smells which can be both overwhelming and uplifting at the same time. 

Nearly all Tokyo first-timers at some stage wonder how all these places fit together in the city‘s “jigsaw puzzle” of a layout and get the feeling that an aerial view is needed to appreciate the scale of their explorations.

There are two places to take in panoramic views of the city and only one comes with a price. The free option is from the 45th floor observatories at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings in Shinjuku. On a clear day, you can even see Mt Fuji. The view you pay for is atop the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills. Occupying the the 54th floor, Tokyo City View is a vast, glass-enclosed observation deck which is popular with urban lovebirds and tourists, especially an hour or so before sunset. The cost for adult admission is 1,500 yen ($A18), but the breathtaking, panoramic view is worth the fee, and includes admission to the world class Mori Art Museum. 


But Tokyo is not all modern sensory overload, as it appears on the surface. Its ancient culture is defined by the museums and temples which provide a serene escape from the chaos at street level.

The Tokyo National Museum on Ueno-koen is Japan’s largest museum with more than 90,000 collections of Japanese and Asian art. Not all of the collection is displayed at the same time because of its sheer size, but the maze of galleries can still take a full day to explore.

The Meiji-jingu, or Meiji Shrine, is arguably Japan’s most beautiful Shinto shrine and as a result is revered by the Tokyo locals. Completed in 1920, the Meiji Shrine was constructed in honour of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and nestles inside a tranquil, shaded park providing a quiet oasis from the city bustle. It was destroyed, like much of Tokyo, during WWII and reconstructed in 1958. 

In the courtyard, I watch the closing scenes of a traditional Shinto wedding, the bride resplendent in a white wedding kimono. But it was also November 15, the day of a traditional event called Shichi-go-san, where girls aged three and seven, and boys aged three and five, dress up in traditional kimonos and pray at the shrine for healthy growth.

The majestic Imperial Palace, in the centre of the city, is home to one of Tokyo’s most notable landmarks. Hidden behind a dense wood of trees, the palace itself is closed to the public on all but special occasions, but the Nijubashi Bridge is easily accessible and a popular photo-stop for tourists. 

Tokyo’s oldest temple, Asakusa Kannon, is in the historic district of Asakusa which is one of the few areas in the city where old traditions remain. Asakusa is a place to reflect, even though on a Saturday afternoon it’s teeming with locals offering prayers or buying “ema” which are small wooden plaques on which people write wishes for luck in exams, health and love. The old temple, built in the 7th century, is the main attraction but nearby a colourful market called Nakamise Dori stretches for 200m.


Nakamise is the place to stock up on souvenirs such as Japanese fans, paper lanterns, solar powered money cats, and Japanese doll key rings and the world-famous Akihabara or “Electric Town” is next. If you’re into electronic gadgets, and can handle the noise level, this is the place to try out the technology of today and tomorrow. From the minute you leave the train station, you’re bombarded with flashing signs and a barrage of incessant recorded sales jingles pitching the many wonders of the latest digital camera, mobile phone or laptop computer. Even the techno-hardened locals wander through this neon labyrinth looking overwhelmed by its sheer scale.

The ultimate consumer society, shopping is available, prevalent and positively encouraged throughout Tokyo and is simply an integral part of the lifestyle. And the beauty is you don’t need credit cards with massive credit limits to test out in Ginza, there are department stores with reasonably priced items and 100yen shops all over the city. Unlike many parts of Asia, haggling over prices is not the done thing and remarkably credit cards are not widely accepted, with the exception of top end stores. 


Although Tokyoites are always on the move, eating is always a serious business. From the simplicity of a rice ball to high-end restaurants orchestrating complex hand-thrown dishes, food in Tokyo is all about good taste and the sheer pleasure of eating. And it’s one of the world’s great cities for eating out. A major misconception about eating out in Tokyo is that it costs a fortune. True, you can still blow a weekly wage at some five-star restaurants, but there are many affordable dining options; from local Japanese, to McDonald’s, and a slew of western-style cafes.

With many Tokyoites leading hectic lifestyles, eating out for lunch has become almost as popular as eating out for dinner. As a result, many restaurants offer three-course set lunch deals for around 1,000 yen ($A15), and conveyor-belt sushi eateries can charge as little as 105 yen ($A1.20) per dish. 

Tokyo’s department store food halls, called depachika, are another option, with everything from traditional bento box meals to salads, and anything you can imagine in between on sale every day. Other havens for inexpensive food such as ramen, yakitori and tempura can be found at markets, temples and shrines. 

And if you’re after Tokyo-style fast food, look out for chain restaurants called Yoshinoya and Matsuya. The food is basic but good quality and, as the name suggests, it’s served at lightning speed. 

In spite of its reputation, Tokyo doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to visit. With a bit of knowledge, and a sense of adventure, you can enjoy many of its sights, immerse yourself in its culture, and feast on its fabulous food.


Accommodation ranges from the usual five star chain hotels, to four star western-style hotels, which charge around 14,800 yen ($A170) for a double room. But a more authentic and affordable option is a ryokan which is a traditional Japanese inn. It’s an experience far removed from the high-tech influences of modern Tokyo; rooms have tatami mat floors, you sleep on a futon, and the cost starts from around 5,000 yen ($A57) per person.

Getting there: 

Qantas operates direct flights between Australia and Tokyo. Call Qantas on 13 13 13 (from within Australia) or visit Japan Airlines also operates daily direct flights to Tokyo from Sydney and Brisbane. Call Japan Airlines on 1300 525 287 or visit

Where to stay: 

The Park Hotel Tokyo ( is one of the city’s most elegant and newest hotels, located in Shiodome City near Ginza. The Hotel Marunouchi is also a new property in the heart of the property and a walking distance to the Imperial Palace and Ginza. Visit

Information & Stopover Packages: 

The Japan National Tourism Organization has a detailed website with in-depth info on Tokyo. Visit

Getting around: 

Because getting around Tokyo on public transport is cheap and easy, districts like Shinjuku, Ginza and Asakusa are best explored on foot. The Shiodome Shiosite is Tokyo’s newest “city within a city” and its modern glass and concrete landscape is futuristic and oddly beautiful. The area around Aoyama-dori is another good walking tour with a slew of art galleries, and Odaiba is a new development on Tokyo Bay which has become a popular shopping and entertainment district.

When to go: 

The nicest times to visit are in spring (Mar-May), when the city is awash with cherry blossoms, and autumn (Sept-Nov) when the city sees the changing of the leaves. The summer is hot and extremely humid, and the winter cold with occasional snowstorms. The two big holiday periods when much of Tokyo shuts down are Golden Week at the end of April, and the New Year period. When to go: The best times to go are spring (March to May), during the cherry blossom season, and in autumn (September to November). Summers in Kyoto are hot and can be humid, and the winter is cold. June is the rainy season. 

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Joanna Hall