Tokyo on a budget
Most shrines and temples in Tokyo are free of admission, including the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. (Carmen Roberts)
In a desperate bid to bring back international visitors, the Japanese Tourism Agency is pulling out all the stops, from lobbying A-list celebrities like Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber as spokesmen, to possibly offering 10,000 free flights in 2012.
Since the devastating tsunami and nuclear accident in Fukushima earlier this year, many travellers have been wary to return. Pair that with the recent appreciation of the Yen, and you have a country that is now battling a radioactive and expensive reputation. But Tokyo, the capital, was largely unaffected by the earthquake, and despite the strong Yen, there are a surprisingly good number of free activities that will not blow the budget.
Low cost lodgings
The obvious choice for lodging is to stay in a ryokan instead of a hotel, and Ryokan Sawanoya is one of the more famous guesthouses in the city. But there is also a growing number of websites such as 9Flats and CrashPadder where travellers can rent a spare room or an entire apartment in the heart of Tokyo, at a fraction of the cost of a four to five star hotel room.
Most shrines and temples in Tokyo are free of admission, including the famous Yasukuni Shrine and the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. The Imperial Palace (also free) is a truly stunning site. The East Gardens are particularly beautiful and house a small museum showcasing Emperor Showa's art collection.
Most parks in Tokyo are free too, including the ever-popular Yoyogi Park, which is full of street performers and local bands on the weekends. Ueno Park is the place to be during cherry blossom season (late March/early April) but it is also awash with lotus flowers during the summer months. For a truly local feel, head to Kichijoji Park in the western suburb of Kichijoji and take a ride in a swan-shaped paddleboat.
Pitch up early on a Sunday to grab one of the 250 free bikes on offer at the Palace Cycling Course, which runs along Uchibori-dori, from the north of Hibiya Park to the northern tip of the Imperial Palace. Just fill in a simple form at the Bicycle Reception Desk, next to Kokyo-mae Koban (a small police station). The Palace Cycling Course is open from 10 am to 3 pm on Sundays, and is closed on rainy days and during special park events.
Mad about museums
There are lots of free museums in Tokyo too, like the Sumo Wrestling Museum next to the Kokugikan Sumo Wrestling Stadium. Nearby is the Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum, a fairly small museum that is dedicated to those who died in the tragic 1923 earthquake and is set in the grounds of the Tokyo Memorial Temple. Or, you can try your hand at being a newsreader at the NHK Museum of Broadcasting. Given the country’s recent history, the Electric Power Historical Museum is worth a stop; a large-scale model of a nuclear reactor is among the many exhibits.
There are free samples galore in the basement food halls of many department stores dotted around the city; the Tokyu department store located directly on top of Shibuya Station is one of my favourites. These food halls also offer a good variety of cheap sushi, sashimi and salads. Grab take away and have a picnic in any of the previously mentioned parks.
Alternatively, try the novel approach of ordering your food from a vending machine in one of the many local restaurants, where a bowl of noodles is typically less than 800 Yen. Usually, there are artificial food displays to help you with your order. Once you make your choice, the machine will spit out a ticket, which you then give to the chef. We stumbled upon Menya Musashi (7-2-6 Nishishinjuku; 03-3363-4634) on a recent trip to Tokyo, and my bowl of spicy ramen noodles turned out to be one of my favourite meals. Ramen fans should also try Yasube in Takadanobaba, where every bowl, large or small, is priced at 720 Yen.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building might not be an obvious tourist site, but if you take the elevator to the 45th floor you will not be disappointed. There are two observation galleries with views of Mount Fuji, Yokohama and of course, Tokyo.
On street level, head to Shibuya Crossing, directly outside the subway station, to marvel at the sheer number of pedestrians – apparently close to 100,000 people pass through the crossing every hour. Gwen Stefani was certainly on the money when she sang about Harajuku – “where the catwalk got its claws, a subculture in a kaleidoscope of fashion, prowl the streets of Harajuku”. This is the place to be if you want to see the hip young things of Tokyo strut their stuff.