Of mountains and woods, lakes and waterfalls, gardens and amusement parks, shrines and temples, concrete jungle and railways, foods and fashion, entertainment and shopping hubs – Tokyo has it all! No wonder why it is a dream destination of many travelers around the world.
To those who are looking for an all-in-one travel destination – a place that is a perfect blend of traditional and technologically advanced way of life – Tokyo is what you have been looking for. It should be part of your bucket list. Or how about you just pack your bag and go today? (just kidding’) 😀 Of course, plan your vacation well so that you can get the most out of it. And with that, you might find this travel guide useful.
As you have noticed in the title, it’s a budget travel guide. Meaning, this is for those who are planning to go to Tokyo at the cheapest possible way; those who want to enjoy the metropolis without breaking the bank.
So, here we go…
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Tokyo In A Nutshell
Contrary to popular belief, Tokyo isn’t just a city; it is a sprawling *metropolis that is home to more than 14 million residents. It is composed, specifically, of 23 special wards, 21 cities, a district, and 4 sub-prefectures – all clustered to form one of the only 27 *prefectures comprising Japan. It is interconnected by a massive and, in my opinion, most sophisticated and efficient train system in the world.
English isn’t widely spoken and majority of street signs are in Japanese characters (though signage in popular public places such as at train stations have English translations.)
A good full meal at a restaurant is priced at about 1200 yen (PHP 500+; USD 10+), while you can get food of equivalent quality at convenience stores at half that price.
The transportation sector is dominated by mass transport companies (i.e. train companies)
- prefecture refers to the first level of jurisdiction and administrative division of the country
- 23 Special wards refer to the municipalities that make up the central Tokyo (or the components of the then Tokyo City before it was abolished to form part of the Tokyo Metropolis); they are the most populous in the entire area; the Central Tokyo is separated to the outer Tokyo by the main loop of the train system.
- Tokyo Metropolis should not be confused with the Greater Tokyo Area, which refers to the metropolitan area comprising the Kanto Region of Japan, which includes the Tokyo Metropolis, and the Yamanashi prefecture of the neighboring Chubu Region.
The Best Time To Visit Tokyo
My recent travel to Tokyo was my first time in the metropolis (and still is, as of this writing). It was only during the autumn season, which starts at around the second half of September and ends in the first half of December. Thus, I can only speak, as of yet, on this particular time of year.
In general, the whole autumn season is ideal for vacationing in Tokyo because the temperature is pleasant for roaming around. Not too cold, not too hot – just right to activate the wanderlust in you. I would say that any days within that period can be a perfect time for your dream Tokyo vacation.
However, if one of your goals is to see autumn leaves in their vibrant colors – red, orange, yellow – I would suggest that you come to Tokyo in mid November. The trees start to change colors in Tokyo at around late October and its autumn foliage is at its peak in the late November. Nevertheless, Tokyo is still beautiful in the early October sans the autumn leaves.
Pre-departure To-Do List
Just like in any other travel you have had, there are a number of pre-departure things you need to accomplish before you enter the departure gate of your origin.
Here they are:
If you are like me who always want to get great deals on airfare, I would suggest that you secure your airline ticket ahead of time. And I mean way ahead of time. The reason is simple, ticket prices tend to increase significantly during the time nearing your target vacation date. If you buy your ticket during its peak season, you defeat the purpose of travelling on a budget.
In my case, I bought my ticket a year ahead. As in. I took advantage of the Piso Fare promo by Cebu Pacific.
Here’s the screenshots of the receipt, detailing the items I paid. The total amount I paid for the ticket was PHP 2,204.98; PHP 1940.00 for the baggage allowance, which I paid on a separate date.
There are a number of budget airlines you can checkout. Use airfare comparison tools online to get the cheapest possible. Of course, you are also going to consider the service that your prospective carriers deliver when deciding which one to choose.
Tip: Cebu Pacific tend to give promos on dates having national significance (e.g. national holidays). However, they are also fond of giving surprises, so it makes sense to keep an eye on their activities. Surbscribe to their newsletters, follow them on social media, check their sites from time to time.
Not all nationalities have the privilege to enter Japan visa-free. And, if you are like me that hold a Philippine passport, you need to apply for a tourist visa and get approved prior to your visit. So, work on it ahead of time also.
The tourist visa application process is not that difficult for as long as you are able to submit all of the requirements. If you lack some documents (like in my case), that means additional legwork for you. That is why you apply way ahead of your target visit date… So that you have an ample time to work on the lacking documents, if there is any.
This can be paid at the airport, but you also have the option of paying for it during your online airline booking.
My practice is to pay travel tax at the airport for one reason – I do not want to pay on something that I am not 100% sure yet – that I indeed can go. What if my visa is denied? At least, I save some amount.
The only drawback when paying at the airport for the travel tax is that, sometimes, you need to hurdle a long queue. But I never experienced something that wasn’t manageable when paying at the airport in the past.
Booking for accommodation
This is another item that should be settled prior to the actual travel not just because you can save more when booking in advance but also to ensure that you have a place to stay in Tokyo without experiencing the hassle of trying to get one as a walk-in guest, which is most especially common when it is a peak season.
Another compelling reason to book ahead is that the immigration officer you come across with might ask you where are you going to stay; in fact, the departure form you are going to fill up requires you to put the address of your accommodation in your destination. Believe me, it is a lot better if you have something to reply and you can provide proof.
There are a number of price comparison websites you can try on the Internet. Like in my own experience, you are highly likely to find great deals on Booking.com and Agoda.com.
Another good alternative to try is Airbnb, which is usually offering properties from locals, homeowners as opposed to the previous two, which offer mainly hotel accommodation deals.
One more advantage of booking online is that you will have a substantial idea of the location of your accommodation relative to the places you are planning to visit, and, therefore, you can adjust your time estimates in your itinerary. (I’ll explain more on the importance of this item in the ‘Where to stay’ section below. So, please bear with me. 😀)
Clothes To Wear
Again, I can only speak for the autumn season and here’s what I have to say: It is a lot better if you bring clothes you are going to wear from your point of origin most especially that you are on a budget.
Buying autumn outfit in Tokyo can be pretty expensive (at least in my own standards). Though there are flea markets and used items stores around, chances are that you are not going to find the items you like or the perfect fit.
What kind of clothes to wear in Autumn? Again, as I have mentioned, the weather in Tokyo in this time of year is pleasant. In general, this season is the time for “layering” outfit. The people usually wear long sleeve shirts and (long) pants. And then, they bring sweaters with them, which they can put on especially during the night when temperature tends drop significantly.
You can expect occasional rain showers as well most especially during the night. So, having an umbrella with you as you roam around is highly recommended.
Though you can easily buy an umbrella at convenience stores (that popular transparent ones), it is more practical if you just bring a foldable one that you can just easily put inside your bag. Plus, you do not need to spend some amounts for it.
Another important thing to note about Tokyo (and Japan as a whole) is that, while they are one of the most (if not the most) technologically-advanced society, they tend to be more inclined on cash-to-cash transactions. While many stores accept credit cards, a greater number of merchants, most especially the smaller ones, only accept cash. That means, you should bring enough cash with you.
Now, the question, where should you exchange your money for Yen? At the airport? Bank? Other financial institutions that offer currency exchanges? My answer is: it is up to you. But here’s a good rule of thumb: check the current exchange rates on Google first and make that as your benchmak. If you find a money changer offers way smaller than than the exchange rates information provided by Google, you have a valid reason to find another provider.
My own observation is that banks and money changers at the airport tend to offer not so favorable deals. If you can find a local money changer back home that offers pretty a good deal, I would suggest that you exchange your money there rather than going through the hassle of hunting for a good deal in your destination. But then again, comparison is key. Figure outout the number and do what theis number tells you.
It is really frustrating when you are already at the airport, lining up at the counter for check in, only to find out that you are being barred from boarding for one simple reason: you don’t have with you your passport (yes, it happens) or another document they ask for.
In order to avoid airport troubles like that, and to ensure a smooth-sailing departure, it is imperative that you do not miss a document needed for your travel. Make a checklist so you do not forget a single document.
Usually, an immigration officer would just ask for your passport (with approved visa, of course), departure form (filled up at the airport), travel tax receipt, airline ticket (including return ticket), and a valid ID. However, they also tend to ask supplementary documents such as an itinerary of daily activities in your destination or your employment certificate. It makes sense that you bring such documents too, just in case they ask for it.
During my Tokyo vacation, I brought with me the following documents:
- Company ID
- Government-issued ID (SSS)
- Itinerary (airline ticket)
- Travel tax receipt (I payed at the airport)
- Daily itinerary (list of scheduled of activities in Japan)
- A printed copy of my confirmed accommodations
- Employment certificate
- Latest Income Tax Returns (ITR)
If you have accomplished the pre-departure to-do list above, you can relax as you are good to go.
From Narita Airport To Tokyo
Before you finally step out of the Narita arrival gate, make sure everything is taken care of.
Here are a few items you must decide upon your arrival:
If your itinerary includes a lot of moving around Tokyo, I would suggest that you get an IC card (Suica and Pasmo are the most popular). This prepaid card (like debit or credit card in appearance) can be used to pay for transportation (bus, train) without the hassle of lining up for a ticket every time you take a ride. Not only that, it can be used as well to purchase at vending machines or at convenience stores. What more? You can return the card to where you purchased it and get the remaining amount from that. But you can also keep it and just use it on your next Tokyo visit for its validity is up to 10 years.
This is another item that you should address before you get to Tokyo. This will really help make your travel a lot easier, which is why this is a must item most especially if you are travelling alone.
There are a number of options for internet connection, but the top choices are pocket Wi-Fi and sim card.
|Device||Pocket Wi-Fi||SIM Card|
- You can also choose a data package offered by several telecommunication networks. If you are comfortable with this setup, there are also plenty of packages you can choose from at the airport.
- If you are coming from the Philippines, the leading telecommunication companies Smart and Globe offer data packages; they have setup airport booths to cater to your internet connectivity needs while you are in Tokyo. The price is almost the same with their counterparts in Japan.
Mode of transportation (Narita-Tokyo)
If no one will be picking you up at Narita Airport for a private car ride to Tokyo, there are other several modes of transportation that you can choose from. And since you are on a budget, I would recommend the cheapest ones.
Here they are:
For only 1000 Yen, you can reach Tokyo without the hassle of lining up for ticket as they allow you to pay as you ride. In other words, buses accept cash. But, you can also use your IC card for a bus ride.
Access to buses is quite easy as they are just stationed near the arrival gates. You can choose from different bus companies as well. And, there is an information desk in the area ready to assist you for your bus ride.
This is another inexpensive option if you decide not to take a bus ride. The price is as cheap as that of a bus. Plus, there is a bigger space. If you or your group is carrying a bigger luggage, you might want to choose this option. It should be noted, however, that local trains make several stops at different stations along the way, so it might take longer to reach Tokyo than using the bus. But if you are not in a hurry, time should not be an issue.
There are several other choices to reach Tokyo from Narita; albeit the more expensive ones (don’t recommend this for budget travel)
Express trains: Using them takes you to Tokyo in just about 40 minutes – half the time of riding a local train. But the price is doubled.
Taxi and Uber ride: The most expensive of them all. I would not recommend them for those who are going for a budget travel in Tokyo.
Getting Around Tokyo
The transportation system in Tokyo is by far the most advanced, organized, and environment-friendly I have ever experienced. This is why there is nothing that you should worry about, except, perhaps, the language used in the street signs.
But locals are really helpful, despite the language barrier. In my case, never did I experience being not attended to when asking for directions. By simply uttering the ‘magic’ word sumimasen, they would know you are needing help.
When in Tokyo, you will find yourself riding a train a lot more than other ride options. The train stations seem to be everywhere; you can access the subways and local trains without any hassle.
Here are some useful tips when getting around Tokyo:
- Use an IC (Suica or Pasmo) so that you no longer need to line up for a ticket every time you take a ride.
- Use Google Maps for directions; really helpful as it provides all the information you need for a ride.
- If you are just staying for 3-5 days and you are doing lots of transfer from one place to another, choosing an unlimited train pass (for certain number of days) might be more economical than IC cards. So, carefully assess your travel itinerary.
- Don’t hesitate to ask a personnel manning a station every time you take a ride. This is to ensure that you are at the right station and in the right platform. If not, you might end up in a wrong destination and have to take another ride again for the correct one.
- Trains in Tokyo do not operate 24 hours. Some lines are until 12 midnight; some operate until 2 am. So make sure you check the last schedules for the day so you can catch the last train going back to the place where you stay.
- If in case you miss the last train, you can check your transportation app again (e.g. Google Maps) to find out if there is still a bus available. If there is none, check the distance between your accommodation and your current location as it might not that far for a walk (you will be surprised that one station to another can be just a kilometer or two away).
- If all of the above options are not feasible, the last ride option you have is a taxi or uber. But then again, you might spend more money on this, so try to avoid this one as you are on a budget.
- As an another alternative, you can find a capsule hotel, which is pretty common around the train stations in Tokyo, where you can have an overnight stay at a cheaper price and just take the first train ride the following morning. Train operations usually resume at 4 AM each day.
Places To Visit In Tokyo
If it is your first time in Tokyo, you are likely to find everything around you as an attraction. That means, you can begin experiencing the beauty of Tokyo by just strolling the streets, checking out items from vendors, marveling on their amazing public transport system and concrete jungles, trying their delicious street foods, and by just seeing how the streams of people in the streets take their daily routine. In other words, you can have a taste of Tokyo for free as a first-timer. Thus, since you are on a budget, start visiting places in Tokyo that require no payment (i.e. no entry fee) and just build from there if you still have some extra money.
Here are some places to visit in Tokyo that I would recommend:
Considered to be the center of pop culture in Tokyo (and rightly so) with its lively music, electronic and anime items, and loud and more expressive fashion and styles you see in the streets. You can buy lots of fun items in this area such as action figures from your favorite movie characters, costume, electronic devices, phones, watches, and more. Aside from that, the place is also a food hub. You can just easily find delectable food items inare this area.
The gateway to the famous Skytree (the tallest structure in all of Japan, which also serves as a broadcast antenna), the Sumida River, as well as some great parks and temples such as the Sensoji. The place is considered as the center of preserved culture in Tokyo.
Asakusa is also regarded as the gateway to the north of Tokyo through its ever-busy Asakusa Station.
Considered to be the center of governance in Japan as it houses several government offices, including the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And, of course, the Imperial Palace, the official residence of the Imperial Family, which is conveniently located just right across the Tokyo Station.
Just a few distance from Tsukiji Market (and I mean, a kilometer or so), you can find this famous shopping district in Tokyo. Ginza is popular because this is where people who are buying high-end brands converge. In fact, its main street is closed during afternoon in weekends from motorists so that people can have a wider space to walk and shop around. You can see lots of popular brands here – from clothing lines, accessories, devices, shoes, and even food. You can find famous items such as Apple, Uniqlo, Prada, LV, Zara, Sieko, and more.
Even if you do not intend to buy souvenir or other items in the area, you will still get to enjoy roaming around and discover the shopping culture in the area. Truly, it is worth-visiting even for the budget travelers.
This is another place in Tokyo that is worth visiting. And why not? This is where the famous Tokyo Tower located – an Eifel-like structure that also serves as a broadcast antenna. It is also a symbol of Japan’s resilience, having one of the first important structures built in the post-WWIl era.
Minato also boasts of having beautiful parks, gardens, shrines and temples.
This place is another great place for food trip and shopping, but it offers way more than that. It is the location of the famous Ueno Park, Ueno Zoo, as well as a number of beautiful shrines and temples, museums (including that of western arts), and flea market.
Ueno houses the popular discount shopping destination called Ameyoko, where you can buy the cheapest souvenir items possible in all over Tokyo.
Of course, you should not miss this place when visiting Tokyo. The famous Shibuya Crossing scramble, Hachiko Statue, nice chain of restaurants, and shopping are just among the so-many great experiences you can have in this particular area in Tokyo.
The center of shopping, nightlife, and entertainment. It’s another place in Tokyo that should be part of your itinerary. The Shinkuku Station is the busiest of all stations in Japan. It caters about 3.5 million of passengers each day.
Shinjuku also has some of the biggest parks and gardens and the tallest government building.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The place used to be components of the Inner Market (famous for the fish auction, with limited accessibility by public) and the Outer Market (full access by the general public, famous for street foods). However, the Inner Market has relocated to a new place. The Outer Market is what remains in the area, where you can enjoy flavors of Tokyo with their delicious street foods – from noodles to dumplings; from fish to crabs, and other seafood – at very reasonable prices.
Where To Eat
It’s pretty challenging to rank places to eat in Tokyo considering that there are lots of restaurants, food destinations in this sprawling metropolis. But no worries, even the smallest food house you find in a not-so-popular corner of a street can serve delicious, mouth-watering food.
Having said those things above, for your budget travel, I would recommend the following:
Any convenience stores (e.g.7/Eleven, Lawson)
When traveling on a budget in Tokyo, convenience stores are your savior. For one, they are accessible as they are almost everywhere. For another, they are open 24 hours, which is really good as most restaurants do not open until late in the morning – at around 10 AM. And, third, they sell restaurant quality (fresh and delicious) at half the cost. They also have some space so you can eat your food at their place. And, if ever there is no vacant space where you can take your meal, you can always go to a public park to do it.
In a normal day to day operation, you will notice that supermarkets sell items at a very affordable price. They are a good place to go to if you are looking for delicious and fresh food to eat after a tiring day tour. And here’s another thing to note, vendors at supermarkets slash the prices of food they sell at night time, that is a few hours from closing. So, you might want to buy at this time of the day to save even more.
You might find me a little bit biased for mentioning a specific name of restaurant, but I can’t help it; they serve super delicious food. Of all the ramen house I have tried in Tokyo, they gave me the best. They have several branches in Tokyo, including in Ueno and Shinjuku. The Tenkaippin, Ameyoko, Ueno branch also serves non-pork ramen, while the Shinjuku branch does not. So, if you are a non-pork eater, do some search ahead of time to make sure the branch you are heading to can provide your order.
Places For Affordable Shopping
It’s true that many products in Tokyo can be quite expensive, but that does not mean you can’t find nice items at cheaper prices. You just need to be diligent in your research.
Here’s my top recommendations for souvenir shopping:
This place sells a wide array of souvenir items – from food to drinks; hygienic to cosmetic products; bags to clothes; watches to bracelets and other accessories – even for adult toys. And the best thing of all, they sell their items tax free if you purchase a minimum of 5000 yen. But even if you cannot avail this tax benefit, buying at the store is still a great deal considering how affordable their products are.
You will surely find the store quite interesting as you search for items for your loved ones back home.
This is another good place to shop around located in Ueno. It is just a few walk from the Ueno Station and just across the Keisei Line. Ameyoko is a strip of stores where you can find lots of discount products. You can surely find lots of good souvenirs here ranging from perishable goods to ready-to-wear items to jewelry and accessories. And, just like Don Quixote, a number of stores here offer tax free shopping.
For gadgets, DVDs, action figures, costumes, and the like, you will find Akihabara a good place to shop for such items. The stores along the busy streets of Akihabara offer great selections of both brand new and second hand products at affordable prices.
If you are looking for household items such as plates, bento boxes, chopsticks, among other kitchenware products, flea markets are worthy of your visit. They usually can be found inside a park, selling both brand new and second-hand items. And, they also sell delicious food so you do not get hungry while shopping around.
Please note, however, that flea markets have varied business schedules. Some operate in both weekdays and weekend; some available only in specific days of a week, and some operate only during weekends and holidays. So make sure you do your prior research before going to a flea market.
Where To Stay
Accommodation is another item that can take a huge chunk of your travel budget in Tokyo. If you are not careful with your selection, you could end up paying between 5000 and 10000 yen per day – that’s the typical price of one bedroom unit you find in Tokyo. The good news is, there are cheaper options available, and those are what I recommend to you.
For cheaper accommodation options, consider below:
Literally, you will be sleeping inside a coffin-like room; albeit a lot bigger. Inside it, you’ve got all what you need for sleep, plus, you are provided a TV set. Also, you are provided with a locker room for your valuables. However, for a bigger luggage, you just need to turn it over to the front desk (they have a space dedicated for it) and just ask them anytime when you want to get something from your luggage.
And, just like in a typical hotel, there is a complete set of hygienic kit including disposable toothbrush, shave, hair blower, shampoo, and bath soap found in a shared bathrooms.
In my first two days in Tokyo, I stayed at a capsule hotel called Sauna and Capsule Hotel Dandy (for male guests only) in Ueno and I paid around 1400 yen per day.
Aside from a limited space, one drawback of staying at a capsule hotel is that you can hear sometimes the snore of the adjacent guests. So, if you are pretty sensitive to such, just ask the hotel if they have something to remedy that.
Another cheaper alternative for your stay are shared spaces aka bedspace accommodations. As opposed to capsule hotels, the space does not have that “claustrophobic feels” as it is a lot bigger. And like the previous one, you have a shared bathroom, laundry, a dedicated space for eating, and the like.
Staying at shared spaces can cost you slightly higher than capsule hotels bu with added comfort. But then again, you can also hear the snore from the other beds from time to time.
The rest of my stay in Tokyo, I stayed at this nice bunk-bed accommodation called Hostel EAST57 ASAKUSABASHI. It was cozy, spacious, and just ideal for solo travelers.
With the popularity of accommodation platforms such as booking.com and AirBnB, you can now stay with a more local feels in Tokyo with homestay. These are accommodation options rented out by homeowners who have extra space in their residence. This is another option you might want to consider as, like the previous two, this is a lot cheaper.
One disadvantage in this kind of setup is that the owner might impose a curfew; you might be instructed to be home at a particular time in the night.
Another is, the location might be a bit far from tourist attractions that you might end up spending more time walking or more amount for a ride. Thus, check every detail of the property you want to stay at.
Sample Itinerary & Budget
Note: This itinerary excludes airfare and souvenir items. The point of origin is the Philippines.
– travel tax – PHP 1620
– visa (Application from Philippines) – PHP 1500
– Accommodation – PHP 9000 (9 days)
Day 1 (Narita-Ueno)
– Wifi (recommend for this itinerary) – PHP 4500 (9 days)
– Suica (recommended for this itinerary) – PHP 2500
– Train (Narita – Ueno) Php 600 (use Suica card)
– Ueno Park – Free
– Ueno Toshogu Shrine – Free
– Hanazono Hinari Shrine – Free
– Ueno Zoo – PHP 300
– Tokyo National Museum – PHP 310
– Ameya-Yokocho (street shopping) – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
Day 2 (Akihabara)
– Electronic Town – Free
– Kanda Myojin Shrine – Free
– SEGA Game Arcade – Free
– Places Around Akihabara Station – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
– Train fare – use Suica
Day 3 (Asakusa)
– Nakamise (street shopping) – Free
– Sensoji Temple – Free
– Skytree – PHP 1000 (Regular tickets)
– Sumida River – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
– Train fare (use Suica)
Day 4 (Shibuya)
– Hachiko Statue – Free
– Shibuya Crossing – Free
– Yoyogi Park – Free
– Places around Shibuya Station – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
– Train fare (use Suica)
Day 5 (Chiyoda)
– Around Tokyo Station – Free
– Imperial Palace – Free
– Hibiya Park – Free
– Meal – 1000
– Train fare (Use Suica)
Day 6 (Shinjuku)
– Around Shinjuku Station – Free
– Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Observation deck) – Free
– Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – PHP 100
– Kabuki-Cho – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
– Train fare (Use Suica)
Day 7 (Minato)
– Roppongi Hills – Free
– Tokyo Tower – PHP 800
– Rainbow Bridge – Free
– Zojo-ji Temple and surrounding parks – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
– Train Fare (Use Suica)
Day 8 (Ginza)
– Shopping Street – Free
– Kabuki-za Theater – PHP 300
– Ginza Itoya (stationery store) – Free
– Yamaha flagship store – Free
– Meal – PHP 1000
– Train Fare (Use Suica)
Day 9 (Tsukiji Fish Market-Narita)
– Street food trip – PHP 1000
– Don Quijote (For Souvenir shopping) – Free entrance
– Fare going to Narita Airport – Use Suica
Total: PHP 30,930