The first thing you should do in Tokyo

Japan's capital has plenty to offer travellers in food, experiences and all-round quirky culture. It doesn't need to cost the earth, either, if you follow these tips.

Cherry blossom lined Meguro Canal at night in tokyo
  • Jetstar
  • February 2018

One of Asia’s most thrilling cities, Tokyo’s otherworldly glamour gives it a pricey aura – but luckily, it doesn’t have to take a heavy toll on your wallet. If you approach it right, this lively city is surprisingly welcoming to travellers on a budget. Here are our top Tokyo budget travel tips.

Currency exchange

It may be surprising for a place with a space-age reputation, but cash still plays a big role in day-to-day transactions. While big-name stores and restaurants accept credit cards, many establishments, from convenience stores to fast food stalls, are cash-only. So you’ll need to withdraw or exchange sizeable chunks of money.

If you want to exchange hard cash, Travelex and Daikokuya have multiple branches around Tokyo. Be warned though: commissions can make them a more expensive bet than using ATMs. Avoid exchanging money at the airport or at hotels; shop around and use a currency conversion website or app such as XE to find out the mid-market rates.

Most visitors find that withdrawing money at an ATM is the easiest way of managing their cash, and ATMs are everywhere. Our top tip: use the Seven Bank dispensers found at 7-Eleven convenience stores around the city. They’re easily located, provide a safe environment, and accept foreign Visa and MasterCard cards. Even better, no fees are imposed on the Japanese side if you withdraw between 7am and 7pm, so you only have to pay the charges imposed by your bank back home. At other times, the charge is just over JPY ¥100 (around AUD $1.30).

When you pay by credit card you may be offered the choice of paying in your home currency or local currency. Always choose local—your credit card company will give you a better rate.

Ticket gates to the tokyo subway
Ticket gates subway

How to get around

Tokyo’s famously efficient public transport is the most affordable way to explore. The Tokyo Metro is your budget lifeline to the city, with single subway trips costing between JPY ¥170 and JPY ¥310 (AUD $2-3.50), depending on the distance.

The first thing you should do when you arrive at either of Tokyo’s airports is buy a pre-paid transport card. Suica and Pasmo cards are interchangeable (it doesn’t matter which one you buy) and you can use them on all Tokyo trains, subways and buses. They’re super convenient, and they’ll also save you money along the way, as fares are less than if you pay as you go.

If you’re visiting Tokyo for a shorter time, another option is to purchase a 24-, 48- or 72-hour Tokyo Subway Ticket that allows unlimited rides for the time allotted. You won’t have to do too much travel to make them justify the initial outlay.

With public transport shutting down around midnight, chances are you’ll have to take a cab at some point. Taxis are clean and reliable and drivers are unfailingly polite, and fares aren’t too high; the flagfall is JPY ¥410 (around AUD $5), and a 5km trip will cost you about JPY ¥2140 (around AUD $25).

Small bowls of Japanese cuisine on a table
Local Japanese delicacies displayed on a table

Where to eat

While Tokyo abounds with super swanky restaurants, it’s also home to a tremendous array of delicious cheap eats, from street stall snacks and vending-machine ramen to some surprisingly sophisticated fare. Street food is not as prevalent as it is in Southeast Asia, but there are excellent treats such a takoyaki (octopus balls) and taiyaki (cute fish-shaped pastries) to be discovered.

A great budget-friendly way to fill up is by purchasing a few yakitori (sticks of grilled meat, seafood and vegetables). Hotspots include Shonben Yokocho, a side street near Shinjuku Station packed with tiny stalls serving up yakitori 24/7.

Another budget staple is ramen, umami-packed bowls of egg noodles in broth with various toppings. The cheapest versions of this iconic dish come from vending-machine restaurants where customers print out a ticket for their chosen bowl, pass it over the counter, take a seat and wait for the food to arrive. Bowls typically start at around JPY ¥750 (around AUD $9).

For those in search of a cheap sushi fix, Tokyo has innumerable kaiten or conveyor-belt sushi joints where you grab colour-coded dishes as they tootle by. Choose somewhere popular with locals so you know the quality will be high.

For a rundown of some of Japan’s greatest culinary hits at a cut-price cost, seek out an izakaya. A cross between a pub and a restaurant, these are places for the post-work crowd to sink a few cold beers and enjoy tasty, reasonably priced dishes like sashimi and karage (Japanese-style fried chicken). They’re typically clustered around train and subway stations are easy to spot – just look out for groups of happy Japanese enjoying large glasses of beer!

Where to shop

There are plenty of fun, cheap places to get a retail fix in Tokyo. Start your cut-price treasure hunt in the city’s markets. A famous (and sometimes frenetic) option is Ameya-yokocho, a street market where you’ll find everything from vintage clothes and accessories to comic books. If you’re a committed bargain hunter and you’ll be in Tokyo on a weekend, hunt down one of the city’s fascinating flea markets.

Another mecca for shoppers (and Japanese teenagers) is Takeshita Street in the Harajuku neighbourhood, which is particularly strong on fashion items such as t-shirts with indecipherable slogans and sunglasses.

For a more comprehensive retail experience, Tokyo’s best one-stop shop is the Shinjuku neighbourhood, which is packed with giant department stores that offer plenty of great bargain buys for the devoted browser, as well as famous brands.

Lights and lantern in Sapporo alley
Tokyo alley filled with lights and lanterns

Drinking on a budget

Luckily there are numerous ways to make a fun night in Tokyo cost less. The first thing you need to do is learn the all-important word nomihodai, which translates to ‘all you can drink’. There are many venues in nightlife areas such as Roppongi and Shinjuku where you can imbibe all you like (usually only for around two hours) for JPY ¥1000 or so (around AUD $11).

Another money-saving tip is to track down one of Ginza 300 yen bars, which, as the name implies, offer drinks and bar snacks for a paltry JPY ¥300.

Convenience stores are plentiful in Tokyo and usually open all night, with many selling a large selection of alcoholic drinks. With Japan’s open-minded approach to drinking in public, you can always buy take-aways and enjoy a few civilised drinks anywhere, anytime.