When one thinks of budget holiday destinations, Tokyo seldom jumps to the top of the list. But while Japan's frenetic capital can have seriously deleterious effects on your banking account, it also offers yen-counting alternatives that do not necessarily need a dip in quality.
Michelin-star cuisine for under $10 per meal, nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) and tabehoudai (all-you-can eat) options at izakaya (gastropubs), capsule hotels that marry quintessentially Japanese living quirks with cheap prices, and affordable low-season flight fares mean you may make the very best out Tokyo without having to maximize your credit cards.
So, for all the need-to-know insider tips, check out our help guide to traveling Tokyo on a tight budget.
Fly in low season or have a connecting flight to reduce air fares
Tokyo experiences tourism high-season for big stretches of the season, particularly throughout the spring sakura (cherry blossom) and fall koyo (autumn foliage) seasons, where flight fares come at a premium using the soaring demand. This is also true when flying direct from the US or UK. Traveling to Tokyo in winter or throughout the mid-June to mid-July rainy season will save you a couple of bucks, while frugal travelers from the UK need to look at connecting through the Middle East or central Europe for lower-cost fares.
Low-season travelers take advantage of cheaper accommodations
The aforementioned low seasons also bring about much cheaper accommodations. Though beware, Tokyo is pretty dead during Shogatsu, the start of the New Year, when many companies close for employees to spend time with family and provide votive offerings for their hometown shrines.
Opt for a smaller accommodation space
It is probably cliché that Japanese areas aren't as roomy as their Western counterparts, but when travelers make similar sacrifices they'll take advantage of extra pocket money. Capsule hotels would be the epitome of Japanese spatial austerity, with dorms containing multi-leveled bunk spaces, or pods, for guests to sleep in (these typically include shelves, charging ports, and reading lights). Lockers are for sale to larger luggage and toilet spaces are communal. Capsules is often as cheap as $20 every night.
Alternatively, popular hotel chains like APA, Dormy Inn, and MyStays have locations over the city, even though your room is going to be barely big enough to swing a chopstick in, your money is going to be glad of it.
Also note, that whilst Airbnb isn't super popular in Tokyo, it has a tendency to offer better accommodation deals than the major hotels.
Use IC cards and day tickets for seamless travel on public transportation
Prepaid rechargeable Suica and Pasmo cards, also known as IC cards, work on all city trains, subways and buses. You can buy these from machines at any station. They require a yen500 ($4.55) deposit, which will be refunded (together with any remaining charge) whenever you return the pass to any ticket window. While paper tickets are a few yen more costly per journey, it's also possible to get reimbursements on IC cards when you pass through the wrong barrier in a station (a common occurrence, even for the well-versed commuter); paper tickets don't provide the same benefit.
Unlimited-ride tickets can also be found: the Tokyo Subway Ticket allows unlimited rides on both Tokyo Metro and Toei subway lines, with 24-hour, 48-hour, and 72-hour options available. Japan Rail lines, however, are not included.
For shorter journeys, hit the streets
It's simple to default towards using trains in Tokyo: the rail network is extensive, efficient, punctual, and pretty affordable. There is however no cheaper way to travel than your own two feet. Heading from Shibuya to Shinjuku? Make your way through the old cedar forest of Meiji-jingu instead. Going southbound from Asakusa? Turn to the Sumida River promenade to direct you on your way. Splashing out on dinner in Roppongi, accompanied by cocktails in Ginza? Claw some yen back by having an illuminated stroll between the two uber-classy neighborhoods.
Taxis are pricey: don't miss the final train home
Tokyo trains stop around 12am every evening of the year, barring December 31. If you miss your last train home, the alternatives can be biting. Tokyo taxis are costly in the better of times, never mind the late-night surcharges; Uber is generally forget about competitive. You could walk, but this is likely predicated on the entire journey and just how much sake you glugged with dinner. Or you could pitch up in a karaoke bar or all-night restaurant until the morning's first train (usually around 5am), whilst incurring the requisite fees. Google Maps features a last train option when managing your best route home – embrace it.
Tokyo has numerous fantastic cheap places to eat
With some of the finest haute cuisine on the planet, Tokyo restaurants certainly know how to stick the arm in: a timeslot in Sukiyabashi Jiro is an infamously brief sushi-eating experience costing several hundred dollars. But with some estimations reckoning Tokyoites have around 150,000 restaurants to choose from, yen-saving options abound.
At many izakaya throughout the town, particularly chains such as chicken specialists Torikizoku and Showa-style diner Hanbey, nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) choices are available – the nomihoudai menu usually includes beers, mixers, highballs, and sodas. Other chains, such as the cheap and cheerful Kin no Kura, have tabehoudai (all-you-can-eat) options, which have a tendency to feature everything the kitchen provides, from sashimi and edamame to yakitori (grilled chicken) and pizza slices. While dining on kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi is really a cheap alternative to omakase (chef's choice) sushi tasting menus.
Dine on Michelin-starred ramen
As of 2022, 203 restaurants in Tokyo were awarded at least one Michelin star. But perhaps surprisingly, a few of the city's highest quality restaurants will also be among its cheapest. For Michelin-starred ramen, visit Nakiryu (The Crying Dragon) because of its spicy dandamen soup, or grab a seat to Konjiki Hototogisu for an umami-filled broth pork and fish stock topped with truffle sauce – both restaurants offer signature dishes for under $10 a bowl.
Convenience stores serve cheap, tasty meals
Convenience store food around the world often leaves much to be desired, but fast and tasty meals are standard fare at the 7-Elevens, Family Marts, and Lawsons of Tokyo – and you will find one on nearly every street corner. For some hundred yen, you are able to grab just one cup Noodle and add boiling water in the in-store kettles, purchase a selection of onigiri (rice balls), or indulge in hot chicken and steamed buns at store counters. Tokyo konbini, as supermarkets are locally known, are open 24/7 making them perfect stop-offs for night time repasts.
Watch out for canopy charges in bars
In certain nightlife areas, especially the warren of Showa-period alleyways in Shinjuku known as Golden Gai, cover charges up to yen1500 per head are commonplace. Particularly if you plan on bar-hopping – since many imbibers in Golden Gai do – this could add up over the course of an evening. Look out for outdoor signage stating "No Cover Charge" or try asking the bartender before taking a seat.
Picnic once the weather's in your corner
Belying its tag as a concrete metropolis, Tokyo has some beautiful green spaces. At public gardens, for example Rikugie-en or Shinjuku-gyoen, however, all visitors are required to pay an entrance fee. During hanami (flower-watching) season in spring, it can save you several hundred yen plonking yourself under the drifting petals in free-to-enter parks, like Yoyogi-koen or Inokashira-koen. Public drinking is also permitted in Japan, so you can partake in a liquid lunch without splashing the cash.
Shop at Japan's best thrift stores
Japan is one of the best places on earth to purchase retro goods. Second-hand stores exist all over Tokyo, with items that are often impeccably maintained, and when you know where to look, bargains abound. For electronic devices and instruments, check out mega chains Hard Off and Book Off. For video game hardware and software, Super Potato and Retro Game Camp in Akihabara are the places to be. Shimokita is Tokyo's hipster hub of vintage clothing stores: Stick Out sells every item at 700 yen ($6), Mode Off is a hive of bargain hunting (albeit with sometimes-questionable quality), while Flamingo specializes in Americana and usually has some pretty good deals.
A guide to daily costs in Tokyo
- Bunk inside a capsule hotel: $30/$40
- Basic hotel room for 2: $60/80
- 1-day trains and buses ticket: $5 (not every trains included)
- Coffee: $3
- Ramen: $10
- Conveyor-belt sushi: $20/$30
- Pint in a bar: $7/$10
- All-you-can-drink menus: $20
- All-you-can-eat menus: $20
- Mid-range dinner for 2 (with drinks): $100