Budget Travel

21 of the best free things to do in Tokyo: from shrines to sumo

Exploring Japan's capital is really a mind-blowing experience, but it may also blow your financial allowance. Don't despair – likely to abundance of things to do and see in Tokyo that don't cost you a single yen. From gardens and temples to contemporary art, sumo practice and a world-famous fish market, here's a summary of Tokyo's best free attractions.

Stroll the grounds from the Imperial Palace for free

Follow the moats and paths surrounding Tokyo's central point, the Imperial Palace, for views of its famous bridges and remnants from the old medieval keep. As a whole, it's 5km (3 miles) round the palace grounds – a well known local jogging course if you wish to burn several calories while consuming the scenery.

Take a detour with the accompanying gardens without dipping into your wallet. The Imperial Palace East Gardens encompass the honmaru and ninomaru, the former innermost circles of the castle, featuring broad lawns, small stretches of woodland and seasonal flora (take a look at what's flowering around the Flower Calendar). Kokyo Gaien National Garden marks the region while watching palace's Sakuradamon Gate, where Ii Naosuke, a controversial proponent of opening Edo-period Japan to the outside world, was assassinated in 1860. Kitanomaru Park may be the pick from the bunch, home from the Budokan, Japan's premier fighting techinques arena, and also the Chidorigafuchi Moat – in spring, the road encircling the moat is enlivened by blooming cherry blossoms.

Follow the pilgrim route to Sensō-ji

Follow within the footsteps of countless pilgrims by approaching Sensō-ji, Tokyo's most famous Buddhist temple, in Asakusa. The way is lined with colorful stalls selling all manner of souvenirs, from giant rice crackers to washi paper fans. Senso-ji can also be Tokyo's most-visited religious monument, so get ready for swarms of photo-snapping tourists along with a smattering of locals dolled up in traditional kimono. Visit at the crack of dawn – the temple is open from 6am – for any quieter excursion.

Explore the streets of Harajuku

The Harajuku neighborhood is probably the world's greatest eye candy; its main street Takshita Dori bursts forth inside a maelstrom of vivid colors, kawaii (cute) motifs and the constant babble of frivolous consumers.

Stroll zelkova-tree-lined Omote-sandō, a glam boulevard of up-scale boutiques housed in contemporary architecture; check out the arty explosion at funky Design Festa gallery or hang out in Yoyogi-kōen (Yoyogi Park). The sprawling green space hosts frequent international festivals celebrating cultures from Ireland to India, Spain to Thailand, Brazil to Sri Lanka, and much more.

See the tuna auction at Toyosu Market

Want to witness Tokyo's famous tuna auction at Toyosu Market? Set your alarm early because it starts around 5:30am which last approximately one hour. A limited number of visitors who apply ahead of time can watch from the viewing platform near the market floor; check the website for details.

Whilst Toyosu Market may lack the rustic charm of their predecessor in Tsukiji, visitors remain free to wander the sprawling complex. Infographics and exhibition spaces detail the storied good reputation for the world's greatest fish market; scan the clearly indicated QR codes for multilingual interactive tours.

Watch sumo practice

Even should you can't create a sumo tournament, you can see sumo wrestlers going through their training drills at a sumo stable, such as Arashio Stable, where visitors watch the morning rehearsal (asa-keiko) through windows on the street. Practice typically takes place between 7:30am and 10am on weekday mornings, bar March, July, November and on a few days carrying out a major tournament. Call between 4 and 8pm your day just before confirm if training is on; the stable's website has a basic sample script for talking to phone operators in Japanese.

Visit Yasukuni Shrine

To some, Yasukuni-jinja is Tokyo's most controversial religious monument. To others, it is a supply of pride. Plus there is the argument that removing it would add up to revisionist history.

Yasukuni Shrine commemorates Japan's approximately 2.5 million war dead (moral ambiguities notwithstanding), such as the kamikaze pilots of WWII and convicted war criminals. Along its flagstone entranceway, you'll find locals harking back to their fallen ancestors indicated by a procession of paper lanterns – all 30,000 which are illuminated throughout the summer Mitama Matsuri – as the comparatively humble shrine building is encompassed by blooming groves of sakura (cherry blossoms) in spring.

Marvel at Shibuya Crossing

Every few minutes a wave of humanity washes across Shibuya Crossing thought to be the world's busiest intersection. Join the masses or stand back watching. An ideal standpoint is Mag's Park, on the roof from the Shibuya 109-2 department store. A few floors down, in the entrance to Mark City, check out the Myth of Tomorrow, a monumental mural by artist Okamoto Tarō.

Say hello to Godzilla

Fans of kaiju (Japanese monster flicks) may wish to pay their respects to the giant Godzilla that lords over the Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. Amateur videographers should head down between noon and 8pm when Godzilla belts out thunderous roars around the hour. While you're here, wander around the electrified Kabukicho neighborhood, Tokyo's red-light district, or visit nearby Golden Gai, a warren of Showa-period alleyways housing hundreds of shoebox bars.

Walk the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba

This island of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay is related towards the city through the Rainbow Bridge, which is illuminated in its eponymous colors come nightfall. Walk over the 798m-long (2618ft) single-span suspension bridge to Odaiba, an uber-modern commercial district, where you can sunbathe with an artificial beach (weather permitting), see a Statue of Liberty replica, and gaze upon a larger-than-life Gundam statue.

Have an idea of history at Yebisu Beer Museum

The Yebisu Beer Museum, run by one of Japan's largest brewers, covers the history of beer in Japan, including displays of cool vintage posters and bottles. Tastings sadly aren't free, but a serving here is only yen400 ($3.80). After you've had a tipple, head to the 38th floor of the adjacent Yebisu Garden Tower for free views of the downtown Tokyo sprawl.

Visit other weird, wonderful (and free) museums in Tokyo

Tokyo also offers a few of the bizarrest museums in the world, and in an offer to attract curious eyes, many offer free admission. The Meguro Parasitology Museum, thought to be the only real institution available globally, displays a variety of eldritch parasites suspended in formaldehyde-filled casings. The Rainbow Sewerage Museum delves into the engineering feats essential to flush excrement in the world's most populous metropolis – interactive exhibitions included. For coin collectors and enthusiasts, go to the Bank of Japan Currency Museum, which is (ironically) also free. Or check out the Advertising Museum Tokyo, where montage displays of old ads illuminate the visual history of commerce in Japan during the last century approximately.

Walk the forests of Meiji-jingū

Escape towards the densely wooded grounds that envelope the capital's premier Shintō shrine, Meiji-jingū; the walking path is especially ethereal on misty and drizzly afternoons. If you're lucky, you may spot a conventional wedding procession or robe-clad priest.

See the exhibitions at 3331 Arts Chiyoda

Based in a former junior high school, 3331 Arts Chiyoda houses a score of free contemporary art galleries offering a mix of exhibitions and interactive installations. Make sure to browse the galleries from the Bakuchoro area such as Taro Nasu Gallery.

Take an excursion of the National Diet

Art and anime not your thing? Then how about a totally free tour of Japan's seat of governance, the National Diet, to see the wood-panelled, leather-bound and gilded interiors and the gardens planted with species from across the nation. English tours occur on Mondays at 2pm, and Tuesday to Friday at 3pm (excluding national holidays). Reservations, with a few stipulations, are essential.

Crack open a beer at certainly one of Tokyo's parks and gardens

Beautiful foliage and horticultural skills can be admired in Tokyo's traditional gardens. Free-to-enter gardens include those connected to the Hotel New Otani in Akasaka and also the Hotel Chinzanso, as well as the lush grounds of Happō-en, near Shirokanedai Station. Tokyo also has excellent public parks, from Ueno-koen in the north, to Inokashira-kōen in Kichijoji (where the not free-to-enter Studio Ghibli Museum can also be located). Said parks are prime spots for joining beer-fueled hanami (flower-watching) parties during the spring cherry blossom season.

Travel to pre-WWII Tokyo in Yanesen

The streets of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi – three areas collectively referred to as Yanesen – offer a lens into pre-WWII Tokyo. These areas were collectively spared by firebombings, so you'll find narrow walking streets, small temples and shrines, craft shops, galleries, and cafes, and Yanaka-reien, one of the city's oldest graveyards. Interesting galleries include SCAI the Bathhouse, inside a 200-year-old public bath.

Traverse Tokyo's Winter Wonderlands

Tokyo embraces the festive spirit every winter with seasonal illuminations in parks and commercial complexes, a few of which have the freedom .

The Ao no Doukutsu (blue cavern) tunnels through Yoyogi Park with 600,000 crystal blue lights, as the barren zelkovas of Omotesando are covered with champagne gold. Notice a glimmering LED display in view of Tokyo Tower in the observation bridge at Roppongi Hills. Or go to the Yebisu Garden Christmas Market presided over by a 10m-tall Christmas tree and Baccarat crystal chandelier.

Get arty in Roppongi

This fabled nightlife neighborhood is another treat to explore in daylight. There's plenty of public art scattered around the glitzy commercial complexes of Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, as well as dazzling contemporary architecture at the National Art Center Tokyo. Tokyo Tower, the Eiffel-esque indication of the modern metropolis is nearby; likely to admission charge, but a free stroll around the base provides a real feeling of its imposing stature.

Take within the views from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Survey the town 202m (663ft) above ground in the observation deck from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – on a clear day you might catch a peek at Mt Fuji. Come in the evening to see spectacular sunsets and the city burst into neon-lit action.

See the action at Tsukiji Market

Tsukiji Market includes a couple of stalls selling fresh seafood, dried aonori (edible seaweed), pickles, bamboo rolling mats, blades, and much more. Come early to obtain breakfast (at a price) in the food vendors and also to bask in some old Tokyo ambience. When the weather is on your side, embark upon a lengthy (approximately 6km/4-mile) stroll along the Sumida River promenade to Asakusa within the north, where Senso-ji Temple resides. Anticipate finding afternoon joggers, lone musicians practicing their craft, and chugging river taxis on the way.

Climb Mt Takao

Located deep in the west Tokyo suburbs, sits Mt Takao, a 599m-tall (1965ft) peak topped by an observation area, beer garden and Buddhist Temple. There are many walking trails to the peak, which are manageable with a moderate fitness level. Head during the koyo (autumn leaves) season for the best views – but be ready for crowds.

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