I was with a friend at a cafe and we overheard two girls planning a trip to Tokyo. Girl A said, “this will be a life-changing experience”. This was Girl B’s sardonic response “Yeah, life-changing in that we will reach a lower tax-bracket after this trip.”
Experienced travelers, however, have found phenomenal ways to have a great time in Tokyo with minimal to almost no spending. Obviously, this does not include airfare and accommodations (check out our great guide to budget capsule hotels in Tokyo.) Read on to find out about some of the best free things to do you can enjoy in Tokyo.
1. Watch the tuna auction at the legendary Tsukiji fish market
You need to be prepared to wake up at an ungodly hour for this. By ungodly, I mean at around 3 am. Ensure that you sign up beforehand via the website, check that the market is open on the day you wish to visit and finally, travel to the market to attend one of the two daily tours.
Each group will consist of about 60 people and the rules are strict. If you disrupt the auction in any way, you will be removed immediately. Remember that businesses and sushi restaurant owners will be there to try to get the best cuts available, so be respectful and you will be able to have a great experience.
Once the auction is over, you should most definitely breakfast on some excellent kaisendon from one of the nearby eateries within the market. There is also lots to see as well once the auction is over, and its easy to lose track of time while exploring the worlds largest seafood market.
2. Explore an ancient temple in Asakusa
I’m normally not one for exploring old temples but some of the temples in Japan are incredibly ancient and awesome. These temples have a unique atmosphere that is a combination of both reverence with a weight of history behind it. Simply walking around and soaking up the atmosphere is already great but these temples offer much more than just sight-seeing.
One of the best temples to check out in Tokyo is the sensō-ji temple. Opened in 645 AD, this is the most famous and popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo, where you can get a glimpse of the countless number of pilgrims who have made their way to Tokyo’s oldest temple.
The main avenue of the temple is lined with stores selling exquisite hand-crafted works, scrolls, traditional sweets and even more modern touristy souvenirs are available such as Godzilla toys. For a donation of 100 yen (approximately $10 SGD), you can even consult the oracles of the temple.
3. Stroll along Harajuku
Conveniently located near the Harajuku train station, Harajuku has evolved to become the mecca of extreme teen cultures and fashion styles. With cutting-edge trend stores lining the streets, crepe stands, modern food joints and of course, the fashionistas, Harajuku can prove to be an assault on the senses at first.
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Don’t be surprised to see people with wild outfits strolling around and cosplayers gathering at their favourite hangout. Aspiring photographers will find no shortage of willing subjects ready to strike a pose on a dime and if you are particularly daring, you can even head to one of the makeover lounges where you can dress up as a Harajuku boy or girl in lolita fashion.
Some famous districts you can check out in Harajuku are the following
- Takeshita Dori: The birthplace of many fashion trends within Japan, the food and clothing stores here specifically target those who are on the cutting edge of trends and for visitors, it can be an eye-opening experience.
- Be warned though, expect extreme crowds on the weekends so plan accordingly. Some advice from people who frequent this area is to not be afraid to check out the side streets as there can be some interesting restaurants, cafes or stores to be found there.
- Omotesando: While Omotesando is also a shopping area, the shops tend to be high-fashion leading retail brands with fine dining restaurants and boutiques to be found. This area caters to the wealthier visitors of Harajuku.
There are also a few shrines and museums within the area such as the Meiji shrine, Togo Shrine, and the Nezu Museum. After the hectic chaos of the main areas of Harajuku, these shrines and museums can provide a contrasting experience of peace, quiet, culture and history.
Meiji shrine is also a popular wedding location where as many as 15 weddings a day are held. This means that you can have a high chance of seeing a traditional Shinto wedding take place but, from a respectful distance of course.
There is much more to do and see in Harajuku and honestly, it can be an article on its own. So if you do head down to Harajuku, explore, enjoy and experience some of the best and wildest that Japan has to offer.
4. Yoyogi Park
Located close to Harajuku and home to more than 10,000 trees, Yoyogi park is a more mellow experience where you can enjoy nature for free. If you are feeling overwhelmed by sensory overload from the kaleidoscope of colours, music, and fashion of Harajuku, Yoyogi park can be a quick and easy escape where you can wind down.
The park itself is massive, but beautifully maintained and landscaped to give visitors a zen style experience as you stroll among the trees and traditional Japanese structures. Yoyogi park is unique in Japan in that trees from all over the country are actually sent to the park where they are carefully planted by volunteers.
Yoyogi park usually has a festival or event of some kind on Sundays where locals dress up in costumes, dance, indulge in games or, just having a picnic and hanging out.
5. The ever famous Shibuya crossing
Even if you don’t know the name of this place, chances are that you have seen a time-lapse footage of a mass of humanity crossing the Shibuya junction. While the more cynical might scoff and wonder “whats so great about crossing a street?” let me tell you why Shibuya is cool.
When you are in the middle of the mass, you are assailed by neon lights, incredibly loud advertisements blaring at you and a sheer wall of humanity crossing and stopping with vehicles seemingly passing through at will. While you may think its sheer madness, bedlam, and chaos similar to crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. It actually isn’t.
Japan has a deserved reputation for excellence, precision, and respect for others. Shibuya, is a perfect example of those quintessential Japanese values on display here.
People somehow know exactly when to start crossing the street without any collisions with either other fellow street crossers and vehicles. It is seemingly instinctive that everyone knows when to stop, and when to start crossing again with almost metronomic precision. This is made especially clear if you can find a restaurant or bar that overlooks the crossing.
Best things about it: people watching is free. Yeah, I know that watching people cross a street sounds as exciting as watching grass grow but, watching the Shibuya scramble from a vantage point is a mesmerizing display and a wonderful reflection of the culture of respect prevalent in Japan.
6. Sakura Season
Famed across the globe for the gorgeous Sakura season, hordes of tourists descend on Japan during spring every year to share in the appreciation of Hanami during cherry blossom season.
There are large parks, landscaped gardens and even the foothills of Mt Fuji near Tokyo are covered in Sakura blooms. So whether you want a more quiet experience where you can soak in the beauty and majesty with your loved ones or a more raucous and celebratory approach. Sakura season is something that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.
7. Origami museum
Another Japanese traditional art known across the world, Origami is taken very seriously in Japan. At the Origami Kaikan in Tokyo, you can peruse seasonal origami art and watch master-artisans at the workshop where they press, dye and decorate the origami paper.
Admission to the museum is free and there are several shops where you can purchase unique and authentic origami. Lessons in origami making are also offered and they range in price from 540 – 2500 yen. A little pricey but, for 1000 yen, you do get to learn from the director of Origami Kaikan in a 60 minute course.
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