Tokyo! The city you’ve always wanted to visit, and now you’re finally going. But your mom read on the internet (Facebook) that Tokyo is “expensive,” and she’s concerned about you. She suggested packing some granola bars to offset the cost of food.
She’s not entirely wrong. The overwhelming sentiment is that Tokyo, and Japan on the whole, isn’t the place for travelers on a budget. Jiro’s sushi is $269 and that hotel bar from “Lost in Translation” charges $18 minimum for a cocktail. But here’s the truth: Tokyo is only as expensive as you want it to be. If you have an unlimited budget, then you should probably eat $269 sushi because it’s going to be delicious and an unforgettable experience. Definitely sip savory Hibiki 30-year-old whiskey at $225 a glass at Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Bar. Pretend you’re waiting for Scarlett Johansson to invite you to karaoke. Go nuts.
Not on the “go nuts” budget but still looking for fun things to do in Japan? I hear ya. Still going anyway? Heck yeah. To help, here’s our list of 40 completely free things to do in Tokyo, Japan:
This pup sure deserves “good dog” admiration. Hachiko arrived at Shibuya station to meet his owner and join him for the walk home every single day. Until, one day, his owner didn’t come home because he had passed away at work. Brace yourself for the cutting onions part of the story: Hachiko proved his loyalty and returned to Shibuya station, waiting for his owner to exit the train station, every day for nine years, nine months, and 15 days. His unwavering loyalty didn’t go unnoticed, and his statue was erected at Shibuya Station in 1934 with Hachiko proudly there for the unveiling. The current statue is not the original, but still a great homage to the loyal pup. The 1934 version of the Hachiko statue was bronze and melted for use during WWII.
Studio Ghibli. Hayao Miyazaki. Twenty-ton. Three-story. Cuckoo clock. I can’t imagine that you need to hear anything more before adding this sight to your shortlist ASAP. Standing outside the the Nippon Television headquarters is an immense copper and steel-mechanized cuckoo clock designed by the same mind that gave the world “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” Arrive a few minutes before noon, 3, 6, and 8pm on weekdays and get ready for the show. On weekends, there is an additional show at 10am.
You’re likely familiar with the waving Japanese lucky cat. These lucky little kitties are everywhere, and this temple is home to thousands of the iconic Japanese waving cats. The legend is that Gotokuji Temple is their point of origin. Regardless of true origin, it is certainly celebrated as such. Located in Setagaya, this temple is filled with maneki-neko, the beckoning cat. Whether you’re a cat-lover, in need of a little bit of luck, or simply looking for a unique temple, this is a destination for you.
Nestled into the dense neighborhood of Shibuya lies Love Hotel Hill. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a few streets on a hill that serve as love hotels. What’s a love hotel, you ask? It’s a hotel for love, duh. In Japan, it’s common to live with your entire family until you get married. Even then, you and your new spouse may be shacking up with a few relatives. And you may all be sleeping in the same room. Romantic, huh? Cue the love hotel. It’s available hourly or for the night. Popular with the dating crowd and those having affairs, it’s a sight to wander the streets, check out the hourly rates, watch the lovebirds walk by, or maybe stay in one for yourself.
High above the chaos of Shinjuku lies a free observation deck at the Shinjuku Government Building. At 662 feet above ground, the view of the ants below is epic. On cloudless days, you could be treated to a view of Mt. Fuji. It really doesn’t get any better than a free observation deck, and Tokyo shines at all hours of the day. Whether you witness the morning commute, head to the deck with an afternoon coffee, or enjoy the hues of Tokyo’s version of the Northern Lights (neon lights) once darkness falls, the Shinjuku Government Building is a treat to visit at any hour.
The Japanese know how to do food well — from sushi to ramen to grilled Kobe beef — and we love it all. But get ready to fall deeply in love with Japanese mayonnaise. Kewpie mayo is a staple in Japanese cuisine, and it’s mayonnaise like you’ve never had before. It’s probably going to ruin your ability to eat any mayo other than Kewpie from here on out. To get the full history and lowdown, head to Kewpie’s own museum, the Mayo Terrace. Get a factory tour, view the evolution of Kewpie’s packaging and the ugly-while-still-being-adorable Kewpie baby doll, and head home with some free samples.
Head into the serenity of Inokashira Park when the frantic city life gets to be a bit much. Bring a fancy parasol and rent a rowboat for an Instagram photo shoot to truly assimilate. The park is great in every season, from the pink cherry blossoms in the spring to the deep fall reds. Inokashira Park turned 100 years old in 2017 and is home to 20,000 trees throughout its 10 acres. Sundays are a great day here with a small craft market on the north side of the pond.
Ever used a bathroom that cost almost $1 million to construct? You’re lying if you say yes. That is, until you head to the Hotel Gajoen Tokyo. Completely open to the public, even if you’re not a hotel guest, the bathroom is fancier than ordering arugula, prosciutto, and egg on your pizza. The ceiling is gold. The walls are adorned in traditional Japanese art. The path to the potty includes a bridge over a babbling brooke. Sadly, the toilets themselves are just Japanese toilets, but the ambiance and small details make this rest stop one to write home about.
Do you like red pandas? Prairie dogs? Seals that come say “hello” when you walk up to their pool? Obviously the answer is yes, so head to the completely free zoo in Edogawa. The animals await you in just a short walk from Nishi-Kasai station. The zoo is in Gyosen Park, a beautiful traditional Japanese park and garden. It has a wading pool and amazing jungle gyms for the kiddos. It also houses a traditional tea house surrounded by a pond and creek with wooden bridges and perfectly manicured gardens all around. It’s the residential gathering park, so you’ll see the kids running around after school and the old men fishing in the murky ponds for fish I really hope they don’t eat. This is also the local hangout to show off your dog’s new shoes or headband, fur dyed like a rainbow, or Brazilian Blowout so come prepared for an excellent (dog) fashion show.
Since you’ve already been to the Shinjuku Government Building’s observation deck, you can skip the view from the top of the Skytree and take in the views from below, looking up at the impressive 2,080-foot structure. The deck on the 4th floor has plenty of seating for optimal viewing locations. The attached Tokyo Solamachi mall is a maze of every Japanese store you’ve ever wanted to visit on your Tokyo trip. The Skytree’s dazzling lights make for a fun evening on the deck with a picnic dinner and an adult beverage from the 7-11 across the street. Watch the time here or set an alarm because this is the prime setting for an “oh sh**” moment and dashing to catch the last train home.
Even if this space was a void room not showcasing stunning artwork, it’d still be worth seeing. Espace is a glass box penthouse sitting on the top floor of the Louis Vuitton store in the swanky Omotesando area. Skip all the lower floors, because remember, we’re not on that “go nuts” budget, and head up to the free art space. Ignoring the artwork, the view from the seventh floor is impressive and another stunning reminder that you should probably move to Tokyo. Espace has rotating art installations focusing on contemporary art. Your Instagram pictures from this space are sure to evoke envy from your friends. The same friends who said they couldn’t afford to join you for all these free activities in Tokyo.
A densely forested area of 170 acres lies between Shinjuku and Harajuku and is home to Tokyo’s most popular shrine, Meiji Jingu Shrine. Giant cedar trees shade the vast park, and with walking trails as wide as highways, the park leading to the shrine is a major respite from city life. The two torii gates that officially welcome you into the sacred spot are 40 feet high. The shrine itself is everything you were hoping it would be. The best aspect of wandering Meiji Jingu Shrine is that you’re more than likely to see a traditional Shinto wedding procession walking across the courtyard. On busy weekends, the shrine is the venue for about 15 weddings per day. Make sure to stand in awe in front of the wall of ornate sake barrels wrapped in hay. It’s located to the south of the shrine on the main pathway to Harajuku.
A five minute walk from Nippori Station is the old-town district, a shopping street from a bygone era. This is your opportunity to experience Tokyo’s small owner-operated stalls and stands in a way that has been lost in much of the city. This is not trinkets for tourists, but all the daily needs for locals: barbers, butchers, liquor stores, and rice shops. If you wish to see a window into a simpler time, this is where you should spend an hour or two. Also easily walkable from Ueno if you happen to be in the area.
Once a part of Tokyo Bay, this natural pond has seen many changes throughout its lifetime, but remains largely in its original form since the 15th century when it was marshland. This pond is a relaxing stopover and refuge from the heat of the summer during the lotus flowering period of July and August. It’s also a beautiful walking and picnic location any time of the year and well populated on weekends and afternoons.
The famous Tsukiji Market is no longer. Here in Toyosu, the new location, is a more purpose-built facility for the viewing of the early morning auction. Two important things to note for attending this sight: if you would like to be at floor level and hear all the action from behind a low barrier of glass, you will need to apply to attend approximately a month early, so plan ahead by scrolling down to the bottom here and click on the English button “to the application procedure.” If you aren’t able to plan that far ahead, there’s still hope. You can show up between approximately 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. (the auction time) and head into an upper floor viewing room to see the action. It won’t be quite the same experience, and you won’t be able to hear it, but at least you won’t miss out entirely. The second, and very important note, is bring something warm to wear regardless of the season. The tuna are kept at a freezing temperature, therefore so are you.
You can’t visit Tokyo without crossing the street, so you might as well do it at Shibuya Crossing. After you’ve gotten that out of your system, head to Magnet by Shibuya 109. The top floor has recently been redesigned as a free observation deck. Its location hovers over the famous Shibuya Crossing, so your photos from here look like you flew a drone over it to get the shot (but you would never actually fly a drone in Tokyo because it’s very illegal). The deck is especially fun to visit at night or in the rain because the pedestrians below turn from human figures to multi-colored umbrellas. Instagram gold.
Even though it’s an hour away from Shinjuku station, Mt. Takao is still actually within Toyko. The hike begins immediately after you get off the train at Takaosanguchi station, making this the perfect day trip within city limits. Just a simple train ride out and back. Choose from six different trails to get you up the mountain and pick a different one to get back down. I recommend trail one for the way up and trail six for the hike down. Trail one leads you through numerous shrines and impressive views of the valley below. Trail six is a bit less straightforward and a little more adventurous. Occasionally the trail is a creekbed, but you’ll pass the beautiful Biwa Waterfall and some gorgeous nature scenes. If you can, avoid this hike on the weekends. It can get a little too crowded for enjoyment.
I have never felt more safe walking around a red-light district than wandering around Kabukicho in Tokyo. This red-light district is unique, since most of your propositions will be from incredibly dapper looking men who have no less than one can of hairspray holding up their perfected locks. It’s a bustling downtown area filled with izakayas (small bars), restaurants, and a plethora of adult establishments. This is no Amsterdam window shopping red-light district. Everything associated with sinful activities is placed behind a curtain that clearly states that no one under 18 is allowed inside. The only thing on public display are the photos of the men and women inside the establishment waiting to become your best friend for an hour (or an evening). Because everything is hidden behind curtains, the neighborhood is relatively innocent from the street and makes for quintessential Tokyo exploring in the evening.
Nerd out at the Polar Science Museum, which is all about the Japanese research team’s discoveries in Antarctica. Starting in 1957, the Japanese established a research base on the continent, significantly contributing to what we understand about Antarctica today. The teams have dug five miles into the ice to study snow that fell 720,000 years ago. Inside of the museum, you can crawl into one of the first expedition’s rovers, complete with beds and a kitchen. The Northern Lights theatre dome swallows you into the night sky and you might not want to leave. Outside of the museum, stand bronze statues commemorating the 15 sled dogs that accompanied the first research team. The 11 researchers had to be unexpectedly evacuated by helicopter during a severe storm. Sadly, they had to leave the dogs behind. Eleven months later, when the next research team arrived, they found two of the dogs still alive, having survived the harsh climate completely unassisted by humans. Apparently, dogs can learn to hunt seals and penguins.
Not visiting Korea on this international adventure? The closest you’ll get to the authentic Korean experience lies in the neighborhood of Shin-Okubo. The streets surrounding this area are overflowing with Korean restaurants, karaoke bars, K-pop paraphernalia, and a gazillion varieties of kimchi. Even if you hate spicy food and have no idea who BTS or Girls’ Generation are, you’ll find something entertaining in Koreatown — even if it’s only marveling at the octopus kimchi you would never dare eat. But I highly encourage you to just try a nibble.
Harmonica Alley in Kichijoji is a maze of narrow alleys lined with tiny shops, vendors, restaurants, and drinking establishments just outside Kichijoji Station. This winding alley comes to life in the evening when the after-work crowd descends upon it for respite from the day. Once a flea market after WWII, this area has a charming character and tons of picture-worthy views. Many of the restaurants and izakayas are old, a little dusty, and rusty, but in the most charming and authentic way possible. Set out to wander aimlessly and you won’t be disappointed by the experience, nor the offerings. Always a personal favorite.
This is the Tokyo temple. If you know someone who has been to a temple in Tokyo, it is this one. That is both the good and the bad of Sensoji. Sensoji is large, beautiful, centrally located, and well-outfitted for the tourists — the throngs of tourists who will be here. If you are looking for calm, quiet, and peace, there are likely better temples to visit. That being said, you should still go. Sensoji is the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo (completed way back in 645 C.E.). It also has a 200-meter long shopping street for all your temple tourism buying needs. Across the street from the main entrance lies the Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center. The observation level on the 7th floor offers a great view of Sensoji Temple without having to dodge and weave through the crowds. Also visible from the deck is the Sumida River, Tokyo Skytree, and the Asahi golden flame.
The Imperial Palace becomes an unofficial training ground every weekday from 7 – 9 a.m. Like all great Imperial Palaces, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is surrounded by a moat with a walkway next to it. This is the perfect running course in Tokyo devoid of cars. The course around the palace is about 5 km (3 miles), and the unofficial rule is runners should be going counter-clockwise with the palace always to your left. Water fountains and bathrooms perfectly dot this course, so you’ll never be far from facilities. And because we’re on the cheapo plan, it’s worth noting that the tap water in all of Japan is safe to drink. On your run, keep an eye out for Crown Prince Naruhito who is known to occasionally jog the course himself.
Only Free Paper is a book shop that will send you home with enough magazines to keep you licking your thumbs to turn pages for years to come. Pick up any magazine that tickles your fancy — the options are limitless. Japan produces hundreds of free publications, some incredibly impressive. Even if you can’t read Japanese, most are worth it for the photography alone. The only rule is to not take the entire pile of one magazine. But go crazy and grab 20 different magazines for entertainment on the flight home.
Tokyo doesn’t half-ass its entertainment. Case in point: when you enter the store revolving around everything “Alice in Wonderland,” you enter through a teeny tiny door, just like the one Alice used to get to Wonderland. A security guard mans the tiny door, mainly to make sure no head-to-butt collisions occur, because you have to bend way over to get in this theme-park-esque store. Here, they sell everything “Alice in Wonderland” themed, and it’s nothing anyone would ever need, but the charm and thought that went into the design of the store will blow you away, especially if you’re a fan of the books or the movies. The black-lit, larger-than-life smoking cheshire cat is my personal favorite.
As the flagship of the Tokyu Hands stores, the Shibuya location is a DIY-ers paradise. If you weren’t already considering moving to Tokyo, this will push you over the edge. The freeze-dried camping food would probably get a bit mundane eventually, but otherwise you could shop exclusively at Tokyu Hands for the rest of your life and be completely taken care of. Bicycles, pets, kitchen supplies, lumber, electronics, birthday cards, coffee, toothpaste, and Halloween costumes — it’s all within the confines of this one store. Allow at least an hour for wandering around this spot of DIY dreams.
M’s Pop Life Adult Department Store is home to basically anything you could imagine someone would be into — and a whole lot more: tan line fetishes, movies of people licking doorknobs, pictures of people eating buffets. There’s something for everyone here. This store is the pinnacle of sex stores. Most of the rubber/silicone items are out on display, often times cross-sectioned, so you can see exactly what you’re getting into. Toys, movies, accessories, reading material, furs, whips, and things that will cause your luggage to vibrate are all here on one of the six floors. This store not for the faint of heart, folks.
Located inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan (Tokyo’s sumo stadium) this museum outlines the history of sumo in Japan. The museum also lists the official current rankings of sumo, the Banzuke. The museum houses memorabilia from former sumo champs, like belts and wood-blocks prints. If you’re lucky, simply hanging out around the stadium will result in spotting some sumo pros.
Sometimes a fascination with nature can encompass some of the darker elements as well. This museum is perfect for indulging those curiosities. Parasites in their many forms are contained within these walls and the museum’s showpiece is the 8.8 meter (24 feet 10 inch) long tapeworm. If this intrigues you, perhaps this is the museum for you. Stop by the gift shop and bring home a souvenir or two of your own.
Get ready to be transported to the beautiful museums of Europe. But in Tokyo. Oh, also for free. The Intermediatheque Museum is a collaboration between the Japan Post and the University of Tokyo. The parkay flooring and massive display cases with life-size skeletons hanging above you will immediately remind you of Europe’s grand museums. There’s natural history, geography, math, science, and all sorts of insect specimens. The seemingly random exhibits belong to the University of Tokyo’s collections of accumulations from the 19th century. When you collect a giraffe skeleton and a mummified priest from Egypt, you make a museum. It’s a rule.
Japan sits on the ring of fire, an area of the globe that is especially prone to seismic activity — i.e earthquakes and volcanoes. Every year Japan experiences 2,000 earthquakes, close to one every five minutes, and Tokyo does all it can to prepare for this geographic inclination. Every cell phone sold in Japan comes equipped with earthquake alarms. Kids often walk home from school with helmets on because overpreparation is a heck of a lot smarter than no preparation. Citizens (and you!) can also visit the Life Safety Learning Center and experience for yourself what the jolt feels like and exactly what to do if/when the ground starts shaking. It’s a two-minute simulation that registers a 6.2 on the Richter Scale. It’s a life experience we could all use, even if you don’t live on the ring of fire.
Each Saturday and Sunday, the United Nations University hosts a farmer’s market. Most stalls here focus on Japanese-grown or made products. You’ll immediately know which fruit and vegetables are in season by browsing the market’s offerings. You even might score some awesome free samples of foods or products. There’s a strong emphasis on organic food here and most vendors will be happy to chat with you about their products.
Exit Nakano station on the north side and walk straight into the magical shopping arcade, Nakano Broadway. Along your walk, you can burn your entire mouth on some takoyaki, which are kind of like savory Japanese pancakes but in meatball form with octopus inside (Tako means octopus in Japanese). But the true magic here is after you enter the main building and begin the multi-floor maze of every toy or trinket you could imagine. This is all of the stuff that no one ever needs, but everything we have to have. A Pokemon figurine, an ancient Hamburglar toy from a McDonalds’ Happy Meal, or a button from when Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983 — it’s all here. If you’re not in the market for purchasing an old toy, think of this as an all-encompassing toy museum.
In a uniquely Japanese example of thrill seeking and gambling lies the Edogawa boat races. Along the side of a narrow, paved section of the Edogawa River is a facility for viewing, and betting on, the racing of tiny boats. Barely larger than their riders, these go-kart-on-water vessels scream up and down their narrow channel using the ever shifting body weight of their pilots to make the turns and edge each other out of contention for the win. Even without any money on the line, it is easy to find yourself cheering on your favorite racer in the visceral rush of adrenaline. Their website (all in Japanese) also live streams these races so you can check it out before you go! Sadly this website is not translatable, but you should be able to figure out when the races are being held. Being on the river, the races are easily seen from anywhere near the facility.
If Shinjuku feels like a maze, go ahead and wander down to the underground maze of Shinjuku. It’s just as confusing and wonderful as the parts above ground. Specifically, you’re looking for the gourmet food stalls in Isetan department store. Located on basement level one, the “food hall” sells all the fanciest food Japan has to offer. Most stalls will have a salesperson standing in front of the counter offering free samples. This fancy food doesn’t suit our budget, but we’re perfectly capable of eating an amuse bouche handed to us for free with a smile.
Training for a 50-kilometer race? You’re in luck, because Tokyo houses a 48-kilometer long trail that hugs the Tama River. So pack your running shoes and start training. The trail runs from Hamura Dam to Daishi Bridge in Ota Ward, but my favorite stretch runs from Fussa to Tachikawa. This section is especially stunning during the spring cherry blossom season or fall foliage. As you’re passing the Akishma neighborhood en route to Tachikawa, you’ll be greeted with a whale mascot on trail signage. This whale represents the almost complete whale skeleton a dad and son duo found in the riverbed in 1961. The skeleton is 40 feet long and is said to be over 2 million years old, a relative of the grey whale. From Fussa Station to Tachikawa Station along the Tama River trail will take about three and a half hours. The trail is almost entirely residential, which has the charm of smiling and enthusiastically exchanging “konichiwas” with everyone you pass.
Another great family destination for a bit of learning is the ten-story Tokyo Fire Museum. Located in Shinjuku, with great views from the rooftop patio, this museum covers all things fire related — whether you’re looking for a way to teach the kids a bit of fire safety in a unique way, or wondering what an Edo-era fire uniform would look like. Perhaps you want to see the city from the pilot’s seat of a fire helicopter, or see a horse-drawn fire truck. This is an extensive and worthwhile museum complete with many implements of various ages that were all used at one point for service in Tokyo. In fact, the second floor of the building is still active offices for the fire service.
Don Quijote is a minimalist’s nightmare. Trigger warning for anyone who dislikes the highest level of clutter, chaos, and repetitive songs. Affectionately known as “donki,” this store is literally piled from floor to ceiling with anything you could ever imagine buying, plus a ton of stuff you didn’t know existed. Many have several fish tanks at the entrance: huge tanks with creepy yet intriguing eels, which I cannot look away from no matter how much I shudder. The store is jam packed. It’s worth stepping in to relish in the insanity even if you need nothing.
Have a passion for all things law enforcement? Just intrigued to see how a city the size of Tokyo keeps life humming along in such an orderly fashion? Near Ginza and Tokyo Station is the free Police Museum. It leans toward a focus on the children, certainly, but suitable for all ages. Try on a uniform and pose with a helicopter for that perfect Christmas card this year or test your facial feature memorization for identifying a criminal. Worth a stop if you’re in the area.
Kaneiji Temple has an unassuming feature that is perhaps more intriguing than its five-story pagoda. Located in the cemetery area of the temple is an engraved stone serving as a memorial to the insects that have died for science. In 1821, Sessai Matsuyama was the last face many grasshoppers, crickets, and flies saw before they were killed in the name of science. Matsuyama was working on a massive anatomical study of insects – a text that was monumental in the world’s understanding of the anatomy of bugs. Despite the overwhelming success of his studies, Matsuyama felt awful for killing so many living creatures. He ordered the stone to be etched in commemoration of the dead insects. If you’ve ever owned a fly swatter or one of those ever-so-satisfying mosquito zappers, better come pay your respects here.