Shinjuku is one of our favorite Tokyo neighborhoods. Slightly more classy and less crowded than nearby Shibuya, there are plenty of things to do no yen (or almost). Here’s a list of 10 free things to do in Shinjuku we’ve discovered. They’re ordered geographically, so you can use this article as a guide for a nice day out in the area if your time in Tokyo is limited, or you can choose a few of the places to visit at a time if you’re around for longer.
10 free things to do in Shinjuku
Ready, set, read below!
1. Yotsuya Fire Museum
To start with, get yourself to Yotsuya Sanchome Station, head out of Exit 2 and walk into the Yotsuya Fire Museum, which is free of charge. You just have to pick up a visitor pass at the reception and return it at the end. We recommend taking the elevator to the top and then working your way down.
For a free museum, this place is pretty great. The main attraction is a helicopter on the roof, which you can SIT IN! The place is a lot of fun for
adults kids, as there are interactive exhibits—things you can pick up, buttons you can press, that sort of stuff. There’s also an anime corner where you can watch several cartoons that have something to do with fire safety, but are actually a lot better than they sound. The museum also exhibits firefighting equipment and uniforms from bygone eras.
It’s open 9:30 – 17:00, Tue-Sun, unless Monday is a national holiday, in which case the day off moves to Tuesday.
2. Pose with the Big Buddha at Taisoji Temple
From the Fire Museum, turn right and head towards central Shinjuku. If you’re lazy, you can also take the subway one stop to Shinjuku-Gyoemmae Station, but that costs money. When you pass Shinjuku-Gyoemmae Station and a Family Mart on your right, take a right down a small street and, voila, Taisoji will be in front of you. The temple houses several stray cats, so if you feel like feeding them you can always bring a cat snack.
Taisoji also has a summer festival where you can see traditional dancing around Obon, which is sometime in August. When it’s not festival time, the Big Buddha on temple grounds is the main attraction, and provides a great photo opportunity.
3. Picnic in Shinjuku Gyoen
Shinjuku Gyoen is vast in size and boasts different styles of gardens throughout, as well as a free greenhouse where you can see more exotic plants from tropical locations such as Okinawa. You could also try traditional green tea at a tea house inside the park.
The park lies parallel to Shinjuku Street, which you’ve walked from Yotsuya Sanchome. Entry costs ¥500 for adults and ¥250 for students, but on Greenery Day (May 4) it’s completely free, although you’ll need to get there early to find a good picnic spot. The park is open from 9:00-16:00 Tue-Sun. It opens on Mondays if it’s a national holiday, and then it’s closed instead on Tuesday.
4. Stop by Hanazono Shrine
If you leave the park through the Shinjuku Gate and follow the curving road for one block, you will see a Doutor coffee shop and Starbucks on your left. Turn left and you will be on Yasukuni Street. Cross it, and pretty soon you will see the gates leading to Hanazono Shrine on the right. In our opinion, this place is really underrated, and there are some great festivals here throughout the year. Even when there’s not much to do; the shrine grounds are open around the clock. You can turn up at any point during the night and have a look around too. There is also a flea market most Sundays from 8:00 to 16:00.
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5. Explore Golden Gai and Kabukicho
Golden Gai is next to Hanazono Shrine, and boasts over 200 bars packed into the smallest area imaginable. Although most of the bars carry a hefty cover charge, the area is fun to look around during the day, and there are lots of great photo opportunities.
Next to Golden Gai is the infamous red light district of Kabukicho. If you’re not into getting harassed by creepy touts, exploring during the daytime is probably the best option. Don’t forget to take a picture of the red Kabukicho gate.
6. See the TOTO Showroom
Everyone seems to be fascinated with high-tech Japanese toilets, and there is no better or more hygienic place to see these than in the Toto Showroom. Get on the west side of the train tracks and head south. The showroom is located in the second building past the Sunroute Plaza Hotel, on the seventh and eighth floor. As well as toilets, you can see beautiful baths that are hard to imagine in tiny Japanese houses, and eco-friendly inventions that help save water.
The showroom gets bonus points for having a free tea and coffee machine on each floor. The sign is in Japanese, but don’t be shy, help yourself—you can choose between hot and cold too! If you take the elevator down to the second floor, there is a walkway outside leading to Takashimaya Square. There is a great vantage point that overlooks train tracks for all you train enthusiasts out there. Open 10:00-17:00, closed on Wednesdays.
7. Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory
The most popular free observatory in the city is located in west Shinjuku. There are two towers—north and south, and since their closing days don’t overlap, one of the decks will always be open. See if you can spot the classy hotel from Lost in Translation. You can also enjoy nighttime views of the city, as it’s open from 9:30 to 23:00. Be prepared to deal with hordes of other cheapo tourists though, especially if you go on a weekend.
Read about Kenzo Tange: the man who designed the Tokyo Government Metropolitan Building and many other iconic architectural creations around Japan.
8. Chill in Shinjuku Central Park
This park is right across the street from the government building, and has some nice views of the skyscrapers, as well as a small shrine on the grounds. You can also people-watch, as the place is a hotspot for locals looking to practice skating, BMX tricks, or any other activity that requires a decent amount of space. There is a local market held here every Saturday.
9. Get a free massage at BicQlo
BicQlo is the bizarre, cheapo-friendly fusion of electronics chain Bic Camera and clothing giant Uniqlo. You must be tired after all your walking, so why not head back to east Shinjuku and try out the massage chairs on display in the store? Or just explore the multiple levels to see what’s on sale.
10. Enjoy a nightcap in Nichome
If you’re tired after a long day of exploration and need a cheap watering hole, Shinjuku Nichome is a great destination. The biggest LGBTQ+ bar area in Asia offers several budget options, such as Cafe Lavanderia, which serves up beer and cordials with a slice of social consciousness; Dragon Men (not just for men), whose happy hour was mentioned in our Top 5 Cheapo Happy Hours article; and Arty Farty, whose drinks start at around 600 yen and who play good music to dance to. Be warned though, that although the above-mentioned places are mixed, some bars in the area are men or women only, and carry a cover charge. Choose wisely!
Bonus tip: Stroll along Shinjuku Southern Terrace
Got a couple of hours to kill? Head to the South Exit of Shinjuku Station (BicQlo is on the east side) and wander along the Southern Terrace area. There are a bunch of cafes if you feel like splashing out a few hundred yen for a cup of tea or donut, as well as shops to peruse. In winter the terrace is lit up with impressive illumination displays in the evenings.
This post was last updated in July 2018.
In our pilot episode, we're joined by Alvin Cheung of ABC Coffee, Hapnick, and Tokyo Keyboards