With the dollar stronger than ever (at time of writing, 90 USD will buy you 10,700 yen), now is a great time to visit Japan and get a big bang for your buck. We’ve done three days in Tokyo on 125 USD… now let’s try three nights in Tokyo for 90 USD! Start your engines… and bring your walking shoes. You’ll also want some earplugs and soap.
Day One: Off to Shibuya
Assuming you arrive at Haneda Airport (which is about an hour closer to the city and is now running many flights to various international ports; Narita users should add an hour travel time and about 1000 yen in train fare), you’ll jump on the train armed only with a knapsack packed with a few essentials, seeing as you’re here for only three nights and you are a spontaneous vagabond, ready to pick up at a moment’s notice. Also, the cheapo nature of this whirlwind trip means you’ll be carrying your life on your back, being unable to afford a hotel that offers day use. But that’s ok – read on!
Head straight for Shibuya: there’s no escaping this place and it’s a must-do on any first-time visit to Tokyo. Our suggestion: get on the Keikyu Line train from Haneda, take it to Shinagawa, then transfer to the JR Yamanote Line to get to Shibuya. It’s a loop line, so any light green Yamanote Line train will get you where you’re going. If you look at the destination signs though, Shibuya should be listed. This will set you back 580 yen.
Once in Shibuya, follow the paw prints out of the train to exit “hachi” (eight), also known as the Hachiko exit, where the famous loyal Akita dog eagerly awaits your arrival so he can cheese at the camera with you. Plunge into the crossing, check out the nightlife, the fashion, the youth, the neon, and the pulse of this mega-gathering spot.
For dinner, duck into Yoshi Soba. This soba chain serves up piping hot bowls of soba with tons of toppings for pocket change. Let’s say you splash out and get one of their mid-range sets with a bit of tempura, such as their gobo-tempura (burdock tempura) on hot soba (400 yen). Thus sated, back into the night you go.
Once the witching hour of 11 p.m. approaches, get thee to an Uta Hiroba, a karaoke joint recognizable for its exceedingly ugly and facile smiley face mascot. Nevertheless, it’s the cheapest joint in town and your lodging for the next 6 hours. 1080 yen gets you the “free time” pack – a small karaoke room from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., with some vinyl sofas, a frosted glass door, and an all-you-can-swill soft drink bar. Take advantage of this hydrating opportunity and then pop in your ear plugs and pass out on one of the sofas until morning. Of course, you could sing too, if you don’t need sleep – and if you go over time, they charge around 350 yen per hour. No shower here, sorry – do your best with a sponge bath in the toilets. We’ll make it up to you, promise.
Day One Budget Breakdown
Day Two: Meiji Shrine, Imperial Palace, Ramen and Onsen
After the full-on vibe of yesterday, we’re going to take it a little easier today.
In the morning, hit up one of the many convenience stores littering the streets. If you didn’t take advantage of Uta Hiroba’s drink station this morning, you may want to pick up a beverage in addition to an onigiri – rice ball – of your choice. Said beverage and rice ball should set you back about 300 yen. Breakfast in your pocket, amble over to Yoyogi Park to check out the nature and weirdo action. Take your time – this area wakes up slowly.
One area that does open early is Meiji Shrine – the hours are tied to sunrise and sunset and change with the season, but the latest opening time is 6.40a.m., and in the morning stillness the shrine is perhaps at its most serene and beautiful. Feel the chaos of the previous night drain away as you bask in the atmosphere of one of Japan’s most sacred places. If you’re around at 8 a.m., you may see the daily prayer for world peace and prosperity in the main shrine. After a few hours, the world will be moving at a less sleepy pace, so pop down Takeshita-dori, the teenage shopping mecca, and maybe partake of some free hugs from some of the cosplayers that like to hang out here.
For lunch, tuck into some tempura from Tenya – their standard set of mixed tempura on rice with miso soup will cost you 500 yen. After lunch, jump on the train to Tokyo – the Yamanote will get you there in around 20 minutes without having to change trains. Have a gander at the Imperial Palace. If you happen by on a Sunday, take advantage of their free bicycle lending – if not, your feet will do just as well. If you’re incredibly organized, you can book an advance tour through their site – but if not, the grounds are lovely for a stroll and perhaps some haiku writing under an artfully gnarled tree.
Back toward Tokyo Station, spend some time wandering the luxe shopping centers at the Maru Building and the Shin Maru Building – in addition to tons of stylish shops, there are lots of beautiful sofas and seating areas where you can write postcards, fantasize about drinking a coffee that is not included in the budget, or just relax. Check out the view, free, from the 35th floor. Next, head to the beautiful station for a wander and an early dinner. Try Tokyo Ramen Street – a corridor in Tokyo Station with a decent selection of various kinds of ramen: your pick of a bowl should set you back about 900 yen. (Vegetarians – there’s a vegan ramen shop called T’s Tan Tan INSIDE the ticket gates – to access you must buy a 140 yen “platform ticket” – that plus the ramen should get you a filling dinner for less than 1000 yen.)
After dinner, it’s time to head to catch a free shuttle bus to your next location: Oedo Onsen Monogatari. To get to the bus, exit the Yaesu Central Exit of Tokyo Station. Proceed down Yaesu street for 100 meters – the bus stop is located in front of the 7-11. The last bus departs at 7:50 p.m. – don’t be late! It may seem like an early night, but many delights await. Pop into the convenience store to grab a few snacks to take with you, since breakfast is more than 12 hours away (snacks should set you back 500 yen).
Your lodging for tonight is Oedo Onsen Monogatari – a hot spring spa that is decked out in the style of an Edo-era theme park; the inside is done to resemble an Edo-era town. It’s a bit cheesy, but also pretty delightful. Check in, and be sure to flash the coupon on their website for 500 yen off, for a total of 1980 yen. They’ll give you a locker key and let you choose a yukata. From here, prepare to stash your stuff safely in a locker and spend the next 12 to 14 hours strolling around the picturesque grounds in a kimono, lazing in luxurious hot baths, and snoozing on your pick of tatami-matted rooms or flat-reclining leather sofas with personal TVs attached. Women can feel secure in a women-only lounge and with all your valuables stashed, you can find a cozy corner to get tonight’s shut eye – along with all the other people doing the same. They even provide blankets in the TV lounges.
Just be careful not to buy every doo-dad you see – you pay the bill upon leaving, and while naked and wallet-less, it’s easy to forget that swiping the barcode on your wristband is akin to spending real money. Do drink your fill of free green tea, and if you’re lucky some vendor or another may offer some samples. Note: tattoos are not allowed here, but if yours is relatively small, you should be able to cover it with a bandage with no problem. I’ve done this with two tatted friends and nobody said anything.
Day Two Budget Breakdown
Day Three: Akihabara and Ame Yokocho
In the morning, gather your things and step, fresh and grime free, back into the modern world; all patrons must leave the premises by 9 a.m. Grab the free shuttle back to Tokyo (about 40 minutes), and then head to the chain restaurant Matsuya for a Japanese style breakfast – rice, egg, pickles, miso soup, seaweed, and, if you like, some natto – for 360 yen. After breakfast, walk north along the shinkansen tracks – after about 30 minutes you’ll find yourself in Akihabara, the area famous for electronics and geeks. Whether your thing is gizmos or girls wearing maid costumes and cat ears at the same time, Akihabara won’t fail to entertain.
After you’ve had your fill of comic, sex toys, and gadgets, stop in for a plate of pasta or pizza at the cheap and cheerful Saizeriya – you can go for a traditional arrabbiata or a “traditional” Japanese-style cod roe and seaweed spaghetti for 399 yen. Carbed up, walk north again: another 20 minutes will find you in Ueno, the heart of old shitamachi, the downtown or low-town of old Tokyo. Here, the city is grittier and livelier: less neon and fewer teeth. Point yourself down Ame Yokocho, Ueno’s former black market just south of the station that still survives as a lively place to procure street bargains. Grab a bite of taiyaki – fried batter in a fish shape with a sweet filling of your choice – traditional is red bean azuki paste, but chocolate, custard, and other seasonal flavors can also be found (140 yen).
Snack in hand, do a lap around Ueno Park, stopping in at some of the temples and shrines dotted around the park, and admire the wildlife living in the pond. Be careful not to wander uninvited into any cardboard dwellings – this area has one of the largest settlements of people living on the streets, or the parks, as it were. Nature meter recharged, get your dinner at Yayoiken, a Japanese eatery serving traditional teishoku, or set meals. A piece of grilled saba, or Japanese mackerel, with rice, miso soup, tofu, and pickles goes for just 590 yen.
Stomach topped off, walk once more west for about 20 minutes to tonight’s lodging: the internet and comic cafe Gera Gera, Asakusa location. We know you’re raring to post your pix to social media, so in a nod to our previous article, you’ll stay at a manga-kissa – a comic and internet cafe where 1410 yen will buy you 12 hours in a semi-private internet booth with cushy chairs where you can snooze and surf until morning (many people do). You’ll also have access to slippers, blankets, and an all-you-can-drink soft drink station. Throw in 100 yen for a 30-minute shower, with towel and hair dryer.
Day Three Budget Breakdown
Day Four: Sensoji, Sayonara
It’s your last morning in Tokyo! Get your coffee fix at the drink station in the cafe before hitting the streets. Before jumping on the train to the airport, spend some time at the temple precinct of Sensoji – Asakusa’s colorful Buddhist temple dedicated to Kannon, goddess of mercy. The temple is large, bright, and constantly thronging with people, both at the temple proper and the shopping streets that lead up to and flank the temple. There are many kinds of street food being sold here – you can find roasted chestnuts, sweet and savory mochi dango, freshly made senbei rice crackers, ice cream, and much more. Pick out a breakfast treat – most things can be had for less than 300 yen. Breathe in the incense, say a few prayers to whatever gods are around, and then hop on the subway back to the airport (taking the Toei subway line to Sengakuji, then changing to the Keikyu Airport Express the rest of the way – should cost 620 yen).
Day Four Budget Breakdown
Four Day Total
Our video guide to the tuna auctions at the shiny new Toyosu Fish Market