Photo by Skyward Joe

Just to show that Tokyo can actually be cheap – and without skimping on the experiential part, we thought it would be interesting to show you how it’s possible to spend 3 nights in Tokyo on a 10,000yen budget (approx. $US125, €94 or £76 at time of writing)

The 10,000yen budget should cover everything from when you get off the plane to when you hop back on again 3 days later. Of course by spending a bit more you would considerably increase your options, but the plan we’re providing will definitely be memorable and give you a strong enough dose of Tokyo that you’ll sleep on the plane all the way home.

First, for convenience sake, we’ll assume that you are travelling alone (travelling as a couple would be even cheaper) and your port of entry is Haneda Airport. The most common (and probably cheaper) port of entry is actually Narita Airport, but recently the more conveniently located and formerly domestic only Haneda has added an international terminal with flights connecting destinations throughout Asia and North America – including budget carrier Air Asia. We’ll also assume you are more interested in trying something adventurous than trying something comfortable and ‘safe’. Tokyo can be quite a full-on experience for a newcomer and the cheaper option is definitely more challenging. If you stay in a regular hotel, you’ll probably have easy access to English information and at least some of the staff are likely to speak fluent English – but our option is  lot more fun. Additionally, the cheapest time to do things is always mid-week – so plan on arriving on a Monday or a Tuesday. The only thing that is cheaper on the weekend (sometimes) is transport.

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So here is the plan.

Day 1 : Arrival and off to Shibuya

This is all the money you’ll need for your entire stay. | Photo by Gregory Lane

Assuming you arrive in the afternoon, you’ll need to get to the area where you’re staying. Although you could stay near the airport, that would be extremely boring and wouldn’t meet our criteria of being an interesting experience. So for your introduction to Tokyo, you’ll start with a full assault on your senses – we’re off to Shibuya. Catch the Keikyu Line from the airport. You should jump on the Keikyu Limited Express bound for Narita Airport (400yen). Jump off about 20 minutes later at Shinagawa Station and change to the circular Yamanote Line bound for Shibuya/Shinjuku (160yen). If you want to get a feel for the whole city (you’ll mainly just see train stations and the bits in between) you could always take the Yamanote Line in the reverse direction (towards Tokyo Station). Both directions will get you to our destination of Shibuya.

Once you get to Shibuya, look for the ‘Hachiko’ exit. Hachiko is the name of a dog that waited for its master outside Shibuya Station every day for long after his master had died. The statue of Hachiko in the square outside the station is a popular meeting spot. Since people are waiting around, you might even start a conversation and ask for some local tips – much easier than when people are rushing around. Hachiko is also right next to the famous scramble crossing (frankly you can easily miss Hachiko but you won’t miss the crossing). Surrounded by massive video screens and blaring noise, this is your ‘in at the deep end’ introduction to Tokyo. Consult whatever guide you have to Shibuya for things to do – taking a walk through Shibuya 109 and exploring the love hotel hill district are both recommended. For dinner, look for the yellow, red and blue sign of a ‘Matsuya’.  There are seven stores(!) around Shibuya station.  Fill yourself up with a hearty bowl of Gyudon (strips of beef on white rice) for 280yen.

Your next task (and don’t leave it too late because you can’t book) is to find a place to sleep. Although this may seem weird, you’re going to sleep in a ‘comic cafe’. While similar to a western internet cafe, the Japanese version has morphed into something a bit different. Most offer either completely private booths or rooms – you can get changed in them and your bed will be a large, fully reclining seat, a sofa or a kind of cushioned floor arrangement – all are the same price, it just depends what is available when you check in. They also naturally contain an internet connected computer – handy if you want to do some research on destinations for the next day.  There are two options to consider – either a 6 hour pack for 980yen or a 9 hour pack for 1,290yen.  This includes free use of the shower, but no soap, shampoo or towel.  We’d recommend bringing your own soap but paying the 105yen extra for the towel. At the time of writing, the comic cafe we recommend (Manboo! in Udagawacho) had a free extra hour on each package – so 6 was extended to 7 hours and 9 to 10 hours.

Manboo – your luxurious lodgings for your three night stay | Photo by Gregory Lane

Day 1 Itinerary and Expense Summary

TransportKeikyuu line/Subway to Shibuya560yen
MealsDinner at Matsuya280yen
AccommodationManboo!, Udagawacho (one road back from ‘Centergai’ on the road towards Tokyu Hands) + towel1,395yen

Extra budget options: If you’re feeling extra hungry get a set with your meal at Matsuya.

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Day 2 : Harajuku, Omotesando, the Tokyo National Art Center

Don’t be in a huge rush to leave your accommodation – everything (except food and coffee places) is closed until 10 or 11 in the morning.  For breakfast, forget the cornflakes, you’re going Japanese style – a morning ‘teishoku’ (set meal) complete with raw egg and soy sauce on rice from Sukiya for 200yen.  Sukiya is a similar kind of place to Matsuya with a similar number of stores around the station.  There’s not much to do in Shibuya in the morning, but you might want to head back down to Shibuya Station to watch it disgorge itself of hundreds of thousands of commuters.

Before heading up the hill towards Yoyogi Park, drop by Yamaya for a 2 litre bottle of water or tea so you don’t dehydrate during the day. If it’s a week day, things in the park will be pretty quiet.  If you happen to be there on the weekend, things may be a lot more interesting.  If you’re into architecture, take note of the incredible Yoyogi National Gymnasium designed by the great Japanese architect Kenzo Tange and built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics before taking a right turn and heading towards Harajuku.  The best view of the stadium (in our opinion) is from the over bridge near the railway lines.  Before you go into Harajuku, look at for the massive torii gate marking the entrance to Meiji Shrine. There is a long approach to the shrine through a wooded area.  Entrance to the shrine itself is free.  If you’re lucky you might witness a shinto wedding ceremony – or more likely the group photos afterwards.

Anti-fur protesters at the entrance to Takeshita Dori | Photo by Gregory Lane

Next, you’ll go from the serene and traditional to one of the most unusual neighbourhoods in Japan – Harajuku. Although weekdays are a lot quieter, there might be something happening on the bridge that crosses the railway tracks from Meiji Shrine to Harajuku. On weekends this area is crawling with ‘Lolita-goths’, men dressed as school girls and wannabe idol groups practicing their dance routines. Instead of heading into ultra expensive Omotesando, turn left, head down the hill and head into Takeshita Doori. Takeshita Doori is ground zero for the weird and wonderful youth fashion that comes out of Harajuku. Take your time walking and looking around here. This is also where you’re going to buy a couple of souvenirs – from the 4 level Daiso 100yen shop not far from the entrance to the street.

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After exiting Takeshita Dori, turn right on Meiji Dori and then left into Omotesando. Omotesando is famed as the ‘Champs Ellysees’ of Tokyo because it has lots of trees and expensive shops. It’s a pleasant area with a few things worth checking out on our cheapo tour. First is Kiddyland – an enormous toy shop on the right as you head up towards Omotesando station. As interesting as the toys themselves are the customers – mainly young women. Also of note is the architecture in the area. One of our favourites is the TODS building by Toyo Ito – looking like a big box wrapped in concrete tape.  You’ll probably be pretty hungry by now, so stop off at La Boheme in Kita Aoyama for a plate of mentaiko and nori spaghetti for 600yen. Add the 150yen lunch set and you’ve got all you can drink red and white wine – you might be here for a while.  Unlike everyone else here, you don’t have to be back at work in 30 minutes!

After lunch, head back to Omotesando and continue in the direction of Nishi Azabu/Roppongi.  On your right you’ll see one of the most stunning modern buildings in Tokyo – the Prada building by Herzog & de Meuron.  It looks amazing during the day but even more impressive at night.  If you want to take a look at some 400,000yen jackets, head inside.

At the next big intersection you come to, go left and head straight through Aoyama Cemetery.  The cemetery is a lovely oasis in the middle of the city.  There’s also a ‘foreigners section’ which contains graves from the westerners who came to Japan to aid in its rapid development in the late 1800s — never to return.

Hopefully as you head through the cemetery, you’ll notice the looming National Art Center.  This is a great place to cool down and check out some free exhibitions.

National Art Center, Tokyo by Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa | Photo by Gregory Lane

Roppongi – the area around here – is more of a nightlife/office district so there’s not that much of interest.  Wander back to Shibuya via Nishi Azabu.  You’ll probably get quite lost, but it’s a pretty quirky (and wealthy) neighbourhood so nothing bad will happen to you.  If you have a map, look for surrealist sculptor Taro Okamoto’s house.  There is a museum attached – but you can see 90% of the things of interest just by looking into the garden.

Back in Shibuya, head to Hanamaru Udon next to Mark City and choose anything on the menu for 294yen.  Shibuya is one of the best places in the world to people watch, so after dinner head to the second floor of Starbucks next to the scramble crossing.  Order the cheapest drink on the menu and grab a seat.  You might even strike up a conversation – most of the clientele are young and not unfriendly.  The rest of the evening is up to you.  For the night, we’ll head back to Manboo! – easier than finding new accommodation.

Day 2 Expense Summary

MealsSukiya, La Boheme, Hanamaru Udon1,244yen
SouvenirsDaiso, Takeshita Dori210yen
EntertainmentStarbucks at Scramble Crossing150yen
AccommodationManboo! (9 hour pack + towel)1,395yen

Extra budget options: Buy some new (old) threads at Kinji Used clothing in Harajuku or splash out on a few more prezzies at the 100yen shop.  Look for people handing out fliers at Shibuya crossing for some deals on dance clubs – as long as you’re not drunk you shouldn’t be in any danger of being scammed.  If you really want to head to Roppongi, try Jumanji 55 for one of the cheapest all you can drink deals.

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Day 3 : The Imperial Palace and Ginza

Taro Okamoto’s sculpture in a park next to Sukiyabashi crossing in Ginza | Photo by Gregory Lane

After picking up a couple of onigiri (rice balls) at a nearby supermarket or convenience store and another 2 litre bottle of water from Yamaya, jump on the Tokyo metro to Nijuubashi Station.  Once you exit the station, it should be fairly obvious where to go – just follow the crowds.  The big photo opp around here is the castle keep which is the only really ‘castle-ish’ part visible of the low-rise imperial palace.  After this, you can spend the whole morning wandering around the Imperial Palace East Gardens – which includes the impressive base of the long gone Edo Castle.

For lunch, take a 10 minute walk into Ginza and head to the basement of one of the many department stores and pick up a 600yen bento.  If the weather is good, Hibiya park is a nice place to enjoy your bento.  You should be able to spot some turtles, carp and the odd heron in the ponds near the entrance.

There is a lot to explore in Ginza.  Among the places that are well worth checking out are Bic Camera in Yurakucho – an electronics shopping paradise, the Sony Building at Sukiyabashi Crossing (free demos of Sony products split over 12 levels) and the Hakuhinkan toy shop on Chuo Dori.  As a shopping mecca, Ginza – like Omotesando – features some of the most interesting modern architecture in Tokyo.  In particular, seek out the Hermes building – a towering translucent block of glass by Renzo Piano and another Toyo Ito work – the Mikimoto Building.

For dinner, treat yourself to a maguro-don (tuna sashimi on rice) at the nearby Shimbashi branch of Maguro Ichiba for 700yen.

Before heading back to Shibuya, it’s time for one of those unique Japan experiences.  Instead of the shower at Manboo! you’re going to visit a sento – a traditional Japanese bath house.  The Konparu Sento (golden spring bath house) is located not far off Chuo Dori – the main drag in Ginza. The cost for entering the bath house is 450yen.  Unlike the comic cafe, towels, soap and shampoo are included and there is no time limit – you can soak here for pretty much as long as you like.

Before heading back to get some sleep, it’s time to go out for a beer in Shibuya.  A place with 300yen beers called Salasa is conveniently located near Manboo! at 28-12 Udagawacho in Centergai. You’ve only got a budget for 1 beer, but if you make friends you never know your luck.

For your last night in Manboo!, take the 6 hour pack – you can leave sleeping for your return flight.

Day 3 Expense Summary

TransportTokyo Metro – Shibuya to Ginza return380yen
FoodOnigiri, Bento, Maguro Don1,500yen
Refreshments2 litre bottle of water or tea from Yamaya100yen
Bath houseKonbaru450yen
AccomodationManboo! (6 hour pack)980yen
EntertainmentA beer at standing bar Salasa300yen

 Extra budget options: More 300yen beers of course!

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Day 4: Departure

You’ve probably got a long flight ahead of you, so make your way to Doutor coffee shop (they’re as plentiful as Matsuya and Sukiya) for a morning coffee set – which includes a sandwich for 380yen.

When you jump back on the train you can reflect on your trip and how you’ve just spent 3 days in the ‘most expensive city in the world’ for only $US125.  Nice work.

Day 4 Expense Summary

TransportKeikyuu line/Subway to Shibuya560yen
MealsBreakfast at Dotour380yen

Trip total: 9,984yen ($US125)

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Hiro Ikematsu for helping out with one of the Shibuya Crossing pics and thanks to everyone who helped out with the research and suggestions!

Update April 2013: We caught up with a cheapo who followed our advice and stayed in Manboo cafe for his holiday in Tokyo, you can hear the interview on our podcast episode “staying in a manga cafe”

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