Japan has a reputation for wallet-busting prices, but with a little more research you can always find great bargains. Here’s how to make the most of a long weekend in Tokyo without burning through your savings account.
Day 1: Cityscapes
Have a leisurely breakfast then head to the free observation deck at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to get your bearings from above. This time of year, clear weather and dry air means you’re likely to spy Mount Fuji as well.
Next, trot over to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (US$2), stopping to grab a bento box at cat-themed lunch counter Nekozen (5-17-1 Shinjuku; from US$4.50) on the way. Stroll through the grounds and greenhouses and enjoy a picnic in front of the idyllic pond and pagoda.
After lunch, it’s off to Harajuku, the center of youth culture. Browse the shops on packed Takeshita Street, or stop at one of the famous crêperies for sweets (US$4) and some people-watching. Scan the crowd for fashionistas in frilly Lolita dresses or stylish gents in steampunk kimono get-ups.
Running parallel is Omotesando, Tokyo’s Champs-Élysées. From there, amble over to chic Cityshop Noodle (5-51-8 Jingumae), for customizable noodle salads — featuring kale, brown rice or gluten-free noodles, fun vegetarian toppings and homemade soy sauce — and deli sides. Enjoy a filling dinner for under US$15.
Day 2: Tradition
Start the day with a walk in Taito’s Yanaka sector — one of the few areas not ruined during WWII — and immerse yourself in the mood of old Edo (the period between 1603 and 1868).
Next, Asakusa, the home of the important Sensoji temple, is just a short hop away. While there, browse shops selling snacks and traditional wares. For a unique, modern take, there’s Shin-Yoshiwara (3-27-10 Nishi-Asakusa) from designer Yayoi Okano — the souvenir shop is inspired by the old brothel quarter (from the Edo period) in which it’s located now.
In the afternoon, catch some kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama) — with a makumi (single act) ticket (from US$9) — at the newly renovated Kabukiza Theatre (4-12-15 Ginza), and try a budget tea ceremony at Hamarikyu Garden (1-1 Hamarikyu Teien; fee is US$3 and tea is US$5).
Then, finish the day with a dinner cruise on a yakatabune (an old-fashioned lantern-decked boat) that plies Tokyo’s waterways. Edomaekisen (edomaekisen.com) offers a two-hour ride — with drinks and monjayaki, a kind of grilled pancake — for US$45.
Day 3: Pop culture
First up is a photo op with the 20m-tall Gundam statue at DiverCity in Odaiba, then more robots at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (or Miraikan; 2-3-6 Aomi; US$5.50), a museum of the latest technology. Lunch is at Aqua City for their “ramen stadium” — a selection of famous ramen shops operate branch stalls there — and then linger to enjoy views of the bay and Rainbow Bridge (from US$9).
After that, head to Akihabara, the unofficial pop culture capital of Tokyo, and mecca for duty-free electronics. Drop in to the original maid café Cure Main (3-15-5 Sotokanda; US$10), or cat café Mocha (4-4-3 Sotokanda; US$2 per 10 minutes), if that’s more your style. Try the claw games for kawaii (cute in the context of Japanese pop culture) plushies, or use the purikura photo booths at mega-arcade Club Sega 4 (1-15-9 Sotokanda). Then there’s also karaoke at anime-themed Pasela (2-10 Kanda Sakumacho, Chiyoda; from US$5 an hour).
Finally, head to Kanda Myojin shrine to get a microchip-shaped good luck charm for any new gadgets you’ve bought (US$8).
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What to drink
A night out won’t cost much if you find a good nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink deal). Try Kurand Sake Market, where US$29 gets you access to free-pour sakes with no time limit — and you can bring your own food. Sister brands Havespi and Shugar Market do the same with shochu (Japanese spirit) and fruit liquors.
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Tokyo’s train system is clean, punctual and safe, but it isn’t cheap. If you’re crisscrossing town, invest in a Tokyo Subway 72-hour ticket for foreign visitors (US$14). If you’re staying in one area, try a rental bike. We love Tokyobike (tokyobike.com) for their comfy, colorful wheels and online reservations.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of Smile magazine.