1. When you go
Peak season is spring / fall, when the weather is mild and the cherry blossoms are going off (~10 days in early April). It’s much cheaper to travel off-season, particularly during the winter, the rainy season (early June to mid-July), and August, when temperatures are highest.
Since I live in Seoul and am able to see blossoms and palace gardens anytime, I visited Japan in February. It was cold and many buildings didn’t use much heating, but the costume-wearing kids in Harajuku, the ancient Japanese ink paintings in the Tokyo National Museum, and the sushi conveyor belt restaurants were there just as they are during peak season.
And during the off-season, accommodation is cheaper and more readily available — I was able to book last minute without a problem.
2. Where you stay
People talk up the capsule hotel as a budget and ‘iconic’ Tokyo experience, but I’ve found hostels are usually cheaper and more comfortable. Within Tokyo, you can find inexpensive hostels if you’re willing to stay outside the city center and away from popular areas like Tokyo station, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Roppongi.
On the other hand, if you plan on spending most of your time in these districts, consider dropping a bit more for a hostel closer to the center. The time and transportation costs to travel between the hot spots and somewhere in the outskirts may run more than the difference in hostel price.
I stayed at JGH Hostel, located at Nishi Kawaguchi station, north of the center on the JR Keihin-Tohoku line, for ¥1500/$18.50 a night (off-season, mixed dorms). I drank sake with other backpackers in the common area and explored part of the city where tourists are scarce and people are just going about their daily business.
The owners are a well-traveled older couple who built the hostel by hand, and there’s a ‘homey’ atmosphere — thin walls, narrow bunk beds, a shower where you need to squat to rinse the shampoo out of your hair.
When I returned to Tokyo at the end of my Japanese trip, I paid about ¥700/$8.50 more a night to stay at Khaosan Tokyo Original in Asakusa. This is when I hit the Tokyo National Museum and Sensoji Temple, and wandered around Asakusa, paying lower subway fares and traveling shorter distances to my hostel at the end of the day. It was also much closer to the airport, convenient for an early morning departure.
As an alternative to hostels, stay with expats or Japanese hosts for free through CouchSurfing. If you do plan to stay at someone’s home, bring a gift from yours. Universally, this is a polite gesture, but gift giving is especially common in East Asian cultures.
3. How you get around
Walk or bicycle: This is by far my favorite way to see the city. Bike rentals are available in 16 different parts of Tokyo and five Tokyo suburbs. On Sundays from 10am to 3pm at Chiyoda-ku, you can cycle around the Imperial Palace for free (3-minute walk from the Chiyoda line Nijubashimae station, exit #2).
Subway: Pretty inexpensive by Tokyo standards, and very gaijin friendly, with signs and announcements in English at every stop. There are two subway systems that intertwine: the Tokyo Metro and the JR. This can be confusing at first, so keep both maps handy for smooth transitioning.
The base fare for the Tokyo Metro is ¥160/$2.00, and the JR is ¥130/$1.50, but the fare is greater the farther you travel. Generally, each station closes around 1am and begins running again around 5am. Try not to get stranded.
Buses: Also cheap but more difficult for tourists to navigate with little knowledge of Japanese. You can always ask an employee at your hostel or a local for help with directions, though. In my experience, Japanese people were eagerly polite when I asked a question, even if they couldn’t speak English well.
Taxis: DO NOT take taxis. Ever. An approximate taxi fare from Narita airport to central Tokyo will cost at least ¥25,000/$322 on the meter!
4. Where you eat / drink
For less expensive meals, eat in blue-collar areas in the northern and eastern parts of Tokyo, like Ueno and Ikebukuro, or areas populated with young people and students, such as Yoyogi and Harajuku. Most restaurants here offer good-value lunch specials.
Sushi conveyor belt restaurants are found in most parts of Tokyo. Watch the chefs craft each piece, and choose your own plates from the conveyor (usually ¥100/$1.25 plate.) If it’s busy, you may have to stand.
Ramen shops, curry houses, and Japanese fast food cost ¥500-¥900 ($6-$11) for a meal. Often, you’ll order by purchasing a ticket through a coin-operated machine. The Ootoya chain, located throughout the city, sells typical Japanese meals, like donkatsu (fried pork cutlet) with rice and miso soup. It’s fast food, but pretty good quality.
Eat street food, such as takoyaki (fried octopus balls), in busy areas like Yoyogi Park, near Harajuku station, for around ¥400/$5. Grocery stores sell a variety of packaged meals, like pre-made bento boxes, sushi, and Japanese sweets, for much less than restaurant fare. If you buy these meals near closing time, they’ll likely be discounted 20-30%. Watch for snacks with Hello Kitty-covered packaging and green tea Kit Kat bars.
On the street, ubiquitous vending machines sell hot and cold drinks, including several types of coffee and tea, juice, sodas, and sports drinks, for ¥100-250/$1.50-3. Sometimes there’s ready-to-eat canned soup, too. The machines beat the price of a coffee shop, and hot tea doubles as hand warmers if you’re walking around the city in the middle of winter.
Some vending machines sell cans of beer; it’s so accessible a 10-year-old could purchase one. It’s cheap, around ¥250/$3, and as an additional bonus drinking in public is legal.
5. What you do
Day: Besides my favorite free activity — wandering aimlessly down side streets and back alleys — there’s tons to do in Tokyo that’s inexpensive / free.
Go to Shibuya’s four-way crossing, at Shibuya station, one of the busiest intersections in the world and made famous by Lost in Translation. Cross amid the masses, or just watch the pedestrian flow from a distance.
On Sunday, go to Harajuku station to see what’s currently hot in young Japanese fashion + cosplay. The shopping is relatively cheap in this area as well; there are vintage stores and contemporary art galleries, like Design Festa Gallery.
The tuna auction at the Tsukiji fish market, located near Tsukiji station, is worth the trek if you’re able to wake up before dawn. They only let a limited number of tourists in each morning, so you have to arrive by 5am. If you miss the auction, you can still walk around the market and eat the freshest sushi or sashimi for breakfast.
Also, most of the temples, shrines, and palaces are free to enter. This includes the Tokyo Imperial Palace when you reserve a spot ahead of time online. Visit the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan, or Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine at Harajuku station, where you may be able to see a traditional wedding ceremony.
Yoyogi Park is also located within walking distance of Meiji Jingu — good for going for a jog, or listening to street musicians.
Night: It’s hard to go out on the cheap in Tokyo, but there are some alternatives to partying downtown in swanky bars where you pay $40 for a beer. If you’re traveling solo, gather a group of backpackers from your hostel or create a Couchsurfing event and sing some karaoke.
Karaoke rooms are rentable at a set price, either per hour or for the entire night. I stayed at a karaoke room in Shinjuku with 10 travelers from my hostel, and we paid about ¥3000/$38 each for 8 hours of singing and unlimited drinks.