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Tokyo and Japan, in general, gets a bad reputation for being an expensive place to visit. While I did find accommodation in the city to be on the higher side, there is a surprising amount of things to do for free in the city. Plus, doing all the free things to do, you can save all your yen for the amazing food in Tokyo. Between my two trips to the city, I’ve managed to do a lot of them, but here are 7 free things to do in Tokyo that stood out to me.
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1. Scramble across the Shibuya crossing
You’ve seen it on the internet, you’ve heard rumours of it being the busiest intersection in the world, so of course, when you’re in Tokyo, you need to join in the madness yourself.
Just outside Shibuya station is the famous scramble crossing where when the all traffic lights turn red, pedestrians descend into the intersection from every direction as they make their way across. Join in and cross with the crowds a couple times. The intersection is busiest on Friday or Saturday evenings. It’s surprisingly exhilarating to cross the street with so many people. There’s an art of weaving your way across, dodging everyone coming your way.
To get a bird’s eye view, there is a Starbucks that overlooks the area or you can head to the pedestrian walkway that connects Shibuya Station with to Shibuya Mark City (map view).
2. People watch in Harajuku
Takeshita Dori is the famous pedestrian street of Harajuku filled with trendy shops, boutiques, cafes and street food stalls. You can also spot a lot of lolita and gothic fashion too. Most of the stores along Takeshita Dori are aimed at teens, but the nearby Omotesandō is filled with high-end brands and is nicknamed Tokyo’s “Champs-Élysées.”
While you’re there, pop into Daiso, a well known 100 yen shop in Japan, but this one is one of the largest in the city. Be warned though – you’ll likely not leave empty handed! The store has everything you would ever want and all for a very affordable 100 yen. The quality is generally better than other dollar stores I’ve found anywhere else too which is awesome.
At peak times, the crowds can get unbearable with people walking shoulder to shoulder without much choice as to where to go. Aim to go just as the shops are opening for a better experience. Try to pop down some of the side streets for a quieter experience.
3. Find peace at the Meiji Shrine
When the pace of Tokyo gets’s to be too much, head to the Meiji Shrine inside Yoyogi Park. It’s especially convenient as it’s right outside the craziness that is Harajuku. The Meiji Shrine is aptly dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and only dates back to 1920. Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan and is credited for beginning the modernization and westernization of Japan into what it is today.
As you approach the shrine, you walk through a series of wooden torii gates, some of the largest ones in the country. Before entering the shrine be sure to purify yourself using the water basin to clean your hands. There are a number of buildings to explore within the shrine complex and you can take the opportunity to enjoy the quiet and nature around you.
4. Get up high at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
There are a number of places where you can get up high for a view of the city spread out below you: the Tokyo Skytree, the Tokyo Tower and the Mori Tower at Roppongi Hills to name a few. However, they cost an arm and a leg and often come with long lines. Skip the hefty price tag and visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.
Standing 202 meters tall, the city of Tokyo is spread out below you. On a clear day, you can even spot landmarks like Mt. Fuji in the distance. Alternatively, go at dusk to watch the sunset and the lights of Tokyo come alive.
5. Bid for fish at the Tsukiji Fish Market
Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market is the world’s largest and busiest wholesale fish and seafood market (not to mention one of the world’s largest markets period), handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. The market is divided between the inner (wet) market and the outer market. The inner one is where all the fish action happens, but you can only enter after 9 am.
The market has so much more than just fish being sold. You can spot fresh vegetables, kitchen supplies and speciality food items like mochi and bonito flakes. There are also a lot of restaurants in the area where you can grab fresh sushi for breakfast or if you prefer noodles and rice.
Read more: Visiting Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market – A Look Into One of the World’s Largest Wholesale Markets
While some visitors get up in the middle of the night to try their luck at seeing the tuna auction, those who prefer to sleep can still explore the market. If you are interested in seeing the tuna auction, consider staying nearby at the Tokyo Ginza Bay capsule hotel which is walking distance to the market. To make the visit easier consider booking a tour or if you prefer to do it yourself, following the advice in this post. Use your jet lag to your advantage and make your visit during the beginning of your trip.
6. Visit Sensō-ji
Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensō-ji is located in Asakusa. This Buddhist temple is one of the world’s most visited spiritual sites and you can definitely believe it. Throngs of tourist descend on this temple every day so it is best to visit in the early hours or at dusk just as all the nearby shops are closing.
Walk through the outer gate of Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate” with its huge red and black paper lantern, explore the shops of nakamise-dori as you head towards the temple before walking through the Hōzōmon or “Treasure House Gate.” The shops leading up to the inner complex are filled with souvenirs, traditional sweets and street food.
You can wander through the temple’s main hall, see its five-story pagoda and see the nearby Asakusa Shrine. The temple grounds are quite extensive allowing you to escape the huge crowds of people.
With a suggestion of 100 yen, you can get your fortune at an o-mikuji stall by shaking a metal box while thinking of your wish. When a stick comes out, match the number on the stick with a corresponding box to get your fortune.
7. Explore the shops of Akihabara
For lovers of all things anime and manga, head to Akihabara to explore the multi-level shops lined from top to bottom with merchandise and collectables. Even if you’re not a huge fan of these things, wandering through the maze of shops can provide endless hours of entertainment. Also called “Electronic Town”, Akihabara is also well known for its video games and computer goods.
The free Tokyo Anime Center on the 4th floor of the Akihabara UDX building hosts special anime exhibits and events and also has a shop. Pop into Mandarake, one of the largest manga and anime stores in the world. It’s 8 floors is filled with collectables and pre-owned items making it a good place to find rare items.
So there you have it, my favourite free things to do in Tokyo. It involves a lot of walking so be prepared! It also gives you a really great overview of the mini-cultures and unique aspects of the different areas of the city. Be sure to include these activities on your next visit to Tokyo!
Where To Stay
As mentioned previously, I found accommodation to be the highest expense while in Tokyo, however it is possible to find some good deals. As I was passing through the city, here are the places that I stayed and would recommend:
Unplan Kagurazaka – A comfortable hostel following a capsule model in the middle of Tokyo. It’s quiet and modern. While further away from many attractions, you don’t feel like you’re in such a huge city at all. You can see my full review here. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor.com and book your stay at Booking.com.
Book and Bed Tokyo – Sleep in a bookcase at this capsule style hostel. Relax and read a book or two. While more expensive than the average hostel in Tokyo, you get the novelty and experience of sleeping in a bookcase. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor.com and book your stay at Booking.com.
Tokyo Ginza Bay Hotel – Get an authentic capsule hotel experience at the Ginza Bay Hotel. It’s conveniently located near the Tsukiji Fish Market making it easy to head to the tuna auction early. Check out reviews on Tripadvisor.com and book your stay at Booking.com.
Have you been to Tokyo? Did I miss anything free that you loved?