10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo, Japan » Lifestyle Strategies, Travel, Adventures--Todd's Wanderings

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Many people dream of traveling to Japan and experiencing this unique island first hand. Culture, history, technology, fashion and food blend together in an unforgettable experience that not only rewards the intrepid traveler but has fueled pop culture around the world for decades. Japan has taken on a somewhat mythical persona as it highlights its cultural differences to the outside world and implanting the desire to visit the country in minds of countless travelers. However, one myth has served to repel would be visitors:  Japan is extremely expensive. While its true Japan can be expensive, a trip to Tokyo can still be done on a budget and can cost much less than a jaunt to Europe’s largest cities.

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A journey to Japan can be incredibly rewarding without cashing out your child’s education fund. I lived in Japan for over 5 years, and my wife is from Tokyo. Since we travel there quite a bit we  try to keep our costs down as much as possible, especially as the Yen is at historical highs compared to other currencies. There are so many things to do in Tokyo that can burn a whole in your wallet. As frequent former resident, frequent visitor, and a lover of my own money, here are 10 things you can do in Tokyo for free. Enjoy, and use your savings to get out of Tokyo and experience the rest of Japan :)

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1. Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan

One tuna can sell for more than $10,000

Map of Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo JapanYou used to have to wake up early, 4:30 am (or stay out drinking late), to experience the inner workings of the Japanese fish industry. Now visitors are not allow in until 9 am, I guess too many took the drinking option and interrupted the tuna auctions held at 5:30 am.  Nevertheless, a visit is still worth it to see  the wholesale clearing house for a nation addicted to the spoils of the sea. The market is smelly, and open every morning except Sunday. Located near Tsukiji Shiko Station on the Oedo Subway Line the market is made up of an inner market, where the wholesale business and tuna auctions take place, and an outer market with retail shops and restaurants that cater to the public. The Japanese as sticklers for the rules, which are now more complicated than ever. Use the map for help on where you can and can’t go, and at what times!

2. Harajuku

Tokyo street fashion Harajuku Japan

How long do you think it takes for them to get ready?

A trip to Tokyo is not complete without a glimps of Japan’s funky youth, desperately trying to be different by dressing in similar groups, from goth, to little bow peep outfits. Head to Harajuku on a Sunday, even rebels go to school and work, and head for the bridge. And don’t be shy, ask for your picture to be taken with them, they are not as scary as they look.

3.Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park Street Performers Tokyo Japan

Real or fake hair? You decide

Since you’re in the neighborhood and it’s Sunday, walk to nearby Yoyogi Park. On Sundays the park turns into a free outdoor concert with bands battling it out for attention, drum circles, artists and street performers under every tree. Besides the colorful street entertainment, the park itself is beautiful and worthy of a stroll, or even a rave.

4. Soak up the Views

Tokyo Skyline

Now those are streets you could get lost in

If you’re in Tokyo you had better make sure you see Tokyo. You don’t have a pay to get a good view and the 45th floor of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (also known as TMG Office) is one of the best. Right near Shinjuku Station, open from 09:30 am to 05:30 pm (07:30 on Sunday) and closed on public holidays, TMG offers stunning views of the city and if you’re lucky(read: if the smog clears) views of Mt. Fuji.

5. Imperial Palace and East Garden

Imperial Palace TokyoThe massive imperial palace grounds is set in the middle of Tokyo and surrounded by moats and held together with stone walls. Built on the former site of Edo castle, the imperial palace boasts one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Tokyo, the East Garden. The garden is free to enter (closed Mondays, Fridays and special occasions), and while you at it book a free tour of the grounds (its the only way you can get into the inner areas). This will require some advanced planning but luckily the application is online and in English (click here). The buildings and inner gardens are off limits as the imperial family lives there, but the doors are thrown wide open on the Emperor’s birthday (December 23) and for the New Years greeting (January 2nd). Time your visit right and you’ll get a free peak into Japan’s royal family.

6. Temples and Shrines

Sensoji Temple Tokyo

Senso-ji Temple with its vibrant gate and pagoda

Most Buddhist Temples and Shinto shrines are free in Tokyo. Considering they can be hundreds of years old, hold elaborate and colorful festivals, and contain some of the countries most treasured artifacts, that’s a pretty good deal. A few of the most popular, and some of my favorites include: Sensoji temple in Asakusa (from the 7th century!), Meiji Shrine in Shibuya and Zozoji Temple near Tokyo Tower.

7. Show Rooms

Sony Showroom TokyoWho doesn’t love gadgets, and when they are free to play with and sometimes not yet released to the general public they become even better. Visit the Sony Building in Ginza and enjoy 4 floors of the  latest gadgets. It’s near to the Sukiyabashi Crossing and is open everyday from 11:00am to 7:00pm.

8. Gadgets

Akihabara Tokyo

Gadgets, gadgets and some maids...in the coffee shops, geeks love maids

Not tired of gadgets yet? Who would be, you’re in Tokyo and  the buzz of electricity is everywhere. To see, and play with, more than just the Sony goodies head down to Tokyo’s electronics district Akihabara and wander in and out of the shops. Technically its free, but your wallet might take a hit after you start drooling over the latest cell phones and digital cameras.

9. Manhole Covers

Japanese Manhole Cover

Dirty, but still pretty

Yes, you read that correctly, manhole covers. Details are everything in Japan and if you spend all your time looking up at the tall buildings and the gigantic flashing TV screens you’ll miss the beauty under your feet. Manhole covers are usually fashioned in a traditional design and vary street to street as a way to mark the different tunnel systems underneath. You can’t take them home, but the picture and the story are free, all you have to do is walk, look, and pay attention (think of it as walking mediation).

10. Visit a sumo stable

Sumo Japan

You won't get this in the morning, but you'll still get the g-strings

Sumo has taken a bruising recently in the media due to gambling, pot smoking and charges some players coaches are connected to the Yakuza. Despite the dirt, it is still amazing to see up close and personal. Just don’t get too close as they are big, sweaty and wearing traditional g-strings. Tokyo boasts three grand sumo tournaments per year but these cost money. A better strategy is to visit a stable (a training hall) and watch sumo players work out in the morning. There are over 50 stables spread throughout Tokyo but no easy way to get in on the action without a guide. Your best best is to ask your hotel for help, or even just visit the Ryogoku area, the home of sumo in Tokyo, in the morning and listen for the screams :)

Know of any other freebies in Tokyo. Leave your comments and ideas below.

[Disclaimer: things change, times, costs, even buildings. The information here is accurate to the best of my knowledge at the time of publishing. But things change...I think I mentioned that earlier, so check times and access before you go]

Photo Credits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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64 Responses to “10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo, Japan”

  1. CatNo Gravatar says:

    Great post! I’ll print this out and I hope to do all ten when i visit in Sep. I am particularly interested in the manhol covers as I never really pay attention to such things.

  2. TrangNo Gravatar says:

    Hi Todd
    We will be traveling to Japan Mid May. You mentioned you are a country kind of guy. This is exactly what we wanted to do when we get to Tokyo. I love Japanese culture but not really interested in the hussle and bussle (since we are from HK). Would you know of a resort type of place. Where we would live in a home, the person would guide us on trips in the country and make us home cooked meals? My parents been to a trip to japan like this and Im looking for something similar. Any help would be appreciated.

  3. MyeNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks for sharing. I still have few days to complete this checklist ^_^
    For fish market, they now only allow the first 125 people to see it:-) I don’t think I opt for walking around early morning in this cold weather to see it:-)

  4. MeredithNo Gravatar says:

    OMG Todd how did you leave out the free books at book stores….The way Japanese are allowed to read entire manga hons while standing in the isles of virtually every book store. I don’t know how book stores survive in Japan it seems everyone reads but no one buys…lol

  5. I am always on the lookout for free things to do when I travel, and I am never disappointed! I’ve been to Japan before and will probably go again to try some of these things – especially the picture with those Harajuku girls – since this post is from a while ago, I’m wondering if they’re still all the rage these days!

  6. TitoNo Gravatar says:

    I like your perspectives. Who would have thought that a simple manhole would be an “attraction”. I’ve heard about Tokyo’s efficiency and cleanliness despite being a huge megacity. I’m intrigued by its modern urban scene. Will be flying to Japan soon.

  7. linaNo Gravatar says:

    Did all except Tsukiji. Have yet the inclination to wake up really early to visit a fish market, not when you have a kid tagging along. Maybe some time in future.

    Manhole covers – I love looking for them. Been trying to find nice ones to photograph at every single city in Japan that we visit. :)
    lina´s recent [type] ..The Vermilion Bridge Of Fukuurajima

  8. AndrewNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve done everything on your list except the fish market. Next time I’m up in Tokyo, it’s on the list. Thanks for reminding me!

  9. kevinNo Gravatar says:

    I lived in Tokyo 10 years ago (Meguro) and loved it. I miss all the hustle and bustle and yes, even the super crowded streets.
    http://www.japansugoi.com/wordpress/a-video-trip-around-tokyo/

  10. Wow Todd, some really fantastic ideas in there. When I make it to Tokyo I’ll be easily identifiable as the guy inspecting the maanhole covers :D
    Andrew Murray´s recent [type] ..Attractions of Arkhangai Aimag- Mongolia

  11. JulieNo Gravatar says:

    Great post, Todd! I absolutely love Tsukiji, and am glad it’s #1 on your list!

  12. HerbNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Todd,
    these are exactly the things we like to do when touring a big city, just walk around and soak it in, getting surprised by the little things. So I’m off to investigate accomos that we can afford, can you suggest an area of town?

    Herb
    Herb´s recent [type] ..Got Thanks

  13. NatalieNo Gravatar says:

    Great list but I know that would not stay free if it was me. I have got an addiction to spending. Would end up buying some gadget or something.
    Natalie´s recent [type] ..Walking The Ilhara Valley

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Natalie, yes, I end up buying tons of gadgets as well. I still remember my rash decision to get a mini-disk player in late 90s. Great while I was in Japan but became useless quickly once I was back in the US :)

  14. The EnvoyNo Gravatar says:

    Hmm…don’t showrooms and gadgets go together as one item?
    The Envoy´s recent [type] ..Contest From Afar

  15. AbiNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks Todd- great timing ;) ( Reading this in Tokyo Station after a hefty wallet-ectomy last night!)
    Abi´s recent [type] ..A Cup of Tea with Bush- Blair &amp Obama

  16. AdventureRobNo Gravatar says:

    Sweet post, I’m heading to Tokyo for new years, will check out the Palace on the 2nd!
    AdventureRob´s recent [type] ..The Secrets of Kauai

  17. NorbertNo Gravatar says:

    Great post Todd. It’s good to know there are many free things to do in such an expensive city.

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Norbert. Yeah, especially with the yen being so strong at the moment we are really looking to keep costs in check when we visit this winter. And even though I’ve done all of these I probably do some of them again, as well as find some other free favorites.

  18. Hello Todd!

    The Tsukiji fish market and the sumo stable were two of my most memorable experiences in Japan. Great picks!

  19. AmyNo Gravatar says:

    Great post! I’ve just spent six weeks in Tokyo and though I didn’t do everything on your list – I did many. I think many people are under the illusion that everything in Japan costs a fortune. Although you can certainly spend a lot of money, there are also lots of things that are cheap or free and this list is a great place to start!
    Amy´s recent [type] ..An Excellent Pub- Standing Bar Clover- Shinjuku- Tokyo

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Amy, yeah Japan can be expensive if you let it. But it can also be pretty cheap. Just depends on your tastes and willingness to save some money.

  20. inkaNo Gravatar says:

    Great ideas. I love to manhole covers and the sumo guys.
    inka´s recent [type] ..Don’t dive in the Dead Sea

  21. Sarah WuNo Gravatar says:

    Great post! I wonder how long a 10,000 tuna will last you. That’s pretty expensive for a tuna meal, haha. I really want to see the temple and the picture you have there makes me want to go there and take a lot of pictures. It’s some ancient architecture design very similar to China o Taiwan.

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Sarah, I was surprised to know tuna cost that much as well. But it seems that one person buys it and then chops it up and sells to lots of different restaurants. Makes you wonder how many pieces of sushi are in one tuna ;)

      Many of the older temples have designs straight of China as this is where Buddhism in Japan first came from (along with Korea).

  22. What a great blog you have. And just the topic, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Japan, the country I have not set foot in for a couple of decades. I never made it to that giant fish market, so thanks for the reminder.
    Andrew Graeme Gould´s recent [type] ..El centro- Santiago- Chile- 4 Aug- 21 Oct

  23. RobinNo Gravatar says:

    Quality list – great photography and content. Would love to see Japan but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon….maybe one day.
    Robin´s recent [type] ..Estamos Guay

  24. TranNo Gravatar says:

    Tsukiji Fish Market has to be the most impressive fish market in the world. Very busy place; get there early; and, if you’re up for it, have sushi for breakfast. It’s certainly very fresh (mine was still moving!).
    Tran´s recent [type] ..llha Grande- A Brazilian Gem Just South of Rio

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Tran, the fish is amazing…if you can eat it in the morning :) I have never really liked raw fish in the morning but when its fresh you just can’t say no.

  25. Awesome list! I often enjoy things that don’t require spending money the most, things like just wandering around, people watching and chatting with interesting people!
    Migrationology´s recent [type] ..Casinos- Fortresses and Egg Tarts- 12 Hours in Macau

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      I never expected the manhole covers to get so much attention :) I guess it really is the little things that we take for granted that can be the most interesting.

  26. GiuliaNo Gravatar says:

    p.s. check out this manhole cover I saw in Fujiyoshida! So delicate :)
    http://blog.travelreportage.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/dscn0092.jpg

  27. GiuliaNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve been there just for a few days and luckily I did almost all of the above things!
    These shots are amazing… It reminds me that my camera was under maintenance while I was in Japan so I didn’t have it with me, and I couldn’t take any pics! This means I have to go back! :)

  28. Kerry-annNo Gravatar says:

    We are thinking of heading to Toykyo at some point as part of a stopover to Europe. Friends have been over and told us how awesome it is and that it is definitely worth a visit. Your article is well written and given me a few ideas on what we can do on a limited budget (want to use most of our budget in Europe!). I also appreciate the small things you point out that we would normally miss like the manhole covers or cultural things like the sumo wrestling.
    Kerry-ann´s recent [type] ..Catching a Taxi from Rio de Janeiro-Galeão International Airport

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Kerry-ann, if you do make it to Tokyo feel free to get in touch for recommendations and advice. I’m hoping to pick up some more ideas on my next trip over New Years.

  29. CamNo Gravatar says:

    Love Tokyo, we managed to do most on the list. The Tokyo tower at night is pretty cool also. Would love to go back someday…
    Cam´s recent [type] ..The Cave Churches of Göreme in Cappadocia- Turkey

  30. We loved traveling in Japan, it was so easy and so much fun. My wife really loves the art on the manhole covers and electric boxes and such. Things are so dull in the US. :)
    The market made us a bit queasy, but it was fun.
    retirebyforty´s recent [type] ..retirebyforty’s money flowchart

  31. JenNo Gravatar says:

    We lived in Tokyo for a while- spot-on recommendations! The great pics made me miss it!

  32. I’ve never been to Tokyo, but I really like this list. I think usually it’s the smaller things that give you a better feel for a place than all the famous sites.

  33. davidNo Gravatar says:

    Haven’t updated in a while but here’s my (still) tiny photoblog on manhole covers in Tokyo
    http://manholecover.tumblr.com/

  34. Great post. I’ve often thought about going to Japan someday. It must have been an incredible experience living there. Thanks for some new and interesting ideas about what to see and do there for free. Love the photos, too.
    Cathy Sweeney´s recent [type] ..Three Months in a New York Minute

  35. MarkNo Gravatar says:

    Great write-up Todd! This makes me want to visit Tokyo that much more! Since I love markets and try to hit those up as often as I can, I would really love to visit the fish market someday! Too bad some early morning drunks may have ruined it for the rest of us, and now, we can only visit after 9am …would’ve been great to see the rush of activity during the early hours! :( Great job! Happy Travels!

    • ToddNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks Mark. It is a shame about the fish market, but it is still really impressive…and even better that we don’t feel guilty about not waking up early. While I love the scale, my heart is firmly with the smaller fishing villages on Shikoku were you can eat raw fish right off the bone.
      Todd´s recent [type] ..10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo- Japan

  36. Great list! I never knew about the manhole covers. That’s awesome! We have something similar here in my city but nearly as cool as those and ours aren’t manhole covers, they are bike lane symbols. =-)

    I’m heading for Thailand in January and then if the funds permit, off to Japan. Japan is number one on my list but Thailand is on my wallets list.
    Adam Mayfield´s recent [type] ..Daily Photo – Drake Park

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