Tokyo is Japan’s capital and the world’s most crowded city. It is made up of 23 central city wards and multiple cities, towns, and villages. Before 1868, Tokyo was known as Edo. In the 16th century, the small castle town became Japan’s political center. A few decades later, Edo had grown into one of the world’s largest cities. In 1868, the Emperor and capital moved from Kyoto to Tokyo. Large sections of Tokyo were destroyed in either the 1923 Kanto earthquake or in the 1945 air raids. Today, Tokyo is a shopping, entertainment, culture, and dining mecca for travelers. History buffs will especially enjoy Asakusa and the plethora of museums, historic temples, and gardens. For those traveling on the cheap, below are 10 things you can do in Tokyo for under ¥1048 or 10 bucks!
Find the Emperor at Meiji Jingu Treasure Museum (¥500/$4.78)
Meiji Jingu is a Shinto shrine. Shinto is Japan’s original religion, but you might be surprised to learn it has no founder or holy book. However, Shinto values one’s harmony with nature. The divine spirits (Kami) are found both in Japanese mythology and nature. There are many dedicated shrines to the divine spirits. The shrine at the Meiji Jingu Treasure Museum is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. In 1912 Emperor Meiji passed away, followed by Empress Shoken in 1914. To celebrate their virtues, followers donated more than 100,000 trees from all over the world to create this forest. The shrine was established a few years later in 1920. See Meiji Emperor’s treasures, including the magnificent horse carriage used about 120 years ago. Meiji Jingu Treasure Museum. Closed on Mondays.
Brush up on Sumo history at the Sumo Museum (Free)
In September of 1954, the Sumo Museum opened its doors to coincide with the completion of professional sumo’s new home, the Kuramae Kokugikan. The materials had been collected over the years by its first curator, Sakai Tadamasa. The museum was created to protect, preserve, and showcase the rich historical heritage of Japan’s national sport. In 1985 the museum moved to its current location, and tournament sumo returned with the opening of the Ryogoku Kokugikan. The museum is open 10a- 4:30p, but closed Saturdays, Sundays and National Holidays. The museum also closes on a regular basis to change exhibits so check out the website for more information.
Tour the Imperial Palace (Free)
The Imperial Palace is located on the grounds of the former residential palace of the successive Tokugawa Shoguns during the Edo Period. In 1868, Emperor Meiji moved to the palace from Kyoto, which had been the imperial capital for more than a thousand years. Since then, the Emperor and Empresses have resided at the Imperial Palace. Ceremonies are often held at the Imperial Household Agency Building, the Momijiyama Imperial Cocoonery, and the East Gardens. Tour the Someikan (Visitors’ House), Fujimi-yagura (“Mt. Fuji View” Keep), To-no-saka slope, East Gardens and Inner Gate. Walk across the Seimon-tetsubashi bridge. You need a permit to visit. You can find their guidelines and applications at the Imperial Palace website.
Buy a bento from 7-Eleven (¥500+/$5+)
There are over 16,600 7-Elevens in Japan. If you haven’t checked out a 7-Eleven in Japan, it will blow your mind. 7-Eleven is the place to use the restroom, find wi-fi, and pick up food on the cheap. These are nothing like American 7-Elevens. The Japanese have upscaled the convenience store. They have catered products to suit local tastes. You might not be able to get a Slurpee, but they stock just about every other consumable food good you can imagine. It’s hard to believe that 7-Eleven is Japan’s top food product retailer. Grab a bento box, sushi, rice balls, fresh sandwiches, fresh salads, ramens, drinks and so much more. Check out their selection of booze, from beer and sake to Champagne and single-malt scotch. You can pick up an alcoholic juice box! Picking up a meal at 7-Eleven is an experience you just can’t miss. Pack your meal to one of the many parks. I have no doubt the 7-Eleven experience will give you a lot to talk about over lunch.
Stroll through Hinokicho Park (Free)
Hinokicho Park is an urban oasis in central Tokyo. You can locate it behind the Tokyo Midtown shopping complex. Hinokicho is home to a beautifully landscaped ornamental gardens and a pond. The optimum time to visit is during cherry blossom season in Spring or in the Autumn for its spectacular foliage. All year round various cultural activities and events can be found. Explore the design museum 21-21 Design Sight. Pick up a picnic at one of the many Midtown Cafes and wander the park. Don’t miss the traditional teahouse in the park.
Watch the street performers at Yoyogi Park (Free)
The Yoyogi Park Events Square is a popular place on the NHK side of Yoyogi Park. During the summer, musicians, dancers, and performers can be found showing off their skills. Rockabilly dancers gather there on Sundays, accompanied by their ladies, also in 1950s garb. Since there is no set performance time, catching them is just a matter of luck. The Events Square is the perfect place to people watch or take in cultural festivals, live music, farmers markets or flea markets.
Koishikawa Botanical Gardens (¥400/$3.82)
Koishikawa Botanical Gardens is impressive. Nikko Botanical Garden is an institute for research and education of Graduate School of Science, University of Tokyo. Walk through their collection of Japanese temperate and alpine plants. The educational institute has a total of 2,200 species of native plants in their gardens. Koishikawa Botanical Garden is open from 9a-4:30p every day, except on Mondays.
Experience the weird (or wonderful?) Maid Cafes (¥600+/$5.73+)
Head over to the Akihabara district and order up a Magic Sketch green tea latte at a Maid Cafe. This is like no other cafe you have ever been to. At Maid cafes, waitresses dress as maids and address their customers as “master” and “mistress.” It’s less kinky and more “cutesy” at these bizarre cafes. Maid cafes don’t really appeal to the mainstream but cater to the otaku (young people obsessed with aspects of popular culture to the impediment of their social skills). However, for travelers, these cafes are one of Japan’s pop culture icons. There are strictly enforced rules at these cafes; don’t touch the maids or take photos. As sexual as the maids might seem, this is not a pickup joint. Many of the maids are characters and have fictional backstories. If you are super into it, for an extra fee you can play mini-games with a maid. Sometimes live shows are offered for around ¥700 or so, but each person is required to order at least one item above ¥570 in addition to the admission fee. There are a few of these cafes scattered around so you will have an opportunity to experience more than one.
Check out Gyosen Park and natural zoo (Free)
Tanaka Genji donated this land in 1933 to the city to create a park. The current park was created in 1950. The park includes a playground, a fountain, a fishing pond, a Japanese garden and a tea house. It also includes the Edogawa City Natural Zoo, where admission is free. For such a tiny zoo, the range of animals is somewhat impressive, with over 39 different species. Their collection includes red pandas, giant anteaters, seals and even peregrine falcons. The most popular area for kids is, of course, the petting zoo. The kids can hold rabbits and guinea pigs or interact with goats. Check out the freshwater and brackish water fish that live around Edogawa. The zoo is closed on Mondays.
Have a beer! (Free)
Don’t miss out on a free one-hour tour of the Suntory Musashino Beer Factory! Tour the brewery and see the entire process of crafting beer. During the introduction, you’ll be shown a brief video about the quality of the spring water used in their brewing process. They’ll take you by the hops display and let you taste and smell the hops they use. You’ll be shown a vat of beer and eventually move on to the filling and packaging stations. Finally, you’ll be able to taste the freshly produced beer. The gift shops offer products not found anywhere else, like beer confectionaries. Apply by phone or internet several days in advance.
If you’ve been to Tokyo, where were your favorite places to see? Tell us in the comments below!