Thrifty Traveler’s Guide to Tokyo, Japan
Interested in history, technology, fashion, nature, sushi, skyscrapers, innovative transportation systems or culture? Tokyo is the place for you. This large city has multiple travel destinations within itself from Shinjuku to Asakusa to Ginza and beyond. You could spend weeks exploring Tokyo but don’t worry, you won’t have to as we’ve put together some tips and tricks for getting around in Japan’s largest city.
Getting to Japan
Flights roundtrip to Japan are rarely cheap, but Thrifty Traveler Premium has featured flight deals from various U.S. cities to Japan for under $500. If you aren’t familiar with our Premium service, see our guide to how it works.
Want to book your trip with miles? Book your business class flights to Japan for almost the same cost as economy. Otherwise, use Google Flights to find the best itinerary to fit your needs. If you’re visiting Tokyo, you will want to fly into either Haneda (HND) or Narita (NRT) Airport. However, keep in mind that Haneda (HND) is much closer to Tokyo’s city center than Narita (NRT).
Download the Google Translate App
Before you arrive in Japan, make sure to download Google’s free translation app, Google Translate. Once it is on your phone, be sure to download the Japanese language for offline use. This is helpful when you’re in a pinch and need to quickly translate a word or short sentence and don’t have cell service.
Getting Around in Tokyo
You will not want a car rental in Tokyo. Japan is known for their superior mass transportation including bullet trains (Shinkansen), trains (densha), subway (Chikatetsu) and bus systems.
From the Narita or Haneda airport, you can use mass transportation to get to almost anywhere in Tokyo. Use Google Maps to figure out your route options as it will not only provide you with general route details but routes, departure times, arrival times, transfer locations and more.
There are different agencies that run the transportation systems in Japan. During your stay in Tokyo, you may find yourself using the Japan Railway (JR) system and the Tokyo Metro subway system. Please know that because they are operated separately, ride passes will not work for transportation systems outside of their own. We recommend picking up a prepaid PASMO or Suica card to pay for everything from subway fares to vending machines.
Concerned about reading signs in Japan? Most signs are actually written in both Japanese and English making it easier for English-speakers to get around in Japan. If you come across a sign that doesn’t have the translation in English, use your Google Translate app to help.
Thrifty Tip #1: Pick up a prepaid PASMO or Suica card to pay for everything from subway fares to vending machines.
Thrifty Tip #2: If you plan on getting a Japan Rail Pass, be sure to purchase yours prior to arrival as it will save you time and money. Research the pass you will want to purchase to fit your travel needs.
Things to do in Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market: Make it a priority to visit the world’s largest fish market during your stay in Japan. When you’re visiting the market, be sure you check the calendar to see if they are open. Get there early as shops often close in the early afternoon. Early mornings are the best time to check out the Tsukiji Fish Market.
If you plan on seeing the tuna auction, be sure to get there early (between 3:00 & 4:00 am is recommended) as you will need to sign up for a chance to get one of the tickets to view this iconic event.
Sensō-Ji: Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, Sensō-ji, is a must-see for travelers in Japan. Spend some time visiting the five-story pagoda, checking out the shops in Nakamise Dori and try a few Japanese treats that are for sale in the area.
Ghibli Museum: If you’re a fan of Hayao Miyazaki or Studio Ghibli films, make sure you get tickets to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo. You will need to purchase your tickets in advance as you cannot purchase tickets at the Museum. Be prepared to buy yourself a Totoro stuffed animal from your childhood dreams.
Shibuya Crossing: You’ve seen it in the movies and now you can check it out in real life. Go to a nearby shop and watch from above what is potentially the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.
Owl Cafes: Want to hang out with Owls? Check out one of Japan’s famous owl cafes. They are often inexpensive to visit and something you can squeeze into your day. Check out one of our favorite cafes, Akiba Fukurou.
Drive a Go-Kart: Have you seen the pictures or videos of real-life Mario Kart in the streets of Tokyo? This is a fun way to see the city of Tokyo that you won’t get anywhere else! If you’re planning on driving in Japan (go-kart or regular vehicle), be sure you have an International Driver’s Permit as it is a requirement.
Robot Restaurant: Giant robots, laser shows, dancing and more. Make sure to book your tickets in advance to save extra money for this fun show.
Foods to Try
It may sound odd, but try some onigiri from a Conbini (convenience store like a 7/11 or Lawson). It’s a cheap and delicious snack or meal for locals and travelers. In fact, find myself eating one almost every day when in Tokyo.
While you’re in Japan, we also recommend you check out some of the following foods:
- Curry Rice
- Melon Soda (drink)
Get a menu in Japanese and can’t read it? Kindly ask your server if they have a menu in English. If you find yourself at a place that doesn’t have an English menu, be sure to use your Google Translate app as mentioned above.
Lodging in Tokyo
Hotels can be expensive in Tokyo and are often much smaller than the hotels you may be used to in the United States. If you can’t find a hotel deal that works for you, try checking out hostels, Airbnb or consider maximizing your hotel points. We stayed in an Airbnb for only $50 per night just a few blocks away from Sensō-ji.
Thrifty Tip #2: New to Airbnb? You can save $40 on your first stay by using our referral link.
Thrifty Tip #3: Need help redeeming hotel points in Tokyo? Use one of our favorite resources, pointimize.com to find and select the perfect property for your stay.
Thrifty Tip #4: Open to trying something new? Check out a Japanese Capsule hotel. These are cost effective and great for solo travelers.
Once you get to Japan, there will be plenty of thrifty things to do. Use our guide to Tokyo, Japan to help you navigate, but be sure to spend time researching the things that you want to do as you prepare for your trip. Tokyo is one of my favorite cities in the world and I hope it will become one of yours as well.
Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer.