11 free things to do in Tokyo
Exploring the Big Sushi is a mind-blowing experience, but it can also blow your budget. Don't despair – there’s an abundance of things to do and see in Tokyo that don’t cost a single yen. From gardens and temples to contemporary art, sumo practice and a world-famous fish market, you can experience some of the best of Tokyo for free.
1. Jog or pedal around the Imperial Palace
Slip on your sneakers and join the joggers following the broad moats and park paths that surround the Imperial Palace. On Sundays there are also 150 free bikes offered for pedalling along the Palace Cycling Course.
Imperial Palace East Gardens, Tokyo. Image by Toshihiro Gamo
2. Cast your
bid for Tsukiji
Want to witness the famous tuna auctions of Tsukiji Market? Then set your alarm for well before 5am when registration for the maximum of 120 daily viewing places starts. If you arrive later in the morning there is still a lot to see. Check the website before setting off as the market doesn’t operate every day. Note also that the market is moving to a new location late 2016.
3. Visit Sensō-ji
Follow in the footsteps of countless pilgrims by approaching Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s most famous Buddhist temple, in Asakusa, along Nakamise-dōri. The way is lined with colourful stalls selling all manner of souvenirs, from giant rice crackers to exquisitely decorated battledores.
The neighbourhood of Harajuku is also great eye candy. Stroll ginko-tree-lined Omote-sandō, a glam boulevard of up-scale boutiques housed in contemporary architecture; check out the arty explosion at funky Design Festa gallery; or pose and dance along with the youth subcultures around Yoyogi-kōen (Yoyogi Park).
One of the Tokyo's most interesting free museums is the Advertising Museum Tokyo (ADMT). The montage displays of old ads provide an illuminating visual history of commerce in Japan over the last century or so.
6. Geek culture in Akihabara
Die-hard fans of Atom Boy, Evangelion and Gundam will want to swing by the Tokyo Anime Center as part of their explorations of Akihabara (aka ‘Akiba’), geek central for electronic goods emporiums, ‘maid cafes’ and all things anime and manga.
7. Green spaces
Beautiful foliage and horticultural skills can be admired in Tokyo’s traditional gardens. Free-to-enter gardens include those attached to the Hotel New Ōtani in Akasaka and the Hotel Chinzanso, as well as the lush grounds of Happō-en, near Shirokanedai Station, and the Imperial Palace East Garden. Tokyo also has excellent public parks, from the central Yoyogi-kōen, to Inokashira-kōen in west Tokyo (near the Ghibli Museum).
8. Watch sumo
Even if you can't make a sumo tournament, you can see sumo wrestlers going through their training drills at a sumo 'stable', such as Arashio Stable, where visitors watch the morning practice session (asa-keiko) through windows on the street.
9. Play with tomorrow’s technology
No need to resort to industrial espionage: Sony and Toyota have public showrooms displaying their latest gadgets and technology. Sony’s showroom occupies a prominent corner in Ginza, while Toyota is on Odaiba. And for the latest in plumbing, check out the showcase at Toto, creators of the 'Washlet' automated toilet seat/bidet.
10. Public art
and architecture in Roppongi
This fabled nightlife 'hood is also a treat to explore in daylight. There’s plenty of public art scattered around the glitzy commercial complexes of Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown, as well as dazzling contemporary architecture at the National Art Center Tokyo.
11. Visit Tokyo Sky Tree
Tokyo Sky Tree opened in May 2012 as
the world’s tallest ‘free-standing tower’ at 634m. Its
silvery exterior of steel mesh morphs from a triangle at the
base to a circle at 300m. There are two observation decks,
at 350m and 450m. You can see more stuff during daylight
hours – at peak visibility you can see up to 100km away, all
the way to Mt Fuji – but it is at night that Tokyo appears
The panorama from the lower observatory, the Tembō Deck, is spectacular. Don’t miss the small section of glass floor panels, where you can see – dizzyingly – all the way to the ground. The upper observatory, the Tembō Galleria, beneath the digital broadcasting antennas, features a circular glass corridor for more vertiginous thrills. The elevator between the two has a glass front, so you can see yourself racing up the tower as the city grows smaller below.
The ticket counter is on the 4th floor. You'll see signs in English noting the wait and the current visibility. Try to avoid visiting on the weekend, when you might have to wait in line. At the base is Tokyo Sky Tree Town, which includes the shopping centre Solamachi .