Japan · Travel Tales

Tokyo for Cheap: Backpacking Japan for five days with $400

Tokyo skyline at night. Taken from the Mori Tower Observation Deck at Roppongi Hills
Tokyo skyline at night. Taken from the Mori Tower Observation Deck at Roppongi Hills

It was a school day in January when Edison, Angel, and I went knocking on our respective classrooms’ doors because of, of all things, a Cebu Pacific seat sale. I didn’t even know where I really wanted to go — originally I’d  considered Bali — until Edison said, “Tokyo na lang!” And after a bit of discussion, I felt that giddy feeling I get when purchasing really cheap airline tickets (especially as I couldn’t see actual money changing hands, thanks to my credit card). But the thing is, return tickets went for a little less than P6000, all-in!

Now that was accomplished — that is, until we started our research and found out that Tokyo was the most expensive city in the world to live in*, and that a tourist visa was not as easy to secure. Yikes. But we had our ways; we made money from tutoring and withdrew from our savings, and I think being tenured teachers helped us secure our visa. And finally, in May, we found ourselves in Narita Airport singing “Narita akooo…” and exchanging the $400 we’d each brought with us.

This is where $400 (that’s around P17,600) can take you in Tokyo:

  1. Many areas in Tokyo: Asakusa, Sumida, Ueno, Ginza, Roppongi, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Odaiba…
  2. Ueno Zoo
  3. Enoshima and Kamakura, an hour away by train from Tokyo
  4. Tokyo Disneyland!
  5. The Roppongi Hills Observation Deck, where you can view the Tokyo skyline
  6. Uniqlo and H&M in Harajuku and Roppongi Hills (and yes, you can buy cheap stuff there)
  7. Pasalubong shopping, including lots of Kit Kat (in matcha and sakura matcha flavors) and Royce chocolates
  8. Many, many train rides, including those times we got lost and had to backtrack
  9. A few expensive snacks here and there
Tokyo Disneyland: ¥ 6200 for a day tour (without rides)
Tokyo Disneyland: ¥ 6200 for a day tour

Add to this our P5,953 airfare and P4,630 each for a four-night stay with breakfast in a hostel (previously booked through Agoda), and we individually spent a total of a little more than P28,000 in all. This was like my budget for three weeks in Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia in 2013, but — again — Japan!!!  And I still have a few hundred yen left with me. Many other blogs I’ve read estimate their expenses at P40,000 per person or more, excluding airfare, for five days.

How did we do it?

By being cheapskates, only classy.

Three classy cheapskates at the Akihabara subway station
Three classy cheapskates at the Akihabara subway station

Our Itinerary (5 days 4 nights)

  • Day 1: Depart from NAIA Terminal 3, arrive at Narita Airport
  • Take a train to Asakusa
  • Check in at Sakura Hostel Asakusa
  • Visit the sights in Asakusa and Sumida: Sensoji Temple, Nakamise shopping street, Sumida Park, Asahi Beer Tower, views of Tokyo Skytree
  • Day 2: Spend the morning at Ueno Park and Ueno Zoo
  • Walk around Akihabara Electric Town
  • Go to the Imperial Palace Gardens
  • Take a long walk to the Ginza shopping district
  • Spend late afternoon in Roppongi
  • See the skyline at the Mori Tower Observation Deck
Me looking really happy in the Imperial Palace Gardens
Me looking really happy in the Imperial Palace Gardens
  • Day 3: Go to Shinjuku for the train to Enoshima
  • Climb the Enoshima Shrine
  • Go to the Sea Candle in the Samuel Cocking Gardens for a view of Tokyo, Yokohama, and (if you’re lucky) Mt. Fuji
  • Take the train to Kamakura
  • Visit the temples Hase-dera and Kōtoku-in
  • Take the train back to Tokyo, get off at Harajuku
  • Shop while people-watching in Harajuku
  • Walk to Shibuya
  • Find Hachiko’s statue and be amazed at the crazy Shibuya crossing
  • Day 4: Take the train to Tokyo Disneyland
  • Go crazy in Tokyo Disneyland
  • Take the train back to Harajuku to visit the Meiji-jingu
  • Take a couple of trains to Odaiba. Spend late afternoon to evening here.
  • Stare at the futuristic architecture of Odaiba
  • Go to Diver City to see the huge Gundam statue
  • Go back to Asakusa. Shop at Don Quijote for pasalubong
  • Day 5: Take the train to Narita Airport, fly back home

Accommodations

We stayed in Sakura Hostel Asakusa, very near the Sensoji Temple and about a fifteen-minute walk to the nearest train stations (Asakusa or Tawaramachi on the Ginza Line). We stayed in a six-bed mixed dorm. Bathroom is shared but always clean. There’s glorious hot water and breakfast is free! A night is ¥ 3000. It was Eds and Angel’s first time to be in a hostel, but they’re awesome because they’re not very queasy about sharing a room with other travelers (even though the other backpackers’ stuff were all over the floor).

Transportation

“A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota

Yurakucho concourse under the metro.
Yurakucho concourse under the metro.

We took the very complicated train system in Tokyo. This, compounded by the fact that none of us can read Japanese, meant that we got lost or got on more expensive (but very comfy) trains. And taking the train is quite expensive as it is already: a ride one station away is already worth ¥ 140. But this is cheaper than taking a cab.

It just takes good planning to be able to maximize your train tickets. You could, for example, explore western Tokyo (Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku) in one day. Our fourth day was not as well-planned: we went to Tokyo Disneyland, then went to the Meiji shrine on the other side of Tokyo, then went back to the eastern side for Odaiba. You may choose not to do this. 🙂

You HAVE to go to Odaiba to see this, though.
You HAVE to go to Odaiba to see this, though.

By the way, there’s a bit of etiquette on Tokyo trains: you’re not allowed to eat, you’re not allowed to talk (loudly…but as I saw it, barely anyone talked) or answer your phone, and you’re not really supposed to disturb the passenger beside you when you sit. I mean, here in the Philippines, any small space between passengers of the MRT means there still is space for another person.

Taking public transportation also meant that we had to walk. A lot. Just on our first day, my feet were already sore. Neither my boots nor sneakers were helpful in taking me across Tokyo without having to drag my feet after a few hours of walking, but seeing the Japanese women ambling in high heels made me feel bad about my complaints.

But walking, especially in the May weather, is just so lovely in Tokyo. The sidewalks are wide, and there were textured parts of the footpath and train stations that I didn’t understand at first. On our fifth day, when Iya — a former co-teacher, now living in Japan — took us out for dinner, she explained that these are tactile pavings to guide the blind or visually impaired as they walk.

Riding bikes is a norm, too. The tactile paving is the yellow line on the left.
Riding bikes is a norm, too. The tactile paving is the yellow line on the left.

Wow. Here, I’ve always wished our government respected even the lowliest of commuters.

EDIT: My friend Lisa, who has traveled Japan way more than I have, suggests getting an all-day pass if you’re the type who likes to go round and round a city via train. You can plan your trip and see if you need an all-day pass using the Tokyo Metro line here.

Food

An example of expensive (and not really filling) snacking: matcha and red bean pastry in Kamakura's Hasedera Temple.
An example of expensive (and not really filling) snacking: matcha and red bean pastry in Kamakura’s Hasedera Temple.

This took up a lot of our expenses. On the other hand, we made do by doing the following:

1. We carbo-loaded in our hostel, where breakfast is included in our reservation.

2. We did not always settle down to eat. We bought snacks in convenience stores, e.g. Lawson (the cheapest), FamilyMart or 7-11, and ate wherever we could, such as in a park bench near a snack stall on our way to the Imperial Palace. We were walking a lot, and since it’s considered rude in Japan to eat while walking, we didn’t feel the urge to eat…until we finally rested and heard our stomachs (and feet) complaining. Then we did proper eating.

Not-so-cheap snacks bought in 7-11: meat with salad, onigiri, and milk tea. I love that even the salad includes a calorie count.
Not-so-cheap snacks bought in 7-11: meat with salad, onigiri, and milk tea. I love that even the salad includes a calorie count.

Shopping

Daiso (the 100-yen store) is awesome, but more so is Don Quijote. The Asakusa branch was where we bought much of our pasalubong, which was so convenient because it was 11 PM when we got back from Odaiba on our last night and Don Quijote was there, open 24 hours a day.

Signs like these also help.
Signs like these are so overwhelming!!!

We also did a bit of shopping in Uniqlo in Roppongi Hills and in H&M in Harajuku, where there was that bit of “OMG do you know how much this is back home???” kilig feeling when we found clothes on sale. ¥ 1000 for a cute H&M dress? What a steal!

Sightseeing

Okay, the great thing about Tokyo is that most of the sightseeing is free. You’d need to pay for the museums, but the Imperial Palace Gardens, Sensoji Temple and surrounds, the Meiji Shrine, the parks like Sumida Park, Harajuku (for people-watching) and Odaiba (for architecture-staring) are all free.

Meiji-jingu: Free.
Meiji-jingu: Free.

Here’s where we had to spend for admission:

  • Observation Deck in Mori Tower, Roppongi Hills: ¥ 1500 (an alternative: Tokyo Metropolitan Tower in Asakusa is free)
  • Tokyo Disneyland: ¥ 6200 (one-day pass)
  • Samuel Cocking Garden and Sea Candle in Enoshima: ¥ 500
  • Ueno Zoo: ¥ 600

You could go to many other museums in Ueno and Odaiba instead of spending on Kit Kats (as I did, hehe).

As you can see, it’s possible to go to Tokyo on a budget. You just need a lot of self-restraint and a bit of careful planning!

*As of March 4 this year, Tokyo has been knocked down to sixth on the richest cities list — but it still is expensive.

Edison, Angel and I would like to thank Ms. Ai, who helped us with our itinerary, and Iya, who treated us to Japanese-Italian fusion dinner and taught us Japanese etiquette!

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10 thoughts on “Tokyo for Cheap: Backpacking Japan for five days with $400

  1. Hello there, nice blog! Just wanted to comment about the 6200 yen 1 day pass in Tokyo Disneyland. It includes all the rides already. 🙂

    Also, a little food hack on perishable goods being sold by convenience stores and other supermarkets (packed onigiri, sushi, sashimi, etc). Most stores lower their prices for these items to almost half when past 5PM already. Probably because they are not that super fresh anymore, but still pristine to be consumed. 🙂

    1. Hi! This is really a helpful blog. Me and my family just went in Tokyo Disneyland last August and we paid 6200 yen for the ride-all-you-can pass. Also, children below 4 years old are free.

      For me, eating in convenience stores is not advisable as the foods are quite expensive. With the amount you will spend in convenience stores, you can already dine in some cheap restaurants around. Or buy the same thing in supermarkets as they offer lower price than convenient stores.

      1. Hi Alza, yup, buying in supermarkets was really cheaper; we’d buy bread and cookies there. (My snacks pictured above cost me quite a bit, but we were hungry and 7-11 just happened to be *there*)

        Thanks for the info about Disneyland!

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