Don’t worry, even if you’re broke af, you will never run out of things to do in Tokyo.
Japan may be one of the top travel destinations among Singaporeans, but it’s also earned itself a reputation for being super expensive. There is literally no such thing as “cheap flights to Tokyo” – return trip tickets go up to $800+ in December, and even on off-peak months like January, June and September, they’re about $650.
Then how like that? Well, if you’ve spent all of your holiday budget on the plane tickets, it’s time to hunt for free activities and tours.
20 free things to do in Tokyo, Japan
Lucky for us, there are tons of free museums, tours and other places of interest in Tokyo. Here are some of the top free things to do – you can grab free beer, visit a free zoo, and thanks to some pretty swell local volunteers, even take a free traditional wasen boat ride.
#1 Observe a tuna auction at Toyosu Fish Market (previously Tsukiji Fish Market)
Last month, the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market closed its doors, reopening as the Toyosu Fish Market in eastern Tokyo. Every day at 5.30am to 6.30am, tuna auctions are held in the building, and visitors are welcome to watch from the observation windows. There’s an observation deck too, but that’s closed until Jan 2019.
#2 Go for the Suntory Musashino Brewery tour and drink free beer
The Suntory brewery is located in Fuchu, Tokyo, and you can take a free shuttle bus from Bubaigawara Station. The tour brings you around Suntory’s factory, where you can learn about the brewing process and sample up to 3 free beers.
#3 Not a fan of beer? Go for the Coca-Cola Tama Plant tour instead
It’s a universal fact that Coca-cola is the only soft drink worth the calories, so a trip to the factory where the magic happens most definitely makes it to my bucket list. The tour is 100% free, but you must contact the factory for a reservation first.
#4 Get certified as a “taste panel meister” at the Morinaga Milk Tama Plant
Beer and coke aren’t that child-friendly, but milk is. Here, you can have fun testing your palate – if your tongue can discern subtle hints of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami, Morinaga Milk will “certify” you a taste panel meister and you can taste-test their dairy products.
#5 Gross yourself out at the Meguro Parasitological Museum
On a diet? Here’s something to make sure you never get your appetite back: The Meguro Parasitological Museum is a whole museum devoted to parasites. Yup – like tapeworms and shit.
#6 Get a bird’s eye view of the cityscape from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The most popular observatory in the city is probably Tokyo Tower, but you need to pay to enter that one. The tallest free tower is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where you can view landmarks like Mount Fuji from 202m above ground.
#7 Visit the Sumo Museum and observe practice at a sumo stable
Sumo wrestling is an iconic sport of Japan, so what’s a trip to Tokyo without some cultural immersion? The Sumo Museum in Tokyo is free to enter, and if you really, really dig the sport, you can even arrange to visit a sumo school to watch a training session. Most of these stables are in the Ryogoku district.
#8 Say hi to Hachiko in Shibuya
Hachiko was an Akita dog who lived in the 1920s. His story of faithfulness is famous worldwide and has even inspired movies. In 1934, the first Hachiko statue was unveiled at Shibuya Station, but that was melted in WWII. Don’t worry though – it’s since been replaced, and is still at the same place.
#9 Visit the Godzilla statues at Hibiya
Speaking of iconic animal statues, there are 2 more to see – the Heisei-era Godzilla at Toho Cinemas Hibiya, as well as the more modern Shin Godzilla at Hibiya Chanter Square.
#10 Visit a Pokemon Centre in Tokyo
Even if you don’t intend to spend all your money on Pikachu plushies, the Pokemon Centre is a must-visit for any fan of the franchise. There are 3 Pokemon Centres in Tokyo – they are at Nihombashi Takashimaya, Sunshine City in Ikebukuro and Tokyo Skytree.
#11 Take photos of the “Statue of Liberty”
Can’t afford a trip to New York? Play pretend and take photos of the replica in Odaiba. The statue also overlooks the beautiful rainbow bridge and Tokyo Bay.
#12 Take a stroll and enjoy the buskers at Shinjuku Station, Shibuya Station and Yoyogi Park
You don’t always have to head to a concert hall to hear good music. Give the street buskers a chance – there are usually performers at Shinjuku Station, Shibuya Station and Yoyogi Park. Technically it’s free to enjoy, but if you like the performance, donate a bit lah.
#13 Visit historical temples and shrines – Senso-ji, Meiji Jingu, Senkaku-ji, and more
Tokyo is a treasure trove of culture with many stories to tell. While some temples and shrines require a token admission fee, many don’t. Free ones include the Sensoji temple, Meiji Jingu shrine and the Senkakuji temple.
#14 Visit the Imperial Palace
The Imperial Palace is also free to enter – although not all areas are open to public (because it’s the current residence of the royal family!). It’s near the Tokyo Station, and you will need to apply for a visit permit in advance (online). If you’re lazy to do that, the East Gardens are always open to public.
#15 Join in some matsuri festival fun
Matsuri means “folk festival”, which is basically a traditional celebration of sort. Depending on when you travel to Tokyo, you may be able to join in a free festival or two. Festivals typically run from spring to autumn. Exact dates change with the year, so be sure to Google before you head down.
#16 Visit the Louis Vuitton Espace Tokyo
Nope, don’t hope to cop the latest LV bags here. The Louis Vuitton Espace Tokyo is a “glass box” on the top of the LV building in Omotesando. It houses contemporary art, and is free for all to appreciate.
#17 Sit on fancy toilet bowls at the Toto showroom
Everyone knows that Japan makes the best, most fancy loos in the world. They heat up in the winter, and play music when you go number 2. If that kind of stuff excites you, you can head to the Toto showroom in Shinjuku where the latest toilet technology is showcased.
#18 Visit the Gyosen Park and Edogawa City Shizen Zoo
There are many stunning national parks in Tokyo, but if you want to see not just flora, but some fauna too, head to Gyosen Park. The Edogawa City Shizen Zoo is right next to it. As expected of a free zoo, there aren’t any huge tigers or lions, but instead they have cute penguins, goats and the likes.
#19 Take a wasen boat ride at the Yokojikkengawa Shinsui Park
Tokyo was once upon a time a river city, and the traditional Japanese equivalent of our “sampan” is called a wasen. If you want to experience a ride on this retro boat, go to Yokojikkengawa Shinsui Park – that’s where the “Wasen Tomo no Kai” volunteer group offers free 10-min rides to park goers.
#20 Go to a 7-story sex superstore (M’s)
Leave the kids out of this one: If you’re looking to spice things up in the bedroom, you should definitely plan some time to go shopping at M’s in Akihabara. The 7-story superstore is all about sex toys, role play outfits and Japanese porn DVDs.
Other important things to note about travelling to Tokyo
Here are some additional tips if you’re heading to Japan for the first time.
Changing money – what’s the SGD to JPY exchange rate?
Of course, once you have the flights booked, you should head to the money changer to change your Singapore dollars to Japanese yen. The exchange rate is about 1 SGD to 83 JPY.
I recommend Googling for online listings of money changers that show live rates. At the time of writing, I used Get4X.com, and found that the following have the best rates for JPY:
- MoolahGo (Shenton Way)
- Bismi Mini Mart & Money Changer (Geylang)
- GCC Exchange (The Arcade)
- Sirajudin Money Changer (People Park)
- Jamal Kazura Aromatics (North Bridge Road)
New departure tax and Airbnb laws to take note of
This year, a couple of new laws were announced in Japan: First, from 2019 onwards, all travellers must pay a departure tax of 1,000JPY (about 12 SGD) when they leave the country.
The next rule is regarding accommodation – effective June 2018, all Japanese Airbnb hosts must register their homes with the government or get a hotel licence.
If Airbnb finds out your host is not “legal”, then your booking will be automatically canceled. Read more about the new Japan laws here.
Getting around Japan – Japan Rail Pass vs SUICA Cards
There are several transport passes for tourists in Japan, the most high-profile of which being the Japan Rail Pass (or JR Pass). That’s a tourist-only pass that allows you unlimited rides on certain lines of the Japan Rail network.
Generally, the JR Pass is a super value-for-money option if you intend to travel across prefectures. For instance, if you’re planning to zip from Tokyo to Osaka and/or Kyoto, getting the JR Pass and taking the shinkansen bullet train will save you lots of time and money.
There are like 2347912837 variants of the JR Pass, so for more information on that, you can read our JR Pass price comparison guide.
You’ll notice that these passes are not cheap. So if you’re just travelling around Tokyo, it might be more cost-effective to get the “Japan EZ-Link” cards. They’re called SUICA cards, which you top-up with credits and use to take the local subway.
Was this guide helpful in helping you plan your trip to Tokyo, Japan? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!