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Tokyo Tourist Tips

15 free things to do in Tokyo

Jul 21, 2011

Tokyo has a reputation as an expensive city, but it offers a wide range of options for even the most budget-conscious traveller. Here is a list of great free things to do in Japan’s capital.

1. Visit Tokyo’s oldest temple

Tokyo's oldest temple, Sensoji, was founded in the 7th century. It's believed the smoke from the huge incense urn in front of the temple has healing powers, so if you visit you are likely to see people rubbing the smoke all over their bodies. In the streets surrounding the temple there are many traditional restaurants and street vendors selling snacks such as rice crackers, sweet bean cakes and green tea ice-cream.

2. Pay your respects at Meiji Shrine

Meiji Shrine is a huge Shinto shrine set in a calm garden oasis in the centre of Tokyo. The large shrine, dedicated to Emperor Meiji, is set amongst a 178-acre gardening containing plants from all over Japan. Shrines are scattered throughout Tokyo so you are likely to see more than one on any visit to Japan.

3. Enjoy one of Tokyo’s many festivals

Festivals are a very important part of Japanese culture and take place regularly throughout the year. The focus of these festivals can be incredibly varied and can include flowers, fertility, longevity, the dead, the moon, children, stars and plenty more. During these festivals you’re likely to see processions, food stalls and live entertainment. Click here for a calendar of Japan's annual festivals.

4. Visit Tsukiji Fish Market

From 9am visitors can enter Tsukiji, the largest seafood market in the world. Here you'll find stalls selling dried mushrooms, seaweed, tea, pickles, ceramics and kitchenware. At the knife stores you can even have your name engraved on the knives. And of course there are numerous sushi shops where you can enjoy an extremely fresh sushi breakfast. Nearby is the Tsukiji Honganji temple with exotic Hindu-influenced 1930s architecture - also free! Please note that the early morning tuna auction is currently closed to tourists.

5. Play with the gadgets in the Sony Showroom

At the 11-story Sony Building you can fiddle with high-tech gizmos that won't be on sale in Britain for at least a year. You can even try out the latest PlayStation software on a giant, high-quality monitor. Other showrooms that can be visited for free include the Nissan Gallery, Toyota's MEGA WEB. and Honda Welcome Plaza where you can see daily Asimo robot demonstrations.

6. Visit a photo gallery

During your stay in Tokyo you’ll find plenty of sights that’ll make you reach for your camera and get snap happy. However, if you fancy a break from taking pictures, why not check out some of the city’s top photo galleries operated by some of the major names in photography. Fuji Film Square is in Roppongi. Canon, Nikon and Kodak all have photo exhibition showrooms in Ginza while Konica Minolta and Pentax have showrooms in Shinjuku. At these galleries you’ll see frequently changing amateur and professional exhibitions and some of the galleries also contain small camera museums.

7. Go on a free guided tour with a local

Tokyo boasts many sights for you to enjoy and what better way to see these sights than by taking a free guided tour with one of the city’s locals to show you the way. The Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups are comprised mostly of students, housewives and retirees, and operate throughout the city. Tours depart from a variety of locations at different times throughout the day and cover attractions like Ueno Park, the Imperial Palace and plenty more. The tours themselves are free and you are only expected to pay for the guide’s travel expenses and any admissions to attractions.

8. Check out some of Tokyo’s beautiful gardens and parks

Bonsai trees, stone lanterns, Zen rock gardens and colourful carp! You’ll find all this and more on a stroll through some of the Japanese gardens found throughout Tokyo. And what's more, many of these gardens are free to enter. There’s the Imperial Palace East Garden, the Nezu Shrine Garden, famous for its blooming azaleas in May, and the Shin Edogawa Garden, a classical Japanese garden complete with carp and stone lanterns. Tokyo’s Ueno Park is famous for its beautiful cherry blossoms in April and also hosts a selection of museums and more.

9. See stunning views of Tokyo

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, or Tokyo City Hall all as it’s also known, soars up for 243 meters above the ground. Designed by Kenzo Tange, the building’s twin towers cover 48 floors. Up on the 45th floor is where you’ll find the public observation decks, which can be reached by elevator in a speedy 55-second trip. Once you step onto the observation deck you’ll be faced with stunning views of the Tokyo, especially on clear days when you’ll get brilliant views of Yokohama to the southwest and Mount Fuji to the west. Open daily 9.30am-11pm.

10. Visit some of the city’s many free museums

Tokyo has an incredibly wide variety of museums for you to check out. If you’re on a strict budget, don’t worry because many of the city’s museums won’t cost you a single yen to visit. These free museums include the following: Sumo Museum, Parasite Museum, Advertising Museum, Yebisu Beer Museum, Eyeglass Museum, Japan Stationary Museum, Fire Museum, Banknote and Postage Stamp Museum and the Currency Museum. So from sumo to specs, you’ll be able to see them all entirely free of charge.

11. Visit a sumo stable

Sumo is one of the major attractions in Tokyo and if you’re lucky you might get the chance to visit a sumo stable during your time in the city. These stables are where sumo wrestlers live and train, and there are over 50 sumo stables in Tokyo. When the wrestlers aren’t involved in tournaments, you can go along and watch their early morning practices. Ask at reception in your hotel to find out if there's a stable nearby that you can visit.

12. Go people watching in Harajuku

Every Sunday, teenagers gather in this area around Harajuku Station and show off a wide variety of styles including colourful cosplay costumes. In nearby Yoyogi Park, which is one of the city’s largest parks, you’ll see a great variety of interesting characters as you stroll through. Local bands play around the perimeter of the park, people practice martial arts, and a host of other performers entertain the crowds. One of the must visit areas during your stay in Tokyo!

13. See the Imperial Palace grounds by bike

Borrow a bike for free and cycle the Imperial Palace cycling course. The bikes are available on a first come first serve basis every Sunday. Take your pick from regular bikes, tandems and kids bikes and then it is yours until 3pm.

14. Learn about Japan’s traditional drink

Visit the ‘Sake Plaza’ to learn all about Japanese alcohol. There is a library there with around 6,000 books on sake and a computer to search for particular brands. You can also try some in the tasting area!

15. Tokyo Architectural Tour

Take yourself on a walking tour of Omotesando boulevard. Japan has produced some of the most exciting contemporary architects from Tadao Ando to Shigeru Ban, and attracted many other international architects such as Herzog and de Meuron, resulting in amazingly innovative architecture throughout Japan. The shopping boulevard of Omotesando in Tokyo is a good place to see a large concentration of stunning contemporary architecture.

15 free things to do in Tokyo
Tokyo's oldest temple, Sensoji, was founded in the 7th century / Image via

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