Tokyo has a reputation for being expensive. It’s true that the basic costs aren’t really cheap, but at the same time there’s a variety of free entertainment options.
If you Google free activities in Tokyo, you’ll find an enormous number of attractions. The Tsukiji Fish Market and the sumo stables, for example, are popular among tourists, but these aren’t places where locals typically go.
To help you experience Tokyo less like a tourist and more like its inhabitants, our clued-up local Kazue shares 10 of her favourite things to see and do for free.
1. Enjoy the greenery: cherry blossoms and more!
Some people say there is no nature in Tokyo. There are many buildings indeed, but if you have a closer look you’ll see that the city is also filled with plants.
Tokyoites have been cherishing plants for centuries. People who visited Japan during the Edo period (1603–1868), Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold, Robert Fortune and Vittorio Arminjon, for instance, were fascinated by the Japanese gardening culture in which even poor people enjoyed growing plants and making the most of limited space and resources.
Regardless of class, enjoying plants is still one of the favourite pastimes of Tokyo locals.
Photo credit: Dick Thomas Johnson
If you visit Tokyo in spring, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to do ohanami (cherry blossom viewing), which typically involves having a party under the cherry trees. People bring food and drinks, sit down on picnic rugs and chat with their friends or colleagues.
As long as you mind your Ps and Qs (don’t damage the branches of the trees, don’t be too loud, don’t get too drunk and don’t litter), you can do it for free anywhere, from famous parks such as Ueno, Asukayama, Yoyogi and Sumida to small local parks.
Otherwise you can simply take a walk under the trees; I recommend Sotobori Park, which stretches for two kilometres along the railway. It’s one of the best places for ohanami-walking in Tokyo!
Don’t be disappointed if you miss the ohanami season, though. There’s something worth seeing all year round: peonies in winter, azaleas and wisterias in late spring, hydrangeas in early summer, morning glories and Chinese lantern plants in summer…
In autumn you can admire the red and golden leaves that cover the city’s streets, parks and mountains. I recommend you visit the tunnel of gingko trees in Meiji-jingu Gaien. Chrysanthemum festivals also take place in autumn and have a very Japanese atmosphere.
The amazing thing is that almost everything can be seen free of charge in Tokyo’s temples and parks!
Photo credit: humbletree
2. Immerse yourself in spiritual experiences
Can you guess the number of shrines and temples in Tokyo? According to statistics published by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, there are 1,469 and 2,880, respectively. While Kyoto’s most famous temples have admission fees, you can visit temples and shrines for free in Tokyo.
At some Tendai and Shingon (esoteric Buddhist sects) temples, Fukagawa Fudoson for example, you can see powerful Goma rituals. Some Sodo (another major Buddhist sect) temples offer Zen meditation for free, Seishoji being one of the best places to experience it in Tokyo.
Shrines and temples are also where local festivals take place. There are lots of festivals to choose from, especially in summer, and they’re free to attend as well.
Photo credit: Richard Cassan
3. Discover Japanese gardens in hotels
Tokyo is one of the best cities for enjoying Japanese gardens. One of the reasons is that, during the Edo period, feudal lords lived in mansions. Having a gorgeous garden was a symbol of their power. Consequently, Japanese gardening techniques spread throughout the city.
Some of these gardens still exist as parks. Although many of the most famous ones charge admission fees, there are some that you can enter for free.
I recommend the following two gardens, both of which are free and owned by hotels that welcome visitors:
Happouen: Visit this immaculately maintained garden and you’ll forget you’re in the middle of Tokyo. There’s even a “bonsai road” where you can see a 520-year-old bonsai!
Chinzanso: This garden was established in 1861 during the Meiji era. It’s a popular place for weddings, so it’s likely you’ll see lots of brides, some dressed in beautiful kimono. From late May to June you can also see fireflies for free.
Photo credit: Takayuki Miki (三木貴幸)
4. Go and see the Imperial Palace
You may be wondering if there are any castles in Tokyo. Actually, there aren’t any completely preserved ones, but there are many ruins. You can see the moats, walls and ramparts of what was Japan’s biggest castle, Edo-jo, on the grounds of the Imperial Palace.
Photo credit: Thilo Hilberer
5. Admire scenic views of the city at night
There are several nice places where you can enjoy the dynamic night-time view of Tokyo besides the paid observation decks at Tokyo Skytree, Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills. The most famous free observation deck is located in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. The great thing about this one is that it’s open until 11 pm almost every day.
Another free spot that has recently become popular among locals is the Bunkyo Civic Center. It’s calmer than other observation decks and, as there aren’t so many buildings around it, you get a relatively unobstructed view. It’s popular with those who enjoy taking photos because the windows are angled to not reflect indoor lighting at night.
Photo credit: Richard Cassan
6. Make the most of free museum entry
Most of the famous museums in Japan charge an admission fee, but some allow you to enter for free on certain days, so make sure to check the website of the museum that interests you before your visit.
For example, the National Museum of Modern Art offers free entry on the first Sunday of every month, May 18 (International Museum Day) and November 3 (Culture Day).
Another one that you can visit for free is INTERMEDIATHEQUE. Opened in 2013, it’s gaining attention as an academic, artistic and experimental museum. Inside you’ll find a whale skeleton, a giraffe skeleton and much more. It’s located just one minute from Tokyo Station.
Photo credit: Carla
7. Join a brewery tour
Can you guess which alcoholic beverage is most popular in Japan? It’s beer, not sake! If you like beer, it’s worth visiting the breweries in and around Tokyo. Suntory Brewery, for example, provides free factory tours to the public (advance booking is required). You can learn how the beer is made and enjoy up to three glasses for free!
Photo credit: Mr. Leeds
8. Take a traditional Japanese boat ride
Koto ward, in cooperation with “Wasen Tomono-Kai” offers free traditional Japanese boat ride services from 10:00 to 14:15 about once a week. Check their schedule on their website (Note: the schedule is in Japanese. This service is available on the days highlighted in yellow) or inquiry them by phone +81-3-3647-2538.
Photo credit: mcha-jp.com
9. Try clam digging
If you want to do something different, why not try clam digging in Tokyo! The general season is from mid-March to June. You can do it for free at several spots, for example Jonan-jima Park, Odaiba Park, Kasai Rinkai Park and the beach close to Haneda Airport.
Photo credit: iris
10. Go trekking
Trekking in Tokyo? Yes, as mentioned in my previous blog post, about 40% of Tokyo is mountains and forests. Mount Takao, which is 599 metres high, is the easiest mountain for one-day trekking. It offers beautiful views over Tokyo and, on clear days, Mount Fuji. It’s also famous for being the habitat of giant flying squirrels.
Photo credit: Haijme Nakamo