by Danielle Demetriou, The Telegraph, November 7, 2018
Tokyo may have long enjoyed a reputation as one of the more expensive cities on the planet to visit – but it’s also surprisingly easy to explore the city without spending a penny. Here are some alternative (and free) suggestions for enjoying Tokyo, from temple hopping in the low-key eastern neighbourhoods to people watching in street culture hotspot Harajuku.
Try surfing in 'The Hamptons of Tokyo'
For a taste of Japan-by-the-sea, head to Kamakura, the ancient capital of Japan, an hour from Tokyo by train. Set against a backdrop of green mountains, the coastal town – dubbed the Hamptons of Tokyo – is home to a thriving creative community, with a focus on surfing, organic food and a leisurely pace of life. It's also a haven of old temples – don’t miss Kotokuin which is home to a giant Buddha statue. It’s a good size to explore on foot (otherwise, turn right when you leave the station and rent a bicycle to venture out on two wheels).
Nearest station: Kamakura
Experience Tokyo's new fish market
Before its closure, Tokyo’s old fish market, Tsukiji, was one of the city’s most iconic attractions, with jetlagged visitors more than happy to rise at ungodly pre-sunrise hours to wander among the surreal rows of seafood and watch the famous tuna auction, before eating a deliciously fresh sushi breakfast. Now the whole operation has moved to a man-made island in Tokyo Bay and a space that is nearly double the size and completely different in atmosphere – modern, bright and spacious (although critics say: less charming). The opening of Toyosu Market marks a new chapter in Tokyo’s urban evolution as a string of major developments come to completion ahead of the 2020 Olympics. If you want to get a sense of the fish market's past as well as its future, many of the sushi joints that fringed Tsukiji remain open – for now.
Contact: 00 81 3 5320 5720
Opening times: Mon-Sat, 5am-5pm
Nearest station: Shijomae Station
Enjoy Lotus ponds, gardens and people watching in the park
Museums, gardens, shrines, lotus ponds and even a few pandas at the zoo – the expansive, green Ueno Park is a great one-stop shop. In addition to some of the best people watching in Tokyo, highlights include Shinobazu Pond, with its carpet of lotuses, and Bentendo, an octagonal temple set on an island. Springtime flower appreciation is also a major event – thousands descend on the park to picnic under the blooming cherry trees. For those happy to pay entrance fees, there’s also a zoo and a string of museums (including Tokyo National Museum, the oldest in Japan).
Contact: 00 81 3 3828 5644; gotokyo.org
Nearest station: Ueno Station
Opening times: Daily, 5am-11pm
See rainbow-bright teenage tribes in the street-fashion district
A trip to Tokyo just isn't the same without spotting a crazily dressed teenager in a panto-esque maid's outfit. This only-in-Japan sight is almost always guaranteed in the street fashion district Harajuku - and in particular on the colourful pedestrianised street Takeshita Dori. Here, crowds of rainbow-bright teenage tribes (most likely with their school uniforms stuffed in their bags) can be seen in an array of trend-triggering fashions as they peruse the street’s colourful stores, lined with stores selling vintage clothing, kitsch accessories and – a local specialty – sugar high-inducing strawberry waffles.
Address: Takeshita Street, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku
Nearest station: Harajuku Station
Discover a serene forest shrine in the heart of the city
In typical Tokyo style, one of the city’s most peaceful forest shrines is just a stone’s throw from the 21st-century Harajuku crowds. A wide path lined with thick, green forests leads to the serene and spacious confines of Meiji Jingu, a perfectly proportioned classic Shinto shrine that is devoted to the spirit of the late Emperor Meiji and his wife. Wear comfortable shoes if possible, avoid taking prams (the path is long and gravelly) and while there look out for silent wedding processions led by the billowing white kimono of a Shinto bride.
Contact: 00 81 3 3379 5511; meijijingu.or.jp
Opening times: Shrine complex open daily, opening and closing at sunrise and sunset (exact times listed on website)
Nearest station: Harajuku Station
Explore temples and markets and in the old geisha district
Sensoji, the city’s oldest Buddhist temple, is one of the most atmospheric places to explore Tokyo’s past. Located in the former geisha district Asakusa, its entrance is marked by the dramatic red lantern Thunder God Gate, while a colourful market selling Japanese crafts and sweets paves the way to its spiralling pagodas and altars where incense is burned, hands are clapped, bells are rung and fortunes are read. It's worth wandering around the surrounding Asakusa neighbourhood, exploring its winding lanes, old kimono stores and Kappabashi Dori, a street lined with kitchenware stores, is a highlight.
Contact: 00 81 3 3842 0181; gotokyo.org
Opening times: Temple grounds always open. Main Hall: Apr-Sep, daily, 6am-5pm; Oct-Mar, daily, 6.30am-5pm
Nearest station: Asakusa Station
Go back in time to an area that shuns Tokyo's hyper-modernity
Swap the modern for the traditional and head to the atmospheric eastern Yanaka neighbourhood. Relatively untouched by wartime bombing or earthquakes, it contrasts dramatically with most of Tokyo. Spend an afternoon exploring its quiet lanes lined with wooden houses, old-fashioned sweet stalls, temples, its famous cemetery and a new generation of young craftsmen setting up shop. Highlights include Sonomitsu, a tiny shoe-making atelier, Scai the Bathhouse, one of Tokyo's best independent art galleries located in a former bathhouse, Yanaka Beer Hall, and Kayaba Coffee just around the corner.
Nearest station: Nippori Station