Photo: Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, in Tokyo

The Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, leads to pedestrian-only Nakamise Ori and the Sensoji Temple.

Photograph by Kiyoshi Ota, Getty Images

By Jonathan King

With a population that simultaneously embraces unapologetic trendiness and centuries-old traditions, Tokyo presents travelers with paradoxical experiences at every turn. Kimono-clad women amble past contemporary architectural masterpieces. Well-dressed young professionals enjoy a tea ceremony before picking up space-age electronic gadgets at the nearest neon-lighted mall. Such sights make a visit here one of the most eye opening and exciting travel experiences the world has to offer. Unfortunately, even a short stay can break your bank if you are not careful. Despite Japan's two decades of economic stagnation, its capital continues to rank as one of the world's most expensive cities to visit.

With some research and resourcefulness, however, the budget traveler can find a more than sufficient number of free attractions and activities. Let this guide be your starting point.

Arts and Culture

The exhibition hall of government-run Japan Traditional Craft Center displays more than 130 different types of products, ranging from hot-off-the-kiln ceramics to handmade bamboo tea whisks. It deserves a brief visit even if you don't plan to buy anything. To learn how some of the crafts are made, watch demonstrations that take place on the center's second floor.

Check out cutting-edge visual art creations at the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture, located in the tony Meguru neighborhood. Works are exhibited in the museum's two-story main building and in its well-manicured garden.

Several times each year the Tokyo Traditional Arts Program sponsors events that encourage greater appreciation for Japanese folk arts such as Noh, Bunraku, Kabuki, and traditional Japanese music. Performances often take place in the National Theater of Japan. Admission to some of the events is free—check the website. Live events usually cap attendance at 120 persons. Tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis 40 minutes before the shows start.

Soak up the beauty of ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangements, at the Yasukuni Shrine's rotating displays of this minimalist art form. The flowers provide an uplifting counterpoint to the otherwise somber atmosphere of this 141-year-old memorial to Japanese soldiers who have died in combat. Older Tokyoites frequently come here to pay their respects to friends and relatives lost during World War II.

Public rock concerts take place most Sundays in Yoyogi Park. Located adjacent to the Harajuku district—retail epicenter of Japan's most extreme youth fashion trends—the park throngs with teens clad in rockabilly, Lolita, and Goth attire and is one of the best spots in Tokyo for people watching.

Attractions

Climb the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office to take in sweeping views of the city. The tallest building complex in the skyscraper-saturated Shinjuku district, Tokyo's 48-story city hall opened in 1991. Wander observation decks on the 45th floors of its north and south towers for free every day from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Glimpse Mt. Fuji on the horizon when the sky is especially clear.

The 1923 the Great Kanto earthquake and the fires that came in its wake killed more than 50,000 of Tokyo's residents and destroyed nearly 70 percent of the city's buildings. Learn more about this catastrophe at the two-story Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum in the Ryogoku neighborhood. Exhibits include maps of the damage, a display of glass and metal objects distorted by the fire's heat, and a collection of pictures, letters, and diaries left by those who experienced the disaster firsthand. The museum stands in Yokoami park, an open space where post-quake fires claimed the lives of more than 30,000 people who had gathered there in a futile attempt seek refuge from their burning homes. The building shares the park with other memorials.

A 40-foot-high cypress gate guards the entrance to the Meiji Jengu Shrine, Tokyo's most-visited Shinto house of worship. The shrine was constructed in 1920 and is dedicated to Emperor and Empress Meiji, whose reign brought an end to Japan's centuries-long political isolation. On the grounds of the shrine, 100,000 trees shade pathways to a teahouse, pond, and other relaxation spots that feel worlds away from the hustle and bustle of nearby city streets.

Tokyo's oldest Buddhist house of worship, the Sensoji Temple, is the jewel in the crown of the city's well-preserved Asakusa historic district. Constructed in 638 A.D., the temple houses a golden statue of Kannon, Buddhist goddess of mercy, which, according to legend, was pulled from the nearby Sumida River by two unsuspecting fishermen. Visitors do not need to pay to enter the temple, but they may want to bring a few hundred yen with them to spend at the souvenir stalls flanking Nakamise Ori, a pedestrian-only street in the temple's vicinity.

The showrooms of many of Japan's Tokyo-headquartered multi-national companies charge no admission. Admire shiny new cars at Mazda and Nissan, and flip through the channels on the most up-to-date HDTVs at Sony. Alongside displays of high-tech inventions, the Panasonic showroom offers exhibits on the company's efforts to become more environmentally friendly. Megaweb, one Toyota's two showrooms, is a full-scale amusement park complete with motion theater thrill rides and one of the world's tallest Ferris wheels.

A wide moat and towering stone walls restrict access to the grounds of Japan's Imperial Palace, which visitors can explore while on free guided tours offered Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tours are in Japanese, but English audio guides are available. Book your tour at least four days before your visit. If you are unable to make a reservation in time, stop by Imperial Palace East Gardens, which are regularly open to the public and house some of the ruins of Tedo Castle—in its day the largest castle in the world—that once occupied this site.

Food and Drink

Sample fresh sashimi slices while wandering among the 1,500 stalls of Tsukiji, Japan's largest fish market. Nearly all seafood consumed in Tokyo begins its journey from dock to dinner plate here. If you don't mind waking up early, stop by at 5 a.m. to witness the frenzy of market's legendary tuna auctions. When viewing the auctions, tourists must stand on a small platform that cannot accommodate everyone who would like to see the action. So get in line early! The market is open every morning Monday through Saturday. Most of the stalls close by 11 a.m.

Learn about rice production at the Rice Gallery Ginza, housed in the Ginza Gas Hall building. Leave the exhibit with free rice recipes, and—for a few well-spent yen—tableware, cosmetics, and ice cream made from rice. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Sports and Outdoors

The Ryogoku Kokugikan Museum, located next to Japan's national sumo stadium of the same name, features rotating exhibits about the history of Japan's several-hundred-year-old national sport. Admission is free when wrestling tournaments are not in session. Stop by one of the many sumo training stables located in the surrounding Ryogoku neighborhood to observe professional wrestlers engaged in grueling practice sessions. Admission to the stables is free, but tourists should arrange their visits in advance and bring a small gift for the stablemaster.

Nippon Budokan, a martial arts arena built for the 1964 Olympics, frequently holds competitions for judo, karate, naginata, kendo, aikido, shorinji kempo, jukendo, and kyudo. Many events are free. The arena is located north of the Imperial Palace in the cherry-tree-studded Kitomonaru Park.

Looking for options beyond your hotel's gym for a weekend workout? Each Sunday, several streets near the Imperial Palace are closed to traffic and converted into a 2-mile-long cycling route.  Borrow a bike for free from a rental office located just outside the Nishubashimae subway station. Bikes become available at 10 a.m. and must be returned by 3 p.m.

Escape to the Miura Peninsula, just south of the city, to explore one of only a handful of rural places in the hyper-urbanized Tokyo-Yokohoma metropolitan area. A variety of publicly accessible walking trails along the peninsula's rocky shore lead past lighthouses and cozy fishing villages.

Make a half-day excursion to the 2,000-foot-tall Mt. Takao, where several well-kept hiking trails terminate at a peak crowned by a picturesque Buddhist temple that dates to 744 A.D. Hiking trails begin in Takosan-guchi, a village at the foot of the mountain that is serviced by the Keio Line's semi-express train from the Shinjuku station. Stop by the mountain's funicular railway station to pick up free maps in English. Trails are often overcrowded on Saturday and Sunday, so visit during the week.

Exasperated by Tokyo's endless crowds and characterless concrete? If you are visiting in late March or early April, be sure to take a long, leisurely stroll through Ueno Park. The park's 1,000 or so cherry trees are in full bloom at this time of year—a sight sure to improve your state of mind. The park contains a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, a large pond, and Japan's first zoological garden, all of which are worth at least a brief visit.

More Information

Japan National Tourism Organization

Tokyo Tourism Info

Japan Visitor Blog

Traveler's City Guide to Tokyo

Successfully navigate Tokyo's slightly bewildering subway system with trains.jp's free iphone app.

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