An unceasing, crushing swarm of humanity, the constant flow of traffic, towering skyscrapers, flashing lights, neon and noise all combine to make Tokyo a whirlwind of urban excitement for visitors. It’s a city that can sometimes be overwhelming, but it’s never anything other than endlessly fascinating. Ancient temples and old wooden houses are sandwiched between high-rise apartment blocks and brightly lit shops and offices. Narrow, winding alleyways tightly packed with tiny stores and food stalls lead into wide city streets lined with high-tech gadget chains and trains rumbling past on overhead rails.
Tokyo is exhilarating and formidable, but it doesn’t have a reputation for being easy on a budget. This is a shame – because the sights and sounds that sum up Tokyo best are all free. Walking, watching and exploring will get you far when it comes to understanding this city, so here are our suggestions for seeing the city for nothing and really getting to know what makes Tokyo tick…
SensÅ-ji is the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Located in Asakusa, it’s approached through the imposing Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, under the enormous four-metre tall paper lantern hanging from its eaves, and then via a somewhat touristy yet atmospheric pedestrianised street (Nakamise-dori) lined with small stalls selling all manner of trinkets and souvenirs, from packets of green tea, Buddhist scrolls and mobile phone charms to dried fish, Godzilla toys, traditional soybean sweets and cute animal stickers and stationery.
Once you fight your way to the other end (and resist the urge to buy anything) you’ll find yourself outside the entrance to the inner complex. Inside, a five-tiered pagoda sits on the edge of a courtyard next to the sumptuous main temple hall, devoted to Kannon, goddess of Mercy. Worshippers who believe she has the power to release humans from suffering flock here in droves to seek her benevolence, and light incense offerings in her name.
The temple is a couple of minutes from Asakisa station, served by the Ginza and Asakusa subway lines.
An easy ten minute walk west of SensÅ-ji lies Kappabashi-dori or ‘Kitchen Town’, a long and fascinating street lined with everything you could possibly need if you were in the restaurant business, including window after window filled with rows of fake plastic food, some of which is almost impossible to tell from the genuine article. As described in our first-timers’ guide to Japan, many restaurants in Tokyo and elsewhere feature entire replica meals in their windows, which makes choosing menu items suitably stress-free – and Kappabashi is probably where they came from. The individual food items also make fun souvenirs to take home.
The nearest station to Kappabashi-dori is Tawaramachi station on the Ginza subway line.
Tsukiji Fish Market
If you don’t mind a very early start – great for those getting off an early flight – a visit to the Tsukiji fish market offers a real local insight into the operations of a working wholesale seafood market. This is the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world – indeed, nearly all of the fish consumed in Japan passes through here; more than 2000 metric tons per day! The number one fish is tuna, offloaded from boats into long rows on the dock well before sunrise. Space is at a premium so the tuna auctions are restricted to a small number of visitors; registration beforehand will likely be required if you want a piece of the action, but the rest of the wholesale area is a great place to get a feel for things – wet floors, men in wellies rushing through the aisles with wheelbarrows, plenty of shouting, chopping, slicing and dicing and – of course – exquisite sushi for breakfast.
The market is just above the Tsujiki Shijo station on the Oedo subway line, or a five minute walk from Tsujiki station on the Hibiya subway line.
Yoyogi is one of the largest city parks in Tokyo, and while it’s a fine open space any day of the week, with wide green lawns and ponds backed by forested areas, the park is best visited on a Sunday when it teems with colourful local characters and subcultures – think acrobats, jugglers, Elvis impersonators and rockabilly dancers. If you’re in luck, you might also happen upon a small army of anime and Manga cosplay (short for ‘costume play’) fanatics and the odd Gothic Lolita or Cyber-Fashion ‘Harajuku Girl’ hanging out on the adjoining Harajuku Bridge, though it’s possible there’ll be more picture-snapping visitors than subjects these days. Regardless, this remains one of the best parks in the city for a flavour of young and offbeat Tokyo.
Yoyogi Park is located next to the Meiji Shrine, and is a 5 minute walk from Harajuku Station on the JR Yamanote line.
The pedestrian crossing outside Shibuya station is the busiest in the world and unless you’re a demophobic, it’s an essential Tokyo experience to tick off the list. Once you’ve mastered getting from one side of the road to the other, take a minute to absorb the relentless commerical scene around and above you. This is the glitttering fashion centre of Tokyo and a major nightlife hub, with a number of huge clothing malls, smaller boutiques and enormous department stores within a few minutes walk. While it may seem strange to include one of the city’s major retail areas in a guide to seeing Tokyo for free, the window shopping here is bewildering and truly interactive. And if you’re hungry, head down to the food hall in the basement of the vast Tokyu or Takashimaya department stores, where the mind-boggling rows of edible items are often handed out as free samples.
Header photo: Nakamise-dori © Mihai-bogdan Lazar | Dreamstime.com, Senso-ji temple by Yoshikazu Tekada, Kappabashi-dori by robertpaulyoung, Tsujiki fish market by flashcurd, Cosplay girls by antwerpenR, Shibuya © Christian Baumle | Dreamstime.com