Top travel tips to tackle Tokyo on a tight budget

The vibrant streets of Shinjuku shopping district in Tokyo. Photo: istock

The vibrant streets of Shinjuku shopping district in Tokyo. Photo: istock

So you have a yen for travel, but not a lot of yen in the bank? Don’t despair, some budget carriers are offering insanely good deals on airfares to Japan.

Keep your eyes peeled for great two-for-one deals, or even solo return trips for less than $500 that go up for grabs a few times a year.

If you want to catch the beautiful but fleeting cherry blossoms, you’ll need to time your trip to coincide with northern spring (late March to early April).

Autumn is also a popular time of year to travel, but if you’re a keen skier or snowboarder and want to shred some soft powder you’ll prefer the winter months.

Shinjuku by night. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Shinjuku by night. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Tokyo is a city where 24-hour restaurants, quirky technological advancements, eye-popping fashion and ancient culture collide. The first thing you’ll want to taste when you arrive is sushi.

Uobei Sushi is a sushi train restaurant, but not as you know it. Customers sit in front of touch screens and order, and their sushi of choice comes whizzing down a conveyor belt. It’s a form of entertainment watching colourful creations fly back and forth.

Likewise, 24-hour sushi restaurant Sushi Zanmai serves market-fresh, top-quality sushi and sashimi at bargain prices.

Sushi at Sushi Zanmai. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Sushi at Sushi Zanmai. Photo: Isabelle Lane

In Melbourne you’d likely hit up Sydney Road for a late-night kebab, but in Tokyo after a night partying at the many hip, pint-sized bars crammed into the Golden Gai district, seek out the Shinjuku branch of Sushi Zanmai to sate your hunger.

There’s a large menu but splurge on the premium-grade melt- in-your-mouth fatty tuna at about $5 a piece.

Coffee snobs, there’s no need to cry over splitting up with Melbourne coffee. About Life Coffee Brewers is here to take care of your caffeine habit.

The baristas are mates with Melbourne’s Market Lane Coffee, so you’re in safe hands.

About Life Coffee Brewers. Photo: Hiroki Matsumiya

About Life Coffee Brewers. Photo: Hiroki Matsumiya

You might even replace your coffee addiction with a matcha green-tea latte. Try it at super-cute coffee shop and tiny “library” Anthrop in the heart of hipsterville: Shimokitazawa.

“Shimokita” is the place to be for alternative youth culture and is highly recommended for its vintage stores, record stores and bars. A quality flat white or matcha latte will set you back about $5.

Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine offer respite and relaxation in the middle of the metropolis and entry is free.

“The quietude creates the illusion of seclusion from the city,” the tourist brochure tells me and, after absorbing the serenity of the lakes and gardens, I can’t argue. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another beautiful spot to relax.

Arai Ryokan. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Arai Ryokan. Photo: Isabelle Lane

If you’re looking to get a taste of traditional Japan, take a train to Shuzenji on the Izu Peninsula, known for its historic ryokan – traditional Japanese hotels – and hot springs.

The picturesque 140-year-old Arai Ryokan is a little pricey, but worth it. A room for two starts at about $350 per night. You’ll sleep on futons and soak your feet on your balcony while listening to the rushing water of the stream below and gazing across at the bamboo forest.

Bathe in the private or communal onsen baths with geothermal water and enjoy a breakfast feast of small, delicately designed dishes in your room.

Shinjuku gyoen national garden. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Shinjuku gyoen national garden. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Walk around the small town and visit its ancient shrines, temples and the grave of Minamoto no Noriyori, a tragic-yet-poetic figure in Japanese history.

A visit to Mount Fuji is a must and Lake Kawaguchi is a great base from which to enjoy spectacular views of the mystical mountain, and see the cherry blossoms in bloom.

A trip to Tokyo isn’t complete without visiting some of the city’s cultural institutions.

Make a day of it in Roppongi Hills and visit both the Mori Art Museum and the National Art Center of Tokyo, an architectural marvel designed by Kisho Kurokawa and opened in 2007.

Beautiful cherry blossoms near Mount Fuji. Photo: supplied

Beautiful cherry blossoms near Mount Fuji. Photo: supplied

Louise Bourgeois’ famous giant spider sculpture, “Maman”, stands sentinel outside Mori Art Museum, and the museum showcases cutting-edge Japanese art and spectacular views of Tokyo.

Indulge me in a parting word of advice: Japanese whisky is taking over the world, so stock up on everything, including the Beyonce-approved world-beating Yamazaki.

You can pick up a bottle for about $40 but will pay more than double that back in Melbourne. Look for Hakushu and smooth Nikka whisky too.

Oh, and don’t be surprised if you catch me sipping a sneaky dram at Bar Zoetrope – a tiny one-man operation and, just quietly, one of the coolest whisky bars in the world.

Bar Zoetrope. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Bar Zoetrope. Photo: Isabelle Lane

Start with an app

Download travel apps such as TripAdvisor and Yelp to find great budget restaurants and sightseeing spots wherever you find yourself.

Head to websites such as booking.com, Expedia and Wotif to find deals on accommodation.

Keep an eye out for airfare deals on jetstar.com.

Where to go

Bar Zoetrope: 3F Gaia Building 4, 7-10-14 Nishi Shinjuku

Uobei Sushi: genkisushi.co.jp/en

Anthrop: 2-26-7 Kitazawa, Setagaya

About Life Coffee Brewers: about-life.coffee

Sushi Zanmai: kiyomura.co.jp

Shinjuku Granbell Hotel: granbellhotel.jp/en/shinjuku

Arai Ryokan: arairyokan.net/english

Mori Art Museum: mori.art.museum/eng

The National Art Center of Tokyo: nact.jp/english

 

 

 

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