Tokyo on a budget
Skip Ginza and Omotesando; thrift at weekend markets and Shimokitazawa instead
Tokyo has no shortage of shopping malls and is one of those rare cities that suffers from an over-abundance of cool. In the main shopping districts of Ginza and Shibuya, women clutch Gucci bags more expensive than your year’s rent and men sport Versace suits that could relieve you of your student debts.
Drown out the evil voices and hop onto the Teio-Inokashira line from Shibuya station a couple stops to the hip neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa (pictured), where thrift stores are overflowing with top quality second-hand clothing. If you're going for that vintage '90s look, very popular in this part of the world, make your way to the Garage Department (for women; 2-25-8, Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku), New York Joe Exchange (3-26-4 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku) or 2nd Street (multiple locations throughout the city). It’s not the cheapest thrifting in the world to be sure, but you could easily get a one-of-a-kind sweater for around $200, which is cheap by Tokyo standards and will last you longer than that $120 H&M factory sweater.
Just to the east of the shopping street Omotesando, hipster neighbourhood Harajuku will add colour to your life with items that look like they were snatched from Andy Warhol's closet. Each shop here has the feel of an incubator for the creative, every crevice a nonspoken no-fucks-given zone where you can flirt with the limits of what you can pull off and get the nodding approval (or disapproval) of the store owners.
Chicago (B1, Olympia Annex Bldg, 6-31-21 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku), Flamingo (1F, Junkyard, 4-26-28, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku) and Pin Nap (3-26-10, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku) are great places to start, in that order, but the beauty lies in getting lost and finding the hidden stores around the Jingumae area.
If you're in town for the weekend, check out one of the outdoor flea markets – these are often cheaper and can have items even more unique than thrift stores. Mottainai Flea Market is a popular one among locals, and alternates between Ikebukuro Station West Park and Akihabara UDX. Shinjuku Chuo Park flea market (behind the Metropolitan government building, where you can also get an excellent view of Tokyo for free) has over 200 vendors, competing with the Yoyogi Park and Shinagawa flea markets. Check online which will take place when you are there, as each mostly happens only one weekend per month.
Skip fancy clubs in Roppongi and the Robot Restaurant; go to local sake bars and geek out
Flashing lights, electronic dance music, freaky old men: YAWN. You'll find the same big clubs in any major city, so we recommend saving money and doing things that are more in tune with Tokyo's geekier side.
Although Golden Gai (1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku) is well known for its small drinking establishments and a great place to meet other travellers, you can alternately head under the tracks between Shinbashi and Yurakucho Stations to witness the working men and women of the city getting their after-hours booze fill, with some above-decent izakaya on the side.
The so-called ‘Robot Restaurant’ (B2, Shinjuku Robot Bldg, 1-7-1 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku) in Shinjuku has gotten a lot of press but there are hardly any real robots and the whole experience is basically a trendy tourist trap. If you still want to geek out, head to the Akihabara area and surround yourself with aspiring J-pop stars and their megafans at Dear Stage (Dempa Bldg, 3-10-9 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku). For a real taste of Japanese robotry, make your way to the brand-new VR Park Tokyo (4F, KN Shibuya Bldg 1, 13-11, Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, pictured) in Shibuya that lets you play 15 Virtual Reality games for 90 minutes for 3,300JPY – about the same price for two drinks at the bigger clubs. Once you’re done, head to the old-fashioned arcade downstairs to play a couple rounds of Mario Kart.
Save for one fancy meal by eating more street food and fast food
A lot of us go to Japan to have that meal we’ve always dreamed of, run by that famous sushi chef that has dedicated 40 years to the practice of crafting the perfect sashimi. Unfortunately, your broke self can’t afford such nonsense.
A good trick is to eat cheap Japanese fast food during your entire trip to make up for that one swank meal – if you really need to have it. The good news is that Japanese fast food has relatively high standards compared to most other countries. And, unlike other fast food chains, Japanese ones focus on one or two dishes that they can make well. When it comes to the big chains, there's Ichiran for ramen, Yoshinoya for rice and beef, Coco Ichibanya for rice curry and Hotto Motto for bento.
For sushi, a cool (albeit a tad touristy) experience is Genki Sushi’s main Shibuya branch (1/F, Leisure Plaza Bldg, 24-8 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, pictured). Not like their regular restaurants here in Hong Kong, at this one you can order an unlimited amount of food from a touchscreen. The dishes you order will be brought to you directly via conveyor belts that encircle the entirety of the restaurant and will magically stop when they reach your table. Seven plates of sushi will cost around $75 and include salmon, sea urchin and squid.
If you're absolutely starving, the all-you-can-eat nabe restaurants are a sane choice – imagine something similar to the kind of hotpot popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nabe-zo is a popular chain where you can pay $230 for a meal where you can order anything (or everything) on the menu, as long as you do so within 100 minutes. Stuff yourself with every type of meat and vegetable under the sun without burning your wallet.
Forget the Shinkansen and go for the highway bus instead
For a day trip to Mount Fuji, it's tempting to take the Shinkansen bullet train, but the truth is, riding the bullet train is awesome for about 10 minutes before it starts to feel like any other train. So save yourself $500 and go for a highway express bus from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko ($125). The journey only takes about an hour longer than the bullet train and offers good views of the beautiful mountain forests around Fuji. Plus the station is a 10-minute walk to the edge of beautiful Kawaguchiko Lake, where you can take a 20-minute pleasure boat for $65 and enjoy the best views of the famous volcano.
Skip the tiny hotel room in Shinjuku and stay at an Airbnb in Koenji
Something that might surprise you about Tokyo Airbnbs is that they're about as cheap as anywhere else and will more than likely be the same size or bigger than an expensive hotel room. In addition, booking an Airbnb will give you many more options in terms of local neighbourhoods, away from the glitz of the centrally located chain hotels.
The Koenji-Asagaya-Ogikubo area is an example of a great neighbourhood that will give you easy access to Shinjuku station and the lesser-known areas to the north. Although Koenji (pictured) has plenty of international establishments and underground music venues, it retains a quiet, local feel and is home to some of the city's sleekest youth.