A city for all wallets

Cheap fun ... a bustling street in Shinjuku.
Cheap fun ... a bustling street in Shinjuku. Photo: Stewart Hawkins

Danielle Demetriou pockets the change on an affordable trip through the Japanese capital.

Tokyo. The word may bring to mind expensive cocktails sipped from the apex of cloud-brushing skyscrapers. Or maybe bankruptcy-inducing, Michelin-starred meals after riotous shopping sprees in architect-designed fashion towers.

However, Tokyo is not a place confined to those who possess a bottomless wallet. The city has long been tainted by the misconception that it is only to be enjoyed by those who have a bank account to rival a small nation.

In reality, the sprawling urban metropolis is a city for all wallets. Despite the nation's soaring yen, those who find their sense of adventure dwarfs their bank balance can easily make their dollar stretch further to explore Tokyo to the full, from its steaming food alleys down to its vintage flea markets.

STAY

One word: capsule. For anyone with little money (and an open mind), the only place to stay is a capsule. Admittedly, spending the night in a space the size of a coffin surrounded by snoring salarymen may not feature high among everyone's travel ambitions. But a night in Capsule Hotel Riverside Asakusa (+81 3 3844 5117, www.asakusa-capsule.jp) will be as memorable as it is gentle on the wallet. Other options? Budget boutique chic is on offer at Granbell (+81 3 5457 2681, granbellhotel.jp) near Shibuya station. Andon Ryokan (+81 3 3873 8611, andon.co.jp) also offers a hip modern take on a traditional inn in a less-convenient Minowa location - but at budget-friendly rates. And if all else fails? There's always Shibuya's Love Hotel hill. Take your pick among the flashing neon signs and stay by the hour.

EAT

Forget swanky; eating like a local is one of Tokyo's greatest pleasures. Look out for the red lanterns that mark the entrance to Japanese-style ''izakaya'' pubs, where tapas-style food at reasonable prices is served (along with industrial quantities of beer). Otherwise, check out the set lunch menus: even upmarket restaurants offer fantastic lunch deals, hovering about the ¥1000 ($13) mark. For steaming meat skewers sitting on beer crates, take the west exit of Shinjuku station and head to the stalls that line Yakitori Alley. For cut-price dumplings, join the queue at Gyoza Lou (+81 3 3406 4743; 6-2-4 Jingumae) just off Omotesando. And to sample the freshest sushi in the world (without the Michelin price tag), rise before sunrise and head to Tsukiji Fish Market. Best of all, no tipping is required in any Japanese restaurants.

DRINK

Tokyo may be the kind of city where it is possible to spend ¥1,800,000 on a cocktail, as in the classy confines of the Ritz-Carlton with its Diamond Martini. But it's also possible to raise a glass and shout ''kampai!'' on a budget. Join the salarymen drinking discount draft beer (''nama biru'') in the izakaya clustered near station exits. Try popular cheap cocktails such as oolong hi (tea and shochu spirit) or umeshu soda (plum wine with soda). Still feeling the pinch? Find a vending machine or a convenience store, pick up a bag of beers and head beneath the trees in Yoyogi Park for a drink under the stars.

SHOP

Teen mecca Harajuku brims with budget stores selling everything from pink stripy tights to vintage Vivienne Westwood. Look out for the specialty ¥100 shops, purveyors of all things kitsch on a budget. For a taste of cultural Japan without breaking the bank, Oriental Bazaar (+81 3 3400 3933; 5-9-13 Jingumae) on Omotesando sells good value chopsticks, kimonos, ceramics and other Japan paraphernalia. Rummagers should pop into a flea market, many of which are held in local shrines and temples at weekends (listings at events.paperlantern.net/month.php). There is only one place to head for cut-price electronics, manga and anime: the neon stores of Akihabara, aka Electric Town.

TOUR

For an open-air architecture tour that does not cost a penny, simply take a stroll along Omotesando from Jun Aoki to Tadao Ando. A string of fashion towers show contemporary architecture at its best. Step back in time in Asakusa and visit Sensoji, the city's oldest temple, peruse the market and pick up bargains in the back streets lined with kimono stores, clothes arcades and sweet shops. For a free view over Tokyo, head to the 45th floor of Shinjuku's Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and savour the endless urban sprawl, maybe with Mount Fuji hovering in the distance on a clear day. Ueno Park is another place to conserve the pennies; wander among the lotus ponds, shrines and temples. Tap into Tokyo's edgy art scene by visiting the city's small, independent - and free - galleries (see tokyoartbeat.com for listings). Free museums include the NHK Broadcast Museum (+81 3 5400 6900; nhk.or.jp/museum), where visitors can read their own news bulletin.

BLOWOUT

A sunset cocktail in a skyscraper is as quintessential a Tokyo experience as eating sushi and watching sumo. Do a Bill and Scarlett and head to That Hotel from Lost In Translation (occasionally referred to as the Park Hyatt) to enjoy a sundowner with a view in the 52nd floor New York Bar (+81 3 5322 1234; tokyo.park.hyatt.com).

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