24 hours in Tokyo

With just $36 in his pocket, John Lee makes the most of a day in one of the world's most expensive cities.

While the words "frugal" and "Tokyo" are rarely uttered in the same sentence, I remember from living here in the 1990s that the locals know how to keep their costs down. Act like you live here and you'll tap into the quirky spirit of the city, the unique energy created by a population of more than 12 million living in just 2187 square kilometres.

I have three crisp ¥1000 bills in my pocket, worth about $36. The aim: a full day of food and attractions without exceeding this budget. While cheating slightly by not including a transit pass (an extra ¥1580, which entitles you to unlimited travel on all Japan rail, subway and buses for a day) I'm determined to stick to my budget - and to have fun.

Junoesque Bagel Cafe, 8.30am

Tokyo has an abundance of coffee shops with good-value light breakfasts, frequented mostly by sombre salarymen at this hour. In the labyrinthine Tokyo central railway station, I perch at a small table with my Daily Yomiuri and request "set breakfast A" by pointing at the handy photograph on the menu. I enjoy a bulging ham and cheese bagel, a small salad and a large mug of excellent coffee. Penny-pinchers take note: tipping is not standard in Japan.

Tokyo Station, Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku. Cost: ¥620.

Currency Museum, 9.30am

A couple of blocks away, this immaculate second-floor exhibition space is run by the adjoining Bank of Japan. While some free-entry Tokyo attractions lack English signs - Ginza's Police Museum, for example - this one is studded with bilingual panels. I spend a leisurely half-hour perusing elaborate square-holed coins, ancient bookmark-shaped banknotes and some clever money-hiding accessories.

2-1 Nihonbashi Hongoku-cho, Chuo-ku (Nihonbashi Station). See imes.boj.or.jp/cm. Cost: free.

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Imperial Palace East Garden, 10.45am

Retracing my steps, I stroll west to Tokyo's favourite historic attraction. While the flare-roofed palace is out of bounds - it's occupied by the royal family - I wander through a grand gateway in the moated stone wall and amble around tranquil formal gardens: if it's cherry blossom season, head to the Honmaru area for the full effect. I browse the small free-entry museum showing artefacts from the emperor's private collection, including some achingly beautiful ceramics.

1-1 Chiyoda, Chiyoda-ku (Otemachi Station). Cost: free.

Fuji-Soba, noon

I hop on the subway and I'm soon weaving my way through the narrow back lanes behind the neon-lit electronics shops of Ikebukuro. Red lanterns outside tiny cafes here indicate budget dining hotspots where hungry workers can have a good meal on the cheap. Ducking into one, I push coins into a vending machine, press a button with a photograph of my meal on it and take my ticket to the counter. Within seconds, I have a tray of curry rice and miso soup, which I enjoy among other commuting, slurping noodle noshers.

1-2-7 Higashi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku (Ikebukuro Station, east exit). Cost: ¥410.

Life Safety Learning Centre, 12.45pm

This is perhaps Tokyo's most unusual free attraction. Earthquake-prone Japan is better prepared than most for the big one but locals and visitors can brush up on their readiness at this local fire station. My small group watches a video (with subtitles) of earthquake-evasion tips before taking seats around a large table in a kitchen. Within seconds, the walls are shuddering violently and we dive under the table as a kettle flies from the stove. When the terrifying commotion subsides, we learn it has been a simulation of a force-seven earthquake, the same magnitude as the recent Haiti earthquake.

2-37-8 Nishi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku (Ikebukuro Station, metropolitan exit). Cost: free.

Daiso, 2pm

With legs still a little wobbly, I'm ready for some restorative retail therapy. It's easy to be lured by Tokyo's giant department stores but the city's shiny ¥100 shops call like sirens to travelling bargain hunters. The most popular chain is Daiso and I head to Harajuku, the site of its biggest outlet. Wandering its four floors, I struggle not to blow my budget on tubes of wasabi, Ultraman candies and ridged noodle chopsticks. And I love the stationery. Eventually, I snap up a pair of kitsch-cool rice bowls with puffer-fish motifs.

1-19-24 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (Harajuku Station, Takeshita exit). Cost: ¥210 for the rice bowls.

Design Festa Gallery, 2.45pm

Inching past Harajuku's giggling teenagers and pop-culture boutiques, I stop for a can of hot, sweet coffee (¥110) at one of Tokyo's ubiquitous streetside vending machines. It perks me up as I enter the less-crowded back lanes and stumble on Design Festa (designfestagallery.com), a bustling multi-room gallery colonised by young artists. During my visit, several abstract but highly colourful works are in progress and I chat to some resident artists keen to practise their English.

3-20-18 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (Harajuku Station, Takeshita exit). Cost: free.

Tobacco and Salt Museum, 3.30pm

The streets are similarly crowded in central Shibuya as I stretch my meagre budget at this popular little museum. While English signage is minimal, it isn't hard to enjoy the three floors of salt-factory models, elaborate old snuffboxes and vintage cigarette lighters. The museum's unusual appeal lies in its ability to elevate mundane items such as salt and tobacco almost to the level of art.

1-16-8 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku (Shibuya Station, Hachiko exit), see www.jti.co.jp/Culture/museum. Cost: ¥100.

Mega Web, 5pm

As twilight gathers, I hop on the subway to my final free destination. A showcase of Toyota technology, Mega Web is like a car showroom on steroids. I take a Disney-style Grand Prix simulator ride, poke around some prototype people-movers and listen to a live trombone performance by a jaunty robot. The highlight is the array of vintage Corvettes, Jaguars, Citroens and Alfa Romeos.

3-12 Aomi 1-chome, Koto-ku (Aomi Station), see www.megaweb.gr.jp. Cost: free.

Chao-Chao, 7pm

It's time for a beer. Recalling my 1990s residency in the city, I find my way to Yurakucho, adjoining the popular Ginza area, and find scores of neighbourhood izakayas a short walk from the station. They are Japan's cozy version of the cheap and cheerful local pub. I settle on a wooden bench opposite the bar in the tiny Chao-Chao, where a handful of locals are chatting over beers, and I tuck into a generous plate of tender shrimp gyoza and toast my thriftiness with a cold ¥330 Asahi Super Dry. With ¥830 left in my pocket, it looks like another might soon be on the way.

1-2-9 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku (Yurakucho Station). Cost: ¥720.

Malaysia Airlines flies to Tokyo for about $1350 via Kuala Lumpur (8hr and 6hr 40min). Singapore Airlines charges about $1450 via Singapore (7hr 30min and 6hr 45min). Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Qantas flies non-stop Sydney to Tokyo (10hr) for about $1590; Melbourne flights cost about the same and connect in Sydney.

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