Photo:Moyan Brenn on Flickr

Tokyo for Free

Raise your hand if you've never said "Tokyo is expensive!". Now find a different article to read as this one is probably not one you will be very interested in. *waiting for the last person to close the door behind them*

Now, where were we? Right, Tokyo is expensive. Not necessarily more expensive than other big cities but certainly enough that even the locals are complaining. As a rule entertainment is usually the first victim of budget cuts and if your free options are limited that can mean no cultural activities until your financial situation improves. But who wants to do that? Here is a list of stuff you can do either for free or for a nominal fee.

1. Learn Japanese

There are volunteer organizations providing Japanese classes for foreigners for free or for an extremely small fee. For sometimes as little as 500 yen per lesson you can improve your language skills AND help yourself to a cup of tea or a nice senbei during the break. Classes are held all over Tokyo, usually once a week, each targeting a different demographic and level of skill. Some have a limited capacity or only accept residents/workers of the ward the volunteer group is active in. Some don't even require a reservation for that week's lesson, participants can just show up on the day. You can find more information at your local city office.

Learning the Japanese Language
Learning the Japanese Language. Photo: U.S. Naval Forces on Flickr

Alternatively you can look for a language-exchange partner through one of the many websites connecting people interested in this kind of thing, or simply by telling your Facebook friends what you are looking for.

2. Participate in an "industrial tour"

I have written before about the free tours offered by the Tokyo Stock Exchange but as it turns out there are several other places offering the same, often in English. Check out this website for more detailed information regarding English guides, reservations and any fees that pay apply. My personal favourite: the Kirin Beer Factory in Yokohama. The tour is in Japanese so you may need to get a friend to make the reservation and come along but at the end of it you get to try different types of beer and eat snacks, all free of charge.

Photo: Farhan Faiz on Flickr
Photo: Kabacchi on Flickr

3. Enjoy panoramic views of Tokyo

You can't afford to go to one of the nice, expensive observation decks. So what? There are free ones all over the city, all of them close to some of Tokyo's most famous landmarks. My personal favourite is the Bunkyo Civic Centre, mainly because it tends to be empty and really quiet.

4. Read a book

Have you ever wondered why bookstores here are so crowded? What are all those people littering their corridors doing?The word tachiyomi refers to the practice of going to a bookstore and standing there reading books or magazines. It happens at convenience stores, bookshops and even second hand chains like BookOff, where books can cost as little as 108 yen. You don't have to buy the book afterwards, just don't cause any damage. If you see a sign saying 立ち読み禁止 or (コミックの) 立ち読みはご遠慮下さい, just move on to a different place, although those are usually just for manga.

Photo: lazythunk on Flickr

5. Enrich your understanding of Japanese culture

Like with Japanese lessons, this one is either completely free or only requires a very small fee, depending on where you live. There are volunteer groups organizing cultural events, some with a focus on Japanese culture and others aiming to create an atmosphere of cultural exchange. Depending on the event, participants may have a hands-on experience like creating ikebana compositions or learning how to prepare and serve tea the traditional way.

One of the groups active in my area (Chuo City) is organizing an emergency drill event at the end of March. Attendants will be given a small taste what various seismic intensities feel like by hoping onboard earthquake experience vehicles. There will also be a presentation on safety precautions and at the end of the event each participant will be given potentially life-saving information in a language they understand along with some food for their emergency bag.

If this seems a bit too upsetting (or if you have done it before) there are always other groups organizing different events. Start with your city office, they will have a lot of information for you!


6. Go to a festival

Last year I wrote, among other things, about the Short Shorts Film Festival, the Japan Wildlife Film Festival and the Tokyo African Heritage Festival. What do they all have in common? They are free. You can go to Hibiya Park and end up participating in a drum workshop or sit in a cinema and watch animals devour each other and neither of those things will cost you a thing. All you have to do is find the dates and check if you need to make a reservation for events with limited space (such as the Short Shorts).

And if none of these things appeal to you, there are countless Meetups and free walking tours to choose from. Also, spring is upon us so soon enough you will be able to sit under a cherry tree and enjoy the sunlight.

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