Is Tokyo expensive? On the surface this might seem like a ridiculous question, or at least an unnecessary one. Certainly, the capital of a famously expensive country is also a pricy place to stay.
Right? Turns out, it’s not so simple.
Over the next few paragraphs, I’ll not only explain the aspects of traveling in Tokyo that live up to its wallet-crushing expectations, but also talk you through some Tokyo attractions and experiences that are surprisingly affordable! As is the case with the larger question “is Japan expensive?“, the answer when you hone in on Tokyo isn’t yes or no.
Tokyo’s Expensive Reputation: A History
If you’re one of the people who think it’s pointless to ask “is Tokyo expensive?” I’d ask you to think about why you feel that way. I’d imagine, if you’re over the age of about 30, it’s the same reason I once felt Tokyo was expensive. Japan was one of the world’s economic powerhouses from the end of World War II until the early 1990s, and although various financial crises past the point popped the country’s bubble, its reputation for being rich (and, thus, expensive) persisted.
Years of price deflation (and, for residents of Japan, wage stagnation) notwithstanding, a big reason the cost of travel in Tokyo is now a fair bit lower than it might’ve been in the late 1980s is because the yen is relatively weak. Even as recently as 2010, it traded at about 80 to the US dollar; since 2015 it’s rarely been below 100, and has seen its value drop to ¥125 = $1, which has been as great for tourists as it’s been disastrous for ordinary Japanese.
Prices in Tokyo for Travelers: An Overview
I’ve written an entire article about cheap hotels in Tokyo, and while I would encourage you to read it, I can summarize the findings here. Namely, it is possible (easy, even) to find a place to stay in Tokyo that adheres to my “three C’s”—chic, comfortable and centrally-located—and also adds a fourth: Cheap. More specifically, there are dozens of Tokyo hotels (hundreds maybe) where you can sleep for under ¥10,000 per night.
Restaurants and Bars
Is Tokyo expensive? You might be surprised to discover that the answer is often “no,” at least when it comes to dining and drinking. There are exceptions, of course, such as if you want to dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant, or (god forbid) at that Jiro place from Netflix. But whether at a conveyor-belt sushi place, most any Izakaya in the city or basically any restaurant or bar that isn’t written about extensively in English, it’s very easy to eat (and drink!) in Tokyo for between ¥500-2,000 per person.
For a city of Tokyo’s relative size and prestige, the Tokyo Metro ticket cost is pretty low in my opinion. Additionally, if you have a Japan Rail Pass and can make use of JR Lines such as the Yamanote and Chuo Lines, much of your transport in Tokyo can actually be free. Where transportation in Tokyo becomes expensive, primarily, is in two categories: 1) If you are lazy or otherwise find yourself in taxis or Ubers or 2) If you take commuter trains outside the city and don’t have a JR Pass.
Museums and Attractions
Is Tokyo expensive? I think you’ll find that with some exceptions (such as the Tokyo Skytree, as one major exception), attractions in Tokyo are pretty affordable, with entry fees ranging from ¥500-1,000, and only rising above this range in rare circumstances. Additionally, many of the best spots in Tokyo (especially during cherry blossom season and autumn) are free, from Chidorigafuchi moat and the Meguro River, to Meiji-jingu Gaien and Yoyogi Park.
Irrespective of which Tokyo shopping districts you prefer (I’m personally partial to Shinjuku, while wealthier travelers might prefer Ginza), chronic deflation means that shopping in Japan (Tokyo or otherwise) is generally a bargain. This is especially true for certain sorts of products, such as cameras and lenses, which are made in Japan and have a “home market” price advantage built-in. Moreover, certain purchases in Japan are tax-free for tourists—inquire at the point of sale whether yours qualifies!
How Much Will My Trip to Tokyo Cost?
Although the price of travel in Tokyo can vary a lot depending on your preferences and the strictness with which you adhere to your budget, most travelers can expect to spend between about 50-250 USD per person, person day in Tokyo, based on double occupancy. This breakdowns down to about 25-150 USD per person, per night in accommodation costs, 10-50 USD per person, per day on public transport and 25-100 USD per person, per day on food. Wide ranges, but that’s reality!
So, is Tokyo expensive? As you can see, it doesn’t have to be. Likewise, you can mix and match—I know people who’ve stayed in capsule hotels, but had Michelin-starred dinners; I likewise know patrons of five-star hotels who are picky eaters and dine mostly on ¥100 onigiri from 7/11. Overall, I’d say the beauty of traveling Tokyo is that the city, with some limits on the low end, can essentially be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be.
Costs in Tokyo vs. the Rest of Japan
As I have explained elsewhere on this site, the cost of travel in Japan is also generally not as expensive as you might expect it to be. With this being said, you do need to be careful—smaller cities and towns in Japan don’t necessarily equate to lower prices. In fact, some of the most expensive hotels and ryokan in Japan are far outside the limits of major cities; these places also often house the only eateries around for miles, which can further compound your costs.
In general, I’d say the range I listed for Tokyo above—between 50-250 USD per person, per day, based on double occupancy—is a realistic range for most Japan travel budgets. I say “most” because some itineraries are inherently more expensive, whether you go skiing in Niseko during the peak of the winter season, or are exploring most any destination during busy times such as when the sakura are blooming, or when the autumn colors are at their most brilliant.
The Bottom Line
Is Tokyo expensive? It’s a matter of yes-and-no, not yes-or-no. A lot of it has to do with your expectations. If you think a few days in Tokyo is going to cost the same as what you spend in Oslo or Zurich, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. In fact, if you’re smart about how you organize your trip, and strategic about how you spend your money, Tokyo can be cheaper than most large cities in Europe and North America. Whether you’re a baller on a budget or a boss without one, the most strategic way to plan your trip to Japan is to commission a custom Japan itinerary.