This article compiles affordable and free tours you can join while in the city. If you’re a budget traveler like I am, this will allow you to experience Japan at its best without having to pay an arm and a leg for the fee!
Free tours offered by the Tokyo government and Tokyo Free Guide require reservations at least a month in advance. I personally tried reserving with Tokyo Free Guide two years ago, but I found their service a little unreliable, as the tour may be canceled if there aren't enough participants. I actually never heard back from them after I submitted my application for a free tour.
In this article, I'll only mention free and cheap tours that are reliable—and many even don’t require reservations! So if you're in Japan for a short period, I would recommend these tours for you.
1. Free Walking Tour at the Tokyo Imperial Palace
Unarguably one of the most-visited spots in Tokyo, the Tokyo Imperial Palace is the main residence of Japan’s emperor and the imperial family. The huge grounds house the main palace, the private residences of the imperial family, some museums and even administrative offices.
There are two organizations that provide free guided tours: Tokyo Free Walking Tour and Tokyo Systematized Goodwill Guide Club (Tokyo SGG Club). The former starts the tour at Tokyo Station, the west side of which faces the Imperial Palace East Garden. You just have to show up at the meeting place, which is on the ground floor of Tokyo Station's Marunouchi Central Exit just outside the ticket gate, on time for the tour. Check the group's Facebook page for the schedule.
As for the latter, Tokyo SGG Club conducts tours three days per week, all starting at the same time, 1:00 p.m. To join the tour, go to the Tokyo SGG Club desk located on the first floor of the Shin Tokyo Building.
These tours require no reservations. Just go to the respective meeting points to register. I've personally tried the Tokyo Free Walking Tour and I really had fun!
2. Free Guided Tour in Asakusa & Ueno
Tokyo SGG Club also offers free tours of the Asakusa and Ueno areas. The Asakusa tour is only an hour in duration and happens every weekend. You can join the 11:00 a.m. tour or the 1:15 p.m. tour, depending on your preference. In this tour, you get to walk around the Asakusa Kannon Temple (Senso-ji) and its surrounding neighborhood, including the lively shops of Nakamise. All you have to do is go to the Asakusa Culture Tourist Information Center, which is across from the Kaminarimon Gate of Senso-ji Temple, approximately 10 minutes before the scheduled time.
The Ueno tour, on the other hand, is longer—90 minutes—and happens every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. It begins earlier, with the first tour at 10:30 a.m. and the second at 1:30 p.m. The tour includes Ueno Park, which has some of Japan’s top museums. To take part, go to the SGG Club desk in Ueno Green Salon Cafeteria & Gallery 10 minutes before your preferred tour.
3. Kanagawa SGG Club
Although not in Tokyo, sightseeing in Kanagawa is actually a great day trip. The Kanagawa SGG Club also conducts free tours in notable Kanagawa areas such as Yokohama, Kamakura, Enoshima and Kawasaki. While the guided tour is free, most sightseeing spots in Kanagawa have entrance fees that you have to pay on your own.
Joining the free guided tours is easy, though you do need to fill out the application form. Not to worry, though—the Kanagawa SGG Club is quite active, and they respond promptly with 48 hours after you've submitted your application. I really recommend doing a day trip to Kanagawa if you want to escape the bustling touristy attractions of Tokyo!
4. Japan Day Trips/Weekend Trips Group on Meetup.com
For those of you who would like to get in touch with nature, you can opt to join in day trips or weekend trips that are dedicated to outdoor activities like hiking. Japan Day Trips/Weekend Trips is a group of travelers exploring Japan over the weekends. The trips they’ve made include hikes around Zushi, Okutama, Mount Mitake, Mount Tsukuba and more. You get the chance to interact with people, make friends, practice your English, learn Japanese and expand your network.
The participation fee of ¥1,000 per person goes to a charity that's selected each month, and announced on the meeting site. Beyond that, you only have to pay for your transportation, food and accommodations as needed—basically, just your own expenditures. The organizer of the trip will provide an approximate outline of the expenses. Just sign up on the page, RSVP, and you're good to go!
5. Voyagin Experience
Voyagin is a great experience portal that can help make your Japan trip extraordinary. They have a lot of affordable tours available because most are hosted by locals and foreign residents—including the cheapest maiko experience in Tokyo! Most companies charge US$200 to $300, but Voyagin offers the same service for only around $130 per person for a 2.5-hour maiko experience, which includes kimono, makeup session and a photo shoot. Quite a steal!
If you're not into the maiko experience, you can still check out other offers such as a Tokyo Bay Cruise, Oiran-Za Traditional Japanese New Cabaret Show, discounted Robot Restaurant tickets, or even learn to play taiko!