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Izakayas are a feature on many Tokyo streets, and their red lanterns denote budget prices. (John Lee for The Globe and Mail)
Izakayas are a feature on many Tokyo streets, and their red lanterns denote budget prices. (John Lee for The Globe and Mail)

Live large on less in Tokyo Add to ...

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 exactly how to keep their costs down. And that's the trick to enjoying a thrifty day out in what's often labelled the world's most expensive city: Act like you live here and you won't squander $50 on sushi-and-sake dinners with the tourists.

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In full cheapskate mode, I hit the streets with three ¥1,000 bills (about $38). The aim: a full day of food and attractions at the lowest possible cost. While cheating slightly with a transit pass (¥1,580), it was easy to push past the expensive façade to the frugality just beneath the surface.

Stop 1: Junoesque Bagel Café

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

Frequented by sombre salarymen, Tokyo has a surfeit of coffee shops with good-value light breakfasts. In this labyrinthine central railway station, I perched at a small table and requested "set breakfast A." For language-deficient travellers like me, it's easy to get by and most menus have photos you can point at. I enjoyed a bulging ham and cheese bagel, small salad and a large mug of excellent coffee. Penny pinchers take note: Tipping is not standard in Japan.

Stop 2: Currency Museum

2-1 Nihonbashi Hongoku-cho, Chuo-ku (Nihonbashi Station), Cost: free

A couple of blocks away, this immaculate second-floor exhibition space (www.imes.boj.or.jp/cm) is run by the Bank of Japan. While some free-entry Tokyo attractions lack English signs, this one is studded with bilingual panels. I spent a leisurely half-hour perusing elaborate square-holed coins, ancient banknotes and some clever money-hiding accessories.

Stop 3: Imperial Palace East Garden

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

Next, I strolled west to Tokyo's favourite historic attraction. While the flare-roofed palace is out of bounds, you can wander through the tranquil formal gardens: If it's cherry blossom season, head to the Honmaru area. I also checked out the small free-entry museum of artifacts from the emperor's collection, including achingly beautiful ceramics.

Stop 4: Fuji-Soba

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

Hopping on the subway, I was soon plunging into the narrow back lanes behind Ikebukuro's electronics shops. Red lanterns outside tiny cafés indicate budget dining hot spots where hungry office workers eat cheap. Ducking into one, I pushed coins into a vending machine, pressed a button with a photo on it and took my ticket to the counter. Within seconds, I was wolfing down curry rice and miso soup among loudly slurping noodle noshers.

Stop 5: Life Safety Learning Centre

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

Questioning the wisdom of my large lunch, I was soon at Tokyo's most unusual free attraction. Earthquake-prone Japan is better prepared than most for the big one but you can brush up at this Ikebukuro fire station. My small group watched a tip-packed video (with subtitles) before sitting at a large table in a fake kitchen. Within seconds, the walls shuddered violently and we dived under the table as a kettle flew from the stove. When the shakes subsided, we learned it had only been a force seven simulation.

Stop 6: Daiso

1-19-24 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku (Harajuku Station, Takeshita exit), Cost: ¥210

With still-wobbling legs, I was ready for some restorative retail therapy. Tokyo's shiny ¥100 shops call like sirens to travelling bargain hunters. The most popular chain is Daiso and I trundled to its flagship Harajuku outlet. Wandering its four floors, I struggled not to blow my budget on tubes of wasabi and Ultraman candies before eventually snapping up a pair of kitsch-cool rice bowls with puffer fish motifs.

Stop 7: Design Festa Gallery

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

Inching past Harajuku's giggling teenagers, I stopped for a can of hot coffee (¥110) at a streetside vending machine before hitting the less-crowded back lanes and stumbling on Design Festa (www.designfestagallery.com), a multiroom gallery colonized by young artists. On my visit, several abstract works were in progress and I chatted to some resident auteurs keen to practise their English.

Stop 8: Tobacco & Salt Museum

1-16-8 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku (Shibuya Station, Hachiko exit), Cost: ¥100

The streets were similarly crowded in central Shibuya as I weaved to this popular museum (www.jti.co.jp/Culture/museum). While English signage is minimal, it wasn't hard to figure out the displays of salt factory models, elaborate old snuffboxes and vintage cigarette lighters. If you're tempted, you can pick up some cigars (or packs of salt) in the gift shop.

Stop 9: Mega Web

3-12 Aomi 1-chome, Koto-ku (Aomi Station), Cost: free

With sunlight waning, I hopped the train to my final freebie: Mega Web (www.megaweb.gr.jp), a kind a Toyota car showroom on steroids. After a Disney-style grand prix simulator ride, I checked out some prototype people movers and caught a trombone performance from a jaunty robot. But the highlight was the Historic Garage, a museum of gorgeous Corvettes, Citroëns and Alfa Romeos.

Stop 10: Chao-Chao

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

With my cheap day drawing to a close, it suddenly seemed like beer time so I weaved to Yurakucho to check out the many neighbourhood izakayas not far from the station. Sliding onto a wooden bench in one tiny nook, I tucked into a hearty plate of steaming shrimp gyoza and toasted my spendthrift ways with a ¥330 Asahi Super Dry. With ¥830 left, I was soon contemplating another.

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