Japan is famous for its temples, shrines, museums, parks and other attractions, many of which don’t cost a single yen to enjoy.
In Tokyo, your first stop should be the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s 45th-floor observatory, offering surreal views over the metropolis and, on clear days, of Mt. Fuji. Also in the TMG is the Tokyo Tourist Information Center, with information on free tours led by volunteers who can provide an insider’s view of their city. There are tours of the TMG that take in the observation floor and Assembly Hall; if you pre-register, you can also join tours of bustling Shinjuku, including a visit to Isetan department store with its famous food floors. Ueno Park and Asakusa, two must-sees, also offer free tours; all you need do is show up.
Tokyo’s spiritual heart is the Imperial Palace, home to the Imperial family. Although the palace is closed to the public, you can visit palace grounds on free guided tours. Nearby is the Imperial Palace East Garden (free tours available Saturdays), former site of Edo Palace where the shogun once lived. All that remains today are stone foundations and walls, towers, and gates, along with a delightful garden. Another popular respite is Meiji Shrine, dedicated to Emperor and Empress Meiji and surrounded by dense forest.
Free museums in Tokyo include the Sumo Museum showing several hundred years of sumo history and the Suginami Animation Museum, a must for fans of Japanese animation. Company showrooms offering hours of free entertainment include the Sony Building with its five floors of products, 3D theater and PlayStations, and Megaweb with 140-some Toyota models, museum of historic automobiles, and products designed for people with disabilities.
Kyoto is Japan’s iconic historic town, with some 2,000 temples and shrines. It’s not surprising, therefore, that Kyoto Prefecture boasts 17 World Heritage Sites, including Nishi Honganji, headquarters for some 12 million Shin Buddhists, Kamigamo Jinja, built in 678 to enshrine the god of thunder, and Shimogamo Jinja, one of Kyoto’s oldest shrines. As Kyoto is famous also for its artisans, be sure to see the free Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts.
In the heart of Osaka is Osaka-jo Koen, a huge park encircling Osaka Castle and famous for its cherry, apricot and plum trees, moats and stone walls. It’s popular for family outings and relaxation.
And because Japan has so many temples and shrines, there’s bound to be a festival going on somewhere, offering an only-in-Japan experience. In short, Japan abounds in free sights and activities, all culturally enriching and rewarding.