Let’s be honest – Tokyo isn’t exactly cheap. Very expensive restaurants exist in some quarters of Tokyo, and it’s possible to spend U.S. $200 or more for a meal. Unless you’re lucky enough to be wined and dined by a Japanese businessman with a generous expense account, you will have to trim a food budget by eating like the locals. This article will show what foods to look for in Tokyo to satisfy your hunger and leave your savings account intact.
Ramen – thin noodles served in a hot, soupy broth – is the staple of Japanese cuisine and a favorite dish for cash-strapped students and rushed office workers. Originating in China but long since assimilated into the Japanese diet, a bowl of ramen can come with meats, vegetables, fried eggs, or left plain. Broth bases range from meat or fish to miso or soybean. There are dozens of variations. Ramen eateries typically post colorful pictures of what they serve outside the door, so you won’t have to look far. Expect to pay 500 to 800 yen for a bowl of ramen.
Japanese style curry rice doesn’t look or taste much like the curries of India or Thailand, but it’s hot, delicious, and just a little bit spicy depending who makes it. What you get is a plate with curry sauce with onions and carrots, a large serving of rice, and a deep-fried pork or chicken cutlet. It shouldn’t cost more than 300 yen. CoCo Ichibanya is a popular curry house chain restaurant.
Every neighborhood in Tokyo, upscale or otherwise, has a yakitori restaurant, offering grilled chicken or pork on skewers. The meat is then covered with a tangy glaze made with soy sauce, sugar, and sake (rice wine). With plenty of smoke and emanating from charcoal braziers and lively conversations, yakitori eateries can be found easily. In some places you can find toriwasa: chicken grilled on the outside, but raw on the inside. Exceptionally fresh chicken is used to it’s quite safe to eat. For more adventurous diners, horumonyaki specializes in beef and pork offal. Spleens, stomachs, and tracheas may not sound appetizing, but even skeptical diners change their mind once they take the first bite.
Fast food restaurants don’t always have an enviable reputation, but the food is filling and prices are difficult to complain about. American fast food giants such as McDonald’s and KFC have been in Japan for decades, and these bargain restaurants are familiar to tourists who are in Tokyo for the first time and don’t speak much Japanese. The Big Macs and chicken burgers taste the same as in the United States! If your hotel doesn’t serve a complimentary breakfast, you can grab a quick meal in either McDonald’s or even Starbucks, the Seattle-based coffee chain which is now quite popular in Tokyo.
Don’t hesitate to eat in Japanese fast food chains. They offer Western food with a Japanese twist to appeal to local taste buds, and the prices are reasonable. After McDonald’s, Japan’s second largest fast food franchise is Mos Burger, which is pronounced “Moss” Burger. As the name suggests, it’s a burger joint and there are hot dogs too. The company’s motto is “making people happy through food.”
Yoshinoya is the other fast food heavyweight in Japan, and the franchise has expanded to North America. Look for the bright orange and black signs, and pictures of big bowls of beef to entice pedestrians. This chain is popular with the working class of Tokyo, and customers focus their attention on eating instead of talking.
Street food in Tokyo isn’t normally served from a cart as in Bangkok or Singapore. Instead, cheap snacks in Tokyo come from hole-in-the-wall restaurants where customers stand while eating. Delicious treats are prepared in the smallest spaces!
Okonomiyaki is a type of pancake cooked on a hotplate, then garnished with vegetables and a variety of exotic sauces. The best okonomiyaki is said to come from Osaka, but Tokyo can boast mouthwatering ones as well. In some Tokyo establishments you can cook them yourself.
While Tokyo isn’t getting cheaper, food at bargain prices is still abundant and the variety of dishes is incredible. Even if a restaurant doesn’t have an English sign outside, there may be a bilingual menu inside. Just be aware that not everything translates so well!