Tokyo is a city of coordinated chaos. It’s a sprawling, massive city full of people. Shinjuku is loud and full of flashing lights, much like Times Square, yet you can turn a corner and be on a quiet tree-lined street. It’s utterly confusing and so easy to get lost in. You can wander within one giant metro station for an hour just trying to find the right exit (we did!).
While there are many reasons tourist flock to Tokyo, my husband and I came for one primary reason: to eat! Tokyo is world renowned for incredible restaurants and top notch sushi. However, many of the places you read about in newspapers and magazines will set you back a pretty penny. High end sushi restaurants are generally $200 + a person, a price we were not willing to pay.
If you’re on a budget, I wouldn’t suggest Tokyo as a destination, but it is possible to eat well without spending your savings.
Below are a few tips on how to taste Tokyo’s culinary delights without breaking the bank.
When in doubt, eat ramen.
Ramen shops have starting popping up everywhere in the U.S., but nothing compares to the umami flavors you get from an authentic bowl of ramen in Tokyo. Depending on the ramen joint and the type of ramen you order, it can range from $5 a bowl to $15 a bowl, but the money spent will fuel you for hours and hours. In Japan, it’s considered rude to leave any ramen left in your bowl, so don’t make the same mistake I did of ordering a “deluxe” bowl of ramen that you can’t possibly finish. The best ramen my husband and I ate in Tokyo was at Karashibimisoramen Kikanbo. I highly recommend going there and ordering ramen with both the chili pepper spice and the sichuan pepper spice. You’ll also get the unique Japanese experience of ordering your meal from a vending machine!
Seek out highly reviewed mid-range sushi restaurants.
You can’t visit Tokyo without experiencing a chef’s menu of sushi. While there are many highly-acclaimed, upscale sushi restaurants, you don't have to visit them to get amazing sushi in Tokyo. The mid-range sushi restaurants are far better than what you can get in the U.S., and are a fraction of the cost of the high-end restaurants. If you do your research, you can find well-reviewed sushi restaurants for $25-$100 per person. My husband and I chose Manten Sushi Marunouchi for dinner. For about $50 per person, we were served a chef’s choice menu of about 15 different pieces each. It was a little overwhelming how much sushi we got – definitely worth the price! If you want even more bang for your buck, many mid-range sushi restaurants have great lunch deals.
Have brunch at the fish market.
One of Tokyo’s biggest attractions for foodies is the Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s the largest and busiest fish market in the world. It also has very reasonably priced sushi restaurants if you opt for some of the less famous places. At Yamazaki, we had a set menu for about $25 per person. Many people wake up in the wee hours of the morning (I’m talking arriving by 3 AM) for a chance to be admitted into the famous tuna auction. Everyone suggests arriving to the market very early in the morning, but unless your dream is see the tuna auction, I suggest arriving at a more reasonable hour of 8 or 9 AM. You can wander the market for an hour or two before lining up at your chosen sushi restaurant. If you arrive to a sushi restaurant around 10 AM, the morning crowds who woke up very early will have dissipated a bit and the lunch crowds won’t have arrived yet, making it an unusually good time to get in line. My husband and I only waited about 45 minutes to dine at Yamazaki. We had been told that if we didn’t get in line at a restaurant by about 7 or 8 AM, we would be waiting well over an hour. However, I noticed that most of the lines, even for the famous and more expensive Sushi Dai, were shorter in the mid-morning hours. So instead of having sushi for breakfast, plan on brunch!
Fill up on Gyukatsu.
My favorite meal from our time in Japan was not sushi, but another famous Japanese dish: gyukatsu. Gyukatsu is a deep-fried breaded beef cutlet that is bursting with flavor and so tender that it melts in your mouth. One of the best places to try it is Gyukartsu Motomora Shibuya. The only thing you’ll find on the menu is gyukatsu and you get to cook it on your own personal hot stone right in front of you. It’s served with miso soup, various sauces, rice, cabbage, and potato salad. There is almost always a wait, but it is well worth it. We went around 7 PM and waited about 30 minutes. Once you sit down, they serve you at lightening speed! Besides the incredible flavor, one of the best parts about gyukatsu is that it only costs about $12!
Eat fish for breakfast.
Yes, fish! In the U.S., eating fish for breakfast is certainly a bit taboo. But in Japan, it is as common as having a bowl of cheerios. Instead of finding a trendy coffee shop, seek out a local joint serving Japanese breakfast. In Shinjuku, Shinpachi Shokudo is a great option. For about $7, you’ll get a whole grilled fish (bone and all!), miso soup, rice, and a few accompaniments. It’s simple, delicious, and will keep you going for a few hours! The icing on top is that you’ll likely be the only tourists there, allowing you to experience authentic Japanese culture.
Find your favorite japanese pastry.
If you're short on time for breakfast, Japanese bakeries are a great and cheap option. On days when our schedule was packed, we often picked up Japanese pastries at a bakery in the metro station (we stayed near the Shinjuku station, but many stations have bakeries inside). Over the course of our stay, we ended up trying quite a few different pastries, but my favorite was kare-pan, a savory pastry similar to a jelly donut but filled with Japanese curry beef stew. They were simply amazing and only cost a dollar!
Tokyo is expensive. But it is possible to experience some of the best food in Tokyo on a budget! Visit in the spring to see the famous cherry blossoms or the fall for colorful foliage – both times of year will have fewer crowds and great weather for walking the sites to burn off all the wonderful food you will eat.