Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tokyo cheap eats

This is by far the best Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) that I have eaten. Ameyoko street side stall

Kushinobo @ Roppongi Hills where we had the eat-all-you-can Kushikatsu and super high alcohol content shochu

One of the food floors in a departmental store in Ueno

One of the most expensive meals that I had eaten ~SGD200/pax. Kobe beef set.

Machine-made Japanese pancakes with red bean filling.

I must say the japanese have perfected the art of making desserts!

If you are a foodie looking for recommendations of good food in Tokyo...this post is not for you. I eat only to fill my stomach, hence I'm not very particular about what I put into my mouth.

I'm writing this to dismiss the myths that eating out in Tokyo will cost an arm and leg! I have had people asking me if their budget of SGD100/meal/person is enough *roll eyes*

Of course if you are feeling generous and want to spend a couple of hundred dollars on a meal...you'll no doubt be spoilt for choice in Tokyo. But for the average budget traveller, you'll be able to feed yourself in Tokyo without melting your credit cards or having to rob the banks!

And this cheapskate traveller will tell you where to find cheap eats (guarantee cheap but no guarantee that it'll suit your palate!):

Tachigui noodle shops

"Tachigui" means standing to eat. Forget comfort & ambience...this is fast food at its fastest! You zip in, slot your money into the vending machine, select your noodles and collect the dispensed slip, hand the slip to the staff, you'll usually get a choice of soba or udon, collect your noodles almost immediately, place your bowl on the tiny counter tables provided, slurp your noodles/soup while standing and you should be done in less than 5-8min max and off you go. These days, some bigger tachigui noodle shops will have chairs for you to sit. Such no-frill, fuss-free meals will usually cost between JPY300-500 (SGD5-8.50). I'd usually buy the simplest udon/soba for JPY300 (with some tempura beads or a slice of fried beancurd) and then add on a side like Korokke JPY50 (a deep fried patty made from meat/veg & mashed potatoes and coated with bread crumbs). Best of all, you'll get to enjoy a free flow of ice water or ocha at no cost. Such tachigui shops can be found everywhere...and especially near the subway stations.

Convenience stores "konbini"

Think I can find convenience stores more easily than I can find rubbish bins in Tokyo! I won't be entirely surprise if someone tells me that Japan has the most convenience stores in the world. It's crazy, everywhere you go, there'll be a 7-11, Lawson, AM/PM, Family Mart or something. Apart from the regular things that we can also find in our local convenience stores, the konbinis also provide banking (ATMs), copier/fax, ticket reservations (events, theme parks, highway buses), photo printing, bill payment and even delivery services.

And the konbinis also sell a very wide range of bento meals, snacks, riceballs, sandwiches, bread, cakes, instant noodles, oden etc. There are microwaves in the convenience stores and you can request to have your food heated up and sealed to keep it warm. Chopsticks are readily available upon request. The riceballs are usually priced between JPY80-120 (you'll probably need at least 2 of these to fill up your stomach) and bento meals are between JPY400-600. I'll usually buy a few of the riceballs 'cos they are so convenient to carry around and easy to eat...and I'll munch on them when I'm on the train or while sitting on a bench at the park.

Supermarkets and "food floors" at departmental stores

Although not as common as convenience stores, you should be able to find at least 1-2 big supermarkets in whatever area that you are staying in Tokyo. You'll find a wide selection of prepared food that are packed neatly in plastic boxes on sale at the supermarts. There'll be sushi, sashimi, salads, korokke (potato patty), karage (deep fried chicken), dessert, tonkatsu, spaghetti, curry rice, onigiri (riceballs) and many more food items. Everytime I step into a supermarket, I'll feel like I'm Alice in wonderland! You'll find that it's not hard to fill your shopping basket with enough food for a complete hearty meal for a budget not more than JPY1,000 (~SGD16).

Usually, a bento meal (with the full works) will only cost JPY500-600. The trick is to shop after 5-6pm 'cos that's when prices are slashed by 30-50%. There are also certain food items meant for immediate consumption (nearing expiry) which are sold for as little as 20-30% of the original retail prices - not that the food items aren't fit for consumption, in fact most of the items are still reasonably fresh...it's just that the japanese' food quality standards are extremely high. Not all supermarkets have microwave for heating up your food. So if you are bringing your food back to the hotel, you might want to stick with those food that you don't mind eating cold.

In many departmental stores, the basements are usually designated food floors. And some of these food floors are so huge that there are separate food sections for the different types of foods. Be ready to be awed and utterly spoilt for choices. Prices are somewhat similar to the supermarkets but you get a greater varierty. Prices are also marked down in the evenings at around 5-6pm.

Conveyor-belt sushi "kaiten-zushi"

Ok, Singaporeans should all be familiar with this concept?! It's not unlike our Sakae Sushi, Sushi-Tei where you've all the sushi placed on different colored plates (different colors to indicate different prices) rotating around on a conveyor belt...and you just pick up from the belt whatever catches your eye to eat. When you're done, the waiter will count the number of plates and write you a bill.

There are many such kaiten-zushi places in Tokyo. The cheapest one that I had been to was only JPY99 per plate (SGD1.60). The average price is probably between JPY100-150 which is still cheap as compared to Singapore? Of course the premium plates can be up to JPY500. Ocha is free and free-flow unlike in Singapore where I have to pay SGD0.99 at Sakae Sushi!

Although snobs will frown on kaiten-zushi and say that the food are bad....of the many that I've tried in Tokyo, I must say that they were all much better in terms of food quality than our local Sakae Sushi! And instead of manually counting the plates, some of the shops have installed RFID chips on the plates such that the waiters need only to scan the stack of plates with a barcode reader and the bill will be totalled up in a matter of seconds!

Fast food

You'll find the regular giant chains like McDonald's, Wendy's and KFC in Tokyo. Personally, I find that the fast food from these chains in Japan taste better than in most other countries - including Singapore...probably 'cos of the stringent quality controls standards by the Japanese. But seriously...do you want to be eating at McDonald's when there are so many other interesting things to try when you are in Tokyo?! If you want the affordability of fast food without appearing like a loser eating at Mac's while in Tokyo, you can consider the more "japanese" burger options such as MOS Burger http://www.mos.co.jp/english/, Freshness Burger http://www.freshnessburger.co.jp/, Lotteria http://www.lotteria.jp/index.html, First Kitchen http://www.first-kitchen.co.jp/index.html . For most of these fast food restaurants, you'll be able to get a very decent meal (burger+fries+drink) for around JPY500.

If you'd prefer rice meals i.e. Gyudon instead of burgers, you can also visit fast food chains like Matsuya http://www.matsuyafoods.co.jp/index.pl5, Yoshinoya http://www.yoshinoya.com/ or Ootoya http://www.ootoya.com/ and Sukiya http://www.zensho.com/menu/. Similarly for around JPY500, you'll be able to fill your stomach with a big bowl of rice topped with beef slices and some veg & egg. And water/ocha is usually available for free.

There are also restaurants that serve curry rice & tempura in fast food style like Coco Ichibanya http://www.ichibanya.co.jp/index.html and Tenya http://www.tenya.co.jp/index.htm . For these joints, a satisfying meal will probably cost you JPY600-1000.


Well I'm not exactly a big eater but if you are one, there are many eat-all-you-can restaurants in Tokyo. The prices aren't exactly easy on your pockets as they usually range between JPY1000-3000 (lunch prices are normally much cheaper)...however, the fact that you can eat/drink all you want for a single price would render them reasonably good deals especially if you can eat A LOT! Such eat-all-you-can offers can be found in all kinds of restaurants i.e. indian, iranian, asian, nepalese, israeli etc. If you want to try the more authentic japanese food, there are 2 such joints that might be worth your consideration.

Mo Mo Paradise http://www.wondertable.com/doc/whatsnew/y232/232.html offers eat-all-you-can shabu shabu (similar to our local steamboat) for about JPY2,000/pax (inclusive of free flow of drinks/rice). If I'm not wrong, the lunch buffet is at half price. Unlike our local buffet places, there's usually a time limit, which in the case of Mo Mo, is 90min. So eat fast! Can't really recall the exact locations but there are 2 Mo-Mos near Sunshine City @ Ikebukuro

If you like deep fried food, then Kushiya Monogatari http://www.kushi-ya.com/ might just be your cup of tea. If you were to ignore the after-meal greasy smell on your clothes/hair/skin (that I totally hate!), it can be kinda fun. You get to pick what you like to eat, dip the skewered fish, meat and vegetables in batter and flour and then use the deep-fryer on each table to fry your own meal. Eat-all-you-can in two hours for about JPY2,500 (not inclusive of free flow of drinks). Everything is deep-fried so watch those calories. The meal goes best with ice cold japanese beer! I think you can find Kushiya in quite a few areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya and Shimbashi...but don't ask me where exactly as I'm not a foodie...I eat only what I chance upon.

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