How To Find The Best Cheap Eats In Tokyo
Thanks to a rigorous approach to dining efficiency and a well-established solo eating culture, Tokyo has oodles of delicious and affordable food if you’re not afraid to go where the locals do. And the cheap eats in Tokyo are really next-level. Here’s how to make the most of the scene.
Conquer the ticket ordering machine for ramen
Serving up piping hot broth with noodles and your choice of toppings, noodle shops are the pick of the bunch for solo dining. You’ll find them everywhere, on main streets and side streets, and some of the best are in train stations.
They’re small – often a one chef operation with 10 or so seats – and many of them use ticket ordering machines. Don’t panic! While few will offer an English menu, most will have images. Simply put in your money (a bowl will cost you around $4-$7) and select the dish you want. Then take your ticket, and deliver it to the chef inside. Condiments are free, so add your sauces and chilli, find a spot to sit and dig in.
Golden Gai in the Shinjuku district is famous for its nightlight, but its also home to some unmissable restaurants for classic cheap eats in Tokyo. Nagi is the real deal for ramen, serving it up with signature thick and salty dried sardine broth. This is also a case of ordering from the Japanese ticket machine (bowls cost ¥720–¥1440 / AU$9–$18), but they’ll usually have an English menu if you ask. There are only a handful of counter seats, and the queue is usually around the corner of the building.
Head out for okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a traditional dish likened to savoury pancake. This parcel of fried goodness (noodles, cabbage, meat, seafood and egg) topped with Kewpie mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce and bonito flakes isn’t the prettiest of dishes, but it is delicious.
Okonomiyaki bars are excellent on your own or with a group of friends, because many restaurants have table seating as well as at the grill – where you get a front row seat to the chefs working their magic.
To sample the popular Kansai style of okonomiyaki, Shinjuku and Shibuya districts are good places to start. Tokyo, however, is particularly famous for monjayaki, which has a runnier mixture. You’ll find more options than you can pick from on “Monja Street” in Tsukishima district – there are more than 70 restaurants here, some with self-cook grills.
Expect to pay between ¥800 and ¥2000 (AU$10 and $25) for okonomiyaki or monjayaki. Hot tip: Try it for lunch, not dinner, for the cheaper end of that scale.
Stop for street food
Street food is glorious in many parts of the world and while not so often associated with Tokyo, it’s definitely worth seeking out – there are good street eats that classify as essential cheap eats in Tokyo. The most well known is Harajuku crepes.
There are many stalls as well as bricks-and-mortar shops in the iconic Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, where the picture perfect creations feature all the toppings you can think of, plus some you probably haven’t. Crepes start at around ¥400 (AU$5), going up as you add toppings.
On the savoury front, keep an eye out for takoyaki. It’s literally translated as fried octopus but often referred to in English as octopus balls (only because of the shape – the batter is rolled into balls and deep fried). Crispy and gooey, it’s a typical summer food and a local favourite during festivals. Look out for stalls, which pop up in popular walking spots, where the snack will cost you ¥80 to ¥400 (AU$1–$5) for three, but the popularity of this dish means you’ll find it in many convenience stores and on restaurant menus as well.
Browse the convenience stores
If it’s late at night, you’ll been touristing all day and you just want to get back to your accommodation, fear not, you can still squeeze in a quintessential culinary experience. In fact, this hot tip will take you to some of the cheapest cheap eats in Tokyo.
Convenience stores, or conbini, have some of the best food to be sampled in Japan. Have a browse through the packaged meals (you’ll find noodle dishes, obento boxes, katsu and even okonomiyaki) and if it needs heating the attendant will offer to microwave it for you on the spot.
Top it off with a beer and some local sweets from the confectionary section and the meal will set you back around ¥640 to ¥800 (AU$8–$10).
You can’t go to Tokyo and not try sushi. From conveyor belt sushi (from ¥1600 / AU$20) and chain shops (from ¥2400 / AU$30) to the very high end (up to ¥20,000 / AU$250), there are certainly plenty of places to try. While it may not necessarily be the lowest-costing cheap eats in Tokyo, it’s worth it to eat sushi in its home city.
Usually purchased as a platter or in a takeaway box, these curated plates will include perfectly assembled sushi rice draped with silky flounder, octopus, sea bass, scallops, oysters, sea urchin and myriad other things, and the visual perfection extends to the arrangement and colours.
For sushi on the cheap(er), try to track down some of Tokyo’s old style standing-only sushi shops, where prices are usually per piece, between ¥80 and ¥320 (AU$1–$4). Queues or hoards of local businessmen around lunchtime are the best indicators.
Now you’re hungry to visit Japan, check out all the odd etiquette rules you need to know about before you go.
(Lead image: Paula Conhain / Flickr)