Although it has been a year, it really only feels like yesterday when I was waking up in the early, quiet, misty mornings of Tokyo in my tiny apartment in Machida, engaging in the busy yet quiet bustle of briefcase-toting salary men and women in the train rush hour and being a part of the refined yet bizarre world of Japan. Although it was only four months, it was four magical months that felt more like one, mostly because I was working most of the time. Now, it’s been a year, and I feel like I never go a day without reminiscing or annoying my friends with “well in Japan….” (sorry friends!).
The other week, I was flipping through my Saveur magazine in which they were covering their annual best awards. I came across this article. Memories of Japan flooded back, and I thought the author couldn’t be more true. If there is one thing you should know about Japan, it is the passion and dedication they embody in everything they do. It’s the reason you will rarely encounter poor service, a dirty street, and the reason why food anywhere, from the elegant sushi restaurants of Ginza to the standing ramen stalls of Shinjuku station, is just SO good.
I hear all the time, ‘isn’t Tokyo super expensive?’ or “isn’t Tokyo one the most expensive places to visit?”, and is perhaps a huge reason I see a lot of people shrug off visiting this amazing city. Yes, you can go to a Michelin star sushi restaurant in Ginza and pay 20000yen for a meal, but you can also have a full meal set of miso soup, gyudon and pickles for 300-400 yen. So yes, it is one of the most expensive places to live when you include my tiny $1000/mo apartment and the cost of fresh groceries, but I believe it is one of the more cheapest places to visit, and perhaps the least expensive metropolitan city to visit in the world (especially with the JR pass, you lucky bastards who get to use it).
I decided to put together a list of my favorite places in Tokyo encountered in my 4 months. This is by no means a “best of” list. As a non-Japanese speaker, I was mostly confined to the first or street floor restaurants, unless guided by Japanese friends. Tokyo is stacked vertically, so worlds thrive above and under ground. Restaurants lie on every level from B3 to floor 25, but I was mostly able to pick out ones within an eye’s reach. So take my list for what it is: favorites of a hungry gaijin.
Favorite Cheap Restaurant: Nakajima
- Famous for being the cheapest Michelin star restaurant, you can get a full meal for 700-900 yen, and it will change your view on sardines forever.
Favorite Overall Ramen: Rokurinsha
- Tsukemen is not for the light stomachs. A very heavy meal, this place is best enjoyed on an empty stomach. I cannot find a tsukemen place with as delicious and complex of a broth as rokurinsha. It’s not David Chang’s favorite ramen in Tokyo for no reason. Don’t forget to have them dilute the broth after you finish the noodles – the best part of the meal in my opinion.
Favorite Tsukemen not Rokurinsha: Shuichi
- Curry tsukemen. Yes.
Favorite Tonkatsu Ramen: Oneshiki Jun
- Also located within Ramen Street in Tokyo station sitting across from Rokurinsha, this tonkatsu ramen joint is AMAZING. Perfectly cooked chasu pork, perfectly soft boiled flavored egg, delicious creamy broth.
Favorite Soba Noodles: Honmura An
- Two words: Uni Soba
Favorite Udon: Mentsudan
- Located near the izakaya areas of Shinjuku, it has a great central location (Shinjuku was my home base), and great sanuki udon. It’s also super cheap (500-600 yen).
Favorite Sushi in Tsukiji: Sushi Dai
- Yes there’s a several hour wait, but it’s amazing sushi at a great price. I’m not sure if you can get sushi at that level for 4000 yen anywhere else in Tokyo.
Favorite Sushi not in Tsukiji: Iwa
- Amazing sushi restaurant in Ginza with a pretty price. Came here for lunch omakase, 13 courses for 8000yen with sushi chef Iwa.
Favorite Kaiten Sushi: Muten Kura Sushi, aka what I call “gamble sushi”
- This sushi joint is cheap, decent and fun. You order what you want off the iPad screen and little motorized carts come zooming out of the kitchen to your table. Best part: after you finish your plate, you place it in a slot at the table. Every 5 plates inserted into slot, your iPad will switch to a “chance game” mode. If you win, a gachapon will come sliding down a chute to your table. Eating doesn’t get better than this.
Favorite Gyoza: Harajuku Gyoza Lou
- Cheap and great gyzoa. Can’t go wrong with gyoza.
Favorite Tonkatsu: Maisen
- Crisp and perfect tonkatsu that makes you wonder where this tonkatsu has been all your life.
Favorite Curry: Go Go Curry
- Perhaps it’s the auspicious location in Roppongi and my many visits for a quick pre-game meal, but Go Go Curry beats Coco Ichibanya in my mind in terms of price and amount of food. Curry in Tokyo isn’t really fancy, so every curry place will be a hole in the wall or fast food joint.
Favorite Yakitori: Omoide Yokocho
- Probably not the best yakitori, but you can’t beat the atmosphere. One of the places in a metro Tokyo that seems frozen in time. Touristy, yes. Pricey, yes. But this unique alley is why it attracts many.
Favorite Gyudon: Matsuya
- When it comes to those cheap gyudon chains, Matsuya is my favorite. And yes that extra raw egg is worth it.
Favorite Crepes: Marion Crepes
- A must-do stop every time I’m shopping in Harajuku.
Favorite Fast Food: Hanamaru Udon
- Super fast. cheap and offers a great variety of udon. I love the tempura bar to customize your udon bowl, and the unlimited free green tea.
Favorite Izakaya: Za Watami
- There are plenty of izakayas, but I love watami for the extensive menu, multiple locations (I love something I can recognize), great service, and huge tables for huge parties (a rarity in Tokyo). Service is also amazing, and it’s relatively decent priced…350yen highballs, sochu and beers. They also offer a nomihodai/tabehodai menu for 3000yen.
Favorite Pre-game Nomihodai: Yakitori Marukin
- 299 yen for 30 min (with a 1 hour mandatory stay) of nomihodai and 60yen yakitori. Nuff said.
Favorite Cat Cafe: Calico Cat Cafe
- I’m not going to disclose how many cat cafes I went to, but this one was the most interactive, and you can order food or drinks, and really relax with some kitties.
What I Could Never Live Without: Combinis
- The moment you walk into a combini, your outlook on convenient stores will change forever. You’ll come home and wonder why your 7-11 does have fresh onigiri for $1, or fulfill your midnight snack cravings for fresh curry pan, or oden for those chilly mornings. And then you realize your life has been a sham and a lie.