Whether slurping delicious noodles, shopping in supermarkets, dining on street eats and generally eating like a local there are lots of ways to satisfy your taste buds and your wallet or purse. So, here's our guide of how you can eat well while making your money go a lot further.
Tokyo, like many global cities, can be an expensive place to visit but dining out doesn’t have to blow a cavernous hole in your budget. Sure, you can spend a fortune on a fancy meal in the most expensive restaurants, but there are plenty of excellent low-price options. Japan’s capital is a culinary heaven and one of the best cities in the world for great food at low prices.
You can find Japanese street food on virtually every corner of the city, small makeshift stalls selling tasty and cheap snacks and hot dishes that don’t skimp on flavours. Among the lip-smacking offerings you may want to try are:
Mitarashi Dango - small round dumplings on a skewer that are covered with a sweet soy sauce glaze.
Menchi Katsu - patties of ground beef, ground pork or a mixture of the two that are deep-fried.
Karaage - juicy pieces of marinated chicken that are deep-fried in oil and coated with a thin layer of cornstarch.
Yakisoba - a stir-fry noodle dish with slices of pork and vegetables such as onions, cabbage and carrots.
Takoyaki - a small golf-ball sized snack made of wheat flour and filled with green onion and minced or diced octopus.
Tokyo food markets are great places to discover a rich variety of fresh foods at low prices. You'll find them spread out across the city typically underneath and by shopping centres. They cater to all sorts of tastes with offerings that are as diverse as Tokyo's culinary scene. So, if you want to try some of the freshest seafood you’ve ever tasted or sample locally-grown fruit direct from the farmer here is a handful of suggestions:
United Nations University Farmers Markets, Shibuya - one of the city's longest running markets takes place every weekend in front of the United Nations University. Choose from organic and local fare that is grown by farmers in the greater Tokyo area.
Toyosu Wholesale Fish Market, Toyosu - lays claim to being the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. There are three large, multi-story buildings here, one for fruit and vegetables and two others for seafood. Arrive very early in the morning to watch a fish auction from an observation gallery then go and explore the stalls for your food.
Market of the Sun, Kachidoki - a large farmers market featuring more than 100 vendors from all over the country. There are seasonal fruits and vegetables as well as Western and local vegetables. The market is held on the second Saturday and Sunday of each month.
Tokyu Food Show, Shibuya - head to the basement of the Tokyo Department Store inside Shibuya station for a sprawling food hall with more than 80 shops and stalls selling high-quality meat, fish, produce and prepared foods at reasonable prices. There are also bakeries and stalls selling ready-to-go meals.
Nakamise Shopping Street - this is a traditional shopping street located by Sensoji Temple, Asakusa that's filled with souvenir shops and food stalls. It is also an excellent location for street food.
Lunchtime offers are a great idea for those who want good food for less. Canva/everydayAnalog.
A good way of eating well without breaking the bank is to make lunch your main meal for the day and look for restaurants offering lunchtime deals. There are lots of sit-down eateries across the city where you can tuck into filling set meals that will set you back between $5 and $10. If you are going to dine out in the evening, save money by ordering set meals instead of the a la carte options.
A Japanese bakery. Canva/Ztranger.
To satisfy your savoury and sweet cravings while taking it easy on your finances, pop into a bakery. Aside from bread and enormous selections of buttery baked goods, many usually serve savoury pastries such as croque monsieur and curry filled buns as well as filling breakfast selections. What’s more the aromas are heavenly.
Genki Sushi. Photo: WikimediaCommons.
Tokyoites love to eat out and the city’s expansive culinary scene caters for everybody, including those on a shoestring budget. There are lots of cheap eats all over the metropolis where you can enjoy good quality meals that are packed with flavour. Among them are Jonathan’s, a chain of family restaurants with an excellent range of Western dishes such as pastas, pizzas and hamburgers, and Saizeriya, a chain of family-style Italian restaurants.
If you have a hankering for sushi try some of the cheaper conveyor belt sushi restaurants such as Genki Sushi where you can indulge in fresh sushi for only a few dollars.
A good rule of thumb is to eat in and around Tokyo's train stations as these are hubs for cheap food joints. Although with many of these places the objective is to eat, pay and go rather than linger for a long time. For a more leisurely dining experience visit the food halls in the basements of department stores. There is a varied choice of culinary offerings for all budgets, tastes and appetites.
You can grab sushi or lunch boxes in most supermarkets. Canva/artorn.
Make your own meals by wandering up and down the aisles of convenience stores. They're called conbini in Japanese and they stock everything you need for an enjoyable and flavoursome lunch, dinner or breakfast. There are so many different types of food, drinks and snacks to discover making it a fun way to be frugal.
See also: Where to Get the Best Ramen in Tokyo
If you don't have the time or the inclination to make your own lunch or dinners, purchase ready-cooked meals. The quality is actually very high, and the food is prepared fresh every day. Popular choices are the lunch boxes or bento boxes which contain single-portion meals such as rice or noodles with fish or meat as well as cooked vegetables.
Grocery stores are another option for good-quality cheap eats, including sushi. If you go towards the end of the day, you may find that some of the prices have been marked down.
A Japanese Izakaya. Photo: WikimediaCommons.
Izakaya alleys are well known for their izakayas, a type of casual and informal pub popular with workers. They are often likened to pubs in the UK and tapas bars in Spain and serve a seemingly never-ending supply of food options such as fried chicken, slices of raw fish, chicken wings, deep-fried tofu dishes, noodles, grilled chicken skewers and edamame which are boiled and salted soybean pods.
All can be washed down with cold beers, wines, whiskeys, cocktails and sake. Find izakaya alleys in numerous locations across the capital including:
Omoide Yokocho - this is a narrow alley near Shinjuku Station West with more than 50 small restaurants.
Nonbei Yokocho at Shibuya - a small, pretty alley of izakayas in the centre of Shibuya.
Hoppy Dori at Asakusa - this extremely popular street near Senso-ji Temple hosts around two dozen izakayas and casual bars.
Ameya Yokocho - an open-air market close to Ueno Station with a number of popular izakayas.
Yurakucho - located in the central Chiyoda Ward under the railroad tracks between Yarakucho and Shimbashi stations. This is a smart alley of izakayas and ramen bars boasting a great variety of flavours.
Comfort food can be king with a bowl of ramen that’s bursting with amazing flavours. Save money on your restaurant bill with inexpensive alternatives to the delicious bowls of hot broth and noodles from ramen vending machines which are very popular in Tokyo. Select the type of ramen meal you want, pay your money and then wait. Within a few seconds, the machine will dispense warm ramen in a container.
In addition to ramen vending machines, Tokyo in common with many other Japanese cities, towns and villages has a plethora of other types of food vending machines. Among the items you can purchase from them are bowls of rice, sake, corn soup, beer, fruit, vegetables and snacks such as hot dogs.
A set of vending machines in Tokyo. Photo: WikimediaCommons.
There are also vending machine restaurants. Again, you select what you want by pressing buttons, pay your money but instead of dispensing food the machines give you a ticket. Hand it to the serving person at the restaurant counter and a few minutes later your food appears.
These types of eateries are popular not only because they are cheaper than standard restaurants but because there is a minimal wait for your food. You may even get a free glass of water or tea with your meal.
Tokyo offers great food and good value with oodles of affordable options. The standards are high, and the quantities and meal portions are plentiful. Discovering the best cheap eats near you is all part of the travel adventure. Whatever your tastes and no matter how much money is in your pocket it's easy to eat well for very little in the Japanese capital.