So here’s the scoop: Japan is simultaneously one of the greatest food capitals of the world and also one of the most expensive when it comes to dining out. This can be infuriating if you don’t know where to head for the cheapest grub (which is still traditional, local, and delicious, by the way).
In Japan, the idea of a budget meal is a bit different from that in the West. Food in Japan is to be respected; it’s an art form. That means that every dish is held to a certain standard, even when it’s made on the cheap. So, if you can find a restaurant within your tight traveller’s budget, you’re guaranteed to find a great, traditional, authentic dining experience that doesn’t break the bank. From sushi to ramen bowls to katsu curry bowls, there are restaurants nestled in all of Tokyo’s coolest districts that offer these must-eat meals at a fraction of the price. Here are eight restaurants that are perfect for eating your way through Tokyo on a budget:
Shinjuku is one of the city’s most exciting spots. It has all the high-street shopping brands you’d expect to find in New York and London, but it is also bursting with local flavour, from the Samurai Museum to the Kawaii Monster Café. As you explore this vibrant and electric district, you’ll find a perfect mix of cheap chain restaurants and local authentic diners to choose from if you’re traveling Tokyo on a budget.
Japan is home to two of my all-time favourite meals: ramen and katsu curry. If you don’t know, katsu curry is Japan’s own take on Indian curry, which was originally brought to Japan via the British who love a good curry. Katsu curry is typically not spicy, but at the CoCo Ichibanya, you can add spice to your liking. The curries range from vegetable to egg to chicken and pork, and all are made with their incomparable katsu sauce. CoCo Ichibanya is easily the cheapest way to enjoy traditional katsu curry, and these restaurants can be found all over Japan.
Average curry meal price: ¥774/$6.95
Let’s talk about ramen (and not the freeze-dried stuff that costs $0.30 a packet). A short walk north from Shinjuku Station is my favourite ramen joint in Tokyo: Menya Musashi. It’s not a chain, but rather a delightfully traditional eatery with impassioned chefs loudly cooking up the best ramen bowls in town. A bowl of their standard tonkatsu (pork) ramen costs about $10 and will fill you up for the day. Everything about the ramen here, from the smoky flavour of the broth to the warm feeling it leaves in your belly, is unparalleled.
Average ramen meal price: ¥1,100/$9.85
The name and reputation of this colourful area of Tokyo is infamous. This is where nerds come to feel at home. From cafes themed after anime and video games to the vintage game stores and arcades, there is no place on Earth like Akihabara. If you’re like me, you’ll make a trip here every chance you get just to take in the atmosphere, and maybe pick up a Nintendo plushie…or three. If you remember to eat during all of the excitement, there are places to have a great local meal that are cheaper than the toys you’ll inevitably treat yourself to.
The biggest chain restaurant in Japan can be found twice in Akihabara: one just west of the station and one to the east. Yoshinoya is like the McDonalds of Japan, and although the food is cheap, it’s still traditionally local. Their primary food is a beef and rice bowl — classic Japanese home cooking. Yoshinoya is the perfect place to quickly duck into and recharge during a shopping trip, and a lot of them (including the one to the west of Akihabara Station) are open 24/7.
Average beef bowl meal price: ¥790/$7.05
For those who want to avoid chains (but are still traveling Tokyo on a budget), Akihabara has a fabulous local ramen spot that will blow your socks off. The best thing about this place is that they offer some of the most affordable ramen in Tokyo, but they don’t cheapen their products. A lot of ramen places use soy-based broth because it’s the easiest way to make it affordable, but Fuku-no-Ken keeps their quality high by using traditional tonkotsu broth.
Average ramen meal price: ¥999/$8.95
This hipster’s paradise is squashed between the giants of Shinjuku and Shibuya and is a labyrinth of side-streets and alleys. Each of these hides an array of coffee shops, crepe stalls, and souvenir stores (side note: souvenir stores in Tokyo are so much cooler than those in most countries and are definitely worth a visit to pick up a kimono or a letter opener shaped like a katana). Before you get lost in its labyrinth, it’s worth fuelling up.
Gyoza are the staple dumpling style in Japan and are often ordered as a side dish. Here at Harajuku Gyozaro, however, they’re your only option. But don’t worry, this is actually awesome. For the equivalent of $3, you can enjoy a plate of six gyoza (fried or steamed – your choice) filled with pork and cooked to perfection. At this Tokyo budget price, you can happily turn this into a full meal by ordering two plates for yourself. The restaurant is a simple affair, small and quaint, with a bar that wraps around, and every stool occupied by someone enjoying the heavenly taste of fresh dumplings.
Average 6 gyoza meal price: ¥290/$2.60
As you’re about to find out, Harajuku is an area of gimmicky restaurants. The main street is overflowing with crepe stalls, which usually have a crowd of students hovering outside them giggling ‘oishii!’ into their French pancakes. If you don’t have a sweet tooth, however, one of Japan’s best gimmicky chains is here: Tendon Tenya. This restaurant offers a wide selection of tempura (deep-fried seafood and vegetables) for fantastic prices. Tempura is the kind of food that can be enjoyed by anyone, from vegetarians to carnivores, children to adults. It’s so much fun to eat, and Tenya is a great choice, especially in Harajuku where every kind of food is one-track-minded.
Average tempura meal price: ¥325/$2.90
Perhaps the most iconic of Tokyo’s districts, the area is home to the famous Shibuya Crossing, a giant cross-walk which ushers pedestrians across from the station to the bustling streets. Before crossing, however, make sure you take Exit 8 out of the station and say hello to Hachiko, the adorable dog statue. Then, once across, pop into Starbucks to get that coveted bird’s-eye view of the crossing in motion, surrounded by bright neon and towering skyscrapers. Feel free to grab a coffee and head out into the streets. Once satisfied with your exploration of the shops and boutiques, it’s time to dine and drink.
If any of my fellow British or Irish travellers are reading, I’m sure you can attest to our adoration for good ‘ole pub: a place to drink with friends and enjoy some traditional, local home cooking. Japan’s version of the British pub is an izakaya. These famously loud and energetic spots have the vibe of an old pub, complete with cheap beers and a wide range of snacks. Torikizoku is Tokyo’s big izakaya chain (just look for the bright yellow sign with red kanji). There’s one on every street in Shibuya, and they’re all guaranteed to deliver some of the best yakitori (chicken skewers) in the city. These places are perfect for whiling away an evening with friends, nibbling on skewer after skewer, and getting steadily tipsy.
Average yakitori price: ¥280/$2.50
If you’re looking to avoid the drinks and would prefer a hearty meal, head over to Genki Sushi for one of Japan’s most famous foods. Sushi is infamously expensive in every country due to two things: 1) the freshness needed to make it good and healthy and 2) the preparation time and focus required to make it beautiful. That being said, Genki (meaning in good health/spirits) hits that sweet spot between being delicious and affordable. This place offers everything found at up-market sushi restaurants with a wide variety of dishes, from fried egg to salmon and everything in-between. The menus are provided on interactive screens (in English) so everything is done at the push of a button — the epitome of Japanese convenience.
Average sushi plate price: ¥300/ $2.70
A Local Tip (for those travelling Tokyo on a Budget):
If you find yourself exploring or staying in any of the smaller districts of Tokyo and you’re hankering for some of the budget foods we’ve talked about, just remember that CoCo Ichibanya, Yoshinoya, Tenya, Tori Kizoku, and Genki Sushi are all chains and can be found across the entire city. Especially Yoshinoya; you’ll find yourself tripping over them.