Staying well-fed in Japan can be an expensive endeavor, but it doesn't have to be: If menu prices shock you, you can stop at a noodle shop for a tasty and filling meal of udon (white wheat noodles), soba (gray-brown buckwheat noodles) or ramen (Chinese noodles). Another option we highly recommend is to take advantage of the many expensive and famous restaurants that have more reasonably priced lunch menus, often featuring some of the same wonderful dishes they charge more for in the evenings. Upscale eateries often advertise their gourmet food through such lunchtime specials.
Yakitori (grilled morsels of skewered chicken seasoned with sweet sauce or salt) from outdoor food stands is a fun and delicious way to eat if you visit during warm weather (vendors are everywhere, but try the ones underneath the elevated train tracks near Yurakucho station and the Imperial Hotel). There are also many classier yakitori restaurants, serving premium breeds of chicken, as well as vegetables and occasionally beef grilled over charcoal.
No dish is more closely associated with Japan than sushi, making it a must during your visit. Japanese food presentation is one of the most visually impressive in the world, and a plate of impeccably prepared sushi is no exception. You will need to know the difference between sushi and sashimi: Sushi is prepared with cooked short-grain rice (the word sushi actually refers to the rice), and sashimi is unadorned slices of raw fish, typically served with a side of shredded daikon. Freshness is paramount for both dishes. According to locals, the quality of a sushi shop can be gauged by how crowded it is, so stay away from places that are nearly empty. You won't find fresher fish than that sold at the sushi shops around the Tsukiji fish market. They're a good value too, although few stay open after lunch, and they're closed on days when the market is closed.
The formal Japanese cuisine known as kaiseki developed from the meals served with the traditional tea ceremony. There is also a vegetarian tradition, Shojin-ryori, which had its origins in Japan's traditional Buddhist roots. Both cuisines feature artistic arrangements of dishes made from fresh seasonal ingredients. Fugu, or blowfish, can be fatally poisonous if not prepared properly (chefs must have special licenses). Usually eaten raw or cooked in hotpots, it might be bland in taste, but many Japanese say it has a slight numbing sensation caused by residual toxins in the meat. Other traditional dishes are sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef cooked tableside in broth with vegetables), shabu-shabu (thinly sliced beef cooked tableside and dipped in assorted sauces) and tempura (deep-fried fish and vegetables in batter).
A traditional Japanese breakfast consists of white rice and miso soup, served with side dishes such as raw eggs, pickled vegetables, seaweed, fermented soybeans and often some fish. However, most Japanese businesspeople are too busy for little more than a quick bowl of noodles or a roll and coffee at breakfast kiosks around train stations (and even on larger train platforms). Major hotels usually have a choice of either Japanese or Western-style breakfasts, often served as all-you-can-eat buffets.
It is not impossible to pay ¥1,000 for a cup of coffee at a ritzy Ginza coffee shop or in some of the major hotels. However, since the arrival of the international coffee chain Starbucks—along with a number of local clones, such as the reasonably priced Excelsior Caffe—there is no need to pay more than ¥350 for a cup of coffee. Espresso at one of the growing number of European-style cafes, led by the excellent Segafredo chain, will cost even less.
Traditional coffee shops (kisaten) occupy the middle ground, offering poor, overpriced coffee but providing comfortable settings where you can linger as long as you like—and (more importantly for some) smoke. Many of these old-school coffee shops still offer the traditional breakfast, known as a Morning Set. This meal will comprise a hard-boiled egg, sometimes with some ham or bacon; a "salad" of grated cabbage with Thousand Island dressing; a thick slab of air-light white bread, lightly toasted and served with a pat of butter; and a cup of well-stewed coffee (ask for "American" if you want a cup of the same coffee diluted with hot water).
Tokyo also has its fair share of beer gardens—nighttime open-air restaurants open during the summer months (some of the department stores in Tokyo have rooftop beer gardens). Many charge a set fee for all-you-can-eat meals, though a few allow guests to order a la carte. If you're on a budget, happoshu is similar to beer but is a little less expensive because it contains less malt, so it's taxed in a slightly lower bracket.
You'll be happy to discover that the language barrier that makes Tokyo so perplexing at times is not such a big problem in restaurants—many have plastic displays of menu items for you to point at, and English-language menus are increasingly common.
Restaurants are generally open 11:30 am-2:30 pm and 5:30-10:30 pm, except on weekends, when some remain open all day. Few open early in the morning, so your best bet is to eat breakfast at your hotel, at a coffee shop chain, or eat sushi in the Tsukiji fish market.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than ¥3,000; $$ = ¥3,000-¥6,000; $$$ = ¥6,001-¥12,000; and $$$$ = more than ¥12,000.
Bon may be a little hard to find in Iriya's maze of streets, but it is well worth the effort. From the exterior the place looks like a traditional Japanese home. Inside the space is divided into private tatami mat rooms for each party. Kimono-clad waitresses serve Fucha-ryori (a type of Shojin-ryori), which is the vegetarian cuisine eaten by Zen Buddhist monks. The ornate dishes there change with the season. Visit at lunch and pay half the price of what you would at dinner. Daily except Wednesday for lunch and dinner. Reservations required. $$$. Most major credit cards. 1-2-11 Ryusen (near Iriya station on the Hibiya Line), Taito-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3872-0375. http://www.fuchabon.co.jp.Chinya
This Asakusa mainstay has been in operation since 1880, with beef for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu set meals provided by its own butcher. Although the restaurant itself is modern, dining is on the floor in traditional tatami style. The English menu describes the correct procedures for cooking your own meat dishes at your table. Daily except Tuesday for lunch and dinner. $$-$$$. Most major credit cards. 1-3-4 Asakusa (Asakusa station on the Ginza and Toei Asakusa lines), Taito-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3841-0010.Donto
In the dichotomy that is modern Tokyo, this popular restaurant has a country feel to it with its shoji screens and wooden floors, yet it's located in the basement of an office building near the Ginza and Imperial Hotel. Catering to downtown white-collar workers, it serves a variety of Japanese favorites, including tempura, noodles, box lunches and kaiseki
. There's no English menu, but a glass display shows the various set meals available. Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. $$. Most major credit cards. 1-7-1 Yurakucho (Yurakucho Denki Building; Hibiya station on the Hibiya, Chiyoda and Toei Mita lines, or Yurakucho station on the JR Yamanote Loop Line), Tokyo. Phone 3201-3021.Fukuzushi
Elegant but never snooty, Fukuzushi has become a Roppongi institution, both for the quality of its sushi and its relaxed atmosphere. Located behind Hard Rock Cafe, it is a haven of calm that maintains the old traditions. English menu. Monday-Saturday for lunch and dinner. $$$. Most major credit cards. 5-7-8 Roppongi (near Roppongi station on the Hibiya and Oedo lines), Minato-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3402-4116. English assistance available. http://www.roppongifukuzushi.com.Ginza Sushi Kou
This sushi restaurant has a rather intimidating appearance and is extremely expensive, but it has been attracting sophisticated sushi lovers for more than 100 years. Servers are very comfortable with a non-Japanese clientele, although there is no English menu. The set sushi menu is highly recommended. Private rooms are available. Daily for lunch and dinner. $$$$. Most major credit cards. 6-3-8 Ginza (near Ginza station on the Ginza, Hibya and Marunouchi lines), Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3571-1968.Gonpachi
This popular chain is known for its late hours (3:30 am or later) and inexpensive yakitori, noodles, tempura, sushi and other fare, but the Nishi Azabu branch is notable for its convivial atmosphere as well. It occupies a remake of a traditional Japanese warehouse with an open kitchen in the middle of its large, lively dining hall. There are branches in Ginza, Shibuya and Odaiba, all with a rustic interior but lacking Nishi Azabu's dramatic architecture. Daily for lunch and dinner. Closed the first week of August. Reservations recommended. $$. Most major credit cards. 1-13-11 Nishi Azabu (Roppongi station on the Hibiya Line, a 12-minute walk past Roppongi Hills), Minato-ku, Tokyo. Phone 5771-0170. http://www.gonpachi.jp.Hantei
Hantei occupies a wonderful, old two-story wooden house in a back street in the historic Nezu district, just north of Ueno. Its specialty is kushi-age
—morsels of fish, meat and vegetables, coated in bread crumbs and deep-fried. There's no need to order—after the first six items they keep asking if you want more and will carry on serving you until you tell them to stop. Daily except Monday for lunch and dinner. $-$$. No credit cards. 2-12-15 Nezu (near Nezu station on the Chiyoda Line), Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3828-1440. http://www.hantei.co.jp.Heirokuzushi
Sit at a counter encircling the chefs and pick sushi plates from those going around on a conveyor belt. Heirokuzushi is one of the oldest and biggest chains of kaiten
(conveyor-belt) sushi counters. This branch is very popular (ask at your hotel for the one nearest you). Daily for lunch and dinner. $. No credit cards. 5-8-5 Jingumae (near Omotesando station on the Ginza, Chiyoda and Hanzomon lines), Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3498-3968.Inakaya
A lively staff and fresh food cooked to order make this a perennial favorite. Guests sit at a long counter and create meals from an assortment of fresh vegetables, seafood and meats spread out before them, which are then grilled on the spot. Pricey, but great fun. There are branches in Ginza and Roppongi. Daily for dinner. $$$$. Most major credit cards. 4-10-11 Roppongi (Roppongi station on the Hibiya and Oedo lines), Minato-ku, Tokyo. Phone 5775-1012. http://roppongiinakaya.jp/en/index.html.Ohmatsuya
Located in the heart of glitzy Ginza, this restaurant's decor conjures up the feel of a rural farmhouse (in a very refined way, though). Every table at Ohmatsuya has its own little charcoal grill, over which the kimono-clad waitresses help you cook morsels of meat, chicken, seafood, seasonal vegetables and mushrooms. There are lots of other side dishes that go perfectly with a small cup of delicious sake. English menu. Monday-Saturday for dinner. $$$. Most major credit cards. 6-5-8 Ginza (Ail d'Or Building 2F; Ginza station on the Ginza, Hibiya and Marunouchi lines), Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3571-7053. English assistance available.Tonki
(big, juicy pork cutlets, lightly breaded and fried) is the house specialty. This place is so popular, you may have to wait in line a few minutes—but it's worth it. Daily except Tuesday for dinner. Closed the third Monday of each month. $. Most major credit cards. 1-1-2 Shimo-Meguro (Meguro station on the JR Yamanote Loop Line, or the Namboku and Toei Mita lines), Meguro-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3491-9928.Tsunahachi
The best tempura is also usually the most expensive, but this restaurant manages to keep quality high while keeping its prices affordable. The main branch is an atmospheric old wooden building, close to Shinjuku JR station, but Tsunahachi has numerous branches throughout the city. Call for the nearest location or ask your hotel's concierge. English menus available. Daily for lunch and dinner. $$. Most major credit cards. 3-31-8 Shinjuku (Shinjuku station on various lines), Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo. Phone 3352-1012. http://www.tunahachi.co.jp.