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Don't break the bank: Japan's superb cheap eats
Forget the crazy prices of high-end Japanese food: Join the locals in these down-to-earth diners
Eating on the cheap in Japan doesn't have to mean scrounging for samples on the food floors of department stores or surviving on convenience-store onigiri rice balls -- though these are time-tested options for those who find themselves cash-strapped and famished.
There's plenty of great Japanese food that does not require taking out a second mortgage, if you know where to look. What applies in Tokyo generally follows in the rest of the country.
First, our four general rules of thumb for eats on the cheap:
1. Location is everything
Food prices reflect real estate overheads. Taking Tokyo as the first stop for most tourists, you're far more likely to find affordable fare in the blue-collar areas to the north and east of the city (such as Ikebukuro, Ueno, Senju), districts with high concentrations of students (Yoyogi, Waseda) and suburban shopping streets with old-school mom-and-pop diners.
2. Make lunch your main meal
With a few notable exceptions (Sushi Jiro, take a bow), just about every restaurant in every town, whatever level, offers introductory midday specials.
Even ramen shops often offer an extra bowl of rice or cut-price gyoza for free as part of their midday "lunch sets."
3. Go underground
Check out the basement floors of office buildings and supermarkets. They're the preserves, respectively, of low-level salarymen and mothers with young kids -- and they're all trying to pinch the proverbial as best they can.
4. See a specialist
Search out specialty chains that do low-cost, high-volume versions of favorite Japanese foods. They know what they're doing and so do their hundreds of thousands of satisfied daily diners.
Precepts digested, here’s our quick guide to how to eat like a local and get your fill on pennies per day.
Let’s be frank -- high-end sushi in Japan is prohibitively pricy. A mid-range sushiya dinner is a major splurge.
And even breakfast in Tsukiji, that essential stop on any fish-loving visitor’s itinerary, will still put a dent in the wallet. Where to go?
There are always budget kaiten sushi-go-round joints. But you’re never sure how long that item you’ve been eying has been chugging around the conveyor belt.
And anyway, you’re missing out on the essential sushi experience -- watching your meal made for you.
That’s the appeal of Uogashi Nihon-ichi: sushi made to order in front of your eyes, but as affordable as anywhere in the country.
Most items are ¥100 apiece, with quite a few at just ¥75 (be prepared to share, though: everything comes in pairs).
Even the top cuts, o-toro or chu-toro, come in at ¥300 or under. Better yet are the set lunches -- 12 assorted items, plus a temaki roll and miso soup for ¥880.
Granted, the cuts of seafood aren’t huge. But it’s still a substantial, and excellent, sushi meal.
What’s the catch? You have to stand.
But that itself is in line with tradition. When sushi as we know it first appeared in the 18th century, it was a fast food served from street stalls. No seats, no frills, no lingering. No problem.
Branches of Uogashi Nihon-ichi can be found in many parts of Tokyo. For a full list (in Japanese) visit susinippan.co.jp
More on CNNGo: The best sushi restaurants in Tokyo
Tempura. It’s one of the supreme delicacies of Japanese cuisine. Unfortunately, all too often it’s priced that way, too.
But there’s no reason it has to be; the Tenya chain proved that long ago. In fact, its outlets -- more than 100 in Tokyo alone -- have forged a whole new approach to the genre: tempura as fast food, simple, hearty and affordable.
Instead of serving the tempura one piece at a time, as you’d get at a high-end restaurant, Tenya gives it to you all in one go.
Its trademark dish is the tendon (short for tempura donburi) rice bowl topped with batter-fried morsels of seafood and vegetable. Tempura without the rice is available, but trust us and go for the house specialty.
The basic year-round version (¥580) comes topped with a couple of jumbo prawns and a selection of vegetables (green bean, eggplant, pumpkin), all drizzled with a savory (and slightly sweet) thick soy sauce, with miso soup on the side.
There are plenty of variations on that basic menu. More seafood; three types of shrimp; seasonal specials such as bamboo shoots in spring, or mushrooms in autumn; in place of rice, udon or soba noodles, either hot or cold.
What doesn’t change year-round is the bright, functional decor and no-nonsense service.
Tenya is never a gourmet experience, but it’s reliable, filling and enduringly popular with businessmen on the go and parents with children in tow.
Tenya has branches throughout the Kanto area. For a full list (in Japanese) visit tenya.co.jp
More on CNNGo: Tokyo 2012 ultimate dining guide
Despite prevailing perceptions abroad, sushi is not eaten daily in Japan. Nor are tempura, sukiyaki or marbled Wagyu steaks. Instead, for most people, the standard meal is the teishoku.
A simple meal on a tray, it comprises a main course -- maybe sashimi, grilled fish or something deep-fried -- always with rice, miso soup, pickles and green tea (and maybe a small dessert) on the side.
The teishoku is basic fare in homes, school lunch counters and company canteens, as well as at countless down-home eateries and restaurants. Few do it better than the Ootoya chain, which operates some 200 outlets around Japan.
The dining rooms are always bright and welcoming. The menus offer great choice, from tonkatsu pork (¥810), Hamburg steak (¥790), grilled fish (¥840) or savory stews (¥810) to side salads (from ¥130) and special kids’ meals for as little as ¥500.
Most importantly, everything is cooked fresh to order, and tastes wholesome and satisfying. Unless you have a Japanese mom, this is as close as you're likely to get to the taste of home cooking while you're in the country.
Ootoya has branches in most areas of Tokyo and throughout Japan. Full details (in Japanese) at ootoya.com
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Ramen is the ultimate Japanese budget food. These noodles, originally Chinese but long since assimilated into the national diet and psyche, have provided warming for generations of impecunious students, truckers, laborers, shift workers and late-night clubbers.
It’s never expensive, but nowhere is ramen more affordable than at the Hidakaya chain.
Even if you can’t read the name over the door (it’s written in kanji characters only) you know you’re in the right place as soon as you see the signs saying ¥390.
That’s the price of your basic bowl of ramen -- although there are plenty of other options: with extra vegetables (yasai-tappuri tanmen, ¥490) or spicy minced meat in Sichuan style (tantanmen, ¥580), as well as rice dishes and stir fries.
Like the bland interiors of their restaurants, Hidakaya’s noodles have little character. But they’re fine as a simple snack -- and, at ¥390, unrivaled for price.
If you want to bulk out your meal a bit, get a side order of gyoza (just ¥200). Need a flagon of draft Kirin to go with it? That’s an extra ¥350.
Put it all together and you have a three-course meal -- hey, beer’s a food group all to itself -- and still get change from a ¥1,000 bill.
Hidakaya has branches throughout Kanto. Full details (in Japanese) at hidakaya.hiday.co.jp
More on CNNGo: 40 Tokyo foods we can’t live without