Tokyo is not an easy destination for a traveler on a budget. Prices are about one and a half times what they are in the U.S. and very quickly your fatty tuna sushi lunches turn into Cup O’ Noodles dinners.
Three budget-friendly and lip-smacking options are ramen shops, yakitori restaurants, and yakiniku establishments. Michael and I put these three into heavy rotation during our week in Japan.
Ramen shops are tucked into virtually every corner of Tokyo and provide a quick and affordable meal, averaging between $15-$20 depending on how much you decide to spruce up your bowl with additional toppings. My favorite ramen shop in Tokyo was Ichiran in the Shinjuku neighborhood.
If you want to taste some of the yummiest ramen in Tokyo, head over to Ichiran, where you order your ramen through a vending machine. This Anti-Social Ramen restaurant is made for those with hermetic tendencies: its a limited-human-interaction experience. First, you place your customized ramen order through the machine (select extra toppings like a soft-boiled egg, additional garlic, etc) and the machine will spit out a ticket. Then, you plop down on a bar stool with privacy screens on each side and hand the ticket to the pair of hands that float through the window in front of you. Once your ramen is served through the front window, the floating hands pull down the screen in front of your seating station and you can slurp your noodles in privacy. Since this is compact Japan, you’re most likely touching knees with your neighbor but at least avoiding eye contact and any volleying of forced pleasantries.
Yakitori restaurants are just as affordable and yummy, but not quite as anti-social. Yakitori is a Japanese type of skewered chicken, grilled over a charcoal fire. No part of the chicken is forsaken and some of the most flavorful skewers include chicken skin and chicken butt. Yakitori is usually served in Izakayas, Japanese taverns, where chilled mugs of local beer, Suntory, pair quite nicely with the fatty skewers of unidentifiable chicken parts. Being the carnivorous souls that we are, we fell in love with Torikizoku Okubo in Shinjuku. A local joint, half the fun and twice the frustration was navigating the Japanese-only picture menu and ordering through a touchpad screen located at each table.
Last but not least, yakiniku establishments are the Japanese versions of Korean BBQ. And just like their Korean cousins, they have All You Can Eat (AYCE) options. Yakiniku translates roughly to “grilled meat.” Each each table has a grill in the middle of it and you order an assortment of beef, pork, seafood, and/or vegetables to grill yourself. In addition to AYCE, you have the option of ordering the All You Can Drink option. You’re typically allotted two hours to eat and drink to your heart’s content. Yakiniku Fufutei Shibuya was a delicious option in the Shibuya neighborhood that Michael and I stumbled upon during our explorations.
AYCE is an advantageous option for us because when it comes to meat, we can eat a lot. As we sat down at our table for two, a pair of locals in their 20s were seated at the table next to us. These two girls were toothpick-thin and I thought about what a waste of money this AYCE meal would be for them because I couldn’t imagine them eating more than a few bites.
Sure enough, they placed a modest order for two cuts of meat, a beef tongue and a pork belly, and took their time grilling and nibbling on them. Then they asked for salad. They sat chewing on lettuce leaves for a good thirty minutes before ordering ice cream sorbet.
At this point, Michael and I shared a glance and a wry smile, shaking our heads and rolling our eyes at each other. What a waste of money, we though. Why come to an AYCE restaurant if you’re going to fill up on lettuce and four ounces of meat.
The friends lingered over their one scoop of sorbet and then waved over the waiter, I assumed to get the bill.
I watched them point to the pork shoulder and ask for one more plate of it. Which was surprising in and of itself but even more so when the waiter informed them that their two hours were almost up and this order would be their last call, and the girls transformed into Hannibal Lecters in the blink of an eye.
The toothpicks grew frenzied and threw open the menu. My mouth hit the floor when they started to point to the cuts of meat they wanted to place as part of their last order.
Two pork bellies!
Let’s get a beef tongue!
And a liver as well!
Let’s make that three pork bellies!
And I want a marinated beef!
And the chicken too, right?
Michael and I started wide-eyed as the waiter turned over a new sheet in his notebook to continue their order.
Don’t forget the pork shoulder!
Let’s actually get five pork bellies!
And the pork stomach!
The waiter finished writing down this behemoth of an order, and turned to leave, a frown knitting his brows, probably wondering if the kitchen had enough meat ready for these girls or if a pig would need to be slaughtered in the back alley to accomadate this voracious rapacity.
The toothpicks called after him, pointing frantically to the menu.
The sliced tomatoes. Their insistent fingers pointed to the sliced tomatoes on the menu. Don’t forget the order of the sliced tomatoes.
Of course, one can’t forget the tomatoes. They’ll need that citric acid to cut through the twenty-five pounds of fatty meat coming their way.