I spent a lot of time in my late teens and early twenties hanging out in Japan, back when the most exciting food my budget allowed me was the occasional konbini sushi and plenty of soba noodles and tofu, eaten in my tiny apartment.
Japan is not the most vegetarian-friendly locale. In my earlier travels, the response to my preference was usually, “Vegetarian? Is ham okay?”
Fast forward to present day, when Tokyo decided to vie for my attention once more. Don’t ask me what put the idea in my head but all of a sudden, I could hardly wait to return to Tokyo with grown up sensibilities and a grown up budget. Apparently, I'm not the only one. By the time my travel plans were booked, my Instagram was filled with images of people eating their way through this great city. Even NOMA spent some time in residence.
It was time to experience the city I loved in a way that I never had as a kid.
Tokyo is a world-class food city and if Michelin stars are your thing, you won’t be disappointed. However, with a 4 year old – and plenty of other necessities to fill that grown up budget – my own food choices were decidedly more accessible.
Tokyo isn’t thought of as a budget destination but you might be surprised at how well you can eat for relatively little. A huge bowl of ramen perfection will set you back about ten dollars. As will exquisitely fresh sushi, taken to go from one of the many neighbourhood sushi shops. A few extra dollars will buy you a quick feast at one of those rotating sushi bars.
All too often, capturing the real food essence of a city has little to do with fine dining. Food in Tokyo caters to the busy and there are literally thousands upon thousands of tiny outlets, specializing yakitori to udon to Japanese-style curry that will have you full in no time flat. Stand mesmerized at the banks of vending machines, where you can score hot corn soup (or sake) to help you ward off the chill…or a decadently sweetened milk tea that is unlike you will taste elsewhere.
What to Eat: Tokyo Edition
Get your food geek on by making the pilgrimage to Ivan Ramen, or select from one of Ivan’s favourite Tokyo ramen spots. I enjoyed an unusual parmesan and basil ramen at Ramen Nagi, a popular chain in Tokyo.
2. Vending Machine Heaven
The assortment of drinks found in Japan is staggering. From bitingly strong coffee to cure your hangover to oolong tea or aloe juice for a sore tummy, refreshment is never more than a street corner away. Bonus points for finding the alcohol vending machines.
The worst sushi in Japan is likely fresher than the best sushi in your town. Eat as much as humanly possible.
4. Enter the Konbini
Konbini, the Japanese term for convenience store, are something to behold. With sushi delivered fresh twice a day and yummy nori-wrapped rice triangles, grabbing a quick meal from the 7-Eleven is actually a reasonable prospect. Check out the crazy displays of drinks and sample some yummy Japanese junk food. I highly recommend Meiji chocolate covered almonds (the red + white box) and a buffet of flavoured rice crackers….try the skinny moon shaped ones with peanuts.
5. Have a ‘good’ meal
There is a similar foodie renaissance here that this focusing on the local, handmade and intimate. My tried-and-true picks are Soba Yumeji in Roppongi, BEARD in Meguro (book WAY in advance), and Eatrip in Harajuku.
Other Tokyo Picks
Bills – go for breakfast
Words and Images by Desiree Nielsen