Tokyo is the city with the highest number of Michelin stars in the world: this means finding a good venue where to eat in Tokyo is never much of a problem. What can be more difficult, however, is being able to eat as the Japanese do, especially with the language barrier.
Everyone knows the Tsukiji market or chef Jiro Ono's sushi, but those who are more familiar with Japan are fully aware of the influence exercised by the Izakaye – more modest restaurants serving tapa-style dishes – and the ramen bars close to (if not even inside) the underground stations.
This is why we have decided to share a list of places where to eat in Tokyo like a local, pointing you in the direction of some venues where you will not find menus in English or, indeed, in the Western alphabet, but we assure you that you will not be sorry and, with a little luck – possibly by making friends with neighbouring diners – you will manage to discover some new aspects of Japanese food at affordable prices.
Soba and Ramen all night long: Sagatani Soba and Taishoken
In Tokyo you can literally eat at any time of the day and we do not mean street food either: there are affordable ramen or soba bars with just a few tables, serving food right into the middle of the night.
To assess the quality of a ramen bar just take a look at the queues forming in the busiest hours of the day. If there are more than 10 people waiting, it probably means the place is well worth the wait.
One centrally positioned soba bar is that of Sagatani Soba, at Shibuya. The prices are very reasonable: they start from 400 yen, about three euros, for a dish of soba with sesame sauce. The soba appear in a traditional bamboo serving dish and are then dipped into cold sesame sauce. If you accompany them with a beer, your bill will be about 600 yen.
There is practically no table service: you choose what you want from the automatic vending machine at the entrance, then you pay at the machine and take the receipt to the staff behind the counter; you do not have to wait long before your dish is ready.
How long do the Japanese normally take to eat here? 10/15 minutes. If you want to look like a local, don't hang about in front of the counter. Open all night long.
Metro station Shibuya – Hachiko Exit
Another venue, this time serving ramen and, in particular, the Tsukemen – ramen for dipping into very thick pork stock. The helpings here can be very generous, but the prices are almost on a par with the other ramen bars.
Taishoken is a legend in town: its original founder Yamagishini-san died in 2015, but he did make it into one of chef David Chang's documentaries.
Toshima-ku, Minamiikebukuro 2-42-8
Metro station Ikeburo
The Ameyoko market and tuna collar for lunch
The famous Tsukiji market will soon be closing down: erected in the wake of a fire, right from the start, it was destined to be a temporary structure whose life has been prolonged in anticipation of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The structure will be relocated somewhat far afield from Ginza, but the market, which has always enjoyed rather more popularity and is the one where the Japanese go to buy fish for special occasions, is that of Ueno: Ameyoko. Open from 10am to 7pm.
Metro Station Kaisei Ueno
In the streets surrounding the market, it is possible to eat at very reasonable prices: you are advised to try the grilled tuna collar. Considered by most people to be not much more than scrap, it is actually tasty, with plenty of flesh and, above all, cheap.
If you want to try it, stop off at Jizakana Yatai Hamachan, which serves tuna dishes at affordable prices. There is no menu in English, but just observe what dishes the other diners around you are ordering and point them out to the waiters.
Jizakana Yatai Hamachan
6-9-13 Ueno | 1F, Taito 110-0005
Metro Station Ueno
The right Izakaya for making Japanese friends in: Bakawarai
Making friends with Tokyokkos during the day is an impossible feat, but easier in the evening when even the stiffest business men let themselves go in front of a beer, sake or shochu – a vodka-type liquor.
Bakawarai is located at Kichijōji, a district off the beaten tourist track where many young people live. It is advisable to book and when you enter the venue, you will find an egg bearing your name: the same egg will be used in one of the dishes on the menu, possibly in a Japanese omelette if you are lucky. The environment is informal, fun and down to earth.
1-10-22 Kichijoji Kitamachi, Musashino 180-0001
Metro Station Kichijoji
Curry Rice Udon Curry
One of most popular dishes among the Japanese is curried rice. To try one worthy of a local, we recommend you go to Shinagawa Udon Curry, which surprisingly does not serve Udon, but curry in English soup tureens and rice in a separate oven dish. Contrary to tradition, here the curry is added gradually to the dish.
There is no menu in English, but try asking for the chicken based version or the one with pork, egg and garlic. Good quality at prices starting from 1500 yen for curry and beer.
2-31-5 Nishigotanda Shinagawa Tokyo
Metro Station Osakihirokoji
Hoppydori the street of Yakitori and Hoppy
If this is your first visit to Tokyo you may happen to visit the Sensoji Temple. It is by no means economical though to eat in this area and neither is the food offering particularly authentic, except for Hoppydori: a small street with eateries and outside tables offering yakitori (grilled skewers) and other popular specialities.
The most famous thing here is actually Hoppy, a drink created in wartime blending non-alcoholic beer and liquor. It does not matter which venue you choose, the real attraction is the friendly atmosphere.
Street 2-5 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo
Metro Station Asakusa