Cheap eats ’round central Tokyo

Matsuya

Because you’ve been touristing around all day … lost track of time … and now one of those iconic American fast food chains is looking tempting, you know the ones you’d NEVER set foot in at home…So here are some alternatives, best ones last.

I’m assuming you want to feed a family of 2 adults, 2 very small kids for around ¥3000, or one adult for under ¥1000. With yen, ignore the last 2 zeros (there are no yen cents) and then factor in your currency’s most recent fluctuation … ugh!

And I’m not talking gourmet here, you can research that yourself … I don’t know what you like. (Personally, I prefer restaurants with laminex tables, fluro lighting, grumpy service … but excellent tasting food, and plenty of it).

Also, if you or your kids won’t eat anything you haven’t tried before … then you’re stuck with one of those iconic American joints. At least half their menu stays the same wherever you go.

I can’t recommend specific dishes: everything here is seasonal, even plasticy, commercial take-away joints. Whatever I could recommend likely wouldn’t be available when you visit.

I also won’t bother explaining where these alternatives are located, but the first 2 are everywhere, often several of the same shop within 5 minutes walk.  If you look around near the train station, you’ll probably see them (and in central Tokyo, when aren’t you near a train station???)

Yoshinoya and Matsuya

Yoshinoya and Matsuya are pretty similar: basically, very thin sliced but fatty meat with rice. Enlivened with sauces, curry, or Korean-style condiments. Salads and semi-cooked eggs as extras, or maybe included in the set. Water and/or tea if you eat in, free miso soup at Matsuya. Doesn’t sound enticing? Not high quality? Well, what do you expect at a direct competitor to the American chains, where average sized meals are about ¥600? And at least it’s an experience you wouldn’t have had at home.

For me, the main difference is at Matsuya you have to order using a machine, at Yoshinoya you can talk to a person and point at the menu photos. I find the machines quite hard, the advertising photos on the walls aren’t exactly the same as the ones on the machine, and without reading Kanji it’s a guess if egg is included or not. But Matsuya has a number of beef-patty dishes Yoshinoya doesn’t.

There’s a photo of Matsuya signage up top, here is Yoshinoya:

Yoshinoya

Freshness Burger and MOS Burger

If you’re really after a burger, I recommend a Freshness Burger, their chips (fries) are mainly potato (sometimes even skins!), not crispy edge of fat. Their ice teas are really good (assuming you like tea). And the burgers have a good amount of meat and salad on them. Sometimes the raw onion is a little assertive, but still. Or you could try MOS Burger, their teriyaki chicken burger is pretty good, if smallish. Or you could try that ironic burger, the one with the rice replacing the bread. Remember chocolate isn’t a default flavour here … I’ve not yet seen a chocolate milkshake, it’s one thing I miss …

And about meat, there isn’t much. Dishes described as ‘meat and spaghetti’ will be mostly spaghetti and tomato, with a smear of meat. Don’t be like all the tourists I’ve met who complain they were ripped off: you weren’t ripped off unless you paid at least ¥2000 for red meat. And portion sizes are smaller, they just ARE, so take that into account when looking at the menu’s photos.

My favourites: Denny’s Japan, Ootoya and department store basements

I’ve already mentioned I really like Denny’s Japan: a bit pricier (¥1000 for a good meal for one), but very good quality food, very fresh. Fair sized meat and bread options (shock!! not everything comes with rice!!).

I also like Ootoya, it would be my number one recommendation … if it weren’t kinda harder to find. There’s plenty of stores, but they’re usually up or down stairs, and the English is written somewhat small. Hopefully this photo will help:

Ootoya

Ootoya has Japanese-style meals, rice plus high quality meat (generally pork, chicken or fish) and vegetables. Their salads are really nice … I particularly like the choy sum with sweet beans and poppyseed paste one, yum! And do try the salad dressings, far nicer than back home in my opinion. Their desserts, err, only if you like Japanese desserts, they’re an acquired taste.

My last alternative is also a good one: go to the basement of any department store, there’ll be a huge selection of very high quality food. Only problem, where to eat? It’s considered rude to eat walking along, but there aren’t any chairs at all …

apologies to BOOKOFF

Because I just didn’t understand BOOKOFF when I first came to Tokyo. And I got annoyed at its small, weird collection of Japanese craft and sewing books … that’s before I realised BOOKOFF is a secondhand bookshop, with gems like this:

Go-Akiue: kimono remake

ISBN4-529-03959-5

And odd ones like this:

The Works of Sayoko Mori

ISBN 4-946496-47-5

It must be the special edge-sanding technique, because when I first came here, I thought the books were new.  And it’s true what the article says, the stores aren’t dingy and unwelcoming at all … so totally unlike secondhand bookshops I’m used too.

Oh, and BOOKOFFs carry plenty of fashion magazines, often very current ones … my local has a couple of February 2009 issues already!  And sewing books, knitting books, craft books …

Apparently, there’s a legal reason why you never see books on sale here, so if you’re after half-price Japanese craft books … you know where to shop.  I’ve seen BOOKOFFs everywhere in Tokyo, at one stage I tried to find the biggest (Akihabara?) and best for fashion / design /craft (Shibuya or Jiyugaoka?) but actual my local’s been good to me, perhaps because I visit frequently.

P.S. If you’re after English language books while you’re in Tokyo, I recommend Maruzen at Nihombashi or Marunouchi, or the bookshop in the basement of Parco, Shibuya.