Where To Find The Best Cheap Eats In Tokyo

It's possible to eat incredibly well on a budget in Tokyo. Here are 20 delicious options

Ramen at Afuri in Tokyo. Photo / Babiche Martens

Eating well on a budget is easy in Tokyo, with hole-in-the-wall restaurants specialising in ramen, gyoza and takoyaki almost everywhere you look. Securing a table at any of Tokyo’s top restaurants requires pre-booking, but if your planning has gone awry, never fear. This is a city teeming with excellent chain outlets that it would be a crime to overlook. As well as some of the big name ramen and sushi restaurants, we've included some quirky independently owned spots, like a punk rock bar in Daikanyama and a cosy yakitori restaurant in Harajuku. Enjoy.

READ: Where To Find Auckland's Best Japanese Restaurants

There’s a unique tartness to the ramen at Afuri with the addition of yuzu, a small yellow citrus native to Asia. It’s added to the broth and used as a garnish on top, perfectly offsetting the richness of the liquid and particularly great in the sour and spicy Yuzu Ratamen (pictured above). Afuri is one of the more English-friendly ramen chains in Tokyo and at the Harajuku branch a vending machine is the first step in the ordering process. It distributes a ticket to hand to the server, who will seat you (eventually, the queues can be long) and pass your order to the chef. Most vending machines are pictorial, which means it’s a cinch to select your order without speaking Japanese, or speaking to anyone at all, if that’s your bag. Afuri, 1F Grandeforesta, 3-63-1 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. 

Discerning New Zealand diners might turn their noses up at a chain restaurant, but in Tokyo, where a huge population requires more than one of the same great restaurant to satisfy the masses, there’s no such prejudice. Despite many outlets, the queues for ramen are still long at Ichiran, which many claim is the city's best. It’s worth the wait. Order on a vending machine and take a seat at the bar where partitions separate you from the person next door. The vending machine allows you to choose the style, spice factor and thickness of the noodles — a control freak’s dream. 

Kichitora Ramen
Kichitora Ramen is a ramen and tsukemen restaurant, which means “dipping ramen”, where the noodles are served separately from the broth. You simply dip the noodles, usually thicker than regular ramen noodles, into the broth and enjoy. This dish was invented by Tokyo chef Kazuo Yamagashi in the 60s, with many tsukemen restaurants cropping up since. Kichitora also has a range of ramen, dumplings and specialty dishes on the menu. 

Tonkatsu at Maisen. Photo / Babiche Martens

Gyoza Lou 
It’s no frills at Gyoza Lou in Harajuku in the best possible way. This is a dumpling restaurant with very few options — fried or steamed dumplings in original flavour or garlic, leek and chives. There’s no need for variety when they’ve perfected the art of the dumpling. At every seat is a lineup of the essentials - chilli oil, vinegar and soy sauce for dipping. A Viva tip: boiled bean sprouts with meat sauce might sound questionable, but these are so good — soft sprouts topped with a Bolognese-style sauce. Do it. Sit up at the bar with a cold beer and watch the chefs at work; it doesn’t get much better than this. 6 Chome-2-4 Jingumae, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan

Genki Sushi
Genki Sushi takes Japanese efficiency to the next level with sushi ordered on a touch pad and delivered via a conveyor belt. If you haven’t experienced this before the novelty value of your sushi whizzing its way to you will be high, plus the variety of sushi on offer is huge. There isn't much of an attempt at ambiance at Genki apart from a soft pink neon glow, but you’re here for a good time, not a long time, and the sushi is very reasonably priced. 

Golden Gai. Photo / Getty Images

This blink and you’ll miss it yakitori restaurant is like a calm oasis in the heart of hectic Harajuku, just a five-minute walk from the station. Push open the heavy wooden door and step inside a dimly-lit, quiet and chic space with rows of cosy booths. The menu is yakitori focused, and Viva recommends the tasting set. It’s not as cheap as the rest of these recommendations so be prepared to spend a little bit more. 

Nonbei Yokocho
Nonbei Yokocho, or “Drunkard’s Alley” is a tiny alleyway of bars just across from Shibuya Station that have just a handful of seats inside, some of them with steep steps up to the top floor. The word nonbei is slang for drunk and these bars are notorious for people falling down the stairs after a long sesh on the beers or shochu. Settle in for a drink and a snack here and soak in the atmosphere, and take care going down the stairs.

Tsukiji Fish Market. Photo / Getty Images

If you find yourself in Koenji (and you should, it’s famed for its amazing vintage stores), track down Suzukura for the softest, freshest daifuku mochi. Mochi is a popular sweet treat in Japan, and daifukumochi is a glutinous rice cake filled with red bean paste. It’s a lovely mix of density, chewiness and sweetness, and the fresh strawberry daifukumochi at Suzukura is out of this world. It’s all handmade by Toshikazu Suzuki and served by his wife Tomomi (pictured above). 4 Chome-17-12 Koenjikita, Suginami City, Tokyo 166-0002, Japan

Memory Lane
If you like yakitori then Memory Lane underneath the Shinjuku station is worth a visit. Be warned, the Shinjuku station is massive, so it can be hard to find. It's an alley full of tiny yakitori restaurants, so be prepared to cosy up next to your neighbours.

The sashimi platter, the avocado steak and the mushrooms cooked on hot coals at Tatemichiya. Photos / Babiche Martens

Gindaco Highball Sakaba 
It’s standing only at this delicious takoyaki restaurant a stone’s throw from Shibuya Station. These freshly made pancake-like balls filled with diced octopus might just be the perfect snack. The soft batter of flour, egg, spring onions, tempura scraps, dashi and ginger gets its ball shape from the cast-iron takoyaki pan, which also gives it a crispy outer. Takoyaki is usually topped with mayo, aonori and dried bonito and one tray isn’t really enough. Wash it down with a frosty beer or lemon sour for the ideal afternoon pick-me-up. 

Convenience stores offer a delicious range of affordable food. Photos / Getty Images

Golden Gai 
When night falls, head to Golden Gai, a bustling collection of six alleyways filled with tiny shanty-style bars. Most of them don't open until 9pm but when they do the air fills with smoke, music and the scent of grilling meat. This is a popular spot with tourists and as a result, some of the bars have signs that say 'regulars only'.  Don't let this put you off, as each bar is unique to the person running it, with some only fitting four or five people.  There are karaoke and R&B-themed bars, and others movie- and even hospital-themed. 

Sweet treats from The Food Show. Photos / Babiche Martens

Tsukiji Fish Market
For some of the freshest sushi, head to the fish market, which has been in action since the 1930s and made famous for its live tuna auctions. The surrounding restaurants get pretty busy around 12pm, so aim to get there before then (the market opens at 5am for the earlybirds). There are also street food stalls surrounding the market and little souvenir shops too.

Ramen at Afuri in Tokyo. Photo / Babiche Martens

Maisen is famous for its delicious tonkatsu. Located in Omotesando in a two-storied converted bath house, Maisen opened in 1965 and now has over 11 restaurants in Japan. The menu is more like a novel, with pages and pages of pork cutlets that look the same to the untrained eye, however the variations in price are an indication of the quality and style of the cut. Don’t miss the tonkatsu sandwich, made with perfectly crispy pork cutlets sandwiched between two slices of the softest, freshest white bread and delicious Tonkatsu sauce. 

Gyoza Lou. Photos / Babiche Martens

The Food Show
The Food Show is an incredible food market underneath Shibuya Station. This gourmet food mecca has it all — fresh fish and meat, baked goods, wine and confectionery and some of the most appealing prepared meals you’ll lay eyes on, including takoyaki, bento boxes and sushi.

Golden Brown Burgers
Golden Burger celebrates good old fashioned hamburger restaurant nostalgia with signage that harks back to the early 20th century, beaten leather booths and a well-worn pressed tin floor. The fish burger and the beef burger come highly recommended - the simpler the better.

Curry Up
Curry Up is the food baby of Japanese fashion designer Tomomaki Nagao, the founder of A Bathing Ape. Curry Up specialises in, you guessed it, curry. On the pared-back menu are five classics from Japanese and Indian cuisine such as butter chicken and Gyusuji (beef tendon) curry, with good old Kingfishers the only beers available. So hipster. 

Shosuke. Photos / Babiche Martens

There’s no signpost for Tatemichiya at street level and that’s probably how the owners prefer it. You have to be in the know to find this underground izakaya, which can loosely be described as a punk rock bar. The downstairs space is plastered with Ramones and Sex Pistols posters, with a rustic loft space, rough-sawn wooden tables, a floor-to-ceiling selection of specialty sake, and Japanese punk rock music blaring from the speakers. Order the avocado steak, the mushrooms cooked on hot coals and the sashimi platter, and keep a lookout for touring rock bands. 150-0033 Tokyo, Shibuya City, 渋谷区Sarugakucho, 30−8, +81 3-5459-3431

Combine shopping and fashion in the best possible way by visiting one of Tokyo’s famed depachika. Depachika are basically a food wonderland located at the basement level of all department stores. These vast spaces offer everything from fancy sake, rare honey, dim sum, yakisoba, fresh fruit, macarons and the list goes on and on. Spend the whole day shopping and the night eating without leaving the building. Special mention goes to Daimaru in Marunouchi, Isetan in Shinjuku, Mitsukoshi in Ginza and Takashimaya in Nihonbashi. 

Strawberry mochi from Suzukura. Photos / Babiche Martens

Rock into any convenience store and you’ll be amazed at the variety and value of food on offer. Konbini are great for breakfast, lunch and dinner on the run with gems such as ongiri (rice ball), sushi, katsu sandwiches, salads and pastries freshly made and ready to go. While you’re here, stop by one of the genki drink (energy drink) stands which offer ‘medicinal tonics’ that are ideal before and after a big night out. Filled with goodness like ginger, vitamin C and amino acids, they’re great for a health boost, even if it is just a placebo effect.

• The Viva team flew to Tokyo exclusively with Cathay Pacific.

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