My first trip to Japan doubled as my first solo travel experience. Any Medium article worth its salt espouses solo travel as a way to ‘discover oneself,’ but my key discovery was this: when you travel alone, your days are yours alone and you can do exactly as you like! As it happens, everything that I like relates to food, so I spent the majority of my Japan trip either eating or researching future eats.
Given Japan’s reputation as a food mecca, I arrived in Tokyo with an empty belly and sky-high expectations. Incredibly, the food I ate satisfied both these demanding parties.
So I remember these when I visit again As I am a generous being, I have decided to commit these recommendations to paper! A couple of notes regarding this list of food:
CheapFiscally responsible – After earning in rupees for a year, I consciously kept my meals reasonable, so everything on this list is moderately priced. My most expensive meal came in at around $35, and everything else I ate was in the $10-$20 range. For Japan, those are extremely reasonable prices. None of these recommendations are fancy, but everything ranks among the best food I’ve eaten in my life. One place even has a Michelin star, and my meal there cost under $20. LazyTime-sensitive – Queuing up in line makes me hangry. I also opted not to force any poor hostesses to struggle with my broken Japanese by calling restaurants for advanced reservations. I walked into every restaurant on this list, and so can you. Hurray!
- Omakase-less – because eating an omakase meal while in Japan is mandatory and goes without saying. Do this at lunch, when the deals are relatively reasonable, so some paltry amount remains sacred in your bank account.
TLDR; if you are time-poor, money-poor, and hungry, read on.
Nearby sights: Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa Shrine, Hozomon Gate
Matcha-flavored goodies (lattes, ice cream, soft serve, etc.) abound at every corner in Japan, but for a unique and intense matcha experience, head to Suzukien Asakusa Honten. They serve seven distinct ‘grades’ of matcha ice cream! Level 1 is the mildest in flavor, and each subsequent level offers a progressively concentrated taste, increasing in bitterness and depth of flavor. Level 7 is not only the most intense level at Asakusa, it is the most intensely concentrated matcha ice cream in the world! I opted for Level 3, a flavor both delicious and redolent of grass. I also tried their delicious black sesame ice cream. Asakusa does not offer seating, but has a few standing tables. I would suggest taking the ice cream to go and walking around the many nearby temples.
Nearby sights: Lots of boutique shopping
Vogue magazine voted Shimokitazwa the coolest neighborhood in the world, so it follows that its most famous coffee shop, Bear Pond Espresso, is equally cool. Bear Pond presents an unassuming exterior and enforces a strict ‘no photos’ policy, which of course betrays that it is the real hipster deal! Order “The Top” — what a coffee. They limit production of their most famous drink, the “Angel Stain,” to ten a day. The owner, Katsuyuki Tanaka, co-led the Third Wave coffee movement, and is well connected within the global coffee connoisseur community. He stands proudly like a coffee samurai behind his machine — dignified and confident.
Nearby sights: ….
….I know. But before you throw your McFlurry at me, let me tell you that Japan’s McDonald’s menu features unique and delicious items like this Filet-O-Shrimp. It’s like a Fillet-O-Fish, but with shrimp. If shrimp doesn’t tempt you, rest assured there are many other unique offerings (e.g., cheese katsu burger). McDonald’s in Japan has a much classier vibe, and is full of students studying with a coffee. It’s worth stopping by, plus it’s the cheapest thing you can find to eat.
Nearby sights: Hipster boutiques everywhere you look in this neighborhood
Shimokitazawa, home of the Hipster AF coffee mentioned above, also houses Flipper’s. Flipper’s serves up the fluffiest, most delicious pancakes you will ever enjoy. Hyperboles aside, eating a bite of Flippers’ pancakes is like eating a cloud of heaven that has fallen down to Earth for the sole purpose of making you happy. The cakes are much airier and less sweet than a traditional American pancake.
Neighborhood: Multiple locations (I went to the one in Shibuya)
Nearby sights: Shibuya crossing
Japan is the best place to be a solo diner! It can be awkward sometimes to walk into a restaurant and ask for a table for one. As a result, I have rarely done this in either India or the United States, but in Japan eating alone at restaurants is quite normal. Ichiran takes eating solo a step further. Each booth at Ichiran only seats one, and partitions separate each diner to prevent seeing or talking to anyone else during the meal. You walk in, pre-order, and pre-pay, after which the host guides you to your Booth of Solitude. Don’t worry, it’s not depressing because what better company is there than ramen anyway. The bamboo mat curtain in front of you rolls up to reveal the server’s head. The server procures your food order slip and rolls down the curtain, only to lift it again a few minutes later and present your ramen meal! The curtain rolls back down so ramen and diner can engage in private scenes. Prepared in the tonkatsu style, the ramen does not fail to delight. In case you can’t get to Tokyo to try this, Ichiran boasts locations in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the USA.
Neighborhood: Ryogoku (Sumo Town!)
Nearby attractions: Sumo Wrestling, Sword Museum, Edo-Tokyo Museum
Surprisingly, there are a number of affordable Michelin star restaurants in Tokyo, and this one had no wait for lunch! Hosokawa specializes in soba noodles, and is one of the few good options I encountered for vegetarians. I won’t pretend to know enough about soba noodles to be able to tell good from better, but I can confidently say these were delicious.
Neighborhood: Kyoto Train Station, plus other locations
Nearby attractions: Train station — houses many malls, and has an observatory of the city
When I think of train stations, gross smells and Dunkin Donuts appear in my mind’s eye and nose. Thankfully, the Kyoto Train Station shatters any such preconceptions by swapping odors and processed food for a dazzling array of restaurants, malls, observatories, and city views. There are also trains, but that’s neither here nor there. Let’s focus on what’s important: mind-blowing Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet). Head to The Cube, one of the train station’s many malls.
Katsukura was the only restaurant I ate at for which I had to wait in line. But not only did the line move quickly, the server took my order while in line itself, so I scarcely sat at my table before my food appeared in front of me. Tonkatsu is really all they serve, so you simply pick which type of pork you’d like, which cut you prefer, and the cutlet size. Shrimp cutlets and vegetarian cutlets are also available, but Katsukura makes it clear that the focus is on the pork. The server also explained how to mash sesame seeds and combine the many delicious sauces to my liking. While a bit pricey for a cutlet (mine was around $25 USD), no fault could be found with the food.
Sarabeth’s, sans line
Neighborhood: Tokyo Train Station
Nearby attractions: Tokyo Train Station
Arguably New York’s most famous brunch institution, Sarabeth’s has a location in Tokyo’s train station! It’s tucked away in one of the train station’s many malls, and nearly impossible to find without asking for directions, but enough intrepid brunch adventurers persevere that there is usually a line at peak hours. I went at around 2pm and walked right in, but others online assure me this is not the norm, so you’ve been warned. Standard brunch fare here: they’re most famous for their french toast, but their eggs benny (featured below, moments prior to its decimation) delivered the goods as well.
Neighborhood: Shijo street neighborhood
Nearby attractions: lots of shopping at Shijo street
While this final recommendation sounds touristy, and it is, Musashi is also cheap and delicious. Don’t overanalyze, just go for it. The sushi exceeds expectations and you can eat as much as you like without breaking the bank. The pieces are served on different plates so you can tell how expensive it is before you pick it up off the belt; it felt a bit like Japan’s answer to dim sum. Kyoto’s best shopping (Shijo street) is nearby to help you walk off your food coma.