Eating Well While Travelling In Japan - Part 1 (without breaking the bank)

When you visit any place, dining out is often an integral part of the experience whether it is in your own country or in a foreign land.  Everyone always has a dish or dining experience by which they can remember a place.  I have fond memories of a wonderful light meal of beer and mezethes (Greek style tapas) while watching the sun set in Santorini.  The beautiful golden light, the sound the the Purple Electric Violin, and my gorgeous company will be with me forever.  In Japan, I'm happy to say, the food is great and fantastic memories should also be very achievable.
A rice ball and green tea as my first meal in Japan on the NEX express train into Tokyo Station.
I like food, but I'm not a hardcore foodie, so seeing the sights is usually my primary objective, but if there is a regional specialty, then I'm probably going to try it at some point.  I plan my itineraries around what I want to visit, then do food as a secondary objective.  I don't like to backtrack over the same territory over and over again, so crisscrossing a city to see stuff is something I try to minimize.  This goes the same for food.  In Japan, it is sometimes hard to find places to eat near some tourist sites (or they're packed with a long wait), so I generally dine near train stations or in big shopping centers if that is where I'm at.  I will not travel across town to eat at a particular place unless I'm in the area.  If my schedule slips, then so does the planned food place (unless it was the destination), and I'll dine somewhere else.
Egg salad sandwich and canned coffee for breakfast (first breakfast it turned out this day).  Konbini in Japan have pretty fresh items, as in made that day everyday for their refrigerated foods.
There are literally hundreds of restaurants near major train stations with intense competition.  Restaurants often specialize in a narrow range or cuisine, or a particular dish, setting the bar for quality pretty high, and the Japanese people know good food.  Even a nondescript diner or little restaurant is probably serving pretty tasty food and as long as everyone is polite, there shouldn't be a bad experience.  I've said this to other people, "as long as you know what you are ordering, it is pretty hard to find a bad meal."  I will also shy away from the more expensive places to eat, topping out in the $50 to $60 range per person as I'm not going to appreciate substantially higher prices and I'm not trying to do a food blog.  Most meals in Japan can be done under $10 on a budget that will satisfy your taste buds, and some very good meals are in the $10 - $30 range.  Just remember your eyeballs are going to be bigger than your stomach in Japan as there is so much food to try that you cannot try them all.
Lawson Red Chicken Nuggets and Yamazaki Hamburger Steak Sandwich from a Lawson convenience store.  I was still hungry one night and needed more food (~$4).
You get two thin sandwiches in a pouch and these sandwiches are pretty cool are the bread is completely crimped around the filling.  You find a variety of sandwich types in the baked goods, but the most surprising thing is that they are stored at room temperature and not refrigerated.  The packages come filled with nitrogen or something and they have a three day expiry on them.
Lawson Spicy Red Chicken Karaage.
You can also eat from a konbini (convenience store) for cheap (several dollars per food item - a dollar for a riceball), but if you're going to do that, I'd recommend you only do it for lunch on the go, late night snacks, or breakfast.  Eating at places like Yoshinoya, Tenya, Sukiya, CoCo Curry, ramen shops, and cheap conveyor belt sushi restaurants give you a Japanese meal experience that isn't much more expensive for a sit down meal.  I like the sandwiches such as their ham or egg salad sandwiches with the soft fluffy Japanese white bread (especially 7-11), the awesome onigiri (rice balls), the fried chicken or chicken nuggets, or croquettes.  Their pastries and cakes can be pretty darn good too.
Gontran Cherrier Bakery at Shinjuku Terrace City. Seating on the upper floor.
We have Quiche Lorraine, an apple pocket, and a savory black squid ink bread.
We have a classic flakey croissant, a square croissant, another apple pocket, and an olive bread.
If I'm in an area with a good bakery where I can get pastries and a coffee or latte to sit down and eat then I'm there for breakfast.  If you can hit some of the bakeries like Anderson, Eric Kayser or Gontran Cherrier or other bakeries from Europe you are in for a treat as these have some of the best baking you will find anywhere.  But even the local Japanese western style bakeries are very good.  Some of the Japanese coffee shop chains also have nice breakfast sets, but you have to make sure there is a non-smoking section if you're a non-smoker.  I'm also partial to McDonalds for the classic sausage and egg McMuffin breakfast as they seem to make these sandwiches better there and also have properly fried hash browns to accompany it.
Your classic McMuffin, hash brown, and a coffee.
One of the great joys when travelling is grazing as you go.  While we were in Harajuku, I noticed that this specialty chicken karaage place from Kyoto had opened up.  So I ordered a small and had some very juicy fried chicken with light breading fresh from the fryer.
Really bright signage for Kin-no-torikara just off of Takeshita Street about midway down the street.
Karaage from Kin-no-torikara.
That same Sunday in Omotesando, we tried to get into a really good Tonkatsu place (Maison) to have some pork cutlets, but the line was crazy - probably an hour, so we ended up doing a long backtrack to a ramen place that was slightly out of the way for the crowds because everything was busy.  Ikkakuya (壱角家 原宿店) was a nice little ramen shop with friendly staff and eager diners.  It had some great big colorful signage out front and rates pretty good online.  We ordered our food from the vending machine at the front like in most ramen shops and I had an awesome ramen (#1 below) that really hit the spot and when they said you could also have a bowl of rice for free I really didn't have room left, but some other diners did have a bowl of rice.
Ikkakuya Ramen sign.  English and Japanese.
My tasty bowl of shoyu ramen with thick noodles, pork, soy egg, and quail egg.  About $10.
Your dining station with condiments.
That night we only had a quick bite to eat for dinner at Yoshinoya, a beef bowl place just down the street from the hotel.  We had been walking and shopping all day and just wanted a nice meal that was close by.  Gyudon is one of those beef on rice staples of Japan and there were also a fair number of people getting take out to eat at home for their family or just for themselves.
We had beef bowl (beef and onions with sauce over a bowl of rice), a side salad, and a raw egg to put on top.  The egg is extra, and I don't always have it, but it adds some nice creaminess to it.  Raw eggs are supposed to be safe in Japan as raw egg on rice is a popular breakfast meal along with some other dishes. This meal is under $10.
This was just some of what we ate over the first couple of days in Japan.  There were no fancy meals, but plenty of really good Japanese food or Japanese versions of western food that are outstanding.  Coming up next in part 2 is a post about dining on the bullet train and eating out in Kyoto. 

Tokyo and Kyoto Trip Fall 2016

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