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Satisfying, affordable meals around Tokyo

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Over five days in Tokyo a person can comfortably eat 15 meals. But if you really dig deep, you can get that to 20-plus, especially if you don’t over-think, overstudy or over-plan. Walk the streets and if something looks good, bite it (pay for it first).

This may be the greatest town for munching on the entire planet. “What did you do in Japan?” people ask of our recent vacation. “Eat,” we say. “A lot.”

OK, so there were also temples, scenic points, shops, museums and a sumo tournament, but in between we mostly hunted our next meals. My only regret of the trip: I couldn’t get hungry fast enough to eat more.

For all that, we didn’t spend much. Tokyo abounds with bargains: katsu, ramen, donburi, sushi, pastries, pickles and food on sticks. It all begins with train station food stands (endless) and continues in the department stores adjoining the stations (overwhelming). You could be happy just eating there, but the real finds are outside. Five days didn’t make us experts, but it did make us tipsters.

So here we go …

Ticket ramen

Lack of language skills is no barrier at these hole-in-the-wall eateries found on streets throughout Tokyo. Plastic versions of the choices are usually on display, tagged with numbers. Or there may be posters with pictures. If you can’t quite divine the contents of each bowl, you’ll just have to take your best guess.

Go to the ticket machine, push the correctly numbered button, insert cash, get ticket. Give the ticket to the cooks inside, then take a seat.

Very tasty, basic ramen goes for less than $3. More substantial donburi (rice topped with meat and egg) might go up to 700 yen. Not even $7. You can afford the most expensive bowl in the house.

100 yen sushi

You’ve undoubtedly been to a conveyor-belt sushi place, perhaps even one where you order via computer touch screen. But did your sushi cost less than a buck a plate? One of our most entertaining hours was spent at a Kurazushi outlet near the Shinagawa train station. Economy and efficiency combine to produce good, fresh sushi for 100 yen per two nigiri pieces — about 80 cents at today’s exchange rate.

Orders are placed on iPads, and plates shoot via express belt directly to your counter spot. All the standard choices are offered, but I focused on those uncommon in the States: barbecued pork, for one, and a couple made with soft-cooked eggs. I also had ikura (salmon eggs) simply because back home it would cost five times more.

Google “100 yen sushi tokyo” for restaurant choices.

Fish market fresh

The Tsukiji Market, famed as the largest seafood outlet anywhere, is moving next year, so you’ve got just a few more months to walk this warren of open stands overflowing with creatures so fresh many are still wriggling.

Don’t leave without eating — and go for the raw stuff. Restaurants here take advantage of the extreme freshness the market offers. The most popular spots inside tend to be pricey and crowded, so venture out onto the neighboring streets to find more reasonable prices and fewer lines.

Our huge chirashi bowls — sushi rice layered with drop-dead gorgeous sashimi, including an amazing giant raw prawn — were less than $20 each. Big spending compared with ticket ramen, but a bargain for the quality.

The store next door

FamilyMarts, Lawsons and 7-Elevens are the convenience stores of Tokyo, as ubiquitous as ABC Stores in Waikiki. The packaged takeout food in these places is surprisingly good, from sushi to bento boxes filled with squid salad and grilled salmon. At the 7-Elevens a bank of microwaves serves those carrying back food to the office (or hotel room).

We were daily visitors to the FamilyMart next to our hotel, where I became addicted to the tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) and the single-serve portions of soft tofu that came with a pouch of bonito flakes and soy dressing. This was breakfast most mornings, light enough and cheap enough to allow for more eating by midmorning.

One last thing …

If you’re flying out of Narita International Airport, try to extract yourself from Tokyo a few hours early so you can spend some time in Narita town. Stash your bags in a locker and take the short train ride from the airport to town. A single road, Omotesando, leads to Naritasan Shinshoji Temple and is lined with restaurants and shops loaded with the town’s specialties: unagi (broiled eel), tsukudani (seafoods simmered in soy sauce), yokan (jellied bean treats), rice crackers and peanuts, grown locally and featured in all manner of snack items.

My favorites, though, were the pickle stands, where samples were handed out freely. The local specialty is teppozuke — cayenne peppers stuffed with shiso leaves and tucked into melons. Fabulous, although they look like flattened sea cucumbers. They’re packed flat in sealed bags that you can cram into any remaining space in your carry-on.

Bonus tip

Seattle-based blogger Matthew Amster-Burton’s guide “Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo” is a series of breezy, often hilarious essays that make for great late-night reading as you prepare for the next day’s eating adventure. The Kindle version is just $2.99 (or get the paperback for $12.99 at

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