Except for one or two meals , we did not go to any fancy restaurants during our week’s stay in Tokyo. Most of our meals came ready made from Konbinis ( convenience stores) or from ordinary luncheonettes and cafes. Lunch is reasonably priced even in places where dinner is expensive and, besides, the jet lag meant that we were sleepy by early evening . Lunch therefore was our big meal.
What follows are our experiences in Roppongi, Akasaka, Asakusa and Shibuya ; I presume that these districts are not materially different from the rest of Tokyo when it comes to lunchtime . We noticed that Tokyo has many more eateries than other (foreign) countries.In some areas, very eighth or tenth store seems to be an eatery of some sort. Most of them are small , serving between 15 and 30 patrons at a time . The menus are usually in both Japanese and English and contain illustrations of every dish along with its price. Restaurant staff are friendly and obliging and ,though only a few have a smattering of English , the illustrated menus enable one to negotiate the ordering of the meal without trouble . Lunchtime in Tokyo is between 12 noon and 1 PM and it is not staggered. So , on weekdays , during lunch break, there is a line of people waiting outside the restaurant for a seat.It’s a good indicator of which establishment has the best food. Better to time your lunch after 1 PM when the eateries empty out and the service is not so rushed.
Tokyo is not as cosmopolitan as New York ( Which city is ?) but it was more diverse than we had expected . In addition to restaurants serving Japanese food , there are many Chinese restaurants , a fair number of Indian, Turkish/ Middle Eastern, and Italian ones. Lunch usually costs between 800 and 1,200 yen ( approx $10- $ 15) and portions , while adequate , are a little smaller than one is accustomed to in the U.S. This is particularly true of restaurants serving Japanese food. Portions in Chinese restaurants are bigger ; Japanese accquaintances tell us that when they want to ‘fill up’ , they go to Chinese restaurants . BTW , prices include tips but not tax.
Unable to read the restaurant names , relying as we did on pictorial representations, we initially went a Chinese restaurant thinking that it was Japanese . It was only when the food arrived that we recognized Ma Po Tofu and the noodle dishes as Chinese rather than Japanese. The Chinese food was about average in quality but was marred by the use of copious amounts of MSG.
One thing that surprised us about Japanese meals was the relative scarcity of vegetables . The Japanese eat fewer vegetables than do the Chinese or even the Koreans . One explanation given to us was that the rice lobby in Japan is very powerful ; rice farmers enjoy generous subsidies. As a result , most of the arable land is used for rice cultivation , very little for other crops . The person who told me this also said that , in recent times , rice subsidies have been slashed because of budgetary constraints and , as a result , more vegetables are being grown and consumed . Be that as it may , we noticed that most Japanese meals are heavy on the rice and are usually accompanied by fish , eggs , seaweed, a container of soup and a small portion of pickled vegetables( tsukemono). Unlike American fast food restaurants , where the trend is to have everything — pizza, fried chicken , burgers — on the menu , the Japanese eateries believe in specialization . Thus, there are joints that specialize in yakitori , others that specialize in tempura and still others that stick to sushi and sashimi. Sometimes the specialization goes to unbelievable lengths . Mario Batali , writing in the New York Times , goes into ecstasies over a small yakitori joint under the train tracks near Yurakucho station . It specializes in yakitori made from odd parts of the chicken. In addition to the usual items like skin , gizzards , wings and thighs , it has delicacies such as the inner thighs , breast plate , cartilage,the pope’s nose and the oysters hidden along the center of the backbone . Batali’s favorite was the cartilage attached to the lower leg-thigh connection , basically the chicken kneecaps . Batali describes them as crunchy and firm , succulent under the light char and heavenly when dusted with sansho or sprinkled with yuzu. We never made it to Batali’s yakitori discovery and , unfortunately we never even ate an izikaya , essentially a small joint serving beer , yakitori and other foods that go well with beer to patrons seated at a counter.It was just too cold and our Tokyo stay too short.
We did however go to the Tokyu Food Show in Shibuya and it was a wonderful experience. Inspite of its name, this is a permanent establishment in an underground mall in Shibuya. There are dozens, scores, of stalls each serving their specialty: Seafood , meats ( prepared and raw) ,yakitori, tempura , sushi, sashimi , salads and baked goods. The amount of food on display is staggering , the arrangements indescribably beautiful .The bakeries in particular are amazing , the perfection of their confections simply enthralling. If you are in Tokyo and you love food , the Tokyu Food Show is a must. We had a set lunch ( 900yen , approx $ 11 ) at one of the eateries sprinkled among the shops . It was our first experience of ocha-zuke . In addition to the usual bowl of rice topped with fish or meat , there was the ubiquitous rolled egg omlette, some seaweed and a small kettle of fragrant , delicately flavored tea( o-cha) meant to be poured on the rice. One interesting sidelight that portions could be ordered small , medium or large but they were all the same price . The only difference was the amount of rice ; it’s just that the restaurateurs did not want you to waste anything . No problem there ; we cleaned our bowls .
The pathway leading to the Sensoji shrine is lined with shops and very near the shrine itself are a number of food stalls. We had some yakitori there ( beef , pork , squid and shrimp) , but it was a disappointment . The skewers were dunked in boiling water to cook the meat quicker, then seared on a grill and doused with yakitori sauce . It resulted in a chewy unpleasant texture to the meat . We’d have done better to try the takoyaki at the neighboring stall . They were small balls of dough contained chopped octopus and cooked in a special mould. Too bad we’d already eaten our fill at the yakitori stall.
Many Japanese officegoers pick up their lunches at Lawson , Family Mart , Seven -Eleven or similar konbinis. The set lunches are attractively dispalyed in plastic containers and there is a wide variety of choices. There is often an assortment of soups bubbling away in cauldrons . In winter , there is also a large cauldron of strong broth in which are cooking large pieces of vegetables , dumplings or winter delicacies. Customers fill up their containers with the broth and as many pieces as they desire ( they are about 80 yen apiece) .
We didn’t eat anyhing other than Chinese or Japanese food during our week’s stay in Japan. Towards the end, I found myself getting a little tired of the fare. I know that I experienced only a narrow segment of Japanese cuisine and that there are many other things that it has to offer. However , I do not think as highly of it as I do of Vietnamese or even Korean cuisine. Korean food has the strong flavors that appeal to my taste buds and Vietnamese food ( pho , bahn mi , spring rolls , over-rice dishes ) I could be happy with as a regular diet.