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Dine without spending a fortune

Even with Japan's economy today, Tokyo is still an extremely . During your first few days here, money will seem to flow out of your pockets like water.
People eat noodles using chopsticks called 'waribashi' at a fast-food chain restaurant in Tokyo.
People eat noodles using chopsticks called 'waribashi' at a fast-food chain restaurant in Tokyo.Shizuo Kambayashi / AP file
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Even with Japan's economy today, Tokyo is still an extremely expensive city. During your first few days here, money will seem to flow out of your pockets like water. (Many people become convinced they must have lost some of it somehow.) Here are some invaluable dining tips on getting the most for your money.

Set Lunches -- I know people in Tokyo who claim they haven't cooked in years -- and they're not millionaires. They simply take advantage of one of the best deals in Tokyo -- the fixed-price lunch, usually available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Called a teishoku in a Japanese restaurant, a fixed-price meal is likely to include a soup, a main dish such as tempura or whatever the restaurant specializes in, pickled vegetables, rice, and tea. In restaurants serving Western food, the fixed-price lunch is variously referred to as a set lunch, seto coursu, or simply coursu, and usually includes an appetizer, a main course with one or two side dishes, coffee or tea, and sometimes dessert. Even restaurants listed under very expensive (where you'd otherwise spend at least ¥12,000/$100 or more for dinner, excluding drinks) and expensive (where you can expect to pay ¥8,000-¥12,000/$67-$100 for dinner) usually offer set-lunch menus, allowing you to dine in style at very reasonable prices. To keep costs down, therefore, try having your biggest meal at lunch, avoiding, if possible, the noon-to-1pm weekday crush when Tokyo's army of office workers floods area restaurants. Since the Japanese tend to order fixed-price meals rather than a la carte, set dinners are also usually available (though they're not as cheap as set lunches). All-you-can-eat buffets (called viking in Japanese; I suspect it derives from the Scandinavian "smorgasbord"), offered by many hotel restaurants, are also bargain meals for hearty appetites.

So many of Tokyo's good restaurants fall into the moderate category that it's tempting simply to eat your way through the city -- and the range of cuisines is so great you could eat something different at each meal. A dinner in this category will average ¥4,000 to ¥8,000 ($33-$67). Lunch is likely to cost half as much.

Many of Tokyo's most colorful, noisy, and popular restaurants fall into the inexpensive category, where meals usually go for less than ¥4,000 ($33); many offer meals for less than ¥2,000 ($17) and lunches for ¥1,000 ($8.35) or less. The city's huge working population heads to these places to catch a quick lunch or socialize with friends after hours.

Coffee & Breakfast -- Since prices are markedly different here (steeper), a bit of readjustment in thinking and habits is necessary. Coffee, for example, is something of a luxury, and some Japanese are astonished at the thought of drinking four or five cups a day. Traditional coffee shops (as opposed to imports like Starbucks) offer what's called "morning service" until 10 or 11am; it generally consists of a cup of coffee, a small salad, a boiled egg, and the thickest slice of toast you've ever seen for about ¥600 ($5). That's a real bargain when you consider that just one cup of coffee can cost ¥250 to ¥500 ($2.10-$4.15), depending on where you order it (with the exception of some hotel breakfast buffets, there's no such thing as the bottomless cup in Japan). For a coffee break later in the day, look for an inexpensive chain such as Doutour, Excelsior, or Pronto. Starbucks has also conquered Japan, with more than 400 branches throughout the country (and probably a good deal more by the time you read this); it charges ¥280 ($2.35) for a short to ¥370 ($3.10) for a grande caffe latte (per company policy, smoking is banned).

If you're on a tight budget, avoid eating breakfast at your hotel -- after a week of buffet breakfasts consisting of scrambled eggs, processed ham, and lettuce, you'll probably tire of them anyway.

Cheap Eats -- Inexpensive restaurants can be found in department stores (often one whole floor will be devoted to restaurants, most with plastic food displays), underground shopping arcades, and nightlife districts, and in and around train and subway stations. Look for yakitori-ya (evening drinking establishments that also sell skewered meats and vegetables), noodle and ramen shops, coffee shops (which often offer inexpensive Western snacks and sandwiches), and conveyor-belt sushi bars where you reach out and take the plates that interest you. Tokyo also has American fast-food chains, such as McDonald's (where Big Macs cost about ¥250/$2.10 and tofu sandwiches ¥230/$1.90), Wendy's, and KFC, as well as Japanese chains -- Lotteria, Moos Burger, Freshness Burger, and First Kitchen among them -- that sell hamburgers and french fries.

In the past few years, a number of excellent yet inexpensive French bistros and Italian trattorie have burst onto the culinary scene. Ethnic restaurants, particularly those serving Indian, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines, are also plentiful and usually inexpensive. Hotel restaurants are good bargains for inexpensive set lunches and buffets. Finally, remember to check the nightlife section for suggestions on inexpensive drinking places that serve food.

Prepared Foods -- You can save even more money by avoiding restaurants altogether. There are all kinds of prepared foods you can buy; some are even complete meals, perfect for picnics in the park or right in your hotel room.

Perhaps the best known is the obento, or box lunch, commonly sold in major train stations and on train-station platforms, in food sections of department stores, and at counter windows of tiny shops throughout Tokyo. Costing usually between ¥800 and ¥1,500 ($6.65-$13), the basic obento contains a piece of meat (generally fish or chicken), various side dishes, rice, and pickled vegetables. Sushi box lunches are also available.

My favorite places to shop for prepared foods are department stores. Located in basements, these food and produce sections hark back to Japanese markets of yore, with vendors yelling out their wares and crowds of housewives deciding on the evening's dinner. Different counters specialize in different items -- tempura, yakitori, eel, Japanese pickles, cooked fish, sushi, salads, vegetables, and desserts. Almost the entire spectrum of Japanese cuisine is available, and numerous samples are available (some travelers have been known to "dine" in department-store basements for free). What I love about buying my dinner in a department store is that I can compose my own meal exactly as I wish -- perhaps some sushi, some mountain vegetables, boiled soybeans, maybe even Chinese food -- in combinations never available in most restaurants. There are also counters selling obento box meals. In any case, you can eat for less than ¥1,200 ($10), and there's nothing like milling with Japanese housewives to make you feel like one of the locals. Though not as colorful, 24-hour convenience stores also sell packaged foods, including sandwiches and obento.

Street-side stalls, called yatai, are also good sources of inexpensive meals. These restaurants-on-wheels sell a variety of foods, including oden (fish cakes), yakitori (skewered barbecued chicken), and yakisoba (fried noodles), as well as sake and beer. They appear mostly at night, illuminated by a single lantern or a string of lights, and many have a counter with stools as well, protected in winter by a wall of tarp. These can be great places for rubbing elbows with the locals. Sadly, traditional pushcarts are slowly being replaced by motorized vans, which are not nearly as romantic and don't offer seating.

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