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Stretching your yen in Tokyo

Lunch or dinner for less than $25? You bet, if you're in the mood for noodles or sushi or more, and if you know where to look.

January 14, 2007|Andrew Bender | Special to The Times

Tokyo — AS surely as the sun rises in the east and the ocean meets the shore, Tokyoites pay $7 for a cup of coffee and $200 a head for dinner, right?

Actually, no. This is the biggest myth I have encountered in more than 20 years as a corporate employee, writer and consultant on both sides of the Pacific.

Japan may be the world's second-largest economy and Tokyo among the most expensive cities in the world, but most Japanese would go broke fast if they spent that much on food. Prices at everyday Tokyo restaurants are more typical of, well, Los Angeles.

To prove this point, I visited two of the city's trendiest districts, Omote-sando and Shibuya, in a quest for lunch under 1,500 yen, or about $13, or dinner under 3,000 yen, or about $25.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 17, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Eating in Tokyo: In Sunday's Travel section, a caption accompanying an article about inexpensive places to eat in Tokyo identified the restaurant in the photograph as La Boheme Qualita. Pictured was the "drinking house" Doma-doma. The same story misstated the price of the zenbunose-style ramen at Kohmen as $850. It costs $8.50.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 21, 2007 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Eating in Tokyo: A caption accompanying a Jan. 14 article about inexpensive places to eat in Tokyo identified a restaurant as La Boheme Qualita. The restaurant was Doma-doma. The same story misstated the price of ramen at Kohmen as $850. It costs $8.50.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Eating in Tokyo: In the Jan. 14 Travel section, a caption with an article about Tokyo eateries identified the restaurant in the photograph as La Boheme Qualita. Pictured was the "drinking house" Doma-doma. The same story misstated the price of the zenbunose-style ramen at Kohmen as $850. It costs $8.50.

It was no challenge, it turned out, and I didn't have to slum it in fast-food joints. In fact, most of my meals were downright delish.

The tree-lined boulevard Omote-sando has been called Tokyo's Champs-Elysees, a nickname I've always found overblown. But that doesn't make Omote-sando any less worthy of a visit. At one end, the stately, forested Meiji Shrine gives way to Harajuku train station, where teens preen in fashions that are so two years from now.

Down the boulevard are couture boutiques designed by Pritzker Prize winners: Hanae Mori (by architect Kenzo Tange); the Spiral Building (Fumihiko Maki); Prada Aoyama (Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron); and Omote-Sando Hills (Tadao Ando). Side-street esoterica includes antiques, kimono fabric and ineffably chic accessories.

A two-minute train ride away is the bustling transit hub of Shibuya. Hachiko Square is a legendary meeting place, encircled by multiple stories of neon and giant screens.

Night is prime time, a jumble of kids in school uniforms, 20-ish women with hair dyed along the platinum-persimmon-chestnut spectrum, department store bag-toting matrons and briefcase-toting salarymen in black, gray and navy suits, filling up restaurants and the multistory buildings that line the hillsides.

Here's a sampling of some types of cuisine to look for and where to find them in Omote-sando and Shibuya. To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code) 81 (the country code for Japan) and 3 (the city code for Tokyo), followed by the number.

Noodles

THESE are as Japanese as it gets, and in Tokyo, you're rarely more than 100 yards from shops selling soba and udon (often in the same restaurant) or Chinese-inspired ramen, all in big bowls of hot broth. Prices top out at around $9.50.

At the ramen shop Kyushu Jangara, near the base of the footbridge across from Harajuku station, there's always a quick-moving line on the stairs out front. Kyushu Jangara is known for multiple varieties of broth; the namesake is made from vegetables, chicken and pork. Popular toppings include kakuniku (stewed diced pork) and mentaiko (spicy cod roe). 1-13-21 Jingumae; 3404-5572.

Kohmen sits across the street and a couple of hundred yards farther down Omote-sando, off a little side street behind a shop called Camper. Cozy and polished, this two-level shop has black woodwork and serves ramen in rustic bowls to match. The house specialty is jyukusei kohmen ($6) in a thick, pork based broth. Get it zenbunose style ($850), with a kitchen sink of Kohmen's eight toppings, including stir-fried leeks, roast pork and bamboo shoots. The classic side dish is gyoza (pork potstickers or dumplings); dip them in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil that you pour yourself. 6-2-8 Jingumae; 5468-6344.

Sushi

"LET'S go eat sushi and not pay" is one of my favorite film quotes of the 1980s (from "Repo Man"), but you need not commit crimes to enjoy sushi in Japan. In fact, it can be quite reasonable.

Asahi Zushi in Shibuya is a case in point. It's a no-nonsense but friendly place, with comfortable contemporary seating, on the restaurant floor of the Tokyu department store adjoining Shibuya station. The most expensive combination plate here costs $27. The cheaper 10-piece yuri set ($14) was plenty for me. Apart from the usual maguro, hamachi, tamago and such, the set included komochi konbu (crunchy herring eggs on a strip of kelp) and miso soup with julienne nori seaweed. Tokyu Department Store, 9th floor, 2-24-1 Shibuya; 3477-4821.

Kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi may be in vogue outside Japan, but in its home territory it was derided as cheap. The Japanese recession of the 1990s made locals reconsider, and now it's come even to chichi district of Omote-sando.

Heiroku Sushi is slightly to the left of the touristy Oriental Bazaar, and it is often packed at lunchtime. That's no doubt because of its location but also because of its decent selection -- two-piece plates for $1.50 to $4.50 -- and inventive use of accents such as ginger and strings of green onion. I even saw a dish of strawberries and whipped cream glide by. 5-8-5 Jingumae; 3498-3968.

Tonkatsu

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