The yen may be hammering the dollar right now, but you can still eat incredibly well in Tokyo without busting the budget -- provided you know where to go. Often, that means dining under the arches of Tokyo's many elevated railroad tracks.
Dining under the arches in Japan is a very different experience from eating at the Golden Arches in the U.S. Instead of burgers, fries and shakes, these Tokyo eateries offer savory soba and udon noodle dishes, impeccably fresh sushi and sashimi and juicy yakitori -- perfectly grilled meats impaled on skewers.
The purest form of this kind of eating is found at Yakitori Alley near the Shinjuku train station in the center of Tokyo. More formally known as Omoide Yokocyo (''memory lane''), this is a very narrow set of pedestrian lanes. How narrow? Someone with the wingspan of Shaquille O'Neal could reach out and touch both sides of the alley, grazing dozens of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants put up in the city's first rush of post-war reconstruction. One-story restaurants and vending machines, and nothing else, line the lanes.
Other yakitori alleys cluster near major train stations. But the one in Shinjuku, a district of bars, electronics shops, discreetly winking sex shops, massive department stores and the luxury Park Hyatt (the hotel featured in the movie "Lost in Translation"), is my favorite. An American resident of Tokyo first brought me here on a wintery night and directed my gaze skyward, to a neon-smeared cityscape veiled in falling rain. "This is the place that inspired Ridley Scott to come up with the look of "Blade Runner," she said.
I come here every time I come to Tokyo, hoping it still exists. The lanes are jerrybuilt and improvisational, putting Yakitori Alley at odds with the sleek, planned modernity of 21st century Tokyo, and therefore it is always under threat of being leveled. So far, Yakitori Alley has survived, attracting a comfortable mix of students, white-shirted "salarymen'' and foreign visitors.
Yakitori Alley has not just yakitori to offer. It also has tiny restaurants that specialize in soups, stews, seafood and noodles. Even in winter, some eateries are open on the street side to the elements, though all are roofed. The best way to pick a restaurant is simply to stroll the lanes, watching the food being prepared just inside, and then deciding what looks and smells good. If you don't speak Japanese, you order by pointing; very few of the restaurant-keepers speak English.
This point-and-order method led me to a great meal -- a bowl of soba soup sprinkled with scallions and stocked with noodles fresh-made from flour and water before my eyes. I occupied one of six stools in a shop that was roofed but wall-less. The bill for lunch was 375 yen, about $4. Nourishing and delicious, it kept me going all day.
Finding Yakitori Alley can be tough -- a common problem in jumbled, bustling Tokyo with its population of 30 million. To get there, take the west exit from Shinjuku station -- said to be the world's busiest rail and subway hub, with 3 million passengers a day, it's easy to get lost there. Walk toward the elevated Epson sign, hugging the outside of Odakyu department store and pass the bus stop. At the bottom of the hill, look right.
Another great place, Andy's Shinhinomoto, is located literally under the arches of the train tracks at Japan Rail's (the ubiquitous "JR") Yurakucho station, near the glittering Ginza shopping district.
Andy, who runs the place with his Japanese in-laws, is an Englishman who shops daily for fresh fish and produce at Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the largest wholesale fish market on the planet. Andy's has an English-language menu, but the best way to order is just to ask Andy, a tall, bald chap who is usually on the premises, what's good that day.
Andy's draws a lively, sometimes rollicking, combination of local office workers drinking their dinner and foreign visitors drawn by good, ample, reasonably priced food and the ease of using English. The place exists on two levels; the most atmospheric one is upstairs, on the second level, with its long tables, hanging lanterns and a vaulted ceiling formed by the railroad arches.
You name the dish, and it will probably be good. In the company of an expat pal who told me about Andy's, I sampled perhaps a dozen East-meets-West dishes, sipped on chilled sake and took a swig or two of beer. The table groaned with plates of spinach, scallops, tempura, asparagus and much more. The bill came to $30 per person, including drinks and taxes. Look for the Guinness banner along the street near the Bic Camera store. (Book in advance; the phone number is 03-3214-8021. Be advised, Andy's doesn't take credit cards.)
More expensive, but also one of those irresistible Tokyo secrets, is Ikra restaurant, located a three-minute walk up a gentle hill from the Ebisu rail station. I say "secret," because Ikra has no street sign; it is located in an apartment building at 1-9-4 Shibuya-ku , Tsutomu Hasegawa. To get in, you push 201 on the intercom. ( www.ikra.jp or phone 03-5704-8852).
Once inside, you take the elevator to Ikra, a gourmet restaurant with a high ceiling and big windows overlooking the vibrant city streets below. At the center of the room is a tree with decorations that change with the seasons. I was there in winter, when the tree had an elegant, bare-branches look.
The food is Western-based, with artful Japanese touches. Set menus provide a diverse sample of the cuisine. The 10,500 yen ($115) menu features the likes of sea urchin and salmon roe pasta and matsuzaka beef fillet steak served on lava rock. Ikra is open till 2 a.m. weeknights and 4 a.m. Saturday nights.
Ikra is a place for when you've closed that big deal. Until then, you can eat like a mogul -- without the high tab -- in many of Tokyo's 160,000 restaurants. Just look for the JR sign.