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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.