Stretching your yen in Tokyo

Special to The Times

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.

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

THIS is a Japanese staple that many Westerners may not know: breaded pork cutlet, deep fried, sliced into strips and served with shredded cabbage, rice, pickles, miso soup, savory sauces and hot mustard.

Maisen is among Tokyo's iconic tonkatsu shops. It's in a former public bathhouse on an Omote-sando side street, and you may need to ask for help finding it. From the Omote-Sando Hills building, head uphill and turn left at the first traffic light; from there, it's a couple of minutes by foot.

Maisen's ume set offers a lot of variety: tonkatsu, creamy shrimp croquettes, fried shrimp, broiled fish and more for $10. Katsudon ($10.75) is a deep bowl of rice topped with tonkatsu, served with pickles, rice and sherbet for dessert. The top of the line set features kurobuta, the "black pork" that's all the rage in restaurants stateside ($25). 4-8-5 Jingumae; 3470-0071.

Izakaya

THE word means "drinking house," but that's only part of the story. Sure, you can indulge in beer, sake, shochu (Japanese vodka), but even if you don't drink there's a huge menu of tapas-sized dishes meant for sharing. Expect a fair bit of noise as friends, clients and colleagues chat, celebrate and cement relationships.

Doma-doma was a neat find in Shibuya, near the Marui Young store and across from Marui City department store.

Dark woodwork recalls the countryside. It has a communal table, or private booths or hori-kotatsu (low tables with a well in the floor for your legs). Warning: The back room can be smoky.

Freshly fried vegetable chips ($3.30) included veggies you wouldn't expect at home: bitter melon, lotus root and burdock, stylishly served in a paper bag alongside chili salt for dipping.

Other tastes are fusion: Vietnamese spring rolls with salmon and cream cheese or Doma-doma Cobb salad with Bibb lettuce around the edge and the "Cobb," made of potato, eggs, shrimp, tomato etc. in the middle.

I'd walk across town for its cafe au lait ice cream (a dumpling made of coffee chocolate chip and vanilla ice creams, wrapped in mochi, dusted with cocoa powder and powdered sugar and drizzled with chocolate sauce, $3). Minagawa Building, B1, 1-22-10 Jinnan, 5728-1099.

Toriyoshi, also in Shibuya, serves about a dozen varieties of yakitori (grilled skewers of chicken), but the real specialty is tebasaki (fried chicken wings). Wings ($3 for five pieces) come in five gradations, from sweet to spicy. I tried the medium-spicy, heady with black pepper and served with a side of sliced cabbage. The crowd is largely professionals and 30- and 40-year-olds on dates, and the friendly, efficient staff seems to chant a constant chorus of irasshaimase (welcome) and arigato gozaimashita (thank you).

Other specialties: a large tofu dish called daiginjo (a term usually reserved for the most refined of sakes, $4.25). This super-creamy tofu lacked oomph on its own but sprang to life with the addition of soy sauce, ground ginger and chopped green onion. Sembei usually refers to rice crackers, but Toriyoshi's chicken sembei is a chicken breast pounded paper-thin, then fried to a crackle.

The most memorable drink of my adventure was the yasai-hai ($5), shochu mixed with a sturdy puree of 12 vegetables, including kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), watercress and lemon. Toriyoshi is on Dogenzaka street, to the left of and behind the cylindrical tower of the Tokyu department store. Dogenzaka Center Building, 6th floor, 2-29-8 Dogenzaka; 3780-1011.

International fare

LET'S face it: Some visitors just don't like Japanese food. In Tokyo, you are well served, from pad Thai to penne, brochettes to bagels.

La Boheme Qualita is a cousin with West Hollywood's high-flying Cafe La Boheme. Yet the Tokyo branch is so down to earth that it's below ground, down a staircase next to a Coach store. The look is well-lighted grotto, and the open kitchen lends a nice hum. It gets busy with a late-dinner crowd. And, unusual for Japan, there's smoking in the bar area only.

La Boheme's menu will feel familiar, even comforting: homemade pastas and pizzas, veal Milanese with French fries ($13.50), stewed beef ragout in red wine with creamy mashed potatoes ($13.50). A five-course menu includes pizza, pasta and a meat dish for $21. You can also order Japanese-inflected pastas with flavors like tart aojiso leaves or chirimenjako (whitebait). Shibuya Mitsuba Building, across from HMV records in the basement, 20-11 Utagawa-cho; 5728-6388.

And for a place that would be equally at home in Los Angeles as it is in Tokyo, visit Fujimamas, across from Kohmen. Its two stories and handsome wooden beams befit its history as a former tatami mat factory (from 1946).

The menu is international: Thai Caesar salad, corn, avocado and jalapeno quesadilla, Indonesian style nasi goreng noodles, curry with rice, all for $12 or less at lunch, a little more at dinner. 6-3-2 Jingumae; 5485-2283, www.fujimamas.com

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]Cultural tidbits

* English-speaking staff is rare in Japan, but the shops listed on this page have some form of an English menu or plastic models of their wares so you can point out your choice to your server. Models are common in restaurants nationwide.

* The server brings your check to the table; you take it to the cashier to pay.

* There is no tipping in Japanese restaurants. If you tip, your server may run after you to return it.

* Most Japanese restaurants have never heard of a doggie bag. Portions are meant to be finished at the table.

* Don't eat on the street. Exceptions: at parks or street fairs or with alfresco snacks, such as ice cream or crepes.

-- Andrew Bender

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Finding cheap eats

If you can find cheap eateries in Omote-sando and Shibuya, two of the most expensive parts of the capital, you can find them anywhere in this city. It just takes a little strategy.

Coffee shops: If that hotel breakfast seems overpriced, it probably is. Savvy Tokyoites head to local coffee shops called kissaten for the moningu setto (morning set). Typically, $3.75-$5.45 buys you a cup of coffee or tea, toast, some kind of egg and a small green salad. Coffee chains such as Doutor also serve reasonably priced breakfasts.

Family restaurants: Japanese families have the same problems as some American families: Mom wants a salad, Dad wants noodles, Daughter hasn't eaten anything but curry rice for a month and Son wants only a hamburger.

The fami-resto comes to the rescue. Family restaurant chains offer wide-ranging picture menus and reasonable prices. They won't win style points, but fami-restos are good options if you have kids in tow. Look for Royal Host, Skylark and Jonathans, as well as one you may have heard of -- Denny's.

Department stores: For a more gourmet experience, try the food floors on the basement levels of department stores around major train stations, like Shinjuku and Shibuya, and in the department store mecca of Ginza. They're well-lighted, workmanlike, spotless and impressive for everything, including pickles, tempura, fresh fruit and desserts. Many department stores also have midprice restaurant floors on upper levels, with plastic models in the windows.

Convenience stores: If all else fails, head to a convenience store. When in Japan I visit them virtually daily for budget classics such as packaged onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice triangles with a treasure inside like salmon or kelp), yogurt, juices and desserts and full lunches of rice, meat or fish, and vegetables served in plastic bento boxes. There seems to be a Family Mart, Lawson, Sunkus or, yes, 7-Eleven and AM-PM on virtually every block in Tokyo.

-- Andrew Bender

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.
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