Well, cat’s soon to be out of the bag. A few years ago I was watching one of the silly, repetitive Japanese talk shows and they did a segment on where to eat cheap in Tokyo. I became unusually attentive, because why pay more when you can have the same for less?!
So, drumroll please, there are two answers to this:
1. Restaurants connected to public libraries. No joke. Every major library I’ve been to in Tokyo (and guessing other major cities throughout Japan) has a spacious, clean deliciously cheap restaurant attached. It’s Japanese home cooking at its best, with nothing over 800 yen (about $7 US) in my experience. Highlights include: udon, soba, hamburg, croquettes, curry, ginger pork–basically the mainstays of a Japanese housewife/househubs. The old-school, grandma’s house atmosphere is fun too and definitely not something you get at the typical cheap chain restaurants around Japan. I’ve never been in a library restaurant that was overly-crowded or with people lined up waiting to enter either, big plus when you have a hungry sidekick to feed. And fed they will be, the portions are dare I say it, American size, and the rice is most often all you can eat.
Downsides: the libraries are not usually located in the thick of it. Ueno’s International Children’s Library was about a 10 minute walk from the station, as is Nakano’s, to give two examples. It’s also not the most comfortable choice for those who prefer menus in English or waitstaff that can speak it. Their hours of operation tend to be short–11am-3:30pm, etc., too, so they’re really aiming for the lunch crowd.
2. University cafeterias. They will have more options than library restaurants, and are even cheaper in general. They are also easier to locate and more numerous than restaurants at public libraries. When I lived in Kobe I frequented the Kobe Gaidai cafeteria, but now with a curly-haired sidekick we might cause a riot so I haven’t taken advantage of uni cafeterias in years.
Downsides: not every cafeteria is open to the public, but if it’s not you will more than likely need a key card to enter. You’ll probably get stared at and approached by friendly college students wanting to practice their English (but this also means helping hands when it comes to ordering). Lunch time crowds are very real.
I’d be happy to help anyone with recs for good library restaurants/uni cafeterias. Just drop me a line & let me know if you try a good one!