There’s keen competition between restaurants in Tokyo to entice office workers away from a sandwich at their desks, which makes for great lunchtime specials. Recent research suggests locals budget only US$5 for their weekday lunch.
Words by Mark Parren Taylor
Nobuyuki Kurihara points at me with a little smile and a lot of sass. “Are you ready?” he asks. In a choreographed move, he cracks an egg yolk into a bowl of breadcrumbs with one hand and tosses the empty shell over his shoulder. It lands (very tidily) in the bin behind as Kurihara-san strikes a heroic, theatrical pose.
The egg is the centrepiece of his lunchtime tempura set. For the equivalent of just US$12 you get the deep-fried (crispy but still lusciously runny) egg, veggies and seafood, soup and rice… and, of course, the floorshow.
Kurihara-san’s restaurant, Tensuke (3-22-7 Koenjikita; lunch 12–2pm), epitomises the very best of Tokyo’s lunchtime offering. Affordable, brisk, supremely tasty. But with just 12 seats, savvy customers start queueing well before the midday opening.
Tensuke is in Suginami, on Tokyo’s west flank, close to Kōenji Station in a district of ma-and-pa stores, vintage clothing boutiques, and hipster coffee shops. Local lunchtime alternatives – be prepared: pre-opening queues can be longer than their noodles – range from Harukiya (haruki-ya.co.jp; lunch from 11am) for ramen in a delicious broth made from dried sardines (starting at US$8) to Honmura-an (honmura-an.co.jp; lunch 11am–3pm), where a tray of fresh house-made soba with chilled dipping sauce is US$7.50.
Namiki Yabusoba (2-11-9 Kaminarimon; lunch from 11am) also makes its buckwheat noodles each morning. It’s important. A good noodle chef feels the noodle mix as he kneads it, responding to the texture, which changes daily with the weather. This 106-year-old restaurant is located across town – in oldschool Asakusa, convenient for Sensōji Temple – and is renowned not just for its zaru soba (cold noodles) (US$7) but for the accompanying punchy dipping sauce (that takes three days to make). Its popularity is again underlined by polite queues, although a late lunch at about 4pm could mean you walk straight in.
Asakusa is a long-standing entertainment district, home to many eateries that have withstood the test of time. My ‘go-to’ lunch spot is Raishū-ken (2-26-3 Nishiasakusa; lunch from 12pm), a locals’ noodle house on a quiet backstreet that’s been going since the 1950s. There’s no queue, no fuss, just a big steaming bowl of delicious ‘curly’ ramen, and always a welcoming smile from the ladies who run it.
In the heart of the action, Koyanagi (1-29-11 Asakusa; lunch 11.30am–3pm) can be easily spotted by its line of patient customers. Most come for its headline dish, unagi (freshwater eel). But this restaurant offers another satisfying meal called toriju (US$8.30) or ‘chicken box’, which comes as a lacquerware container of rice topped with grilled chicken that shimmers with a sticky, savoury teriyaki glaze.
If you like chicken, you’ll love karaage. It’s deep-fried. Do I need to say more? Near Asakusabashi Station, Karaageya Oshu Iwai (4-16-5 Asakusabashi;lunch from 10.30am) makes some of the city’s best. It is just a counter on the street, no tables, no comfort… but still possibly a queue of local office workers whose lunch hours coincide. A couple of adjacent parks are a pleasant place to take a moment to enjoy the paper bag full of crispy succulence.
Fried is one of the ways Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima (shinjyuku-nakajima.com; lunch 11.30am–2pm) serves the sardines, or iwashi, that form the basis of its lunch set (US$7.40/$8.40). They’re also offered as sashimi or simmered in an onion and bonito stock that is topped with whisked egg (a traditional Tokyo recipe). Whichever way you like them, it’s an affordable and appetising way to sample the cooking at this family-run restaurant (with a Michelin star, I might add) in a basement below the busy Shinjuku streets.
With another delicious meal under my belt, there’s one more job to be done: find the nearest bookstore. After all, I’ll need something to occupy me while I’m queuing for lunch tomorrow.
Jakarta to Tokyo
Flight Time7 hours
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
5 Senses – Taste
Sweet Street Food
Street food what Japanese might call tabe-aruki (‘eatwalking’) is slowly gaining acceptance across the city, but near Sensōji Temple there have long been opportunities to grab a sweet street snack. Look along Nakamise Arcade for treats such as agemanju (steamedbuns) and ningyo-yaki (griddled cakes) with traditional red-bean fillings.