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Top-Food at Low Prices: Your Guide to Japan's Cheap Michelin Star Restaurants

I have spent more than half my life in Japan now, and one thing I have always appreciated is the attention to detail that comes with food here.  No, here, food isn’t just something you eat, it’s often a work of art in itself, and Japanese restaurants pride themselves on both taste and presentation of dishes. It’s not surprising at all to me that Japan has the highest number of Michelin starred restaurants anywhere on the planet because of that extreme level of care put into the meals they create (although the French may be surprised).

You may not pride yourself on being a foodie, but if you are like me, you might want to check out a Michelin Star-rated restaurant while you’re in Japan to see what all the fuss is about.  Also like me, you might be in a position where spending hundreds of dollars on a meal pains you to the core (even if the food is really good), especially since there are so many fantastic restaurants in Japan that don't give a hoot about those sorts of ratings.  Still, you might be surprised to find (I was) that there are still many Michelin starred restaurants here that have reasonable prices so you won’t have to double check your bank balance every time you pick an option off of the menu (that makes for a very awkward date night, by the way).  

To help you out, I've scouted five spots across Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto that are worth a visit if you want to see some of Japan’s top food establishments at low prices.  So without further ado...

[Note: For the sake of this article, I’m setting a “reasonably priced” limit of 3000 yen for a meal.  That still might not be seen by many as a "cheap" meal, but two things: (1) compared to many Michelin Starred restaurants that have meal prices equivalent to several hundred US dollars, it’s a steal; and (2) 3000 yen is pretty standard for a sit-down dinner in Tokyo.]


Tokyo

Nakajima 

If you've ever watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you know that some of the highest quality chefs in Japan pass the tradition down their line as the family trade.  The Michelin star-rated Nakajima is another example.

Sadaharu Nakajima is the third in line of master chefs, carrying on the restaurant after his father.  Their specialty?  Owan and sardines.  Simply translated, owan means "bowl," but from Japanese culinary tradition, it is a type of soup typically associated with kaiseki cuisine.  As for sardines?  There are certain foods you might think of if you imagine haute cuisine or Michelin Star worthy eats, but a menu based around a soup and the humble sardine might surprise you.   It is the perfect execution and ability to bring out the best in both dishes that makes this place worthy of its Michelin star.

The lunch sets here are incredibly inexpensive (under 1000 yen), so it makes for a popular, memorable lunch spot.  Since it's a busy establishment, it’s very possible if you’re in a party of one or two that you’ll be seated with another couple of strangers, but the food makes it worth it. 

The sardines are served in lunch sets in several different ways, from sardine sashimi through to sardine tempura and, of course, a sardine owan.  As well as the sardines as the star of the show, your set also comes with the standard teishoku sides of rice, pickled vegetables, and miso soup.

A note of caution, though: even though their lunch menu is dirt cheap, their dinner menu is strictly kaiseki style and will set you back over 10,000 yen (about $100 US). 



Tsuta

Unlike Nakajima, which carries three generations of tradition, Tsuta has only been on the Tokyo restaurant scene since 2012.  Still, it did not take long for the restaurant to earn its Michelin Star, which was awarded in 2015. 

How does a ramen dish earn a Michelin Star, exactly?  After all, ramen is seen more as a comfort food or cheap staple food (just ask any college student from the past twenty years), but Tsuta broke the mold by showing the world that it could be a delicacy worthy of food's highest rating.

One of the keys to Tsuta is that every element of it is exceptionally thought out.  From the soybeans that are matured for two years in Wakayama Prefecture to make the soy sauce for the shoyu, to the noodles that are made at the premises, and the perfectly umami broth that is comprised of chicken, clams and various herbs, no step of the way is left to chance. Tsuta's shoyu soba is then topped with a slice of chashu pork, some leek, and truffle, which all blend together harmoniously. They also serve shio (salt)-based and miso-based ramen dishes here, and a range of sides. 

If you like ramen, this is the spot for you.  I especially recommend their signature dish here--the truffle oil blended Shoyu Soba.  The ramen will set you back anywhere between 1000 and 1500 yen. 

Fukamachi

As with most Michelin Star-rated restaurants, the origin story revolves around a single, dedicated chef.  This is true of Fukamachi, named after its owner and proprietor who humbly elevated a fried food to the height of culinary treasures.

Masao Fukamachi started as a chef's apprentice at 18 years old.  At that young age, he started at the Tempura restaurant inside of the "Hilltop Hotel" in the Ochanomizu area of Tokyo, which was a hotel known for its high end restaurants.  After nine years, he rose to the position of head chef of the hotel's small tempura restaurant, and there he remained for twenty-five years.  At the age of 52, Fukamachi left the Hilltop Hotel to open his own Tempura restaurant, and it was not long before the world recognized just how special this chef's fried food really is.

Fukamachi earned his Michelin star by offering consistent, evenly battered and perfectly delivered tempura, and the trick to eating here on the cheap is to go without a reservation.  If you do make a reservation, the three set lunch choices range anywhere from 7000 to 9000 yen, which is a little eye watering even though this tempura can hardly be matched.  If you turn up on the fly on the other hand, one of the lunch menu options is tempura donburi--tempura served over rice--at a much more wallet friendly 2500 yen.  Plus, to me, anything served over rice earns added bonus points! 

If you have a perception of fried foods as nothing but greasy, weigh-you-down junk, the tempura here will challenge that notion--it’s cooked to perfection and will leave you with a new appreciation for the art of frying food.
via www.flickr.com





Osaka

Naniwa Okina

You may have noticed a trend by now with these Japanese Michelin Starred restaurants: many take a simple staple of traditional Japanese diets and turn it into a truly memorable culinary experience.  Naniwa Okina in Osaka continues this trend.
Naniwa Okina are soba specialists.  Soba is a traditional buckwheat noodle eaten either cold with a dipping sauce or in a hot broth.  This is a staple in almost every Japanese diet, and for someone who grew up eating soba on a weekly basis, it's hard to see how a restaurant could elevate such a humble dish to the rank of Michelin star-rating. 

So how does Naniwa Okina do it?

They offer up two different types of the noodles. They have nihachi (literally 2-8) soba, made from 20% white flour and 80% buckwheat flour, and jyuwari ("100%") soba, which is made from 100% soba flour. The jyuwari soba is limited to 20 servings a day, but is only an extra 200 yen--and the meals here are already great value for money. Their specialty dish is the zaru soba (served chilled), which will set you back a mere 900 yen for the nihachi soba noodles, or 1100 yen if you’re lucky enough to be one of the first 20 people who ask for jyuwari soba.  Even the most expensive dish on the menu--their summer unatoro soba topped with eel and yamaimo ("mountain potato")  paste, is set at 2500 yen (nihachi soba)/2700 yen (jyuwari soba) noodles.

For ease of ordering, they have an English menu in PDF form that you can access here if you’d like to plan what you want to order ahead of time.



Kyoto

Sobaya Nicolas

Not to be outdone, Kyoto offers its own Michelin Star-rated soba, but in its own unique way.  The owner/chef of the restaurant had three goals in mind when he opened the restaurant in 2003: (1) don't let it feel like a soba shop; (2) incorporate a modern Japanese feeling; and (3) display the art of Nicolas de Stael (hence, the name, Sobaya Nicolas).  [In case you're wondering, Nicolas de Stael was a  French painter of Russian origins, and the proprietor proudly displays his 3 Nicolas paintings in the restaurant].  In pursuing those aims, Sobaya Nicolas emerged as Kyoto's world renowned soba purveyor

Sobaya Nicolas's buckwheat flour is sourced from Ibaraki Prefecture, and the master chef grinds the portion needed for the day's noodles by hand with a stone grinder (if that’s not precision and dedication, I don’t know what is).  Best of all, a dish of the zaru soba (chilled) noodles here is 980 yen, but you can get a set with three assorted small-plate dishes as well as the soba noodles for 2160 yen.
via www.instagram.com



So there you have it...

...some top-rated restaurants at reasonably low prices.  If you've always wanted to see what a Michelin star-rated restaurant is all about, but can't justify spending hundreds of dollars for a single meal (especially on a travel budget), I say zehi, give one of these five restaurants a shot--your taste buds (and wallet) will thank you for it!

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