I don't claim to know much about Japanese food and cooking, so whatever I say here is based on my limited experience from this month long trip. Our culinary goals were:
1. Eat local foods,
2. Eat the best and/or the best valued,
3. Don't eat at the same place twice.
Because we couldn't speak or read Japanese (I can only read Kanji), this dialogue often occurred:
Dennis: "I wonder what this [items on a manu, label on packages, mysterious dishes] is"
Me: "There is only one way to find out!" and then put whatever it was in my mouth.
With a lot of guesswork, luck, and teamwork, we had an amazing time. The food and the alcohol were phenomenal, leading to several mind blowing, orgasmic experiences.
Let's start in Tokyo. The goal in Tokyo was to eat cheap and our first dinner was at a busy (very small) ramen house in Ikebukuro. We had to use a vending machine (I wished I had a picture of it) to buy our order before entering the restaurant. The waitress took our receipts before seating us. Everything, except the actual bowls of noodle, was self-serve. (See picture above). I thought the fresh peeled garlic and the garlic press was quite interesting. The vertical tissue paper box was a clever use of space. The food didn't really need anymore flavor though; it was better than any ramen we ever had. Dinner for 2 (2 large bowls of ramen and beef gyoza ): $15 CND (no tax, no tip). Try that in New York!
The food was absolutely fantastic, unique, and rather addictive. This particular place added homemade pickled turnip in their ramen dishes. The noodle was thick and doughy and the broth was very rich and flavorful (with an unexpecting kick at the end). The gyoza was quite greasy but still very flavourful. Throughout our trip, we had a tendency to gravitate towards similar hole-in-the-wall establishments.
Convenience stores were also crucial to saving money in Japan. They have many different type of hot and cold ready-to-eat items ranging from pasta dishes to sushi bento boxes, including hot water for instant noodles. Why can't American convenient store be this cool? Dennis and I ate onigri, rice ball with different sauce or stuff inside, for breakfast or between meals. They are about $1.20 each (no tax). Dennis needs at least 2 for his daily fix and become cranky when he started fiending. He kept a tally, and the final count was 74 onigri, averaging 2.5 per day. The one in the picture has pickled mustard leaves inside.