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Eating on a Budget in Japan

It’s surprising how many people have the erroneous idea that eating in Japan costs a capital. When I was planning my trip to Japan, all my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc used to marvel at how I was going to manage to save enough spending money to last me for a month (which is how long I spent in Japan), extrapolating on the high costs of food, restaurants and everything in general.

Needless be said, none of these people had ever gone to Japan.

Let me be clear – eating in Japan CAN be expensive. If you don’t care to try local food and make a bee-line for Western restaurants, if you think the only worthwhile food is found in expensive high-end sushi joints, or if you just stop and eat at the first place you see without actually taking a look at what’s available first, be prepared to see your cash flow out like a river. Western eateries are a luxury in Asian countries, so most of them are not cheap. The Japanese take their sushi very seriously and price quality of the fish above everything else, so high-end sushi places are bound to offer tasty morsels for quiet a pint of flesh (or a load of money). And it’s obvious that, no matter in which country you may find yourself, it is always best to take a look around before sitting down at the first restaurant you glimpse.

So, here are 6 sure ways you can eat yummy food in Japan while not spending a ton of money, and meanwhile sampling all the local delicacies this amazing country has to offer.

  1. Conbinis
Photo Source: thetruejapan.com

Conbinis, short for ‘convenience stores’, were our salvation in Japan. Be it a Lawsons, a 7Eleven, or a Family Mart, there was almost one on every street and corner of every major city. Chock-full with daily necessities, such as toiletries, stationery, or even umbrellas, Conbinis are a treasure trove of cheap ready-to-go food which is tasty while also being fresh and healthy. Sounds too good to be true right? There’s more. Conbinis offer both food which can be eaten cold, such as the delicious onigiri (rice balls), as well as food to be eaten hot, such as fried chicken or marinated pork. All of them are furnished with microwaves in which the attendants can heat your food for you to eat it there and then (there are appropriate benches and stools inside). Of course, all of the food can also be bought and eaten later as a take-away.

2. Underground Station Eateries

Onigiri bar at Tokyo Station
Onigiri bento box

As you are exploring cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, you will undoubtedly notice the many convenience stores, clothes shops, eateries, and sometimes even shoemakers or locksmiths, offering their services in the underground passages connecting different railways. It is almost another world where one can buy cheap clothes, not to mention eat a quick meal while travelling between one metro and another. To note are the delicious onigiri-bars, the traditional ramen-bars, not to mention a million and one places to eat various kinds of curry! You will also notice many professionals and business-persons having their lunch-break there around midday.

3. Street Food

Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo
Eating Strawberry daifuku at the Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo

Street vendors in their yatai (makeshift street-stalls) can be found at the corner of any street in such cities as Tokyo, Nara or Koto. The food is fresh and can vary from meat to fish, sweet delicacies such as daifuku, ice cream or pancakes.

While the random yatai can be found anywhere, there are also popular well-established markets which open everyday in particular streets. I fully recommend visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (which offers so much more than fish), Nishiki Market in Kyoto, the Higashimuki Shotengai Shopping Arcade in Nara and Kuromon Market in Osaka.

Nishiki Market – Kyoto
Nishiki Market – Kyoto

4. Izakaya Alleys

If you watch anime or Japanese movies, you must have surely seen at least one of the characters eat at one of these. These narrow lantern-lit alleys pepper Japanese cities and villages, providing an outlet for locals to eat cheaply in an informal atmosphere. They mostly come alive as the sun goes down, and serve as the meeting place of many colleagues and people who go to eat there after a day of work. Many Izakaya alleys are more about driking rather than eating, but of course, almost all of the small (sometimes almost shoddy) stalls and tiny small restaurants offer the whole experience of eating and drinking with the locals in their ‘natural setting’ so to speak.

The food is diverse, as is the drink, though you will of course find sake and local beer. Perhaps the soul of the Japanese people really does lie in these alleys. What’s sure is that the food in these local joints is cheap, plentiful and tasty.

If you’re in Tokyo, make sure to experience the nightlife by eating at least once at Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku. Kyoto is famous for its Pontocho Alley and Osaka for its well-known Hozenji Yokocho.

Omoide Yokocho, Tokyo
Omoide Yokocho, Tokyo

5. Supermarkets

Spending a month in Japan did not mean eating out every single day. Since we did not spend the whole month in the same place, we obviously had different accommodations in different localities, and not all of these were hotels (in fact most of them weren’t). Staying in a self-catering apartment or house means that you have a kitchen available, which is a big plus since one is then able to purchase food in order to cook in the comfort of one’s own flat. Just as though one was at home.

Supermarkets in Japan offer a wide variety of products, just as those in the West do. The fish is fresh, the prices are worthwhile, and there are also many many many discounts every day on marked items.

In those days when we were too tired after hours of exploring and did not feel like staying out late, going back to our place and cooking a simple meal felt like a real blessing.

6. Meal-ticket Restaurants

The first thing I noticed during my first few days in Japan was the sheer number of vending machines EVERYWHERE. Most of these offered drinks, coffee, and even bento boxes, however there were also pharmaceutical vending machines which provided some basic products one could buy without a prescription, as well as vending machines containing IT stuff such as USB cables, headphones, etc.

Then, there were the meal-ticket restaurants. I loved loved LOVED these! They are just so perfect for people who don’t speak Japanese and have difficulty understanding Japanese menus in restaurants (many restaurants do not provide a menu in English). The concept is simple – in front of the restaurant you see a large vending machine sporting pictures of all the meals and items available in the restaurant. You choose which one seems more desirable, insert the money and get a ticket with a description of your order in return. Then you go inside, hand over the meal ticket to the waiter, manger or cook, wait for ten minutes and voila! Your meal is ready and you’ve already paid!

Yummy two-type curry ordered from a meal-ticket restaurant in Kyoto

All the meal-ticket restaurants we ate in were so very cheap and delicious it was amazing! Ranging from curry-joints, to local ramen food eateries, all of these kind of restaurants also provide unlimited chilled water, therefore detracting even more from your spending budget!

Ramen veggie and tofu mix
My first ever meal-ticket lunch – from Asakusa, Tokyo. Yummy yummy!

Shopping at Camden Town

It is an undeniable fact that most people annually visit London for no other reason than to re-stock their wardrobe. Although personally, my priorities are mostly somewhat different, I must say that in my case too, a trip to London generally always manages to entice me in dedicating at least half a day to shopping. Although perhaps – not in such a conventional way. While the most mainstream shoppers turn their eager faces towards Oxford Street, my two feet always tend to lead me towards what is known as the capital of alternative fashion, that is, Camden Town.

Camden High Street

Camden Town, situated in North-West London, is an inner city district famous for its alternative style and eccentric markets. In fact, here one can find anything ranging from burlesque costumes to gothic apparel, from punk clothing to cyber accessories, from vintage furniture to hippy and ethnic piercings.

Arriving at Camden Town tube station

It is quite easy to visit Camden Town – just take the London Underground, following the Northern Line (that is, the black-colored one as shown on tube-maps). Camden is to be found between the two stops named ‘Camden Town’ and ‘Chalk Farm’. Although either stop is fine, I would personally suggest stopping at Camden Town tube station, since this will leave you exactly on Camden High Street. Chock-full with gothic dresses, rockabilly jewellery and tattoo parlors, this main street offers not only a great first impression to the curious shopper, but more importantly, it plays an important part in what I like to call ‘the bargaining game’. This is because while fixed prices are certainly set for each item found within the impressive shops lining the main street, the vendors found manning the stalls in the other markets within Camden Town, not only accept, but almost invite bargaining. When one is aware of the actual fixed price and value of an item, one has at least an idea of the starting point for one’s haggling.

Camden High Street

As I already mentioned, there are a number of different markets within Camden Town itself. Let us paint a mental map and imagine it all. We leave Camden Town Tube Station and start strolling down the main road. The shops lined on both sides of the street are themselves a sight to behold, since most of them sport sculptured representations of their own products on the buildings themselves. Suddenly, an opening on the right-hand side of the street presents us with a crazy medley of street stalls and perky vendors. The title ‘Camden Market’ is written over it all, even though this busy motley was originally known as the ‘Buck Street Market’. Here you can browse and haggle to your heart’s content, but beware – these sellers are a wily lot! The last time I was in Camden, no less than three different vendors, one after the other, tried to entrap me in deals I did not want, by telling me that since I was their ‘first customer of the day’ they would give me ‘a special treatment’. Strange thing to say, since I was there at 2 in the afternoon! Another guy started flattering me, saying that I had the perfect figure for the coat I was trying on, only to turn around and say exactly the same thing to the overweight old lady behind me! Tricks of the trade which one should be on the look-out for, though to be honest, they serve as fodder for a good laugh as well.

The Camden Market

On the other side of the Camden Town market stalls is a tiny market which mostly sells vegetables and local produce, as well as t-shirts, handbags and shoes. This is known as the Inverness Street Market, and has been colouring Camden Town since the beginning of the 1900s.

Moving on, we come to the most idyllic and picturesque part of Camden Town, that is, Camden Lock Market. Situated by the Regent’s Canal, the Lock Market, also known as the crafts market, offers a number of semi-permanent stalls selling musical instruments, wooden toys, flower soaps, ethnic décor, artwork, semi-precious stones, Celtic designs, leather creations, and other curios. For the musically-inclined, this market also offers a huge number of rock memorabilia.

Camden Lock Market
Camden Lock

At this point in my shopping-spree, after having bought all I can reach and with more to come, I’m usually famished. The main yard in the middle of Camden Lock Market offers a wide variety of take-away food, often ‘alternative’ in and of itself. It was here that I first tasted crocodile meat, as well as zebra kebabs. Indian and Moroccan food abounds, as do fish paella, American burgers and German sausages. My favorite however, will always be the food for which London is most renowned – the traditional fish and chips.

Stables Market

With our appetite assuaged, we continue our visit by crossing over from Camden Lock Market to what is known as the Camden Lock Village. Situated on the other side of the lock itself, the village is full of stalls presenting not just hand-made decorations and clothes, but also still more alternative fashions and footwear, as well as casual-wear, and more. Finally, when one continues going down the street, one arrives at Stables Market, which is the first market one encounters if one stops at Chalk Farm Tube Station. This market, so-named because it is a former horse-hospital, focuses on alternative fashion and clothes. The huge number of shops, more than 700 in fact, specialize in exceptional styles and particular stores. These range from Sai Sai, a shop perfect for those who want to explore the Gothic Lolita lifestyle, to Cyberdog, which like a club, provides shows given by dancers, colored laser-lights and loud music, while selling cyber clothing and accessories upstairs, and adult toys and lingerie downstairs.

Cyberdog

Camden Town is a must-visit when one is in London, and not just for alternative- fashion lovers. Watching the myriad of different people going about their everyday lives, basking in such an atmosphere, is a great experience in and of itself. Camden Town also has an important part to play in the Britpop and rock movements, since many musicians and bands have lived or played there at some point. The nightlife in Camden is in fact another highlight. Clubs like Underworld and the Electric Ballroom (which also serves as an indoor market during the day) host a number of monthly gigs and concerts. However, remember not to get completely carried away, since the last tube leaves Camden Station at around 1am!

Thinking about what to buy!

All these markets in such a small part of London, and all of them open 7 days a week. To be sure, there are more stalls during the weekend, but believe me, even shopping on a week-day will ensure a full day of bauble-buying and bargain-hunting. Definitely a must-visit for every fashion-minded adventurer!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times