Tag Archives: traditional japan

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!

Meiji Jingu Shrine – A green Oasis in the Heart of Tokyo

One travels to Tokyo expecting urban wonders. The technological growth, the fashionable coffee shops, hot couture stores, skyscrapers reflecting the sunlight, not to mention the exciting yet claustrophobic rhythm of life in one of the largest cities in the world.

The capital of manga is of course, all of this and more. Sprawled over almost 2,200 square kilometres, Tokyo is the most populated metropolitan area in the world, being much larger than New York City and having a population of over 38 million individuals. No wonder I was overwhelmed when I got there, especially taking into account that I have lived my whole live in Malta, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea whose area barely scrapes 320 kilometres squared and which is the smallest country in the European Union.

Awed and excited, looking around me and craning my neck upwards trying to take in all the bustle of life in such a gargantuan metropolis, I admit that I almost felt like some country bumpkin visiting the city for the first time. After some days, I became more accustomed to the flow of the thousands of people moving purposely around me, the huge and efficient underground system, the myriad of stores, shops, cafes, restaurants, skyscrapers, shrines and markets. And yet, I admit I also felt somewhat crushed by it all. It was too much. I needed to breathe. I needed to go somewhere where the crowd did not swallow me. Where I did not feel vanquished and trodden down by the multitude of hoards crashing around me like waves. Somewhere where I could actually hear myself think.

My oasis of green serenity was Meiji Jingu Shrine.

The Torii Gate at the Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine

Found in Shibuya ward, the grounds of Meiji Jingu Shrine can be accessed through two main entrances, both marked by a huge welcoming Torii Gate.  The North entrance is very close to Yoyogi Station, while the South entrance is directly next to JR Harajuku Station. As I walked beneath the Torii gate, the sounds and smells of the busy city were quickly muffled and replaced by the scent of grass and the shuffling of leaves crowding the huge green forest leading up to the shrine. Torii gates represent the passage from the mundane to the spiritual, so when passing underneath one, remember to bow in respect both when entering and leaving the shrine.

Dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken, Meiji Jingu Shrine, perhaps because of its central location, is one of Japan’s most popular Shinto shrines. More than 3 million individuals visit yearly, crowding the place particularly during hatsumode – the first few days of the New Year, when it is traditional for Japanese families to visit shrines in order to pray for good luck, longevity and new beginnings.

The trees line the path leading to the main shrine

While walking along the main trail leading from the entrance Torii gate to the main shrine, we saw a number of Shimenawa tied around some of the beautiful massive cypress trees lining the path. A shimenawa is a straw rope with white zigzag paper strips marking the boundary to something sacred. They are often found hanging on torii gates or tied around sacred trees and stones.

Meiji Jingu is an Imperial shrine, meaning that it was directly funded and is administered by the government. Imperial shrines are often called ‘jingu’, which literally translates as ‘Shinto shrine’. Shinto is the original religion of Japan. This shrine’s construction was completed in 1920. Unfortunately, it was destroyed during the Tokyo raids of World War II, however it was quickly rebuilt. The present shrine was funded through a public fundraising effort and completed in 1958.

The Purification Trough

The first thing one encounters while walking towards the main area is a large and beautifully ornate purification trough. Such a trough is always found near the entrance to any Shinto shrine, in order for visitors to purify their bodies and spirits before entering. One is supposed to use the water to clean first one hand, then the other, as well as rinsing one’s mouth, before approaching the main shrine. Be sure not to drink the water. It should be used only for rinsing. Spit out any excess liquid in the appropriate grooves beneath the trough.

Entering the Shrine

The shrine buildings are primarily made out of Japanese cypress and copper plates for the roofs. The main hall or honden, and the offering hall or haiden, are two separate buildings adjacent to each other. When we visited there was a private ceremony taking place at the honden, so it was cordoned off, however we could still make our offerings and pray for good fortune at the haiden. To make an offering at a Shinto shrine or temple – put some coins into the offering box, bow twice from the waist, clap your hands twice, put your hands together and pray. Make a wish for yourself and/or others. Bow once again. Out of respect, photos are usually not permitted close to the main shrine buildings. Remember to be respectful since this is an active place of worship.

The homotsuden or Treasure House of Meiji Shrine can be found at its northern end. Here one can admire a number of seasonal and permanent historic displays. Unfortunately, it was closed during our visit (end of June 2019) due to restructuring taking place in preparation of the Olympic Games 2020. A museum annex building to the east of the main shrine also displays a number of other exhibits. This one, fortunately, was accessible during my visit. The outer precinct of the shrine grounds also contain a memorial picture gallery, a national stadium, a martial arts hall, and a number of other sports facilities.

Visitors of Meiji Jingu Shrine can purchase omomori (lucky charms/amulets) and ema at the stalls directly opposite the main hall. Ema are small wooden plaques depicting either the crest of the shrine or the specific year’s eto (zodiac). These are usually inscribed with well wishes or prayers and tied to a sacred tree near the main shrine. You can also keep them and take them home as a souvenir. Some of them are quite beautiful!

A small tip – do not try to take photos of the priest or priestess manning the stalls – they will not be pleased.

The traditional wooden tea-house

Together with the adjacent Yoyogi Park, the evergreen forest making up Meiji Jingu’s grounds covers around 172 acres of Tokyo. Although the shrine itself was interesting and enriching to visit, I must admit that my favorite part of the grounds were definitely the Inner gardens. The landscaped trees, lakes and winding woodland paths were simply breath-taking. An idyllic retreat from the outside world. After paying the small fee of 500 yen, we found ourselves walking towards a quaint wooden tea-house built in the traditional Japanese style. We admired a display of giant bonsai trees, then continued down the narrow path surrounded by greenery. One of the highlights of the Inner garden is surely the Iris garden, which was in full bloom at the end of June. Glorious purple and white irises claimed the landscape, together with a number of small bridges arching over the South Pond, as we paused to sit and admire the nature around us from one of the wooden benches interspersing the garden.

The Iris Garden

The South Pond, a large clear body of water filled with turtles and large colorful koi fish, provided the perfect backdrop. Surrounded by magnificent Japanese maples amongst other trees and plants, we also strolled through the Azalea garden, as well as Nan-Chi Pond – a dream of loveliness filled with large floating white water-lilies.

Nan-chi Pond

Slowly, we made our way towards the famous Liyamasa’s Well, which is situated at the mouth of the stream that runs to the South Pond. This well is said to be a power spot and to give positive and lucky energies to whoever visits it.

It was a real pleasure to linger in Meiji Jingu Shrine’s gardens, however we had other plans for the rest of the day, so we knew we could not spend it all there. This is why we had gone as soon as the shrine had opened, that is, at 9am, which is actually the best time to visit since there are less tourists and it is more quite and serene.