Yen for sushi on the cheap
People stay away from Japan because they think it is too expensive - but they're wrong. PETER McGUIRE, founder and editor of cheapeats.ie, goes on a surprisingly affordable culinary tour
EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT Japan is the most expensive place on Earth. A plate of cheap sushi costs about €25, you won’t find a cheap hostel room below €50, you need a trolley full of gold to buy a train ticket, and you can pay €80 for an ordinary melon. Right? Well, the last bit is right: weirdly, melons in Japan are stunningly expensive. The rest is a runaway myth. There are plenty of cheap options for eating, sleeping and travelling around this wonderful and very charming country.
Japan has run away with my culinary heart – or is that my stomach? The refined Japanese aesthetic has turned even the most basic foods into an art form, and they make it seem so effortless. The cheapest convenience store bento box holds its own against a decent sushi restaurant in Dublin, while the quality of the cheap eats restaurants will cause your eyes to pop. Even the chains here have grown, not out of greedy, expansionary lust, but because they’re so damn good at what they do.
Underlying it all are some core Japanese principles: a love of beauty, a flair for artistic expression, and endless invention. Yes, Japanese cuisine is ancient and traditional, but it’s also wonderfully innovative. It is diverse too, boasting regional specialities alongside more familiar items such as sushi, sashimi, and tempura (introduced by Portuguese traders in the 16th century).
Up north, Hokkaido’s famous soup curry – an addictive and delicious spicy dish of thin soup, heavy spices, potatoes and other vegetables, along with meat or tofu – was created around 15 years ago by a local restaurant, and quickly gained popularity.
Hiroshima’s delicious okonomiyaki – a thin pancake layered with savoury ingredients – is ubiquitous, cheap and easy to find. Shabu shabu – a hot pot dish – has been refined through centuries of Chinese and Mongol influence.
A lot of the menus are in Japanese only, but thanks to the ubiquity of picture menus, you won’t go hungry. Still, outside Tokyo and parts of Kyoto, not a lot of English is spoken. People will do their best to help you, but it’s a good idea to bring a phrasebook, especially for Hokkaido, the northernmost island.
I’m reluctant to highlight particular restaurants to visit, because there are hundreds of thousands of them (yes, really) and you’d have to put in a long, hard slog to find a bad meal.
All of our meals were excellent, except for one in Tokyo, when we got lost in Shinjuku station for what seemed like 15 years and, emerging exhausted and starving, ordered yakitori.
We found the meat slightly unpleasant, and soon realised why – it was a plate full of offal, including chicken gizzards. But that was our own fault, and it was still good food – just not for us.
There are quite a few ways of eating on the cheap in Japan.
Any restaurant with a vending machine just inside the door would usually make me turn, run, and immediately write something mean and mocking. It’s different in Japan: you merely use the machine to pay for what you want, it gives you a ticket, and you hand it to the waiter.