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.

Vending machines

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.

A good option to go for is ramen (noodles and soup) and gyoza (delicious fried dumplings). You should be able to walk away quite full for under €10.

Sushi stores

The bad news is that sushi is one of the more expensive options in many parts of Japan, but it does get a little cheaper outside Tokyo and Kyoto. You can always pick up cheap sushi in convenience stores, but for the proper experience you need to head to any of the sushi bars with conveyor belts (kaiten-zushi or kuru kuru).

These are considered bottom of the sushi barrel in Japan, but they’re still much better than most of the sushi places you’ll find in Ireland, and good value too. Any sushi restaurant with table service will cost more.

Melons are not the only fruit

One night in a hostel, about five people in the common room stopped and stared at me in amazement when they heard me crunch into an apple. One asked, with a mix of wonder and disdain, why I was staying in a hostel if I was so rich. I knew what she was getting at. You’ll do well to find an apple for less than €2. Fruit is expensive because it’s imported.

But some Lawson stores are branded as Lawson 100 yen stores, and you’ll find a selection of very good fruit, including some delicious pineapple, for 105 yen (€1).

Take it away

On a really tight budget get take-away food from the 7-11 (incidentally, the only place to withdraw money with your foreign bank cards). You can pick up fresh sushi that’s as good as any option at home, or a bento box with rice, teriyaki salmon, and some pickles for between €4 and €6. They’ll heat it up for you, and you’ll find it surprisingly enjoyable.

Don’t rule out fast food

Mos Burger, Japan’s infinitely superior answer to McDonald’s, offers a decent Japanese burger with fries for when you just feel like being a dirty savage. A lot of other chains have grown because they make good food and do it well. And they’re cheap. Try the feast of tempura, miso, rice and pickles for just €8 in any branch of Tenya around Tokyo. Ootoya also has branches around the country with an extensive, cheap and very good menu. Ganko Zushi in Kyoto is a good spot for cheap sushi.

Search for a deal

If you fancy a real treat, look out for midweek specials. We decided we could afford one very fancy treat, and stayed one night in the Hidamari, a fantastic ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with an onsen (hot springs bath), having found a good offer on booking.com.

For €100 each, we stayed in an exquisitely designed hotel with access to the onsen and a banquet of Japanese food with about 13 courses – the largest amount of food I’ve ever eaten in one sitting. We went to our beds feeling utterly delighted and utterly full. The price also included the famous Japanese breakfast, the very sight of which overwhelmed us: noodles, soup, fish, rice, eggs, pickles, tea, meat, salad . . . exciting, but for two people who usually just about manage coffee, fruit and yoghurt in the morning, it was too much.

And so to drink

Go to an izakaya; you’ll recognise it by the pretty red lanterns outside. We were fortunate enough to be brought down numerous dark alleys by our friend Ronan, who took us to one of these very cosy Japanese pubs. We spent the night drinking sake and beer, and ploughed our way through the most fantastic bucket of sashimi on ice, a load of edamame (boiled green soybeans), and some meat and vegetable skewers. These are usually a relatively affordable option.

Markets and food courts

Check out Tokyo’s Asakusa, Shinjuku, and Harijuku districts; the side streets of Gion, and the incredible Nishiki Market (where you will have no idea what much of the food is) in Kyoto; the Okonomi-mura food court near the Panko shopping centre in Hiroshima (where 25 stalls over three floors all serve okonomiyaki), or any of the soup curry shops in Sapporo (north Japan).

If you’re in Tokyo, check out the hugely impressive tower that is the Tokyo Sky Tree. It doesn’t just have a food hall and food court, it has several frenetic floors of them. This was where I had my last meal, some dreamy tonkatsu with endless top-ups of crisp cabbage and brown rice.

Japan: Go there

When to go:The cherry blossoms are in bloom during April, but it can be crowded. Autumn can be equally beautiful, but avoid the rainy season, and the mad crowds from mid-May to the end of June. Also avoid the first week of May, when Japan is on holidays and prices rise.

Getting there: Air France offers regular deals on flights to Tokyo via Paris. Fly return including taxes and charges from €680 in November and December, and from €891 in April and May. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly to Tokyo through London.

Getting around: The world-famous shinkansen (bullet trains) are expensive, so pick up a Japan Rail pass and you’ll save hundreds of euro. A one-week pass costs €274, a two-week pass is €437, and a three week-pass costs €557. See jrpass.com.

Stay: Budget: The Khaosan Kyoto hostel is very clean and spacious with excellent staff and great facilities, from €16. khaosan-tokyo.com

Mid-range: Tokyo has an abundance of good-value, centrally located hotels. Shin-Obuku International Hotel, close to the busy Shinjuku district, has rooms from €54 per person sharing. Business hotels offer rooms from around €100, such as the Shinagawa Prince hotel in Shinagawa district. princehotels.com/en/shinagawa

Luxury: Stay in a traditional ryokan. The website, booking.com, has midweek deals on ryokan. For a taste of Japanese food and culture, make the short trip from Kyoto to the onsen town of Kinosaki and stay in the Hidamari hotel, €200 per room half board, tel: +81796296009, or email okita@kasyouen.com.

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