In spite of a woefully light wallet, I ate like a king during my time in Japan. When conventional wisdom dictated that I would be subsisting on dehydrated noodles and vending machine sodas, I said “balderdash,” and took to the streets in search of cost-effective meals. Thankfully, the timid folk behind that wisdom were less subject to wanderlust than I am, and I was successful in my search. The trick to eating cheaply in Japan, you see, is all in the feet, and how willing you are to use them.
As a stalwart penny-pincher, I was lent a great deal of vitality in my search for meal deals by a compulsion to save money. As such, I was not afraid to go for a hike before I sat down to dinner, regardless of my weariness. I knew that if I succumbed to fatigue, I would fall victim to the allure of centrally located, easily accessed restaurants. In Ginza, I forsook the main streets’ stately cafes and upscale restaurants—ideal for the jet set, perhaps, but far outside of my buying power. In Hida Takayama, I passed by the popular lunch stops in the downtown shopping district—they were easy to get to, yes, but still too expensive. Wherever I went, I made sure that only my hunger for the visual was sated in tourist areas, and that my gastronomical needs were catered to elsewhere.
The lengths I went to for budget-friendly foodstuffs in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics and anime culture Mecca, were especially representative of what persistent searching can do for the frugal wayfarer. I arrived in Akihabara desiring not only experience, but sustenance—the rigors of travel prompted me to eat a light lunch earlier, and dinnertime was rapidly approaching.
The dining establishments in close vicinity to the train station were somewhat expensive, especially the famed maid cafes, which are staffed by young women decked out in French maid costumes. While those establishments certainly constitute a cultural asset of Akihabara, I found their prices to be prohibitive—the cafes cater to a niche clientele, people willing to pay more if their coffee is carried to them by “maids” instead of conventionally-dressed employees.
With this in mind, I wound in and out of electronics shops and anime product hubs in a deliberate course away from the main street. I walked several blocks and, as I did so, the streets narrowed, the crowds thinned, and the sun began to set. The din of the main street had grown distant and faint and I had to rely on my sense of direction to assure myself that I could find my station of origin again. I had passed handfuls of restaurants whose conspicuously displayed prices (or telling lack thereof) had inadvertently induced me to keep walking. Although their startlingly realistic plastic meal models were appetizing, I ignored my grumbling stomach and soldiered on.
Eventually, I came upon a deal seeker’s diamond-in-the-rough—an inexpensive, spacious, well-furnished bar and grill tucked away in the side street of a side street. Upon entering the restaurant, I was greeted by a hostess wearing a traditional yukata (a less-decorative, more practical cousin to the kimono) that stood in stark contrast to the Western-style furnishings of the bar area that connected to the entrance.
When the hostess ushered me upstairs, her choice of clothing suddenly made sense, as the second floor of the bar was constructed in a traditional Japanese style, complete with low tables, floor cushions, and tatami (woven straw mat) floors.
After I removed my shoes I stepped onto the tatami, was led to a table, and presented with a menu. I opted for tonkatsu, a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, as I knew it to be both filling and inexpensive. Along with the entrée came a warm bowl of miso (fermented soybean paste) soup with a bold, salty flavor that complemented the tonkatsu’s sweeter sauce well. After I had eaten my fill, my portion of the bill totaled around seven or eight hundred yen—approximately seven or eight dollars. This bar and grill, which I would be hard pressed to find again, thereby delivered both low cost and high quality that made the hunger pangs I had ignored beforehand completely worth it.
The shoestring traveler would be happy to know that this sort of cheap, high-quality restaurant is not a rare thing. They can be found almost anywhere if you are willing to look for long enough, and if your hunger is matched by a desire to explore.
Keith is a student at Hobart College in Geneva, New York, and is currently pursuing degrees in Writing and Rhetoric and Asian Languages and Cultures. He is new to travel writing, having been introduced to this medium during his studies in 2008. Keith cites one travel piece in particular, Tim Butcher’s Blood River, as the source of his interest in becoming a travel writing author himself. At this time, Keith’s primary writing focus is Japan—its history, cultures, and people—but he is eager to see more of the world and expand his repertoire of subject matter when the opportunity presents itself.