In the last 6 months I’ve been lucky enough to visit Japan twice. First I went to Fukuoka and Tokyo on trip with my Church and I loved it so much I went back to visit Osaka and Kyoto last month (a trip to Japan from Seoul is like a trip to Melbourne from Sydney – 1.5 hour flight and cheap budget fares).
Both trips were on shoestring budgets so there was no Sushi Jiro or Michelin-starred fine dining, or anything even close, this was super-low budget travel food that only sits one notch above eating onigiri for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone harps on about how expensive Japan is, but I honestly think that, as far as first world countries go, the cheap food in Japan may be the best cheap food in the world. $5 can get you a bowl of hand-made udon noodles, or even a lunch set at one of the beef-bowl chains which are way better tasting and no where near as nasty as Western fast food chains. Oh, and what people say about how small portion sizes are in Japan is also a massive lie! Portion sizes are exactly the same as what you could get at a Japanese restaurant in Sydney.
Basically, food in Japan is awesome – regardless of whether you spend $10 or $100 per meal.
This is a bit of a departure from my usual posts, but I’m putting this up more for my sake as a scrapbook of food memories capturing everything I ate in Japan.
If, like me, you’re not a Japanese speaker, it’s best to let fate dictate your food adventures in Japan. I researched, planned, created custom Google maps for all the places I wanted to eat at, but most were impossible to find. Street signs and storefronts are mostly Japanese-only, so rather than spending ages hunting down the little hole-in-the-wall ramen place using your GPS which may not even be accurate – I recommend you just wander around and take a chance on a place that looks busy. Japan is one of those countries where it’s harder to find bad food than it is to find good food.
My first bowl of ramen in Japan – the spiciest broth I have ever tasted. It was like the restaurant version of Korean Shin ramyn. I understand now why Japanese people don’t drink the broth with their ramen – the soup is incredibly rich and the flavour is so strong its hard to stomach even for a salt-lover like me. A bowel of ramen like this will generally be around 700-1,000 Yen ($7-$10).
Nagasaki Champon – a Japanese/Chinese fusion dish that is of particular interest to Koreans because we have our own version of this (Jjam-bbong) which is exactly the same except a lot spicier. It’s kind of like a ramen, but a bit messier than the classic Japanese style. A milky pork and chicken broth with thick wheat noodles and a finished with a topping of cabbage, bean sprouts and seafood mix. The yellowish colour is a bit off-putting but it tastes much better than it looks!
Before Tokyo, I had never tried authentic Japanese shabu shabu – I’d only had Chinese hot-pot and Korean-style “shabu shabu”, which is essentially the same but just a lot less… classy. This place had all-you-can-eat beef, served on an elegant wooden tray, a buffet of fresh vegetables, and three sauces. Yes, that RAW EGG IS A SAUCE!!!! My mind was blown by this. I don’t know anyone who loves egg more than me – how has the genius of using raw egg as sauce not come to my attention until now?? Freshly cooked shabu shabu meat, dipped into egg that is gently cooked by the heat of the beef. Amazing.
The hot pot was split into classic shabu shabu broth and sukiyaki. I think sukiyaki was a dish that was quite popular in the early 90’s but went out of fashion once sushi and other more exotic Japanese cuisine started taking over. I’m not usually a fan of sweetly-flavoured meat dishes but the raw-egg dipping sauce is a game changer. It turns a daggy 90’s hotpot into the best thing ever.
And now, the rice bowls. I know that blogging about rice bowls (Gyudon) is the Japanese equivalent of blogging about Subway or Burger King, but seriously, rice bowls are a tight-arse traveller’s best friend. The three mains chains are Yoshinoya, Matsuya and Sukiya. Mostly frequented by tired businessmen and povo students, each chain has a wide selection of flavours (beef, pork, chicken rice bowls, sometimes curry and other miscellaneous dishes), up to five bowl-sizes so you have the option of spending less if you’re less hungry, and an easy and efficient ordering system where you buy a ticket from a vending machine that you just give to a staff member.
It is hands down the best cheap-eat option for travellers because it’s actually Japanese (unlike McDonalds) and super tasty (unlike the re-packaged refrigerated meals you can get at convenience stores). Ranges from around 300 to 700 Yen ($3-7)
We personally liked the options at Matsuya the best – like the kimchi, pork and onsen egg rice bowl above.
It’s funny how soft-boiled onsen tamago is such a novelty to us, but is so common in Japan that it shows up in a $4 rice bowl. It’s like this is only way the Japanese like to eat eggs. As common as the sunny-side up is for us.
Another thing that’s very common in Japan is hamburg-steak – which is just a fancy name for a hamburger patty. Hamburg steak is really popular in Japan and Korea because real steak is ludicrously expensive due to high beef prices. With the hamburg steak, you can enjoy the experience of eating a big chunk of meat at an affordable price. But is it possible to somehow elevate a ground beef patty (or rissole, as us Aussies like to call them) into something more exciting than a…. ground beef patty?
Hai! You can use top quality 100% Japanese beef, serve it rare on a hot plate that includes a special super-hot stone that you use to cook bite-size pieces of the pink hamburg on your table. So tasty! Can’t eat hamburg steak any other way now. And it was only 100 yen ($10)!
This is black ramen, another random find near our hostel in Asakusa. The tiny ramen bar sat about 10 people and was run single-handedly by a hip looking young guy who cooked, cleaned and served everything himself. I’m not sure what causes the broth to be so black but my best guess is that it’s just pure soy sauce. Google suggests that the colour may also come from a charred garlic oil. But regardless of what it’s made from, any black-coloured broth is going to be strong as hell. I liked it though, it’s definitely not drinkable, but the way it flavoured the noodles was very nice if you like salty flavours. It also came with a massive chunk of peppered pork on top, about 1.5cm thick.
One place that I did manage to track down on my Google map was patisserie Gontran Cherrier – one of the many world class patisseries and bakeries in Tokyo.
Green tea citron croissants
Mont blanc – which seemed to the the most popular items in the store.
Baguette with gorgonzola and figs. Everything else in the store I could tell was delicious just by looking at it, but I bought this one because I needed to know whether it tasted as good as it sounded. The answer is yes – gorgonzola and figs! Winning combination.
Another find just around the corner from our hostel. Udon noodles that are rolled out , cut, cooked and served fresh out of the kitchen with a ladle of broth and onsen tamago. I’ve always loved udon noodles – in soup or stir fried – I love their fatness and how they carry flavour. Hand-made udon takes it to another level – the noodles have a bit of texture that catches the flavour of the broth, and when you bite them they have a slight chewiness that you wouldn’t get in the factory made noodles. On the side I got tempura squid, which slipped right out of the fried batter after the first bite. Luckily, I’m not above eating tempura batter on its own.
My final meal in Tokyo, one of my favourite things in the world, katsu-don. Bought for about $6 at a donburi chain restaurant, tasted just as good as the katsu-dons you’d pay double the price for in Sydney.
Here ends Part 1 of my dirt cheap food adventures in Japan! I didn’t publish the names and addresses of these restaurants since they’re all cheap and obscure, but if you really want to know, leave a comment and I’ll get the details for you.
SIDE NOTE: As you can see, I’ve given the site a little bit of a face-lift. Let me know what you think! In a classic “Heather can’t use the internet properly” move, I purchased a $30 customisation upgrade on my WordPress account, thinking this would let me play around with my theme as much as I wanted. Turns out $30 buys you basic font and colour changes… *facepalm*. Also, the grey gradient at the top of the page has spazzed out for some inexplicable reason. You can make custom CSS changes but I know absolutely nothing about CSS, so I’ve posted a question on the WordPress forums about changing the width of my content, which was the main change I wanted to make from the beginning. We’ll see if I can figure it out – watch this space!