Japan started becoming a “doable” leisure destination for us Filipinos some time early last year. Agreements between the Philippine and Japanese governments started to allow more flights between both countries, and what followed was an increase in the the volume of low cost seats along the route. The Japanese government also relaxed their tourist visa requirements, and started giving multiple-entry visas. For those who are not bestowed with “powerful” passports, like us, that was a welcome development. Leisure travel for us used to be mainly concentrated on visa-waivered Hong Kong, Singapore and a few neighbouring ASEAN countries, but now Japan gatecrashed into their party, in a way.
We visited Japan for the first time last year, entering through Osaka, courtesy of the lowered airfares and relaxed visa policy. On that year we also started to see some friends and acquaintances trickling towards the land of the rising sun, for their vacations. But I could not have predicted what we would see this year. Starting at the last week of March we started seeing people arriving Japan through their social network posts, and by the first week of April, Facebook and Instagram were flooding with photos of Japan. It was Holy Week, a long holiday in the Philippines, and it looks like everyone went north, including us.
So is Japan really that accessible now? I would say yes, largely. It’s now easier to get to than the likes of South Korea and Taiwan, visa-wise, and it seems there are now more low cost flights going there than to China (excluding Hong Kong). So if you manage to grab a discount fare to Japan, can you already indulge in a low budget backpacker type trip? Maybe. How about daily expenses? Can you go as frugal as you can in say, Hong Kong? Not really, and here are some reasons why. Japan is a large country, and you would miss a lot if you confine yourself to just a major city. There’s lots of beautiful things to see in the countryside, and for that you need to ride long distance trains, and those don’t come cheap. Even if the JR pass can save you a lot, you still wouldn’t call it exactly “cheap”. Second is transportation. The minimum fare on Tokyo’s subways is around 270JPY…that’s more than a hundred Philippine Pesos. You pay that much even if you are just going one station away, and don’t even starting thinking about getting a taxi. And third is food. Japan is a very exciting foodie destination (and who doesn’t love Japanse food), but you do have to pay. The cheapest decent meal you can get will cost no less than 600JPY, and you’ll be hard pressed to find shops that serve those (unless you eat McDonalds all the way, which would be too depressing to even contemplate). If it’s any consolation though, there are cheap hotels there, especially the no-frills business hotels. Room’s are pretty small though, in general.
So how much does food really cost? Well, our family falls in the “frugal” end of the bracket whenever we travel, though we do try to savour authentic local food as much as we can, and here’s what we had in our recent trip to Tokyo.
Tokyo Station Ramen Street
Want real good authentic ramen but don’t want to get lost in the endless maze of Tokyo’s streets? Fear not, there’s Tokyo Station, the city’s busiest train station, and that place is too huge to miss. The underground level of the station is a huge shopping area, and one corner, near the Yaesu South Exit, is called Ramen Street. Story has it that this part was built so that the city’s best ramen shops can put up branches here, in the transportation hub. Still, some of the shops are more popular than others, judging by the length of their queues, and we chose one where the queue was not too long. It had no english signage, but I got the name after researching on the net – “Orishiki Jun Ramen”.
Like most restaurants in Tokyo, you order food through a vending machine. You put money on the machine, press the button for the food of your choice, and get your change. The machine will also spew out a ticket, with your order printed on it, which you will then give to either the kitchen staff, or the hostess waiting outside (if there is one). And then you wait for a seat to get vacant, simple as that. Tokyo-ites live a hectic life, and it shows in their table manners. They don’t linger for chit-chat and small talk. After they finish a meal they immediately and quietly leave their seats, and the next person in line sits down.
Orishiki Jun serves Hakata-style ramen, which means thick, heavy “tonkotsu” – a broth made from pork bones that has been cooked for days, or so they say. Their tonkotsu is thicker than I’m used to, which isn’t bad by the way, just something unique. The flavour is what I would expect for a good bowl of ramen, and I loved the firmness of the noodles. It may not be the biggest hit in ramen street, but it was definitely far from a miss. I would still rate up there as some of the best ramen I’ve tried. Cost for the bowl? Over 800JPY. Reasonably priced for a bowl of ramen, but for Tokyo-ites this is just lunch break food.
Shibuya, being a popular tourist spot, may be filled with tourist traps, but there are also relatively cheap eats if you do some prior research. Matsuya is one of those. A large, popular chain in Japan, people familiar with Yoshinoya shouldn’t find Matsuya strange…they serve the same specialty, “gyudon” or beef bowls.
The Matsuya branch in Shibuya is right along “Center Gai”, the main pedestrian street. It has no english signage, save for an obscure one by the door, but their logo should be familiar to anyone researching about beef bowls in Japan. Often compared with Yoshinoya, its bigger competitor, Matsuya is a little bit cheaper, though their store in Shibuya is a bit more spartan the most Yoshinoyas I’ve seen. The quality of their beef bowl isn’t far behind at all either. Cost for a regular bowl? 600 JPY. I think it’s the cheapest meal I’ve had in Japan so far.
There’s a Komoro Soba in Manila, but I think this one is totally unrelated to that. We found this small Tempura and Soba shop near the Chidorigafuchi, where we were heading for some evening sakura viewing. That shop’s facade, though pretty narrow, was properly lit and looked inviting enough to try.
After ordering through the vending machine, we gave our tickets to the man on the kitchen and it became evident right there and then that there’s no speaking english here. It was all sign language and some courteous bows to signify thankfulness. The vending machine helped a lot in this instance, as it eliminated the difficulty in communicating what you want. Inside were typical working men, probably stopping by for dinner before catching the train home.
I got a tempura, rice and soba set. The tempura was good…not quite the best I’ve had, but enough for a decent meal. I’m not a big fan of soba in general, but I managed to gulp down the bowl. Cost for the set, over 800 JPY, and this is a typical working man’s dinner.
And who wouldn’t know Yoshinoya, the shop that brought beef bowl to the world? There are countless Yoshinoyas in Japan, though we missed going to one in our first trip. This time around, we made sure to go there, as a “beef bowl pilgrimage”, if you will. The branch we went to, in Harajuku, was overflowing with people when the clock hit noon. It’s still a big hit in its own home court.
I ordered something that I haven’t found outside of Japan – a beef bowl set with raw egg and green onions. It’s a sort of Do It Yourself version, where you get a regular beef bowl and put the raw egg on top (the set comes with a separator, so you can separate the yolk from the white), plus your desired quantity of green onion. Cost for the set? Over 800 JPY, definitely pricier than the local version here in the Philippines.
Wolfgang Puck Express
We ran across the Wolfgang Puck when we came for the Yoshinoya in Harajuku, as it’s right behind (along Takeshita Dori), and decided to have our dessert there. It’s a Wolfgang Puck though, so you’d be nuts to expect cheap, but the desserts that we ordered were lovely indeed, and worth every
Lindt and Godiva Cafe
If you’d like to get away from the hectic hustle of Tokyo though, then head to their cafes. As with any developed city, they have a good cafe culture. They even have exotic ones like cat cafes (where you caress cats), and maid cafes (where waitresses in european housemaid uniforms serve you). But if your choices are a bit more conventional, you can fill both your caffeine craving and sweet tooth at cafes like Lindt (we went to the one in Omotesando), and Godiva (we went to the one in Diver City, Odaiba). Again given the brand names, you shouldn’t expect them to be cheap, but they’re worth a try, even if just for once.
Tenya is a large Tempura fast food chain with branches all over Japan, sort of like a Yoshinoya or Matsuya for Tempura.
Most people probably know tempura as battered shrimp. In Japan however, tempura can be battered anything. At Tenya, it could be squid, vegetables, scallops, mushrooms, lotus roots, etc. I had the “All Star Tendon”, which had the widest variety of tempura over a bowl of rice. Overall, it was what I expected from good tempura. Greasy (even the restaurant’s floors are a bit slippery, probably due to all the oil from the kitchen), but good and tasty. I particularly enjoyed the tempura’d scallop. And the price? over 700 JPY. Not bad by Tokyo standards, I would say.
* We were in Tokyo last April 2015.