Many readers write to me and ask me how they can stay in Japan on the cheap. Well, actually it can be done. Really! I can tell you that airfares to Tokyo usually run half-price around February. Actually, February is the cheapest time to go anyplace in the world. I know that it might be hard to get time off from work at that time, but if you can, then it doesn’t matter if it’s Tokyo, Milan, or Paris; February is the time to go. And if you have ever wanted to go overseas, then right now is the time to start planning for that February trip. Airfares are about one-half; hotels are discounted the same — if not more; and the best thing is that everywhere you go is empty — no tourists. No standing in huge lines at the airport or at the hotel check in counter; generally excellent service wherever you go — especially in Japan. And all the sites to see are usually yours for the taking. I love traveling in February.
There is a slight catch to coming to Japan in the month of February though: it’s cold. Not quite as cold as, say, Minnesota (unless you go to Hokkaido), but it does get close to freezing on some days — usually it’s about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. So if you do plan a trip in February come prepared.
One of the first things the American traveler to a foreign country will notice is the difference in treatment you are given at just about any airport anywhere as compared with how you are treated like criminals or cattle at US airports. You are welcomed in Japan. It is quite an eye-opener to say the least.
But this article is about how to eat — healthy and well — in Tokyo on the cheap.
This sign is in front of all Tachigui Soba shops
Despite what you have heard and read — even in this column sometimes — there are ways to get around the extremely high costs of visiting Tokyo. In fact, my being a cheapskate, allows me to be an expert on this very same subject. I practice the methods I’m going to share with you in this article every day. And so do all of the people who live here — no kidding.
When staying at a hotel in Tokyo, free breakfast service often comes with your hotel room, so never forget to ask about that. It’s easy to ask too — you don’t need to speak Japanese. Just say, "Breakfast service?" — slowly and clearly — to the folks at the hotel register counter. It seems that a lot of these hotels are pretty loose about their "Breakfast Policy" and often times, even if it doesn’t come included with your room charge, if you ask nicely the front clerks will give you a pass. But don’t be late, because the Japanese are very precise about time. Usually breakfast service will run from 6:30 AM to 9:30 AM. If you think that you can sleep in late and still get breakfast with your pass at 9:35, you’re probably in for an unpleasant surprise.
Okay, so you partied hard the night before (easy to do in Tokyo) and you overslept. What to do for food? Well, anywhere in Japan — at any time of the day or night — you can find what is called, Tachigui Soba. Tachigui Soba shops are restaurants that are usually standing only (Tachigui means, "stand and eat") and they serve Soba (Buckwheat noodles), Udon (white flour noodles), or Ramen (Chinese style noodles). Now these Tachigui Soba shops are everywhere as they cater to Japanese businessmen on the rush, but you can get a filling meal for a price that beats just about any big city restaurant in the United States. Avoid the shops that are located inside of train or subway stations — they are usually bad. Soba noodles and Tempura (Japanese style fried vegetables and fish) go for about $5.00. Drinks are free! (Well, they usually only serve fresh water, so you can drink all you want — it’s self-service). And don’t worry about drinking Tokyo tap water — it is probably the safest tap water in any big city in the world as in Japan it rains naturally soft water. I love Tachigui Soba. And, if you are a guy like me, who lives on an allowance given to you by your wife, you can go to work with $10 and still come home with a couple of dollars left over at the end of the day. Tachigui Soba just cannot be beat for price and food quality.
Soba — This particular dish sells for about $3.50
So then after running around and seeing the sites, you’ll want to have a good lunch. Here (once again) is where timing is so important in Japan. Every restaurant I have ever seen in this country has a lunch special. The lunch special deals are amazing. You can get a course that would cost you at least $40 or $50 dollars at night, for about $10 at lunchtime. What’s the catch? The lunch specials only run from about 11 AM to 2:30 PM. Also, don’t forget that the locals are all aware of these deals, so never go exactly at 12:00 — which is the standard fixed lunch time for company workers in Japan. If you go at 12:00, expect to stand in line. The smart thing to do is get to the restaurant at 11:30 or after 1:30. That way you can eat hardy and relax in an unrushed atmosphere.
My favorite lunch special is at an Italian restaurant named La Pianta — that restaurant is not 5 minutes from my office. At La Pianta, you can get your choice of pasta or pizza; a salad, dessert, bread and real butter; and coffee, tea, or iced drinks. Also you can have all the free refills on coffee and all the delicious bread that you want! The cost? Everything included for about $10 dollars — and there’s no tipping in Japan. It’s a deal that can’t be beat. And the food is superb.
La Pianta — Italian Restaurant
People who do travel a lot around the globe will tell you that Tokyo has some of the finest restaurants in the world. This is true. The only place that I have been to in America that could compare was New Orleans. And it’s not just Japanese food that’s fantastic; Tokyo has great French and Italian restaurants too! A funny thing about Tokyo’s Italian restaurants is that just about all of the good ones have a sign that says, "Established in 1944" hanging out in front. I would suppose so, Italy was an ally of Japan in World War Two and by the time the Germans and Italians were kicked out of North Africa, there would have been basically no safe way to return to Italy from Japan — so many of them stayed on. And the beneficiaries of this are the food lovers of Japan. One of my other favorite Italian restaurants — inexplicably also established in 1944 — is Antonio’s. The founder of Antonio’s was a gentleman by the name of Antonio Cancemi. He was Commander-in-Chief Grand Chef for the Italian Naval Force at the time when the Italian Republic became one of the Axis powers during World War II. After the war, he was the personal chef for General Douglas Macarthur. So don’t anyone write to me and tell me that Japan does not have good Italian food!
Dinner in Tokyo is where you have to be careful, because this is the time when prices can really go through the ceiling. Once again, if you are on a really tight budget, then Tachigui Soba comes to the rescue. But, a proper dinner is always quite the enjoyable experience. What to do? Sushi. That’s right, you read correctly. Amazingly, sushi is one of the best deals in town. But you must be careful in how you order.
Names of Sushi set menus
Whenever ordering sushi (after lunch time) never order by the piece — always order one of three set menus. They are: Nigiri (regular sushi), Jyou-Nigiri (upper quality sushi), or Toku-Jyou-Nigiri (Top quality sushi). The Nigiri set will usually run about $10 dollars. The Jyou-Nigiri will be $13 dollars; and the Toku-Jyou-Nigiri will be about $15 dollars. If you order one of these three sets you’ll keep your costs way down. If you were to order the sushi by the piece, better get your credit card out, because it is going to cost you a lot. If one were very hungry, then you’d be better off ordering two of one of the above sets rather than ordering by the piece. Also, the best sushi can be had in winter- time in Japan, so February is a great time for fish lovers.
Tempura-don Fried Fish and vegetable on rice w/soup — about $7 dollars.
Or, if you were not into sushi, then I’d recommend one of literally thousands of Tempura chain restaurants in Tokyo. They are everywhere. And they are quite good at a very cheap price. Tenya is one of my favorites. At Tenya you can get a Tempura and rice set with some vegetables and soup for under $8 dollars anytime of the day. And Tempura — even though it is not originally a Japanese food (it was imported from Portugal) — has become such a part of Japanese cuisine that even halfway decent Tempura restaurants are pretty darned tasty. Definitely stay away from Tempura restaurants that have ladies in kimonos working at them — they are outrageously expensive. In fact, until the night that you do splurge on yourself, remember that if a restaurant has waitresses dressed in kimonos, is usually a sign of a high class — and therefore expensive — place. So keep that in mind.
Tenya Restaurants’ sign and logo
So that’s how you can get by on eating in Tokyo for $25 dollars a day. Save your money because you will want to at least go out once and splurge. Then you can spend the $200 — $500 per person on that special gourmet dinner if you wish.
If any of you good folks want to take my advice and are thinking about visiting Japan, by all means, please feel free to write to me and I’ll give you tips and advice any way I can. I also have some good advice for traveling in Japan on the cheap if you write. I’m always willing to help out a fellow traveler — especially Americans who need to get out more and see their own country from a different perspective.
Shrine at Asakusa — about ten minutes from Tokyo Station
Standing in front of Mt. Fuji, visiting the Great Buddha, or going to Asakusa Shrine and having your picture taken in a once in a lifetime vacation? Yes. It could be you — and it’s easier — and cheaper — to do than you think.
Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He has the distinction of being fired from every FM radio station in Tokyo — one of them three times. His first book, Schizophrenic in Japan, is now on sale.