Today I want to address one of the main stereotypes I heard about Japan when I was living in the UK. “Japan is so expensive!” people cried whenever I mentioned I was doing a year abroad there. I was worried, would I never eat out again? Would I be trapped in my room crying over overpriced ramen? Turns out this is totally a myth. You can eat out in Japan way cheaper than in the UK. In fact, it gets to the point that you feel like eating out is actually cheaper than cooking at home. In addition there is a huge range of restaurants in Kyoto – you can get pretty much any cuisine if you want it (though we have yet to track down somewhere selling Greek food).
Warning: this post might make you hungry, it certainly had that effect on me.
Let us go then, you and I, on an adventure into Japanese dining.
When you sit down to eat in Japan you are rapidly presented with a cup of tea (hot or cold) which is then refilled as often as you finish it throughout the meal, for free. I tend to judge a restaurant based on whether or not I like the tea – there is a huge variety. You can always ask for water (also free) if you don’t like it. In the UK this doesn’t seem to happen outside of Asian restaurants, which is a shame as tea costs basically nothing.
Japanese dining achieves new heights of affordability with the wonderful ‘Set Menu’ (定食 – Teishoku), which means that not only do you get free tea with your main, you also get miso soup, pickles and whatever else they’ve decided to give you. Compared to the normal menu items, set menus are usually only a few hundred yen extra (usually around £1.5o). This means that you can completely stuff yourself for around 1000円 (£5.40) and probably not want to eat much for the rest of the day (they are always very generous with the rice). Set menus can be found in almost any type of restaurant – not just those serving Japanese food!
Thats right, almost all of these meals were under £10. I think the sushi was more like £14 but you get the idea. Also check out the tempura’d egg. The yolk was runny and everything. A lot of these restaurants can be found in the dining area below Kyoto station.
If you’re indecisive or fussy and won’t commit more than, say, £1.50 to a dish, Japan has the answer. That answer is Izakaya (居酒屋). The best way to explain izakaya is to say they are essentially pubs, but better (if you don’t mind one kind of lager). The cheapest izakaya have everything on the menu at the same price, usually around 280円 (£1.50). This means that all the food and drink is the same (amazingly cheap) price. The big beer and the small beer cost the same. The malibu mixer and the jug of warm sake cost the same. The gyoza and the chips cost the same. The questionable looking chicken gristle and the ‘camembert’ (think very mild, melty plasticy cheese) cost the same. This means that you can eat very well and get reasonably drunk for a very affordable price. I’d say we need these in the UK but I fear people would never leave.
A downside for non-Japanese readers is that you may end up with some odd dishes – izakaya have a lot of ‘things on sticks’, including but not limited to, chicken heart, chicken cartilage, chicken skin, chicken guts, as well as normal chicken. If you can’t identify the difference when ordering you may be in for a slightly unpleasant and unexpected snack (chicken heart is actually pretty good though). I don’t have many pictures of izakaya food because I was too busy eating all of it.
Yes, that big beer was only £1.50. I will cry when I next buy a pint in London.
The izakaya I would recommend is Torikizoku, a chain found all over Japan – all the plates are 280円 and the service is really fast. A downside to izakaya (and a mark of their success) is that on the weekend you often find yourself queuing to get in – most have an electronic sign in system where you input your group number and wait for a space. If you don’t want to queue, go early (around 6 or 7), especially if you are a big group. After about 9 or 10 most people in the izakaya have settled in for a night of drinking and are unlikely to leave and make room for your group.
Even cheaper than the izakaya, if you aren’t drinking, are the conveyor-belt sushi places (回転寿司- kaiten-zushi) where the price of a dish is usually between 100円 and 140円. I would recommend Musashi Sushi in Sanjo for a fantastic sushi expeirence – they have so many different dishes and the conveyor-belt is always threatening to overflow with plates even when they’re busy. There is also Kura Sushi in Imadegawa Horikawa which gives you the chance to win a toy every 5 plates (I haven’t won yet, I think its pure luck).
But what if I want a nice meal? By this I assume you mean expensive, as in Japan even the really cheap stuff is good – I’m fairly confident you bring shame on your family by producing bad food in Japan. In that case, then yes you can spend 円円円 on the top Kobe beef and top-notch sushi, but honestly, it’s not necessary.
I ‘splashed out’ on my birthday, and by that I mean I spent more than a fiver on dinner. We got the 6 course menu each, costing a whopping 2000円 each (£10.80) and it was fantastic. We were the only customers in this beautiful old town house sat at the black and red lacquered counter (the kind where it looks like you’re sitting on the floor but there’s a hidden pit for your legs) and all of the food was beautifully presented. I was so full by the end. I only took pictures of a few of the courses because it feels a bit weird taking pictures with the guy that made the food standing at the counter in front of you.
I have a lot more to say on the topic of food so I will probably be writing more about specific places I’ve been to soon, but I thought that the view of Japan as ‘too expensive’ needed fixing. Though if you’re buying fruit in Japan be prepared to see a melon priced at £60.
Apologies if this made you hungry! If you have any ideas for posts, do let me know (anything you want to know about living in Japan?).