A Guide to Cheap Eats in Tokyo and Kyoto Japan

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While we were Japan for two weeks we saved money by eating cheaply everywhere we went. I can’t think of one meal I ate that was more than $15 dollars per person. Traveling to country that is quite expensive when it comes to transit and housing, we were surprised by how well we could eat without spending too much. The wonderful thing about Japanese food is that it is uniformly delicious in Japan, from 711 to the train station restaurants, everything I ate was fresh and prepared with care.

To be sure, there is a lot of wonderful food we didn’t eat. Perhaps next time (there has to be a next time!) we’ll dine with a famous sushi chef or have a traditional kaiseki style meal. But this time. we were both content to eat like cheap hungry locals looking for a deal.

My favorite cheap eats in Japan:

Onigiri

We bought onigiri from train stations, convenience stores, small mom and pop stands, and anywhere we saw their iconic rice and nori triangle shape calling to us. The Japanese don’t eat in public while on their spectacular transit system but it seemed like onigiri were an exception to this rule.

Each onigiri costs around a dollar and some change making it a fantastic deal. They were perfect to carry with you to a bench or a park, or to eat while on a train platform. We learned the character for salmon (鮭) to quickly be able to recognize the ones we liked the most. The best part was the genius packaging the nori came in so that you could unwrap it separately from the rice, meaning your little snack’s outer layer was neat and never soggy.

Conveyor Belt Sushi

It seems like a gimmick but it is the best gimmick because conveyor belt sushi is obviously cheap but very fresh. These places were pretty much a win-win for the adventurous tourist in Japan. Each piece was around a dollar and change. Add on a large Asahi beer and you’ve got yourself a filling meal.

We returned multiple times to Genki Sushi in Shibuya—though not exactly conveyor belt, it’s robotic meaning you order by the piece and it’s delivered to you like magic! We also ate a Musashi sushi in Kyoto multiple times too, they have several locations, which was a real conveyor belt sushi place. Everything was fresh and well prepared, better than fast sushi you’d get anywhere else in the United States.

Ramen

Ramen is everywhere, just like I assumed. But ramen is too good to stop eating, even if you’re on you’re forth bowl during a trip to Japan. We stuck to the fast ramen places where you can quickly order by machine out front, just the kind in train stations meant for the business crowd having a meal before a long commute home.

The best ramen to me was found in the hard to locate but very popular strip of ramen restaurants called Tokyo Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. We returned twice to that hidden but popular strip of restaurants.

My favorite ramen at Tokyo Ramen Street was not traditional, though. It was full of vegetables, red pepper noodles, and a vegetarian broth. It was savory and interesting, topped with so many crispy garlic chips and a spicy tomato paste. Each bowl was around 9 dollars, enough to fill you up for lunch or dinner.

Bentos

Grabbing a bento either at a restaurant during lunch time  or in the huge food mart depachikas in department stores, was a perfect way to try sushi, udon, tempura, or soba for less than dinner prices. Restaurants almost everywhere, especially in train stations, will have good deals for lunch bentos.

I was very impressed with the depechicka at Mitsukoshi in Ginza—-they even had a roof of lawn  you could lounge on with your food.

Just wandering a train station to find food turned out to be a culinary destination in itself, and almost every train station has something to eat in it.

Yakitori

A fun part of not speaking Japanese but still putting yourself out there was standing amongst the business men in Izakayas, informal pubs known for their red lanterns on the outside. Inside, you can get a mug of draft beer and lots of skewers of chicken, sauced or salted, for under 10 dollars.

Izakayas are also a nice way to experience night lifewithout having to commit to a bar or night club scene. We especially liked the well traveled Piss Alley in Shinjuku.

Street Vendors 

Whether you’re in Osaka or Tokyo’s Tsukiji market or Ueno park,  you can sample lots of Japanese fast cuisine by eating from street vendors. Look out for fresh green tea mochi with red bean paste inside (my favorite,) gyoza, yakitori, crab, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, tamago, grilled oysters, fresh sashimi, and different flavors of soft serve among much, much more.

We ate dishes from the street as often as we could. At the Tsukiji market in Tokyo we split sashimi eaten standing up with green tea to wash it down. It was devine, the best fish I’ve ever had so far for about 20 dollars.

Vending Machines

Every blog post, guidebook, and video I watched before traveling to Japan told me about Japanese vending machines existing everywhere. So despite being prepared I was still overwhelmed with adoration for their ubiquitous presence.

We made an effort to try them every day, multiple times a day. Besides wonderfully bizarre names (Calpis? hmmm) they featured great packaging and crazy selections to sample from every side street to train station to temple you’ve just walked a million steps up. All you need is a 100 or so yen most of the time. Salt and Fruit was my absolute favorite drink.

It was also convenient to have beer vending machines in both cities! We’d often save spending on alcohol at dinner and just grab an Asahi for our balcony at the Airbnbs we booked.

Honorable Mentions

711 and Family Mart convenience stores were my second homes. You can get cash out in their ATMs. They have coffee machines to supplement my exploration of vending machine can coffee. They’re also not like our American counterparts, meaning you can grab a fresh noodle bowl, onigiri, sushi, udon, or even a croissant instead of a bag of chips. Oh they also have pocky and Japanese candies!

 

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Emily Pizza in Brooklyn

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I could eat pizza everyday in New York City though I try not to for the sake of variety. In my quest pizza, I keep coming back to Emily in Clinton Hill though. They’ve got those artisan styled pizzas with great toppings, a kind of new-Brooklyn-style-pie. The Colony has honey on it which is fast becoming my favorite pizza addition.

EMILY

919 Fulton St.
Brooklyn NY 11238

 

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Hello from Japan

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I’m in Kyoto right now with just a few more days left before we fly back. I’ve seen and eaten so many great things while in Japan, I can’t wait to write it all down in a trip guide blog post and to start sketching things I’ve been keeping visual notes on. I think a series of my sketchbook will be called What I Ate at Japanese 711. Surprise, everything is red bean flavored!

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Chantal Joffe at The Jewish Museum

 

Installation view of the exhibition Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Chantal Joffe. The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by: David Heald.

A few weeks ago when I was at the Jewish Museum’s pay-what-you-wish Thursday night hours,  I  was struck by a lobby corner exhibit of portraits done in a bold, textured style though each was quite small. They reminded me of Alice Neel or Lucian Freud.  All of the portraits were of women.

Turns out the exhibit is part of the Jewish museum’s Using Floors, Walls, and Ceilings series that presents contemporary artists on the walls of the museum’s lobby.

Golda Meir

The artist for the current exhibit, on view until Oct. 2015, is London-based painter Chantal Joffe. Each of the paintings is a portrait of a 20th Century Jewish woman—such as Diane Arbus,  Gertrude A. Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Susan Sontag, and Hannah Arendt—focusing on their influence on art, literature, politics. and culture. Joffee studied for months before painting, accumulating research from their lives.

I was instantly enamored with the style and scope of Joffe’s work, reading more about her career and work first in the gift shop and then online. Joffe is known for her use of photography as an starting point, painting very large and alternately small canvases, and of course for painting almost only women.

On the process of painting her subjects, Joffe describes the women she has chosen:

“My early paintings used pornographic imagery, partly because I was interested in the politics surrounding pornography, but also because I wanted to paint nudes, and through pornography I had an endless supply of images of naked women. At the time I used to think I was bringing these women back to life. The photograph had killed their soul, and they died when the magazine was discarded. I saw my paintings as resurrecting them.

Since having a child, my paintings are more personal. I wanted to convey some of that physical intensity that comes with having a baby. The anxiety and emotions are so visceral.”


 

 

 

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Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul at The New York Botanical Garden

A few weekends back to celebrate we made the trip from Brooklyn to the Bronx for the Frida Kahlo Casa Azul exhibit at The New York Botanical Gardens, a replica of the artist’s home in Mexico City.  I’ve always loved Frida Kahlo, a bad ass feminist artist, so it was a perfect time to travel to a part of New York City I’ve never explored. The exhibit was colorful and spirited, cementing my desire to make a trip to the real thing in Mexico City someday.

It was the first time I had even been to botanical gardens, too. I didn’t get to see enough of the grounds because of the August heat but I did get lost in the wooded area a bit, finding the Bronx River. I’ll definitely be back for the fall colors.

Afterwards, in that combination of summer humidity meets late afternoon hunger, we ate thin pizza and calamari on Arthur Ave at delicious classic Neopolitan  Zero Otto Nove. I need to venture back up to the Italian enclave of the Belmont section of the Bronx because many stores (naturally) were closed on Sunday when we made the adventure. Next time: Addeo and Sons!

 

 

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Manhattan by Water

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I love playing tourist in New York despite living here all the time. Strangely, I had never been on a boat in the Hudson or East River before this secretly planned trip. We embraced the tourist gaze by taking  trip on a Circle Line Cruise around the entire perimeter of Manhattan, going all the way up to the Harlem River and under the recently opened High Bridge and the immensely epic George Washington Bridge (and the little red light house.)

Other highlights on the cruise include: riding out into the harbor with sail boats and the wind, draw bridges on the east river with signs for all the underwater cables and their deathly warning for anchoring, glimpsing a vast subway rail yard at the top of Manhattan, those intrepid kids that mooned us near Roberto Clemente Park with such grace.

It was a surprisingly great change of pace, sparking the nyc-by-boat bug in me. We took another trip, this time by a sail boat, just last night.

Circle Line Best of New York
10 AM, 12 PM and 2 PM Daily

Tip: As a local going tourist, ditch the upper deck where everyone fights for a good seat and stand at the front of the boat which opens after the trip starts. You can’t hear the narration as well but your views are better. You may even get splashed.

 

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New York City Neighborhoods Pattern

This week I finished a Skillshare class by my favorite New York City Illustrator Julia Rothman. I geeked out when I saw she was teaching a class almost immediately.

The project was to learn how to create a repeat hand drawn pattern, just by using paper, pen, and a copy machine. It was a utterly helpful look at how any repeat pattern works visually. I have a lot to learn but I’m glad I finished this class for the foundational principles it taught.

Now I want to print this out and color it in with crayons, like the good old days.

 

 

 

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Favorites from the Renegade Craft Fair

A few weekends back my friend Michelle and I went to the Renegade Craft Fair Pop-Up at East River State Park. I didn’t pick up anything that day but I love taking notes for the future. Here are a few of my favorite finds.

Wind Born from Cape Cod

As a Massachusetts native, these tugged at the old heart strings. I liked the block printing on a few of the pocket sized notebooks. I love a simple, kraft paper styled notebook too. Better yet, they’re made from old typewriter paper.

Ness Lee, Illustrator from New York City. 

I really dig Ness Lee’s style, her line work and fluid shapes. They’re also smart and interesting visualizing, hinting at broader meaning of place and identity.

 

 

Carefree Cacti by Sah Rah 

I kill almost every plant I own at one point or another which is exactly why I want an entire windowsill full of Sah Rah’s knitted catci in terra cotta plants. No water needed!

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Exploring and Sketching Dead Horse Bay Brooklyn

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A few weekends ago now I biked out to Dead Horse Bay for the first time. The delightfully gruesomely titled bay at the edge of Brooklyn and Queens gets its name from the former animal rendering plants that made up the area. Later, parts of the bay were used for landfill. When a cap of the landfill burst, the beach became littered with mid-century bottles, leather soles, horse bones, and pieces of ceramic tiles among remnants of industry.

 

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It’s a sort of living testament to the detritus of late capitalism. That’s what makes it so interesting too, a gross at times interactive historical look at things sold and bought in the past century.

It’s also fascinating to observe how items were made before and how that tells a story about their survival. Plastic is almost altogether missing from the beach but glass is plentiful. The prescene of leather soles must be because rubber soles weren’t yet the standard, but I’m not positive why they survive.

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I collected an assortment of small glass bottles, many medicinal looking, that I learned how to date based on markings on the bottom. If you’re looking for a bizarrely engrossing activity, look no further than dating vintage bottles. My special favorite is a small bottle that turns out is a glass baby doll bottle. Others come from as far as Illinois glass factories.

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Another favorite find are cold cream jars that are milk glass white, many featuring interesting architectural details. Cold cream boomed in the later half of the 20th century as a must have cosmetic. The Ponds and Avon brands jar I collected are perfect for bathroom organizing and even making candles (like my very wonderfully industrious friend Katie taught me.)

 

 

Next time I’m going to bring a bigger bag to pack up even more of those 1940’s cold cream jars.

 

Go to Dead Horse Bay!
Location
Hours: all year long.
Directions: take the 2 train and switch to the Q35, getting off before the Gil Hodges bridge.
Or ride your bike! The entrance is right before the bridge. 

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