Archive for the ‘Annals of cheap’ Category

Annals of cheap: Tokyo Metro kaisuken

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

See that second button from the left? Press it. It won't hurt you.

See that second button from the left? Press it. It won’t hurt you.

The only thing I have against Tokyo’s two subway systems is that they don’t run 24 hours a day, though that may change for one of them. In almost every other aspect I think they’re pretty terrific, and since Tokyo Metro is cheaper than the Toei subway network, it’s even more terrific. Does that sound funny, calling something in Japan cheap? In terms of average fares, it’s actually one of the cheapest in the world. Of all the world capitals, only Mexico City, Beijing, Seoul and Moscow are cheaper. And considering how clean and reliable the Metro is, it’s even more of a bargain.

And because it’s cheap patrons may take it for granted. Since the advent of the PASMO rechargeable smart card, which enables mass transit users in the Tokyo metropolitan area to enter and exit stations, as well as transfer from one mode of transport to another, without the need for tickets, Tokyo Metro has increased the number of wickets in stations that don’t take tickets. PASMO and JR’s Suica card obviate the need to buy individual tickets, and thus save time and resources, but they don’t necessarily save money. If your PASMO is also a Tokyo Metro credit card you can earn points when you ride that can be used for discounts, but the discount comes out to less than one percent. However, if you buy tickets of the same value in multiples of 10 from either Tokyo Metro or JR, you get an 11th for free, meaning a discount of 10 percent. These multiple tickets are called kaisuken.

Continue reading about kaisuken →

Annals of cheap: Kitchen Dive

Friday, January 15th, 2010

Stacked in your favor

Stacked in your favor

One of the gauges the media uses to monitor the scourge of deflation is the price of bento, the “lunch boxes” of the hoi polloi. Back in the 1980s, I regularly bought a noriben for  ¥370 from the chain bento-ya Hokahoka, which has since renamed itself Hotto Motto. Noriben is traditionally the cheapest bento, and consists of rice with shaved bonito and a sheet of nori (dried seaweed) on top, accompanied by a small croquette or piece of grilled salmon or fried mackerel and some tsukemono (pickles). Above that there are variations on the rice-and-okazu (side dish) theme culminating in the makunouchi grade, so named because it was consumed during sumo tournaments and kabuki performances.

About two years ago reports started appearing about food stalls in shotengai (shopping arcades) selling uniform-sized bento for a uniform price of ¥350. Since then the price has regularly come down in jumps of ¥50. This trend seemed to have hit a wall at ¥250, but last year a take-out kitchen near Higashi Azuma Station in Sumida Ward called Kitchen Dive started offering bento for ¥200, and practically every wide show and quite a few regular food-related variety shows have covered the place.

Continue reading about Kitchen Drive →

Annals of cheap: Hanamaru

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

For some reason they're always in basements

For some reason they’re always in basements

Probably the most overused term in culinary matters in Japan is kodawari, which implies a strict scrupulousness, usually to flavor. Attendant to the idea of kodawari is simplicity: the more unprepossessing the food, the easier it is to appreciate its adherence to basic goodness. In this regard, the purest Japanese dish may indeed by sashimi, since it is simply sliced raw fish, but the purest prepared dish is sanuki udon.

Udon are wheat noodles, which are found everywhere in Japan. Sanuki udon is from the island of Shikoku. It is udon in a clear broth made from various stock ingredients such as mushrooms, bonito and seaweed. Sanuki udon is sustenance for common people, which means it has a reputation for being very cheap, but kodawari still applies. Outside of Shikoku, sanuki udon may be expensive in accordance with the unspoken rule that once a regional dish leaves its bailiwick it becomes something of a delicacy.

The udon chain Hanamaru blithely shatters this truism by offering sanuki udon at prices that are probably lower than they are in Shikoku. The most basic item on the menu is kake udon, which is merely noodles in broth topped with green onion. A small bowl will set you back a mere ¥105. A medium bowl is ¥210 and a large one ¥315.

Get in line

Get in line

From there prices get more involved as you add the usual things like ontamago (half-boiled egg), wakame (seaweed), or oage (fried tofu); and there are specialties like shredded beef and curry and sesame. But the price almost never rises above 500 yen, even when you add side dishes like tempura (in my experience, not as crisp as it should be), salad, onigiri (rice balls) or croquettes.

Hanamaru is actually cheaper than buying lunch at a convenience store, which is why any outlet is usually packed with salarymen during lunch time. And almost every one of them will probably be slurping the cheapest dish, a small serving of kake udon. I’ve been told that a lot of men, under the shadow of metabolic syndrome, find this a better dietary alternative than the standard lunchtime dish of gyudon (beef bowl), but I also assume there’s an economic component to it. Still, I might be wrong. In the early evenings the outlet in Shibuya is usually packed with high school girls, who aren’t really worried about saving money but know their kodawari.

Annals of cheap: Daigoro

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

You can buy Daigoro anywhere, even in drug stores like this one

You can buy Daigoro anywhere, even in drug stores like this one

Like many people, I had many surprises when I first arrived in Japan, and one of them was the sight of men (always men) drinking openly on the street. Often it was canned beer, but if any one product was ubiquitous it was One Cup Ozeki, which for years I assumed was actually marketed with street drinking in mind. Actually, it was developed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as an all-in-one package for nihonshu-lovers. The packaging itself is a sturdy glass “cup” with a metal pull top and a plastic replaceable cover, meaning you can enjoy it without having to provide your own container. This was just the sort of thing that street drinkers, a class of recreationists that includes a good portion of day workers, chronic alcoholics and homeless, were waiting for, so to speak, especially since a 180-ml portion was less than ¥220. In fact, Ozeki, the major sake brewer behind the brand, had to contend with an image that associated One Cup with the indigent. For a while, the company actually embraced this image indirectly with award-winning TV commercials that showed how the cups could double as flower vases and containers for household items, a utility to which the homeless had been putting discarded One Cup Ozeki containers for years.

Continue reading about Daigoro shochu →

Annals of cheap: Takeya

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Takeya's main store on Showa-dori

Takeya’s main store on Showa-dori

The discount behemoth Takeya, located near Okachimachi Station, may not be the cheapest place to buy anything you want, but it’s probably the cheapest place to buy everything you want. Comprising half a dozen purple-painted buildings clustered together along Showa-dori, the store gets by on volume and an almost neurotic obsession with using space effectively.

The food sections, which take up the bottom floors of two neighboring buildings, are usually impossible to move through, since the aisles barely  accommodate two bodies standing abreast of each other. And when the buses discharge the Asian tourists, as they do several times a day, the place turns into writhing mass of nylon-coated humanity, reaching and pushing and grunting and paying. The announcement are provided in Japanese, Chinese and Korean. No English. They know who shops there.

There’s more: all the electronics you can think of short of computers; expensive leathers and high fashion at discount prices; four floors of furniture; a full liquor store that charges the lowest prices in town; a huge pet store set right next to a full-service bicycle shop; cosmetics and drugs and stationery. There’s even a jewelry store.

Continue reading about Takeya →

Annals of cheap: QB House

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009


Be kind and shampoo before you go

Some people love to get their hair cut and set. They love the scent of shampoo and the touch of the beautician’s hands on their scalps, or the subtle snip-snip of the barber’s shears and the reassuring dampness of a hot towel; the whole sensuous, tactile experience augmented with light conversation and unforced cameraderie.

Then again, some people absolutely hate all that, and for those people there’s QB House, whose business model is as simple as styrofoam: 10 minutes in the chair for ¥1,000. No shampoo, no shave, no small talk. Just a haircut. Does that look OK? Get outta here.

Presently QB (“Quick Beauty”) Net Co., Ltd. runs 401 outlets throughout Japan, as well as shops in Hong Kong and Singapore. The first one opened near Kanda Station in Tokyo in 1996 and the QB approach caught on very fast.

QB keeps costs down mainly by renting very small spaces and doing high-volume business. Profit margins are about 7.4%, which means each shop should ideally serve about 85 customers a day. The cut station is self-contained, with a chair and a tall vanity-like facility that features a sterilizer, an “air washer” (extending vacuum device to remove cut hair strands from the customer’s person), disinfectant and drawers of disposable combs and paper towels made of recycled material. A comb is used only once and then offered to the customer afterward. By having everything in such close proximity, QB not only makes effective use of space but allows each haircutter to clean up quickly so as to save time.

It’s easy for the customer, too. Instead of a barber pole, each outlet features a traffic light set up in the window. A green light means no waiting; yellow means a wait of 5 to 10 minutes; and red says a wait of 15 minutes or more. The customer walks in and inserts a thousand-yen bill in the vending machine (no change is given) in exchange for a ticket, and sits down. When his turn comes up he hands the ticket to the cutter and tells him/her what he wants. Some outlets accept Suica and Edy cards.

Continue reading about QB House →

Annals of cheap: Gyoza no Osho

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

The Nishi Nippori branch of Osho

The Nishi Nippori branch of Osho

Only a handful of businesses have managed to actually increase sales during the current economic downturn. Two are no-brainers: fast-food Leviathan McDonald’s and cheapo clothing retailer Uniqlo. Less generally known is the fact that the restaurant chain, Gyoza no Osho, has enjoyed 74 consecutive months of sales growth. Revenues for the quarter ending in June were ¥15.5 billion, which is 23 percent more than sales for the same quarter in 2008. Some months have even seen a 100 percent increase in revenues over the previous year.

As the name indicates, Osho’s specialty is gyoza (pot sticker), but it’s more of a general purpose Chinese food chain than a restaurant that pushes ramen — which is prominent on the menu, but stir fry seems to be more their bag. The first Osho opened in Kyoto in 1967, and now there are 533 outlets nationwide, though almost none in northern Japan, which doesn’t seem that interested in Chinese food.

Continue reading about Gyoza no Osho →


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