Archive for the ‘Annals of cheap’ Category

Annals of cheap: UR apartments to die for

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Who ya gonna call?

Who ya gonna call?

Not to keep dwelling on the morbid, but one of the inevitable consequences of a rapidly aging society is that people dying alone in their homes is becoming more of a conspicuous phenomenon. There’s a word for it in Japanese — kodokushi — and it carries a particularly depressing idea, since it’s usually used when someone dies and no one discovers the body right away.

As Japan became a more atomized society following the economic growth period of the ’60s and ’70s, more and more old people have been living in urban apartments by themselves, cut off from their communities and even from relatives. Isolated neighborhood groups often form patrols that keep an eye on elderly people living alone, checking up on them regularly to make sure they’re all right. One firm that works with UR, the nation’s public housing corporation, helps older tenants who find it difficult to move about. For ¥500 a month they take out their garbage for them, a service that doubles as a kind of patrol for obvious reasons.

UR, which reported 613 cases of kodokushi in its 750,000 nationwide units in 2008, has a stake in the issue because many of the people who moved into their residences decades ago are still living there, which means the number of kodukushi cases will only increase. The problem for UR is that Japanese people are very averse to living in places where people have died. In fact, there’s a law that says if you are selling your house and someone died there either by foul play or suicide, you have to mention it to perspective buyers. (If it was natural causes you’re off the hook.) UR, or at least the part of UR that covers Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures, has taken the bull by the horns, as it were, and is actually offering “special rental apartments” where the previous tenant died on the premises, called tokubetsu boshu jutaku, at half price for one or two years. So if you don’t believe in ghosts or aren’t otherwise superstitious, there are bargains to be had.

Most of these available units are older, less appealing places, but, for instance, a 2DK in Koto Ward in Tokyo, which would normally rent for ¥80,000 a month, is now available for ¥40,000 a month for at least a year. If you go further out to Machida, you can get a 2DK for as little as ¥30,450. And keep in mind that the security deposit (there is no key money or agent fees for UR), which is usually three months rent’s worth, is also based on this half-price. You can browse these units on the UR home page, but you have to apply for them in person at a UR sales office.

Annals of Cheap: Super Hotel

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

The new Super Hotel in Okachimachi, which opens Apr. 29

The new Super Hotel in Okachimachi, which opens April 29

A government-sponsored marketing conference called Service Productivity and Innovation for Growth conducted a survey in Japan earlier this year that attracted some 100,000 respondents, who were supplied with the names of 291 service-related companies comprising 29 industry sectors. They were asked to rate these companies for 100 separate criteria in order to determine “high customer satisfaction.” The number one company, with 82.3 average points, was Oriental Land, which runs Tokyo Disneyland.

At number 13 was Super Hotel, the highest ranking accommodation-related business (though Oriental Land does operate Disney Resorts), even higher than the Imperial Hotel. In a way, it’s an unfair comparison. The infamously expensive Imperial is a “city hotel” while Super Hotel runs a chain of 94 “business hotels.” Anyone who has stayed in both knows the difference: city hotels stress comfort while business hotels stress convenience and economy.

However, even among business hotels Super is special, which explains its high rating. People were just surprised at how good it was for the price, and the price is pretty amazing: as low as ¥4,900 a night for a single room, including breakfast (Japanese or Western). In most of the bigger cities the price is comparably more expensive, but not much. Tokyo, for instance, has nine Super Hotels (10 on Apr. 29, when the Super Hotel in Okachimachi opens), the most expensive of which is in Shimbashi (¥9,000 single) and the cheapest of which is Kameido (¥6,490 single). And when you start going to double and triple rooms, called Super Rooms, the savings get better. A single at the Hakodate Super Hotel is ¥5,480, a double is ¥7,480, and a triple ¥8,480. If you reserve a single room for a whole month in Hakodate you can get it for ¥3,980 a day.

Is it worth it? If you’ve ever stayed at a business hotel, with their tiny windows, plastic “unit baths” and lack of elbow room, you know what to expect, but Super Hotels, which started in Osaka in 1989, offers a little bit more because of its policy of not sweating the extraneous stuff. All the beds are semi-doubles, 34 of the hotels have free public baths (which tend to get raves from regulars), and many rooms have free Internet access. The extraneous stuff they feel you can do without include air conditioning in the elevators and hallways, personnel (the front desk is only manned, depending on the hotel, from 7-10 a.m. and 3-12 p.m.), and guest room telephones. Also, guests prepay for their rooms, usually via vending machines in the lobby, and many of the hotels do not take credit cards.

But Super Hotels is obviously a progressive company. Several branches have rooms and even floors that are exclusively for female guests, and two hotels, one in Fuji City and another in Takamatsu, are completely smoke-free. Also, some are aiming for the tourist market, like the Super Hotel in Nara, with a more upscale atmosphere built around the eco-marketing concept called Lohas.

Super Hotel also has an English Web site.

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 →


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