Expensive bubbles

Soapbox time.  Tokyo has a reputation as an expensive city – a reputation that gets echoed repeatedly.  The most recent example of this was in Businessweek recently,  when Tokyo picked up the gong for #1 most expensive city in the world.

But is it true?  Is Tokyo prohibitively expensive?

No.  It doesn’t have to be.

Of course Tokyo can be a expensive city, if you so choose.  The reality is that if you live like the locals do, Tokyo is not nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be.  Let’s look at some of the claims of the article.

Lunch at a restaurant: $18*

Actual cost: $6 – $12.

$18 might be a Western-style upmarket eatery with cloth napkins and white wine.  At the restaurants I go to with my co-workers every day, which are uniformly excellent Japanese-style establishments, the most expensive set lunches cost 1000 yen (~$12.00).  A more typical example is the generously-sized, outstanding pad thai I had today for 700 yen (~$8.50).

…according to restaurant surveyor Zagat, dinner with a glass of wine plus tip in Tokyo costs $94, on average.

Firstly, Tokyo does not have a tipping culture as standard.  I believe you can tip for absolutely outstanding service (the purpose of a “gratuity” anyway), but it’s rare.  As for a $94 average for dinner – sure, there are high-end dining experiences in Tokyo running hundreds of dollars, but you don’t have to pay anywhere near this for a brilliant dining experience.  Meat on a stick, edamame beans, beers and a great atmosphere will set you back between $15 – $30 a person.


Source: Kobakou on Flickr

Movie ticket: $22*

This is true – going to the movies is expensive in Tokyo.  Still, cinemas are a discretionary expense, and DVD rental shops are practically begging you to loan DVDs at $3 overnight for a new release and $1 for a weekly.  Late night session discounts, “ladies day” and the first of every month sees cinema prices discounted down to about $12.

…rent for a two-bedroom apartment for expats is typically more than $5,000 per month in Tokyo…

Perhaps the key phrase here is “for expats”.  There are real estate agents in Tokyo set up specifically for cashed-up expats.  They’d be delighted to show you insanely over-priced rentals if you don’t know any better, or can’t find someone to help you with language issues.  If you’d like to live in a furnished apartment in the exclusive area inside the Yamanote ring line, you’ll pay for it.  Likewise, if you’d like a great deal of unnecessary space in your apartment, you’ll pay for it.  Once again, live like the locals do, live where they do, and you’ll be paying somewhere between $1000 and $2000 a month for a nice, if not extravagantly spacious, place.

For convenience, King shops at expatriate grocery stores, where goods sell at a premium, and it is not uncommon for him to pay $50 for a steak.

It shouldn’t be surprising that if you buy imported goods, you’ll pay a lot more for them.  Go to the same supermarkets as everyone else, and the prices are far more reasonable.  It’s also true that steak is expensive in Tokyo.  Other cuts of meat, smaller parts or the type you’d use in stir fry, are priced reasonably. Fish, too, is cheap, and is more of a staple of Japanese diets.

So, I’d summarise the article like this.  If you refuse to integrate into Japanese culture at all, and insist on creating your own little bubble of the West in Tokyo, then yes, your Japanese experience is going to be expensive.  Otherwise, you can have a great time in Tokyo for not too much money.  For an extreme version of living frugally in Tokyo, this guy tries to survive for one month on $400.

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You pogo’ed your way… right into my heart.

Spotted at Sega Joypolis at Odaiba: “Hopping Road”, which could well be called “Pogo: The Video Game”.

I know, reducing the chance of serious injury seems to completely miss the point of pogo-ing, but these kids seem to be having a blast:

I, of course, am far too dignified to play such a silly game… while anyone else is watching.

Blurry childhood memories

The cut-throat restaurant competition in Tokyo is great for diners.  Well-designed, tasteful restaurant interiors.  Relatively low prices for very generous, high-quality servings.  And my favourite, the need to stand out from the pack by making out-and-out bizarre culinary creations.

Yes, to separate your yakatori (meat-on-a-stick) shop from all the other nearby meat-on-a-stick shops, you’ll want one or more signature dishes or drinks to set yourself apart.  One of my favourite pastimes is ordering these dishes with not a lot of idea of what they comprise of beforehand.  Eighty percent of the time, I’m pleasantly surprised.  The other twenty percent, I’m surprised and delighted:

A popsicle immersed in generous helping of booze – something the whole family can enjoy together.  Once the sweet flavours of the ice have infused into the alcohol, Dad can hand it off to his son as a very special treat.

This was perhaps the perfect summer drink.  After two weeks of temperatures in Japan well over 30 degrees, flavoured ice floating in some kind of mysterious liquid was just the thing to escape.  The popsicle sends you back to your childhood; the alcohol lets you believe you used to be a lot more attractive back then.

Viable panty lies

“Hey, is this true, this thing I heard about Japan?”
“What?”, I say, “What is that thing you heard about Japan?”
“I heard you can buy used schoolgirl panties from vending machines! Honest! A guy I know read it on the Internet!”

I think the “used panty vending machine” story is up the top of the list of questions I get about Japan. While having all the hallmarks of an urban myth, it’s true!

That is, it was true. Maybe. Some claim it was a strictly ’90s phenomenon before the machines got shut down. Others claim the reports come from illiterate Westerners, who can’t tell the difference between clean and used underwear being vended. In any case, if used panty vending machines still exist today, there’s no obvious evidence of them in Tokyo.

Or is there? Spied last weekend: an ordinary-looking vending machine in plain sight near my house:

Which on closer inspection – yes – contains panties!

Oh, regular pantyhose. That’s probably kind of convenient. I guess it’s a little quirky. Sort of.

How disappointing.

Night of the living red (snapper)

You may have heard that Japanese people eat a lot of fish.  It’s a staple of the diet, which quite makes sense when you live on a chain of islands.  You can probably imagine, then, that Japanese people are quite particular when it comes to eating sea life, and they’re particularly particular about how fresh it is.

How fresh does it need to impress Japanese people?  How about the remains of a mostly-filleted fish, literally gasping its last next to the sashimi it’s less-than-willingly just provided to you?  Warning, the following movie is not for the squeamish or animal lovers, though mercifully, the insides of the fish are obscured by some kind of garnish.

I have added some subdued background music to hide the actual soundtrack of my girlish screaming at the horror of it all.  Due to said horror, I didn’t partake in eating the fish itself – though strangely, I was somewhat okay about eating the other varieties of sashimi that belonged to other fish we couldn’t see.

The brain is a wonderful organ when it comes to making flimsy justifications and overlooking conflicts in values.  I consider myself someone who would be unable to hurt an animal, yet I eat meat almost daily.  The reason I can eat animals is that they’re presented abstractly, placed on a white foam tray, rather than looking anything like the recently deceased former owner.

I have a theory that Japanese people are far more at ease with knowing exactly where their food comes from than I am, at least.  I showed the movie above to multiple Japanese people, and none even slightly recoiled.  “Wow, that’s pretty fresh.  Looks good.”

Becoming vegetarian is one option to avoid my conundrum.  However, the nominally Buddhist country of Japan is a surprisingly challenging place to go vegetarian.  Although meat portions are in far lower volume than in Western cuisine, they are pervasive in lots and lots of dishes.

Anyone who lives in Japan, don’t argue with me on this.  My not going vegetarian is hinging on my flimsy, poorly researched rationalisation that it would be a difficult thing to do.  Don’t ruin this for me.

Pass me the tissues (whether I like it or not)

You want to get people to come to your new store in the competitive retail market of Tokyo, but what’s a cheap way to let commuters know you exist?  Pamphlets?  Please, no-one reads those.  The trick in Tokyo is add some utility to your ad by printing your pamphlet on a small pack of cellophane-wrapped tissues.

Then, recruit some people to hand them out to passers-by, hopefully driving up visitors to your beauty salon / pachinko parlour / restaurant.  People like this person:

While waiting for a connection at the train station, I watched this guy for about ten minutes prowling around the peak-hour throngs for marks.  There was something about his enthusiasm in the face of concentrated, fierce indifference which was inspiring and saddening at the same time.

It’s definitely not an easy game, and I even feel sorry for the people who do this to earn a few bucks.  Of course, you’re not the only one with free tissues on offer, and Tokyoites have become quite immune to proffered paper goodies.  The usual response is:

…being totally ignored.  No eye contact, no polite refusal, not even a subtle hand gesture or awkward half-smile and a whispered “Thanks, but…”.  An utter refusal to acknowledge that the person with their hand stretched out in front of you exists.

Of course, for hardened Tokyo dwellers, this attitude can prove hazardous overseas.  While in Sydney for a conference with a Japanese co-worker, we cut through the perfume section of a department store.  Following a couple of feet behind him, I watched him glide through the store, using his instilled technique of looking neither left nor right at the ladies politely offering him fragrance samples.  For his troubles, the back of his head experienced the fearsome radiation of a room-full of death stares.

To summarise: free tissues – advertising; Tokyoites – immune to free tissues featuring advertising; putting yourself into the shoes of a continually shunned tissue hander-outerer: kind of depressing.