I like my soup like my laughter: canned

It’s gotten cold in Tokyo: not arctic cold, but enough to make everyone a little grumpy.

The perfect fix: hot tomato soup, just like Mama used to make!  I’m assuming your Mama made soup in a gigantic industrial vat, poured it into 200ml ring-pull cans and sold it to her children from vending machines.

For the princely sum of 120 yen, you can be quaffing a hot can of vended tomato soup in seconds.  And how is it?  Not too bad at all!

Sadly, while you can find hot corn soup in vending machines everywhere, I’ve only found this tomato soup in one vending machine in the whole of Tokyo, whose location I have promptly forgotten.

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The cheap beef bowl of doom

As your correspondent has written on this blog before, Tokyo isn’t nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be. You can live largish here on the cheap.  One reason? Deflation.

“Deflation?” you interject for the sake of narrative. “Awesome! Everything is cheap!”.  Actually, it’s not quite so awesome as that.

The Economics 101 class you mostly slept through taught you about price/wage spirals. One version goes like this.  For some reason – say, the end of a massive Japanese bubble economy in the 80’s – demand for goods falls, so prices get cheaper to attract customers. Manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits, so the amount of labour they can support falls. Competition for fewer jobs among workers increases, so workers are prepared to accept lower wages. With lower wages, consumers can’t buy as many goods, so demand for goods falls. Prices get cheaper, so manufacturers can’t achieve the same profits… and so on.

So what does this mean? Cheap beef bowls! The prices at Yoshinoya, the ubiquitous beef bowl chain, are a sign of the times.  By way of introduction, Yoshinoya is a great after-work dining choice for the illiterate and terminally single. Buy a ticket from a vending machine, hand it wordlessly to the attendant.  Inside a minute, he sets a tray in front of you with a steaming bowl of fried beef on a heaping of rice, along with pickles and miso soup. You eat it under a blanket of silence broken only by the dreary muzak.  You finish your complementary water, sitting alongside the clientele of exclusively male salarymen mournfully eating beside you.  You leave after the ten minutes it takes you to bolt it all down.  Utility eating at its finest.

Back to economics. When I came to Japan almost four years ago, you could buy the lonely set meal described above in Yoshinoya for about 580 yen (about $7 AUD). Now, the same set goes for about 500 yen ($6 AUD).  In the menu below, one of the bowls by itself starts at a very cheap $3.30 AUD.

The set below – a spicy Korean beef bowl plus vegetable miso soup and water – costs a grand total of 400 yen.  That’s around $4.80 AUD for a complete, filling meal, which is cheaper and nutritionally superior to what you can get at McDonalds.

Using the staple beef bowl as a price index is widely used as an informal economic indicator in Japan. If you want to read more about this exact topic, the New York Times has a feature which likely involves actual research and editing.

I grow my own stash

A normal Subway restaurant in Tokyo:

Or IS it?

Well, obviously not. In this Subway, they grow their own hydroponic lettuce for use in the store.  They call it “831 Lab“:

As far as I know, this is a special trial only run in a few stores.

The name “831 Lab” is interesting in itself.   Numbers in Japanese can be pronounced in various ways.  One way you can write 8-3-1 is Ya-San-Ichi, which you could shorten down to get “ya-sa-i”.  “Yasai” in Japanese means “vegetable”, so, 831 Lab is the “vegetable lab”.

The only word of French they knew was petite

Hmm, not much around the hotel in Nara for breakfast – might duck into the cheap-but-filling family restaurant next door (Japanese: fami-resu) to get some grub (Japanese: food).

Hmm, this french toast looks okay – it seems like a nice serving size , but is suspiciously cheap:

And then:

Very sneaky, graphic designer and photographer.  Apparently, I mistranslated the bit which said: “French Toast (scale: 1:2)”.  If I had known I was ordering a hobby kit rather than breakfast, I would have brought along my PVA glue.

No candy until you finish your booze

We’ve all enjoyed or made fun of wine in a box, but have you ever seen its more petite Japanese cousin?

Yes, these cheap and possibly nasty boxes of booze come in the same form as juices for kids.  Of course, that includes a straw.  The perfect size for lunchboxes, and compact enough to still leave room for loose cigarettes for contraband deals in the playground.

Just for the record, these wouldn’t be sold to kids, but obviously I’m not the only one who finds this mis-mash of adult drinks in kid-size portions disorienting.  The purple label beneath the shelf warns “THIS IS ALCOHOL”, suggesting this has caused problems in the past.

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.

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.