Tokyo - bargain shopping and dining

Tokyo is a large and fascinating city with a lot on offer. Consumerism running wild can be seen in Akihabara Electric Town. Fast food can be tasty and cheap. Coffee shops are the flavour of the month and caffeine lovers can take advantage of battle between the brands.


Tokyo - bargain shopping and dining

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

For the absolute must-see highlights of Tokyo my Essential Highlights journal which deals with sights that could be seen in three days, or even two if you are in a real rush and moving fast. However, there is much more to see if you have time to linger.

Akihabara is the heart of electronic shops in Tokyo and worth a visit just to see the awesome selection available. Here is the absolute latest in technology available to the consumer - often months before it reaches other shores. 

Ueno Park is a major attraction and an important part of Tokyo. Some of the museums here are world class and the zoo is fun for kids too.

Kappabashi Street make an interesting side trip from Asakusa to see the restaurant equipment and plastic food models, which make nice souvenirs too.

Tokyo is still the world’s most expensive city but you can cut down on costs by eating cheaply and visiting the 100-yen shops for souveniers.

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Eating in Tokyo should present little problems to the international traveler. Menus are almost always posted outside and many are in English too. Many restaurants have plastic examples of the dishes on offer in the window and you can simply point to what you fancy.

Although Tokyo has a well-deserved reputation for being expensive, budget dining is possible. Lunch is generally much cheaper than dinner for the simple reason that people stay shorter during lunch and, depending on the establishment, two to six people can fill the same seat in an hour. Spend more than ten minutes in the local ramen shop and you’re lingering rudely if there is a queue waiting. Lunch sets often include salad, dessert and coffee in addition to the main course - coffee on its own can easily set you back yen 700 ($6). The busiest time is just after 12:00 and this is a good time to do some scouting and see which establishments are popular enough for people to queue up for. By 1:00 the pace will be slower but the same lunch bargain will still be available until around 2 pm.

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In Tokyo, it is usually best to use the excellent subway and railway system for longer distances. In Central Tokyo, fares are surprisingly low for a first world country. The service is excellent with on time arrivals and frequent trains. All stations in central Tokyo use an abundance of English. Tickets are purchased at machines either for single journeys or you could buy a prepaid SF card, which will automatically deduct the fare as you go through the wicket gates.

The majority of Tokyoites do not own cars, which make Tokyo’s public transport not only essential for the smooth functioning of this megapolis but also makes walking easy. People in Tokyo walk a lot and generally pretty fast. Bicycles are less often seen in the central parts of Tokyo but are a menace around stations in outlying suburbs.

Taxis are fairly expensive but the drivers are honest and change is always given. Over shorter distances taxis may be economical if you travel in a group of three or four. Taxis are hailed in the street and stop anywhere although rumor has it that stopping in the middle of busy road crossings is actually illegal.


Yoshinoya

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

The orange signs of Yoshinoya are omnipresent in Tokyo. With close to 800 shops in Japan, Yoshinoa is one of Japan’s most popular fast food outlets. You can find Yoshinoya from worker class areas all the way to posh Ginza.

The selection of food is rather limited. The main dish is beef bowl, which consists mainly of slivers of beef with onion served on rice. The medium bowl currently goes for yen 280 (about $ 2) and to the basics you can add pickles, miso soup and salads. You can also add salmon for a "Salmon Set" which includes salmon, beef bowl, soup, salad and pickles.

Breakfast sets are also available from 05:00 to 10:00. If you are brave (VERY brave) try the Natto set (fermented bean curd). Most breakfast sets include egg - of course served raw in a bowl on the side!

From 06:00 to 24:00 beer and sake are also served. There is a limit of three drinks per person as this is a fast food outlet not a bar. That said in most Yoshinoya’s you sit at a bar-like counter with one person running around behind the counter to fetch the food from the kitchen. As with most Japanese restaurants you pay the cashier, and not the server, after the meal. Your bill will be placed on the table and adjusted every time you add items to your order leaving you free to get up, pay and go anytime you are ready. Yoshinoya is fast food - if you spend more than 15 minutes you are lingering, which is rude if there is a queue outside. However, if you go outside lunch hour (12:00 - 13:00) things are much quieter and no one will rush you.

Yoshinoya has picture menus so it is easy to just point. Sometimes the reverse of the menu is in English but not always. Many of the employees in Yoshinoya and other fast-food outlets in Japan are students on part time jobs and many of them speak very good English so try first before going into mime.

Beef bowl in a Yoshinoya will never be confused with a kaiseki dinner in an expensive restaurant but it does make a more interesting alternative to McDonalds, the other major player on the bargain fast food field in Tokyo.

Yoshinoya
6-1-6 Roppongi
Tokyo, Japan, 106-0032
+81 (0)3 5772 6253

Hello Kitty

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by becks on May 8, 2002

Officially Hello Kitty was born on 1 November in suburban London, England, weighing the same as three apples. She likes small, cute things, candy, stars, goldfish, etc. Kitty is a cheerful, warm-hearted little girl. Baking cookies is her forte, but what she enjoys most is eating a slice of Mama's apple pie! Kitty and her twin sister Mimmy are the best of friends.

Hello Kitty is the brainchild of Sanrio Corporation and thus making her a thoroughbred of Japanese creativity and marketing despite residing in suburban London. Hello Kitty was a runaway success from her creation in 1974 onwards and has spawned over 100 support characters – each with its own biography, birthday and whatever a character needs to get on in life.

Little girls in Japan – and increasingly in other Asian countries and even other continents - have a fascination with Hello Kitty and her support cast. They usually outgrow this by their teens but for some women it continues well into their late 20s. By then many have their own children and can presumably continue the craze masked as entertainment for their babies. Truth be told it is somewhat disconcerting to meet a women in her late 40s in a Hello Kitty shop all dressed up in Hello Kitty stuff and speaking like a little girl. Many of the stuff being sold in Hello Kitty shops clearly aim at an older audience than little girls.

In a Hello Kitty shop you can basically dress your whole world from the cradle to the grave in Hello Kitty merchandise. The range is awesome and would do many a department store pride. There are the obvious like all the paraphernalia usually associated with babies and little girls, then it moves into books, make-up and clothes. The options are limitless – sheets, towels, hair driers, electric desk fans, microwave and toaster ovens.

Hello Kitty is being sold practically everywhere in Tokyo. The two official Sanrio shops are in Ginza and Shinjuku but all department stores stock the stuff and many supermarkets and discount stores as well. Smaller shops selling nothing but Hello Kitty are also found in most neighborhoods. The 100-yen shop in Roppongi is usually reliable to have a small supply of bargain Hello Kitty stuff as well. Occasionally McDonalds run out of Olympic Games and World Cup events to sponsor and push Hello Kitty dolls instead to draw the crowds in – many a Hello Kitty doll dressed up in anything from jeans to Kimono were bought at less than $3 during these promotions to warm little hearts all over the globe.

If you expect a baby in Japan there is basically no need to buy Hello Kitty stuff prior to delivery to keep up with the Joneses (or Suzukis). Friends and colleagues will set you up with enough of the paraphernalia to see your child into Kindergarten at the very least.

Ginza Shopping District
Ginza-4-chome Chuo-ku
Tokyo, Japan, 104-0061
+82 (0)3 3201 3331

Anime & Manga Shops

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by becks on May 8, 2002

The Japanese are generally big readers. Traveling on the Tokyo subway at any hour and a large percentage of the commuters will be reading – books are more convenient and easier to read than newspapers in the crowded trains but the reading material of choice for half of Tokyo’s commuters is manga.

Manga is basically cartoons and almost everyone of any age in Japan reads them. A closely related genre is anime – short for Japanese animated movies but the characters often spawn their own manga for those places where reading is more appropriate than watching videos. However, the two frequently blend and intertwine.

Anime / manga usually have deeper character development than standard Western comics. In addition the character set is not simply divided into goodies and baddies. Themes are often from problems in daily life rather than superheroes saving the planet.

Anime / manga are classified according to the content and intended audience. Shoujo aims at schoolgirls – the themes are romance and everyday life. Shounen aims at schoolboys – character development and romance are limited and the emphasis is on action and fighting. Seinen targets specific interest such as hobbies, work or sports. Yaoi is a peculiar group aimed at women although the main stories center on the relationships between two or more men – not necessarily sexual.

Hentai is Japanese for pervert and forms a big subculture in manga and anime. The target audience is mainly male, the stories are usually rather shallow and the emphasis is on mindless sex – often forced, violent and degrading especially, but not exclusively, towards women. To reflect real life, relationships and sex form an integral part of many, if not most, manga but not all are hentai. It would be wise to check out things thoroughly before buying or giving away as presents especially to children.

Manga can be bought almost anywhere. Every convenience store, bookshop and kiosk stock them. Outside major stations there are usually stalls selling second hand ones in perfect condition at steep discounts. Commuters often leave them behind on the trains.

The best areas to shop for anime are around the major commuter stations such as Shinjuku, Shibuya, Ikebukuro, Nakano and Akihabara. Akihabara is especially strong on anime as it is also the center of Tokyo’s electronic shops including computers and video games, which are often an extension of the anime concept.

For a non-commercial site with a map to major anime shops in Tokyo try http://www.cuso4.com/guide/ - this may well be the only anime website in existence without commercials! For a vast knowledgebase on anime try anime-genesis - it has lot of information ranging from basic to advanced. For more specialized information do an Internet search but be warned, fans of manga and anime also seem to have an irritating fascination with advertisements and pop-up windows!

Anime & Manga Shops
Main trainstations
Tokyo, Japan

Pokemon Centre

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by becks on May 8, 2002

On 17 December 1997 millions of mothers around the world claiming watching TV is bad for your health were finally proven to have been correct all along. During Episode No 38 of the hugely popular Pokemon (Pocket Monsters) TV anime show on TV Tokyo, "the heroes are inside a computer when an antivirus program attempts to delete them by firing missiles. Pikachu, the lead Pokemon, jumps forward, and with a blast of yellow light detonates the missiles and saves the group." Next thing Japan knew more than 700 children were hospitalized with epileptic like seizures. Apparently the flashing light strobes from Pikachu’s eyes affected persons susceptible to what is known as "television epilepsy". Repeats on TV newscasts of the eight seconds that caused the seizures in the first place sent another 200 people or so to the hospital – including a 58-year-old man! (For more on this episode see Forbidden Pokemon which also has a video clip of the episode!)

Despite this episode Pikachu and his other Pokemon friends’ popularity has not been dented one bit – Pokemon probably reached its peak only a year or more later. Pikachu is king of anime and he is omnipresent in Tokyo. Pokemon was originally a Nintendo Gameboy video game but has since been seen in film, TV series, music recordings, books, magazines, more games and basically any other merchandise able and willing to pay the royalty fees. He adorns everything from toothbrush holders to electric guitars. He is seen on baby bottles, cell phone straps, beach towels, magazines, potato chips, clothes and of course the whole range of action figures and soft toys.

Pokemon trading cards are popular world wide and many a foreign visitor to Tokyo had to buy cards with Japanese writing for nephews and nieces back home – somehow these children learnt the basic capitalist theory of demand and supply young as they realized Japanese cards can be traded outside Japan for more than the local ones!

The official Pokemon Centre in Tokyo (Kawasaki Sandori Building, Nihonbashi, Tel: 03-5200-0707) used to be so popular during the late 1990s that people had to queue for hours to get in. Nowadays entry is far easier as Pokemon characters can be bought at so many different places. However, for new releases parents still have to queue at times at the official shops.

A visit to Pokemon Centre will send most children instantly into seventh heaven. In Japan very few merchandise is displayed behind glass and children can pick up, touch and play with practically anything and chase their parents wallets throughout the shop. There are always working models on display and you’ll be stunned how fast a child can work out how to operate a Gameboy in Japanese with no English instructions available.

Note, however, that non-Japanese versions of Pokemon games, books and videos are generally not sold in Japan. The toys and other paraphernalia are of course freely available.

Pokemon Centre
Nihonbashi
Tokyo, Japan

Akihabara Electric Town

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

Akihabara is known as "Electric Town" - it is here that the biggest concentration of electronic stores in Tokyo is found. The competition is cut throat and prices generally much lower than elsewhere in Tokyo. Few Tokyoites will consider a major electronic purchase without first visiting Akihabara. It is also the place to go for the latest in anime and video games.

In Japan a new model of a kitchen appliance comes on the market at least every year. For televisions, video cameras, video machines and stereos, a model is old after six months. For PC and PC peripherals the lifespan is even shorter and for some cellular phones it can be as short as five weeks! You may find electronic cheaper back home but unlikely newer. In large stores, which often have several branches in Akihabara such as Llaox, Sato Musen, Yamagiwa and Ishimaru, you can see and compare the latest models from all major Japanese manufacturers.

The love for the new often means that the old can be had for a song. Literally thousands of smaller stores sell these "last year’s models" for much cheaper than the flashier stores with the up to the minute models.

Right in front of JR Akihabara station is a kind of component market. Hundreds of minute stores, some not bigger than a seat for the owner and tens of boxes with thousands of small components are squashed in together in a small crowded area. Aisles are narrow and with stuff hanging from the ceilings taller people have to duck from time to time but you can get practically anything used in any electronic or electric device here. Need an adapter for a Dell notebook cable to plug a small South African standard three-point plug into a Japanese two-point outlet? Email me - I can cut your search down from more than 20 stalls that I had to visit to just one!

Shops in Akihabara tend to open late - at 10:00 am the place is still virtually dead. Best is to arrive at 11. Shops stay open until about 20:00. Like the rest of Tokyo

Akihabara is best reach by JR Chuo or Yamanote lines. There is an Akihabara subway station but it spews you out at the wrong end of the JR station and you are in for a long walk on pedestrian unfriendly roads. Best is to use the Ginza subway line to Suehirocho Station, which takes you to the computer shop end of Akihabara. Consumer electronic and electric devices dominate the area closer to the JR station.

People go to Akihabara to shop not to eat so the choice of restaurants in this area, although improved the last couple of years, remains dismal. Apart from some fast food outlets and a few coffee shops the choice is pretty unappetizing and it is better to head elsewhere at meal times.

Akihabara
Soto-kanda 1,3 & 4-chome Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo, Japan, 101-0021
+81 (0)3 3201 3331 (

Llaox

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

Competition in Akihabara is cutthroat but Llaox has managed to be king of the hill for most of the past decade. There are 11 Llaox stores in Akihabara with Duty Free and export models available at the Main Store and the Duty Free Kaikan - both directly opposite the JR Akihabara station.

Prices in Llaox are reasonable and you have the guarantee of a big store name behind every purchase. There will be no quibbling and blame on the customer first if you want to exchange a product and service is excellent. I once had a problem with a new stereo and the shop sent a technician to my home that took only one look before unloading a new one from the truck. Personnel at the duty free floors are knowledgeable and fluent in English and often several other languages as well. Products on sale are the latest available and in Japan new on the market seldom applies to anything older than six months. Products in the duty free sections come with English manuals and international warrantees. It is fun to visit the Japan product floors as well to see what is available there - often the digital cameras will be even smaller and a good indication of what will be available in the international market in the coming months.

It may be possible to find some cheaper deals if you work your way through the myriad of shops in Akihabara especially if you are willing to buy an older model, but the search may be time consuming. By buying at Llaox you can be certain that the product is the latest available and that the price will be very fair.

In the main, duty free and digital kaikan you can buy from kitchen appliances to the latest video cameras and cheap souvenirs. There are also five computer stores - Computer Kaikan, Mac Kaikan, Network Kaikan, PC Outlet and Computer Game Kaikan. In addition there are a smaller Watch & Camera Kan and a Musical Instruments store.

If you have your passport on you and purchases exceed yen 10,000, you will not be charge 5% sales tax. Llaox can ship to your home or hotel or even Narita Airport if you prefer.

Llaox
Akihabara, Chiyodaku - 11 locations here
Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Coffee shops

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

Japan is one of the world’s largest coffee consumption nations. Traditionally the Japanese prefer their coffee strong. Coffee shops are often a haven to escape from the rat race and a place to linger over a strong and expensive cup of coffee. In an old style coffee shop a cup of coffee will set you back at least yen 700 ($ 6) and the $10 cup is not hard to find. However, such coffee shop may be a specialist in brewing the perfect cup and have the right ambiance to draw regular crowds. Big windows don’t feature - the idea is to leave the crowds behind and to find peace and tranquility. Conversation is often hushed.

There are many cheaper options in lesser settings. For the past two decades this end of the market was dominated by Doutor, which still consistently produces the best quality coffee at a reasonable price. Doutor’s yellow signs are a presence in almost every street block in Tokyo. The coffee is good, served in a porcelain cup and a limited selection of freshly produced sandwiches is available. Knowing their customers the non-smoking section can be particularly small and I have more than once seen a smoker put his ashtray neatly on top of the non-smoking sign of the table.

However, an invasion of foreign coffee shops such as Starbucks, Tully’s and Segafredo has changed the landscape dramatically in the past five years. Starbucks’ success - new shops are opening seemingly daily - is probably the hardest to understand: their coffee is universally weak and all shops are non-smoking - both factors that fly in the face of traditional coffee shops in Japan. In addition the shops are airy with enormous windows letting in not only natural light but also allow customers to see the passersby! It has also become acceptable to drink coffee from a paper cup rather than a porcelain one - something that many Japanese customers still find odd.

Domestic competition has fought back against the foreign invasion and invested large sums in modernizing establishments and even creating new brand names. Excelsior is the modern looking version of Doutor and was even sued by Starbucks to change the color of its lettering from green to blue. The Royal restaurant group has opened a chain of Café Croissant shops with freshly prepared sandwiches to compete with Starbuck’s rather dismal selection of soggy sandwiches and overpriced pastries.

It still remains to be seen if the new boom in coffee shops in Tokyo will stand the test of time or whether it is just the flavor of the month. In the late 1990s faux French coffee shops were all the rage in Tokyo but the craze has exacerbate - it is now so last century! The new style is more modern and American. Maybe less ambiance but the prices have come down as well.

Tokyo Coffee Shops
Throughout Tokyo
Tokyo, Japan

Kappabashi Avenue

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

Kappabashi dori is where you head to in Tokyo if you are planning to open a restaurant. In this street you can literally buy anything you may ever need to set up a restaurant or an advanced kitchen.

From a tourist’s perspective, the most interesting stores are those selling the plastic models of food that are often displayed outside restaurants in Tokyo. These models resemble the food available in restaurants to the finest detail - it is hard to work out whether the restaurants first buy the display and then decide how to present the food or the other way round. Both methods are used but to have a special model made of your presentation of course demands a premium. In such a case a restaurant has its dishes prepared and photographed and exact plastic replicas are made for the display window. These plastic food displays make cute souvenirs but are not cheap - the quality of craftsmanship is high and so is the quality of the materials, as some will be displayed in the sun behind glass for years to come.

Apart from the plastic food several shops here also sell real food and especially sauces and condiments. It is also possible to buy cooking instruments of a wide variety and obscure purpose of all sizes and qualities. Larger items such as cookers, display cases, fridges and even restaurant furniture are also on sale. Many stores have odds and ends of sets of plates and other porcelain and ceramic wares on sale at knockdown prices - wares displayed outside the shop on makeshift tables are a good indication that a bargain is to be had should you be willing to settle for 5 plates in stead of 6, etc. (In Japan 4 and its multiples (8 & 12) are associated with death so it is rare to see sets of 4 or 12 of anything. Giving someone a gift of 4 items is an easy way to end the friendship!

Kappabashi Dori is close to Asakusa and is often done as a side trip to Asakusa Kannon / Sensoji Temple. The closest subway station on the Ginza line is Tawaramachi, but walking from Asakusa would probably be faster than taking the train. It is two stops from Ueno and again walking wouldn’t be much slower but the road is fairly boring. Several Tokyo guidebooks erroneously describe Kappabashi as the road in which the Asakusa View Hotel and Rox building are located - this is in fact Kokusai dori and if you follow this advice you’ll go home disappointed! Kappabashi dori is the next major road about 200 m further away from Asakusa.

Kappabashi Avenue Shops
Kappasbashi Avenue
Tokyo, Japan

100-yen shops

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by becks on March 25, 2002

Tokyo is an expensive city to live and travel in. Even buying souvenirs for the folks back home can set you back a lot more than you were planning on, which is a shame because many people won’t realize how expensive a simple present from Japan actually is. However, in the late 1990s, with recession biting 100-yen shops suddenly hit the market and became hugely popular. Everything in these shops cost a 100-yen (OK 105 yen with tax, but 105 yen shops simply doesn’t have the same ring!). 100-yen is currently about $0.75.

These shops mainly aim at the domestic consumer with cheap plastic containers, household cleaners, some cosmetics, paper ware and kitchen utensils. However, sometimes it is possible to find pretty neat souvenirs here at a minimal price. Decorated chopsticks are a lot cheaper here than at the department stores and sometimes there are nice toys for younger children. Pottery and ceramics can be of a surprisingly high quality as well. The cheap cosmetics and large selection of notebooks and pens make nice gifts for older children.

It is important to note that the selection at each 100-yen shop differs. Some may have nothing of interest while others may be a treasure trove of potential low budget gifts. Just remember that sometimes you have to remove the Made in China or Made in India stickers before wrapping!

The shops are popping up all over Tokyo and although some are part of a chain not all are. However, all have signs of 100-yen coins as advertising boards on the outside. In addition 100-yen shops often move around - seemingly from one low cost rent building to the next. They often occupy buildings shortly before the buildings are due to be demolished or to be occupied by higher rent-paying customers. The size can also varies dramatically – from the five floor 100-yen Plaza in Shibuya to miniscule ones in Roppongi and Akasaka. The shop in Shibuya, in Bunkamura Dori close to Shibuya station, has a particular strong section on make up, cosmetics and accessories. The one in Roppongi, in Gaien Higashi Dori towards the Roi Building, usually has some Hello Kitty merchandise going for a song.

100 Yen Shops
Throughout Tokyo
Tokyo, Japan

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