For students and professionals just starting their careers in pricey Tokyo, finding ways to economize is a must. Unfortunately, the cost of housing in the city means a lot of young singles end up in pretty cramped living quarters. In my old apartment, the only refrigerator I could cram into the place was so small there wasn’t enough room to keep both my beer and my drinking water chilled. For the record, it takes about two months to get used to drinking lukewarm H2O.
This lack of space also makes it difficult to stock up on groceries to use in cooking your own lunch to bring to school or the office. As a result, many people buy bento, boxed lunches with rice and some sort of side dish. You can get passable bento at any convenience store, and in recent years even some full-fledged restaurants have started selling them on the sidewalks of business districts in the afternoons.
Bento tend to be somewhere in the range of 500-1,000 yen (US$5-10) though, so the cost really adds up if you’re buying one a day. Trying to cut our expenses even further, we sent our reporter out with 500 yen and a mission: go get lunch, and bring back change.
Our correspondent set out to find the absolutely dirt-cheapest, rock-bottom bento, with the condition that neither of those earthy materials actually be present in the boxed lunch. He found what he was looking for in Tokyo’s Taito Ward, near the Namidabashi intersection.
Rolling up in the late afternoon, our man saw a group of locals stretched in front of a tiny little bento shop. Figuring this many old men must have acquired the wisdom in their collectively long lives to know what they’re doing, he got in line. A sign in front of the shop listed their afternoon hours as being from 4:40 to 6:20, although the regulars told our reporter that the store staff also takes sporadic days off.
A quick look at the menu was all our correspondent needed to know his search was over. At just 130 yen (US$1.30), the shop’s seaweed bento is probably not only the cheapest boxed lunch in Tokyo, but in all of Japan.
Even the more extravagant menu items, such as bento with ginger pork or fish, we shockingly cheap, with the most expensive item on the menu being just 390 yen. We were here to eat the cheapest of the cheap, though, and so we went with the seaweed bento.
The name is actually misleading, as you actually get a little more than just seaweed. The set also comes with some stewed vegetables and slices of fish sausage. The serving of rice is also pretty generous, and given the pittance of a price, this is just the thing for hungry students looking to stave off starvation.
If you’re in the mood to splurge, you can move one step up the ladder with the fried egg or raw egg bento, each of which are 160 yen.
We’re a little disappointed that you don’t get any sort of price break by saving the owner the trouble of having to cook the egg for you, but when you’re paying less than what you would for a coke in a restaurant, you really can’t complain that much. Actually, cracking the fresh egg over the rice and mixing it with the provided soy sauce makes for a surprisingly fortifying, if somewhat gooey, meal.
After eating your fill, you may want to take a stroll over to the nearby Sky Tree, Tokyo’s tallest structure. Sure, if you just bought one of these bento, a ticket up to its observation platform probably isn’t in your budget, but it doesn’t cost anything to enjoy the view of the tower from below. Sometimes, the best things in life are free, and sometimes they’re 130 yen.
[ Read in Japanese ]