Japanese Fast Food

My winning combination of cheap and restrained has meant I've never had a serious money problem before. Even when I was living in New York (okay, Brooklyn) and earning a sad, sad editorial assistant salary--I thought about sparing you the painful details, but what the heck? US$1,400 a month--I actually had savings. I know. I wonder if it's partially because I've never felt that allegedly typical girlie desire to splurge on things like accessories, shoes, and purses. I'm almost 28 and I still live in my getting-pretty-ick jeans and sneakers, and the only jewelry I wear is my wedding band.

I do have two weaknesses: books and food. But the answer to the former was, of course, that heavenly haven: the library. As for the latter, I figure that I have to eat anyway, so I might as well enjoy myself once in a while.

Then I came to Japan. I know how everybody says, Oh, Japan is so expensive. But I never really understood until I started living here. I've since been reduced to the type of person who crosses her fingers when I punch in an entreaty the amount I would really like to withdraw at the ATM. Technically, I can't complain because I could always become an English teacher--I won't call it easy money but it sure is good money. But I've already given my reasons as to why I won't go down that road.

I guess I just wanted to explain one last time why I'm living in this fun and wacky city called Tokyo but I never seem to actually report much on it. If you want to read up on all that's cool and new over here, then you'll have to find a blogger who can actually afford to experience all those cool new things. Me, I live in the Japanese equivalent of the 'burbs where the most happening thing is what wild flower is going to burst into bloom next.

As for food, when I can't bear one more can of tuna for dinner but I'm not feeling rich enough for grossly overpriced ramen (it's really good but it's just noodles, for the love of god, and maybe one stamp-sized sheet of nori, if you're lucky), I eat "local."

Nah, I'm not talking about some dark, quaint little izakaya where everyone in the neighborhood gathers late at night for beer and bad singing. I'm talking about Matsuya. What is this place? It's the ultimate salaryman hangout and the Japanese equivalent of fast food, only the pace of Matsuya makes McDonald's feel like leisure dining. Some people kind of sneer at Matsuya and its trademark bowl of rice topped with paper-thin, really cheap cuts of beef. I wouldn't suggest it without a laugh if my husband and I were thinking about grabbing a rare meal together. But I pretty much can't stand my own cooking and sometimes a meal at Matsuya bears just enough semblence to a "real meal" to pacify me. One disclaimer: Matsuya may be a chain, but the quality varies wildly from one location to the next. I very rarely eat at a Matsuya outside of my own neighborhood.

To give you a little taste of the cheapest meal you can get in Japan--well, it used to be something like 230 yen for a bowl of rice topped with beef, but after the whole BSE ruckus, now it's more; I always go for the curry anyway, which is 290 yen, oh yeah--allow me to present it à la "24," an intriguing-sounding new TV show that was recently imported for Japanese viewers (it appears to have potential, but why are all the white people on the show so...bleached?) (And while we're on the subject of American TV, are Monica and Chandler *ever* going to get married?).

24 (Seconds, That Is)

Jack Bauer has only four more hours to save Los Angeles from being nuked, um, again, and he's been running around Tokyo trying to find the bad guy. But if he doesn't get something to eat soon, he isn't going to be good for anything. His attention is caught by the blinding fluorescent light pouring out of a small Matsuya and, helplessly, he taps the glass doors, causing them to automatically spring apart.

The two young girls bustling about behind the long counter snap to attention like marionettes and cry "Welcome!" in soft but alarmingly high-pitched unison. One girl pours a steaming mug of tea and the other a frosty glass of water.

20:00:02 - 20:00:04
Jack, a regular at Matsuya because of his need for a hot meal served at lightening speed, drops coins into the vending machine by the door and punches the "salad" and "curry" buttons. Jack allows himself a millisecond to reminisce about the days before he could read easy Japanese and was forced to play eenie meanie minie moe with the machine, never knowing what he'd just bought himself.

Jack collects the two white tickets and sits down on a bar stool at the counter, placing the tickets in front of him.

The tea and water appear before him and the order on his two tickets are read out loud.

20:00:07 - 20:00:12
Girl A gets out a chilled bowl of salad. Girl B starts piling a plate with a motherload of rice from the mother of all rice cookers. Jack listens to his cellphone messages. His daughter has been kidnapped, um, again. Girl B ladles steaming miso soup into a black faux-lacquer bowl, then adds some wakame and julienned abura-age.

20:00:13 - 20:00:17
The second message is from the bad guy. He's got Jack's daughter and wants to meet. Girl A spoons chicken curry on the same plate as the rice, but off to one side, so it kind of resembles one of those giant black & white cookies that you always see in New York delis and that look yummy but never actually taste yummy, Jack thinks sadly.

20:00:18 - 20:00:20
Girl A adds a happy sprinkle of golden pickles to the plate of curry because Japanese curry always seems to be eaten with pickles, although any other place the pickles are usually a fuscia color, Jack muses.

Girl B sets salad down in front of Jack.

Girl A sets gargantuan plate of curry down in front of Jack.

Girl B sets down miso soup in front of Jack.

Jack regards the complete meal before him and wishes everything could happen that quickly and without complication. Jack picks up the spoon--because Japanese curry is always eaten with a spoon, nothing else--and hurriedly digs in.

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Ok, Rachel that was hilarious!

Can you do another post a la CSI, or that annoying travel show on OLN where the blond American girl spends the entire episode whinning about how difficult it is to find good help outside of New York.

*yes, of course they get married...but there's a twist. 

from Jaime

4/20/2005 10:18:00 PM  

Rachel, do you have weird mind-reading powers? Because I was SO just coming to your website to link to some things in my new post where I talk about Japan and how I am going to come there, and I wanted to ask you a bunch of annoying questions about how much things cost in Japan and what is it really like to live in Tokyo? But you beat me to the punch, with details. Amazing. I wanted to ask: can someone live on 168,000 yen a month, if that someone doesn't have to pay rent, utilities or health insurance? We have very similar lifestyles, it seems. I don't care about accessories or clothes or whatever else it is that people spend all their money on. I buy: books, food, plane ticket. In that order. (But also love the library!) Oops, I gotta go, soemone is at my door. :-) More later 

from jessica

4/21/2005 01:51:00 AM  

Thanks, Jane, but you know, I was only half jolking about being terribly outdated in terms of current TV knowledge. I've actually only watched two episodes of 24 and I know *of* CSI but not OLN--what is that, by the way?

Jessica, nope, thankfully I'm not a mindreader--because would you *really* want to know what people are thinking? Wow, are you thinking of coming to Japan just for a long visit or is this something more permanent? I will happily answer any question I possibly can. Think of me as your one-girl Google on life in Tokyo. Ask away.

Oh, I see, you've already asked some questions. Okay, then... Ahem.

Can someone live on 168,000 yen a month? Definitely. If you don't have to worry about rent, you're rich! Okay, in my world, you'd be rich. I guess how rich will depend on where you live and how much traveling around the city (by train) you will do. And how much delicious food you want to eat.

If you work, your employer *should* cover the commute--this is pretty big because if you live far away from the job, the trip both ways could cost you as much as 1,300 yen.  

from Rachel

4/21/2005 03:41:00 AM  

Ooh... thanks. I will gather up my questions into a legible bundle and begin the process of asking away. The job thing that I am thinking about would be 33 months, of which the first 6 are language study and the rest involve teaching English (augh! the menacing Teaching of English!) and working at a church. I will have to look into travel costs. Otherwise, hooray for being rich (by your/our standards). 

from jessica

4/21/2005 05:03:00 AM  

Hilarious! Almost jolted my foggy jet-lagged head into normal brainwave. But seriously, have you ever seen one single character on 24 eat Anything??


from Lynn

4/21/2005 10:06:00 PM  

You know, I was just thinking to myself, But that girl just started getting happy in Germany... Then I read your post. Well, I think I speak for all in Japan when I say, "We welcome you Jessica!" If you ever get bored or lonely when you're here, you can come visit any time.

Lynn, I guess they just don't have anything as fast as Matsuya in America, so, sorry, no eating.

from Rachel

4/21/2005 11:19:00 PM  

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