Some years back I read an unbelievable tale about gourmet lunches on the cheap in Tokyo. The story involved a convention-going medical doc who met the misfortune in expensive Japan -- a blocked credit card.
“No problem,” advised a Japanese colleague. “Go into any department store basement, pay about $2 for a toothpick. This will unlock samples from about 10 acres of specialty food stalls.”
I never get to Tokyo except to switch planes, but last year on Kyushu I wandered into the department store of a lesser city and asked where I could pay my $2.
“Oh, that's those Tokyo guys,” roared an onlooker with a hearty har-har. “Here it's free. Just walk around and graze.” It worked, and later in Osaka, it worked again.
The basement of a Japanese department store is a foodie's land of Oz. Like fencing masters lunging with an epee, vendors thrust toothpicks loaded with squid, broiled eel, ox giblets, grandma's okonomiyaki, raspbrry tofu and bean cakes. I faced nine yards of Korean kimchee that had my toothpick striking like a rattlesnake.
Candy wrapped in mint leaf, rolls filled with black currant, honey with an infusion of tastes including lavender, orange, chestnut, lemon, burgundy wine (for these tastes, a miniature spoon replaces the toothpick).
In this subterranean treasure trove, I found that the Japanese never found a root they couldn't cherish.
Even if you're not ready for the occasional dud (a candied furry green ball with a fish taste, for example), people-watching can consume an afternoon. The Japanese venders move purposefully in department stores and rail stations. For an onlooker, the crafting of red-bean cake presents a symphony of motion. Like a xylophone player running amok on the scales, the chef flips bean-filled biscuits along a lengthy grill. Warning: ingestion of dessert cakes filled with purplish bean paste is an acquired taste.
If you ever grow tired of penny-ante bites, purchase a plate of six veggies with a square of tofu for about a dollar. Japanese paper plates mimic Meissen china.