The first time I went to Japan I had $500, a bicycle and a rail pass to get me through a month of travel. I'd spent the year after college working in a bike shop and a taqueria to save for the trip; and there I was, staying in the attic of a narrow house full of bike messengers down a tiny ally in Kyoto.
At the time, I harbored ambitions of becoming a professional bike racer—no less a crazy plan than a life in fine art, which I'd studied in school—and all the training left me perpetually hungry. I subsisted mostly on $4 udon at stand-up noodle bars and convenience store snacks, on meals cooked at home with my new friends, and on the generosity of strangers eager to show hospitality to a foreigner. Occasionally, I splurged on kaiten zushi—the conveyor belt sushi that's priced by the plate (I stuck to the 99cent maki).
Across from the Circle K—the landmark for entering the network of alleyways that led to our house, where I bought onigiri (rice balls stuffed with morsels of fish or pickled vegetable) at least once a day—I discovered a place that looked like a diner. It was a kissaten, where a friendly older gentleman brewed coffee into teacups behind a counter with swiveling stools. He handed me a picture-menu of breakfast staples and I pointed to the one I wanted: ハニートースト.
It was love at first bite. Once or twice a week I'd blow most of my daily food budget there on a cup of coffee and something called honey toast: a thick slice of toasted milk bread, buttered, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with honey. It was the perfect breakfast for a 22-year-old with an athlete's metabolism. It was the perfect breakfast.
I was amazed when I returned to Japan almost a decade later that I could afford the train station bento boxes that had seemed out-of-reach (they cost about $12-$14). It's fun traveling with the means to eat well and sleep in a comfortable bed! But it was also fun to travel without.
For a nostalgic taste of being barely-of-age and nearly-broke on the adventure of a lifetime, make yourself some honey toast (ok, maybe a different food does that for you, but it will still be delicious). Toast a thick slice of fluffy white bread such as pan de mie. Butter it, put a little scoop of good vanilla ice cream on it, and drizzle it with honey. Eat it right away with a small cup of strong coffee, and relish every bite.