Eating on a Budget in Japan

It’s surprising how many people have the erroneous idea that eating in Japan costs a capital. When I was planning my trip to Japan, all my friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc used to marvel at how I was going to manage to save enough spending money to last me for a month (which is how long I spent in Japan), extrapolating on the high costs of food, restaurants and everything in general.

Needless be said, none of these people had ever gone to Japan.

Let me be clear – eating in Japan CAN be expensive. If you don’t care to try local food and make a bee-line for Western restaurants, if you think the only worthwhile food is found in expensive high-end sushi joints, or if you just stop and eat at the first place you see without actually taking a look at what’s available first, be prepared to see your cash flow out like a river. Western eateries are a luxury in Asian countries, so most of them are not cheap. The Japanese take their sushi very seriously and price quality of the fish above everything else, so high-end sushi places are bound to offer tasty morsels for quiet a pint of flesh (or a load of money). And it’s obvious that, no matter in which country you may find yourself, it is always best to take a look around before sitting down at the first restaurant you glimpse.

So, here are 6 sure ways you can eat yummy food in Japan while not spending a ton of money, and meanwhile sampling all the local delicacies this amazing country has to offer.

  1. Conbinis
Photo Source: thetruejapan.com

Conbinis, short for ‘convenience stores’, were our salvation in Japan. Be it a Lawsons, a 7Eleven, or a Family Mart, there was almost one on every street and corner of every major city. Chock-full with daily necessities, such as toiletries, stationery, or even umbrellas, Conbinis are a treasure trove of cheap ready-to-go food which is tasty while also being fresh and healthy. Sounds too good to be true right? There’s more. Conbinis offer both food which can be eaten cold, such as the delicious onigiri (rice balls), as well as food to be eaten hot, such as fried chicken or marinated pork. All of them are furnished with microwaves in which the attendants can heat your food for you to eat it there and then (there are appropriate benches and stools inside). Of course, all of the food can also be bought and eaten later as a take-away.

2. Underground Station Eateries

Onigiri bar at Tokyo Station
Onigiri bento box

As you are exploring cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, you will undoubtedly notice the many convenience stores, clothes shops, eateries, and sometimes even shoemakers or locksmiths, offering their services in the underground passages connecting different railways. It is almost another world where one can buy cheap clothes, not to mention eat a quick meal while travelling between one metro and another. To note are the delicious onigiri-bars, the traditional ramen-bars, not to mention a million and one places to eat various kinds of curry! You will also notice many professionals and business-persons having their lunch-break there around midday.

3. Street Food

Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo
Eating Strawberry daifuku at the Tsukiji Fish Market – Tokyo

Street vendors in their yatai (makeshift street-stalls) can be found at the corner of any street in such cities as Tokyo, Nara or Koto. The food is fresh and can vary from meat to fish, sweet delicacies such as daifuku, ice cream or pancakes.

While the random yatai can be found anywhere, there are also popular well-established markets which open everyday in particular streets. I fully recommend visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (which offers so much more than fish), Nishiki Market in Kyoto, the Higashimuki Shotengai Shopping Arcade in Nara and Kuromon Market in Osaka.

Nishiki Market – Kyoto
Nishiki Market – Kyoto

4. Izakaya Alleys

If you watch anime or Japanese movies, you must have surely seen at least one of the characters eat at one of these. These narrow lantern-lit alleys pepper Japanese cities and villages, providing an outlet for locals to eat cheaply in an informal atmosphere. They mostly come alive as the sun goes down, and serve as the meeting place of many colleagues and people who go to eat there after a day of work. Many Izakaya alleys are more about driking rather than eating, but of course, almost all of the small (sometimes almost shoddy) stalls and tiny small restaurants offer the whole experience of eating and drinking with the locals in their ‘natural setting’ so to speak.

The food is diverse, as is the drink, though you will of course find sake and local beer. Perhaps the soul of the Japanese people really does lie in these alleys. What’s sure is that the food in these local joints is cheap, plentiful and tasty.

If you’re in Tokyo, make sure to experience the nightlife by eating at least once at Omoide Yokocho in Shinjuku. Kyoto is famous for its Pontocho Alley and Osaka for its well-known Hozenji Yokocho.

Omoide Yokocho, Tokyo
Omoide Yokocho, Tokyo

5. Supermarkets

Spending a month in Japan did not mean eating out every single day. Since we did not spend the whole month in the same place, we obviously had different accommodations in different localities, and not all of these were hotels (in fact most of them weren’t). Staying in a self-catering apartment or house means that you have a kitchen available, which is a big plus since one is then able to purchase food in order to cook in the comfort of one’s own flat. Just as though one was at home.

Supermarkets in Japan offer a wide variety of products, just as those in the West do. The fish is fresh, the prices are worthwhile, and there are also many many many discounts every day on marked items.

In those days when we were too tired after hours of exploring and did not feel like staying out late, going back to our place and cooking a simple meal felt like a real blessing.

6. Meal-ticket Restaurants

The first thing I noticed during my first few days in Japan was the sheer number of vending machines EVERYWHERE. Most of these offered drinks, coffee, and even bento boxes, however there were also pharmaceutical vending machines which provided some basic products one could buy without a prescription, as well as vending machines containing IT stuff such as USB cables, headphones, etc.

Then, there were the meal-ticket restaurants. I loved loved LOVED these! They are just so perfect for people who don’t speak Japanese and have difficulty understanding Japanese menus in restaurants (many restaurants do not provide a menu in English). The concept is simple – in front of the restaurant you see a large vending machine sporting pictures of all the meals and items available in the restaurant. You choose which one seems more desirable, insert the money and get a ticket with a description of your order in return. Then you go inside, hand over the meal ticket to the waiter, manger or cook, wait for ten minutes and voila! Your meal is ready and you’ve already paid!

Yummy two-type curry ordered from a meal-ticket restaurant in Kyoto

All the meal-ticket restaurants we ate in were so very cheap and delicious it was amazing! Ranging from curry-joints, to local ramen food eateries, all of these kind of restaurants also provide unlimited chilled water, therefore detracting even more from your spending budget!

Ramen veggie and tofu mix
My first ever meal-ticket lunch – from Asakusa, Tokyo. Yummy yummy!

5 Magical Places in Tuscany you simply cannot miss!

Known throughout the world for its uniquely beautiful countryside, its green rolling hills, historical castles, medieval towns and villages, not to mention a wealthy patrimony of Renaissance architecture, paintings, sculptures and artistic treasures, Tuscany is a region found in central Italy whose artistic legacy echoes across continents.

Numerous movies and T.V series have further enhanced its popularity, not to mention its valid contributions to the viticulture and culinary sectors. Tuscany is also home to numerous archaeological and historical ruins spanning the pre-Etruscan era (roughly 1400–1150 BC), the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, as well as the Roman period, the Medieval period during which Tuscany flourished under the Medici family, and the Renaissance.

View of Florence

Florence

Florence is the capital city of the region of Tuscany. Known as the center of the Renaissance movement. it holds a plethora of artistic and cultural treasures, all conveniently gathered into one special wonderful city. Visiting Florence is a must when travelling to Tuscany. From the Medicis to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, it was ‘fortunate’ enough to have a number of cultural patrons who valued its historical significance. No wonder therefore that so many renowned artists chose to live there. From Giotto to Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Botticelli, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci – all these artists and more showcased their works in Florence, also known as the ‘Art Palace of Italy’.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The historic center of Florence centers around the Piazza del Duomo where one can find the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. When I visited Florence, I made the big mistake of thinking that entering the Cathedral would be as easy as strolling into a park – boy was I wrong. The Cathedral is a World Heritage Treasure. Entrance is not free and moreover there are HUGE queues waiting to go inside during every hour of every day. After waiting outside in the scorching sun for a couple of hours, I realized it was hopeless and went for a gelato instead. Don’t make my same mistake, purchase your skip-the-line ticket online before you go.

Inside the Uffizi Gallery

Also in the Piazza del Duomo one can find the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which is well-worth a visit, as well as, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of Florenze, the breathtaking Uffizi Gallery. Again, prepare yourself for MASSIVE queues. At least I was smart enough to purchase the tickets online beforehand for this one! A word of advice – I suggest you also purchase the tickets to Boboli Gardens while you are at it (these beautiful gardens appeared in the movie ‘The Da Vinci Code’. There wasn’t a queue to the gardens, but the combo-ticket is financially worth it. Make sure to leave at least 3-4 free hours to visit the Uffizi Gallery which is huge and contains such precious paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio’s Bacchus, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man, amongst others.

Admiring Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (Springtime)

A few steps away from the Uffizi Gallery one also finds the Palazzo Vecchio, home to another amazing museum of the arts. Don’t forget to walk a bit further on to the Academia Gallery to view Michelangelo’s sculpture, David – the perfect rendition of the perfectly-proportioned man!

In front of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ at the Academia Gallery

Pisa

Known far and wide for its curious leaning tower, Pisa is another site one should not miss when travelling to Tuscany. While Florence takes a number of days to appreciate properly, I can personally admit that perusing the historical center of Pisa will not take you more than half a day. This is because all the architectural sites and monuments can all be found within the same small area. The Piazza del Duomo, also known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, which contains the famous Tower of Pisa, is also home to the Duomo (the Cathedral), the Baptistry, and the Campo Santo. This complex of four religious medieval buildings crowds close to the Tower of Pisa itself, in fact you can get magnificent photos of them all from atop the leaning tower. Purchase the combo ticket as soon as you get there and you can enter all the sites. There are also so many souvenir vendors that you can safely buy all the souvenirs for the people back home in one go.

The Piazza del Duomo in Pisa

Lucca

Lucca, surrounded with its Renaissance walls and enriched by architectural facades and (very uncomfortable) cobble-stoned streets, is another must-see.

In Piazza San Michele – Lucca

Founded by the Etruscans, later becoming a Roman colony, Lucca holds not only traces of an ancient Roman forum in its iconic Piazza San Michele, but also an Amphitheatre in the aptly named Piazza dell Anfiteatro. The Lucca Cathedral, the Basicila of San Frediano with its uniquely painted facade, the Palazzo Pfanner Museum and its serene gardens, as well the Ducal Palace and the Clock-Tower, take at least a full-day to visit. There are also a myriad of other arhaeological and cultural treasures peppering Lucca, not to mention beautiful fountains, gardens and squares in traditional Renaissance fashion. For a panoramic view of the city, make sure to visit the Guinigi Tower.

The Basilica of San Frediano

Villa Gorzoni, a Villa on the border of Lucca, offers a unique experience due to the unique layout of its water-garden constructed at the foot of a series of balustraded terraces and a suite of grand symmetrical staircases and complete with water cascade.

Siena

Like Lucca and other Etruscan towns, Siena too was a settlement of the Etruscan later claimed by the Romans. Siena’s beautiful medieval cityscape is home to the Siena Cathedral, a masterpiece of Romaneqsue-Gothic architecture. In the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s principal square, one can find the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) and its Torre del Mangia. The frescoes in the Palazzo alone make these very worth visiting – prepare to crane your neck! The Torre del Mangia, symbol of secular power, as opposed to the power of the Church (these two were built exactly the same height on purpose) with its rich sculptures, gothic architecture and marble loggia, offers quiet a tight fit (there is no lift), however the effort made to climb all those stairs is all forgotten once one sees magical Siena spread beneath you at the top.

The amazing frescoes at the Palazzo Pubblico

Make sure to leave some time for wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric alleys and winding streets – small chapels, villas, fountains and parks abound at every corner!

Walking around Siena

San Gimignano

Tiny but simply marvelous, San Gimignano must be one of the most perfectly preserved wholly-medieval towns I’ve ever visited (though the French Carcassonne, and the island of Mont San Michel in Normandy are two other serious contenders).

Surrounded by 13th century walls, this small hilltop town is to be found around an hour of driving away to the South West of Florence. Let yourself admire the gorgeous Tuscan countryside surrounding San Gimignano while trying not to get lost in the maze of cobbled alleys and walkways. The heart of the town can be said to be the Piazza della Cisterna, where one can purchase a block ticket for all the most popular attractions from the cute tourist center found in one of the medieval houses surrounding the square. Personally my favorite building in San Gimignano was the San Gimignano Bell Tower (il Campanile della Colleggiata) where one can take a look at the most beautiful 360 degrees view in Tuscany. The climb is long, slippery and tortuous (there is no lift in the medieval building) but the spectacular view will remain with you forever.

On the San Gimignano Bell Tower

The block ticket also covers a number of museums, small chapels, and historical towers. At 177 ft, Torre Grossa is the tallest tower in San Gimignano, while Torre Rognosa (167 ft) is the oldest. The churches house a number of Renaissance works and are worth exploring. Make sure to take a full day to explore this serene town. Needless be said, if you choose to eat your lunch in San Gimignano, try to find a restaurant with a view (there are a few). They may be on the expensive side, but it will surely be the highlight of your day.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery – Florence