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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!

Packing for Japan – Common Issues

During the exciting days leading up to my one-month trip from one continent – Europe, to another – Asia, I found out that packing for a longish trip to a country where there will probably be a number of communication issues due to the language barrier, was quite different from packing for a one or two-week trip to another European country, or a country which is predominantly English speaking. This is because being aware that you might not be able to communicate and ask for certain services and/or products in your target country, will result in you packing certain things which you might otherwise have purchased there instead.

Large Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka see a huge influx of Westerners, leading to many of the locals being able to communicate with them through necessity, however having decided to explore Japan while visiting both the more popular locations, as well as those off the beaten track, I had to take into account that in certain mountain villages, small fishing towns, etc, one could not expect the locals to be able to communicate in your primary language. I kept all of this in mind while packing, as well as, of course, how many pieces of luggage I was allowed to carry with the air ticket I had purchased. In my case, I could take two large pieces of luggage weighing 23kgs each, a hand luggage weighing 8kgs max, as well as a handbag.

Image Source: www.esquire.com

First of all, I would have loved to take all of this with me, however practically speaking, I knew that I would have to lug that baggage around from one city to another, on bullet trains, regular underground trains, taxis, not to mention walk around with them quite a bit, so, seeing as I have only two arms, I decided to take two large pieces of luggage with me and a backpack, even though I could have taken another bag on the plane with me as well. Having decided that, I started to compile my packing list.

Pharmaceuticals/Medicines

Unlike other Asian countries, one does not need to take any mandatory vaccines before visiting Japan. That being said, I was routinely vaccinated for measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella as a child. Make sure to get health insurance before take-off.

Image Source: www.wikihow.com

If you are packing prescription medicines for one or more health conditions for personal use, it is important to be aware of the rules which visitors to Japan have to abide by. First of all, your country may not have the relevant information about which drugs are illegal in Japan, so it is best to contact the Japanese authorities (such as the Japanese embassy) or research/ask online. Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis (marijuana), and stimulant drugs, including some prescription medications such as Adderall, are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan. Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items.

Up to one month’s supply of prescription medicine (that is allowed by Japanese law) can be brought into Japan. Travelers should take a copy of their doctor’s prescription as well as a letter stating the purpose of the drug. Those who must carry more than one month’s supply, or are carrying syringes (pumps) or a CPAP machine, must obtain a Yakkan Shomei, that is, a type of import certificate, in advance, and present the certificate with their prescription medicines at Customs. You can find the relevant import form here. It usually takes two weeks to be processed, sent and received. Make sure to apply well before you leave for your trip. Keep your medicines, together with your prescriptions and import certificate, together in order for you to show them to the customs official at the airport. Take a look at the official Japan Customs website for more detailed information.

Regarding over the counter drugs, according to Japanese law, up to a two-months’ supply of allowable over-the-counter medication and up to a two-months’ supply of allowable vitamins can be brought into Japan duty-free, unless of course, they contain substances which are illegal in Japan.

Clothes and Shoes

Your clothes depend on the weather you’ll be facing when you arrive in Japan. For example, if you are visiting Japan during June/July, that is, in Summer, (as I am) make sure to take light and airy clothing. Summer in Japan is also the ‘rainy season’, therefore apart from your t-shirts and cotton dresses, make sure to take at least one rain coat and/or hoodie. I also packed some sunscreen and insect repellent as I was told that mosquitoes are really fierce during the rainy season!

Whether you are staying in a city or trekking through the mountain regions, you will walk. A lot. Make sure to take more than one pair of comfortable shoes. Trekking shoes are preferable but any kind of tennis shoes, boots or sandals will do as long as you know you can walk long distances in them. Stay away from heels. Personally, I found memory foam soles to be a blessing.

Don’t pack your whole closet into your luggage! You won’t need it. Calculate the number of days you are staying in Japan, then divide the get-ups you’ll need by half that number. Laundromats are plentiful in any city. Having booked predominantly Airbnb self-catering apartments for my stay in Japan, I made sure they almost all had a washing machine (or ‘washer’ as they refer to it locally), so I actually packed only around 12 sets of clothing for my 30-day stay, since I know I will be able to wash my clothes regularly for sure.

Hand luggage

Wherever your country of origin, you will probably be traveling for long hours in order to reach Japanese shores. I needed to catch two planes, adding up to a total of 19 hours of travel, in order to reach Haneda Airport. Since I opted out of having actual hand-luggage, I only had one small bag with me on board, which I used to basically hold all the things I’d need with me in order to entertain myself/rest during that time.

These were the books I had packed for a 10-day trip to France… packing books for a month would have been too much!

Being an avid bookworm, I always carry a number of books with me to read on holiday. Since this time the trip was going to be a long one, I opted to download some ebooks on my tablet instead, in order to minimize weight. My tablet, together with my mobile phone and charger, ipod and headphones, went into my handbag. Since the flights were long and my first day in Japan was packed with activities, I was aware that sleeping on the plane was essential. This is why I also armed myself with earplugs and a small inflatable pillow. Chewing gum and some water went into my bag too, as did a bar of chocolate and some snacks. We were going to be provided with a meal on the flight, but still, 19 hours seemed a long time to me!

I never put on make-up for a flight (strange huh?) but this time round, I also included some basic make-up in my bag, in order to put it on just before we landed in Tokyo, since we would also be sightseeing on that day. If you do so, make sure to place any liquids in a transparent plastic bag and that any bottle needs to hold no more than 100ml.

Of course, don’t forget to pack your Japanese Yen, credit cards, passport and boarding pass too!

Thanks heavens for large handbags!

Image Source: www.123rf.com

Important Tip: Make sure you have a couple of a power plug adapters or voltage converters for the power sockets (outlets) used in Japan. You don’t need a power plug adapter in Japan, if you are coming from the United States of America.

If you have any questions re packing for a trip to Japan, feel free to ask! I will reply as soon as possible.