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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!