After spending more than one month in Japan, we have gained a basic knowledge about Japanese food and had many delicious moments. We know that food is a very popular topic and we were requested to write more about it. Make sure to eat something before reading this because otherwise you will feel starving after 😉
We are not into fine dining and we prefer basic food that tastes good and fuels us at a decent price. Basically all the listed foods are very affordable because we have kept our budget quite tight here in Japan. Of course you can find more expensive versions of all dishes as Japan has a very wide scale of dining options. This is good news for budget travelers – unlike many people might think, it is possible to eat many delicious things at a low price here. Japan is an expensive country in many aspects indeed but regarding the food, there is something for every budget.
Japanese food culture is very unique and rich. Japanese food is also much more than just sushi. The food is not very spicy but it is based on fresh and clean flavors like fresh fish and vegetables. The quality of the food is very important.
Our expectation was that all the Japanese food is very healthy and light plus that the people eat mainly things like rice, seaweed and fish. This is partly true, but we were kind of surprised how much the people also like eating meat, deep-fried food and sweets. Before coming here we thought it would be easy to quit eating sugar in Japan but oh, how wrong we were. There are many tempting Japanese sweets and many bakeries selling western-style sweets like croissants and donuts as well.
Regarding the vegetarian options, there are not many to be honest. Most dishes have fish or meat at least in the broth but of course eating vegetarian food is possible here. You just probably need to pay a lot of attention to the ingredients and learn some basic Japanese. Now, let’s get to the point and go through our favorites. For further Japan budget tips, read also how to eat on a budget in Japan and Top 5 budget accommodations in Japan.
Our top Japanese budget foods:
This hearty, filling and budget-friendly dish is our ultimate favorite and we have been eating this maybe the most during our trip (at least several times a week if not even daily, oops…). Gyudon is a simple but delicious bowl of rice topped with fried beef and onion. The meat is juicy and cut into thin slices. You can enjoy the bowl just like that or with toppings like raw or soft-boiled egg, green onion, ginger and chili. You can get a bowl of gyudon for even 300 yen (less than 3 euros) and there are many 24/7 restaurant chains selling it. Price range 300-600 yen.
Sashimi is simply sliced raw fish. It is dipped in soy sauce and wasabi like sushi. This dish is very light and healthy and contains only pure flavors. Because it’s eaten raw, the freshness is obviously very important but we haven’t faced any issues regarding this in Japan. Maybe our most memorable meal was a lunch set at Shimizu fish market where we had a bowl of cold sushi rice topped with sashimi and shrimps, accompanied with a miso soup, fried tuna and green tea. Our mouths are still watering when we think about this meal. Sashimi is more pricey compared to our other favorites and we have eaten it only twice. Price range 800-2000 yen.
Well, this is kind of obvious and a must-try thing. Not eating sushi in Japan is like not seeing Eiffel Tower in Paris. We have mainly settled for supermarket sushi but even that is fresh and yummy! A new acquaintance for us is inarizushi, rice wrapped in sweet, fried tofu. This type of sushi is very cheap and can be bought in every supermarket. It has a nice combination of sweet and savory flavors when dipped in soy sauce and it has been on our lunch menu quite often. We still didn’t try a proper sushi restaurant but will probably stretch our budgets in the last days in Japan and invest in a quality dinner. Price range in the supermarket 200-1000 yen.
4. Ramen, soba and udon
Noodles are very basic everyday food in Japan and there are ramen and udon restaurants at every corner. There are many different kinds of noodles though and it’s good to know the difference. Ramen noodles are made from wheat and they are thin and yellow. A bowl of ramen is normally topped with meat or egg. Soba noodles look and taste different because they are made from buckwheat and have a lighter color than ramen. Udon noodles are thick and served with different kinds of broth than ramen or soba. Udon is often topped with tempura which is basically deep-fried fish, seafood or vegetables. There are countless many variations of different broths and some noodles are also served cold with a dipping sauce. Price range 300-1000 yen.
5. Bento box
A bento box is a common term for a lunch box and it can contain almost anything. Normally it has rice or noodles, fish or meat and vegetables. The boxes can be found in every supermarket and they are a cheap and easy lunch. The Japanese like eating many small dishes at one meal and the appearance of the food is very important. Even the cheap lunch boxes look pretty and are packed and decorated carefully. Price range in the supermarket 300-700 yen.
Japanese curry is another affordable dish and there are many chain restaurants serving it. The curry has a dark brown color and a rich, spicy flavor. It can contain beef or just vegetable cubes and is served with rice. Price range 300-700 yen.
Takoyaki is a street food specialty and especially well known in Osaka. The dish is made from octopus that is cut into pieces, baked in a batter and formed into a round shape. The balls are fried in a special pan and topped with fish flakes, takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise. You can see and smell this dish everywhere, especially when walking the streets in Osaka. It is a tasty and cheap food to grab on the go! Price range 300-600 yen.
Okonomiyaki is a Japanese omelet fried with sliced cabbage and different fillings like seafood, meat, vegetables or cheese. It is served with a special okonomiyaki sauce, dried fish and ginger. Osaka and Hiroshima are the main cities for the original okonomiyaki and they both have their own versions of it. There are many okonomiyaki restaurants in both cities but you can find the dish in some street food stalls as well. We tried this in Hiroshima so far. The Hiroshima version has noodles in it and it was served to us on a gas-heated stove and eaten with a spatula. Price range 500-1500 yen.
A Japanese version of hot pot. The dish is cooked in a special pot on the dining table. It’s cool to see when the food gets done and it also stays hot while eating. The dish consists of thinly sliced beef, tofu, vegetables and noodles that are cooked in a sauce and dipped in raw egg while eating. We had a delicious hot pot dinner at one of our couchsurfing places. Our host mixed a sauce from soy sauce and sake and slowly cooked the ingredients. The taste was sweet and savory at the same time and the beef literally melted in our mouths. Amazing!
A steamed bun filled with meat, cheese or bean paste. The buns are served hot and sold in every convenience store. The structure is very soft and it’s a nice small treat. Eating two of these keeps the hunger away even for a longer time. Price range 100-200 yen.
Onigiri is a very popular snack in Japan. It’s a rice ball that is most commonly wrapped in seaweed and filled with fish, seafood or fermented plums. The combination of crunchy seaweed and soft rice is satisfying and the taste is similar to sushi. Price around 100 yen.
… And then we come to the desserts! As we mentioned, the Japanese people like sweet things but the flavors and ingredients are sometimes very different than in the western treats. Green tea products are very popular here. Another specialty is anko, sweet red bean paste. It is used as a filling in many pastries and desserts. Beans in a dessert might not sound that tempting but actually you cannot taste the beans at all and the taste is very sweet.
12. Green tea ice cream
Jarkko is normally the one who can easily eat one liter of ice cream at once but he was not as convinced of this as Johanna. The taste is very fresh and when eating this, you can of course try to make yourself believe that this stuff must be healthy at some level… We tried the supermarket version but there are also ice cream places selling soft ice on cones. Price range 100-500 yen.
13. Mochi and dango
Mochi is a rice cake made from Japanese rice. The rice is pounded into paste and normally filled with anko. There are many different flavors though, like green tea and strawberry. The structure is elastic and chewy, a bit like chewing gum. Dango is similar but made from rice flour. The rice balls are put into skewers and topped i.e. with anko or syrup. This is a nice snack or dessert and we have got kind of hooked to this! To be honest, dango with bean paste looks a little bit like poo on a stick but we promise, the taste is very good. You can buy these in every supermarket and shop. Price range 100-200 yen.
14. Japanese pancakes
Pancakes are filled anko as well and sometimes with green tea ice cream. A popular version is a fish-shaped pancake taiyaki that is cooked in street food stalls so you get it freshly baked and hot. Price range 100-200 yen.
So did you get hungry already? We too, need to get a bowl of gyudon right now!