It is time to get back to budget eating in Japan! We listed our favorite Japanese foods in this post. As there are many people looking for budget solutions for their Japan trip, we listed the best ways to survive in this gorgeous, yet quite pricey country. Japanese food can be extremely expensive but on the other hand, it is possible to enjoy local food with a low budget too. The range is wide and in Japan you can basically eat anything from 1 dollar supermarket cup noodles to 200 dollars fancy dinner.
We kept our budget under a tight control in Japan because otherwise we might have ended up spending much more money than we planned. Still, we had very nice food experiences and found many new favorite dishes. Our price limit for a meal was generally 500-600 yen, sometimes less, but this is totally enough to survive in Japan! During the six weeks, our most expensive meal was 1.000 yen for fresh sashimi at a fish market.
With these five tips, you will keep your stomach full and wallet happy in Japan.
This might not sound too exciting but the quality of ready-cooked meals in Japanese supermarkets is actually very high! Supermarkets were have been one of our main sources of nutrition. The meals are not to compare with the ready-cooked meals sold in Finland or Poland when it comes to price-quality ratio.
The food is prepared fresh every day and the choice is very wide. You can buy all kind of lunch boxes (bento boxes) which are normally dishes with rice or noodles, meat, fish, vegetables, salads or omelets. There is also a wide choice of sushi of course. The cashier gives you chopsticks and every supermarket has a microwave to heat the food. Some stores also have a separate area for eating.
Normally a full meal costs about 300-600 yen. Nevertheless, the best trick is to hit the supermarket in the evening after 7 or 8 pm when the meals are discounted up to 50 or 70%! One evening we managed to catch big meals for both of us for 350 yen altogether. But you have to be there on the right time because also the locals know this trick and the food is gone very quickly.
Besides the ready-to-eat meals, it is basically cheaper to buy local food than western products. There are also big differences between supermarkets. Some of them are very pricey and concentrated in selling high-end quality products so keep your eyes open and compare the prices.
Convenience stores, konbini, like 7 Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart are small stores open 24/7 every day. The choice in these stores is not very wide but you can find a decent meal here. Besides the bento boxes, there is also fried food like pieces of meat and hot dogs available.
When we wanted cheap food, we mostly bought instant cup noodles (100-200 yen) and used the hot water in the store to cook them. Onigiris and nikuman buns (100-150 yen) are also good snacks to keep the hunger away for a while.
Lawson has special 100 yen stores with a green logo. These stores are worth visiting as almost everything costs only 107 yen with taxes!
Cup noodle dinner outside…
Cooking homemade food
Before traveling we cooked a lot at home and a home-made meal is something you start missing after a while. Anytime we had a change, we cooked something at home (or to be exact at someone else’s home while couchsurfing). Normally we carried some “emergency noodles” in our backpacks.
We mostly cooked noodles with tofu, eggs and maybe some vegetables if we found a good offer in the supermarket. Tofu is a crazy cheap source of protein as you can find a package for even 30 yen! The cheapest vegetables we found are sprouts. We bought a bag of them for 30-40 yen and mixed with noodles. For breakfast we had toast with peanut butter or jam and bananas.
Cheap restaurant chains
There are many well-known and affordable restaurants serving Japanese food like beef bowls, ramen, udon and sushi. Most of them are open 24/7. Popular chains are Coco’s, Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya and Sushiro just to name a few. You can find these places at every corner in big and small cities. They are not gourmet places to have a candle light dinner but more like places where the businessmen go to have a quick meal. Affordable, quick and tasty – what else would we ask for?
Many of these restaurants have a u-shaped counter where the people sit like at a bar. It is quite entertaining because you can easily watch the people and observe how the locals eat. Take out is also possible. Most restaurants have a machine where you place the order and pay and then give the recipe to the waiter. The food comes in a few minutes. Even if there is no English menu, there are normally pictures of each portion in the machine so ordering is easy.
Our ultimate favorite place is the beef bowl restaurant Matsuya where we always got the best value for a low price. We found the place first time in Kyoto and ate there regularly after that. The normal-sized beef bowl costs only 290 yen. For extra protein, you can order a raw or soft-boiled egg. The portion includes a miso soup and water or green tea. You can also add ginger, soy sauce and different spices to the food. Yoshinoya and Sukiya are other chains serving similar food as well.
Sushiro is a conveyor sushi belt restaurant. You order from the screen at the table. When the screen alarms it means that your sushi is coming and you have to pick it on the belt. Most of the sushi plates include two pieces of sushi and cost 107 yen. Cold and hot water with matcha powder is included in the price. A yummy and affordable option for an expensive sushi restaurant!
Street food is a cheap and delicious option in many places if you know what you are looking for. Try okonomiyaki, takoyaki, taiyaki and mochi. Especially Osaka is a heaven when it comes to street food but you can find it in every city. Avoid the most touristic main streets though as the prices normally go up and the quality is not the best. Explore smaller streets and alleys and you might find an amazing deal!