Eating cheaply in Japan

Gastronomy is a major aspect of Japan heritage, just like in France. Japanese people are fond of their local, refined and healthy products, which they set in daily TV shows. Eating healthy does not have to be expensive. Japan gives numerous solutions to eat cheaply and taste regional food specialties… the main criteria being to like rice!

The psychological ¥1,000 bill (~US$ 8.80)

We all agree around the sum of ¥1,000 to define a reasonable price to eat: for the whole day for the smallest budget to one per meal for the big appetites.

Local food obviously represents the best value for money. Basics of the Japanese diet, rice and noodles happen to be affordable and will certainly fill you up until the next mealtime. Vegetables are also interesting to consume everyday, marinated or fried in tempura. Curry meals have a very Japanese taste with a limited cost. On the other hand, red meat, seafood and fruits remain expensive food, less consumed or in smaller portions.

Cheap restaurants

Fast food chains are very numerous on the Japanese territory. American brands can immediately be recognized such as Starbucks and MacDonald’s. They are not the only ones to be increasing and spreading all over the country: numerous domestic chains developed a dense physical network and display a local fast-food menu, where the main course is around ¥400 (~US$ 3.50) to ¥700 (~US$ 6.10).

Ordering is also different as the concept requires to order from a machine at the entrance, and then a coupon has to be given to the staff behind the desk. Clients are served at their table after only a few minutes. And if you are still hungry: just do it again! Here are some local specialties and names of chain restaurants serving them:

  • bowl of rice topped with gyudon beef: Sukiya, Matsuya and Yoshinoya;
  • tempura rice bowl: Tendon Tenya; 
  • Japanese curry dishes: CoCo Ichibanya;
  • Udon noodles: Marugame and Hanamaru;
  • Burgers: Mos Burger and Freshness Burger.

Those loving the traditional sushi and maki can try kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) that can be easily found, especially in arcades streets or at the restaurants’ area of shopping malls. The concept is to pay by the plate, allowing to appreciate the bill according to your feeling of satiety.

The cheapest prices start around ¥100 (~US$ 0.90) for a plate, allowing to choose from a vegetarian maki (cucumber, seaweed and natto) or an omelette sushi. Among the cheapest fish sushi are those with squid or octopus. It is yet advised to get there with a reasonable hunger in order to be satisfied faster. Some places display higher prices for the dinner or discounts at lunch or early evening.

Most restaurants offer free iced tap water and hot green tea without restriction. Other drinks, soda or beer, are paid by the can or the bottle.

Another solution is to step inside small food places, not so neat, but happening to be good, cheap and original. They are mostly offering family cuisine; the choice remains limited. Go by the counter top and wait to be served like at home. You can find these stalls in parallel streets of big avenues and around train stations or transport hubs. For about ¥700 (~US$ 6.10) to ¥1,000 (~US$ 8.80) per person, you taste an daily course in a typical Japanese atmosphere.

All you can eat menus: tabehodai food and/or nomihodai drinks must be tried to spend a convivial good time with friends and big eaters. Restaurants offering this kind of option are usually specialized in yakiniku grilled meat. Prices vary according to places: count around ¥2,000 (~US$ 17.60) for a tabehodai formula and ¥5,000 (~US$ 43.90) for both tabehodai and nomihodai, always during a limited period of time, around one to two hours. Stamina Taro brand offers even more competitive prices: between ¥1,000 (~US$ 8.80) and ¥2,000 (~US$ 17.60) for an all-you-can-eat menu and ¥3,000 (~US$ 26.30) to drink and eat without counting during 90 minutes.

Last cheap food places to discover: family restaurants (aka famiresu) which, as their name suggests, can easily welcome groups and offer a wide variety of dishes. Particularity: Western-style food are served, usually Italian, as well as Chinese, for affordable prices. Therefore, travelers missing pizza or spaghetti will look for Skylark's brands such as Gasuto, Grazie Gardens, Jonathan’s or also the Saizeriya restaurant chain.

Snacking on streets

When the sun is up, the desire for a gourmet break invites travelers to tour around small stores of Japanese snacks.

World widely famous, konbini instantly answer to demand. Settled literally at every corner of all streets in cities and countrysides, these convenience stores display a wide range of Japanese gastronomy. Even if prices can be a little higher, freshness of products is always at the rendezvous. Smaller budgets will appreciate onigiri between ¥200 (~US$ 1.80) and ¥300 (~US$ 1.80) a piece, fried meat croquettes, pastries and ready-to-eat bento.

In Shinkansen stations, counters of eki-bento provide fresh meals for about ¥1,000 (~US$ 8.80) to ¥1,500 (~US$ 13.20), to travelers about to jump into the high-speed train.

During matsuri summertime, grilled-food stands nearby temples and in parks are an excellent occasion to eat locally for a few hundred Yens: meat skewers, takoyaki fried octopus, yakisoba wok noodles and okonomiyaki garnished omelet. The delicious smell coming from these streets’ cuisines will satisfy both belly and wallet.

Food markets gather touristic sightseeing and culinary testing. Almost all Nishiki's shops in Kyoto offer free ready-made food samples. Also, Kuromon Market in Osaka sells fat tuna, scallops and fresh fruits at a reasonable price if you arrive early enough in the morning.

Smart grocery shopping

Japanese supermarkets happen to be a great alternative to eat healthy and with variety, as long as you can store and cook a bit inside your accommodation. Try to locate supa such as Life, Seiyu or Maruetsu Petit, accessible in the heart of cities' residential areas. You can also go to the underground floors of depato, huge malls such as Isetan or Mitsukoshi which can be found next to train stations.

They have double affordable aspects:

  • larger quantity, especially for yogurts, fruits and vegetables;
  • very interesting discounted prices at the end of the day in the freshly-made food shelves.

The expiration dates in Japan are sometimes very short, only 24 hours. To limit unsold products, brands offer daily waribiki discounts, fixed in Yen or percentage, or even display half-price products called hangaku.

The opening of "good deals hunt" start a little before dinner time, around 6:30 - 7pm every day, until the closing hour of generally 10pm. A staff person walks around the fresh food zones with his/her yellow or red stickers which have the power to instantly decrease the price. Regular clients know perfectly the hour at which promotions are given and run to get the best deals: salmon sashimi, tuna sushi and tender beef slices among others.

Last but not least, there are Japanese instant cup noodles. For about ¥150 (~US$ 1.30), we can easily get cup noodles or cup ramen. Hot water to mix the ingredients is usually offered at the exits of konbini or supermarkets, or in hotels and hostels which have a free of charge boiler in the room. Less tasty than a fresh meal but very affordable, this budget-saver solution allows to eat warm at any time.

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