Travelling to Japan can be a costly endeavour. Expensive plane tickets and overpriced Western hotel rooms can easily leave one wondering: where did all the cash go? Don’t despair just yet. Even if it is time to tighten the purse strings, you can enjoy a variety of fantastic traditional and modern Japanese foods on a budget. Read on for the top five ways to eat cheap in Japan!
1. Hit the conbini!
Nope, that’s not a type-o; a conbini is a Japanese convenience store. These ubiquitous shrines to all things convenient can be found on just about every corner in Japan. While some of the major chains, including 7-Eleven, are represented here, they bear little resemblance to their American counterparts. Instead, these stories carry a wide variety of snacks, prepared hot and cold foods and cooking ingredients.
If you arrive early in the day, you can get the first pick of the pastries and other breakfast items. Many conbini also have hot items such as fried chicken or steamed buns. In the refrigerated section, you’ll find noodles with any variety of vegetables and/or seafood, various types of sushi and much more. Staple ingredients for cooking are also available at the conbini. Fresh tofu, frozen vegetables, fruits and edamame, along with frozen meals can all be purchased there.
If you’re in a rush or out of lunch ideas, it’s a great place to grab something on the go.
2. Don’t discount the chain restaurants.
True, you’re in Japan, and the thought of a chain restaurant sounds a little…sad. But don’t despair! The chain restaurants of Japan will be all new to you! While they do have Americanised chains such as Denny’s, even those don’t have much in common with the Western version. (Except, yes, they have pancakes – in fact, you will find plenty of pancakes all over Japan!) Instead, at Denny’s and other American chains in Japan, you will find a few familiar items mixed in with very-Japanese options. For example, in 2019, Denny’s in Japan was offering a 99 yen set breakfast. This works out to about one American dollar and included a choice of various entrees, such as miso soup and rice, pancakes or toast, along with a drink. As a side note, this is one of the few places in Japan with unlimited help-yourself-refills on drinks; be sure to take advantage of it.
Even better, head out to a Japanese-based chain to get a taste of “diner food Japanese-style.” There are chain restaurants all over the country where one can get a full meal for well under ten dollars. In fact, you might get away for as little as five in some cases. And because tipping is a no-no, you’ll know exactly what you are spending.
Try out one of the big ramen chains for noodles, Tempura Tendon, for fast-food tempura combos or CoCo Ichi for spicy Japanese-style curry. Saizeriya is also an insanely cheap family chain with a ton of great options to try for Japanese-style Italian food!
3. Find accommodations which include a kitchenette.
Japanese cities are full of “apart-hotels” or “serviced apartments” which feature kitchenettes, among other amenities. Between these, private room/accommodation services (such as Airbnb) and hostels, it isn’t hard to find a place to stay that offers kitchen access. Grocery shopping in Japan can be just another adventure. You’ll find tons of instant and quick food choices you’ve never heard of; it’s a great chance to try new foods, ingredients and techniques!
Access to a kitchen also means that you can save a ton of money by keeping breakfast and snack ingredients on hand. It’s a much more enjoyable start to the morning to be able to make coffee and toast in the room, rather than rushing right out to hunt down breakfast. For families with children, in particular, this can be a lifesaver!
4. Eat on the street.
Not literally, of course, as eating while walking is considered impolite in Japan. But do try out the street food! It’s literally everywhere and you are sure to find something that interests you. Every region and locale/city in Japan have specialities that it is known for making. Do yourself a favour and find out what the regional speciality is in the area that you are visiting and give it a try!
Osaka, for example, is known for its takoyaki (fried octopus fritters). You’ll find stalls and small store fronts all over the city selling the trademark dish. You can tell which vendors have the best versions by the size of the queue.
You will find food vendors on almost every block but if you want to experience many options in one location, check out the side streets that lead the way to a major temple, such as Sensoji. These streets form an “arcade” full of shops and dining areas, where cheap, delicious street food is plentiful. A few of the more popular street dishes include yakitori (skewered chicken), tofu with sauce, the aforementioned takoyaki, crepes (not very Japanese in origin but they are quite popular), dango (rice dumplings) and yaki imo (roasted sweet potatoes).
5. Order the set meal.
Japanese menus can be a bit confusing to Westerners for one primary reason: the set meal. Most restaurants, rather than offering individual categories of food such as entrées, sides and appetizers, instead sell meals in a set. The set typically contains miso soup or a salad, along with a “main dish” food and a drink.
Typically, these sets do not allow for substitutions, so it’s an all or nothing situation. But, for you, this is a wonderful opportunity to try new things! If you don’t like one item, that’s okay; there’s lots more for you to eat. Set meals are meant to be more economical while providing a variety of food, so take advantage of them.
As you can see, eating well in Japan does not have to break the bank. Utilize these tips and don’t be afraid to try out new foods along the way. It’s all part of the grand adventure of travel in the Land of the Rising Sun!