Food

A Food Lover's Guide to Eating Cheap in Japan

Forgive my directness, but if one of the reasons you’re coming to Japan ISN’T to sample local food, I’d have to question your sanity. Japan is home to more Michelin-starred fine dining establishments than any country in the world, and has always been a legendary pilgrimage for foodies and professional chefs. The quality is high, the presentations are spectacular, and the service is impeccable.

But – if you’re, shall we say, as financially concerned as I am, you would accurately think that the bulk of the restaurants I just mentioned are outside of your price range. However, the most iconic delicacies of Japan aren’t found in fancy restaurants with exorbitant prices. In the following expose, I’m going to show you how to eat VERY cheap in Japan, and give you some hints on how to sample the most iconic, and delicious Japanese foods around.

Fast Food

Yoshinoya(吉野家)

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When it comes to iconic Japanese eats, there are few restaurants more iconic than Yoshinoya(吉野家). Here, you can try simple, tasty, Japanese dishes for as little as 4 US dollars, or order something a little more filling for 5 or 6 dollars. This restaurant is a mainstay among Japanese salarymen, as it’s fast, convenient, and serves the sorts of food that you’re used to eating, if you’re Japanese. Don’t worry, the food isn’t too strange for foreign people to enjoy as well!

The offerings include Japanese curry, beef bowls of various flavors, and kaarage chicken. The portions run on the small side compared to American restaurants, so if you’re quite hungry, you might need to spend around 7 US dollars on a large-sized set meal.  Note that, as at almost any other restaurant in Japan, the staff will speak Japanese. However, English menus are available upon request, and you can also just point to the picture of the food you want on the menu. While Yoshinoya would not be considered fast food by the American definition (It’s for dining in, not takeout), it’s just as cheap, and just as fast.

Also, Yoshinoya restaurants are ubiquitous, and open 24 hours a day for maximum convenience. For a slightly different flavor, Sukiya(すき家) and Matsuya(松屋) are another restaurant much like Yoshinoya; easy to find, cheap, and always open.

McDonalds

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The fast food which needs no introduction, McDonalds restaurants can be found all over Tokyo, or really any large city in Japan. If you’re craving something familiar, you’ll find the same menu items as you would in the US, but you can also try some of the more exotic offerings not available in the US, such as the shrimp burger, or limited promotional offers which are too numerous to name – teriyaki burgers, burgers topped with fried pork, deep-fried burgers topped with stew, etc.

McDonalds meals will run you around 4.50 USD for a burger, side item, and drink of your choice, unless you order one of the gimmicky promotional offerings I just mentioned, which could cost you closer to 9 USD. Also, the drink menu in your set is not limited to soft drinks. Cold or hot coffee, iced tea, orange juice or soda are all the same price. The side items are also customizable at no added charge. So while you can get fries like in the states, you could also get a salad instead, or if you really want more meat, you can get a side of chicken nuggets with your burger.

Finally, I want to mention the difference in quality. If you’re wondering whether the food tastes as good as in America – it tastes BETTER. In America, McDonalds may not be what comes to mind when you think of fresh, tasty, food. In Japan, quality and customer service are extremely important, which is reflected in their food quality. Many times, my fries were so fresh from the fryer that I had to let them cool down before I could eat them! Also, you will NOT see burgers heated under a light lamp in a Japanese McDonalds, as they make your burger when you order it.

Various yakitori stands

These places can serve some surprisingly delicious, fresh, grilled meats. The best ones are independent little shops which you’ll find tucked in street corners or at roadside stands. Yakitori is simple, delicious, and American-friendly. It’s grilled, salted, meat after all! The only reason these quaint little shops have not been ranked higher on the list is because of the portion sizes. While yakitori typically costs 100 – 150 yen, or around 1 US dollar, per stick, these morsels are also quite small and can’t really serve as a meal unless you order about 8 of them, or 5 and a side of rice or something. If the yakitori stand is on the expensive side, you’ll be paying 150 yen per stick, which is approximately 1.30 USD, so you could end up spending 10 USD on a modest serving of 8 yakitori. I recommend this as a snack rather than a meal.

These iconic little red paper lanterns are the signs for yakitori restaurants. Look for them at any festival to show you where to treat your taste buds to savory, meaty, goodness. Also, yakitori is available at almost any Japanese Izakaya (bar-restaurant), and many other restaurants.

Buying Groceries

What to buy

When it comes to grocery shopping, the most reliable way to save money is by being selective in what types of food you purchase. That is to say, certain foods are more expensive in Japan than elsewhere, and others are cheaper. Fruit is more expensive in Japan, whereas vegetables are about the same as in the US. Meat tends to be a little more expensive than in America (Or a lot if you want to buy some of that special stuff like kobe beef or omigyuu), but this is not always the case, and you can find great deals depending on what you’re shopping for. Like in America, pork is cheaper than beef.

Milk is only slightly more expensive than in the US, but it tastes MUCH better (Trust me on this. They process milk differently in Japan; it has more milkfat so its richer and creamier). Fortunately or unfortunately, items that tend to be significantly cheaper in Japan include pastries and canned coffee drinks or sodas. You can get a muffin or other pastry at a grocery store for about $0.70 USD, and little cans of coffee (Around 5 ounces I guess) for as little as $0.50, or maybe $0.90 for a 16 ounce bottle if that’s what you’re craving.

Where to buy it

As in other countries, there are higher and lower priced grocery stores. I don’t have a method for finding the less expensive ones per se – just go in and check their prices. That being said, there are a couple of stores you should know about if you want to save money on food.

1)Don Quijote

This famous discount chain sells whatever they sell, at a cheap price. You can find food and beverages here at drastically discounted rates, but you probably won’t be able to complete your grocery shopping list here as Don Quijote is a store of many things, not only groceries. You can find appliances, medicine, and many other products at this discount store – an absolute must for anyone on a budget, and really just for anyone who hasn’t seen it before!

2)Lawson 100

The cheaper version of the same convenience store found all across Japan. Lawson 100 carries all sorts of staple foods, and most (but not all) of it sells, as the namesake implies, for 100 yen or less. Somewhat like I envisioned frontier general stores of the wild west to be, Lawson 100 has the bare essentials to survive in the same convenient location. You can get basic foods here like milk, fruits, meat, and vegetables. Various pastries, candy bars, boxes of tea, chips, or other snacks will all cost you 100 yen each, a little less than a dollar.

But the real convenience of Lawson 100 is found in the variety of their other products. As I said, this store carries life’s bare essentials. As such, you can get toilet paper, hand soap, towels, drinking mugs, and even umbrellas. As Lawson 100 is a convenience store, these will not be found in a wide selection. That is to say, you can buy ONE type of toilet paper, ONE type of umbrella, and maybe a few types of other products. Most astoundingly, you can also buy pajama pants, beanies, t-shirts, and other small clothing items for 100 yean each. Happy eating!

 

Oh, you need more?

Here’s a few last-minute ideas for eating cheap in Japan:

・It was common to exploit refill services and subsist on coffee and sugar during the particularly rough times of the Great Depression in America. Denny’s and some other eateries offer free refills on coffee, so I guess you can just drink coffee and sugar to live like Americans in 1930.
・There’s no license required in Japan for saltwater fishing. So, grab a line and go catch dinner!
・No one monitors how much of a condiment you use on your food. Pickled ginger is tasty, and you can heap piles of it on your curry at the local restaurant, drink a glass of sesame salad dressing, or eat spoonfuls of furikake seasoning at no extra charge. None of the preceding are recommended.
・Dumpster diving.
・Japanese grandmothers are gracious and love to feed people. Make friends with several of them and accept any offer to come over and meet their family – there will definitely be food.

You can find more informations about The Best Foods to Try in Japan on this article.