David has been living in Japan for close to ten years. He loves reading, history, music, and movies. He lives with his wife and kids.
If you are an aspiring tourist to Japan but are wary of the prices you see and hear, fear not! Yes, Japan is much more pricey compared to most countries in Asia, but like anywhere in the world, if you eat local, you’ll be able to save much more. But maybe you think if you go cheap, you won’t be able to "taste" the best of Japan. Again, fear not! Although the following is a list of affordable food options, it is by no means inferior to the more pricey food joints.
This is at the top of the list for a reason. Arguably the best bang for the buck, starting at under 300 yen ($3) you get a rice bowl topped with steaming BEEF goodness. And that’s just the normal size! You can choose the big size (oomori) if you’re feeling particularly hungry for a hundred yen or so. Most gyu-don establishments offer various sizes and add-ons like miso-soup, tofu, salad, natto, and a whole lot more.
I had a friend who visited and wanted to save on food to have more to spend on sight-seeing. Aside from a couple of meals at other joints, he mostly ate at gyu-don establishments, always ordering their big sized bowls, which are around 500 yen. In doing so, he was able to save on food and splurge on others.
The good thing about these gyu-don restaurants is that they can be found in almost all cities. In almost all my stay in Japan, I have always found one of these gyu-don restaurants tucked in almost every corner. The most popular of these restaurants are Matsuya, Sukiya, and Yoshinoya.
These flour-made noodles can be ordered hot (attakai) or cold (tsumetai) and are usually paired with tempura or katsu-don (deep-fried pork cutlet). Prices usually start at 300 yen for noodles and reach up to 400–600 yen if you add some sides. Some establishments have a vending machine where you get tickets and hand it to an attendant. Commonly, tempura and other sides are self-served. Popular udon restaurants include Hanamaru Udon, Marugame Seimen, and Rakugama Seimenjo. If you’re on a budget, don’t hesitate to stop in.
3. Convenience Stores
An article of this kind won’t be complete without the popular Japanese convenience stores. Before you avert your eyes and think of Slurpees and hotdogs, know that convenience stores here are way different than what you know in your home country. They’re basically like a mini-grocery, food stand, bookstore, and a bankrolled into one.
Did I mention you pay your bills here? On the food side, if you want steaming hot meat buns, tempura, and fried chicken ready to go, you’re in luck! They have it all and more! Bento-boxes can also be purchased for as low as 300 yen. Though beware of lunchtime as most of these bento-boxes can be depleted by the loads of Japanese workers rushing out for lunch. Popular chains include 7-11, Family Mart, Mini-Stop, Lawson, and Circle K.
4. Lunch Sets/Menu
In Japan, lunch is the way to go if you want to eat at a standard restaurant, but you’re strapped for cash. Most restaurants in Japan (excluding the two options above) offer menus for lunch and dinner, and the LUNCH menu is way cheaper. Even the expensive ones offer reasonable lunch meals. Lunch sets are usually between 11 and 2 (up to 3 for some), and if you know where to look, you’ll score a pretty good deal and save a lot of money.
Restaurants like Saizeriya and Gusto offer a 500 yen lunch meal complete with rice, a main course, salad, and soup. Other restaurants have their lunch sets priced just under 1,000 yen ($10), so if you want to take your time and relax, this is a good way to go.
5. Late-Night Shopping
This is one option that most tourists or newly arrived foreigners don’t know. Japanese supermarkets are very particular with the freshness of their produce, so it’s no wonder they try to dispose of most of their products an hour or so before closing time. Go to the grocery when it is about to close, and you can easily trump all the options mentioned above in terms of price.
Another tidbit is most groceries in Japan have a bakery inside, and these are not exempted from the late-night price cut. You can easily scoop up a huge piece of bread for 100yen. Not bad, right? So if you plan to cook your own food or are feeling a bit adventurous during night time, stop by your neighborhood supermarket and see what items you can get.
And there you have it, budget-friendly food options for tourists or residents on a budget! I know there are a lot more out there, and that’s the good thing about Japan. They are so crazy about food that you can get everything at any price. Happy eating!
© 2018 David Denver