Japan has a reputation as an expensive country to eat in, but there are many ways to fill up on good food cheap.
The cheapest option for eating in Japan is to buy bento boxes at the big supermarkets, especially right after 2PM and again after 6PM when they are discounted by up to 50%. You can pay as little as 100 yen for one of these discounted bento boxes that consist of a portion or rice or vegetable or 200-250 for a complete meal which contains meat or fish, a big portion of rice or noodles, and a salad. Franchised shops like Hotto Motto prepare bento boxes on demand. Convenience stores liek 7/11 or Lawson also sell bento, but the price for it in these places is usually 20-30% higher.
Another item which is worth buying for cooking is gyoza: dumplings that sell starting around 100 for a pack of 8 filled with vegetables.
It may sound bad, but if you are looking for cheap fast food McDonalds in Japan offers really good deals. Hamburgers and some other items are on offer for 100 yen.
Another option for eating cheap in Japan are the 100yen stores, but the only food you can find there are usually instant noodles or snacks, mainly coming from China.
Chocolate is another item that is a good buy in Japan compared with its prices in Europe or even many developing countries.
If you can’t live without sushi or sashimi you should head to fish markets, where you can get pieces of maguro (tuna) or other fresh fish for 1000 yen that are big enough to prepare a dinner for 4 people.
If you want to eat outside, the best value for money are udon, ramen, or soba (these are different terms for different kind of noodles) and gyudon (beef bowl) restaurants, where you can have a meal for 700-1200 yen. In these places you usually have to buy your ticket at a vending machine and then give it to the cooks.
Sushi bar bills vary greatly on what you pick and where you go. While most places don’t have English menus available, in may of them you can see platic replicas of the plates avaialble or at least menu with pictures, so you can just point your choice if you are not able to order a meal.
The good thing about restaurants in Japan is that there are no hidden costs: taxes are always included and tipping is not expected and actually may be considered offensive. When you leave a restaurant or a cafe in Japan you will hear people say “gochiso sama deshita” (“thank you for the meal”). Try to learn this simple sentence instead of leaving a tip.
If you like drinking alcohol you better go to an Izakaya (a Japanese pub) during happy hour. Here you can have a draft beer and maybe some snacks for even less that the cost of a can of beer at supermarket. Sake, or similar rice wines, can be also be cheaper. But a bottle of normal white or read wine starts at around 500 at supermarket, the same price you will pay for just a glass of the same product in a bar. Keep a lookout for the 300 yen bars too, as they can also be a real bargain if you miss happy hour elsewhere.
While there are tons of coffee places in Japan they are never cheap. It is usually worth buying a set of coffee or tea + a small piece of cake, which go for 350-500 yen — which gives you at least a 30% discount on the price of these items if purchased separately. The worst thing about Japanese coffee is that it sucks. It’s a mystery: in a country where all food usually taste somewhere between delicious and divine, Japanese people like bitter, disgusting coffee, and are willing to pay a lot for it.
Moreover, if you think go to a coffe with your laptop and work at a cafe in Japan, don’t expect to find free WI-FI. Most of the places offer access via some big company plan that you have to purchase elsewhere which may not even be available for you if you don’t live in Japan. This is another incongruence in Japan: in a country so technologically advanced free WI-FI is still a rare commodity.
In every corner in Japan you will find vending machines that sell water, soda, and coffee, both cold and hot, for 100-150 Yen.
There are also plenty of street food stalls that are worth a try, and generally are not expensive.
It’s very very difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan, because not only are fish and pork on every plate, fruits and vegetables are mostly imported and are therefore very expensive. Fruit especially, with exceptions of banana that can be bought for for little more than 100 yen at a bunch of 2-3, can be ridicously expensive. The simplest apple cost 125yen each! You can have better luck with some vegetables when they are in season, and soy beans are the best value for money. But, overall, being a vegetarian in Japan it’s going to be painful for your pocket.
Keep in mind the control quality for freshness in Japan are the highest in the world. The food is often heavily discounted after few hours is put up for sale because it will be thrown away relatively quickly.
While Japan is an expensive country, food can be had cheaply if you follow the simple guidelines outlined above. It is actually far easier to find better value for the money food in Japan than in most other developed countries.
Return to the Japan Travel Guide.