Miso Hungry: How To Eat Well In Japan Without Going Broke

Japanese sushi
Sushi time!

As a traveler who freely admits that I choose my next destination in large part based on the demands of my stomach, it’s little wonder I’ve spent over a year traveling around Asia. There is so much good eating to be done here, so many flavors to explore, so many new dishes to discover. The only thing that is potentially better than the meals themselves in this part of the world is how little meals that make your taste buds sing out in perfect harmony tend to cost—bowls of piping hot soup, sizzling stir fries, delectable dumplings, all for less than a dollar, maybe two if I’m splurging. Yes, one of the most delicious delights about Asia is how economical eating here is.

Unless, of course, you choose to head to Japan.

As the birthplace of sushi, tempura, and ramen, any traveler in search of his or her next great meal is going to want to spend some time eating through this incredible island. Unfortunately, Japan is one of the most expensive countries that you can visit in the entire world, never mind Asia, so many budget-minded travelers drop the country from their itinerary.

My husband and I took the opposite tack—Japan was one of our dream destinations, so when we kicked off our RTW trip, we did so by boarding a flight to Tokyo. In our 27 days traveling around the country, we turned the art of finding delicious but affordable meals into a science; while I can’t promise you that these tips will get you through Japan on $25 a day, they will certainly allow you to eat well while minimizing the impact of your daily meals on your budget.

Sayonara Street Food?

The Technicolor entrance to Osaka’s Dotonburi Alley
The Technicolor entrance to Osaka’s Dotonburi Alley

One of the surefire ways to keep food costs minimal in Asia is electing to eat street food rather than heading to restaurants. Unfortunately, in most of Japan, this isn’t an option—eating on the go or on the street simply isn’t done. Even ice cream cones are often packaged up so that you can enjoy them in the privacy of your own home!

However, even in a country where rules are rarely bent, there are a few places where dining al fresco is still possible. Osaka is one of the country’s top food destinations, with its infamous Dotonburi Alley the perfect venue to graze on the go. Although there are plenty of restaurants to entice you, you can also find stalls serving up things like gyoza (Japanese dumplings), yakitori (grilled meat on sticks), takoyaki (balls of dough filled with nuggets of octopus), and even fried chicken! You might also want to head to Fukuoka, which is known as the street food capital of Japan. Here you’ll find food stalls (known as yatai) serving up everything from tempura, to hot pot, to the local delicacy that is Hakata ramen.

Delicious skewers of fried chicken fresh from the street!
Delicious skewers of fried chicken fresh from the street!

Convenience Is King

A sushi set (featuring some inarizushi & veggie, egg & crab rolls) purchased from a convenience store.
A sushi set (featuring some inarizushi & veggie, egg & crab rolls) purchased from a convenience store.

I know, I know, you didn’t travel all the way to Japan to buy Cup Noodles from the 7 Eleven, but in this country, the local convenience stores often have far more to offer you than instant noodles. It may seem sketchy to chow down on convenience-store sushi, but I promise you, not only is it affordable, but it also tastes pretty good! If you’re worried about getting sick (not really something you need to fret about in a place as hygiene obsessed as Japan), there are usually vegetarian options that feature egg and pickled vegetables that are less likely to give you tummy trouble. My favorite snack to pick up here was inarizushi, little pockets made of fried tofu skin that have been sweetened with a teriyaki-style sauce and then stuffed with sushi rice. Couldn’t be simpler (or cheaper!), but I found them filling and really tasty. Other things to try are onigiri (rice balls, sometimes flavored with things like shiso or stuffed with other ingredients) or, if you’re really hungry, a full bento box meal that will include an assortment of dishes.

 Hard to believe this was purchased a convenience store!
Hard to believe this was purchased a convenience store!

Another similar place to check out with a distinctly Japanese flavor is the ubiquitous 100 Yen (or 99 Yen) shop. As the names imply, nearly everything inside is sold for just 100 Yen (+ 5% tax), so this is a great place to pick up snacks and drinks for incredibly low prices. Some stores even have a fresh food section, where you can get fruits (which are often crazy expensive elsewhere) and pre-prepared bento box meals.

Multitask: Shop & Eat!

 An overflowing candy display in a Japanese department store.
An overflowing candy display in a Japanese department store.

If you think dining in a department store is the Japanese equivalent of a grotty western food court, think again! Most department stores will have an entire floor devoted solely to food (some even have two!); often this level is the bottom floor of the department store, but sometimes it will be right in the middle or on the very top floor. In some cases, the floor will be divided into sit-down restaurants exactly like the ones you would find out on the street, but at a fraction of the price. Many of the restaurants will be dedicated to one thing, whether it is hot pot (shabu shabu), tonkatsu (fried pork cutlets), or maybe even dessert! We ate at an incredible tempura restaurant while in a department store in Kyoto—each piece was fried to order before our eyes and was impossibly light and crispy.

A teriyaki katsu bowl, purchased from the grocery section of a department store.
A teriyaki katsu bowl, purchased from the grocery section of a department store.

In other instances, the food floor of a department store may be set up a bit more like a grocery store, with many little stalls selling various prepared foods. You can wander through and pick out whatever looks—or smells!—good to you, and if you’re really lucky, you might even snag a few free samples. From big chunks of crispy pork belly to sweet taiyaki pastry stuffed with various fillings, practically any Japanese food you might possibly crave can be found at department stores and shopping malls. Even if you walk away otherwise empty-handed, that doesn’t mean you have to leave on an empty stomach!

Underground Food Movement

 Train stations (& Parco department stores) are treasure troves of good, cheap food
Train stations (& Parco department stores) are treasure troves of good, cheap food.

To find the best food in any country, our quests often take us out onto the streets, but in Japan, we routinely found ourselves heading underneath the streets! As we raced about the country using the extensive rail network, we soon realized that most train stations featured a lower level that was packed with restaurants offering quick and cheap fuel for hungry passengers moving about the country. In Sendai my husband & I actually made a special trip to the train station one evening for dinner so we could try the local specialty (gyutan—cow’s tongue), as we had read that all the best restaurants were located in the station. (Note: Japanese train stations are relatively relaxed in terms of security so you don’t need to show tickets to enter the building, only if getting on a train.)

One of the many restaurants hallways in the underground mall, Porto
One of the many restaurants hallways in the underground mall, Porto

If you find yourself in Kyoto, there is actually an entire underground mall called Porto right in front of the main train station where delectable restaurants line the corridors. We spent nearly a week in Kyoto and only tried a fraction of the restaurants on offer at Porto, but every one we tried was excellent. Nearly all of the shops feature the plastic food models out front for which Japan is famous, so it’s easy to browse until you find something that catches your eye (and if you think it looks good when its made of plastic, wait until you see the edible version!).

Keep it Local

Japan’s spin on the hamburger… one has rice patties for buns!
Japan’s spin on the hamburger… one has rice patties for buns!

If you spend a lot of time in Japan, you might find yourself craving a taste of home or wish to broaden your culinary repertoire (variety is the spice of life, after all!). Unfortunately, eating anything other than Japanese food is one of the quickest ways to lighten your wallet. International food tends to be quite limited, and on the rare occasions when you can find an alternative to the local cuisine, you will always pay for that privilege. In Osaka, we were both craving Mexican food, but when we discovered that a single taco was going for $7US at the one restaurant we found, those cravings quickly died. If you absolutely must have a break from sushi and soba, consider the popular Italian chain, Saizeriya: the food will be a weird hodgepodge of Japanese-Italian-random-Western-food fusion rather than authentic Italian, but it is pretty cheap.

And if you find yourself gravitating towards the hypnotic golden arches of McDonald’s, pop inside to check out the special dishes only available in Japan, and then head to a Mos Burger instead. It’s the most popular burger chain in the country and is 100% Japanese, so you can sate your burger craving while also having a genuine local experience. Other fast food restaurants that aren’t especially fancy, but will get the job done and are as cheap as can be are: Yoshinoya and Sukiya (which specialize in beef bowls), Co Co Curry (a chain specializing in Japanese curry plates), and Torikizoku (a yakitori chain where EVERYTHING on the menu, from food to drinks, is just 280 Yen (~$3US)).

A Yoshinoya beef bowl.
A Yoshinoya beef bowl.

A Few Other Morsels of Advice

  • If you do want to eat at fancier restaurants, consider visiting at lunch time—many restaurants offer excellent set lunch deals that are a fraction of the price of what a meal in the evening would cost.
  • Most people heading to Japan intend to eat their weight in sushi. If you are a raw fish aficionado, consider seeking out kaiten sushi restaurants, otherwise known as conveyer belt sushi! Not only are these places super Japanese, but you can often eat a lot more (excellent) sushi for far less than you would at a more traditional restaurant. Prices are either fixed for all dishes, or determined based on the color of the plate; to tally your tab, the waitress counts up your dishes, and voila! Many places have a menu where you can place specific orders in case the roll you really want doesn’t happen to be making the rounds.
  • Don’t rule out izakayas. Although these casual establishments tend to be all about the drinking, they often serve up good, if simple, food at reasonable prices. Sure beats a bowl of peanuts!
  • But try to lay off the alcohol while in Japan if you can. Beer in particular is really expensive and can easily double or triple the cost of your final bill. We stopped in at a beerfest while in the city of Matsumoto and 1L of beer was being sold at 2600Y (which, at the time was about $32US)! Save your drinking for somewhere like Cambodia where you can get a pitcher for about $2US instead.
  • Instead of beer, also avoid sodas (which are also pricey) when dining out and ask for tap water—it’s safe to drink throughout the country and is free! To ask for it at restaurants, say “Oh-meezoo koo-duh-seye”.
  • If you can’t get through the day without some kind of flavored beverage, turn to one of the countries numerous vending machines for a cheaper alternative (our favorite was the drink “Clear Peach”. Perfectly refreshing on a humid August day!).
  • Splurge at least once! Japanese cuisine is some of the most magnificent the world has to offer and is really like an elegant art form. Don’t miss out on a truly unique dining experience because you’re so worried about your daily budget.
Tasty, healthy, & cheap—a winning combination!
Tasty, healthy, & cheap—a winning combination!

By employing some of the strategies outlined here, you’ll be able to enjoy local food during your time in Japan without digging to deep into your budget. May all of your food adventures in the land of the rising sun be supremely oishii!

stephatarAuthor Bio: Originally from Toronto, Canada, Steph moved to Nashville, TN where she (eventually) completed her PhD in Psychology and met here lifelong partner in crime, Tony. In August 2012, after years of saving, the two of them left on their RTW trip and spent the first month burning through their savings in Japan. Their travels were meant to last 12 months and take them through Asia and Europe before they returned home to their “real” lives. Instead, they have now been traveling for over 17 months and have no plans to leave Asia (or stop traveling) any time soon. As they slowly eat their way around the world, they blog about their adventures over at 20 Years Hence. For extra shenanigans, you can also follow Steph & Tony on Facebook or Twitter.

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62 Comments

  • My favorite part of Japan was the food. We only splashed out twice – one at a fancy sushi-ya, and once at a shabu shabu restaurant. The rest of the time it was ramen, konbini-ya (convenience store) food, which like Steph says, is WAY better than the stuff at 7-11 in the States, and stuff from the yatai stalls at night on the streets.

    • We didn’t get to make it to Fukuoka to try out the yatai stalls, but we know we will definitely be returning to Japan one day and will make an effort to check them out! And honestly, why can’t 7-11s back home be awesome like the ones in Asia? NOT FAIR!

    • I flew to Tokyo to have some sushi for the weekend, so I know what you mean! I’m the biggest fan of sushi on this planet!!!

  • Haha, that’s one of the best titles ever! I love Japanese food and was pleasantly surprised by how affordable much of it can be. The street food is safe to eat and nothing beats a steaming bowl of ramen. Another tip is to hit up the convenience stores which are filled with all kinds of snacks from stuffed rice balls to club sandwiches.

    • Glad you enjoyed the title—at the very least, it amused me so I figured that was reason enough to go with it! ;)

      Japan is such an easy country to travel through on the food front because you know that no matter what you wind up with, it’s going to be delicious and not get you sick. I can’t say that about every (or even most) Asian country we’ve been to.

      We ate a lot of convenience store meals in Japan. At first I felt a bit lame, but when the prices were so cheap and the food was so good, and so many locals were doing the same, I soon got over that!

  • Great article Steph, you’ve done a lot of research and provided a great insight. Whilst I’ve never been to Japan I’m always fearful of the cost and it is frightening to hear that even with $25 a day it can be a real struggle.

    Thanks for the advice, this seems like a great guide and I’ll remember 7 Eleven!

    • You can certainly get by eating in Japan on less than $25/day, especially if you follow these tips. For reference, my husband I spent, on average, $23US per day for the TWO of us on food while in Japan (so ~$11.50US per person). I would say the real budget buster in Japan is lodging and taking the trains; it’s hard to find ways to cut costs there, but at least with food, there are plenty of options.

  • Ahhh, I struggled to contain my excitement over the food when I got to Japan. I traveled alot via train, so managed to spend a lot of time eating in the underground restaurant scene. I loved the curry branches they have there. Takoyaki from Osaka street stalls were also fairly inexpensive and delicious, and the sushi.. don’t get me started. Love Japanese food altogether!

  • Hey Steph, thanks for writing such a wonderful article! Japan has always been on my list but is constantly pushed to the bottom due to costs. I guess if you know where to look and take great advice like this to save on food (and other costs) it definitely becomes a much more affordable destination. I will get there one day!

    • The yen is low and very weak right now, so it’s the perfect time to plan a trip to Japan! It’s definitely an expensive country, there’s no denying that, BUT there are lots of ways to lower your costs without sacrificing the quality of your trip.

  • A burger with a rice bun, huh? I would sure give it a try. As long as it’s not too exotic I’m for anything grilled on a stick! I admit that if I’m on the run I will grab a sushi to-go pack to give my craving a fix. Great post, Steph! :)

  • Great post! Very informative and helpful! Japan can certainly empty our wallets, but good food can be such a bargain if you know where to look! And it love the title of the article too ;)

  • What a great post and so full of useful tips. We loved eating around Tokyo and got most of our snacks and food souvenirs from the 100 Yen stores. We also got most of our food at the department store and train station basement food courts. They had the best choices and all for great prices. There are a many Yoshinoyas here in Southern California inspired from the Japan version but the ones in Tokyo have way better service. I feel like eating Japanese food now :)

  • I really loved the floors of shopping malls dedicated to nothing but food…talk about a food court!!! We also found some restaurants that offered 2 hours of unlimited drinks for what equalled about $10 USD, which was a fun way to kick off a night on the town, and proved to be MUCH cheaper than buying drinks individually in bars!

    • I forgot to mention those all you can drink establishments! We didn’t give them a try, but given how pricy alcohol is in Japan, I definitely could see how they might be a good budget saver if you’re planning a big night out.

  • Great tips! Japan is so incredibly expensive but there are a lot of alternatives to still enjoy nice food without spending a fortune as you said Steph, plus if we survived a month there on our tight budget everybody else can :)

  • When we traveled Japan, we ate mostly in depachikas and izakayas – always inexpensive and scrumptious. Japan is our favorite food destination in the world… Great post, many congrats! Oh, and I recognize the Porto underground mall! We had some great meals there… Good luck and safe travels!

  • I love your opening line that your stomach dictates your next destination! That is often I feel and love to take full advantage of the culinary specialties of a region. That sushi looks so fantastic! You’ve offered so many great suggestions here, Steph!

  • I always enjoy Steph and Tony’s culinary adventures and insights. Really great tips. I’ll definitely keep this in mind as a trip to Japan is in the horizon. (Bad idea to read this before lunch. Now, I’m really miso hungr and might have to order in from our fave Japanese joint.)

    • Same here. Steph’s culinary journeys across Asia are one of my favourite posts to read on Sunday morning, but I can’t read them on an empty stomach though :P!

  • What a treasure trove of information. I would have to bone up on my Japanese foods before heading to the country as I like to know what to eat. This is one great guide and useful for every type of traveler. Thank you.

  • This is such a great guide! I lived in southern Japan for two years and totally agree that eating doesn’t have to break the bank. It’s really all about where you go, and there are so many great deals to be had. This post made me super hungry though!

  • I’ve never been to a country where almost everyone is a food connoisseur. Teach English there and on Monday ask what they did over the weekend and the conversation may very well be about food. :-) I sometimes think about going back almost solely to try more of the infinite variety of food.

  • I think I need to bookmark this post!

    I think if I’m not mistaken there’s a discount for sushi after xxPM in the evening? Not sure about the time :-D

  • Thank you for the good suggestions. I Actually found myself eating a lot of Udon noodle soups in Japan, sometimes with some added tempura. But even if it was a really budget friendly dish, Udon is unfortunately not the tastiest meal, especially not after having it a few days in a row…
    But what was also quite affordable and my personal favorite in Japan, was Okonomiyaki. Did you have the chance to try that?

  • Tantalizing post and really useful addresses and tips! I just read that soba noodles have been designed Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. Until I can get to Japan, I’ll learn to make soba myself!

  • Wow! This is really thorough!
    When I travelled to Japan a few years back I really did splash out on the food, avoiding the 7 Elevens haha… But oh well, you live only once. Will give izakayas a go next time :)
    Really good guide!
    Les

  • The food always seemed to be pretty cheap in Japan, at least compared to New York. I was alone most of the time so I found it cheaper to eat pre-prepared food than buy it and make it yourself

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