Japan Trip Report – Part 3 (Eating Affordably In Japan)


The Tako family is currently traveling around Japan for the entire month of October and blogging about our travels.  In Part 1 of our Japan Trip Report I showed-off where we’re staying for a big chunk of this month-long Japan adventure.  In Part 2 we took a mini-trip to Wakayama for a little R&R.  Now, in Part 3 I’m going to discuss how we’re eating affordably in Japan.

Is Japan an expensive place to eat?  It certainly can be!  Japan has a reputation for notoriously high prices, but in my experience it doesn’t have to be that way!  You can definitely eat affordably in Japan if you’re willing to try out a few new things.

Delicious food is abundant in the country, and it comes in all different price points.  You can easily spend hundreds of dollars on a single delicious streak, OR spend under $10 for an entire meal of decadent eats.  Japan provides excellent options at all different price levels, and accessing the cheaper options might actually be less work than the higher-end selections.

In this post, I’m going to take you through some of my favorite “cheap eats” in Japan and how to find them!

 

Grocery Stores

If you want to eat cheap in Japan, grocery stores provide some of the most affordable food in the entire country.  Just like grocery stores in other parts of the world, fresh produce is usually a great deal.  For those willing to prepare their own meals in Japan, this is going be the cheapest option.

grocery store veggies

Cheap loss-leaders (like this tofu sale) are also a great way to cut food costs if you don’t mind doing a little cooking.

tofu sale

But not everyone wants to cook on vacation — For those folks, buying prepared items from the grocery store is a great way to save.  Bento boxes, sushi plates, fried chicken, salads, sandwiches and dozens of other prepared foods are available all at low cost.

chirashi zushi

There’s also plenty of sushi rolls for cheap too… check out this deliciously cheap ‘maki’ bar I found at a nearby grocery store!  Seven flavors of sushi roll, all for 93 yen ($0.83)!

maki bar

I’m not kidding — Grocery stores really are an affordable place to eat when you’re in Japan.  We had an incredible grocery store lunch last week for $15 — Items include cooked mackerel, maguro sashimi, krab sashimi, potato salad, a cooked spinach dish, a dessert bread (like a donut), and a sandwich.

The chopsticks, soy sauce, and wasabi were all provided free from the grocery store.

grocery store lunch

Despite only costing a few dollars, the sushi was delicious… absolutely nothing like the sushi you find in American grocery stores.

grocery store sushi lunch

 

Outdoor Food Stalls

Outdoor food stalls are famous the world over for being affordable places to eat, and Japan is no exception. Ramen, yakitori, udon, and grilled squid are all popular and can be purchased from outdoor food stalls in Japan.  Ordering from these stands is usually cheaper than sit-down restaurants.

In the Kansai region where we’re staying, the most popular outdoor food stall is takoyaki … aka octopus balls.

tako

This very popular street food is essentially a chunk of octopus grilled inside a dough ball with a bunch of toppings and sauces.  Outdoor grills are used to make these guys, and the chefs can flip an octopus ball with a mere flick of the wrist.

takoyaki cooking

Prices tend to vary from stall to stall, but I’ve seen prices from 300 yen to more than 600 yen depending on what you’re ordering ($2.67 to $5.36 in USD) .  This makes for a very affordable snack when you’re out tourist-ing.

We recently ordered a small order of 6 takoyaki balls for about 400 yen ($3.57).  With toppings, it looked like this:

takoyaki

It’s really quite delicious…. but, you have to be comfortable eating octopus.

 

Conveyor Belt Sushi

Fresh sushi at affordable prices is kindof a white whale in most places around the world — you can either have fresh sushi (but not affordable prices) OR affordable prices (but not-so-fresh sushi).

In Japan things are a little different.  You can have your sushi-cake and eat it too.  Incredibly good sushi at very affordable prices!

Just how affordable am I talking here?  How about 100 Yen a plate ($0.89)!  More expensive plates go for 150 yen ($1.34) to 200 yen ($1.76)

sushi plates

No, this is not some kind of special unicorn we found…we actually just walked into this place at random knowing these cheap sushi places are a pretty good deal.  This one was called HamaZushi.

100 yen sushi

Unlike conveyor belt sushi places in the states, most ordering is done via touchscreens.  You punch in the sushi you want, and then hit the ‘order’ button.

touchscreen sushi ordering

If you’re not comfortable reading and ordering in Japanese, these places have English menu’s available.

english ordering

A few minutes after you’ve punched in your order, a little jingle plays and your sushi comes shuttling down the conveyor belt ready to eat.

sushi1

Tuna not your thing?  How about eel?

sushi unagi

Or, perhaps shrimp-sushi is more your style?

sushi ebi

There are plenty of unusual options too.  While I didn’t try expensive items like the raw smoked duck, I was brave enough to try prosciutto sushi:

prosciutto sushi

Honestly folks, I could just keep going here with plate after plate of delicious sushi.  I must have taken a hundred photos.  If you’re into sushi, these places are incredible.  They also have very affordable non-sushi items, like this karaage.

kariaage

I also ordered this clam miso soup, which was quite good for only cost 150 yen ($1.34)

clam miso

How much was the bill?  After taxes, it was a mere 3,888 yen for 31 items!  That’s an incredible $34.71 in USD!

sushi bill

 

Convenience Stores

Convenience Stores work kind of like grocery stores in that they carry many prepared food items.  However, Convenience stores are going to be more costly than the average grocery store, and carry less selection.

In a pinch if there isn’t a grocery store nearby, we just swing into a nearby convenience store and grab some food.  The key advantage is that they’re absolutely everywhere in Japan.  I doubt you could travel more than 10 miles in this country without encountering a convenience store.

convenience stores

While I’ve never climbed to the top of Mount Fuji, I’d hazard a guess that there’s a convenience store at the top.

Popular brands of Convenience store in Japan include Lawson, 7 & I (formerly 7-11), Circle K, and Family Mart.  They’re all pretty good.

 

Gyuudon Shops

While burger shops might be popular fast food in North America, gyudon shops with names like Yoshinoya, Sukiya, or Matsuya are very popular here in Japan.

matsuya

Gyudon is a dish consisting of thinly sliced marinated meat, stir fried with onions or other vegetables, and then placed over a bowl of rice.  As you might expect, gyudon shops specialize in this affordable dish, and can serve up bowls like this for 480 yen ($4.29 in USD).

gyuudon

This makes for a flavorful and affordable meal in a pinch.  Gyudon shops also serve up a number of other affordable dishes — there’s curries and other seasonal items (like udon) that show up on the menu.  Meals at these popular “fast food” shops are typically less than 500 yen ($4.46).

 

Osaka Osho

One of my favorite “cheap eats” in the Kansai area has to be a local chain of incredibly affordable Chinese restaurants called “Osaka Osho”.  The hottest deal at Osaka Osho (and probably a loss-leader) has to be the gyoza…

gyoza

For 220 yen ($1.96), you can get six of these freshly made gyoza that are incredibly good. It’s a great deal!

The good deals don’t stop there either — I’m a big fan of Osho’s kimchi fried rice, which costs 486 yen ($4.34).

kimchi fried rice

(The fried rice also comes with a soup, but I neglected to take a picture of it.)

Combine the gyoza, fried rice and soup together, and you’ve got a great meal for less than $7.

Our whole family enjoys Osaka Osho — The boys both love the gyoza, and Mrs. Tako enjoys this crispy noodle dish (I think it’s called ‘age soba’) for 626 yen ($5.59).

fried noodle dish

If you’re in the Kansai area, I can definitely recommend this affordable restaurant.  Give Osaka Osho a try, and it won’t disappoint… especially if you love gyoza.

 

University Cafeteria’s

This last tip actually came to me from a local — another way to find affordable meals in Japan is to check out University cafeteria’s!  They’re open to the public and the food is quite good.

The idea sounded strange to me, so I just had to go check it out.  On a spare day, I went to the nearby Nara University campus and walked into the cafeteria — here’s what I found.

university food

That was the “sample” plate.  The meal includes a fried pork dish called tonkatsu, salad, rice, miso soup, some kind of macaroni salad, and another dish I couldn’t identify (it might be potatoes?)

Anyway, the whole ensemble only cost 420 yen (that’s $3.75 in USD).  Nope, I’m not kidding!

You order by means of a vending machine (like so many other things in Japan)

university vending machine

Usually there’s more than one option available too.  Here’s the second “special of the day” at this university.  This one cost 450 yen ($4.02)

university food too

The main course appears to be gyudon.  While this sample doesn’t look quite as good as the last one, it does contain a number of similar items — rice, miso soup, salad, and another side dish not shown in the sample.

 

Affordable Eats In Japan Do Exist

Yes, affordable food really does exist in Japan!  And, it absolutely delivers in flavor, price and variety!  You really don’t need to spend more than $10 for a wonderful meal in Japan (and frequently less than that)!

One of the big main themes of this Japan series is that Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.  By living more like locals, it’s easy to source great food at very affordable prices.  There’s no reason to break the bank when traveling in Japan, and certainly no reason to compromise on the quality of your food.

Got some “cheap food in Japan” stories?  I’d love to hear them!

30 thoughts on “Japan Trip Report – Part 3 (Eating Affordably In Japan)

  • October 17, 2017 at 11:52 PM
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    Seems like you are enjoying your trip!

    I have always said Japan has better price/quality than almost anywhere else I have been (certainly cheaper/better than the US or Europe).

    You can find all sorts of amazing lunch deals for under 1,000 yen, as well as the ones you mentioned. I’m a big fan of Yoshinoya and the cheap sushi places (Kappa Sushi is good, as well as a local place near us that has the same price and even better quality).

    I think Vietnam might give Japan a run for its money in terms of cheap and excellent quality, or Thailand for cheap, but otherwise Japan is the food heaven as far as I am concerned 🙂

    Reply
  • October 18, 2017 at 2:15 AM
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    Hey, you are eating takoyaki- isn’t that cannibalism?

    At Mount Fuji new 5th station (start of the normal hiking trail) there is a convenience store but not higher on the mountain. There are mountain huts along the way where you can pay for lodging (sardine style packed together on tatamis on wooden bunks) and get meals there too.

    However it can be done in a day hike- it took me about 4 hours to get up from the 5th station to the summit and about 2 hours to come down. The distance is quite short, about 4 miles each way and it’s very steep. It’s about 4000 vertical feet of gain so moderately difficult but nothing too hard at all. It may be tougher for your kids but they can make it too if the weather is fine (official climbing season is July 1 – Aug 31). I encourage you to do it once. For me I already went up and the saying is “a fool climb Fuji twice” so I guess I better not go back 🙂

    -Mike

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    • October 18, 2017 at 7:06 PM
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      Shhhh…we don’t talk about cannibalism here Mike!

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  • October 18, 2017 at 2:50 AM
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    What a beautiful work of art! I am reading your post before eating dinner (I woke up early today), and I just can’t forget all the delish dishes you presented. Is it wrong for me to think about stir-fried squid when I saw the squid photo at the top of the post? >_<

    I WILL definitely try all the bentos and all the delicious looking food when I visit Japan one day. It's on my bucket list. I know every country has their unique cuisine, but Japanese is so beautifully presented that my eyes and appetite can't resist.

    P.S. You are so lucky! :p 😀

    Reply
    • October 18, 2017 at 7:05 PM
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      You really should visit Ms. FAF! I think you’d love it. Tons of wonderful food, affordable prices, and a interesting culture to boot!

      Reply
      • October 18, 2017 at 7:25 PM
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        I will! I just can’t wait. It’s just a matter of time. But it will happen one day! Thanks for your kind response! ^.^

        Reply
  • October 18, 2017 at 6:27 AM
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    Amazing pictures and eats. We hit Osaka Osho every time we visit, and it does seem like some of the items are priced below cost.

    My favorite cheap food in Japan is okonomiyaki – eating it with a big beer at a dive train station restaurant after a long day is a fun and unique experience.

    Sounds like you guys are having a blast – looking forward to the next installment.
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    • October 18, 2017 at 7:03 PM
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      Thank’s Paul! We’ve made okonomiyaki ourselves here, but haven’t hit up a restaurant yet. I should probably try that!

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  • October 18, 2017 at 6:34 AM
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    Oh man, this food porn is amazing.

    Agreed–shopping in a grocery store is cheaper! And you’ll find a lot of really frickin’ neat things. I got to live in South Korea for a summer and it was amazing all the neat things they had. I tried to learn Hangul so I could know what I was buying, but that didn’t pan out too well (I could at least read it out loud, but still didn’t know what it meant lol!). I discovered quail eggs in the grocery store for $1 for 12. In Texas it costs $4 for SIX eggs, so I was pretty stoked.

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    • October 18, 2017 at 7:02 PM
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      It’s interesting how some things end up being super expensive and some things end-up being much cheaper. Sushi for example is much cheaper and higher quality here for the price. Some ingredients like those quail eggs are also cheaper. I think it’s mainly economies of scale — those ingredients are just used more commonly and cost reductions get put into place.

      Reply
  • October 18, 2017 at 9:17 AM
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    This all looks delicious and a little frightening given my limited experience with Japanese cuisine. Thanks so much for sharing your trip. The food definitely looks much tastier and better quality than what you can get in the States at comparable places.

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    • October 18, 2017 at 6:59 PM
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      For the most part that’s true — for the price, the quality does seem higher in Japan. I’ve noticed the ingredients tend to be fresher.

      If you’re not familiar with Japanese cuisine, the best way to learn is to just dive in! There’s tons of good stuff, and I’ll give anything at least *one* try. More often than not, I make a ton of wonderful discoveries.

      Like just this morning — I discovered that ginger pairs really well with a pork soup broth when I was trying a local Okinawan dish called ‘Soki Soba’.

      Reply
  • October 18, 2017 at 11:24 AM
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    Wow this is so amazing, thanks for converting the yen to the dollar, it really helps give perspective in knowing that it’s not that expensive to eat in Japan.

    I wouldn’t have thought to head to a university cafeteria or a conveyer belt sushi restaurant! I’m surprised (shocked actually) that 30+ items was only around $30.

    The last time I went to Japan (a LONG time ago, I think 10+ years ago) all I ate was ramen because I thought that was the cheapest way to go. Next time I go (there are always cheap flights with ANA from Vancouver) which is hopefully sooner than later, I will check out your tips, thank you!

    PS the above commenter about cannibalism and eating takoyaki- love it! 😉
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    Reply
    • October 18, 2017 at 6:53 PM
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      Wow, you really missed out if all you ate was ramen! (Granted the ramen is really good too)

      Back in the 90’s I think it *was* more expensive in Japan, but after 20 years of deflation it’s really NOT that expensive for someone willing to take frugal options. It’s still possible to blow tons of money here, but if you’re willing to “live local” it’s surprisingly affordable.

      Reply
  • October 18, 2017 at 2:23 PM
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    I was supposed to go to Japan back in 2015 on a business trip. Unfortunately, it was canceled and I never got to go. After seeing these posts, I’m definitely putting Japan back on my to-go list when I decide to work for the U.S. Army in Korea some years down the road as a civilian. Korea will be our hub for travel to Asian countries.

    I never realized eating out in Japan could be so cheap. I had always heard it was expensive but, of course, this was from friends and family who visited Japan and did the “tourist” thing. I LOVE SUSHI or SASHIMI so I know I’d love to eat in Japan. I just had takoyaki in Ogden, Utah on my last business trip. I think it cost around $8 as an appetizer for six balls. Good but pricey.

    Glad you’re enjoying your trip! When you get back, you’ll be welcomed by the familiar Pacific Northwest rain that we’ve missed for so many months… j/k 🙂

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    • October 18, 2017 at 6:49 PM
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      I’m not missing the rain at all! While it is fall here, it’s much warmer.

      Next time you get the opportunity to travel to Japan, definitely take it!

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  • October 18, 2017 at 5:22 PM
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    You had me at sushi! Guess I know what I’m having for dinner tonight. I’m sure its not as good as what you are having, but it will have to do. Japan is definitely on my list of places to visit, thanks for the tips!

    Reply
  • October 19, 2017 at 2:12 AM
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    thank you so much for your travel story. from italy

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  • October 19, 2017 at 4:28 AM
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    Everything looks great. We love Japanese food and it’s great to see the variety you’re getting. The touch screen sushi sounds good. We’ll have to try it out next time. I’m not a big fan of kaiten sushi in the US, but I’d visit them more often in Japan. The convenient stores are so cool in Japan. We visited them very often to get rice balls and other snacks.
    Great tip about the university cafeteria. We’ll have to check it out next time. Did you feel out of place?

    Reply
  • October 19, 2017 at 4:42 AM
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    Sorry, but I’d gladly take an order of those takoyaki balls! And some of that sushi too!

    After seeing that sushi train I might have to get some for myself. Only it won’t be as good or cheap!

    Reply
    • October 20, 2017 at 6:19 AM
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      You should visit Japan Mr. CK. The sushi is great, and in certain parts of the country the surfing is good too!

      Reply
  • October 19, 2017 at 5:12 AM
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    How did it feel eating your own kind?? 🙂

    Almost everything looks amazing (no eel for me!)!! I have never been to the conveyor belt sushi place but I am dying to go!! It’s weird and fun and seems reasonably priced. Though I haven’t been to Japan, when I was in Hong Kong I visited the grocery stores. The food was all so beautiful and very inexpensive. It’s definitely your best bet on a low budget…or just because you don’t want to pay for inflated restaurant prices.
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    • October 20, 2017 at 6:17 AM
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      Grocery stores are easily the cheapest way to eat in Japan, and the food is surprisingly good!

      Reply
  • October 19, 2017 at 7:41 AM
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    Very cool! I always hear how expensive Japan is from our Japanese friend that goes back home every summer for several months. She must be living in the rich part of town since I never hear about any of these deals (she’s super frugal at home in the US).

    All this stuff looks good and busts the perception I had of Japanese cuisine that it is mostly raw fish. I’d love to try all of this (even the raw fish though I doubt I’ll change my verdict on it!).
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    Reply
    • October 20, 2017 at 6:15 AM
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      The raw fish is only a tiny part of Japanese cuisine, just like hamburgers aren’t all we eat in America.

      Certain kinds of things can be very expensive in Japan — like steak. Steak is considered quite the luxury good, and it’s priced accordingly. Taxi cabs are another example – taxi’s are just stupid expensive here.

      For Westerners with no concept of what’s cheap or expensive, it can come as quite a surprise when they try to “live normal”.

      Reply
  • October 20, 2017 at 1:01 AM
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    For me, eating is the best part of traveling. From my end, looks like you guys are having a wonderful trip! The conveyer belt sushi is so cool. That was a lot of plates you guys got! Was the table covered?

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 10:04 AM
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    You mentioned fried chicken. Funny story. I dated a Japanese girl for awhile. I once suggested we get Kentucky Fried Chicken. She responded, “But that is for Christmas!!!”

    Seriously. It is a cultural norm in Japan to get KFC on Christmas Day.

    Also, I am human or cephalopod and have checked the appropriate box.
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    Reply
  • October 27, 2017 at 8:01 PM
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    Love love love conveyor belt sushi places! We pigged out at them pretty much every day when in Tokyo and Osaka. *drool*

    Great tips on eating cheaply in Japan! That’s one of the secrets that people don’t know (and we didn’t know either) until they get there. Oh Japan–how I love you so.

    Reply
    • October 28, 2017 at 12:07 AM
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      Yep, there’s lots of great tricks. You just have to approach travel with a frugal mindset and the good deals seem to appear!

      Reply

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