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!
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.
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.
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.
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)!
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.
Despite only costing a few dollars, the sushi was delicious… absolutely nothing like the sushi you find in American grocery stores.
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.
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.
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:
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)
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.
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.
If you’re not comfortable reading and ordering in Japanese, these places have English menu’s available.
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.
Tuna not your thing? How about eel?
Or, perhaps shrimp-sushi is more your style?
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:
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.
I also ordered this clam miso soup, which was quite good for only cost 150 yen ($1.34)
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!
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.
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.
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).
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).
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…
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).
(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).
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.
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.
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)
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)
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!