How to Save Money Eating Incredible Food in Japan
Japan is often thought of as an expensive city to visit. Tokyo is one of the world largest metropolis' and while finding a cheap place to stay might not always be a walk in the park, you can easily save money on eating out while still dining like a king!
You'll often hear stories of travelers returning from their trip to Japan and going on and on about how expensive the food was. But did they just walk into the first place that had a giant English menu out front or only go to restaurants recommended by their English speaking concierge? While it might be true that Japan is more expensive than Thailand or Vietnam, there are plenty of low-cost options you can find with a little bit of research and some exploration to boot.
#1. Street Food
Street food is one of Asia's best-kept not-so-secret-secrets. There are hundreds of different kinds of street foods available in Japan. A simple internet search for it will reveal hundreds of results. The best thing to keep in mind when sampling street foods is to be adventurous! Dishes won't always look or taste familiar, but I've almost never tried something I didn't completely fall in love with! And the few times I didn't like something, they never cost more than a few dollars.
Taiyaki is one of the cutest and most delicious treats to eat in Japan. The fish-shaped sweet pancake dessert is filled with all different flavours. Depending on where you are in Japan they will often have unique special fillings only available in that prefecture. The most common option is fresh red bean, but my favourite is the custard and matcha. These usually cost about $1.50 and at that price you can afford to try them all!
Not to be confused with Taiyaki, Takoyaki is a fried ball of batter filled with octopus tempura, covered in green onions, pickled ginger and shaved fish flakes (which look like they're alive as the shiver and shake atop the hot batter). These are most popular in Osaka but can be found all over Japan. Cover them with a sweet and savoury sauce for added flavour and devour before they get cold. A tray will only run you about $5, and they are surprisingly filling.
If you might think a tasty noodle dish wouldn't be something you can get on the street, you have never tried Yakisoba. These wheat noodles are fried on a large griddle and come with stir-fried pork, vegetables and served with a tangy sauce. They can be topped with various toppings like mayo, fish flakes, and pickled ginger served beside the vendor much like a hot dog vendor would serve his condiments. An entire tray will only cost $5 and is more than enough for two people to share.
Rice cakes are a quick and delicious snack served all over Japan. They are crispy and come in an assortment of flavours. You can often buy them hot off the grill and make for the perfect thing to eat while you meander. You can usually get 2-3 for under $2.
Curry Bread is one of the most delicious grab-and-go treats. It is deep fried bread, covered in additional breadcrumbs filled with curried meats. Hot, spicy and saucy, this pastry costs $1-$2 and will warm you up on a cold day.
Manju is another sweet treat you can sample almost anywhere you find street vendors. They are small, round steamed cakes filled with a variety of flavours. In Asakusa, you can sample Agemanju which are additionally coated in tempura batter and deep-fried. They will often have seasonal fillings like Sakura, plum and even pumpkin.
#2. Japanese Convenience Stores or Conbini
While this might shock and surprise you to hear, but no word of a lie, convenience stores or Conbini as they are lovingly called in Japan, are a veritable mecca of tasty traditional Japanese foods. If you're looking to stock up on food to eat back at your hotel while enjoying some Japanese TV (which I highly recommend), then this is the place to go. It's also a great place to buy ingredients for your Hanami (a picnic Japanese people have during cherry blossom season to enjoy the blooming flowers).
The first thing you need to consider when shopping at a Japanese convenience store is their wide selection of Onigiri. Onigiri are perfectly triangular rice balls wrapped in seaweed and filled with different varieties of fish and sometimes fruit. These only cost $2 and are very filling!
At 7-Eleven a Bento box will cost you easily under $10 (usually under $5) and will be just as delicious as any bento you've ever eaten at a restaurant. Perfectly organized into neat little sections, you can get rice, pickled veggies, tempura, salmon and even a dessert all in one adorable box. If you ask for it to be heated up just say "Atsui bentō". It tastes even better that way and is the way to go!
Lawson's is one of the most popular convenience stores in Japan and is known for their fried chicken. While the idea of eating chicken from a convenience store in North America might send a chill down your spine - in Japan, it is a delicacy. They have different cuts on offer; honetsuki (fried bone-in chicken), honenashi (fried boneless chicken), and different flavours of kara-age (deep-fried chicken nuggets).
Lastly, make sure you grab a few beverages to keep you hydrated throughout the day. Conbinis serve up literally hundreds of different drinks. Be sure to try Pocari Sweat, a non-carbonated sweet beverage which is advertised as an "ion supply drink" - the ideal thing to keep you going all day long. Also be sure to try a variety of the different bottled teas. You can get them iced or even hot, in the heated cabinets at the front of the store. If you are feeling like something a little harder there are dozens of different sakes to try at super low prices.
Local vendors in markets all over Japan are selling some of the greatest foods you can sample in the entire country. While it might take getting up early and making your way through fish laden alleys, you are bound to discover some real gems. Outside of the hustle and bustle of Tsukiji fish market are dozens of vendors selling cookware, ceramics and, you guessed it, food! Omelette rolls are served up on a sticks. They are a fluffy and sweet snack to grab the go. These usually cost around $2 but the fancier ones can go up to $5. I couldn't tell the difference, so opt for the cheaper ones.
Another market food to try in Japan is unagi. Made from eel which is smoked over hot coals, the taste is smoky and sweet as it is covered in a special BBQ sauce. Unagi can be expensive but served up on skewers in the marketplace you can sample it for a low low price, usually $5-$7.
Mochi is Japanese rice cake made from pounding down glutinous rice, a ritual you can often see being done in the markets every day. Once the mochi is at a dough like consistency, it is shaped into balls or squares and served fresh to the shoppers. They will often be paired with seasonal ingredients like strawberries and red bean, my personal favourite. The treats only cost around $2 and are surprisingly filling.
Sea urchin is another high priced ingredient you can sample for a small price at the market. Sea urchin or uni is a creamy, salty delicacy which some people love, and some people hate. You can find freshly opened uni all over the marketplace which costs about $5 a pop.
Izakayas are found all over Japan, from big cities to the countryside, all of which serve up fresh Yakitori! Yakitori are bit size skewers of meat (traditionally chicken), fish or veggies. You will see things on the menu like skin, liver and innards. Each skewer is cooked over charcoals and then covered in a salt or soy sauce. You can order as many different skewers as you want and typically these restaurants are a great place to save money. Each skewer will only cost about $2 so you can order lots of different options. Don't scare away from the weirder meats, often they are prepared very well and are surprisingly delicious. They pair perfectly with a cold beer at the end of the day.
Since Yakitoris are often very small shops they will often not have English menus but here are some items to look for on the menu. Negima (ねぎま) are pieces of chicken thigh with leeks, a great combo of greasy and crispy food. Tebasaki (手羽先) are chicken wings. Torikawa (とりかわ) is chicken skin, and although it might sound strange, it's crispy and incredible. Tsukune (つくね) are meatballs made with chicken, egg, vegetables and spices. Reba (レバー) are chicken livers and are my favourite choice!
#5. Button Ramen
Ramen can be found all over Japan, in many different establishments, but the most popular for those looking to save a few bucks are the "button" restaurants. At these restaurants, you need only walk up to a machine and press a button to receive your ramen. All the buttons are often accompanied by pictures and prices which help non-Japanese speakers. Put your money into the slot and click the option you'd like. Once armed with your ticket, give it to the chef inside and within minutes you'll be served up a piping hot bowl of ramen. These bowls are often only $5-$10 depending on your toppings and definitely the best meals I ate in Japan.
Ramen flavours vary from region to region, and it is best to sample the local speciality. Shio or Salt Ramen is from Hokkaido and has a lighter flavour since the broth is made from chicken bones. Miso ramen is often served with corn, butter and veggies. Tonkotsu or Pork Broth Ramen is made from, you guessed it, pork bones! It's a thick brother and a heavier meal, so it is served with a thinner type of noodle.
Gyoza or Japanese pork dumplings are a cheap and quick food you can get almost anywhere in Japan. Some shops are entirely dedicated to them and serve nothing else but. 6 pieces of Gyoza will often run you about $2-$3. You can get them steamed or fried, and they are filled with minced pork, shredded cabbage, and shiitake mushrooms.
Most dumpling restaurants offer either their own mixture of dipping sauce or a variety of condiments for you to make your own. These include soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chilli oil, and garlic. Mix them up altogether to your liking. I like mine super spicy, so I amp up the chilli oil!
#7. Soft Serve Ice Cream
If you're looking for a delicious dessert in the summertime to help cool you down head to tow you have to swing by one of the many soft serve ice cream shops. This is a cheap option that comes in a myriad of flavours like sesame, taro root, matcha and even Ramune (a lime soda flavour). While these will only cost a few dollars their bright and colourful appearance is sure to impress all your Instagram followers. The Japanese soft serve is extra creamy, super smooth and jam-packed with flavour!
#8. Conveyor Belt Sushi
Sushi might as well be the national food of Japan. You can get sushi for as little as a few dollars a piece or as much as a hundred. Some of the most impressive chefs in the world have come to Japan to serve this traditional dish, but even the simplest hole in the wall still has access to the freshest seafood in the country. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants are an inexpensive option for anyone wanting to save a few bucks and try a myriad of options. Once seated in front of the rotating belt, you can watch all sorts of sushi pass by, each on a separate plate which correlates to a different price point. Some are as little as $1 for two pieces and the most expensive I'd see is $5 for the highest grade of tuna. Getting to see the food before you order it is an excellent opportunity to try different varieties you might not have sampled otherwise.
Salmon nigiri with onions and mayo might seem odd, but the combination is surprisingly delicious. Tender tuna maki comes in all different cuts for you to sample. One of the best things about these restaurants is the free green tea on every table. Just add some matcha powder into your cup and use the spout at your seat which provides hot water on command. It's the perfect addition to any meal. There are hundreds of different places to try but some chain which are pretty reliable are Genki Sushi and Sushi Ro.
Depachika is the name for the basement floors of department stores in Japan where you'll find world-class eateries. Unlike shopping mall food courts in North America, these food emporiums serve up restaurant quality food at food court prices. It's almost like a culinary theme park. You can find bento, dim sum, dessert parlors and more. The more high end the department store, the higher price of the food within. So if you're looking for a bargain, check out Shinjuku Isetan or Shibuya Takashimaya. Some of these even have a rooftop picnic area to chow down on your orders in a stunning environment at the cost of FREE.
#10. Japanese Fast Food
Finally, just like the rest of the world, Japan has some cheap fast food. But there are some unique Japanese chains which are only available to this country and offer up some incredible meals. CoCo Curry House Ichibanya is one of my favourites. Japanese curry is unlike Thai or Indian curry. It is slightly sweet and very very spicy. My favourite combination is rice with the pork curry served with a pork katsu, enoki mushrooms, garlic and cheese. This dish will cost about $10 but is a super filling dinner option, and their adorable restaurants always have manga on hand for you to read while you eat, adding to the experience.
MOS Burger is a burger chain serving; rice burger buns, toppings such as hot meat sauce, teriyaki burgers with mayo and burgers with Gouda cheese and butter sauce. The burger usually cost between $5-$6.
Matsuya serves cheap Japanese breakfasts if you're looking for something traditional to eat in the morning. These cost between $4-$6 and are a great way to fill up for a long day ahead.
Wendy's acquired the brand "First Kitchen" a few years ago, and although it might be associated with Wendys, their menus are entirely different from their North American cousins. Their lemon chicken umami burger with shredded lettuce piled high is a favourite, for only $4. Be sure to sample their fries with a variety of toppings like Burnt Double Butter Soy Sauce, Truffle, Butter Chicken and Chicken Consomme. Served alongside a Blueberry Yogurt Float, the combo of hot and cold is perfection!