Many travelers avoid Japan because they perceive it as a super expensive destination. While it’s not as cheap as a great many places in Asia, we actually found the country to be fairly affordable, especially with the current strength of the US Dollar (it’s definitely much cheaper now than it was when I went 6 years ago). While I wouldn’t say our trip fell in the bucket of budget travel, we actually kept costs pretty low by booking our tickets with air miles, staying in AirBnBs and eating on the cheap roughly 75% of the time.
Which wasn’t much of a sacrifice to be honest. While Japan may be known for it’s haute cuisine (Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else on earth), it’s also a country full of delicious, varied cheap eats. Aside from a few splurges (many of which are detailed over here), I would guess most of our meals cost less than $10 each and were still mind- blowingly good.
Here are some of my top suggestions for eating cheaply in one of the most expensive countries in Asia:
The street food culture in Japan isn’t quite as impressive as in say China (link) or South East Asia. This
is partly because of a taboo against walking while eating or drinking. In Japan, street food is to be savored on the spot, not taken to go.
Even so, you can find some really delicious street snacks, especially around popular tourist attractions. We were able to cobble together a meal of street food on multiple occasions, thereby skipping the overpriced tourist restaurants nearby (honestly if you can avoid a sit-down meal anywhere in the vicinity of a major tourist area you will save yourself a bundle of money right off the bat).
A couple of the highlights we encountered, none of which cost more than $4:
- Steamed pork buns in Miyajima. These were so warming on a very miserable, rainy day. Miyajima actually had a ton of interesting street food ranging from hot momiji manju to grilled oysters.
- Sweet fish shaped waffles in Akihabara filled with red bean or vanilla or strawberry cream. We actually went back for seconds on these.
- Steaming hot sweet potatoes, bought straight from the oven in Nara. Strangely these came with no sort of topping whatsoever, but they were so sweet they didn’t really need it.
Vending Machine Ramen
No, I’m not talking about cup of noodles.
If I could import any one thing from Japan to the US it would be the concept of the vending machine restaurants. It’s literally the perfect meal experience for shy introverts eating alone . You simply select what you want by pressing buttons at a vending machine (most aren’t in english so you’re probably going by pictures here), hand in your print out at the counter and minutes later your food appears. You don’t have to talk to anyone at all, and some restaurants even have wooden panels set up so you don’t have to look at anyone either. It’s not social, it’s about the food, which incidentally, is almost always super delicious.
There are a ton of different chains but the most famous is Ichiran, which can be found in any major city. At Ichiran a standard bowl of ramen costs 790 yen (~$7.50).
It took me a week or two to figure this out, but lunch is by far the best deal of the day in Japan. All sorts of sit-down restaurants, even expensive ones, offer much more reasonably priced lunch deals, usually between the hours of 11 and 2. These set lunches usually give you a choice between 2 or 3 entree options, served alongside a salad, rice, and miso soup. It can be a very filling combo indeed.
We ate a variety of set lunches in Japan, from grilled steaks to ramen to our very favorite tonkatsu joint. Most cost us around $10 each, although fancier restaurants may cost more.
You can find restaurants offering lunch sets pretty much everywhere, but we found some excellent deals in mall and train station food halls.
It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, you can usually find something delicious at the local fresh food market. Most major cities in Japan have a central market that sells a dizzying array of local seafood, produce and snacks. Most have small restaurants tucked into corners (another good spot to find a set lunch deal) and stalls selling street snacks and sweets. It’s a great way to try a few local specialties. In the Omi-Cho market in Kanazawa we had a killer conveyor belt sushi meal for less than $20. At the Nishiki market in Kyoto my mom and I nibbled on cheese filled fish sticks, mochi and roasted nuts.
The bakeries in Japan are just incredible. Nowhere outside of Europe will you encounter such an enormous variety of buttery baked goods. Traditional stuff like chocolate croissants, fresh bread and tarts alongside uniquely Japanese red bean and melon sweets. There are usually tons of savory pastries too; croque monsieurs, hot dogs wrapped in philo dough, curry filled buns and more.
You don’t need to know any Japanese to navigate them either. Simply grab a plastic tray and a pair of tongs and pick up whatever catches your eye, then head to the checkout.
We ate a ton of bakery breakfasts and snacks in Japan. You can find bakeries just about everywhere, but always in train stations and department stores. They range from cheap chains to extremely fancy, and prices vary accordingly.
Particularly on travel days, bento boxes are your new best friend. They are the to-go box of Japanese culture- a variety of small bites packed together artfully in a wood or plastic box. You can find them at all train stations (and sometimes even on the trains themselves) in a dizzying variety of options. Sushi is popular but noodles, tonkatsu, sandwiches, basically anything you can think of can go inside. The more elaborate they are, the more expensive they can be, but the basic ones featuring rice and a protein are less than $5.
I can’t talk about cheap food in Japan without mentioning the ubiquitous convenience stores. 7-11 is so much more than slurpees and stale hot dogs, it’s a one stop shop for fresh coffee, cheap baked goods, hot meaty buns, and more. Milk, yogurt, fruit and bread. You can even buy adequate sushi here (I was partial to inari, rice wrapped in sweet tofu skins).
We bought most of our breakfast food at convenience stores, then kept them in our apartment fridge, which saved us a ton of time and aggravation in the mornings.
Japan is a country that is absolutely obsessed with food. Food stalls, restaurants and conveniences stores are packed into every nook and cranny of every city. I’ve never been so spoiled for choice in my life.