How to Eat Cheap in Japan – mostly as a tourist

I was talking with the beautiful Emi and Lea and we joked about all the stupid ways we’ve eaten cheap in Japan in order to afford all the clothes we wanted. One of the frequent comments I hear often is Tokyo is very expensive, and somewhat that’s true but I don’t think it has to be. I sometimes think about how much I would spend for my apartment in the states  along with eating the way I do (lots of veggies, very few carbs). It would be astronomical and impossible (Tokyo tears down old buildings unlike my 100 year old place).

This isn’t a post on eating healthy (although some things are) if you want to eat healthy I still like the post I made about eating healthy in Japan. This post is more about going beyond the tips I see everywhere else. I see the same tips everywhere, and they’re good tips, but I think we can do better! I’m going to talk about getting the most out of your money, even at the cheap places. It’s also about sample meals to get you started on how to eat cheap and stay cheap.

Some tips are for people with a stove but even without airbnb some hotels now have stoves or at least a microwave, so I am trying not to limit it to just long term residents.

eatcheapjapan-sushi

Eat plates of sushi on a budget? Sure thing!

Don’t travel to eat if you can’t bike or walk it or aren’t there already

Traveling on public transit in Japan adds up. Paying 1,000 yen ($10) to eat somewhere you’ve just thrown away $10. Even a trip like Shibuya to Shinjuku will still set you back 380 yen round trip. And Shibuya has tons of eating options.

Eat local, like hella local. If you can’t walk to it, it’s not worth it. Just start making a list of where food is near your hotel/airbnb/apartment and then main areas you’ll be in. Use this guide or google “cheap akihabara food” or anything like that. Some websites to note: time out tokyo’s cheap eats tsunagu cheap eats tokyo

Preparation is how people save money

Linked to the other tip above.

Gurunavi the website for restaurants in Japan is now in English. Start making a google map of where you’ll be of places you want to eat. Or just a list in Notes you can put on your phone. If you’re planning on visiting some area check their restaurants, you can find prices on Gurunavi without overpaying past your budget.

Also preparation is making yourself snacks for the day ahead. Instead of buying some stall food, you can eat a 79 yen banana you carried. More money for souvenirs. Or carrying your bottle of water so you don’t have to spend 120 yen on just water. These little costs add up, especially when a 400 yen meal = 3 waters bought.

Grocery stores – The cheap staples

When I read people’s how to save money on food in Japan posts it’s always saying go after 8:00pm and they mark down items. And it’s a great tip, but it’s not enough. Mark downs are fine, but let’s talk cheap staples.

But before I get to that. NOT ALL GROCERY STORES ARE THE SAME.  Chances are if you’re shopping under a department store you’re paying more and more = too much. Seiyu is the cheapest chain but that only matters if one is close to you. Other than that just stay away from department store grocery stores. They’re fancy, but they cost more.

eatcheapjapan-eggs

Eggs I bought in Japan along with some tiny pack bacon for a little protein and fat.

Eggs – are incredibly cheap and wonderfully delicious in Japan. They do use a different chicken than the US and their yolks are much darker and gorgeous. Yes I called an egg gorgeous, I love eggs!

 

Spinach, Carrots, Cabbage – Usually the cheapest vegetables no matter the season. I eat carrots as breakfast or snacks in Japan. 54 yen for a single carrot. That’s some cheap food with vitamins. Man I try to get away with saying just healthy things, but we need our veggies! A simple cheap breakfast is a piece of toast and scrambled eggs with spinach.

Bananas and in season Mikan- Often in season and often the cheapest fruit. Full of vitamins and fructose for energy. Mikan season can make oranges very cheap and I can eat a bag a day, but definitely be choosy about the season because the prices can really get expensive.

Frozen meals – Frozen meals are found within grocery stores along with frozen veggies. While they are not necessarily cheap if you’re the type of person who keeps saying they’ll cook at home but rarely does, they’re so much cheaper than always throwing out food. Or ordering that pizza when you’re tired or hungover. Always keep one frozen meal in your place if you’re staying longer than a week. What if you wake up sick? Heading sick to shop is horrible!

Tofu and Konjac – Tofu is cheap, plentiful and filling. Just find a sauce you like and nibble. Although my staple meal in language school was: scrambled tofu, one egg, spinach, and a pork/beef mix with spices. Filling, cheap and always available. Konjac is a great cheap food made from yams. It’s low carb, filling and can be shoved in soups, stir frys or anything you feel like fixing.

Late sale meats – Don’t pay full price for meats you rich kid of instagram! Discounted meat or stay veggie because meat is quite pricey in JP. Or gyudon (below)

eatcheapinjapan-bread-meatstir

A spinach bakery bread plus some cheap meat along with shishito and onion.

Stop buying expensive drinks – There’s so many fun drinks on the market. Healthy ones, horrible ones everything. But it can really add up and not good filling calories. Always buy cartons of drinks. You can pour them into bottles if you’re out and about that day. But a paper carton the size of 3 drinks is usually cheaper than one bottled drink. I buy carton coffee, juice, and tea in Japan. Even in konbini they’re usually 140 yen.

Caffeine = Sun Tea or Coffee – If you bring tea bags from home or just buy in bulk in Japan you can just make sun tea (leaving a tea bag in water out for a while, preferably in the sun but it works overnight in the fridge too). Tea bags are always cheaper than buying lots of tea. Cold coffee which Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have been advertising so much is just coffee left to steep. You can buy coffee “tea bags” and do the sun tea way. All cheaper options than Starbucks or even canned coffee. If you aren’t into this, then cartons are always cheaper than individual bottles.

Convenience stores – You’re usually paying too much

eatcheapjapan-oden-711

Oden the exception. That puffball is actually an egg.

Everything including that soda you want is usually 10 yen cheaper in a grocery store. Convenience doesn’t mean cheap. The rare exception is oden season (fall to spring) or snack needs. Oden is a soup made with a ton of things, but it’s incredibly cheap and filling (rocketnews on Oden). The other good reason to be in a convenience store is quick fried chicken, corn dogs (American dogs) and weiners on a stick. No not healthy, but quick and cheap.

I also make an exception for 7-11’s “salad chicken” it’s herbed and precooked. It’s really easy to use a chicken breast for two meals without clean-up. I tended to make chicken sandwiches with the herbed chicken, an egg and some spinach.

Gyudon restaurants are heaven for the poor

Gyudon chains and beef bowl restaurants that are great and battle it out for being the best, most and cheapest. The three big chains are Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya.

eatcheapjapan-yoshinoya-menu

And these do get mentioned in eating cheap in Japan, but what about hacking the Gyudon?

Hack one: Order the largest gyudon and split it between two people (take out) or save the rest for tomorrow for yourself. Gyudon does keep decently. A regular size set at Matsuya is 580 yen, you can get the big size for 890 yen. Split between two meals or people you just spent 445 a meal or just $4.20.

eatcheapjapan-yoshinoya

Hack two: Add on! Topping sets are usually cheaper than set – by – set toppings so get a topping set. Most include an egg (good for you). You may find

Hack three: Their seasonal special is often cheaper. Ultra onion? Yup it’s usually cheaper than just ordering more onion toppings.

kimchi-lettuce-eatcheapjapan

I got gyudon to go the night before and I am using their side kimchi the next day for lettuce wraps (bacon + kimchi in lettuce).

Gyudon is incredibly cheap. Not the best thing for you, but $5.00 meals are possible thanks to gyudon!

Tenya – Tempura on the cheap!

Tempura places in Japan can be really fancy ordeals. It’s not just a side order you find in a sushi restaurant. Instead a lot of Michelin starred restaurants in Japan are tempura places with pricey menus. However, Tenya (site) is a fabulous cheap chain in Japan.

Again you can use the big size takeaway hack to eat for two on the cheap. Their sets are their big value meals. I prefer their 上天丼 (link) with shrimp and lotus root. One meal is 670 yen or $6.50. Again a super cheap meal. They have a one coin bowl priced for 500 yen, but the extra 170 is worth it for the extra shrimp.

Tendon Soba Udon is another tempura cheap chain.

Sushi can be done on the cheap!

Before I lived in Japan I never thought sushi would be a way to eat cheap in Japan, but it is! Discount sushi at grocery stores after 8 p.m. is definitely some place to get your easy cheap sushi fix on. However there are a lot of conveyor belt sushi (kaiten sushi) chains that thrive on being cheap.

Kaisen Misakiko (海鮮三崎港) is my favorite cheap sushi chain in Tokyo. I eat in their Koenji restaurant a lot.  You can eat a good meal for 800 yen and their hot green tea is included. They have a lot of locations around Tokyo in some great areas like Nakano, Koenji, Shimokitazawa and Shinjuku (some of my favorite places in Tokyo). English menu screens so not much interaction required.

eatcheapjapan-sushiforcheap

Family Restaurants

It’s such a odd topic, but family restaurants are so random to Japan. Saizeriya, Dennys, Johnathon, Gusto, Royal Host, Bamiyan, Bikkuri Donki to name a few. Rocketnews survey puts Ootoya at the top and I’ve written how much I like it. Saizeriya which does basic Italian-like food and Bikkuri Donki which does hamburg are my favorite cheaper side ones.

Family restaurant tips:

Get the sets. More filling and more food for a less. If you’re really broke head for the Saizeriya Doria. It’s 368 yen with an egg. Enough to get you through a meal without hurting your bank.

Don’t be swayed by the drink bar. It’s just money not being spent on food.

If you need vegetables get them here. Family restaurants lately have main course salads that are actually filled with things like avocado and tomatoes and other healthy goodness that is hard to find on the cheap. Saizeriya has a 599 main course salad. Also they have a few decent vegetable options in the side menus for 199. Main salad and a veggie side for 800 yen? Yes please. For my low carb people even a big size antipasto meat plate and side of spinach is 900 yen.

Near Shibuya 109? Try Black Brown!

Not exactly a family restaurant but I couldn’t figure where to put it. Black Brown (google) is an incredibly cheap pasta place located just behind Shibuya 109. Just after electronics store Labi in the basement of the next building. When I lived in Shibuya I ate here once a week because it was cheap and so close to shopping. Their pasta is good as well as their sandwiches. They have a ramen-style press button ordering system and then cook the surprisingly decent food in front of you. Pasta or a sandwich can be 500 yen. You can also bring a pitcher of water to your table and hydrate. Seriously it’s cheap and good.

Bakery Meals

If you don’t want to cook and are okay with bread life, Japanese bakeries are amazing and do little sandwiches or weiners with bread or bunches of items that run around 300-500 yen. If you add some spinach at home or make a salad you aren’t doing too bad for yourself. (see photo above)

eatcheapjapan-bakery

On sale baked goods. 88 yen plus brewed coffee. You can start your day for 150 yen only!

Don’t drink, and definitely don’t drink outside your place, and definitely predrink

Alcohol is expensive and it makes (me) make expensive choices. Best way to avoid all that tomfoolery is just don’t drink. But Japan is a drinking culture, so be cheap. Buy drinks at your grocery store (konbini more expensive) and drink  at home before. Or at least pre drink and save some of the alcohol cost. One drinking night can ruin all your cheap saving during the day.

eatcheapjapan-drinks

Three drinks in for 500 yen or three drinks out for 3,000 yen?

How much should I be spending on food a day?

Personally I like average my food spending at 3,000 yen a day. That’s including eating out somewhere fun with my friends. I spend 300-400 yen on breakfast (toast, spinach, egg, coffee). Lunch could be ramen or kaiten-sushi, since I hunt for cheap places maybe 800 yen. Which leaves me with 1,800 yen to eat with friends.

I can go over that, but it’s a pretty standard point to think eating for 3,000 yen or $30 a day and you’ll eat some good food! Now I do like to drink with my friends so I will spend more on days with that, but if you’re smart 3,000 yen is a good point. Lowest maybe 1,500-2,000 yen but it does become tricky if you’re not eating at specific places. I’ve done some examples of super cheap below to get you started if you’re in a spending crunch.

 

Three examples of eat cheap in Japan days 1,570-1,800 yen ($15-$18 dollars):

Here are some examples using the places I listed to get you started on how to eat for cheap especially as a tourist.

 

Bakery bread and coffee – 400 yen

Tenya – 670 yen

Black Brown – 500 yen

Total – 1,570

 

Egg and Toast – 300 yen

Sushi – 800 yen

Saizeriya – 700 yen

Total – 1,800

 

Coffee and Banana – 300 yen

Gyudon – 450 if split or 600 alone for smaller

Grocery store past 8am ready made food – 700 yen

Total: 1,450 or 1,600 yen

 

Three meals a day. Not skimping on food and boom, you’re fed for cheap! Mostly I didn’t list cooking at home. Again if you eat at home it’s usually always cheaper so eating breakfast at home and heading home for dinner is your cheapest tourist option. Or if you’re a late riser, I suggest eating lunch right before you leave and only eating dinner out. You can get closer to 1,500 daily if you eat two meals at home.

 

What’s your discount hack to eat cheap in Japan or favorite cheap meal in Japan?

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9 Comments

  1. October 14, 2016 / 12:10 pm

    (Yay a new blog post!)
    I always want to keep food costs to a minimum when I go to Japan, but my bf and family are the opposite! They don’t mind paying more for a good food experience – especially things we feel that we can’t get at home (for the same quality we’d likely have to pay much more or we’d still be paying more for lesser quality), and eating lots of different really good Japanese food is high on their list of things they want to do, so it doesn’t feel right to skimp on it!
    The time I went with just my friend who wasn’t a big food person, I was able to spend about 2500yen on food total each day including lots of different snacks and the occasional specialty meal (like Maisen tonkatsu or a theme café). I definitely didn’t eat a lot of GREAT meals, but I can be happy with just one conbini onigiri (of all the variety, there’s literally only one that I like). I’m a picky eater so it’s hard for me to find things I like usually but luckily, most of the things I do eat can be quite cheap!

    • Mitsu
      October 28, 2016 / 2:41 pm

      Yay!!! I agree! I tend to mark myself to in the upper range because I’m a bit of a Japanese foodie (or just wanna try all the things), but I think the whole JAPAN SO EXPENSIVE thing gets overplayed when you can eat well for cheap like onigiri and such :) I’m always amused to read your travelogues and your picky eating. I think it’s cool to see how you tend to make it work for you even with food lovers :)

  2. October 15, 2016 / 2:20 pm

    I usually stayed in Toyoko Inn which had a free breakfast which was filling. So that was one cost to not worry about.

    My go-to was bakeries for lunch. Mmmm! Then I would eat out for dinner usually at like a family restaurant or ramen place. Mid-range to cheap places tend to be my preference anyway. Most of the expensive places have a lot of seafood which I don’t care for.

    Good advice in this post!

    • Mitsu
      October 28, 2016 / 2:39 pm

      I love bakeries!! More than I should T_T But definitely agree bakery lunch is great! I always have bread on hand in Japan. I like their softer version of bread compared to other countries. My German friends complain but I love it :)

  3. October 15, 2016 / 10:48 pm

    Great post! Just spent last week in Osaka and Kyoto and things sure add up if you aren’t savvy. 100 Yen Lawson is another great hack source, I think. Being from Houston as well, a piece of my soul goes away every time I have to spend a lot on an avocado, but they’re probably the cheapest at 100 Yen Lawson.

    Natto is a great breakfast item as well…of course, it’s a truly acquired taste, but the price can’t be beat for those of us who like to eat it.

    • Mitsu
      October 28, 2016 / 2:38 pm

      I love 100 yen lawson! I was tempted to recc it but worried people may want to go out of their way. Sometimes I lived near one and other times I never saw one.

      Omg yes! Houston has such cheap food all around. Now in Atlanta I’m a bit down about the price of certain produce. I got Texas spoiled.

  4. October 27, 2016 / 4:47 am

    Eating cheap is so easy here!
    I want to add that for breakfast you can buy milk for a little over 100¥ in supermarkets and cereal for 100-400 that last for a few mornings, making it easy to spend 400¥ for 4-5 breakfasts! and if people want to add a fruit to breakfast then like Mitsu mentioned bananas are cheap, but you can often get 5 kiwis for 400¥ (Which is of course not as cheap as bananas, but provides a bit of variety!^^)
    Then there is the instant yakisoba, many of them are quite big and cost around 125¥, and usually enough to fill up your stomach!^^ If you prefer cooking your yakisoba then the supermarket also sells those packages that has three yakisoba meals in one for about 200¥, even cheaper if it is close to expiring!
    Calorie Mate is also pretty nice, costs 200¥ and comes in place of a whole meal.

    So if you eat cereal for breakfast, calorie mate for lunch and then something from Matsuya or those stores for dinner, then you should easily be able to only spend around 800-1000¥ a day on food! (But this is definitely not healthy, nor good in the long run!). And if you don’t find the tap water disgusting, then drink that instead of buying something!xP

    • Mitsu
      October 28, 2016 / 2:36 pm

      Oh the cereal idea is so great! I wish kiwis were less seasonal. I either luck out or get in trouble buying kiwi and strawberries when they’re not fully in season.
      Yakisoba is definitely another smart one! You know how to live good and eat cheap :D

  5. November 9, 2016 / 4:30 am

    I saw this post just in time. I just returned from Tokyo (http://nishuukandakenovacance.tumblr.com/) trying to keep it on the cheap in preparation for Christmas shopping, and your tips helped so much! In particular, Seiyu and Tendon Tenya. Thank you so much for a detailed post! :) We had an amazing time!

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