How to eat well and cheap while traveling in Japan
Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to travel to Japan on a budget and eat like a local at affordable prices. There are plenty of cheap eats and pocket-friendly restaurants – you just have to know where to look. Most importantly, the Japanese hold their eating establishments to very high standards. This means you can enjoy tasty low-cost meals without compromising on quality, great flavor, and cultural thrills. So, without further ado, here are my tips on how to save money on food in Tokyo and the rest of Japan.
Food Halls at Metro Stations
All major metro/train stations in Japan have food halls where you can find an array of low to medium budget restaurants that serve Japanese and international food. Most of these places are used to catering to foreigners, have English menus and take credit cards. A few examples are food halls in Omotesando, Shinjuku and Tokyo Stations in Tokyo and Kyoto Station in Kyoto. Budget: $8+.
Convenience Stores and Regular Supermarkets
Perhaps the cheapest (yet tasty!) Japanese meals can be bought at local convenience stores (or comibini, as Japanese call them): 7/11, Lawson and Family Mart. To be honest, I recommend checking them out even if you’re a budget traveler since I consider cobinis to be a quintessential part of local food culture. They are a lot of fun to peruse, especially for those Japanese snacks that you cannot get anywhere else. All food is fresh, cooked and delivered daily. Besides your typical supermarket food, you can pick up freshly-brewed coffee, sandwiches (egg sandwiches are my favorite!), o-nigiri (triangular rice with different stuffing), sushi and variety of bento boxes. You can ask things to be heated on the spot if you’d like. In addition, they sell freshly cooked hot dishes like deep fried chicken, various skewered meats, steamed soft buns, croquettes, hot dogs, French fries, oden and katsu. In short, options are endless and it’s a perfect spot to pick up food to-go, especially for picnics during cherry blossom hanami season. Oh, and don’t skip the dessert/ice-cream section to sample seasonal treats for cheap! Budget: $3+.
Just like train stations, every single major department store houses food parlors on their basement floor called depachika. Different food brands have counters where they cook freshly made meals to go. This can be traditional Japanese fare or western-style dishes. These are also great spots to buy edible souvenirs to take back home. Admittedly, swanky department stores like Isetan or Mitsukoshi present gourmet food brands, bakeries and dessert shops. A savvy hack for those willing to save an extra penny on their dinner: food goes on sale (25%-50%) after 7 PM. Here is a list of some of the best depachika in Tokyo. Budget: $10+.
While there are tons of opportunities to splurge on fine Japanese cuisine, authentic local dishes are very affordable. For casual lunches/dinners, I recommend ramen, soba or tempura shops which you can find on virtually every street.
There are also numerous mom-and-pop shops which serve home-cooked teishoku meal sets (some of my favorite ones are located in historic Yanesen neighborhood). These typically include a protein, bowl of rice, miso soup, small side salad and pickles. Another spot I highly recommend for a teishoku meal is Salon Ginza Sabou.
Last but not least, hit one of many narrow alleys to enjoy quintessential Japanese izakaya. These are typically dinky, casual spots that seat 8-10 people. All food is cooked in front of you. Expect grilled meat on skewers, sashimi, various vegetable dishes, stews of the day and lots of beer and sake. These are in abundance around Shinjuku and Shibuya areas, but if you’re looking to go off the beaten path, head to Koenji, Yurakucho or Ueno to do some quality izakaya hopping under the train tracks. Here is a comprehensive list of best izakaya spots in Tokyo. Budget: $10+.
I know this is probably #1 Japanese food most tourists want to try while traveling to Japan unless you’re meaterian like me and care more about that marble-y wagyu. You can enjoy fantastic sushi for cheap at local fish markets and the surrounding tiny sushi shops. Think Tsukiji or Toyosu markets in Tokyo. Another good hack to know is that you can get affordable sushi meal sets at pricy restaurants during lunch. The third option is conveyor-belt sushi spots where you pick your sushi per plate. This can be hit or miss, but they are definitely fun (and cheap!) so I recommend trying it at least once. Budget: $15+.
Like anywhere else in the world, Japanese food markets are loads of fun and offer fresh fare for a steal. Just grab a bite at every step and try anything that strikes your fancy. Expect stalls with freshly cooked food, seafood and local specialties like pickles. Plus, you can raid little artisan shops to pick up local condiments, sauces, unique ingredients and sweet treats. Examples are Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Kuromon Ichiba in Osaka and Omicho Market in Kanazawa. Budget: $5+.
I covered this a little already, but all restaurants in Japan (including fancy ones) offer lunch specials. This means you can get dinner-quality food for almost half price at lunch. If you are pining over one of the Michelin-starred restaurants, but cannot afford their dinner tasting menu, then their lunch option might be the way to go. Budget: $10+.
Food trucks (and street food in general) are hard to come by in Japan. However, there are two dedicated open-air spots in Tokyo where you can enjoy low-cost food truck meals. The best part is, these serve mostly western food and offer vegetarian options too! I recommend checking out Commune 2nd in Aoyama (open every day) and Farmer’s Market by UNU on the weekends. Yoyogi and Hibiya Parks also regularly host international food festivals. Budget: $10+.
Cue the magical world of Japanese pastries. Styled after French patisseries, you can find bakeries in every neighborhood. Meticulously arranged on the shelves, pastries in Japan are fantastic and come in myriads of shapes and flavors (curry breads are yet another of my favorites!). These are particularly good for a quick breakfast bite or a mid-day snack. You can typically get a drink here as well. Budget: $2+.
27/7 Restaurant Chains
There are a number of affordable restaurant chains in Japan where you can enjoy a delicious, quick meal. I recommend Coco’s for Japanese curry, as well as Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya and Sushiro for different rice bowls. You can find these places at every corner in big and small cities. Most of them have a machine where you place the order, pay and then give the recite to the waiter. The food comes out in a few minutes. Even if there is no English menu, there are normally pictures of each portion on the machine to provide a visual aid. Budget: $7+.
Bento Box Specialty Shops
Every major station has specialty shops which sell a variety of bento boxes. These are called ekineb and you’re supposed to enjoy them on your train ride. They are typically affordable and are a great way to sample different Japanese delicacies including wagyu beef served on rice! Budget: $8+.