Japan on A Budget: A Food Lover’s Guide to Eating Cheap in the Land of the Rising Sun

Many travelers avoid Japan because they perceive it as a super expensive destination. While it’s not as cheap as 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 visited Japan on a budget (reasonably so) by keeping costs pretty low by booking our tickets with air miles, staying in AirBnBs and eating on the cheap Japanese food roughly 75% of the time.

Which wasn’t much of a sacrifice, to be honest. While Japan may be known for its 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 stillmind-blowinglyy good. So its true, you can eat in Japan on a budget!

 

Here are some of my top suggestions for eating in Japan on a budget in one of the most expensive countries in Asia:

Street Eats

Steamed Pork Buns - Eat Street Food to Travel Japan on a Budget

The street food culture in Japan isn’t quite as impressive as in say China 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

Vending Machine Ramen is a Great Way to Eat in Japan on a Budget

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 and it is a great way to eat in Japan on a budget.

Ramen in Japan - How to Eat in Japan on a Budget
Always go for the extra egg

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).

Lunch Sets

Lunch Sets Are a Great Way to Eat in Japan on a Budget

It took me a week or two to figure this out, but lunch is by far the best deal of the day and one of the best ways to eat in Japan on a budget. 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.

Japanese Food Markets

You Should Definitely Visit a Food Market if You Want to Eat in Japan on a Budget
Croquettes at Omi-Cho market

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 and eat in Japan on a budget. 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.

Bakeries

Eat in Japan on a Budget at a Bakery

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.

Bento Boxes

Eat in Japan on a Budget - Bento Boxes

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.

Convenience Stores

Shop at a Convenience Store to Eat on a Budget in Japan

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 and kept us on a budget.

Japan is a country that is absolutely obsessed with food. Food stalls, restaurants, and convenience stores are packed into every nook and cranny of every city. I’ve never been so spoiled for choice in my life and was so happy to be able to eat in Japan on a budget!

 

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Japan on a Budget - How to Eat Cheap in the Land of the Rising Sun

 

 

Steph

Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can't sit still! She is the co-founder and editor of Why Wait To See the World. Learn more about her here.

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6 thoughts on “Japan on A Budget: A Food Lover’s Guide to Eating Cheap in the Land of the Rising Sun”

  1. Thanks for your blog! I also booked our trio to Japan before finding out I was pregnant. Debating if we should go since I’ll be 20 weeks in April. I see a lot of half cooked eggs in the ramen, were you able to eat that?

    1. 20 weeks is a really nice time to travel! None of the first trimester side effecs, but you’re still not too big. I highly recommend.
      So I personally did not stop eating soft eggs while pregnant. I read a great book called Expecting Better that really helped me understand why certain things are prohibited and weigh the pros and cons. I felt confident about my decision but it’s up to everyone to do what they feel comfortable with!

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