Eating on the cheap in Japan

By Billy Hammond


Mention Japan and everybody thinks of "sushi". While it's true that "sushi" is a popular Japanese dish, most Japanese don't go to sushi bars all that often because of the cost.

There are many alternatives if you want to eat affordable sushi. Ranked in order of decreasing price: there's the local sushi shop with a take-out window where you place your order that has its prices displayed on wax models in a showcase or printed on pictures of the selection offered; the sushi section in the food section of famous department stores (Takashimaya, Sogo, Hankyu, Seibu, Tokyu, Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi, Hanshin, Kintetsu, etc.); the local "conbini" (7-11, Lawson, Sun, etc.); and the sushi section in supermarket chain stores (Daiei, Itoyokado, Seiyu, etc.).

Pick up a box of green tea bags at the market or grab a few cans of beer at the liquor store on your way home and you're on the way to a low-priced sushi dinner. If you hit the supermarkets before closing, sometimes you can find your sushi marked down to less than 1/2 the regular price, so if you don't mind a reduced selection, timing your visit to the market can make your meal even less expensive.

The Ultimate - Instant Noodles!

While almost all Japanese will agree that this is not the most nutritious thing to eat, most will probably admit to eating a variant of this quite often. You can find them in any supermarket, "conbini" or sometimes even in vending machines. They come in their own container and all you have to add is boiling water.

Most have pictures showing you how to peel back the cover, add boiling water and cover it before peeling off the cover and eating 3-5 minutes later. Fast, simple and filling. There are all kinds of brands and variations but there are enough pictures (hopefully) on the container to help you figure out what you're getting even if you can't read Japanese.

Cheap! Instant Ramen !

If you have access to a quart-sized pot and a hot plate or range, you might want to reduce costs even more by going to a supermarket and buying a 5-pack of instant ramen. Be warned though, that this does require a bit more "cooking" than the instant noodles to which you just add boiling water.

Pricewise, this is a really cheap meal, ranging from about 50 to less than 100 yen (less than a U.S. dollar). Try and get a Japanese friend to read the directions for you first, though, unless you're really adventurous, because the timing for putting in the spices sometimes varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.

For the adventurous, bring about a pint of water (about 500ml) to a boil, open the plastic package containing the noodles and put only the noodles in. Boil the noodles until you can easily cut them in two using chopsticks, and then open the spice packages and pour the spices in. Turn off the heat source and transfer to a bowl. Add chopped long green onions, bean sprouts, or spinach if you have them. If not, just eat as is.

Riceballs - Onigiri

I only mention these here because they used to be a very cheap item (you could get 3 for a hundred yen 15 years ago) but they have gone up in price and shrunk in size to the point where I think you'd be better off getting a box lunch at a conbini rather than trying to buy enough to make a meal out of them.

Cold Box Lunches - Obento

These are really a tremendous bargain if you're alone and want to eat for less than six or seven hundred yen. You can get them at any of the "conbini" mentioned earlier or at a supermarket. Look at the date and time stamp on the box lunch wrapper to make sure you'll have time to eat it before it expires.

If you get them at a "conbini" the clerk will ask you if you want it heated in their microwave. There's no charge for this and they'll nuke it for a minute or so for you (look at what you bought first though to make sure that you want it heated - some people don't like steaming potato salad with mayo that's half-regressed to oil). It's perfectly alright to take it home as it is, so if you'd rather eat it "as is" just say "no" when asked whether to heat it or not.

Hot Box Lunches - Obento

There are a number of franchises that offer hot box lunches (Hokka Hokka-tei, Kamadoya, etc). Usually, they'll have a banner propped up outside of what looks to be a small roadside stand. Inside, there's usually a small counter with pictures showing what's available. At these places you get your main dish cooked and hot rice to go with it.

Prices are somewhere between 450 to 900 yen (as of the date of this article).

Tachigui (Counters where you eat standing up)

You can find these downtown in most any major city or on the train platforms of larger stations. The selection is usually limited to soba (buckwheat noodles) or udon (white flour noodles), however prices are really attractive. Depending on where you are, you can get a bowl of noodles for 150 yen to 400 yen.

Like the name says, you stand and eat right next to the person next to you. A lot of these places are busy at lunchtime and the people running them get rather surly, so you might want to take along a Japanese friend if you don't speak the language.

" Sabisu Lunch " or " Sabisu Teishoku " (the daily special)

If you have time to kill and roam around almost any town or city from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm, you should be able to find coffee shops and cafes that have "service lunches" which are the Japanese equivalents of the "house specials". Most are priced attractively somewhere between 500 to 1,000 yen and usually include a choice of coffee or tea (the Western variety, not green tea).

Bento-yasan (box lunch caterers)

This is an option more suited to people who work and eat at the same place on a regular schedule who are living in Japan.

Almost every area has caterers and if you don't want to be bothered about having to decide what to eat for lunch everyday, you can contract by the month with one of them to have a lunch delivered to your workplace everyday for between 300 to 450 yen (Osaka prices). You'll generally get enough volume to fill the stomach of a person doing hard physical labor, and if you're not too picky, this can be an inexpensive way to get lunch everyday. Just remember to rinse the containers before they come to collect them.

Udon-ya and Soba-ya (Noodle and Buckwheat noodle shops)

You can find these all over the place and most are quite reasonable, with prices ranging from 350 to 700 yen or so. If you don't speak Japanese, try and find one with wax models in their showcase windows with prices on them. Choose an off-hour time when it's not too crowded and ask the clerk to come out so you can point to what you want.

Choose your own combination - Department Stores and Supermarkets

Almost all the food sections (usually on the basement floor) of large department stores have stuff you can purchase that is ready to eat. Salad, fried chicken, various kinds of breadsc you can veritably select a meal of whatever you want to eat. Just be careful to keep track of what you pick up as you go along or you might find yourself paying more for your meal than at a restaurant.

The supermarkets might have a slightly smaller selection, but are probably cheaper than the department stores so you might want to choose which to go to depending on your pocketbook.

Yoshinoya - the beef bowl franchise chain

There is a chain of 24-hour beef bowl restaurants known as Yoshinoya in Japan. The menu choices are quite few, however, you can get a bowl of rice with beef strips on it for less than the price of a bento.

Shokudo - Japanese-style cafeterias

These are becoming quite rare although if you're lucky enough to find one and can speak Japanese or have a Japanese friend, they can be quite inexpensive. The deal is usually that you go in and choose what you want from a menu or take things from a glass case. Choosing too many expensive main dishes can run up the tab, so be careful if you do go to one on your own.

Meal ticket cafeterias

There are a number of franchise chains (Matsuya is one that comes to mind) and some that are run by independent owners. The similarity is that they all seem to have a vending machine that you put your money in and purchase a meal ticket, then give it to the person at the counter who prepares your food (or who gives it to the cook). Price to volume ratios are pretty good and you can usually get a meal for less than 600 yen.

Fast Food Places

Japan has them all. The famous Golden Arches, Subway, Wendys, Big Boy, etc. - you name it and there's probably a branch in Japan. Depending on how big your appetite is though, these places can be expensive for the volume you get. While relatively cheap when compared with a restaurant, I would rank them as being more expensive than the places I've already mentioned.

Yatai (Street stalls set up at night)

I only mention these here because I think the foreigner would be best off avoiding them.

They vary in sanitation (obviously most don't have running water) and price (some can be expensive for what you're getting).

When in Japan, do as the Japanese doc

One of the best ways to find relatively inexpensive places to eat is to watch where Japanese businessmen and office workers go for lunch. Find a place that's pretty full of them and your chances of eating for less than 1,000 yen are very good.

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Copyright February 2000. Billy Hammond. Reproduction in whole or in part prohibited. Mention of company names in this article does not constitute an endorsement.