5 Ways to Eat Cheap and Delicious Food in Japan

People who are new to Japan are often surprised by the cost of foods that they used to eat back home.  Cooking Western food or eating at Western style restaurants can be much more expensive than in most teachers’ home countries.  However, many food items and restaurants are very cheap in Japan.  Here are some tips to help you eat cheaply and deliciously.

Learn to Cook Japanese Food

Meat (especially beef), fruit, and cheese are expensive in Japan.  I was shocked at the prices when I first walked into a supermarket here.  I simply couldn’t afford to eat the same things I had eaten at home.  So, I started to experiment with Japanese cooking, and my wallet (and waistline) thanked me.

Japanese food is based around fish and vegetables, both of which are quite cheap and plentiful.  Of course, rice can be bought in bulk as well.  Other ingredients, like soy sauce, mirin, and dashi are much cheaper than imported items.

How did I learn to cook with these ingredients, which were mostly unfamiliar to me?  First, I asked my Japanese friends for ideas.  They wrote down some recipes for me.  Second, the Internet can be a great resource.  You can find an English version of Cookpad, a Japanese recipe database, on the internet.  There is also a series of videos on Youtube called Cooking with Dog, which teaches recipes in both English and Japanese.

Preparing Japanese food may seem complicated, but it’s actually easier than one might think. Give it a try.

Sales at Supermarkets

The best time to go to the supermarket is in the evening, particularly right before closing time.  Most stores will have heavy discounts on prepared food, meat, and produce.  The staff will go around putting stickers on bentos, containers of potato salad, and meat.  These stickers will be for a certain discount, for example 20% off.  Sometimes, you will see elderly customers following the staff around and waiting for their desired food to be discounted.  The discounts will be higher the closer you get to closing time and can be upwards of half-price.  The only downside is that usually the best food will be picked over and no longer available.  These discounts are also available at the food basements in department stores.

Many supermarkets will have a cart with produce that is discounted because it will expire soon.  If you are planning to use the vegetable or fruit in the next day or two, you can get a good deal by buying the item on the sale cart, rather than on the normal shelves.

Family Restaurants and Japanese Fast Food

Japan has a plethora of cheap restaurants.  One example is the beef bowl, or gyuudon, restaurants, which could be thought of as Japan’s fast food.  These chain restaurants serve grilled beef over rice at very cheap prices, often only 300 or 400 yen.  As a result, they are very popular places for lunch with businessmen.  They aren’t very healthy though, so I wouldn’t suggest eating there every day.

Many of the family restaurants, which are casual places targeted at people with children or students, are very affordable.  Some examples are Denny’s, Royal Host, Gusto, and Saizeriya.  While they don’t offer high class cuisine, they serve decent, filling meals for under 1000 yen.

Denny’s restaurants in Japan are nothing like those found in the United States. They are far superior both in quality and taste.

Eat Lunch Out

Most restaurants offer lunch courses or special lunch menus.  Because of this, eating out for lunch rather than dinner can save you a lot of money.  You can often get a three or four course meal at a nice restaurant for under 2000 yen, even if dinner at the same place would normally cost closer to 10,000 yen.  It is a great way to try fancier restaurants while on a budget.  It also makes sense to use this to your advantage by making lunch the biggest meal of your day.  Of course, many places also have a lunch buffet.  I’ve been able to eat as much as I want for under 800 yen, particularly at Thai or Indian places. My local swanky Italian restaurant has a weekday buffet for 1200 yen that is fantastic.

However, it can be difficult for some teachers to have time to eat lunch out on weekdays.  People who work in a conversation school, or eikaiwa, may not start until 1pm or 2pm, so they can easily get a nice lunch before their work begins.  Assistant Language Teachers, who work in a public or private school, will get a 45 minute or one hour lunch break, but they may also have duties during lunch.  Many teachers are supposed to eat with the students in the cafeteria, which is also a source of cheap and filling food.  If you can’t get away, there is always the weekend to eat a nice lunch!  The prices go up, but even then lunch can be a good deal.

Find Local Farmers’ Markets

Most cities or larger towns will have periodic farmers’ markets.  This is where people will sell produce, meat, and fish.  When I lived in Sendai, we had daily morning markets that were very popular.  The vegetables and fruit were often cheaper than in the supermarket, and they were fresher and of better quality!  The fish was particularly fresh, and I was also able to buy sushi, chiraishi, and some traditional sweets.  Other towns I have lived in had weekly or monthly markets, so I recommend asking around.  You may be able to save some money and support the local economy at the same time.

These are just some ideas to get you started.  Hopefully these tips will help you in the eternal quest to save money, but still eat delicious food!