Alex and I both love Japanese food but eating in fancy restaurants in Japan can be extremely expensive. On our trip there last summer our target was to eat as cheaply as possible but without entirely missing out on the wide variety of culinary experiences Japan can offer. Of course you could stay in Japan’s cities without trying anything beyond McDonalds and KFC (we used to know people who did just that!) but you might as well stay at home. Noodles are the other obvious low cost food option that is available everywhere but is lacking a bit of variety if you choose it every day.
(Click photos to enlarge)
Our approach was to eat as cheaply as possible for most meals and then splash out a bit more once in a while for something special. Most days we ate convenience food for at least one meal. Fresh ready to eat meals in Japan are very different from Western equivalents. Typically they consist of meat and vegetables over noodles or rice in a plastic tray or bowl but things like dumplings or sushi are also available. We started out using convenience stores such as Seven Eleven. These were good but the food had a mass produced feel and seemed a little pricey for what you got.
Later we discovered that big supermarkets and department store food halls offered even better choice and value. Japanese supermarkets time-stamp all sushi and start marking it down after about four hours.
When we stayed in a traditional inn or Minshuku we splashed out on the Japanese breakfast. Fish, rice, pickles and miso soup are not everyone’s favourite start to the day but we love it.
We also splashed out on a wonderful evening meal at an inn one night.
Not all our meals were traditional Japanese food. One night in Kanazawa we had a very fine Sri-Lankan curry meal. On a rainy afternoon in Matsumoto the only eating place we could find open was a Japanese “Hawaiian” themed burger restaurant which proved to be amazing. The burgers were pure steak and made on the premises – a real surprise!
Japan has many different budget restaurant chains serving all types of food. We decided that our favourite was “Yayoi”, a big chain with outlets all over Japan (and a number of other Asian countries).
Finally, you cannot talk about food in Japan without mentioning the ubiquitous plastic food models on display outside almost every budget restaurant. While many of the big city food outlets now make an effort to cater for customers who cannot read Japanese, the food models are still a great help in deciding what you are going to eat.