JAPAN ON A BUDGET: THINGS WE WISH WE KNEW BEFORE TRAVELLING JAPAN
OUR BUDGET TIPS, LEARNT THE HARD WAY, FROM 5 WEEKS IN JAPAN ON A BUDGET
Japan is expensive, and doing Japan on a budget can be really tough. But, we are here to help make it easier for you.
As backpackers, we know you don’t want to spend your hard earned cash on the boring parts of travel, you want to save it for doing the fun stuff. Finding information online about budget backpacking Japan isn’t easy. So, let us do the hard work for you, and gift you our knowledge.
The 3 areas that we found easiest to save money on whilst in Japan (whilst not compromising the overall travel experience) were: food, travel and accommodation.
This is what we wish we knew before starting our journey around Japan.
Here are our tips learnt (the hard way) from our 5 week backpacking trip across Japan on a budget.
This post is part #1 in our ‘Japan on a Budget’ series, and is all about saving money on FOOD.
Food is one of the easiest ways to keep your budget low in Japan. With very little sacrifice, you can save heaps of cash, it’s just about eating in the right places and making smarter choices. And, you don’t need to sacrifice by not eating any of the famous, delightful food that Japan is known for (like sushi or ramen).
We ate in A LOT of different places on our trip, and always ended up going back to the same places over and over again. Not just because they were cheap, but because they were good too.
So, here are our top tips on how to save money on food:
# 1 : HOSTEL & AIRBNB KITCHENS
This has to be our number one food tip.
I know it seems obvious, but the best way to save money on food in Japan is to cook your own. The cost of ingredients is so low in comparison to eating out, it always makes sense to cook when possible.
We found cheap supermarkets in every single town we stayed in. Unlike a lot of other Asian countries, supermarkets and food stores in Japan are really easy to find and navigate (most of them being like the kind back home in Europe/USA). They are usually really large, and with so many options – even Western foods. If we were craving risotto or pasta, we could always find what we wanted in the food stores.
If you’re not really fussy about the foods that you eat, you can make it SUPER budget friendly. There are some really affordable options (pasta was definitely a budget staple for us) and it can drive costs down even more if there are deals or offers. As usual, more flexibility = more budget friendly.
Most of the kitchens in Airbnb apartments and hostels were very well equipped. Of all of the places that we stayed, we never found that we needed any utensil that was missing (although we did once buy a whisk and a spatula to make a cheesecake when we were feeling adventurous).
Our favourite Japan go-to recipes:
“Poor mans risotto”: sushi rice, vegetable stock (or soup powder), onion and garlic, one or more main vegetable (we found that pumpkin with carrot, or mushroom worked best), and cream cheese triangles.
Pasta: any kind of pasta, any kind of pasta sauce, any kind of vegetable (onion, garlic, sweetcorn, carrot, zucchini etc.)
# 2 : RAMEN SHOPS
What is ramen?
Essentially, ramen is a noodle soup. Although it is widely considered a Japanese invention, there is much debate over whether it was originally a Chinese creation. The dish consists of Chinese wheat noodles served in a meat or fish-based broth, with a topping such as nori, sliced pork or egg.
What do we mean by a ramen shop?
Ramen shops are situated throughout pretty much every city and town in Japan – in Tokyo there are literally thousands. These small shops are often very busy, and usually consist of a small bar(s) with stools, a vending machine to place your order, and a line of customers out the door. The menu is made up entirely of many different variations of (you guessed it) ramen. Usually there is just one (or sometimes more) vegetarian option(s).
There are literally thousands of different ramen combinations (different noodles, broths, vegetables, meats, toppings…). And, the great thing about the ramen shops is that they are very affordable. If you’re not fussy about what you eat, you can pick a cheap ramen and know it’ll taste great. Obviously, if you have any kind of dietary requirement (we went completely vegetarian whilst travelling Asia), it is a little tougher, so finding an English translated menu is paramount.
What will it cost me?
Typically, a bowl of basic ramen will cost around 500¥. Some places will charge less, and some will charge more. The price also fluctuates depending on what is ordered: a special bowl in a more expensive establishment will cost upwards of 1500¥. Generally though, a bowl can be had for less than 500¥.
Ramen shops are a guaranteed safe, easy, cheap meal when budget backpacking Japan.
# 3 : FAST FOOD
Unfortunately, fast food is definitely the cheapest way of eating out in Japan. But, just because it is fast food, doesn’t mean it has to be all bad. Japanese fast food is typically a little different to what you’re used to in the rest of the world.
Obviously, there are the usual suspects of McDonalds and KFC. But, there are actually some pretty decent fast food joints in Japan. Having tried most of them at least once, we feel pretty confident in that we found the best of the best. Here are our favourites:
COCO ICHIBANYA (CoCo CURRY)
Our all time favourite place to eat in Japan. Think “katsu curry” with toppings of your choice.
Whilst Coco Ichibanya does only sell curry, it is good curry. Much better than we found anywhere else. AND Coco curry can be found EVERYWHERE. There is an array of different fillings and toppings for your curry, our favourite of which was fried aubergine (eggplant).
There is also an entirely separate vegetarian menu, with the curry sauce made completely vegetarian, and a host of non-meat toppings to go with it.
PRICE: between 500¥ and 1000¥, depending on your chosen combination. Bargain!
The motto of Yoshinoya is literally: “Tasty, low-priced, and quick”.
You may have stumbled across a Yoshinoya in the US, or other parts of the world, but in Japan, it is much different. Another great bargain choice, it has a similar setup to most Japanese ramen shops. However, Yoshinoya doesn’t sell ramen.
Mainly serving gyūdon (beef bowls), you can also find curry, rice, salmon and even fried chicken on the menu. Whatever you order, the food here is served quick. Get ready for a speedy 10 minute dinner, and don’t sit around after your meal; you’ll be expected to leave as soon as you’re done.
PRICE: Very affordable, most meals will set you back less than 700¥, with some, cheaper alternatives being less than 400¥.
SUBWAY – the same as every other country, but better. Every single sub is served in typical Japanese style: absolutely perfectly. Expect your sandwich to look exactly like the promotional picture, if not better (even though it seems impossible).
LOTTERIA – a chain of fast-food restaurants across East Asia, that first opened in Japan. Pretty much your typical burger joint, but with some awesome options (pesto, hash brown rosti and mozzarella stick burger anyone?). We found that there were different deals on each day, making it super affordable; we particularly enjoyed an entire bucket of fries for 100¥.
# 4 : CONVENIENCE STORES
I know this sounds like a bit of a poor budget food option, but the convenience stores of Japan aren’t what you’re expecting. In most countries across the world, convenience stores are simply just a place to stock up on snacks, crisps and sugary sodas. In Japan, there is just so much more.
If you’ve ever travelled to Thailand, you’ll know what an institution 7-eleven is. Some of the microwave meals they serve up behind the counter are both delightful and budget friendly. 7-eleven is truly the budget backpackers best friend. It’s similar in Japan.
Well, what can I say about the wonderful world of Japanese 7-eleven? You could eat a lunch here everyday for a week, and not eat the same thing twice. There are countless microwave meals, refrigerated snacks and cups of ready made soup here.
Anything that needs warming up will be done in a little microwave behind the counter by the staff. You just take it to the counter, pay, and then politely mime or point to the microwave. There’s a lot of choice when it comes to the hot food – everything is Asian style with rice and/or noodles, and most of it contains some kind of egg (boiled and omelette were the main stars). It’s a little bit like America, except that instead of pre-heated hotdogs and pizza, it’s egg, rice and sushi rolls. Awesome!
Some of our favourite things to eat were:
RICE BALLS – We don’t actually know the correct name for these triangle shaped, nori rolled balls of rice and deliciousness, but we (STILL) affectionately refer to them as ‘rice balls’. Each one has a different ingredient in the centre (most of which is some kind of fish), which is displayed on the front in a small image. If you don’t speak or read any Japanese (like us), it’s basically a huge guessing game, squinting at the small, coin-sized image on the packaging. We weren’t ever really sure what we were eating, but it was usually really tasty (and every single one we ever picked was either fish or seaweed/nori). However, there was one occasion that I picked a plain one. It was simply just a plain ball of rice (I wouldn’t recommend that one).
NOODLES – Any kind of noodle dish, hot or cold. Typically seen in the fridge, served in a round, brown, plastic tray. Again, there is a lot of choice, but most are topped with some kind of meat (which – if you’re not a fussy vegetarian – can be picked out before eating). They love to incorporate some kind of egg into most of these, be it boiled, fried or (the all time favourite) omelette. My personal favourite ever convenience store noodle dish was: cold peanut noodles – a bowl of brown, udon noodles, served with a big pot of delicious peanut sauce. Yum!
SUSHI – Not the finest sushi in Japan, but still really good. Always available if you’re looking for a quick, bus stop lunch. Many varieties, always fresh and never disappointing. Definitely not a substitute to a sushi restaurant or conveyor belt, but still really good considering it’s from a convenience store.
If you haven’t yet heard of Family Mart, it is essentially the more popular version of 7-eleven in Japan. There are definitely more Family Marts scattered across the cities and towns than there are 7-elevens. However, they are pretty much the same. For the most part, they both sell the same things. In my humble opinion, there is little to no difference between them. One is not better than the other. It just depends on what is available.
Note: For ‘rice balls’, we usually ended up at 7-eleven, just because the tiny image on the front of the packaging was slightly clearer (I know how ridiculous this sounds, but when you really don’t want to bite into another tuna-filled, fishy centre, it’s important).
Other great things to eat at convenience stores:
RICE CRACKERS – So many varieties of this delicious, salty snack. I could never get enough of these, and they were only ever around 100¥ or less. Great midday snack (or midnight snack, if that’s more your thing).
INSTANT CUP NOODLES – If we were ever in a pinch, and couldn’t find anything safe for dinner, this was always a viable back up. Again, lots of (sometimes strange) flavour varieties, and actually pretty good. My favourite one had to be “mac’n’cheese” at Okayama airport.
# 5 : VENDING MACHINES
Allegedly, Japan has the highest density of vending machines in the world. There are over 5 million of them scattered across the country. They are pretty much everywhere. In Tokyo, you can’t walk more than a few blocks without seeing at least a couple, hidden down alleyways and tucked into convenience store entrances.
The vending machines of Japan are so unlike anywhere else in the world. There is literally a vending machine for anything you could need or want somewhere (my personal favourite was a battery vending machine down an alley in Kyoto). When you’re thirsty (or hungry), this is great news.
Serving up both hot and cold drinks, most drinks vending machines are separated into two colours: blue and red. The first time we used a vending machine in Japan, we accidentally ordered ourselves a hot coffee. It blew my mind. I reached into the little flap to get my drink, and it was warm! Wow.
The key is to order your drink from the red or the blue side: blue = cold, and red = hot. It’s that simple. You want hot, sweet coffee? Order it from the red side! Cold? Blue!
Note: Sometimes the hot/cold difference is only shown by a small stripe of colour underneath the products, or a small, LED light.
Another of our favourites were the beer and ice cream vending machines! These were a little harder to find, but they were a fun novelty to us. It did feel a little strange walking down the street drinking a beer though.
Vending machines in Japan are not expensive. They are a good, cheap alternative to getting coffee at a café, or a Starbucks etc.. Although, in general, they don’t really vend any kind of food (other than ice cream), it’s good to know that they’re there for drinks when you’re craving that sweet, hot caffeine fix!
So there you have it! Those are our 5 money saving tips for eating in Japan on a budget.
Our other big money saving tips are on travel and accommodation, so stay tuned for our future posts on those two subjects.
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