In spite of Japan’s reputation as an expensive country, there are things that can be bought relatively cheaply, if people know where to get them. Food is no exception.
First, there are the familiar western fast food outlets. There is no lack of McDonald’s outlets in Japan – it’s the biggest fast food chain in Japan. In fact, it is common to find a two or more McDonald’s outlets within walking distance in the bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Like McDonald’s in other countries, there are menus that cater to the locals. In Japan’s case, there is the shrimp burger and the teriyaki chicken burger, for example. The other giant fast food chain available is Lotteria. The menu is similar to McDonald’s, except that there are more Japanese-style burgers available. A set meal in such fast food restaurants costs less than 1000 yen.
For a more authentic Japanese meal, “bento”, or boxed lunches, is a good choice. As covered in another article, bento can be bought at convenience stores. They’re cheap (around 500 yen) and filling, and there’s a variety to choose from. Of course, there is a variety of other food to choose from, such as bread, yakitori (Japanese skewered chicken), fried chicken, French fries, cup noodles and in winter, oden.
Supermarkets are also a good source of bento. Each supermarket has a kitchen where the bento is cooked, so those who prefer bento that is more “fresh” can consider this option. Plus, the prices are not very different from convenience store bento. In the evening, unsold bento can be bought for a discount – up to 50% - but those aiming for such discounted bento have to act fast, as they run out very quickly.
For an even fresher fare, there are the fast food “gyudon” (beef rice) chains – Yoshinoya, Sukiya and Matsuya. There are numerous fast food gyudon restaurants in the big cities, and can be found easily in the smaller ones. They sell other rice-based food besides gyudon, and are cheap too (from around 300 yen). Breakfast menus are also available.
For cheap, noodle-based food, the Nakau chain is an option. Besides rice-based food like gyudon, it sells udon (thick, white noodles). However, there are not many Nakau restaurants in Japan, even in a big city like Tokyo.
For a more “local” experience, you can try the soba (thin buckwheat noodles)/udon stalls available in numerous train stations. There are usually no seats available – that means customers have to stand while eating – and are catered to busy Japanese “salary men” who want to have a quick meal before and/or after work. Of course, anyone is welcome to try the food at such a stall. Prices range from around 300 yen to 500 yen.
Finally, there are the 105 yen conveyor belt sushi restaurants, Kappa Sushi and Genki Sushi. Each plate of sushi costs 105 yen, though there are a few sushi that cost slightly more. Less authentic stuff like the hamburger sushi (instead of fish, a hamburger patty is placed on the rice), geared mainly towards children, is also available. Apart from sushi, these chains also sell udon, cakes and other side dishes. The problem is, it can be hard to find these restaurants.
As highlighted above, there is no lack of cheap and good food in Japan. For those of you planning to visit or live in Japan, this knowledge can help lessen any financial burden you might have.