During my time in Japan as a student at Kyoto University, I was living on a scholarship and trying to save up as much money as possible. As such, it became a custom to find the best and cheapest food options available. What I learned was options such as hangaku bentō (半額弁当, half-price lunchbox), family restaurants, and university lunch cafeterias.
There are actually a lot of places to save money on food in Japan. Read on if you are interested in learning more about eating cheap food in Japan!
If the goal is to eat your fill for the cheapest possible price, there are some chain restaurants that are recommended. Here you won’t find any McDonald’s or anything like that – they are comparatively expensive and you can easily find way cheaper, and arguably more delicious, food in Japan!
Below are some recommendations:
Hanamaru Udon (はなまるうどん)
I always get baffled when I enter Hanamaru Udon and see the cheap prices. Hanamaru Udon lets you create your own udon dish by adding toppings to your udon.
It works like this: you grab a tray and tongs, select the toppings you want to add (such as tempura), then go to the counter and choose the size of the udon bowl you want. The cheapest one, kake-udon (udon noodles served in a light dashi broth) only costs 105 yen! Add a couple of toppings and you will still be below 400 yen! Best of all, it is really delicious and keeps you full!
Gyōza no Ohshō (餃子の王将)
One of my go-to places after classes was Gyōza no Ohshō. The restaurant serves a plate of delicious Gyōza (餃子, dumplings) for under 300 yen, and they have a lot of other dishes for cheap prices as well. Definitely a huge recommendation if you want to eat cheap but delicious food.
Ramen Jirō (ラーメン二郎)
If you are the kind of person that can eat A LOT of food, Ramen Jirō has you covered. For the price of 850 yen you get a standard ramen bowl, which would translate to an XXXL bowl anywhere else in the world. If you eat lunch here, you probably won’t feel hungry for dinner.
Most people already know about Sukiya (and the other gyūdon 牛丼 fast-food restaurants such as Matsuya and Yoshinoya). However, my personal recommendation is Sukiya, simply because their toppings (especially the garlic one) make the gyūdon dish so much tastier.
For those who don’t know what gyūdon is, it is basically a bowl of rice topped with slices of beef and onions. It is extremely popular among both Japanese people and foreigners because it’s so cheap, easy to make, and delicious!
Also, you may want to confirm this yourselves, but I heard from a Japanese friend who worked part-time at a Sukiya restaurant that ordering a smaller bowl twice rather than one large bowl, gives you more meat for the same price. Typically I would order a namimori (並盛 regular size) for 400 yen, and then if I still feel hungry, order a second one.
While not the cheapest option on the list, family restaurants can still be worthwhile to visit if you are a student. The beauty of family restaurants is that you can spend an afternoon there and study with your friends. They tend to have a cheap drink bar with unlimited soft drinks such as coffee and lemonade. If you don’t want to have a full meal they also have bar dishes and desserts that fill your stomach for a below-average price.
Some examples of good family restaurants are: Gusto (ガスト), Saizeriya サイゼリヤ, Jonathan’s (ジョナサン) and Bikkuri Donkey (びっくりドンキー)
This is a huge one. Many people don’t know about this, but most university campuses are open for the public to visit. That includes their lunch restaurants as well, making them a great option to find cheap food in Japan.
The lunch prices are adapted to fit student needs, and thus you often get a large variety of exquisite foods for a really cheap price. For example, I remember that at Kyoto University you could get a set meal with curry rice and a side dish for 399 yen, or a yasai itame (野菜炒め, fried vegetables with slices of meat and a topping) for 299 yen.
Furthermore, campuses in Japan are usually really pretty and definitely worth checking out, so why not explore university life in Japan while having an affordable meal?
Street food stalls
Street food stalls, or Yatai (屋台) are most common in big cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but smaller cities have their share as well. If you happen to find one, I strongly recommend checking out their assortment. Most often the food is actually really cheap!
I remember one time when I was out in the middle of the night wandering aimlessly because I missed the last train, and randomly found a yatai serving huge portions of okonomiyaki for only 500 yen. It was a godsend.
If you want to know more about street food in Japan, check out our in-depth article here.
Half price lunch boxes
Finally, another very common practice among students to find cheap food in Japan is to aim for hangaku bentō (半額弁当, half-price lunch boxes). Basically, almost every supermarket and convenience store sells lunch boxes in Japan. There is sushi, tonkatsu, karaage, steaks, curry – anything really!
These are already affordable during regular hours. But if you really want to cash in, you wait until after dinner time (usually around 8 o’ clock but it varies from store to store). That’s when the stores discount their remaining bento boxes that weren’t sold during the day.
By the way, when in the store, keep an eye out for stickers like “3割引” (san-waribiki, 30% off) or “5割引” (go-waribiki, 50% off). Japanese people tend to use the kanji “割” for discounts, and 1割 is equal to 10%.
Did you enjoy reading about cheap dining options in Japan? If you have any further recommendations for cheap food in Japan, feel free to share your knowledge below!
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