I’m going to tell you a secret that a lot of people don’t know — there are a LOT of cheap eats and affordable restaurants in Japan! Really. On top of the incredible menu prices, tipping is also discouraged. If you’re planning a trip, you truly don’t need a big budget for food.
When I first visited Japan in 1996, a whole new world opened up for me. I’m allergic to fish, so I’ve never had sushi and for most of my life, that was the only Japanese food I’d ever heard anyone talking about. Then, I spent nearly three glorious weeks over the Christmas and New Years holiday season in Osaka and the Kansai region and it was a game-changer.
I’d always loved Indian and West Indian foods, so I was familiar with different kinds of curry. When I sat down in a little rural restaurant and ordered some, though, it was a completely new flavor profile. I loved the thickness of Japanese curry instantly, and it’s been a love affair ever since.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that when I’m visiting Japan, I eat some every chance I get. It’s not that I haven’t learned to make it at home, it’s just that the fresh stuff is so much better! It was so exciting to go with my daughter this year, and watch her experience all of the culinary delights Japan has to offer. Now, I’m sharing what we learned about finding great food in Japan at reasonable prices!
Yes, you read that correctly. If you go to Japan, you have to try at least one food item from a convenience store. We’ve got a whole post written about it, so be sure to check it out. The three most popular shops are 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. We tended to love Lawson most, but any one of them had what we needed!
You can buy ready-to-eat meals and heat them up in the microwave or get something from the display case. While we tried the chicken (the Japanese LOVE fried chicken), our favorite thing ended up being the Jumbo American Dog. It’s like a corn dog but so much bigger and so much better than you’ve ever tasted.
Plus, the little condiment pack snaps open so you can spread ketchup and mustard on your snack in a neat and sanitary way (perfect for people like me with OCD!). Sometimes, you’re not looking for affordable restaurants in Japan — you need cheap eats — and you really can’t beat the convenience stores!
First, I mention 7-Eleven and now I’m talking about McDonald’s? Well, before you completely dismiss me, hear me out! Some people are a little hesitant to jump straight into trying local foods and these are great options for finding something familiar but different.
Yes, you could go to McDonald’s and pretty much order whatever you would in the States, but I’d urge you to sample one of the many Japanese-only menu items. What did we love most at McDonald’s in Japan? The Shaka Shaka Chicken! It’s fried chicken with a little flavor pack that you pour into the bag and shake up. It’s crispy, juicy and flavorful. A total shock for McDonald’s!
We also really loved how they package the food. Everything is put into a plastic bag, even your drinks! That way, it’s super easy to carry and go without making a mess. We ate at McDonald’s several times (because it’s one of the most affordable restaurants in Japan – or anywhere, really), and it was always so much tastier than what we get back home. Even the ketchup just tasted so much more natural.
When we were planning our trip, we put Coco Ichibanya at the top of our list. Curry sauce, rice, and chicken katsu (tonkatsu)? Say no more! Plus, of course, the prices are super reasonable. It’s definitely among the most affordable restaurants in Japan. Maybe that’s why we went completely overboard when we ordered 🙂
In our defense, when we sat down at Coco Ichibanya the first time, we’d had quite a busy morning in Kyoto. After getting lost on our way from Osaka, we’d accidentally crashed a wedding at a shrine and then ran from monkeys in the rain. I’ll have to tell those stories some day! Anyway, we were hungry.
We found a two-story location and made our way up. It was so cool that they had charging ports and electrical outlets at every table because even our portable power bank was dead. We recharged our batteries (in our phones and our bellies!) and had an absolutely delightful meal of fried chicken, tonkatsu, and stewed chicken in a sea of curry. Talk about food for the soul!
Okay, so this is going to be a bit of a strange review. First of all, you will find Yoshinoya locations all over Japan. It’s super popular and highly recommended. While it might seem similar to Coco Ichibanya to an outsider, we want to make it clear that they are very different.
You’ll find curry and rice at Yoshinoya, but the sauce darker and less thick than what you’ll get at Coco Ichibanya. We decided to order the beef because we’d heard so much about it. Sooooo, that didn’t go as well as planned.
It’s not a problem with Yoshinoya, though. For this type of meal, it was perfect. The beef is sliced very thin and is quite fatty. The texture was a bit rough for us. It reminded me of microwave bacon that wasn’t really microwaved. Would I go back again? YES! Only, I’d skip the beef and do another protein. The curry was delicious!
If you’re in the Osaka area, you’re probably planning to visit Dotonbori. There’s a lot to see and do in the area, including making a stop at Gyozaoh. Like many quick, affordable restaurants in Japan, you’ll probably be sitting at a busy counter — so be ready to order and leave as soon as you’re done!
We ordered two different types of gyoza (some people call these dumplings or potstickers), one deep fried and the other pan fried. Both were absolutely excellent. We had this green, matcha powder to sprinkle over top and it was transformative.
Those two platters were less than $10 and served as a perfect light lunch before we made our way through the food stalls in Dotonbori. I’d definitely eat here again, but I’d probably double the order 😉
You won’t have to look very hard to find melonpan, or melon bread, in Japan. It’s a very popular baked treat and we even bought some at 7-Eleven before a train ride. So tasty! Despite the name, there’s no actual melon in melon pan. It’s just that the way that it’s made kind of resembles a melon!
There is a quick service counter that makes it fresh, though, and you can even have them put soft serve ice cream inside. The place is called Melonpan (at least it’s straightforward!) and we went to the location in Kyoto near Nishiki Market.
So, total disclaimer — we didn’t eat the full melonpan even though we bought TWO from two different locations. Why? Because the food handling was surprising. Between our immune issues and OCD-related germaphobia, we watched them handle money and then food, which is a big no-no for us. The Japanese are normally so careful, so this was a shock and we had to just throw it in the garbage.
Shin-Osaka Train Station
My favorite train station in all of Japan is Shin-Osaka. It’s huge, it’s beautiful and there are so many shops and restaurants. We found a place tucked away all the way at the end of the lowest level and scurried in for some grub on our way back from Tokyo.
The service was incredibly quick and the food was delicious. We each got a combo that included soup, fried rice and gyoza. All together, the bill was less than $12! I could have had two plates of that rice, though!
One major downside — this place allows smoking. We couldn’t read the signs and everywhere else in Japan was really strict about not allowing cigarettes. So, we were shocked when people lit up next to us. Sigh.
We had an eventful morning on our way from Osaka to Tokyo. It was Hayley’s 16th birthday and we got separated at Osaka station. When we were reunited 47 minutes later, our nerves were fried. We sat for more than two hours in silence on the Shinkansen (bullet train) until arriving at Shinagawa Station. Then, we made our way to the busy Shibuya area of Tokyo.
We marveled at The Scramble, the world’s busiest intersection, and then hunted for food. We found Tandoor in the lowest level of shopping center and were blown away by the meal. It was a lunch special and for $12 we picked two types of curry and enjoyed unlimited rice and naan. Unlimited. It’s hard to find a more affordable restaurant in Japan for all of that!
Oh and the naan bread was bigger than our heads. After having such a rough start to our day, this was a real treat. We sat and giggled as we carbed up before going out to explore Tokyo. It was the yummiest recovery meal I’ve ever had!
If you’re in Tokyo, you’ll want to make your way to what was once the world’s largest Starbucks (a location in Chicago is about to unseat it!). Even if you don’t make it to that particular store, though, you’ll be impressed by how much more efficient Starbucks is in Japan.
We went to several, with the most unusual being in Shibuya. You stand in line to order at a counter on the corner and then move to a different line to receive your item(s). This is remarkable because it’s right at The Scramble and it’s super busy but everything moves smoothly.
You’ll find Japan-specific drinks (order them all – trust us!), but don’t make the mistake that we did. We brought a hash brown from 7-Eleven to eat at Starbucks while we sipped our teas which was considered disrespectful (it is and I’m so sorry!). We were asked to stop and I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life!
Theme Park Food in Japan
We are theme park enthusiasts. In the past year alone, we have visited 15 in three countries! While we enjoy the rides and attractions, we’re usually less than impressed by the overpriced food. The complete opposite is true in Japan, though.
At Universal Studios Japan, you’ll find food trucks, quick service and sit-down restaurants. We tried a little bit of everything, including this super delicious Chinese Pork Bun. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the line was long so I figured it’d be good. It was so fresh and the pork was seasoned perfectly. Plus, we loved how sanitary the serving was. Look at that napkin wrapped so we won’t touch the food with dirty hands!
Across the country at Fuji-Q Highland, which is known for its world-record breaking rides at the base of Mount Fuji, we had an even better experience. It was pouring when we arrived, so we sought refuge inside one of the park’s many eateries. There, we ordered two ridiculously perfect places of spaghetti with meat sauce, two cups of milk tea and a bowl of corn potage soup. All of that cost us less than $20!!!! That makes the food court at Fuji-Q Highland one of the most affordable restaurants in Japan!
Don’t Skip the Vending Machines
We didn’t have the good fortune of finding vending machines with food in them while we were frantically running from place to place, but we definitely relied on them for all kinds of drinks. There were times, of course, when were genuinely thirsty and needing hydration so we grabbed something refreshing.
Other times, like when we were feeling run down, we grabbed a drink designed to boost health. I’m allergic to citrus fruits, yet I was able to enjoy drinks that contained ridiculous amounts of lemon with no problem. AND they actually made me feel better, so figure that one out!
We also enjoyed warm bottles of tea from the vending machines. No, it did not burn our hands because the Japanese are amazing. Yes, the milk tea had the perfect amount of milk and sugar. I miss it every single day!!
Helpful Tips and Reminders
If you’ve never been to Japan, definitely take a moment to read our list of things you need to know before you go! Also, as you look for cheap food and affordable restaurants in Japan, keep the following in mind:
- Do not eat or drink on the go. No, you absolutely should NOT walk down the street eating french fries. This is considered very rude. You can, however, enjoy snacks or a meal on the train!
- Make use of the hand washing stations in restaurants and convenience stores.
- Have a plan for your garbage. You won’t find garbage cans out on the street, so you need to either throw trash away at a restaurant/store, or carry it with you until you find a garbage.
Best of all, the food in Japan is so affordable, why not just try a little bit of everything!? Be adventurous, push beyond your comfort zone and discover new things. That’s the whole point of traveling, right? Sure, it can be scary (we definitely understand fear!) but it’s often worth it in the end. At the very least, it will be a learning experience and what’s better than personal growth? Enjoy your culinary journey!