While we were Japan for two weeks we saved money by eating cheaply everywhere we went. I can't think of one meal I ate that was more than $15 dollars per person. Traveling to country that is quite expensive when it comes to transit and housing, we were surprised by how well we could eat without spending too much. The wonderful thing about Japanese food is that it is uniformly delicious in Japan, from 711 to the train station restaurants, everything I ate was fresh and prepared with care.
To be sure, there is a lot of wonderful food we didn't eat. Perhaps next time (there has to be a next time!) we'll dine with a famous sushi chef or have a traditional kaiseki style meal. But this time. we were both content to eat like cheap hungry locals looking for a deal.
My favorite cheap eats in Japan:
We bought onigiri from train stations, convenience stores, small mom and pop stands, and anywhere we saw their iconic rice and nori triangle shape calling to us. The Japanese don't eat in public while on their spectacular transit system but it seemed like onigiri were an exception to this rule.
Each onigiri costs around a dollar and some change making it a fantastic deal. They were perfect to carry with you to a bench or a park, or to eat while on a train platform. We learned the character for salmon (鮭) to quickly be able to recognize the ones we liked the most. The best part was the genius packaging the nori came in so that you could unwrap it separately from the rice, meaning your little snack's outer layer was neat and never soggy.
Conveyor Belt Sushi
It seems like a gimmick but it is the best gimmick because conveyor belt sushi is obviously cheap but very fresh. These places were pretty much a win-win for the adventurous tourist in Japan. Each piece was around a dollar and change. Add on a large Asahi beer and you've got yourself a filling meal.
We returned multiple times to Genki Sushi in Shibuya---though not exactly conveyor belt, it's robotic meaning you order by the piece and it's delivered to you like magic! We also ate a Musashi sushi in Kyoto multiple times too, they have several locations, which was a real conveyor belt sushi place. Everything was fresh and well prepared, better than fast sushi you'd get anywhere else in the United States.
Ramen is everywhere, just like I assumed. But ramen is too good to stop eating, even if you're on you're forth bowl during a trip to Japan. We stuck to the fast ramen places where you can quickly order by machine out front, just the kind in train stations meant for the business crowd having a meal before a long commute home.
The best ramen to me was found in the hard to locate but very popular strip of ramen restaurants called Tokyo Ramen Street in Tokyo Station. We returned twice to that hidden but popular strip of restaurants.
My favorite ramen at Tokyo Ramen Street was not traditional, though. It was full of vegetables, red pepper noodles, and a vegetarian broth. It was savory and interesting, topped with so many crispy garlic chips and a spicy tomato paste. Each bowl was around 9 dollars, enough to fill you up for lunch or dinner.
Grabbing a bento either at a restaurant during lunch time or in the huge food mart depachikas in department stores, was a perfect way to try sushi, udon, tempura, or soba for less than dinner prices. Restaurants almost everywhere, especially in train stations, will have good deals for lunch bentos.
I was very impressed with the depechicka at Mitsukoshi in Ginza----they even had a roof of lawn you could lounge on with your food.
Just wandering a train station to find food turned out to be a culinary destination in itself, and almost every train station has something to eat in it.
A fun part of not speaking Japanese but still putting yourself out there was standing amongst the business men in Izakayas, informal pubs known for their red lanterns on the outside. Inside, you can get a mug of draft beer and lots of skewers of chicken, sauced or salted, for under 10 dollars.
Izakayas are also a nice way to experience night lifewithout having to commit to a bar or night club scene. We especially liked the well traveled Piss Alley in Shinjuku.
Whether you're in Osaka or Tokyo's Tsukiji market or Ueno park, you can sample lots of Japanese fast cuisine by eating from street vendors. Look out for fresh green tea mochi with red bean paste inside (my favorite,) gyoza, yakitori, crab, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, tamago, grilled oysters, fresh sashimi, and different flavors of soft serve among much, much more.
We ate dishes from the street as often as we could. At the Tsukiji market in Tokyo we split sashimi eaten standing up with green tea to wash it down. It was devine, the best fish I've ever had so far for about 20 dollars.
Every blog post, guidebook, and video I watched before traveling to Japan told me about Japanese vending machines existing everywhere. So despite being prepared I was still overwhelmed with adoration for their ubiquitous presence.
We made an effort to try them every day, multiple times a day. Besides wonderfully bizarre names (Calpis? hmmm) they featured great packaging and crazy selections to sample from every side street to train station to temple you've just walked a million steps up. All you need is a 100 or so yen most of the time. Salt and Fruit was my absolute favorite drink.
It was also convenient to have beer vending machines in both cities! We'd often save spending on alcohol at dinner and just grab an Asahi for our balcony at the Airbnbs we booked.
711 and Family Mart convenience stores were my second homes. You can get cash out in their ATMs. They have coffee machines to supplement my exploration of vending machine can coffee. They're also not like our American counterparts, meaning you can grab a fresh noodle bowl, onigiri, sushi, udon, or even a croissant instead of a bag of chips. Oh they also have pocky and Japanese candies!