Let’s face the harsh reality of how small our dollar is as compared to the Japanese Yen. For a S$1,000 I could only get about ￥81,000 and that is how I got by 14 days from Osaka to Tokyo with Minakami in between (buying a Nintendo 3DS, 5 kg worth of books, games and souvenirs). That’s slightly more than ￥5,784 per day.
If the plan is to dine at an Okonomiyake restaurant spending almost a thousand Yen in Osaka for lunch, you are not likely to last a week in Japan without spending the next week living on cup ramen. Especially when lunch is one of the best time to get a really good deal!
There are many ways to feast in Japan without blowing a hole in your pocket and that comes with careful planning, information gathering, web research like japan-guide.com and reading this article.
There are several types of shops in Japan offering food a lower prices and restaurants found on top of expensive looking shopping malls often charge a premium for a similar dish just a street away. The question is how far, or how low, you are willing to look for your next meal. When you want to min-max your budget to get as much Otaku goodies as your luggage can carry.
Gyudon is one of the most economical meals anyone will find hard to miss. There are Gyudon chains everywhere at every corner in major cities. So, there is no excuse not to find one unless you’re in rural Minakami.
There are three food chains (Yoshinoya, Sukiya and Matsuya) vying against each other to be the king of budget Gyudon. There are others, but these are the big three and it is really hard not to find any of them. All three chains offer the standard size for ￥300 or below. Some of their outlets open 24-7. If you’re really hungry in the middle of the night and sick of convenience store food, you might consider checking out the local friendly Gyudon store. On a side note, Gyudon chains are often packed during lunch and dinner times, while empty during late mornings and after hours.
Restaurants often put forth lunch deals at tempting prices. Take Saizeriya for example. This Italian restaurant chain has been feeding the Italian craze (with a Japanese twist) at an affordable price tag of ￥500 (including tax). That comes with a free flow of water and miso soup.
However, Saizeriya is not the only restaurant out there offering a budget lunch menu. Many restaurants offer lunch deals from ￥600 to around ￥1000. If stretching every single yen in your pocket is your kind of hobby, lunch will be the best time to start food hunting.
In late 2011, Ben-To, a fighting anime inspired by the mad rush to grab food going at half-price. While the anime had over exaggerated the necessity to the point of a fighting match for a packet of cold food. The reality (less the fighting scenes) is not far from the scene depicted on the anime.
At the supermarket next to my hotel at Ikebukuro, Tokyo. It opens 24-7 and the discount man only works at 11pm. No later, no earlier. Other supermarkets start as early as 6 or 7pm. Nightly, a throng of people, salary man, house wives and average Joes will crowd around the cooked food section. Eyeing their next meal while they wait for the discount man to do his work. Pasting discount stickers on each packet. The moment the sticker is slapped on the packet it is almost immediately snapped up if someone wants it for dinner.
However, what drives people to supermarkets to grab their dinner is a matter of money. The price of pre-cooked meals at supermarkets range between ￥300-500 for a rice bowl or a set meal. Side dishes range between ￥90 – 500 depending on the quantity. Chicken yakitori sell for about ￥100 per stick and ￥93 for a piece of korokke (of any favor). There are gyoza and karage among other side dishes.
Working back the equation once the half-price sticker is on the package, a simple Katsudon which normally sells for ￥350 goes down to ￥175. The supermarket gives a 20% discount for some dishes . At others, they would stick stickers stating the precise amount they would shave off the original amount. With a ￥500 coin, this goes into a lot of food and an packet of Milk Tea which retails for 93 yen per 1 liter packet. Put in 200-300 yen more and you could have Sashimi for dinner.
If you are worried about getting souvenirs for many people and Kit Kat comes to mind, try the supermarkets. They sell Kit Kats in bulk. But, they don’t carry exotic favors like wasabi or chili, should you need them to torture your friends’ taste buds back home.
There is always a supermarket somewhere. Even in rural Minakami, there was one right down the street from the Ryokan we stayed in.
Supermarkets have microwave oven and boiled water if you’re wondering where to heat up your food or cook your instant ramen. Unlike supermarkets back home, you have to pack your own groceries or even purchase your own plastic bags.
Convenience Stores 「コンビニ」
Sometimes Murphy strikes and that is when you head down to the convenience stores.
Convenience Stores are open 24-7 rain or shine. Unlike other countries, they are as well stocked as supermarkets (maybe more).
They sell Bentos, instant Ramen, surgical mask to limited edition anime Kuji (only at Family Mart). Prices are reasonable, and the selection is surprisingly huge considering its limited floor space. While microwave ovens are common place at all convenience stores, some offer tables and chairs for customers to enjoy their meals.
There is a huge variety of bentos for sale at convenience stores. Mostly comfort food, fusion western cuisine to salads for the health conscious eater. The only difference between a convenience store and a supermarket is the lack discounts. Between an expensive izakaya and a posh restaurant, the convenience stores gets my vote for budget.
Convenience stores near hotels and tourist attraction have a habit of placing English speaking staff, mainly foreign students studying in Japan. Don’t be surprised to meet a non-Japanese staff at the counter. They speak English!
Off the Beaten Path
“When in Rome do as the Romans do.”
We all know that in Singapore locals pay about S$2-4 for a plate of chicken rice. And we jest at tourist for paying S$12 per plate. However, everyday, tourists still patronize these restaurants when you could get them at hawker centers. They don’t know where to find S$2 Chicken Rice. It’s not on the ‘tourist’ map.
I hate to drop the bomb to those who insist on consulting the holy map. But, they are the yellow brick road to tourist traps. I suggest ditching that piece of paper! Okay, not totally trashing it but bring it out only when you’re lost getting back to the hotel. Flaunting the map around is also not the wisest fashion in Tokyo when you ‘re announcing to the world that you’re a tourist. I’ll rather be lost than to be led by the nose.
There are several tell tale signs about the district, whether it is for tourist or locals. The biggest give away are the maps found near junctions and train stations. Tourist maps are illustrated with green backgrounds and landmarks are written in both English and Japanese. Local maps however, are in shades of blue and contains directions only in Japanese.
The other subtle give away are drink prices on vending machines.
After all, an average Japanese don’t earn more than you and me, they have bills to pay and things they want to buy and families to raise. If they are able to get by day to day on that tight budget, they must be doing something right; while we’re doing everything proper to burst our budget.