Let’s face it, the Japanese standard of living is high. Really high. Name any common item and I can probably give you sticker shock by quoting a Japanese price for some version of it. And yet, a trip to Japan can be cheaper than you might think. Plan well, buy wisely, and you can be surprised at how little you’re spending.
The secret is that there’s a lot of wiggle room budgeting for food. Yes, you can drop up to 15,000 yen per person for a high-end kaiseki meal or a deluxe Matsuzaka beef dinner. It’s also very possible to spend as little as 300-700 yen per meal, without suffering from the great drop in quality you might expect from such a big price difference. The Japanese even have a term for such cheap-but-good eats: Grade B Gourmet. It’s a favorite of students and salarymen, and it’s ubiquitous in Japan’s cities.
The quality of this budget fare is guaranteed by three factors: number one, the extreme competition for the market, second the very strict government regulations on food safety, and third, the high expectations of the Japanese themselves, both buyer and seller. For many purveyors their food is a living legacy, the recipes and cooking methods inherited and perfected over multiple generations sometimes stretching back to the Edo era. They’re proud of what they serve, and it shows.
So where can we find Grade B Gourmet? Here’s a list of places to look:
Major train stations house scores of food concessionaires. Look out for noodle shops, curry houses, ekiben vendors, and bakeshops. Cheap but filling options include ramen or udon, curry rice, and curry pan and other filled breads. Ekiben, lunch box sets containing regional specialties, range in price from 500 yen snack packs to 1,700 yen-plus full meals complete with two or more viands, rice, and salad, stir-fried vegetables or pickles. Many train stations have attached shopping malls or department stores, with basement groceries or depachika. More on depachika below!
Many malls and department stores have basement groceries, called depachika (depa – short for department store, chika – basement). These offer a stupendous array of foodstuffs, but as travelers we’re interested mostly in the ready-to-eat sections. Here you’ll find bento, sushi, karaage (incredibly addictive fried chicken bites), different kinds of onigiri (rice balls), and often a selection of local specialties, whose vendors will offer you free tastes. Because regulations don’t let them keep many fresh foods overnight, depachika usually put all their ready-to-eat foods on sale from around 7:00 p.m.. This is often where we buy dinner and the next day’s breakfast.
Konbini, convenience stores, are ubiquitous all throughout Japan and there is fierce competition between the different chains so their prices are very reasonable. Good deals at konbini include curry pan and other filled breads, onigiri rice balls, inari zushi (sushi rice in tofu-skin pockets), nikuman (meat-filled steamed buns, aka siopao), bento, sandwiches, donuts, and oden, assorted boiled delicacies. Konbini aren’t always the cheapest or best, but they’re usually near your hotel or destination and good shelter from rain or cold. Watch out for temptations like strawberry-and-cream-filled crepes!
Look out for the restaurants along the lesser alleys of food districts like Dotonbori in Osaka or the Kabukicho in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. These alleys are where you’ll find the smaller and homier izakaya, hole-in-the-wall noodle houses and specialty shops, and the bewitching aromas of yakitori and yakiniku grills. English menus are less common in these establishments, but it’s not that difficult to order: just point, often there’s only a limited selection of house specialties that are very obviously on display.
Some temples host flea markets during their festival days, turning their hallowed grounds into a food and shopping mecca. Here you’ll find Japanese crafts of all sorts, even swords, used clothing, kimonos, and best of all, a heavenly helping of street food. Watch out for stalls selling grilled cuttlefish, takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savory pancakes with assorted fillings), yakitori, dango (grilled balls of mochi glazed with sauce), noodles and Japanese sweets. A lot of Japanese street foods are made with rice, so they’re surprisingly filling even in small portions.
At some of the largest and most-frequently visited temples, the streets leading to the temple gates have become permanent markets. However, prices are lower and the offerings less touristy at the seasonal fairs. In Kyoto, visit the Toji Temple’s montly market every 21st of the month and the Chion-ji Hyakumanben market every 15th, and in Osaka watch out for the spring and autumn Higane festivals at the Shitennoji.