Running Out Of Yen: Eating On The Cheap In Japan

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Photo by Jessica Alpern

As many English teachers will tell you, the declining yen and prevailing economic stagnation in Japan these days are a pretty potent combination that can wreak havoc on your social life and finances. For many teachers new to Japan, who haven’t had time to build up a decent bank balance, those last few days before payday can be a real grind. So here are my top 5 places to eat on the cheap as you await that eventual, life-saving pay check.

1. Supermarkets: Believe it or not, supermarkets can actually produce some amazing bargains when you are looking for some fast food. The best time to go is of course in the evening after 8pm or so. This is particularly useful for Eikaiwa teachers who may not even get off work until 9 or 10pm.

At this time supermarkets are keen to get rid of all the sushi packs and bentos (lunchboxes) that will spoil overnight. It is not unusual to find some items discounting 50% or sometimes even as high as 70 or 80% off the regular marked price. Sushi, tempura (fried, battered fish and vegetables) and katsu (deep fried pork, beef or chicken cutlets) are especially popular at this time. Just make sure you eat it that same night, as these things will most likely spoil if left overnight.

2. Gyudon Restaurants: Yoshinoya, Matsuya, Sukiya. Most Japanese consider these restaurant chains, often with 24 hour openings, the salaryman’s best friend. A good hearty beef bowl (rice topped with shredded beef and onions) won’t set you back much more than about 500 ~ 700 yen, and will certainly fill you up until the next mealtime.

If beef isn’t your thing then these places also have a variety of other cheap and cheerful, though certainly calorific, foods on offer. The hamburger curry from Sukiya is a personal favourite of mine, as is the yakiniku set from Matsuya. Yoshinoya also does a very nice nabe (hotpot) set at this time of year.

3. Street stalls: While they may be more abundant in big cities like Osaka and Tokyo, even the lesser cities in Japan have their fair share of stalls and portable food wagons, usually stationed around train stations and other transport hubs. The fare on offer here is never expensive, and it can be a rare opportunity for the uninitiated foreigner to sample local delicacies.

Of course Osaka has its famous Takoyaki (squid balls) and Okonomiyaki, which is somewhere between an omelette and a pancake, but other lesser known treats can also be found, like Satsumaimo (Baked sweet potato) and my personal favourite taiyaki. Taiyaki is a small, sweet food in the shape of a fish. Its soft, chewy texture is somewhere between mochi and shortcrust pastry. Inside you can enjoy one of a variety of fillings. Most stalls offer a choice of chocolate, custard or anko (sweet red bean paste).

If you like sweets, then I highly recommend you sample taiyaki at the earliest opportunity.

4. Get creative and cook it yourself: If you do a bit of research, you will find that there are local fruit, vegetable and meat markets that sell fresh produce at bargain prices. In Osaka I especially recommend the Kuramon market for fruit and vegetables.

Some of these items will look exotic, perhaps even scary to newcomers. However, if you’re anything like me, you will really enjoy the experimentation that comes with cooking with new flavours and textures. It’s good for the soul, good for your health, and most importantly for this scenario, good for your bankbook.

5. Convenience Stores: My last suggestion may shock a few people, given that certain items can be notoriously more expensive in the konbini than they are in conventional supermarkets. However, as is also the case with supermarkets, to the eagle-eyed observer, there are always bargains to be had.

In particular, if payday is still a week away and you’re down to you last 10,000 yen, then why not check out the 100 yen corner in certain konbini stores. The Lawson chain even has the “Lawson 100” stores. These are entire convenience stores that specialize in products of 100 yen or less. With a bit of creativity, you get in a week’s worth of dinners for not much more than 1000 yen.

So there you have it: A survivor’s guide for scrimping and saving until payday, without missing out on a good dinner. Here’s hoping you’ll never have to use it.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Dale Goodwin says:

    LOL. If people are having a hard enough time eating and paying rent, etc. on the salary they are being paid, they either need to re-evaluate where they are living or the lifestyle they are living or perhaps, what they call a job. The exchange rate has nothing to do with how much things cost you as long as you are not being paid in dollars or something.

  • Yan says:

    I’m going to Tokyo soon, can anyone give me some supermarket names? Are they easy to find throughout the city?

  • Samantha Altmann says:

    Yoshinoya has been my life for the past three trips I’ve taken to Japan ha ha. I remember beef bowl being as cheap as 300yen but it’s a bit nasty. Curry and rice from yoshinoya is a much better option, topped with a soft boiled egg and some ginger and you can’t go wrong !

  • MarySY says:

    I wanted to go to japan. aside from healthy environment and good salary deal. Why is it so hard to survive from your allowance until the next payday?

    • Mike Bahde says:

      Yen has been inflating of late. It used to be stronger than the dollar not long ago, but they are intentionally inflating it. They had originally wanted to get it to 75 cents to the 100 yen by December, but the USD happened to inflate at the same time and kept up with it for awhile, but now it is 84 cents to the 100 yen

      • OnTaru says:

        Inflation has nothing to do with the cost of living. This will only be of importance if they pay you in dollars which they normally don’t

  • Stagea says:

    This article just reminds me that wages are far too low in Japan.

    • OnTaru says:

      I always thought they are much higher than in central europe. My girlfriend earns as much with baito as you would earn in austria or germany with fulltime

    • J. L. Sanchez says:

      Skilled workers make a ton. I used to make ¥636,000/mth, but I worked for a very hard to get to company in Shibuya. It comes down to how people spend their money. I lived in a 262sq ft apt., spent approx. ¥100,000/mth in rent in Taito, and refused to drink and eat like a fool. It made me healthier and kept me in check when the inevitable ¥500,000 tax bill came in at the end of the year. Just to keep this in perspective. I worked there in 2013 when the yen was at its lowest ever at approx ¥75/US $1

  • Jinx15 says:

    A Price is definitely the best for frozen meat.
    I’m a big believer in A Price, kind of a cash and carry deal..

    Cooking for yourself is definitely the cheapest way to get by in the long term. That’s if you can deal with the washing up! *yawn*.

    Helpful article, 100yen stores have good toppings for flavoring your rice.

  • Spot on. Also want to add that Life supermarkets are cheaper than Tokyu Supa, etc

  • Basudeb Tripathy says:

    I fully agree 🙂 Have some experience in Tokyo 🙂 Ha ha ha

  • Fransisco TS says:

    Pretty much everything is listed here.
    But I remember that Matsuya’s normal size rice bowls are only 200-ish yen, no?

  • Tess de la Serna says:

    Very informative. Thank you.

  • dogekins says:

    Sweet! Thanks for writing this article. 🙂

  • Adrian Buckles says:

    I could eat anko with just about everything 🙂
    Its rare here in the states unless you know exactly where to find it.

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