I got my taste of the hard life in Japan towards the end of my stay when my cash flow was pretty much a dribble, and I was reluctant to take on new students only to inconvenience them when I moved back to England. Shit I was so broke I ended up living in some guys garage for the last few weeks of my trip, but I did manage to acquire some golden experience about how to eat in the worlds most expensive country when you're flat broke. So this section is devoted to keeping your ass above board on less than 1500 yen a week (7)..anything less than that is suicidal. I've also included cheap solutions to the problem given to me by some long-term Japan-residents.

Let me begin by saying Japan can be cheap if you find the right places, but it's never as cheap as in England, where you can buy Tesco Value 9p cans of beans, and 15p loaves of bread, not only that but you'll find in certain towns there are collectively referred to as 'pikey shops' which are places that vend supermarket giveaway food that is usually near it's sell-by date, or has a damaged container. Unfortunately in Japan, the closest you can get to that are the 100 Yen shops littered around town. This is the equivalent to our 1 pound shop, except in Japan it sells food too, which is bloody fortunate otherwise I don't know how I could have made it at the time when I was so skint.

You'll need around 250 yen a day, and the things I found easiest to survive on were:

Gyoza: Kind of Chinese spring rolls but smaller and much tastier. They cost around 70 yen from the 100 yen shop and you get about 10 a packet. Fry them up and eat with some rice and you're laughing - full stomach every time.

Pasta: As cheap in Japan as anywhere else, for around 40 yen (nothing) you can get yourself 2-3 days worth of lovely Spaghetti to put with anything. Nice and filling and a refreshing change from the daily grind of rice.

Curry paste: I hate the shit but I have to admit it can really bring to life a tasteless bowl of rice. For about 60 yen or something you get 7 thick blocks of curry flavour mush that looks like shit and tastes like it too.

Mincemeat and Tomatoes: My saviour! This really got me through. 50 yen. Maybe 3 times I week I'd get this with some sphagetti and have a good old Italian cook up, good for 2 meals a day. And funnily enough, you'd think that in Japan this kind of foreign food would taste like crap, but I swear, they must be importing it straight from the Continent itself, because it tasted just great! I really couldn't get enough of it, and survived a hell of a lot easier because of it.

Vegetables and Fruits: Ummm...forget em! hahah..it's not cheap in Japan, so I didn't bother. If I told you how much a water-melon cost in Japan you'd faint. I just had to go without them. Still breathing aren't I?

Chocolate covered Nuts: These I love, and I found you can get them from the 100 yen shop dead cheap. Nuts are great nutrition and perfect to top up your appetite after dinner, and with the rich protein in the nuts you can gaurentee you won't be hungry till the next morning after munching a packet of them. They really don't taste bad at all, and besides, plus if you get sick of them there's plenty of other choice for 100 yen in the shop, albeit not as filling probably.

Eggs: A nice price, nice with your rice, use not once, not twice but thrice.

Bread: Okay, admittedly Japan has the worst-tasting bread I've ever had, and not only that but it'll whack out the lions share of your allocated daily allowance of 250, but a couple of slices a day are big enough to fill you up from breakfast to lunchtime without a doubt and a loaf can go a week if needs be. Chuck anything inside your sandwich - from gyoza to eggs, and it'll keep you happy.

Pocky and Pretz: Very nice, very cheap biscuit sticks, covered in a variety of flavoured icing for Pocky (coffee, milk, chocolate, strawberry, the usual) and salts for Pretz (salad, corn-on-the-cob, roasted chocolate, butter). They really are top little treats, which, although they don't fill you up much, are bloody nice, and I was constantly munching them whilst in Japan. You can also splash out for their even more tastier big brothers, the Almond Crush and Coconut Chocolate Crush flavours which really are the best sweets you can buy in Japan in my opinion.

Ice-Cream: Strangely inexpensive in Japan, most ice-creams come at the standard price of 100 yen each. So you can try a Cornetto instead of chocolate nuts after your meal once in a while.


Other options:

Universities: It's actually 100% legal just to wander into a university canteen and buy lunch in Japan - even though you're just a member of the public. It is dead cheap to eat there, and the meals are top notch, fill you up every time. When your stomach's panging from eating too much spaghetti bolognese and you've managed to ration an extra hundred yen from somewhere, then this is the perfect solution.

Victoria Station: One word. Tabe-hodai. Or, all you can eat. It's often worth going to Victoria Station as you can get an all you can eat salad bar for an extra 200 yen on top of your steak. No-ones gonna look twice as you fill a doggy bag with all the salad and fruit nutrition you've been missing to take home and stick in the fridge, if it evers comes to that. Luckily for me I never got to that kind of stage...but I was thinking about it!!..

Tokyu Store: Probably my last discovery was the 8pm price reductions from the Tokyu Store (a nationwide chain of Tesco-style supermarkets) near my old place. I wouldn't be surprised to hear this applies to all of Japans bigger food-markets, where certain o-bento meals and deserts are reduced to half-price for quick-sale, so if you manage to headbutt a few Japanese old ladies out of the way in time you can pick up some very delectable meals for around the 400-600 yen range that will make your stomach hum with pleasure. Another bonus with Tokyu is the dead cheap yakitori sticks they sell for 40 yen each. Nice, very nice.

This contribution comes from Sarah.

#1 has to be REFUSE-- both Dunkin' Donuts and MacDonalds dispose of their leftovers in immaculate, sanitary conditions. There is no "day-old" system in Japan, so leftover donuts are discarded when the shop closes, separate from other garbage (like fag-ends, etc.) MacDonalds must put excess burgers to rest after 15 minutes, and these are discarded (in their individual styrofoam containers) at the end of the evening. In Tokyo you have to fight off the rubbies and the crows in order to get first pick. Mind the cops, as pilfering garbage is indeed a crime of thievery in Japan.

#2 Boil-in-the-bag gyuu-don (as in Yoshinoya beef bowl) is dirt cheap (some supermarkets have it on sale for as little as \70/per) tastes best when accompanied by ALOT of rice (lots of tasty liquid in the bag) and personally I prefer it with a raw egg scrambled and poured on top, but then again, I eat everything. The "Tokyo" style is, of course, the best (the bigger the population, the better the overall cuisine, I reckon), containing a superior ratio of beef. "Yokohama" is a close second, but one must be able to read kanji in order to distinguish the regional versions. There's another kind altogether which comes in a red box, and that is voluminous. Tastes arright,too.

#3 The binbou (poverty-stricken) shoku par excellance for working-class Japanese is Bon-kare. It has a target mark on the box in variegated shades of off-putting orange. It too, is boil-in-the-bag. It averages ONE chunk of beef per packet, and comes in mild, medium and hot. Again, these are the kanji that are de rigeur, as no-one who actually eats Bon-kare reads any English, so its value as a marketting strategy does not apply. If you shop around, a box of this "curry" will set you back a mere \40. Despite the paucity of meat, it contains quite alot of root vegetables-- heavy, starchy goodness.

#4 There are all sorts of (some are boil-in-the-bag, others are as-is) pasta sauces for the more adventurous-- chili cod roe (mentaiko), squid-ink (ika sumi) pickled plum and beefsteak leaf (ume-jiso) that average around \100.

#5 Alot of non-Japanese (and Japanese from outside the Tokyo/Yokohama area) dislike nattou (fermented soy beans), as did I for my first 4 years in Japan. But when I ran out of money in Tokyo (and if you think its rough being skint in Sapporo, I do not recommend giving it a whirl in the capital) I decided to bite the bullet. For the first 10 times I had to hold my nose, but eventually I learned to love it. I have been stuck in Canada for the past 8 years (moving to Sapporo at the end of August, actually) and have finally found a place to get it in Montreal (otherwise known as the arsehole of the universe). Mix nattou well (until frothy) with thinly-sliced green onion (cheap in Japan) the mustard and tare (sauce) that come with the nattou, and a raw egg yolk (optional-- but SO worthwhile). My friend Tetsuya adds a drop or two of sesame oil, which REALLY cuts off the objectionable edge of the foul bean. Nattou is cheap (often as low as \50 for a packet of 3) and an excellent source of nutrients. Mixed with alot of white rice it is palatable and filling.

#6 Brown rice is much cheaper than white rice. During the war white rice was extremely scarce, so many people had to eat millet and brown rice. Older people (like my mother-in-law, for example) would rather die than have to eat brown rice ever again, so Japanese people tend to reserve its consumption for times when they are SEVERELY constipated. When I lived in Ebisu I would buy it at the rice shop, and a few days later would be questioned by the greengrocer about the state of my bowels. I was only 18 at the time, and generally speaking turds are not a conversation topic of the young in Canada, so the whole experience really forced me to lighten up. Perhaps I spend too much time with the lower classes in Japan, but it has consistently been my experience that a majority of Japanese really love to talk about poo (my sister-in-law sends me laxatives from Yokohama-- EXPRESS POST) So, if you are broke in Japan, this is only an option for the non-anal-retentive.

#7 My husband landed a job at a university in Sapporo and tells me that on the first of each month, the local supermarket offers 50% all frozen foods. Though not an instant/frozen food fan, the quality of these in Japan is mind-boggling.

#8 Join co-operative type supermarkets wherever possible. They will send you flyers detailing the sales they have on, and you automatically get at least a 10% discount from everything with a member's card. It pays to speak Japanese, but most people are capable of squeaking out "membaazu kaddo,kudasai". #9 ALL kuyakusho and shiyakusho (ward or city councils) have cheap cafeterias, as do the unis. If you go to your local kuyakusho or the main shiyakusho, as a resident you are entitled to eat there. However, as a foreigner you are never entered on the list of residents (even when married to Japanese and despite having to pay residency tax 2 times as high as any Japanese), so theoretically, you can be asked to leave. Showing your Alien registration-- which has your address on it-- is usually enough to avoid hassle (worked for me, anyway). Don't go to a kuyakusho outside of your area of residence. Most of the time people are reluctant to hassle you because they generally assume that you don't understand Japanese, and they don't want to embarass themselves by having to try out their English.

#9 (Only for Japanese speakers) Return things that have gone off. Be firm, and you will be rewarded with some form of compensation. My mother-in-law returns cucumbers (\70/bag of 5) if they are not juicy enough. Then, when the greengrocer launches into his tirade of "sumimasen", she says "What are you going to give me?" Takes bottle, but works like a charm. I tried it once with some rainbow trout (which was truly off, but I HAD eaten it all) and I got a very large bag of strawberries. Another great strategy is to inform the merchant that you saw X for a much better price somewhere else. Whenever a hawker tries to entice my sister-in-law to make a purchase with an "aren't you cute" she responds with, "Damn right I'm cute-- so whatcha gonna give me?" Tokyo has a bargaining culture that goes back hundreds of years, so this may not be possible in all regions, but by and large greengrocers and fish mongers love a bit of sport, and there is no music as sweet to my ears as "Shoubai wo dame ni suru jan!" (you're destroying my business) which means that the price is falling, and then the final cry of "Motte ike, dorobou!" (just take it, you thief!) which signals my triumph as a consumer.

And here's another bunch of helpful suggestions from a Japanese dude called Oscar with freakishly perfect English:

Recently there has been a proliferation of wholesale food outlets in Japan. The chain in my district is called "A-Price" but I think there are other chains elsewhere in Japan. They sell, for example, spaghetti in restaurant sized packages that are much cheaper per volume than the ordinary supermarkets. You can also find imported canned foods in industrial-strength sizes. Cheese is generally very expensive in Japan, but here you can buy large chunks for a lot less. Canned huckleberries and other such Western ingredients that you never hoped to find in Japan are here also. Large quatities of frozen shrimp and shellfish from southeast asia and exotic spices for Chinese foods can also be found. You will occasionally need a large freezer to take advantage of these shops. If you have a number of friends who are also on the cheap, you can buy as a group and split the contents. Another incrediblly cheap source of food is the *ichiba*. The *ichiba* is of course the wholesale market where professional fish mongers and vegitable venders buy their wares. Sushi chefs and reputable restaurants and *izakaya* cooks also buy their ingredients directly from the *ichiba*. It opens three or four in the morning and closes around seven. You can buy fish to feed a whole dormitory for 500 yen. You would have to speak Japanese pretty well to take advantage of this. The language of the *ichiba* is infused with local dialects and specialized lingo. Find a friend to take you there on the guise of learning Japanese culture. Anyone who has spent any time in Japan should know that the fish monger and other blue-collar merchant types are always the first to volunteer to show you a piece of Japanese culture. Besides, the *ichiba* is one of the last bastions of uncorrupted Asian Atmosphere in Japan. It should be an interesting experience in a way that a tour through a Kyoto temple is not. Cooking and preserving the stuff you buy can be a problem. You may end up cooking and freezing fish for a whole day after you make one of these excursions. (Better to cook your fish before you freeze it. Never freeze a fish before you've at least gutted and scaled it! ) You can also get pretty sick of eating grilled saba after a few days. Group purchase is also recommended here.


Back to the Main page