How to Buy Cheap Food in Japan
Besides sleeping, the one other thing that human beings do regularly for long periods of time is eating. What to eat, how much to eat, where to eat and so on, will probably preoccupy us around 3 times a day.
As Kenneth has already pointed out, choosing where and when you buy food can save you some money. Cooking your own meals is a great option too. Read his article for more tips about living on the cheap in Japan!
Let me give you some further tips regarding Food that I have ‘honed’ for the past 6 years of living alone and on a budget in Singapore, Australia, UK, Europe and most recently, Japan.
1. Find a supermarket/market/grocery stall/food store
This might sound fairly straightforward, but it actually isn’t. After a while, you are quick to realise that the omniscient Mini Stop, Family Mart, Lawson, Sunkus, Daily Yamazaki, Seico Mart, and not forgetting 7-11 of course (and etc. such as those at train station malls, within train stations and at station platforms of which I can’t seem to remember the names of) are actually convenience stores (konbini). For my part, I was driven to a supermarket (or large grocery store whichever you want to call it) by a staff member on my first day in the ‘countryside’ so I knew what the local supermarket sign looked like. Unlike Tesco or Sainsbury’s in UK, Coles or Woolworths in Australia, Giant or Fairprice in Singapore, Lotte Mart in South Korea, Walmart in USA or even Carrefour, Aldi and Costco (almost everywhere), it was difficult to tell at first what and where the supermarkets were, especially if you don’t have a car or bicycle.
The more popular local supermarket (it had 3-4 stores in the wide expanse of the vicinity) was called Belc. In the depths of a mall by the nearest JR train station, there was a Yaoko. Some ways off (think 20mins by car or 40minutes by bicycle), there was an Aeon. If the first two supermarket names do not sound familiar to you, then you should rejoice that you do not live in a semi-countryside area.
My local Belc. (picture by shrompy)
A quick search on the internet brought up names like Aeon, Albis, Daiei, Fuji, Heiwado, Ito-Yokado, Izumi-ya, JUSCO, Kanaesue, Kansai Super, Maxvalu Tokai, Nagasakiya, Uny, Sunlive, Super Yuki, Seiyu and Yaohan (see Wikipedia here and here).
By word-of-mouth, I knew of the existence of at least one Costco in Tokyo (apparently there are many outlets) where you can get bigger portions of food which is mostly unheard of in Japanese supermarkets.
When I was in Kyoto, I shopped at a Fresco, which I knew from the courtesy of the guesthouse’s map, and was lucky enough to even be within walking distance to two Frescos.
Of course, if you are fortunate enough, you may live near real markets that don’t have air-conditioning where you can get fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh meat and fresh fish and the like, for slightly cheaper than those from a supermarket (probably). Check out a few (possibly Chinese) grocery stalls down alleys at Yokohama’s Chinatown area for fresh and cheap fruit and vegetables and other Chinese food products—it’s the ones that sell fresh fruit and vegetables that are cheaper; the ones that only sell packaged food seem to be more touristy. For Korean foodstuff like kimchi, rice cakes, kimbap down to fresh fish and vegetables, check out Osaka’s Koreatown in Ikuno (read more here)–if you go to the right stall, you can get cheap kimbap [2 rolls for 400- 500yen] and korean pancakes [1 for 300-400yen], something I didn’t notice until after I bought mine. For the bulk-buying of other packaged food apart from Costco (Yes!! It is possible in Japan!!!), like the latest trending energy drinks and energy bars, or even snacks and candy you ate years ago as a little kid, check out the numerous shops on Kappabashi—however I do recommend that you bring a fresh pair of arms and shoulders to lug your purchases home as these shops are almost comparable to Lotte Vic Marts or even Costco. Do also check out Tsukiji for fish, Yanaka Ginza and Ameyoko, according to Electra. I’m sure there are markets elsewhere in Japan but I just don’t know about them. Feel free to tell us about your favourite wet markets and grocery stores in the comments!
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Korean pancake and kimbap from Osaka’s Koreatown. (picture by shrompy)
2. Look for discounts and compare prices per net weight
Congratulations! Now that you have found a place that sells some food products, it’s time to look for bargains and compare prices! It’s easy if you can read Japanese; you can see which items are on sale or which items are Today’s Specials just at a glance. However, don’t fret if you can’t. Discount and Specials are normally printed on a different coloured paper, for example, a normal product sign might be white and the sale sign might be yellow or blue or pink (or have a coloured stripe on it). If that doesn’t work for you, look for the Sales Period such as 0315-0422 or 03/15-04/22 that will be printed on the sign. Other signs or stickers to look out for are those that say ‘X% off’ and ‘half-price’ which look like this:
Discount stickers: Half-price (半額) and % off (%引). (picture by shrompy)
Some stores even have LINE (a phone application similar to Whatsapp, KakaoTalk, WeChat etc.) which is free to follow. I followed my local Belc’s LINE and received updates on the sales items for the week. The same pamphlet is also available on the store’s website and in print by the supermarket doors. I found it convenient as I knew about bargains quickly and conveniently, like when Häagen- Dazs ice cream went on sale for around 140yen, or when the general sales days for fresh food were (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) and what was on sale. Sales days and times are generally different for different market chains, but I have observed that most have an afternoon and evening sale. Discounted items are grabbed really quickly and the ‘sale’ might only last a few minutes, so if you see a staff member going beepbeep with a little machine, I advise you to hang around the vicinity for bargains before they are snapped up by everyone else or take a quick walk around to the other aisles and the staff might have finished pasting discount stickers by the time you are back. Some supermarkets might even have staff shouting out or a PA system that shouts out that XX food is currently on a timed-sale for the next hour, or that XX food will go on sale after XX pm. If you really must have it, then go for it. Otherwise, assess the situation and maybe buy it on another day.
My local AEON [say eon] supermarket which closes at 10pm. (picture by shrompy)
3. Check the expiry dates and condition of the product
Now that you know what you’ve selected and got for a bargain, do remember to check the expiry dates and the condition of the product and then you’re set!
- If you buy sushi or sashimi, the packet of soy sauce or ginger slices might not be in the box. Look around or at the side of the sushi display for them.
- If you buy meat, there might be small cylinders of fat that you can take (usually for free, depending on the supermarket) and use to cook the meat with.
- If the food product expires on the same day you purchase it, technically it should be on sale at a heavily discounted price. Don’t be afraid to ask the staff about it. (I personally managed to get a few 1500yen slabs of unagi down to around 500yen for someone’s mother just because I inquired about it).
- And bananas usually have discount stickers when the peel turns brown or black. I don’t know why they’re discounted but it’s a definitely bargain to get them when they are at their sweetest and cheapest!
4. Purchase, (cook), eat!
Some food containers which have harder plastic or are styrofoam can be put in the microwave (boxed food called bento). However, normal plastic containers that hold food like fried chicken pieces, tempura or other fried things, skewers and other finger food might not be able to withstand the heat from microwave. Do be careful!
￼My homecooked tsuke-somen breakfast at a Kyoto guesthouse. (picture by shrompy)
If you are stuck for recipes, check out Liam’s post for 5 minute cooked meals.
5. Price checks and budgeting
Generally, the local food is cheaper than anything else in the market, although you do get deals like 100yen pasta, 100yen can of tomatoes, 100yen pack of mushrooms and 100yen soba (dry). A pack of udon (wet) can be 30yen, a square of tofu 30yen, a bag of bean sprouts 20yen and a couple of packs of natto for 40yen. If you don’t have the time, you can even buy premade instant sauces (wet) like pasta sauce, curry and oyakodon to mix with your pasta, rice or potatoes for around 100yen per pack. A litre of milk or juice can also be around 100yen, and a bag of 5-6 dinner buns can be less than 100yen. For some food products available in Aeon or Belc, check out this website (https://www.topvalu.net/).
Do note however, that my budget caps at around 100yen per food item (there is an additional product tax, unless already stated on the price tag) and there are definitely more expensive brands (and if on sale, cheaper brands) of pasta, canned tomatoes, mushrooms, soba, udon, tofu, bean sprouts, natto, instant food, beverages, bread and other items. However, I sometimes do go over my 100yen cap if there really isn’t anything on sale, if the product does not go down to 100yen (like 300-500g of ice cream e.g a box of 6 cups of macha ice cream or a box of 6 sticks of Hershey’s chocolate-coated vanilla ice cream), or if I wanted to satisfy my craving for something, like getting a 100yen white chocolate-coated ‘gourmet’ donut instead of buying 6 normal donuts for 100yen.
Finally, when the day you get tired of supermarket bento, frozen food and cooking fresh food arrives, do remember to treat yourself to what I call ‘outside food’—food that you don’t have to cook or warm up yourself. Other people I know actually do treat themselves once a week or so to this ‘outside food’. And don’t worry! Some fast food is actually cheap. You can get 100yen burgers and 100yen fries and 100yen drinks. A soba/ramen shop sells the most basic noodle and soup for around 300yen a bowl. I believe Yoshinoya and Matsuya sell a bowl of rice and meat (a don) also for 300yen too. If you happen to be near the Asakusa shopping area, there is a bento shop which sells cheap bentos (at 200yen per box if I remember correctly). Of course, if you are ready and willing to splurge, why not try some Japanese, Italian, Brazilian, Mexican, Irish, British, American, French, Greek, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Korean or Indian fare from around 500-1500yen? Some all-you-can-eat buffets even start from 1000yen (do note that most buffets only specialise in one cuisine). It is a treat after all(:
A soba & udon shop in a Ueno Station platform. (photo by shrompy)