aboutWe are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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budget japanese cuisine
many ways to eat

Wasabi plants

Wasabi

One of the many things I love about the United States is that we can get good ---- and, occasionally, excellent ---- international fare in our cities.  I have had Thai curries in Atlanta that rivaled the ones we ate in Thailand and risottos as creamy and rich as the ones I've eaten in Italy.  When we've traveled, food has never been an outright surprise because we had glimpses of that cuisine in our home country. 

Japanese cuisine has been a different story.  We thought we knew Japanese cuisine: sushi, hibachi, tempura, rice, and fish.  When we first tasted fresh wasabi and not the pre-packaged stuff we were used to eating, we realized that we had no idea of the diversity of the food in this country and how little of it is imported to the United States.  This is the second part in our Japan on a budget series.  

Tsukemono

Tsukemono

Tsukemono:  Though not a stand-alone meal like the rest of these listed, tsukemono are served at every single meal we have had in Japan.  Tsukemono are pickled vegetables, usually served with rice.  We have eaten every type of pickled vegetable imagineable, from eggplant to okra to squash to pumpkin, and they are sold in beautiful packaging in grocery stores, convenience stores, and specialty stores across Japan.  Each region specializes in a particular types of pickled vegetables.  A plate of rice with pickled vegetables costs about 300 Yen ($3 USD).

Oysters

Grilled oysters in Miyajima

Grilled oysters:  Hiroshima and Miyajima specialize in grilled oysters.  The oysters, larger than the size of my fist, are simply cleaned and grilled on street corners and then served with a wedge of lemon for about 400 Yen ($4 USD) for two oysters.  Izakaya, pubs that serve small plates of food, may serve grilled oysters or other seafood for low prices.

Bento box

Bento box

Bento Boxes:  Businessman typically take bento boxes to lunch or on the train.  These rectangular boxes are sold in every train station and department store in the country and usually contain a selection of meat, vegetables, rice, and sweet in separate compartments.  Bento boxes are one of the cheapest ways to eat in Japan so if you feel your wallet starting to strangle you, head for the department stores and eat to your fill for less than 800 Yen ($9 USD).

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki:  Okonomiyaki is unlike anything else we have ever eaten.  The name is derived from okonomi which means "what you like" because the diner dictates the items to go into the dish and the cook makes the dish at teppan/hibachi-style grills.  It is often misleadingly described as a Japanese pancake but it is more like a crepe-meets-omelet-meets-salad-meets-hibachi.  The two major styles of okonomiyaki are Hiroshima style and Kansai/Osaka style. 

Okonomiyaki crepe Vegetables on okonomiyaki
Omelet from okonomiyaki Okonomiyaki bar

Making okonomiyaki at an okonomiyaki bar in Hiroshima

In the Hiroshima style, the cook begins by making a crepe with a thin batter and then layers the crepe with cabbage and bean sprouts.  Meanwhile, cooked noodles are placed on the teppan until they turn brown.  The noodles are layered on top of the crepe and then the cook adds meat (traditionally, pork, but you may request oysters, squid, and other seafood). The cook makes a thin omelet and places the omelet at the bottom of the crepe stack and adds cheese (if requested), green onions, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, seaweed flakes, and a sauce that is a thicker, sweeter version of barbeque sauce.  We were surprised by the deliciousness of the combination of flavors and went back for more on our second night in Hiroshima.

Okonomiyaki

Inside of okonomiyaki, Hiroshima style

The Osaka style is a simpler version, made by combining all of the ingredients together and cooking them on a teppan grill.  At some restaurants in Japan, small individual-sized teppan grills are placed on tables and we made our own okonomiyaki.  If you are in Japan, search out okonomiyaki.  For under 1200 yen ($13 USD) per person, we had a delicious and unique meal.

Soba

Udon noodles in Nagano

Soba/udon:  In cities like Nagano, Nikko, and Aso, that are hours away from the ocean and high in the mountains, soba and udon are staples.  Soba is a thin buckwheat noodle, that may be served cold on a zaru (bamboo mat) to be dipped in a sauce made from soy, dashi, and mirin (rice vinegar) with wasabi and green onions, or warm in a soup topped with vegetables.  Udon, on the other hand, is a thick wheat based noodle that forms the basis of a hot noodle soup.  In Nagano, the udon was made with the inner kernel of the buckwheat plant.  At most soba/udon shops, it is possible to walk away feeling full and satisfied for about 1000 to 1200 Yen ($11 to $13 USD).

 fukuoka ramen  Fukuoka ramen

Fukuoka yatai

Ramen:  When we think of ramen, we think of the pre-packaged styrofoam-like noodles that we popped into microwaves in college.  In Fukuoka, however, ramen is an art form.  At night, the streets light up with street vendors opening their yatai (stalls) to sell this famous pork-noodle soup to the masses.  Fukuoka is the only city in the country that allows traditional yatai dining so, if you are in the area, don't miss it.  And, you can't go wrong with a meal ranging from 800 to 1200 yen ($9 to $13 USD).

Donburi:  Donburi literally means "bowl" consists of vegetables, meats, or fish simmered together and served over rice in a bowl.  Many restaurants call any item served over rice, including tempura or meats or vegetables, as a type of donburi.  We have tried raw egg mixed into hot rice so the steam from the rice cooks the egg.  A variant of this dish is called mother donburi made with chicken and an egg over rice.  Donburi set meals with a salad and a drink run around 1200 to 1400 Yen (about $13 to $15 USD).

Kare-ya (curry house):  Though most curry houses call themselves Indian, Japanese curry is an animal of its own, in the same way that Tex-Mex is not really Mexican.  Japanese curry is creamier, richer, and less spicy than the Indian versions.  Most are made with ground beef or ground pork.  Curry House Coco is a popular fast food chain restaurant found in most cities but Japanese curry houses have set meals from 1200 to 1400 Yen (about $13 to $15 USD).

Some general tips on eating in Japan for a Westerner:

Plastic food in Japan

Plastic or not?

The language barrier is a problem but the Japanese have made it very easy for Westerners to order food by frequently using pictures in menus and showcasing eerily realistic plastic food.  (One of our favorite games in this country is pointing at food and guessing, Plastic or Not?  Super fun!)   If all else fails, stand up and go point to the plastic food in the window and you'll get your meal. 

As you can see, the cheap eats in Japan aren't all that cheap, compared to much of the rest of the world.  Expect to pay at least $10 USD per meal per person and that is a good deal.  Sodas and alcohol are over-the-top expensive.  A Coca-Cola is about 400 Yen ($4 USD) at a restaurant and 150 Yen ($1.60 USD) at vending machines.  Beers are around 500-600 Yen ($5 to $7 USD).  Sake is usually the cheapest drink option.  If you are planning a budget in Japan, I would suggest around $25 USD per person per day for food and expect that you may go over that amount if you splurge (which you should because the splurge restaurants are amazing.)

Tips are not expected (or even accepted, as far as we can tell.)

Checks will be placed at your table but you will need to pay at the counter next to the front of the restaurant.  Except for in the fanciest restaurants, the waiter will not take cash at your table because a separate person handles payment at the front of the restaurant.

Wet wipes or wet towels are provided at the beginning of a meal.  It is considered rude to wipe your face with the wet wipe; instead, you are supposed to wipe your hands with the wet wipe and then discreetly use the wet wipe throughout the meal, as needed.  That being said, we have seen Japanese youths wiping their faces with wet wipes so this may be an older generation's rule.

07/08/2010 09:04
This brings up good memory about Japan :) Love many that you mentioned above. We ate karee-raisu a lot in our university cafeteria, for 200 something yen. Outside campus, we loved going to gyuu-don place. It's about 300 something yen back then.
07/08/2010 09:44
Jithu
AHH! Akila and Patrick, reading your blog has given me the travel bug. This looks awesome!
07/09/2010 02:15
Okonomiyaki was one of our favorites! I love your photos of the work-in-progress.
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07/09/2010 02:54
Ohh yum. These photos are terrific - and after nearly a month of pretty much only eating falafel sandwiches (not that they're not good!) you're really making me even more keen to go to Japan! Did you eat much from convenience stores?
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07/09/2010 05:36
Dina, Yep, we loved all the options in Japan! We heard that student cafeteria food is actually pretty good, there, from several of the university students we met.

Jithu, That's just what we like to hear!

Jess, it's one of our favorites, too. We want there to be okonomiyaki restaurants in the US.

Megan, We ate most breakfasts from convenience stores and an occasional dinner, if we couldn't find a cheap restaurant we like. We usually didn't feel like spending 500 Yen for toast and an egg (the typical Japanese breakfast) so we often purchased pastries or biscuits or something similar for breakfast. They have some prepackaged fare which we ate once in a while but we preferred heading to the department stores where the quality was significantly better at just about the same price (and sometimes the department stores were cheaper).
07/09/2010 23:06
These photos are amazing, and I'm now absolutely starving! I now have even more of an incentive to get to Japan.
07/11/2010 11:43
Okonomikyaki was one of my favorite things we ate - but we had Hiroshima style. :D

I had found that some ramen places were more like 500-900 yen for a giant bowl. As for breakfasts we also ate from convenience stores. If you ever get the chance, the premade noodles and rice balls are really yummy. I was so used to crappy food from corner stores that I overlooked them for a while.

*tummy grumble* I miss it.
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07/12/2010 01:11
gkm
another cheap option is the plethora of family restaurants such as royal host, joyfull, gusto. They do a wide spread of food and at lunchtime (until about 3pm) you can get a set meal for about 700 yen (main, rice, drink, pickles etc). And best the menu has pictures of it all so just point and choose if language is a prob. Food is usually good at these chains.
07/13/2010 06:24
Thanks Matt! Honestly, the food was our favorite part of Japan.

Erica, Okonomiyaki was one of our favorites, too. There were some cheaper ramen places but, because we were in Fukuoka, I think it was a bit more expensive. I think you're right, though -- in Tokyo, it was more like 500 to 900.

gkm, We never made it to a family restaurant but we heard from several other travelers that they are a great option for cheap cuisine. Thanks for adding them to this list!
07/13/2010 14:01
Ah.. You absolutely make my mouth watering even after a big lunch today.
07/14/2010 12:21
Nice post! Yeah, those fake Japanese food did look very realistic and almost as edible as the real thing.

Some pics of fake window display food that I took.
http://bit.ly/cmxVF4
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07/16/2010 08:08
Akila and Patrick, loved this post. I went to Japan early this year, and loved okonomiyaki. I was vegetarian then, but discovered that it's easier for a vegetarian to survive in Japan than it is in some parts of India like the north-east! On the insistence of friends, I had an Indian meal an evening, a Bangladeshi-Punjabi hybrid that I wouldn't care to repeat.
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07/17/2010 22:57
Love this great post covering so many yummy things to eat. We were surprised how easily we fit eating well into our limited budget while visiting Japan. & everything is always so beautiful, as evidenced in your shots!
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07/18/2010 16:36
Well, I'll think I'll have japanese tonight....
07/31/2010 17:17
Awww your making my mouth water!! These are the foods I miss the most from Japan. And the convenient store lunches are surprisingly great! For a light snack that will fill you up for real cheap don't forget the oni-giri (rice balls) with dozens of fillings to choose from these are surprisingly tasty!
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08/13/2011 12:00
This is an excellent post, Akila. I'm getting interested in Japanese cooking, so this was really useful. Do you know any English language foody blogs that focus on Japanese cuisine?
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08/17/2011 07:07
Thanks so much Ant! I'm not aware of any English language foodblogs that focus exclusively on Japanese food but I have found some very useful Japanese recipes over at Rasa Malaysia and Steamy Kitchen. They tend to be simpler versions of the Japanese recipes we ate in Japan.
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11/19/2011 16:29
I feel like going to Little Tokyo after seeing this post. Great pictures! We loved Japan's bento boxes. We almost lived off it while in Tokyo last summer.
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