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The password is.... CHEAP!

I'll be in Japan for almost 2 months and am on an extreme budget....

Where can I find the greatest bangs for the yen in all of Japan? (we plan to see as much of the country as possible)

As long as it's CHEAP and SUPER DELICIOUS, we're there! Is this even possible?

Oh, I should also qualify this by saying we want to eat only Japanese food... :)

Thanks 'hounds!

Mr Taster
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  1. It's very possible to find cheap and delicious, but it would help to know where you're going to be in Japan.

    1 Reply
    1. re: E Eto

      We do not have an itinerary other than that we will be flying in to Tokyo at the end of April.

      In fact our itinerary may well be determined by your food recommendations, so please let us know!

      We try to plan as little as possible before we travel... it's more fun that way.

      Mr Taster
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    2. I'm far from being a japanese food expert but I've visited the country recently and can share a few tips that may be useful.

      To me it seemed that the best deals were available at lunch time, even upper-end restaurants offer fixed-priced lunch menus that appeared a lot more affordable than their dinner menu.

      On my travels, I don't really fall back on department store restaurants but in Japan it's different. Many departement stores have three floors of restaurants which offer an incredibly diverse range of japanese food. By the lines of people waiting to be seated, it's pretty easy to see which of them are good. The food halls in these department stores are also a great place to browse, you'll find many amazing items but you won't know what most of them are.

      Hotel concierges in Japan are usually incredilbly helpful, in no other country have I used their services as much as there. Tell them what you're looking for, ask them about local food and recommendations where to get them, they'll be more than glad to help.

      1. If your password is cheap, you'll probably want to hit some chain places, which are cheap and pure Japanese and generally, better than quality in the U.S. Off the top of my head, I would recommend the following. Most places 500 YEN will get you full:

        Mos Burger- Japanese style fast food
        Tenya- for tempura
        Tenka-Ippin- for ramen
        Yoshinoya- for beef bowl
        Gusto- youshoku (Japanese western style)
        GinDako- for tako yaki
        Bikkuri Sushi- for sushi
        Tengu or Watami- izakaya

        27 Replies
        1. re: Silverjay

          I'm a bit worried by your Yoshinoya rec... we have them in LA all over the place and the food is terrible. Scant slivers of cheap, chewy, gristley meat over a mound of rice.

          We're really looking for the best quality you can get for lowest possible price... not necessarily cheap-at-all-costs.

          More than anything, we're hoping for as many cheap but **houndly** recommendations as possible.

          Thanks!

          Mr Taster
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          1. re: Mr Taster

            Realistically, even with a modest budget and narrowed to Tokyo only, these types of threads on this board tend to go nowhere. Asking for 2 months worth of cheap places, nationwide, is even more of a stretch. Chains, convenience stores, department store eateries, and train station stands fit your parameters. In Tokyo, you can also try the Ameyoko area near Ueno station, which is like a typical (atypical for Japan) Asian street market, Gyoza Stadium in Ikebukuro, restaurants around student areas like Shimokitazawa and Mita. Things will be cheaper outside of Tokyo and Kyoto. Check out the search function on this board for reviews of modestly-priced places with names and directions.......Yoshinoya is a Japaenese institution and is the first place that comes to mind when anyone in Japan talks about eating on an "extreme budget", "bang for yen", "cheap". You get what you ask for. It's probably different than LA versions.

            1. re: Silverjay

              All good advice.... really, I'm realizing that we need to develop a Japan eating strategy rather than perhaps a list of places to try.

              Last year we spent 6 months traveling through Southeast Asia, China and Taiwan and basically just ate where we saw crowds of local people and no foreigners, and we never had a bad meal.

              I take it this is probably a decent strategy for sussing out chow-worthy eats in Japan?

              Mr Taster
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              1. re: Mr Taster

                The follow the crowd strategy isn't reliable anywhere, especially in Japan. I've waited in many a line for so-so ramen, for example. There's mediocre food everywhere, and just because they're locals doesn't mean they have a good palate, or they're there because food quality is the first priority. Crowds assemble for the same reasons they do anywhere else: price, convenience, "look how busy it is, it must be good." and especially, "boluum". That's the Japanglish for volume: lots of food for the price.

                Good restaurants and yatai street vendors tend to be specialists: I'd look for a place that has a tiny menu, and specializes in one thing, or variations on that one thing. It doesn't necessarily ensure quality, but it's a better strategy IMO than following the pack.

                Edited: Another strategy to consider. Every nook and cranny of the country has some local food specialty. Sometimes, they're major cuisines / dishes / techniques / ingredients that have taken root all over the country, other times they're unremarkable edible tchochkes sold to tourists to take back home. In a modernized age of crappy corporatized food, there's still alot of pride in traditional, local specialties, even if some of those things are historical throwbacks and growing culturally less relevant.

                1. re: Professor Salt

                  Great reply, Professor Salt... I will add this to my Japan eating notes.

                  Mr Taster
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                  1. re: Professor Salt

                    Isn't the Krispy Kreme in Tokyo jammed packed with people? Another sign that follow the crowd isn't always a good strategy...

                    1. re: Professor Salt

                      Now that Salt mentions it, your strategy should be clear: in Tokyo ask people where the best Ramen is, random people. Once you hear something twice, or maybe three times, go there. Repeat for Okonomiyaki in Osaka, Soba or Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima, Udon and Unagi on Shikoku, Sushi in Kobe (since seafood is all imported on container ships in Japan), Sake in or around Niigata (its the water, unreal sake and rice up there. . .). Ramen also in Sapporo, Lamb in Sapporo. Certainly there are other regional specialties, but these are the ones that stand out. I can not stress Niigata, Sapporo and Shikoku enough. It is largely Japan untouched. . .the former because its on the other side of the mountains and the two latter because they are on seperate islands. . .

                      The one thing to keep in mind about Japan, is that the cuisine is largely a play on salt. If the salt is right, then the world is in harmony. If it aint, leave before you get ill.

                    2. re: Mr Taster

                      I've been to all the countries/ regions you mentioned. As Prof. Salt alluded to, the problem, well not really problem,.. the thing with Japan is that there is less of the outside street stall/market thing and more of the retail, branded restaurant in a retail space. Also, population density in Japan is pretty intense, so most places, especially near train stations, are crowded. AND, the economy is only recently picking up, so cheap and crowded might be a matter of economics and not quality (usually the case). So I think you're right, a strategy rather than a list of places, is probably more realistic.

                      The depachika (department store food floors underground) should be on your radar big time if you're on a budget. Every major train station has one or two department stores attached. Basically, just head for the B1, underground level. Per Debbie's advice, the upper floors of the department stores are dedicated to restaurants- usually one of everything (i.e. a sushi place, a ramen place, a tonkatsu place, a soba place, etc.). They have good lunch specials and zero ambiance usually.

                      Japan has got convenience stores down to as perfect a science as you will find. They all have "fresh" prepared food sections, some of it pretty good. They will heat in a microwave for you too. The members of the same chain are all clones of each other too, so if you start to get into, say, the koshi-hikari toro salmon onigiri (salmon belly rice ball made from top class Niigata rice) from Lawson's, it will be available at all Lawsons.

                      It would be great to help direct you to specific places, rather than completely playing by ear. There is plenty of crappy food in Japan and the "follow the crowds" or "choose from plastic food" selections will leave you short on a good experience. Just a heads up, most of the single restaurant reviews on this board over the last year are for reasonable priced, genuine chowhound destinations. I always recommend the following: Best thing to do is research here and then come up with your rough itinerary of places you're interested in and post it here for us to analyze, amend, add on to, etc. The more information you provide on location too, the more likely you can get precise recs.

                      1. re: Silverjay

                        Hi Silverjay

                        Well, as far as a set itinerary, as I said we're wide open and will be going whereever and whenever we want. However I can at least let you know that for 10 days we will be taking a road trip with a group of local friends who have graciously organized this itinerary for us:

                        4/28--- Welcome party in Tokyo
                        4/29---(Tokyo) sightseeing
                        4/30---(Hakone/Kamakura) sightseeing
                        5/01---(Shizuoka)Mt. Fuji & surrounding area
                        5/02---(Shizuoka)Tea ceremony & culture experience
                        5/03---(Kyoto) sightseeing
                        5/04---(Kobe) Danjiri festival
                        5/05--- Welcome party in Nara
                        5/06--- Leave for hometown

                        Does this help?

                        Mr Taster
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                        1. re: Mr Taster

                          Wow. That is a wonderful itinerary; your friends are taking you on a whirlwind of must-sees of natural beauty that most tourists miss for commercial traps.

                          My only recommendations for Hakone & Shizuoka is to take in the natural wonder at the open-air rest/tea stops and enjoy some tea. During my eight years in Japan, I didn't do that enough.

                          1. re: Mr Taster

                            Is there any way you can politely decline some of these day's itineraries? You're going to be smack in the middle of all the rest of Japan's vacationers during Golden Week, which means all those places will be jam packed with tourists. I'm sure your hosts have that week off and are trying to offer you a capsule version of a "best of Japan" experience, but it hardly seems worth your time if you're going to be there for 2 months. One day touring Kyoto during one of the busiest holidays? One day in Hakone/Kamakura? Seems like you can do better on your own, especially if you consider the cost of transportation if you want to go back to these places to spend some more quality time.

                            I'm also curious how you're going to be traveling around, and how you plan to find lodging. That's going to drive your expenses upwards. You should be aware that in many cases, the prices quoted to you for lodging is not per room, but per person.

                            1. re: E Eto

                              We'll be there for 2 months so I'm not worried about spending 10 days of that time time going native and cramming in with thousands of Japanese people. Cultural experiences like this one are the whole reason for travel!

                              Lodging will be arranged with friends and through hospitality club (google it). Food will continue to be arranged by my fellow Japanese-centric chowhounds.

                              How about this one... which regions of Japan offer culinary must-eats (within a budget)? Yes yes, I know that there are hundreds of individual culinary specialties in Japan but I'm not asking for a comprehensive list-- just a couple of your favorites.

                              Keep 'em coming, fellow hounds!

                              Mr Taster
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                              1. re: Mr Taster

                                Hiroshima or Kansai okonomiyaki, Kansai takoyaki, ramen in Kyushu or Hokkaido (I really enjoy Sapporo style), Okinawa champuru, goya or otherwise. Those were my favorites.

                                1. re: Mr Taster

                                  Once you get outside the big cities, you'll find sake brewers dotting the countryside. The bigger commercial operations will be brewing during May, but traditional small scale sake brewing is a winter activity. All the same, it might be cool to work that into your tour of the country.

                                  I can't give you specific recommendations, but this might be a good time to start a fresh topic and ask the sake hounds. Ask about "jizake" (local sake).

                                  1. re: Mr Taster

                                    I second the okonomiyaki while in Hiroshima. Osaka is also known for okonomiyaki but If you ask which city has the favorite style, I would think most would agree it's Hiroshima.

                                    1. re: bulavinaka

                                      Great suggestions.... we will add Hiroshima/okinomiyaki to our list.

                                      Any more cheap regional specialties?

                                      Mr Taster
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                                    2. re: Mr Taster

                                      You know what, seriously, there are just too many specialties in every little nook and cranny of Japan, that it's not really worth trying to scope it out here. I would do some research and come back with more pointed questions. More specifically, not only are there regional specialties, many of these specialties vary by season as well. And often, if you're in the area of a specific specialty, it's going to be cheap(er), especially by city standards. I don't know what more to tell you. My best advice is when you meet your local hosts, go where they go. If they're into food or have any semblance of local pride, then they'll know what's good.

                                      1. re: E Eto

                                        E Eto

                                        How about just giving me 5 of your personal cheap regional favorites. I never asked for an exhaustive list.

                                        We will definitely be taking our hosts' opinions into account, as well as the opinions of people we meet while traveling. That's a given. What isn't a given is whether these people are chowhounds, which is why I'm asking you!

                                        Mr Taster
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                                        1. re: Mr Taster

                                          There are some more specialties below, but he's right. This list could be a mile long. At some point, you would do well to use the search function on this board as some of these places have been reported on, including extensive coverage by Mr. Eto himself. In many cases, you can find information with specific restaurants so that you can probably plot out a direct course to a culinary destination in each place. This isn't a heavy traffic board like Los Angeles, with dozens or hundreds of contributors. So it becomes frustrating to tell someone for the umpteenth time that department store food floors are a must or Hiroshima is famous for okonomiyaki.

                                          Tokyo- dango, everything else
                                          Osaka- takoyaki, oshi-zushi
                                          Nagoya- chicken wings, miso
                                          Okinawa- goya champuru, soki soba, okinawa soba, awamori
                                          Fukuoka- tonkotsu ramen, motsu nabe, shochu
                                          Kagoshima Pref.- pork
                                          Sendai- beef tongue bowl, chilled Chinese style noodles
                                          Hiroshima- okonomiyaki
                                          Kitakata- ramen
                                          Nigata- koshi hikari rice, nihon-shu
                                          Sapporo- seafood, nabe, cheese, miso ramen

                                          1. re: Silverjay

                                            This is an excellent short list of exactly the type I was looking for.

                                            Thank you

                                            Mr Taster
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                                            1. re: Silverjay

                                              The seafood in Japan is pretty amazing in general, but where do most Japanese go to get their seafood fix? Sapporo. I don't know what's running while you'll be there, but I can guarantee that whatever is being served will amaze you.

                                              Also, there are tons of fishing villages all along the coastline of Japan. I remember going fishing with my uncle and his business partner from a fishing village about 1 1/2 hours outside of Hiroshima. The owner of the boat caught an octopus - probably about 5-10 pounds - and stuck it in a sack then put it in the tank. We docked, cleaned up, and his wife started cooking up some of the fish that we caught. The owner came in about 10 minutes later wrestling with the octopus, heading straight for the kitchen. A few minutes later, his wife brought out the freshly boiled octopus, sliced, with fresh ponzu, wasabi, and shiso. The octopus was so tender and sweet, it almost made me cry. It's probably no big deal to a fisherman, but this was a memory that I still can smell and taste in my mind as if it was yesterday. I have no clue as to how many of these fishing villages have restaurants, as I would think that best of the catches would go wholesale, but if you have an opportunity to do something like this, or hear of great seafood restaurants in these villages, I would think that it would be a memorable experience for you.

                                              1. re: Silverjay

                                                Come to think of it, although we don't want stickies for particular restaurants (forever fixing them in an immutable canon of chow regardless of future performance), I think that a post with info like this -- a list of regional specialties across Japan -- would make for a good sticky.

                                        2. re: E Eto

                                          Your points are well taken. I was thinking the same about Kyoto - you need one week - which will make you want to never leave - to get the feel of Kyoto. However, I think it may be a good way for Mr Taster to get a snapshot of some great places he may want to visit on his own once things settle down after Golden Week. My mom stays away from Japan during this period for the same reasons, and it's probably the one of the prettiest times to visit, as well as the weather being nice. Also, because Japan has such good rapid transit, he can hit so many places in a reasonable amount of time with relative ease...

                                      2. re: Silverjay

                                        without any japanese language knowledge, how can i tell the koshi-hikari onigiri from the others? we dropped into one yesterday and picked up an ikura one just because it had an image i recognized, but it was in a "baggy" style packaging rather than the pulling triangle which made the nori quite sogging and not as appealing.

                                    3. re: Silverjay

                                      Silverjay's right. The US Yoshinoyas are different from the ones in Japan. The US ones don't serve raw egg on the beef bowl, for instance.

                                      Personally, I'm not a fan of gyudon in general, and especially from Yoshinoya. But I'd definitely recommend a Spicy Mosburger. I miss those!

                                      1. re: Professor Salt

                                        In Japan, they also serve pork curry since the BSE scare. Again, it's all getting what you pay for. Personally, I never eat at Yoshinoya or Mosburger... Love Tenya though.

                                        1. re: Professor Salt

                                          If you're stuck with fast food now and again, it's not the end of the world. Fast food in Japan (actually in much of Asia) I find to be generally of much better quality than their US counterparts. Not sure why, but I imagine in Japan they benefit from how the Japanese apply their perfectionist streak to just about everything they do.

                                          I miss Mosburger's Rice Burger. It's a beef burger with shaped rice patties in place of the normal bread bun. Ya gotta try it.

                                          I've had friends from Japan complain about Yoshinoya in the US too. The beef slices there are paper-thin, with an almost diaphanous quality to them. But I think what makes the beef bowls in Japan work, from Yoshinoya to Matsuya (my favorite), is the rice. Somehow the rice in Japan is just better, more chewy and less chalky than here in the US. That's what I remember from my last trip 2 years ago.

                                  2. I'd agree with the chain recommendation. Most have a "set" meal that's cheaper than buying the component parts separately.

                                    Train stations are usually awash with good, cheap eats (although you may have to eat your meal standing up!).

                                    Convenience stores (7-11, Lawson, Family Mart, AM/PM) and chain coffee shops (Dutour, Pronto).

                                    Aside from the food floors in department stores, many also have event floors where they often have promotions tied into regional areas in Japan (like "Hokkaido Fair," or "Kagoshima Fair") where they'll be serving food from that region

                                    If there's a festival anywhere in the vicinity (like at a park or shrine -- some also have food booths on any weekend) there will be many booths set up serving typical cheap festival food: okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, grilled fish on a stick, grilled corn on a stick, etc., as well as a tent with picnic tables where you can get a soft drink, sake or beer to wash down your meal.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Debbie M

                                      I'd second the recommendations to eat at train stations, department stores and convenience stores.

                                      Surprisingly, 7-11 carries *good* cheap food. Their onigiris (rice balls) make a good snack and during the winter, many 7-11s have oden (vegetables in broth).

                                      The train stations have all sorts of food. My favourite pedestrian food is soba; however, when it's consumed standing, it's called "tachiguisoba" (soba eaten standing). I love the (hot) soba with tempura beads.

                                      At many department stores, like in Europe, the grocery store is on the basement level and the restaurants/cafes are on the top. The grocery stores might offer food to-go or eat on-the-spot. But whether you're at the bottom or top of the building, the food is generally good and tastier than standard US mall food.

                                      There are also bakeries that are like European bakeries. You can order a coffee, juice and croissant/sandwich inexpensively.

                                      Super delicious food is easy to find, and with the current exchange rate, it'll be more affordable than in recent years. Good luck & have a fun, safe trip!

                                    2. Here's a thought: Yokohama is a port city with a Chinatown with a good dozen restaurants. (I found the Chinese food here to use more salt, but less dark sauces than the Chinese food here in the US.) Would be worth a stop to try dim sum there.

                                      BTW, the Japanese tend not to eat/drink while walking. Though they have street food, it's expected that the food be consumed while you're not moving.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: OCAnn

                                        I would pass on the dim sum in Yokohama, personally. It's no match for any of the places we have in Monterey Park. You need someplace rowdy, raucous and slightly gritty for dim sum, and Yokohama's too polite for that. :)