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May 21, 2008 08:41 AM

Eating on a budget...and not starving to death!

This is my first post, but I'm hoping it might put some worries to rest...

Japan is the first of a few countries I'll be visiting over the next four months, and I'm horribly conscious of the fact that I can't blow my entire trip's money on Japan even before I've got to my 2nd destination! With that in mind I've set myself a daily budget, which I am hoping it'll be possible to stick to...advice would be much appreciated either way (feel free to yell at me 'You're crazy', or (ideally!) send me in the direction of some decently priced food!!)

So, I've got a minimum daily budget for food (+activities) of £30 (6,000Y), which could tip up to £50 (10,000Y) on a couple of occasions for some swanky experiences.

Question 1: Does anyone have good recommendations for lunches/dinners which would be cheap options for lunches, max £10 (2,000Y)? I have a feeling I won't need recommendations of where to go to push the boat out...

Question 2: As I'll basically be living in Tokyo for about 3 weeks, and I've heard it's a little difficult to get fresh fruit and veg - are there any good places to go to get decently priced fruit, or is this likely to be impossible?

As you might be able to tell, I really don't know what to expect. I'm slightly nervous about the budget issue given that Japan is renowned for its prices, but I'm also very excited about it from an adventurous eater's point of view!!!

Advice appreciated!!! (now I know about this site I will also explore other answers, as I'm sure there are plenty of nuggets of gold which will help with my own question)


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  1. Check out these two threads, which should cover much of what you ask:

    Lunch is easy to do for less than 1,000Y per day. And cheap produce is easily available from some supermarkets, as well as the shopping districts in less touristy neighborhoods.

    The nightmare cost of Tokyo is a severly overblown notion by the Western media. Both London and New York (Manhattan at least) are probably more expensive. Every single person that ever visited me in Japan spent less than they budgeted for.

    15 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      The past few trips to Japan ive found surprisingly cheap (addmittedly that's coming from London) and the good news it's very easy to eat out (and well) for cheaper than it is to buy ingredients and cook it yourself.

      Japan was a very expensive place when I lived there as a kid in the 80's and I think thats where the common misconception comes from.

      1. re: Silverjay

        Silverjay is right, lunches are cheap and it's very easy to pick up groceries most places.

        6000Y will be fine for a daily budget as long as you hold off on the drinks at dinner and understand you will be limiting yourself.

        1. re: Silverjay

          Most European cities are definitely more expensive. You can have a lunch combo for 1000Y in Tokyo (though prob. not the tastiest food). Also, remember in Japan no tipping is necessary (15-20% tips in the US add up!) and the consumption/sales tax/VAT is only 5%.

          1. re: Silverjay

            Manhattan is not more expensive for sure. While there is plenty of overpriced garbage there as there is in Tokyo, each level is lower. The highest of Manhattan is definitely lower than the top of the Tokyo price gouging.
            Though I have not shopped for groceries in the less expensive/touristy 'hoods of Tokyo, I just figure it all drops in the same manner.
            Every big city now is pretty expensive though coming from Lbs Sterling the original poster should not be so stickershocked.


            1. re: foodonlygood

              Both food and rent are more expensive in Manhattan.

              1. re: Silverjay

                Could you give me some examples from everyday grocery items or apartments?
                And where you can find these?

                I won't use the crutch of cost of living indices which show a large gap. I am not one to lean on these inaccurate compilations but this would be a huge margin of error. Even I say they are not that far off.
                And while I stated, along with yourself and others, that I do not think Tokyo is completely impossible if one is on some type of budget, if you take into account the almost 20% JPY-USD rally a few months ago, it seems difficult to justify that it is certainly cheaper than Manhattan.

                I know how much my apartment was and how much it would be in Manhattan. I also know the cost of things in grocery stores. Granted, I was not in the cheapest stores or 'hoods for sure but the costs would have to be only a fraction of what they were. Also, what some might term "equivalents" are often smaller in size in Japan, no? I take this into account so something like a kg of apples would be a good example. "Lunch" is tougher since the servings in Japan do not lend themselves to great growth very often.
                The Manhattan drop can be significant if moving toward uptown, much as I assume the cheapest groceries in Tokyo are not in the high rent central 'hoods.
                Plus if you venture outside of the central, more expensive parts of Tokyo would that not be the equivalent of using the outer boroughs of NYC?

                I look forward to being enlightened about where to shop in Tokyo.
                I avoided so much just because of the cost and value perception.
                It would be nice to be able to shop more freely.

                Thank you.


                1. re: foodonlygood

                  I deliberately qualified the comparison of Manhattan, rather than the whole NYC, in order to skew the conventional wisdom of those indices that we all know.

                  There's plenty of portion stinginess in Manhattan. And this type of comparison doesn't really lend itself to an "apples to apples" scenario. BUT, you know I paid less for bananas in Tokyo than I do in the U.S.?.

                  ...Perhaps the recent currency fluctuation will counter punch the insane 20% gratuity that goes to pay off your Manhattan server's nose ring and tattoo above the ass crack...

                  I can understand your interest in my statement, but I'm going to leave it as purely anecdotal, having lived, worked, dined, shopped, and apartment hunted (multiple times) in both cities. You may have a similar life experience and disagree. And come to think of it, Manhattan Chinatown might have to be factored into my equation more....

                  If travelers are interested in cheap grocery shopping in Tokyo, they can post the neighborhoods they are going to be in. If I am familiar with those areas, I'm happy to suggest places. If you yourself read Japanese, there is a whole cottage industry of magazines and books dedicated to value dining and food shopping in Tokyo. Maybe you can review some of them and post the reviews on your blog.

                  1. re: Silverjay

                    Well, perhaps the fact that I don't eat out every meal and would not even consider eating at most places in Manhattan contributes to everything.
                    I was more interested in the foodstuffs pricing than the restaurant scene. I agree with you that tipping is a poor practice in general. Someone has a job to perform, they should do it to level of expectation. If they do not care for the compensation, tell the boss or quit. I find that service is on the whole, more professional in lands where the price is all inclusive.
                    There is some great service in Manhattan though as I am not one for nose rings and tats.
                    When I am in Tokyo, I will not stay in one of the outside 'hoods but would definitely be willing to go almost anywhere. So, how much are your bananas in Tokyo? I can do the math if you give me kg pricing.
                    I have thought of, besides reading the obvious numbers on prices, various items in Tokyo as compared to Manhattan(or elsewhere). Produce, meat, well, I have been duly shocked, not more than I was expecting but not much less either.
                    Fast food, as bad as it is in the Northeast, the portions are very small for the equivalent items in Tokyo even if they are a similar price. I do not eat fast food
                    And the number of restaurants in Tokyo where it is easy to rack up 30k+JPY tabs just on food is quite large even considering the greater number of restaurants in total.
                    Wine, also, is quite rapaciously priced not that the import process has nothing to do with it.
                    Just all very curious to me and if you keep it anecdotal then I cannot be educated. I am an ignorant gaijin, cannot read Japanese.
                    Standard 100sq m apartment in Tokyo rental price?
                    Ok, I will take the banana price info if that is all you will give me.

                    Can you answer my post about Isehiro? Thanks for everything, again.


                    1. re: foodonlygood

                      If you talk about prices of wine and American style fast food or any other foreign food, you're not getting an accurate view. Again, it's not apples to apples. Sake and shochu, infinitely more popular alcoholic beverages in Japan, are double the price in NYC vs. Tokyo. And a beef bowl or curry rice bowl meal at one of the domestic fast food chains will cost you less than $4...and you get free tea refills.

                      1. re: Silverjay

                        I also get the feeling you might get a little more elbow room, on average, in central Tokyo than in central Manhattan. Maybe because in Tokyo you might be in a restaurant up on the seventh floor, I don't know. Or maybe I just find it easier to avoid jam-packed restaurants in day-to-day Tokyo than I do when visiting New York.

                        And Tokyo restaurants seem more likely to do only one seating per evening.

                        New York probably does have bigger portion sizes on average, but that's not always such a great thing.

                        1. re: Robb S

                          While I understand that some items mentioned are not native to Japan, most things are not.
                          Just because vodka is cheap over there does not make Moscow a cheap city.
                          I am merely asking examples that could have equivalents(like bananas)so I can understand it all a bit more. What is cheaper? OK, the items I listed are poor examples, fine, give me the good ones. Obviously, this is being left to the anecdotal evidence.
                          Plus, since a foreigner was the original poster, I would think the prices of non-Japanese items comes into play.

                          Agreed with you Robb on the seating for lunch. Everyone goes to the same specific spots in Manhattan. The selection is larger in Tokyo.

                          I eat very little compared to what I used to but Tokyo portions are on the light side. And if I am still hungry, bigger is better and I am no glutton.

                          I think that should count when comparing prices, that is all. If a .5kg steak in Manhttan is the same price as 100g in Tokyo(I wish) in my view that makes the latter more expensive. Sorry if steak is a bad example.

                          Anyway, hopefully I can find that Isehiro address for y'all's comments. It was very close to Shinjuku station.


                          1. re: foodonlygood

                            Actually, I think sake vs. wine is a very fair comparison, and very apt in a discussion of restaurant costs, where wine can be a significant part of the bill.

                            Sake is a locally made artisanal product that goes well with local cuisine and comes in many styles and price ranges and quality levels. And it's usually a pretty good deal in Tokyo - you can find great limited-edition sakes from every region of the country for around Y850-1100 per ichigo (equivalent to a quarter-bottle of wine) if you know where to go. Even for the best sakes in the world, it's hard to spend enormous amounts of money - unlike wine....

                            As for seating, I was thinking of several dinners I had in New York where the seating was rather cramped bistro-style - meals where I really got to know my neighbors - and the bill was in the $50-60 per person range after tipping. I'm not saying that doesn't happen in Tokyo, but it seems less common, or else I'm just better at avoiding it.

                            On the other hand, equally cramped seats in Tokyo tend to be more uncomfortable because of the cigarette smoke, so I'm more likely to avoid a place I might put up with in New York.

                            As for portion size, sure it's reasonable to factor in per-gram costs of a 100g steak vs a 500g steak. I was thinking more of my very common experience of ordering an appetizer plus a main dish in NY and getting more food than I could really eat, or wanted to eat at one sitting. For me having twice as much food as I want doesn't make it twice the value.

                            Anyway, this is an interesting discussion.

                            1. re: Robb S

                              Robb S,

                              I agree with getting too much food, it is a waste and useless and not great for value. I just hope you realize might point on the price comparison from the vendor's angle of costs and value.
                              Anyway, yes, smoke is the worst part of Tokyo dining now that so many cities have banned it.
                              As for cramped seating, not sure what to say. I have been pretty tight in Tokyo but it hasn't bothered me. Actually, I have probably been more annoyed when packed in NY. Possibly due to expectations or the usual inconsiderations of the people.
                              Another thing is I am more about eating than drinking though I am very aware of the costs.

                              Very good site, Robb.

                              Orchid64, could you just give me some examples?
                              I have been in the stores a bit bu never paid too much attention to these items. Thanks

                            2. re: foodonlygood

                              For better or for worse, I've failed to keep my grocery receipts over the last 15 years, so my quantative analysis will fall short....

                              Though I'm sure there are many families that shop at depachika for their main groceries, most probably shop at more inexpensive markets in their areas. For example, my mother in law will shop in an Odakyu depachika when hunting for good stuff or for special occassions. But she does daily shopping at the likes of Ito Yokado. Beef, pork, and poultry are cheaper in NYC. But most seafood is much more reasonable in Tokyo- except for mass produced packaged frozen shrmip and filets (which I'm a big fan of by the way) that the U.S. seems to do better at. Anyway, as I said, it's difficult to do this as an apples to apples comparison. Off the top of my head, here's the grocery list my in-laws probably put togther- rice, miso paste, natto, soy sauce, daikon, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, saury fish, salmon, squid, dried fish, tofu, wakame, nori, mirin, cooking oil, apples, bananas, vinegar, chicken, soba, somen, dried bonito, sesame seeds, spinach, ajinomoto, more soy sauce, whiskey, shochu, beer, and other stuff. So yeah, steak and beef in general, would probably be bad examples. If you were to compare a Western diet in Tokyo (not cheap) you are bound to have a different outcome to any comparison, just as you would comparing a Japanese diet in NYC (not cheap either).

                              Keep in mind I'm making a sort of lopsided, albeit unfair, comparison between just Manhattan and all of Tokyo since tourists there are more likely to be in many parts of the city, versus tourists to NYC who will predominantly spend time in mid-town, EV/WV/GV, Soho, etc. But where do Manhattanites grocery shop? The Associated supermarkets on the east side? The nasty Gristedes chain? The Whole Foods at Union Square or Bowery? The Grand Central Market? Union Square Farmer's market? Bodegas? I'm missing some places, I know. And I'm not saying you can't get inexpensive stuff. But it's Manhattan, not Queens. You're paying a premium for everything there.

                              Restaurant dining? In Midtown, EV/WV/GV, and Soho? You're not getting generous typical American style portions. You're getting "this neighborhood has been gentrified" portions and "welcome to the big city tourist" prices, depending on the neighborhood. Even chain restaurants jack up the prices at their Manhattan branches. On top of that, you're paying 8% in taxes and up to 20% in gratuity. Tokyo's got 4% in tax? So you're paying about 24% on top of menu prices in Manhattan versus 4% in Tokyo.

                              Robb's spot on in terms of sake pricing. Shochu versus Western sprits is an even greater deal as well. Beer's better and a better deal in Manhattan though. Anyway, hey, I love NYC. Love Manhattan. Love Tokyo. But those cost of living surveys, which are often done by Western financial institutions measuring the cost of relocating personnel, well, I'd like to see how the numbers stack up when they remove the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island from their equations.

                              1. re: Silverjay


                                Yeah, I am just curious as to the cost of specific items. Seriously.
                                I understand the cross comparisons and the use of differing areas, all of NYC or just Manhattan, etc.
                                Granted, I shop and dine with calculation in Manhattan, I don't just buy whatever garbage they offer for jacked up prices. Whole Foods, Union Sq, sure might be something decent but it ain't cheap. But I still felt Tokyo was more, overall.

                                Sorry, I am having trouble looking for my Ramen joint, perhaps I got the name confused with all the kanji and my terribly dull gaijinity.

                                I am also speaking of ALL IN prices when dining, agreed it does not count if you don't include the tax and tip. Tip less if the service is no good, it is preposterous that 20% is expected or them doing a poor job. Portions, well, honestly, I would not even dine at a very inordinately large percentage of restaurants in Manhattan but I never feel hungry wherever I do. I think the midrange restaurants are Manhattan's weakest link in the dining scene. Paying twice as much for the better places is better value than the zero value offered by so many of the mid.

                                Any fruit, fish, soy sauce, rice prices, anything is cool. IF you recall, certainly you do not need to waste your time indulging my stupidity.

                                I think it would be pretty easy to determine how much Outerborough pricing is in some survey of international cost of living by looking at the real estate. Prices at any point in time of Manhattan are pretty much known per sq ft. I just know some in Tokyo, truly crazy and I am sure a standard number can be researched there as well.
                                Also, Western banks and co.'s would mostly use Manhattan for relocation comparisons, I would think. Plus it would seem to make sense they would care to spend less and not have to pay as much overseas. But that is speculation on my part though I could find out for sure.

                                Thanks to all, good crew on this board overall.


            2. Thanks everyone...that has put my mind to rest as I'd hoped!!! I'll be taking all advice posted. :D

              1. It isn't hard to get fresh fruit and vegetables but it is hard to get them cheaply. You may want to keep an eye open for 99 yen shops (like "QQ") which often sell small portions for better prices than supermarkets. At the very least the prices are rarely any higher at these shops and I've found that they have better selections and prices on things like avocados (which tend to be 150 yen or more at markets).

                1 Reply
                1. re: Orchid64

                  Hey Guys
                  So i have just moved here in the past month from NYC, and my wife is japanese....just always need to put in credentials when on CH. I agree with Silverjay....You have to just get past the sticker shock in Tokyo......i lived in NYC all my life and the prices here are really getting to be not that bad....I haven't worked in the past month so i have put myself on the most strict spending budget....but going out there and seeing the variety that is out there...There are your fair share of bargains and of course your fair share of rip offs. We had a $200 dollar a head dinner here on New Years Eve and i think i have had better dinners here for a fraction of the price...You just need to know where to go or where to stumble upon. I used to have a restaurant in NYC and i thought the competition there was is scary how hidden away, how little they advertise here and how many restaurant there really are....

                  I also think an added bonus is that you don't have to tip and the tax is already calculated into the price on the menu is the price you pay!!!