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Road Trip Living: Eating on the Cheap in Japan

Interestingly, Japan is one country where eating out is usually cheaper than cooking for yourself at home or in your camper! Despite most meals being quite good value for money, it can still add up when you’re travelling with a partner or your family, so here are our best money saving tips for you future Japan campers and budget travellers.

  1. BYO Coffee Maker + Thermos: Yes, this is stereotypically ‘Melbournian’ of us but we always travel with our Aeropress, which is easy to use, clean, pack away and consistently makes tasty coffee – all you need is boiled water. This might seem unnecessary, but with a good cup of coffee in Japan costing 500 yen on average (or more), which is upwards of 6AUD a cup and two of you drinking one or more cups daily, you’re going to end up spending a hell of a lot of money on your caffeine habit. We still love visiting cafes overseas so we will go to the ones we find interesting, have one cup of coffee and buy a bag of beans so we have our own coffee to make at home for the week for the price of 2-3 cups of coffee out. Win! A thermos is also a huge money and time saver when you’re campervanning since most convenience stores have free boiled water you can fill your thermos up with use to make a tea or coffee on the road in no time.
  2. Buy snacks in bulk when you can: Since we weren’t using our refrigerator much, we ate quite a lot of fruit as snacks and in our breakfasts during our road trip. While some convenience stores sell apples and bananas, they’re usually overpriced and WAY over packaged, being sold as just one or two fruits per pack. You’ll save money and plastic buying loose fruit or a big bag of deliciously crispy Japanese apples to last you for a few days at fresh produce stores or supermarkets. We found most other snacks; crackers, noodles, yoghurts etc. were marginally cheaper at bigger stores compared to convenience stores too.
  3. Try out tasty morsels: Japanese are very generous with food samples, especially in department store food basements and large gift stores in tourist hot spots. You could probably fill up on testers alone in some stores. Sampling your way through a food store is not only a money saver but a fun way to try out some of the more interesting Japanese foods and avoid buying something you wont like. You might even find some free condiment samples to hold onto to jazz up a campervan meal later on.
  4. Take advantage of end of day sales: Most of the supermarkets we shopped at would discount their fresh meals and snacks (tempura, sushi, tonkatsu, rice meals, etc.) at the end of each day after around 6-7pm. It’s a good way to snag a cheap dinner or snack for the following day if you’re there at the right time.
  5. Choose value for money when eating out: This means you might not be dining at the prettiest of places all the time but you’ll still get a tasty feed to fill your belly! Our favourite cheapo chains are Sukiya (gyudon meats), train station Soba/Udon shops (tempura with noodles – absolutely delicious), CoCo Curry House (Japanese curry with rice) and of course, the trusty convenience stores when we’re in a bind.
  6. Set price restaurants: Some of our most fun meals out have been at set price or cheap izakaya. This is where everything, including drinks is 280 or 300 yen (sometimes more) depending on the place. It’s always a fun, crowded atmosphere at these places and its interesting to try lots of small eats and yakitori. Keep in mind though, while individual items and drinks are all cheap it can all add up if you order a lot. Our favourite izakaya by far is the showa era themed, Hanbey which has multiple locations throughout Tokyo.
  7. Lunch meal sets: Many Japanese restaurants offer lunchtime meals deals or sets, which typically include a broth, rice bowl, side condiments like pickled vegetables and a main dish such as tempura with soba noodles or katsudon. If you want to save some extra cash share a set with your partner, as they are usually fairly substantial.
  8. Booze on a budget: The cheapest way to enjoy a few drinks out in Japan is at an afternoon/early evening happy hour. A lot of chain style izakaya (Japanese pubs with small eats) and other pubs throughout Japan such as the British pub, ‘Hub’ offer substantial discounts on beers and cocktails during happy hour (which usually actually lasts 2-3 hours) and can be fun to spend some time at. Convenience stores also sell an impressive range of drinks including cheap whiskey and spirits, beers, sake, soju, premixed chuhi drinks and highballs, Australian wines for cheaper than we buy them at home (what????), and so on. It doesn’t take much to get sozzled on those extra strong Japanese mixers so prepare to be a cheap drunk!
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