Tonkotsu Ramen

For many visitors, Japanese food is one the most anticipated aspects of their trip. And rightly so. Japanese food is varied, and for the most part not all that challenging once you get past the raw fish part. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to figuring out your budget for one day of meals in Japan, your predilection for the finer things as well as your volume requirements will be key variables.

Ramen, pictured above, is one of Japan’s most famous exports. It originated in China many millions of bowls ago, and has evolved into three primary varieties in Japan. Tonkotsu ramen (pictured above) is the one in a rich pork broth. Shoyu ramen has a base made with soy sauce, and miso ramen is basically tonkotsu ramen with the addition of miso. A lunch, dinner, or after-drinking bowl of ramen should generally run around 900 yen (about US$8). This includes tax, and there is no tipping in Japan.

You may be tempted to sweeten the carb bounty with a side order of gyoza (dumplings). A gaggle of six should run you around 300 yen, or about US$2.70. A medium draft beer clocks in at about 450 yen (about US$4). Overall, it’s probably safe to budget about US$10 for a ramen meal, depending on your beverage choice (water being the free one).

The Beverages

Sake, or Japanese rice wine
Sure there’s plenty of beer in Japan, but don’t pass up the sake.

Beer is ubiquitous in Japan, and is the most popular type of alcohol. Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are just a few of the major brands popular here that you’ve most likely already heard of. Beer prices can vary greatly depending on the venue, but outside of high end restaurants, you should expect to pay around 500 yen for a medium draft (around 400ml – 450ml). Note that, generally speaking, beer and food are about 10%-20% more expensive in Tokyo than other parts of Japan.

Beer in Japan is almost uniformly of the same light lager variety. A beer here and there is of course fine (and encouraged!), but consider avoiding the bloat by digging into the indigenous alcohols as well. Sake (Japanese rice wine) is the most famous of them all. Some are sweet, some are dry. From rice and rice alone, an amazing variety of flavors come forth. Expect some sake to be fruity (though not necessarily sweet), tannic, or even earthy. Don’t pass it up. Prices vary greatly by quality and quantity, but for a solid sake, you can expect to pay about what you would for beer on a per drink basis, or maybe just a bit more. Since sake is roughly three times the strength of beer, a drink’s worth means about one third the volume of a beer.

Interested in a little trip upmarket?

Japanese wagyu beef
Wagyu in its natural habitat.

That “Wagyu beef” you might have had in your home country was most likely not from Japan. That’s why they called it Wagyu style. If you’re a serious beef aficionado, regardless of your budget, you are simply going to have to try some homegrown wagyu. Let’s be perfectly honest and set expectations fairly. A proper teppanyaki wagyu meal is probably going to set you back at least 8000 yen (about US$72). If you go crazy, you could double that. Thing is, don’t go crazy. Wagyu is super rich, and eating too much of it will be a less rewarding experience than you might hope for.

Well-marbled Wagyu is amazing and will almost melt in your mouth. There is good news for more budget conscious types that maybe wouldn’t want to make a whole meal out of Wagyu. We at Pinpoint Traveler offer an affordable Wagyu add on to our Kyoto night tour as well as our Osaka night tour. Get a 100g substantive taste of Wagyu at a great price with no compromise.

A trip to Japan without sushi? Don’t hold back – sushi can fit in your Japan meals budget too.

Toro tuna sushi
Bask in the fatty glory of chu-toro maguro sushi.

While we’re on the topic of pricey foods, we’d be amiss to not discuss sushi. First, the cheap option: All around Japan, there are kaiten sushi shops (“sushi-go-round” or revolving sushi restaurants) that offer two pieces per plate for roughly 110 yen (about US$1). It’s not bad fish in the sense that it will make you sick or anything like that. Think of it as the McDonald’s of sushi. It is what it is, and you’ll probably find it convenient and satisfactory in a pinch.

Instead of focusing on a fixed budget for one day of meals in Japan, going cheap sometimes and more extravagant others just may be the best way to go. For those cheap days, kaiten sushi is a more interesting choice than Western fast food, and they have non-sushi options too.

All of the above notwithstanding, you are highly encouraged to seek out a more elevated sushi experience. You don’t have to commit to a US$100+ meal (sensory experiences?) at Jiro’s or other wallet-busting famous spot. With proper research, you should be able to enjoy some of the best sushi of your life for as little as 4,000 or 5,000 yen (about US$36 to US$45). Chu-toro (medium fatty bluefin tuna) with the kind of quality pictured above should be attainable for around 900 yen for two pieces. Most other sushi varieties will be less than that.

OK, enough with the high budget. Let’s see more affordable options.

soba noodles
Soba happiness comes cheap.

Soba (buckwheat noodles) is filling and warming, available with a variety of toppings, and cheap. A bowl like the one above should run you around 400 yen (about US$3.50). The broth style varies by region. The one pictured here is soy sauce based, and is commonly found in Tokyo. In summer, there are cold varieties too. Although soba is not made with pork bone broth, it is generally made with a fish element in its broth. Sadly, this means most soba (or udon, for that matter) is a no go for vegetarians. Vegetarians will find many things difficult in Japan, but still should be able to adhere to our budget for one day of meals in Japan

kushi katsu
Kushi katsu is fried goodness on a stick.

Another bargain basement of a treat is kushi katsu. You order by the stick (“kushi”), and can choose from a variety of meats, vegetables, seafoods, and even things like cheese. Or rather, cheeze as the case may often be. At 100 yen or so a stick, it’s a fun, easily scalable meal. There’s a dipping sauce (not pictured above). Whatever you do, never double dip. You’ve been warned, and everyone will be watching. The reason for this rule is that the sauce is communal.

Without further ado, the numbers.

We’ve dabbled about high and low when it comes to food options in Japan, and prices have been generally laid out. Now it’s time to get down to final numbers.

Breakfast: Something quick from the convenience store or a local bakery, plus a coffee. This shouldn’t set you back more than around US$5. Hotel buffets tend to range from around US$10 to US$30. Be aware that cafes and bakeries in Japan often open oddly late in the morning. Even many Starbucks don’t open until 8am.

Lunch: You should have no trouble keeping this at 1000 yen (about US$9) or under. Even if you do it up, 2000 yen should be ample.

Dinner: 2000 yen (about US$18) should do you on the more budget conscious end. Open your wallet wide for big beef or luxo sushi.

To sum it all up, when formulating a budget for one day of meals in Japan, the average traveler can set aside about 4,000 yen to 5,000 yen a day without alcohol. How you treat yourself beyond that is entirely up to you!

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