Many of the questions that Zentern staff receives regarding internships in Japan revolve around the cost of living, especially how expensive it is to acquire food and beverages. Although some interns enjoy cooking, we understand that during your limited time in Tokyo you would likely rather spend your free time elsewhere and so in this blog I will provide some guidance for how to eat and stay hydrated cheaply as an intern in Tokyo without ever using anything more complex than a microwave or water boiler.
Stocking up on snacks, drinks, and pre-cooked food.
Your first mission after deciding on your accommodation should be locating supermarkets nearest your housing and along your commute route. Although convenience store goods are often competitively priced for bentos, rice balls, and a la carte desserts like breads, cafe beverages, and pudding, in general you will save a lot of money by walking a little further to a supermarket or wholefoods store.
My favorite snack items to buy cheaper at supermarkets in Japan are chocolate, cookies, gummy candies, chips, and ice cream. During your internship you are bound to be on the search for interesting souvenirs from Japan to bring home but don’t think that the pricey trinkets and confectioneries at museum and observatory shops are your only option. Walking down the snack aisles of a Japanese grocery, you’ll be able to find tons of snacks in unusual flavors and with eye-catching packaging that would make great gifts to bring back for family and friends. The decorate-it-yourself craft-like snacks such as candy sushi can be interesting for all ages, especially if you can’t read the instructions (But I’m sure you’re Zenpal could help you out with that!). As a final tip regarding snacks, if you buy them in bulk, remember to buy tupperware or plastic bags so you can take some on the go. Luckily though many cookies and chocolates already come individually wrapped even if you forget.
Drinks in Japan are as various as the snack food. If you are from the USA the ones that I highly recommend trying are the milk teas and jelly drinks as they are incredibly addicting and difficult to find back home. There is also a wide selection of fruity flavored waters, teas, and sodas. Even if you choose to buy a different drink every day of your internship in Japan, there are seasonal flavors and new drink ideas under trial that come out on the market all the time so it is impossible to try them all. To save money during your exploration of all the beverage options, I would advise that interns refrain from ordering drinks at restaurants unless there is a drink bar set option for their food order. Vending machine drinks are generally better priced than drinks at restaurants but be mindful of price fluctuations from one location to the next. I usually only buy from vending machines in which everything is priced at 100 yen. However, if you are feeling lightheaded and need something quickly, at least try to find machines that are located near many other vending machines or convenience stores and are thus likely to be priced more competitively. If you have time to sit around, drinks that come in a can and are less portable once opened tend to be good deals but nothing beats the cost savings of buying your drinks far in advance from wholesale markets and grocery stores.
At supermarkets in Tokyo you can expect individual PET bottles of water and soft drinks to range from 80 to 120 yen. I would advise interns to regularly stock up on these so that you have at least one portable drink to help you recover your energy while commuting and a bottle that can be refilled at the office water cooler. However, don’t forget to also buy some of the larger sized bottles, which give you a little more value for their prices and can help quench your thirst when you are resting at home. I found that milk was inexpensive in Japan but be warned that Japanese milk has a very different taste compared to milk consumed in the United States because it is often a mixture of powder formula and cow milk. After filling your shopping basket up with all the snacks and drinks you can carry home comfortably, queue up at the checkout area!
Tips for Interacting with Cashiers
During your internship in Japan and as part of your immersion in a different culture, you will discover on multiple occasions alternate approaches to tasks, which may not be second-nature to you at first, but are commonplace among Japanese people. In my experience, in addition to adjusting to the fact that vehicular and pedestrian traffic in Japan is always left-handed in the Kanto areas, I also picked up on some other systematic differences in daily activities. In New York where I was raised the system for checkout was to unload all the items from your shopping cart and place them on a conveyor belt table so that the cashier can easily scan and bag your items before processing the payment. However, in Japanese supermarkets, the norm is to place your entire shopping basket on the table without taking out any of the items and to let the cashier scan and transfer the items one by one into a second basket. Once all items have been processed, expect to be asked a few questions depending on whether the establishment is a chain store and what your form of payment is.
What is a “point card”?
Membership or point cards are available for most chain stores and although you may not be eligible to apply for one if you don’t live in Japan, I can guarantee that the cashier will ask if you have one out of politeness anyway. On these cards Japanese residents can accumulate points from each purchase made at participate branch stores; the points can later be converted into monetary value to discount future purchases. Fortunately, even if you don’t have a membership card, the cashiers in Japan are not as pushy as the ones in New York and will not press you to sign up for one on the spot. A typical short exchange with a cashier regarding membership cards flows as follows:
Pointo kaado o-mochi deshou ka?
Do you have a point card?
iie, nai desu.
No, I don’t.
Cashier: はい、かしこまりました。 / はい、恐れ入ります。
Hai, kashikomarimashita. / Hai, osoreirimasu.
Very well then. / I see; pardon me for asking.
Paying with Cards in Japan
As interns may already known from doing preliminary research about living in Tokyo, Japan is a cash-based society and it is difficult to find non-chain restaurants that accept plastic but for general shopping, alternative payment options including purchases via IC, credit, and debit cards are increasingly being adopted. In my case, before arriving in Japan I applied for a travel rewards credit card with my bank that would allow me to make purchases abroad without incurring foreign transaction fees so I had a strong incentive to use my card over cash and would scan every cash register for the informational plaque that shows what cards they accept.
Because most banks charge a premium on withdrawing cash abroad, it is definitely worth asking whether cards are accepted if you are unsure. Take the following dialogue as an example.
Sumimasen, kurejitto-kaado de shi-haraemasuka.
Excuse me, may I pay with credit card?
Yes, we accept card.
Unlike in the United States, in Japan customers rarely ever swipe their own credit card or put it into the chip reader by themselves. Instead, they place their cards on the same plastic tray that is used for holding the bills and coins for cash payments and allow the cashier to process the card. Most cashiers will not mind if you hand your card to them directly but this is unusual. Another small interaction you should be ready for is when the cashier asks how you would like him or her to charge your card. They will typically either ask to confirm whether you would like to pay in full through a one-time charge or ask how many installments you would like to pay in. Some typical exchanges include:
(Ikkai-barai / Ikkatsu) de yoroshii desu ka?
Would you like to pay in one installment?
Hai, daijoubu desu.
Yes, that is fine with me,
O-shiharai kaisuu wa?
In how many installments would you like to pay?
(Ikkai / Nikai / Sankai) de
In (one / two / three )
After you have completed the payment transaction, the cashier will gesture for you to move to the nearby tables or counters where you can bag your items.
When grocery shopping in Japan, I made it a habit to use the cloth bags with character designs that I bought while exploring various districts of Tokyo instead of plastic bags but most stores in central Tokyo do not seem to charge extra for plastic bags so although I advocate the more environmentally friendly options whenever possible, there is no need to stress about bringing your own bags.
Eating Out Inexpensively in Tokyo at any time of day
Going out to eat for lunch was one of the things I looked forward to most during my internship in Japan. In Tokyo especially, the prices for dining at lunch are drastically discounted and are typically half of what you would pay during dinner hours. This appears to be a widespread marketing strategy for generating restaurant reviews and creating a lasting positive impression on customers so that they might choose to dine there for special occasions that warrant dining at night. However, even when you are not eating during that golden window of 11AM to 3PM, there are still a number of places where you can fill up for less than 1,000 yen.
Go-to restaurants for eating on a budget:
Gyuudon (Beef bowl) Restaurants
In Japan, locals gravitate toward three large gyuudon chain restaurants: Sukiya, Yoshinoya, and Matsuya. Although they are best known for their beef dishes, these dining establishments also often offer pork, saba, salmon, and eel. When I first came to Japan, I was pleasantly surprised that these gyuudon places all give you insanely precise control over your portion size, offering multiple size options for almost every staple food items on the menu. Take this snippet of the Sukiya online menu for example:
The stores of all three chain businesses have English menus available but in case you are in a rush and don’t want to wait for the server to hand you one, let’s learn how to read the different sizes. From smallest to largest, your options are:
ミニ(mini) = Small size
並盛(nami-mori) = Standard size
中盛 (chuu-mori) = Medium size
大盛(oo-mori) = Large size
特盛(toku-mori) = Extra Large size
メガ(mega) = Extra Extra Large size
The “mini” size is especially great if you are in Japan for only a short time and you want to try a little bit of multiple dishes in one sitting. But generally, If you’re not too hungry, you can easily fill up with a standard size beef bowl for 380 yen or less depending on which store you go to. My only recommendation for extreme frugality would be to avoid bowls and sets containing eel (unagi). But even if you do splurge more than 800 yen for eel, the food at these chains is still very inexpensive considering the portion size. Also do note that they all do take out!
2. Kaiten Zushi
Kaiten Zushi, or rotary sushi, refers to a specific type of sushi restaurant in which plates containing a few pieces of nigiri sushi are placed on conveyor belts and cycled around each table in the restaurant. Some of these plates will be on a black, yellow, or red platform labeled ご注文品(go-chuumon-hin) indicating that the item is a special-made order and should only be taken by the customer who ordered it but all other plates on the belt can be taken freely.
There are two types of pricing schemes: charging a flat rate for all plates and pricing sushi according to the color of the plate it sits on. While you are chowing down it is customary to stack emptied plates up to conserve table space and make it easier for the cashier to count them when you are checking out. When you have ate your fill and want to leave, don’t forget to either click the お会計(okaikei) button near the tablet for ordering or call over a staff member and say
Sumimasen, o-kaikei o-negaishimasu!
Excuse me! I’d like to check out.
During my stay in Japan I had a less typical intern living arrangement in that I chose to arrange my own homestay in the suburbs of Tokyo rather than live in a guest house in the middle of the city so I was able to enjoy a flat rate of 100 yen per plate at a rotary sushi chain restaurant called Sushiro but I have seen conveyor-belt sushi places in central Tokyo for as cheap as 120 yen per plate. If you stumble upon a chain restaurant during your internship, I would suggest checking it out because they often have nice side dishes including karaage and salad as well as a desserts menu with options such as pudding, shaved ice or sherbet, and some simple cakes.
3. Teishoku (Set meal) Restaurants
Some teishoku chains with branch stores in Tokyo where you can enjoy well-rounded Japanese meals inexpensively are: Ootoya,Shokudou, and Yayoiken. They are not as easy to discover by chance while wandering around during lunch but they offer a great variety of foods, making it an ideal spot for group of people who can’t decide what they want to eat.
4. Ramen and Udon Restaurants
This option is something you probably won’t need help finding because ramen and udon shops are as common as convenience stores. If you are looking for the best spots frequented by locals, I highly recommend taking a look at the website Tabelog, Japan’s version of Yelp for restaurant reviews.
5. Japanese Curry Restaurants
Japanese curry is different from Indian curry in that is often far less spicy, has a sweet undertones, and stew-like consistency. Since I personally have very low tolerance for spicy foods, the toned down heat was much appreciated. The curry chains that you can find scattered about Tokyo during your internship include Go!Go!Curry!, Coco Ichiban, Curry Shop C&C, San Maruco Curry House, and Champion Curry.
6. Western Fast Food Restaurants
There are six major burger chains available: Freshness Burger, Mos Burgers, Lotteria, McDonalds, Wendy’s First Kitchen, and Burger King. All these places offer meals sets for around 700 yen that include a burger of your choice, a side dish item that defaults to fries if you don’t specify, and one soft drink. In addition to having added Japanese mustard to all their burgers, many of the American chains also sell Japan-specific menu items. The new condiment addition and unique choices such as teriyaki and ebi fillet burgers taste great. My only disappointment was that the breaded, crown-shaped Burger King chicken tenders that long-time American fans love do not exist and neither do chicken fries sadly. Like gyuudon restrautants, these fast food chains allow you the convenience of taking your food back to the office or back to your residence. One thing to note is that students can get discounts at KFC if they show their school IDs. Also, Lotteria is a great place to buy quality bubble tea cheaply.
I hope that these pointers for how to eat and drink cost effectively in Japan will minimize your stress regarding budgeting and maybe free up some money so that you have funds to hang out with your fellow interns in Japan at language exchange meetups or attend concerts. Leave a comment describing your own discoveries for cheap eats and drinks in Tokyo. I would love to know if there are cheaper places to eat dessert crepes than Harajuku!