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How to eat well in Tokyo for under ¥2000 a day

It adds up. Spending US$20 on a single meal out may not seem like much in your home country but what travellers realize soon enough is that the money exchanged at the airport disappear pretty quickly when you need to eat out for every single meal for the duration of your trip. If you are staying at an airbnb sort of place with a functional kitchen, you might be able to save some money by cooking at your accommodation. If prepared food is your only way to go, take heart! Food in Japan can be quite reasonable if you know where to go. It is absolutely possible to eat well for ¥2000 or less a day (approximately US$18 at the current exchange rate). By eating well, I mean nutritionally balanced and satisfying.
The ¥2000 challenge. This bill exists... and you're lucky if you find it!

The best case scenario would be that your accommodation offers breakfast, but if you find yourself in pretty frugal quarters that does not include a morning meal, head to the nearest convenience store where you can get a cup of freshly brewed coffee (my preference is 7-11, just because it offers, in my opinion, the best coffee), and a wide selection of great breakfast items: single bananas, soft boiled egg, yoghurt, bread and pastries, and if you would like something more Japanese, a huge selection of onigiri (rice balls or nori-wrapped triangle shaped rice), each between ¥100-200. You can be really frugal and go for just a cup of coffee and a pastry and just spend ¥200 or go a little more substantial and have 3-4 breakfast items for about ¥300-400. 

Some chains offer a healthy well balanced breakfast set. Consider Matsuya's standard morning set meal which comes witha raw egg, natto (healthy fermented soy beans), rice, salad, nori, and miso soup, all for ¥360 only. I personally like the grilled salmon set which comes with a slice of grilled salmon, a small bowl of sliced beef, rice, salad, nori and miso soup (no natto) and an incredible value at only ¥450.
Matsuya grilled salmon breakfast set ¥450. Photo from Navitime Japan

Lunch is the time to go check out the restaurants that look so inviting and cozy at night because most places offer affordable lunch sets where the same items would cost more, sometimes double, at dinnertime. For instance, there is this lovely Italian trattoria in Ochanomizu that offers pasta sets starting at ¥870. Sets  come with freshly brewed coffee.  Some restaurants offer salad, main course and dessert, all for between ¥700-1000.
Fancy places can be enjoyed at lunch time at reasonable prices

You will want to stay away from restaurants and izakayas (Japanese style pubs) at dinnertime because they can be quite pricey and you can easily burn through ¥2000 in one blow in these places. Your best bet to have a healthy and satisfying meal will be to head to a chain that offers "fast food" (with quotation marks because Japanese "fast food" is much healthier than the burger chains in the US). My favorite tempura chain Tenya offers a seafood and vegetable tempura bowl for only ¥500 (I opt for less rice with the same toppings for only ¥450) and it comes with a warm bowl of wakame (seaweed) miso soup. Yoshinoya offers thinly sliced beef bowl sets for about ¥500 too. If you feel more like noodles, look for soba chains. Soba is a healthy noodle made from buckwheat. Rich in thiamine, antioxidants, and all eight essential amino acids including lysine which is absent in wheat flour. Soba bowls can be as cheap as ¥350.
This bowl + miso soup only ¥500 (¥450 if you opt for less rice!). Photo from Tenya's homepage.

If you feel more like a simple boxed meal to be enjoyed leisurely at your accommodation, head to the local supermarket. If you go late enough, they will likely be marked down which leaves you some money for a can of beer or a tub of fresh fruit to go with your dinner. Supermarkets often have microwave ovens to heat up your meal (or your accommodation might have one as Japanese hotels and hostels often do). 

¥400 breakfast, ¥800 lunch set, ¥500 dinner set = ¥1,700. Under ¥2,000. Go reward yourself with a cold can of beer!

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Great article! Thank you. Other places are bento boxes from supermarkets and depending upon the time of day you may get a discount. Gyudon restaurants are another place to save but not for vegans!....and the old street stalls if you can find them. I wish we had options like those in the U.S. Eat well everyone!!

I am planning to visit japan this year but the only problem is food . I am a vegetarian and my friends in japan told me that vegetarian food is really hard to find .
is that really true? will i face any major problems regarding this . your article was really nice.

I think it should be fairly easy finding vegetarian food, vegan food looks like a different story. I think the main thing to look out for in meals is hidden fish products. they seem to put fish in a lot of stuff. I'm going in October and I'm vegetarian so i hope it's not too hard.

When I was studying abroad I was kind of strapped for cash, and worried about meals. But I was so surprised at how easy it is in Japan to eat for cheap. I love it. In Arizona, if you get 'cheap' food the quality is cheap and normally the food doesn't taste too good (or it is something that is not filling), but when abroad I found even the cheap food is delicious~ Thanks for the read!

I found it difficult to eat cheap in the US too! Cheap meant nutritionally empty or just plain bad.

Thanks for the tip