Food is the third major cost (second or first in my case) on any major trip. Japan can be very economical if you eat like a local, this includes eating at convenience stores and supermarkets. At first this seems weird, but the food from your local 7-11 is as good or better than any fast food joint, and usually cheaper as well.
Convenience stores (usually called “combini“) in Japan are actually, well, convenient. There’s at least one in every neighbourhood, usually within 5-8 blocks walking distance. The major chains are 7-11 (sometimes referred to as “7 and I”), Lawson’s station, and Family Mart. There may be some smaller chains such as Daily Yamazaki, MiniStop, and Sunkus/Circle K.
These stores really do have everything. There’s usually an ATM which will take foreign bank cards, magazines, post offices, a place to pay bills (if you need to pay any Japanese bills), and a section if you need any household supplies such as shampoo, toothpaste, dish soap, towels, etc.
As for food, you’ll always find they key sections:
- A cold drink section with teas, coffees, and sodas;
- A hot drink section with tea and coffee in pre-heated metal cans. This can be either in a little section near the rest of the drinks or in a separate heated display near the checkout;
- Two alcohol sections, one for beer, chuhai, and other cold alcohol in a cooler, and another shelf with whiskey, wines, and other spirits;
- A cooler with sandwiches, different types of stufed buns, wraps, pre-packaged meals such as soba, onigiri, bento with various meats. The clerk will usually ask you if you want the some of the items heated when you pay;
- A hot area near the till where there will be oden, kaarage, tempura, and other freshly made items;
- A snacks aisle with nuts, dried squid, crisps, etc.;
- An instant food aisle with instant ramen, and other cooking basics.
Prices are very reasonable. I can get two tallboy cans of grapefruit chuhai and two chicken kaarage for about $8 CAD. Combini are a great choice when I’m travelling alone or with the boys and we need a quick meal on-the-go, or if we’re really drunk at a weird hour and we don’t want to go to a proper restaurant.
If we’re on the way home after a night of drinking we’ll usually stop in and buy some more alcohol if we want to keep drinking or get some tea/sports drinks to stave off the hangover, and some tea and items for breakfast in the morning. This doesn’t usually cost more than $5 or $6 CAD, and is a great way save a few dollars on a meal.
Paying at Convenience Stores
One note about buying alcohol in Japan, the legal age for drinking is 20 years old. If you’re purchasing alcohol at some places, especially convenience stores, you may see a red and green question box pop up on the till screen which faces the customer after the clerk rings in your drink. This is asking you to confirm that you are at least 20 years old. Hit the green button to confirm if you are of age.
There is a quirk about paying for things in most shops: you will notice that there is a little blue or green plastic tray with a textured bottom next to the cash register. In Japan, you don’t hand the clerk your money or your credit card. You place the money or the card in the tray and they pick it up. If you are due change, the clerk may hand you the change directly without using the tray. It’s something most foreigners will need some additional time to get used to.
At some cash registers at combini, you may see the IC logo from your train card and a proximity tap pad. This means you can pay with the funds loaded onto your IC card. All you must do is show the clerk you IC card when he reads out the total to you. Once the clerk hits the proper buttons, a little pad will light up on the register and all you need to do is hold your IC card against the flat lit up panel. The amount will be subtracted from your IC card, just make sure you have enough money stored on your IC card.
When I’m staying at an AirBnB with a kitchen, and we have access to a fridge, toaster oven, and other items we can use to do some light cooking, we’ll try to hit up a supermarket every few days to get basic supplies such as tea, coffee, noodles, snacks, onigiri, bread, and other general items for breakfast and lunch.
This way people can eat, lounge, check emails, and get caught up on life back home during the mornings as everyone wakes up at their own pace, hits the bathroom, takes a shower, and gets dressed for the upcoming day.
Supermarkets come in two distinct types. Many Japanese refer to supermarkets as “Supers” and the term covers both types. The first one is a standard stand-alone supermarket for everyday people, with very reasonable prices. Some examples of major supermarkets chains are: JUSCO, Kansai Super, Seiyu, Sato, etc.
Supermarkets are laid out very similar to supermarkets in North America. There’s a meat and deli section, produce section, household goods, snacks, drinks, and a cold section for cold items. Most supers will also have a prepared foods section usually consisting of yakitori, kushikatsu, bento, kaarage, and a wide assortment of common Japanese food items. After 8 or 9 PM, most of the unsold prepared foods are 50% or more off. This is a good chance to snag items for a late and cheap dinner at the AirBnB, or to stock up on items for the next day.
Alcohol is also slightly cheaper at the super, and you can buy in bulk as well if you have a crew of people. We can usually pick up a case of beer for 10-15% cheaper, and sometimes more if there is a sale.
Paying for items at the super is usually the same process as convenience stores. It is rare that you can use your IC cards at supermarkets. Also, please note that as the clerk rings your items through the till, they will put them in another basket. Once you pay, they will then hand you the basket. You need to then take your basket of paid items past the till to several tables with rolled up bags. You can then bag your own groceries before leaving the store. The cashier does not bag your groceries for you.
The second class of supers are upscale fancy supers, almost always in the basement of department stores (department stores are referred to as “departo”). These usually includes brands like Kintetsu, Tokyu, or Hanshin.
These fancier stores will often have higher quality items, such as wagyu beef, black pork, specialty desserts and cakes, food gift boxes, higher end whiskies and alcohols, nice fruits (the expensive, perfect looking fruits which can go for hundreds of dollars), and some pre-made items like skewers and fried items. Depato supers are more expensive, so I tend not to shop there unless there isn’t much else around or if I’m looking for a very specific items I can’t find at the local super.
If you can, always try to eat at least breakfast in your hotel or AirBnB, this will save you quite a bit from your food budget, and if you can eat the occasional lunch as well that saves you a ton of money so you can have some outright solid dinners. Sometimes having drinks and snacks at your hotel or AirBnB if you’re travelling with a bunch of good friends is a good way to chill out if you’re been hiking or travelling for most of the day.
The last thing to cover is the ubiquitous vending machine. They are everywhere in Japan, in front of buildings in the middle of nowhere, at train station platforms, on (some) train cars, in front of combini, you can’t walk more than a few blocks without running into a vending machine of some sort. No, I’m not talking about the vending machines which sell electronics and used panties, those are only usually found in specific places.
You will always be able to get a cold or a hot drink from the plethora of vending machines around. Vending machines selling alcohol are usually separate from ones selling soft drinks, tea, and coffee. You may see the normal beer and chuhai in alcohol vending machines, but you may also see canned nihonshu (saké ) and whiskey highballs/sours. In the non-alcoholic vending machines you may come across some interesting items such as creamed corn in a can. It’s exactly what you would expect – it’s creamed corn in a can. Try your hand if you’re feeling like experiencing some of the weirder experiences in Japan.
Most vending machines take coins and bills, and are a great way to get rid of a pocket full of change. Some of the new vending machines also allow you to pay with your IC card. Each vending machine will have plastic representations of what is inside, and will usually have lit up buttons below each items shows if they’re hot or cold items, how much they are, and if they’re in stock (if the buttons is lit).
To purchase something, you just need to push the button and then insert your cash, or tap your IC card against the reader. The drink will then fall or be taken mechanically to the bottom receptacle when you can reach into the machine and pick it up. There’s usually bottle and can recycling bins next to banks of recycling machines if you need to empty any trash you’re carrying with you. If you’re using a bill or coins, you may also need to turn the return change lever to get any change from the machine.
Using supers and combini is part of living like a local and should be taken advantage of as much as possible.
If you have questions or things you want to know about Japan, please feel free to comment or contact me via the Contact page.