People generally have the mental image that prices are really high in Japan, but the recently low exchange rate of the yen and a fierce competition for low prices in Japan’s service industry has turned the country into a popular “low-price travel destination.” According to the annual Long Haul Holiday Report 2017* by the UK’s Post Office, Tokyo is the cheapest travel destination in regard to prices, followed by Cape Town in South Africa. This great cost effectiveness also boasts top-notch service and a high quality in the gourmet category that is surprising for prices as low as that, gaining a lot of attention for these aspects as well.
Nonetheless, Japan’s cheap prices are hard to grasp unless you visit in person. The “Big Mac Index” is often used to compare the economic power of different countries by using the price of one McDonald’s Big Mac as a numerical value. However, saying that one burger costs $3.51 in Japan while it costs $5.51 in the United States doesn’t really help much, does it?
To make Japan’s prices more palpable, we used the example of 1,000 yen which corresponds to $8.57 (based on Yearly Average Currency Exchange Rates for 2017 per the IRS) and bought a lunch menu at a Japanese convenience store. What kind of food can you get in Japan with that budget? Compare it to what you can get for 1,000 yen in your country and Japan’s prices might be a little clearer!
*This ranking looks at 30 cities outside of the UK and ranks them by cost effectiveness.
Japanese-Style Lunch: The Standard Choice for Japanese People, Healthy and Filling!
This time, we shopped at 7-Eleven, one of Japan’s largest convenience store chains. While there are several different convenience store brands across the country, 7-Eleven is particularly valued for how good the food is. It sells bento lunch boxes, dishes, sweets, and various other food items whose quality is very high as well. Let’s look at some common lunch choices that can be had with a budget of 1,000 yen or less. First up is the “Japanese-style lunch” featuring dishes such as onigiri (rice balls) and miso soup.
Convenience Store Japanese-style Lunch
- Onigiri (red salmon): 140 yen, tax included
- Onigiri (tuna mayonnaise): 115 yen, tax included
- Red miso soup with pork*: 298 yen, tax included
- Tofu and stewed hijiki (brown algae): 203 yen, tax included
- Mitarashi dango (dumplings with sweet soy glaze): 135 yen, tax included
Total: 891 yen
The main dish of this lunch is onigiri rice balls, one of Japan’s soul foods. Onigiri are for Japan what burgers, hot dogs, and pizza are for the United States. They’re also often made at home, but the texture of handmade rice balls and those sold in stores differs greatly.
Usually, the dried seaweed sheets of these rice balls have a crispy texture. However, if they’re being wrapped around rice that is still warm, the steam makes the seaweed elastic. Generally speaking, homemade onigiri are soft.
Convenience store onigiri, on the other hand, use a double packaging to keep the seaweed separated from the rice. That way, it stays fresh and crispy until you unwrap it. That unwrapping is a bit unusual, so let’s take a look at how it is done. First, pull down the plastic strip indicated at the top of the rice ball.
Continue pulling it off all the way around, on the other side as well, until the strip comes off entirely.
Now, pull on the corner of the remaining package of both sides, it doesn’t matter with which side you start. This is the first time that the seaweed comes in contact with the rice underneath. Because of this clever packaging, the seaweed stays crispy and you get to enjoy your rice ball “freshly wrapped!”
We got two different kinds of flavor: red salmon called benishake and tuna with mayonnaise. Both are standard popular flavors that we highly recommend to people who have never tried onigiri before.
Our rice balls are accompanied by pork miso soup called tonjiru, a type that is often made at home in Japan. It boasts plenty of boiled pork and vegetables in a Japanese-style seasoning called miso. There’s no packaging to deal with here, simply pop it into the microwave and heat it up. Unlike cup noodles, it doesn’t even need hot water.
There are so many ingredients in this soup, it’s probably closer to a hot pot. The rich flavor will make you crave some rice to go with it. Because the ingredients are fresh and not dried, the flavor and texture of the meat and vegetables are a lot more natural than other instant dishes. The full-bodied finish makes it seem as if this soup has been left to simmer for quite a long while. This tonjiru soup is only one example of a whole soup series and there are many more flavors in the same price range, so find something that goes nicely with your onigiri choices!
Our side dish of choice is one of Japanese cuisine’s nimono, “boiled dishes.” These dishes usually feature various different ingredients being simmered in soy sauce or soup stock. While they may not look like it, you could call them one of Japan’s takes on stew.
This one comes with six different ingredients, including tofu and hijiki, a type of edible brown algae that is often used in Japanese cooking. We chose this instead of a salad because of the nutritional balance. The gentle flavor is of soup and soy sauce, friendly to the body and its digestion. One cup only has 118 calories as well.
Even a dessert fits into the budget! Staying true to the theme of “Japanese-style,” we got mitarashi dango, rice cake dumplings with a sweet soy glaze. It’s a traditional Japanese dessert that has been loved since long ago. They’re made by kneading rice flour into a dough that is then formed into little balls before being boiled, grilled, and covered with a salty-sweet soy sauce glaze. They’re wonderfully chewy, flavorful, and can be savored in a single bite!
The Japanese-style lunch from the convenience store features five items but cost even less than 1,000 yen – the total was 891 yen. On top of being able to enjoy a variety of Japanese dishes, it also boasts plenty of volume and surely won’t leave you hungry. It’s also healthy all around, so a great choice for health-conscious eaters!
Ramen and Fried Rice Set: Don’t Count Calories with this Lunch for Big Eaters!
A lot of Japanese and Chinese restaurants in Tokyo sell an incredibly popular “ramen plus fried rice and gyoza dumplings” set, so we tried recreating it with our 1,000 yen convenience store budget. It’s a voluminous combination but nonetheless a standard lunch choice for Japanese workers and young people seeking to recharge their energies, if you’re a big eater, this might be just the right lunch for you!
Convenience Store Ramen and Fried Rice Set
- Takidashi Tonkotsu Iekei Ramen (Iekei-style pork bone broth ramen): 498 yen, tax included
- Fried rice: 150 yen, tax included
- Grilled gyoza (dumplings): 240 yen, tax included
Total: 888 yen
All of these dishes can be warmed up in a microwave! Enjoy an authentic ramen set from the comfort of your own home simply by heating it up as described on the packaging.
When it comes to instant noodles in Japan, the type that required you to pour hot water over dried noodles or cooking such dried noodles in a pot was the standard for a long time. The more modern approach is the microwave-heatable type, however. This time, we went for Iekei ramen which is one of Japan’s more recent popular ramen styles. It was invented in Yokohama and quickly spread all over Japan, combining a thick, rich soup which is a blend of pork bone and soy sauce, with equally thick noodles.
Compared to cup noodles, these heatable noodles are firmer to the bite. They resemble ramen offered at a specialty shop and boast a rather chewy texture. They go excellently well with the rich soup and its soy sauce fragrance and it is said that this ramen dish has “a real ramen shop’s taste.”
Fried rice is a staple side dish to Japanese ramen. Called chahan in Japanese, this Chinese-style fried rice is made with egg, leek, pork, and a seasoning of salt and pepper. At Japanese ramen shops or Chinese restaurants, you’ll usually be provided with as much fried rice as you like. The fried rice we got at the convenience store is frozen, but you can simply put it in a bowl, heat it up in a microwave, and eat it just as it is! It is even more delicious, though, if you stir-fry it in a pan.
Last but not least: gyoza, the fried dumplings that are an indispensable companion of Japanese ramen. The outside is made from wheat flour, the filling is a mix of vegetables and ground meat. Heat them up in your microwave and dip them in the sauce that comes with the packaging, which is an amazing combination of textures and flavors – and it’s super juicy!
These three dishes can be had for a total of 888 yen. If you feel that this combination is a bit too rich for you, freely exchange fried rice, dumplings, or both. A salad is a nice choice if you want to make it lighter, while a cold beer also goes great with any dish of this lunch. It’s a great way to recharge your energies at the hotel or hostel!
Healthy Lunch: Three Delicious Choices for Less Than 500 Calories!
A lot of people like to keep an eye on what they’re eating, be that out of a concern for calories, health-consciousness, or both. Eating out can make this a difficult task and especially Japan has so many delicious things to offer, it’s hard to resist. You’ll be surprised to hear that convenience stores offer a wide variety of healthy food choices, low in calories and healthy, yet satisfying! We created one such healthy lunch out of three items.
Convenience Store Healthy Lunch
- Shrimp and vegetable salad: 399 yen, tax included
- Salad chicken (herb): 213 yen, tax included
- Fruit smoothie: 194 yen, tax included
Total: 806 yen
The main dish of this lunch is a large vegetable salad with plenty of large shrimps and a Japanese onion dressing. Some macaroni are also part of the salad, providing both flavor and texture, but the entire dish only has 247 calories. People who prefer a smaller lunch will feel satisfied with this salad alone.
Our drink of choice is a fruit smoothie that blends five different fruits, delivering half of the daily recommended intake of fruit. One cup has 105kcal, which isn’t much at all for that flavor bomb! Of course, you can swap the smoothie out for mineral water if you’re not happy about the sugar, but the smoothie is a nice treat! There’s also the “green smoothie” (194 yen, tax included) if that is more up your alley.
With only a salad and a smoothie, you’ll find yourself lacking protein. To combat that, we get 7-Eleven’s “salad chicken” as one of our lunch choices. Since its launch in 2013, this chicken enjoys a lot of popularity with convenience store shoppers and is, of course, still on the shelves as of October 2018. It has various characteristics.
- It can be eaten with one hand.
- It’s delicious yet low in sodium while also making you feel full.
- It’s low in calories and high in protein.
- 108kcal per 100g.
- Choose from 4 different flavors.
- The serving of 115g is just right, not too much and not too little.
Eat it just as it is or use it as a topping for salads, noodle dishes, and so on. With four unique flavors of plain, herb, smoked, and garlic pepper, you surely won’t get bored either. Because the chicken makes you feel full, it’s a great choice if you are on a diet but still don’t want to feel like you’ve barely eaten anything.
The healthy lunch from the convenience store cost us 806 yen for three items. The entire lunch is less than 500 calories, however, so this is our recommended selection for everyone watching their weight, health, or both! Especially the salad chicken also serves as a nice substantial snack, even while on the go.
Western-style Lunch: Enjoy the Tastes of Your Home Country!
Even while traveling in Japan, you might be craving for something familiar. This lunch set features spaghetti with meat sauce, a well-beloved sauce choice in Japan! This Japanese-style take on Bolognese is the center of our 7-Eleven Western-style lunch.
Convenience Store Healthy Lunch
- Meat sauce pasta: 398 yen, tax included
- Corn cream soup: 149 yen, tax included
- Hash brown: 88 yen, tax included
Total: 635 yen
The meat sauce pasta and hash brown can simply be heated in a microwave. The corn cream soup comes in a cup, so simply add hot water and wait for about one minute.
The meat sauce pasta is exquisite, with the secret to its deliciousness lying with how plentifully the sauce is sitting on the noodles. There is a lot of minced meat in it, the texture is great, and there is a subtle note of butter in the sauce as well. Every forkful of pasta will be coated with sauce generously! The serving is bigger than it looks, so your stomach will surely be satisfied.
The hash brown is also good, with its nice and crispy texture. You’ll find it at the “hot snack corner” in the front of the convenience store, right at the cashiers. There also are other hot foods such as French fries or sausages, so choose what you like best.
Our Western-style convenience lunch of three dishes cost 635 yen. Because you have a lot of money left, who not add a salad for some balance? There’s plenty of different salads available at the store!
Delicious Food for Little Money at Japan’s Convenience Stores!
With a budget of 1,000 yen, plenty of delicious dishes can be had at Japanese convenience stores! The excellent cost efficiency undoubtedly is the world’s top class. While visiting restaurants, bars, and eateries in Japan is fun and we highly encourage you to explore all sorts of cuisines, don’t hesitate to stop by a convenience store and try the dishes there as well! We promise that you’ll be surprised at the high quality of the food, especially in combination with the low prices! However, please do keep in mind that some of the things we introduced today may not be available. Fret not, though, as the selection is plentiful and you’ll surely find something that you like!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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