When it comes to food, a lot of people come to Japan with certain expectations that, honestly, make sense in most of the world. Things like, for example: ‘good, fast or cheap, pick one or maybe two’. It’s a reasonable assumption, but Japan can do better than that.
I’ve always been very fussy about food quality; I can turn that off if I have to, but there’s a reason I increasingly cook for myself. I also spent quite a few years traveling often on a budget of ‘hang on, I think I had a paper clip in one of my pockets’. Food, if at all possible, had to be at least fairly decent, cheap, ubiquitous and (usually) not take too long to get. Luckily, this is part of how I learned how you can get exactly that in Japan.
I believe in trying the local food enthusiastically and without reservations when in another country; it’s a big part of the appeal for me, and – for example – when I went to Thailand, I never understood the people who seemed to be scared of stall food and insisted on getting a pizza or sandwich. On the other hand, comfort levels are what they are, so I’ll be listing your options in order of how familiar and approachable they are. My plan here is to list most of the options for cheap, fast food in Japan (as in, food that’s quick to get, not the things you would normally associate with that term), and if I think it’s actually good, I’ll say that too.
- Your usual fast food staples, truncated a lot for Japan. Good luck finding much more than McDonald’s and the local mild upgrade (MOS burger) outside of heavily urban areas. There are good chances that you’re reading this with expectations of going to a heavily urban area, but I live out in the country, so I’m useless for that. Instead, I suggest picking a brand you want and asking your phone. If it’s a decently large city you may be able to find Subway or Mr. Donut (for US audiences, more or less the local Dunkin’ Donuts equivalent). Pizza is more for restaurants than fast food in Japan, so don’t expect to find that outside of big cities. Delivery pizza is available starting at moderately-sized cities, but for some reason it’s priced so that I’m fairly sure you can’t actually afford one without mortgaging your house; find other options or make sure you really want it.
- Local fast food staples. The big ones that sprout up just about anywhere there’s room are gyudon and ramen. Gyudon means ‘beef bowl’, and it’s more or less just meat on top of rice. It was never really a favourite for me, but a lot of people love it enough that it’s spread abroad a bit, so this is probably a safe recommendation to make. Ramen is quite a bit more elaborate than what western audiences might think of (that is, instant ramen), and scales fairly smoothly from fast food chains to more ordinary restaurants, with plenty of room for local specialities. I would vouch for this, but unfortunately it’s not something I can have myself. Speaking of which, to any vegetarian Jewish or Muslim readers, please keep in mind that the soup is almost always pork stock. Likewise, to anyone who reacts badly to Monosodium Glutamate (for example, my entire family except me), almost all ramen and a lot of gyudon will contain it, so don’t eat that.
- Food from shops. This category’s a bit of a mix depending on what’s on offer, but you can walk into a convenience store or especially a supermarket, and come out with a square meal. This is separate from bento or soba (both in part 2), which you can get in convenience stores as well. You can get sandwiches from convenience stores, or bread from bakeries in most supermarkets, if you want to play it safe. Onigiri (rice balls containing various things) are available from any convenience store, and the same aisle will usually have some breads nearby (not quite bakery-quality, though), as well as a lot of other foods ready to go. Convenience stores might carry yoghurts if you want something milder, while supermarkets often have several aisles devoted to pre-cooked buffet-like food, fried vegetables and so on to stuff into a tray and buy after mixing it as you like.
In the next part, we’ll be going a bit further afield into less familiar options.