I had so many delicious and cheap eats during my trip to Kyoto. Of course, my first dinner had to be a big bowl of ramen noodles. We wandered into a little neighborhood ramen bar called Salt Ramen near the Teramachi shopping arcade. I ordered the chicken, watercress, and soft-boiled egg ramen. The savory broth and springy, fresh noodles made the dish! The prices at this ramen joint were reasonable, with most dishes around $8 USD.
One of my absolute favorite foods is Kabocha squash, otherwise known as Japanese pumpkin. Many grocery stores in Japan sell this dense and sweet squash in the deli section. It's already prepared and seasoned with a light soy sauce. It tastes heavenly and is also full of nutrients.
Another night I tried a bowl of chilled kimchi noodles. It was a cold ramen dish topped with spicy kimchi, sliced cucumbers, and a half a soft boiled egg.
If there's one drink you have to try when you visit Japan, it's matcha green tea! The tea is made from a finely powdered green tea leaf, and the taste is completely different from the tea bags you can buy from a grocery store elsewhere in the world. Somehow the drink tastes nutty and a bit creamy and frothy, even without sugar and other additives. The iced version makes quite the refreshing drink after a long stroll outdoors.
At Nishiki Market, a vendor was selling oden: large chunks of winter radish, eggs, fishcakes, and konjac that have been boiled in a dashi broth. I bought a big thick slice of radish and an egg, and they were lightly salty from the seasoning.
Many restaurants in Japan offer economical lunch sets. For one lunch, I ordered a mini soba set that came with soba (buckwheat) noodles in a light broth, inarizushi (sweet fried tofu skins filled with sushi rice), and a piece of delicate soft tofu. The inarizushi is named after the god Inari, because he apparently liked fried tofu. It's quite fitting then that I ate this lunch right before visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine!
One thing I noticed in Kyoto is that the portions are reasonable and small compared to American standards. For example, one afternoon I decided I needed a little caffeine boost and I bought a small soda from McDonald's. The "small" size was a tiny 8 oz cup. Of course, 8 oz is far enough for a serving of soda, but I am used to 16 oz American default (with free refills, no less)!
An extremely unique dish that I tried in Osaka is okonomiyaki. It's a type of fried Japanese pancake or pizza, made from diced cabbage, yam, egg, meat, and a thick, sweet sauce. Diners often sit at a bar at the restaurant, and the okonomiyaki is placed on the grill in front of them. You get to eat it fresh and sizzling hot. There are many variations on the ingredients, but I decided to go for the basic version with sliced pork. It was delicious, especially the bottom bits that get crispy from the heat of the grill.
Finally, I couldn't leave Japan without eating some sashimi! I got a lunch set on my last day that included sliced raw salmon, tuna, and octopus, as well as miso soup, rice, pickles, and a salad.
What a balanced, nutritious, and delicious meal! It cost less than $9 USD for the whole set.
Japan is known for being expensive, but you can manage to eat cheaply while still trying different parts of the cuisine. Find little neighborhood restaurants and take advantage of cheap lunch sets when eating out. These meals will cost anywhere from $6 to $10 USD. Additionally, for breakfast and lunch you can go to the nearest convenience store like Seven-Eleven or Family Mart. There are cheap and tasty options like prepared sushi. Finally, if you are staying near a supermarket, go check out the deli section about an hour before closing time. Prepared foods may be discounted up to 50% if you arrive at the right time.
No matter your budget, you can still have a good experience trying out Japanese cuisine. I wish I were back there now!