Broke & Hungry in Japan? 3 Days, 9 Recipes, ¥1,000 Challenge

Is Japan one of the most expensive countries to live in? While it occasionally appears on top 10 lists, your wallet could be doing a lot worse in other parts of the world — that still doesn’t mean Japan’s not expensive. One of the biggest complaints foreigners have when moving to Japan is the cost of living, from apartment key money to expensive grocery bills. Living the good life on a budget often means cutting corners with what you eat, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to survive 3 days of meals with only ¥1,000 in hand. Now, I could just grab a bunch of cup ramen at the conbini and live a miserable life for the weekend, but they added rules:

  1. No convenience stores
  2. Meals must be healthy

Nine nutritious meals for ¥1,000 sounds crazy… challenge accepted! Keep reading to find out what I ate and recipes for each dish so you can try it yourself.

In Tokyo, Cheap Healthy Ingredients Are Hard to Find

Groceries in Japan come in three levels:

International ingredients that are a luxury

Expensive markets like Seijo Ishii and Kaldi are great for buying imported ingredients when you miss food from back home. Price wise, these markets are catered for more specialized products you probably can’t find in your local Japanese supermarket but are a luxury for anyone on a budget.

Ingredients that leave you with ¥0 at the end of the month

Japanese supermarkets like Aeon or Seiyu are popular because you can find almost anything and are easy to get to. They offer a very wide selection of food, vegetables, fruits, drinks, snacks and some household products that make living and cooking easier. They also have a very wide range of seasonings, so if you really love to cook, you’ll find yourself quite pleased with their collections.

Ingredients that are really cheap but hard to find

If you’re looking for a super cheap supermarket, you need to find a Hanamasa or Gyomu Super. Much like Costco, these markets cater to restaurants, so you can get some big deals without sacrificing quality. They usually offer their own original brands, which also helps cut costs. You’ll find a lot of Japanese housewives wandering through the aisles, which is a good indication you’re in for some savings.

The Food I Bought for This Challenge

Before starting on my 3-day ¥1,000 challenge, I decided to stock up on food by visiting Gyomu Super. I bought the following ingredients within the given budget — it was a good buy, I think.

400g Frozen minced meat
600g (3 200g packs) Microwave rice
6 pcs Eggs
1 pack Bean sprouts
3 bulbs Garlic
1 can Tuna
1 pack Mizuna (Japanese mustard greens)

As for seasonings and pantry basics (like soy sauce, oil, and mayonnaise), I was given permission to use what was already in my fridge.

Tips for Buying Groceries in Japan

  • Always look for in-season vegetables. Produce can be expensive in Japan, but if you stick with in-season items, they will almost always be much cheaper.
  • Compare prices if you live near a shotengai, which are streets near train stations that are lined with shops and stalls that can have great bargains!
  • Buy your seasonings at the ¥100 shop. You can also get deals on dried goods, but always compare prices at your supermarket.
  • Buy a big bag of uncooked rice and save. It will always be cheaper to buy dry rice than pre-cooked packaged rice. (For this 3-day challenge, I couldn’t afford to buy a big bag.)
  • Go grocery shopping after 7 p.m. Some supermarkets try to get rid of their produce by discounting it up to 50% after 19:00!

Japan Budget Food Challenge: Day 1

Breakfast: Tuna Mayo Onigiri

Wrap the onigiri with seaweed if you’ve got some lying around for an elevated taste.


  • 140g Microwaved rice (split into two portions)
  • Tuna (about 1 teaspoon each onigiri)
  • Mizuna as desired


  • Mayonnaise
  • Salt / Sesame salt (gomashio) to taste

How to Make

  1. Sprinkle the microwaved rice with salt depending on your taste. I recommend using sesame salt, which you can get at a supermarket.
  2. Split the rice into two portions to make two onigiri.
  3. Drain the tuna and then mix it with mayonnaise. You can also chop mizuna into small pieces and add it to the mix for a fresh texture in your onigiri.
  4. Place kitchen wrap in your palm (splash a little water on it so the rice doesn’t stick) and spread the rice into a layer across your hand.
  5. Put the tuna filling in the middle and wrap the rice until it fully covers the filling.
  6. Wet your hand and take the onigiri out of the kitchen wrap
  7. Gently shape the onigiri into a triangle.

Lunch: Niku Dango


  • 80g Microwaved rice
  • 80g Minced meat
  • Cooking oil


  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 2 tbsp Grated ginger
  • 1 tbsp Sugar
  • ¼ tsp Soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp Vinegar

How to Make

  1. Mix the minced meat with a generous amount of salt, black pepper and ½ tbsp of ginger. Form the mixture into meatballs.
  2. Heat the oil in medium heat, and then fry the meatballs until they form a golden crust on the outside.
  3. Drain any excess oil from the pan.
  4. Add 5 tbsp of water, ginger, sugar, soy sauce and vinegar into the pan and stir.
  5. Cover with a lid and lower the heat, letting the meatballs steam for around 1–2 minutes.
  6. Serve with white rice.

Dinner: Garlic Rice

Adding 1 tbsp of butter in step 2 will give it a nice toasty flavor!


  • 110g Microwaved rice
  • 5 Cloves of garlic
  • Mizuna as desired
  • 4 tbsp Olive oil for cooking


  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste

How to Make

  1. Add olive oil to a pan over low heat.
  2. Thinly slice two cloves of garlic, and saute them until golden brown. Set aside to dry.
  3. Mince three cloves of garlic and fry until golden brown in low heat.
  4. Add the microwaved rice to the pan.
  5. Add a generous amount of black pepper and salt to taste. Mix well over medium heat.
  6. For a crunchy texture, flatten the rice in the pan and let it cook over high heat until it forms a crust.
  7. Turn off the heat and stir in the chopped mizuna.
  8. Serve in a rice bowl with fried slice garlic sprinkled on top.

Since I still have an abundance of ingredients, I passed day 1 without a hitch. Onto day 2!

Japan Budget Food Challenge: Day 2

Breakfast: Fluffy Omelette

The recipe is very straightforward but the technique requires practice. Eat immediately, or the cooler temperature of the plate will make the omelette quickly collapse.


  • 2 eggs
  • Butter


  • Salt

How to Make

  1. Beat 2 eggs with a hand mixer or whisk until foamy, almost reaching stiff peaks.
  2. Heat the butter in a pan over very low heat, and then pour in the eggs (it should be almost like a very foamy pancake batter).
  3. Cook the mixture over low heat until golden, sprinkle with salt, and then fold in half gently with a spatula to serve.

Lunch: Tuna Black Pepper Rice

This recipe was inspired by spaghetti aglio olio, so if you happen to have luxury ingredients like pine nuts, parmesan cheese and parsley, I recommend adding them, too.


  • 110g Microwaved rice
  • 2 Cloves of garlic
  • Tuna (the rest of the can)
  • Cooking oil


  • Salt
  • Black pepper

How to Make

  1. Heat the oil in a pan over low heat.
  2. Mince 2 cloves of garlic and fry until golden brown,
  3. Add the remaining tuna and mix well.
  4. Stir in the microwaved rice, a very generous amount of black pepper and salt to taste.

Dinner: Beansprout Teriyaki Hamburg

I ended up adding a lot of panko bread flakes to make it denser. The mix was too runny because of too much egg.


  • 130g Minced meat
  • ¼ pack Bean sprouts (finely chopped)
  • 1 Egg
  • Mizuna (chopped)
  • Cooking oil

Meat Seasoning

  • Salt to taste
  • Black pepper to taste
  • 1 Clove of garlic (grated)

Teriyaki Seasoning

  • 2 tbsp Soy sauce (taste to adjust)
  • 3 tbsp Sake
  • 3 tbsp Mirin
  • 2 tbsp Sugar

How to Make

  1. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. Add a generous amount of salt, garlic, and black pepper. Mix well.
  2. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat.
  3. Using your hands, make a large meatball with all of the mixtures and shape it until it became an oval. Toss it back and forth in your hands (you want to make the mixture compact by removing any air).
  4. Fry the meatball until cooked. Set aside.
  5. For teriyaki seasoning, mix all ingredients in the pan and simmer until caramelized, then quickly pour it over the large meatball. (I suggest rinsing out your pan, because once the sauce cools off, it will be very sticky!)

Note: My dinner was weird. I eyeballed everything and ended up with something that looks and tastes like an okonomiyaki rather than a meat patty. But teriyaki sauce helped. I rummaged my bags searching for leftover chocolates and sleep sad.

Japan Budget Food Challenge: Day 3

Breakfast: Onigiri & Yaki Tamago

If you happen to have nori in your pantry, I recommend wrapping your onigiri with it. Same goes with the salad dressing for your mizuna salad.


  • 70g Microwaved rice
  • 1 Egg
  • 1 tsp Tuna
  • Mizuna (for salad)


  • Cooking oil
  • 2 tbsp Dashi
  • ½ tsp Soy sauce
  • ½ tsp Sugar

How to Make

  1. Sprinkle the microwaved rice with salt depending on your taste.
  2. Place kitchen wrap in your palm (splash a little water on it so the rice doesn’t stick).
  3. Place with rice in the center of the kitchen wrap, wrap it, and shape it into a triangle with your hands.
  4. Chop the mizuna and serve it with the tuna.
  5. Beat the egg well, add the dashi, sugar and soy sauce.
  6. Add oil to a frying pan over medium heat and wipe excess oil.
  7. Pour egg mixture and fold it into a rectangle after it begins to set.
  8. Wipe the frypan with oil and repeat step 5.
  9. Serve with a dollop of mayonnaise on top of your yaki tamago.

Lunch: Minced Saboro Rice

You can add vegetables or furikake, or even sliced pickled ginger for an extra fresh tanginess.


  • 90g Microwaved rice
  • 100g Minced meat
  • 1 Egg

Meat Seasoning

  • 1 tbsp Sake/Water
  • ½ tbsp Soy sauce
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Grated ginger

Egg Seasoning

  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tsp Sugar
  • 1 tbsp Mirin
  • Dash of salt

How to Make

  1. Combine all meat seasoning over medium heat, add the minced meat, and mix well. Set aside.
  2. Beat egg well and add sugar, mirin and salt.
  3. Pour egg mixture into the pan over low heat, scramble with chopsticks until it is cooked and crumbly.
  4. Serve over rice.

Dinner: Stir-fry Bean Sprouts


  • ¾ pack Bean sprouts
  • 50g Minced meat
  • 1 Egg


  • Cooking oil
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  • 1 tbsp Oyster sauce       
  • 1 tsp Soy sauce            
  • 1 tbsp Sesame oil    

How to Make

  1. Heat the oil in a pan over medium heat.
  2. Cook the meat until medium well, adding salt and black pepper. Set aside.
  3. Beat the egg and with the same pan make scrambled eggs. Set aside.
  4. Cook bean sprout on medium heat, do not overcook the bean sprouts. We want to keep the crunchiness!
  5. Add oyster sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Add black pepper and last, the salt. Salt will draw moisture, therefore, it should be added last.
  6. Add the meat and scrambled eggs back into the pan, stir well and serve.

I’m sick of bean sprouts. I really am. I’ve never been a fan, but it’s only ¥20 a pack. I’m just glad the challenge is over.

The Budget Meal Fallback — Japanese Curry, Bento, and Gyudon

Cooking at home is one of the best ways to save money in Japan. Once you enjoy cooking you’ll find yourself eating better quality and healthier food without breaking the bank. If this challenge didn’t require me to create unique meals each day, I would have definitely added Japanese curry to the list, because it will last you for days and you can bring it for your lunch, too. Plus, the older that curry is, the tastier it gets — and the ingredients are cheap!

If you’re away from your kitchen, supermarkets sell pre-made food in bento boxes, fried food, tempura, soup, salad, pre-cut fruit and much more. If you’re too tired or too lazy to cook (or bored with conbini food), I recommend giving your local supermarket’s prepared food section a try!

Eating at a gyudon restaurant is also cheap and you can ask for extra rice to fill yourself up, or usually for lunchtime service, most restaurants will give you unlimited rice for free.

As for my personal opinion on this challenge, ¥1000 is doable for 3 days. But rather than making 9 meals, I’d rather eat better meals once or twice a day. So, do you think you can do ¥1000 yen for 3 days?

Let me know what you think or if you have a recipe you want to share in the comments below!

AUTHOR: Soe Aulia

Instagram : @_soyy

Jakartanians mainly living in Tokyo since spring 2015. Hates mornings, Can drink more than 5 cups of coffee a day. favorite beer is imperial IPA. wants more followers on Instagram but can’t make quality content.

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