Skip the hotel restaurants, eat better, and have more fun!
The big Asian cities have developed a reputation for having ridiculously expensive dining, and stories like consumers paying $27,000 for a cantaloupe or charging over $100 per person for a sushi dinner don’t help that perception.
While reports like these get attention, the fact is these kinds of dining experiences are largely meant for big-business entertainment and big-government lobbying – and have nothing to do with how everyday people eat.
After all, you couldn’t get that many people to live, much less thrive, in a place where they couldn’t afford basic meals! “Eat like the locals” is great advice for learning more about a culture, but it’s also an important strategy for keeping expenses under control for a family vacation overseas.
Not only will these options save you money, be culturally enlightening, and provide entertainment, but by not having to order from a menu - and instead see what your choices are – both you and your kids will be more comfortable with your food orders. And it might even get you to try something unexpected!
Konbini / Convenience Stores
East Asia's convenience stores such as Lawson, 7-Eleven, and Family Mart are the traveler's best friend: open early when the streets are empty but your jet lag tells you it's breakfast time; open late when you realize you need detergent, plastic bags, or a fix of peanut butter. Without the burden of selling fuel or needing parking lots, these stores have evolved their formats to occupy seemingly every street corner in major cities, from northern Japan all the way down to Indonesia and out into western China.
Their selection of basic goods is comparable to a small grocery store - including bread, milk and juice, cereal, and fruits and vegetables - and most have a broad selection of hot and cold deli foods, including familiar Western fare like sandwiches, fried chicken, and roasted meat as well as Asian favorites such as onigiri and noodle bowls. These counters are resupplied frequently through the day, so the food is quite fresh. We found surprisingly good quality options at a value price.
If your hotel room has a mini-refrigerator at a minimum (and ideally a microwave), make the corner C-store your first stop to stock up on breakfast items: it's so much better to eat breakfast in pajamas and thoughtfully plan your day instead of having to scramble to get dressed and presentable to shuffle through a bland hotel buffet or walk down the street for McDonalds...
Depachika / Department Store Food Halls
Unlike what has happened in North America, in Japan and Korea the traditional department store has continued to be a vital part of everyday life in the big cities.
Departments stores are typically sited near major subway stations to maximize commuter convenience (the rail companies developed the land, and started the stores, after all...), and so those are popular shopping sites at lunchtime and during the evening commute.
To keep shoppers in stores longer, many locations expanded their in-house cafes and restaurants into full-sized food halls and catering showrooms - perfect for having a meal before the long train ride home, or for picking up provisions en route. The variety on display behind the counters is simply astonishing: baked goods and sweets; seafood and meats; prepared salads, sandwiches and soups; Japanese, Chinese, Korean, European, Indian, and American specialties; plus sit-down dining from casual to elegant.
Even if you aren't hungry, the spectacle of a great depachika is worth the visit alone!
Street Food, Festivals, and Farmers’ Markets / Fish Markets
While food trucks are finally becoming a frequent sight in North America, in East Asia they’ve been preparing hot, fresh food from carts, trucks, and “pop-up” tents for centuries. Seasonal festivals such as at New Year's or Mid-Autumn will see carts and tents in temples and public squares, but many cities also have regular evening street markets or hawker centers (like the famous ones in Singapore and Taiwan) where food is the main attraction.
Major cities will also have morning fish markets (like the famous Tsukiji in Tokyo) or farmers' markets where food stalls catering to the vendors and traders will also gladly sell to tourists. As with outdoor stalls anywhere, look for the crowds to find the freshest, tastiest (and by extension most safe) choices. "Point and pay" is the universal language, as almost always prices are clearly marked.