The Cheapo Food Hack: Dining at University Cafeterias

Mine Serizawa

A rule of thumb: if you’re trying to live cheaply, think like a university student.

With a total of 112 universities in greater Tokyo, we figure that there is at least an equivalent number of cafeterias where it is possible to find an inexpensive lunch with nostalgia thrown into the mix for free—or if katsudon and natto don’t exactly evoke your college days, you’re at least guaranteed interesting company and a measure of self-congratulation for having successfully hacked the system. Harmless subversion at its most delicious.

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Waseda University alone has five separate dining facilities on campus, with at least one open at any given time between 8:30am and 7:45pm, when the last closes. From descriptions on the university website, I gather that each has a definite concept and audience; the Students’ Hall Cafeteria for “those who seek variety in their meals”, Unicafe 125 for “those who wish to have a nice cup of coffee and bagels in a fashionable café”, and so on.

Unicafe 125 | Photo by Mine Serizawa
Okuma Garden House | Photo by Mine Serizawa

Guests who are not on the meal plan at my college in the States pay $10.50 for lunch—$12.75 for dinner. At Waseda’s Okuma Garden House, which was serving dinner when I visited, kitsune udon costs 304yen; miso ramen, 346; buta yakiniku don (pork yakiniku bowls), 399. A simple kake udon is only 210yen. Every dish, in other words, cost under $5. During lunchtime, 180yen (approximately $2) buys a medium-sized curry set, a price to rival the cheapest curry house chains.

Okuma offers individual servings of rice, from “mini” (52yen—and I decline to imagine what a mini serving of anything looks like in Japan) to “large”, still only 157yen. Side dishes such as natto, fried burdock root with chicken, or boiled spinach and eggplant with sesame paste and daikon, can all be ordered for under 100yen with lunch.

While $12.75 might buy you the privilege to rampage somewhat immoderately in a buffet-style dining hall with rotating daily menus, the fixed menu at Okuma Garden House is offset by the other dining options on campus. Dishes are also, apparently, prepared fresh after the order is made. Nutrition info is posted around cafeteria.

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Tip: check out the campus located nearest to you, have a meal, and observe the inevitable goings-on—also free. Todai’s Komaba campus, for example, has two dining halls of its own with a variety of daily set menus.

  • Click for a list of universities in Tokyo
Name:Waseda University
Location:1-6-1 Nishiwaseda, Shinjuku, Tokyo
Closest station:15-minute walk from Takadanobaba Station (JR, Seibu-Shinjuku); 5-min. walk from Waseda Station (Tozai); 17-min. walk from Nishi-Waseda Station (Fukutoshin)
Business Hours:Hours vary; see website for information on individual facilities

Photo credit for Unicafe 125 to

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Filed under: Eating & Drinking
Tags: Cafeteria, College, Dining Hall, Set Meal
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4 Responses to “The Cheapo Food Hack: Dining at University Cafeterias”

  1. Avatar

    Aren’t non-students or 部外者 prohibited from even stepping into such campuses?

    • mrkirkland

      Well not sure if this is the case, but perhaps the inevitable swarm of cheapos descending upon Tokyo University campus cafeterias as a result of this article may encourage the introduction a non-student ban 🙂

    • CheapoMine
      CheapoMine June 27, 2012

      I’m not sure about policy, either, but I highly doubt it! To clarify, perhaps I should say that we’re not proposing that cheapos pose as students/forge a meal plan/engage in any nefarious activity at all, really. Neither students nor kitchen staff gave me a second look. From an administrative perspective, paying customers are paying customers, right?

  2. Avatar

    I have done contracting work at several Universities and never had a problem or been questioned when eating in the cafeterias

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