University cafeteria - toyodaigaku 1

One of the cafeteria options at Toyo University

It’s arguably one of the best kept secrets of the Japanese culinary world: university cafeterias are open to the general public. That’s right. You don’t have to show ID or even look like a student. Even tourists or backpackers can enter and enjoy gakushoku, as it’s commonly referred to. But why would you want to? That’s a fair question, but only if you’ve witnessed the horrors of American university cafeterias. I’m sure there are more, but here are 3 good reasons:

  1. It’s cheap – Japanese university cafeterias operate on a non-profit basis so they’re able to charge only for the raw ingredients. The menu usually rotates but on any given day the staff are churning out hundreds of the same meal for all students, which also helps to dramatically lower the cost.
  2. It’s healthy – most schools usually have a dedicated nutritionist who ensures that all their students stay healthy and are able to focus on studies. Schools source fresh ingredients and most meals come with 3 or 4 side dishes for healthy variety.
  3. It’s Japanese – sure there are Western or even South Asian options but the majority of menu listings are Japanese. So if you’re in Japan and looking for a true Japanese meal, a university cafeteria is a sure spot. If you’re unsure of what to order, the pros suggest you go with the school’s signature dish, which usually has the school’s name in it.

Akira Karasawa, a professor, author and self-proclaimed university cafeteria expert compiled a list of the best cafeterias, taking into consideration his own experience but also polls conducted amongst students. The full list is below but here are a few of his top picks:

Aoyama Gakuin

The Christian University near Shibuya is the top pick – a 3-star Michelin ranking, if such a thing existed for cafeterias. In fact, says Karasawa, you shouldn’t even think of it as a cafeteria because it is much more. Beef stew is 460 yen, fried chicken is 480 yen and ramen is 230 yen. Just for reference, the national average for a bowl of ramen is 800 yen, a 250% difference.

university cafeteria - aoyama

Toyo University

Toyo University, known for its philosophical studies (especially Indian philosophy) ties with Tokyo University for 3rd and 4th place. If you’re looking for ethnic foods this may be the place to go as they have a designated Indian chef baking Naan. Their cafeteria looks like a French restaurant. Prices start at 450 yen (Katsudon) and go to 850 yen (Chirashi-zushi).

Nittai (Nippon Sport Science) University

If you’re looking for volume, Nittai is the place to go. The highly athletic school has an emphasis on sports and boasts many famous athletes among its alumni. It’s hard to tell from the pictures, but the cafeteria meals are supposedly extra-large because those young athletes sure do eat a lot. The majority of the menu ranges between 200 – 400 yen.

List of Top University Cafeterias

Aoyama Gakuin
Chuo University
Toyo University
Tokyo University
Seijo University
Kokugakuin University
Nishogakusha University
Meiji Gakuin University
Kwansei Gakuin University
Nihon University
Komazawa University
Ritsumeikan University
Rissho University
Doshisha University
Taisho University
Toyo Eiwa Women’s University
Shirayuri Women’s University
Tokyo University of Foreign Studies

Note: The cafeteria’s listed here are all open to the public. However, not all university cafeterias operate this way. If you’re going to one not mentioned here, do some research and make sure you won’t get turned away. Also, most cafeterias make you purchase a ticket at a vending machine, which you then hand to staff. Some basic Japanese language is necessary to operate the machine.

Source: this episode of Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai