Japanese cuisine, celebrated for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has become on of the most popular culinary delights all over the world. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and the Japanese word Gohan (ご飯) means “meal”. Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with almost every meal, but also tōfu (豆腐, bean curd) and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood features prominently in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (漬物 tsukemono) and different kinds of vegetables.
Discovering local specialities is without doubt one of the joys of getting out of Tōkyō and travelling within Japan, not only for the foreign visitor but also for the Japanese themselves. Every region within the country has some delightful and often unique dishes, based on locally available crops and fish, and countless TV programs and magazines despatch celebrities all over the country to report on culinary specialities. Hokkaido is famous for its fresh sashimi, uni (sea urchin roe) and crab. In Nagoya, one should not miss the okonomiyaki stuffed with green onions.
Japanese eat their traditional food with chopsticks (箸 hashi), the primary exceptions being curry rice and fried rice, for which a spoon is used. Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Whatever your skills, Japanese will always pretend to be surprised over your chopstick proficiency. Make sure to read our feature on essential chopstick etiquette.
Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice, they do however dip their sushi in it before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish as well. Tempura comes with a thicker sauce, while gyōza (餃子, potstickers) are dipped in chilli oil.
- Common eateries
- Sushi and sashimi
- Nabemono (stewed dishes)
- Yakimono (grilled and fried dishes)
- Westernised dishes
- Fast food
- Coffee shops
- Beer gardens
- Vegetarian eateries
- Combini (convenience stores)
The number of restaurants in Japan is just astounding, and you will never run out of places to go, wherever you are. For cultural and practical reasons, the Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socialising nearly always involves eating out. Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (定食, fixed set meals). These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as 600 JPY, yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus, however, will for most establishments be in Japanese only; however many restaurants have plastic models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window. If tourists cannot read the menu, it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what they would like.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving. Guests should not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for “check” is kanjō or kaikei. If it is getting late, a waiter will usually come to the table to tell the guests that it is time for the “last order”.
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. Guests will have to be able to read Japanese to use them, although many of them display photos of the dishes served. Some other places have “all you can eat” meals called tabe hōdai (食べ放題).
Tipping is not customary in Japan. 24-hour “family restaurants” such as Denny’s, Royal Host, and Jonathan’s often have a 10 per cent late-night surcharge.
While most restaurants specialise in a particular kind of dish, each neighbourhood invariably has a few shokudō (食堂), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (usually 500 to 1000 JPY). A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当).
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼, lit. “rice bowl”), referring to a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:
- oyakodon (親子丼), lit. “parent-and-child bowl”, usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe)
- katsudon (カツ丼), a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg
- gyūdon (牛丼), beef and onion
- chūkadon (中華丼), lit. “Chinese bowl”, stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce
At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (会席) meals prepared from the very best seasonal ingredients. Many of them require introductions, and if visitors are fortunate enough to be accepted, they will be looking at upwards of 30,000 JPY per capita for an unforgettable experience which will be beyond comprehension to anyone but the most seasoned Old Japan Hands.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司), raw fish over rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly. The recondite sushi terminology could fill volumes of books, but the most common types are:
- nigirizushi (握り寿司), the classic, hand-formed sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top
- makizushi (巻き寿司, “rolled sushi”), fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks
- temaki (手巻, “hand roll”), fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori
- gunkan (軍艦), “Battleship” sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents
- chirashi (ちらし寿司), a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top
Foreign visitors who were invited to a sushi restaurant, but who are unable to devour raw fish, usually have several alternatives. For instance, the above-mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inarizushi (稲荷寿司, rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu) or futomaki (太巻, “thick, large or fat rolls”).
Even in Japanese, sushi is a bit of a delicacy and the most expensive restaurants, where you order piece by piece from a chef, can run you bills into ten of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (盛り合わせ) set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, lit. “revolving”) sushi shops, where guests sit by a conveyor belt and indulge into whatever happens to pass by, at prices that can be as low as 100 JPY per plate. Even in these places though, it is common to order directly from the chef.
When eating sushi, it is perfectly acceptable to use your fingers, by dipping the piece in soy sauce first. In Japan, the pieces will typically already have a dab of fiery wasabi (わさび) radish lurking inside, but you can always add more according to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate, and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free.
Another popular type of Japanese food is noodles (麺 men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own “famous” noodle dish, and they are often well worth trying. There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Typically, all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference, and a bowl will only cost a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations.
- kake soba (かけそば), plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top
- tsukimi soba (月見そば), soup with a raw egg dropped in named “moon-viewing” because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds
- kitsune soba (きつねそば), soup with thin sheets of deep-fried tofu
- zaru soba (ざるそば), chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, popular in summer
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (500 to 1,000 JPY depending on the variation) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. The three major styles of ramen are:
Slurping your noodles is not only acceptable but expected. According to the Japanese, it both cools them down and makes them taste better. And pick up a manga comic book to protect yourself from soup spray.
- shio rāmen (塩ラーメン), salty pork broth
- shoyu rāmen (醤油ラーメン), soy broth
- miso rāmen (味噌ラーメン), miso (soybean paste) broth
Nabemono (stewed dishes)
Particularly in the colder months of the year, various stews (鍋 nabe) are popular ways to warm up. The most common types include:
Yakimono (grilled and fried dishes)
- chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋), a hotchpotch hotpot much favoured by sumo wrestlers
- oden (おでん), fish soup simmered for days on end, often sold on the street (and in convenience stores) in the winter
- sukiyaki (すき焼き), a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet
- shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), much the same, but with a savoury broth and dipping sauces
Not much meat was eaten before the Meiji era, but the habit has picked up significantly. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include:
- okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), Japanese pancakes/pizza with a variety of condiments and strong-flavoured sauce, dried sea weed and dried bonito flakes on it
- teppanyaki (鉄板焼き), meat grilled on a hot iron plate
- Tempura (天ぷら), battered shrimp and vegetables deep-fried very quickly so that it is crispy and not too oily with dipping in broth or salt on it.
- yakiniku (焼肉), Japanese-style barbeque( a little similar to Korean-style (but Japanese includes vegetables instead of wrapping meats with leaves as Koreans do.)
- yakitori (焼き鳥), barbecued chicken skewers
- horumonyaki (ホルモン焼き), broiled pig innards
Throughout Japan, you can find cafes and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognisable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza, spaghetti omelettes, and other Frankenfood. A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include:
- hambaagu (ハンバーグ), not to be confused with the McDonalds-style hambaagaa, this is a standalone hamburger patty with fixings
- omuraisu (オムライス), rice wrapped in an omelette with a complimentary dollop of ketchup
- wafū suteeki (和風ステーキ), steak served Japanese-style with soy
- korokke (コロッケ), deep-fried mashed potato with some meat and onion
- kare- (カレー), Japanese-style curry, it is not as spicy as Indian curry.
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Some of the most ubiquitous chains are:
American fast food chains are also common, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
- Yoshinoya (吉野家), Matsuya (松屋), and Sukiya (すき家) are gyūdon (beef bowl) specialists. All have been hit hard by the BSE scare in the mid-2000s, and have switched much of their menus to pork and Australian beef (“oji beefu”).
- Tenya (てんや), the best tempura you’ll ever eat for less than ¥500
- Mos Burger seems like just another fast food chain, but has a pretty interesting menu — for hamburgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Notice also the list of local produce suppliers posted in each shop.
- Freshness Burger tries to be a bit less fast-foody and more like an “all-American” joint. While the food is decent, the burgers are nothing short of tiny.
- Beckers Operated by JR; these fastfood burger restaurants are often found in and near JR stations in greater Tokyo and Yokohama. Beckers offers made to order burgers and Menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, their buns are fresh and baked inside the stores. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking them. Their Pork Teriyaki burger is also recommended. Guests can pay with the JR Suica pre-paid re-chargeable multi-use train card.
- Ooto-ya (大戸屋) is too good to call fast food, with a menu and atmosphere that matches any “home-style” Japanese restaurant. While there are illustrated menus on signboards, ordering can be confusing: at some stores, orders are taken at the counter before taking a seat, while at others servers come to the table.
There are also some Japanese “family restaurants”, serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively unspectacular, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus, so travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are:
- Jonathan’s is probably the most ubiquitous local chain and vies with Denny’s. Skylark is owned by the same company and much the same.
- Royal Host – tries to market itself as a bit up-scale
- Volks is an affordable steak restaurant that also has all-you-can-eat bread, salad, and soup bars.
Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten (喫茶店) has a long history. For anyone looking for a jolt of caffeine, Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors such as Doutor. Visitors looking for a refuge from the rain, the heat or the crowds, the kissaten is an oasis in the urban jungle. Most coffee shops are unique and reflect the tastes of their clientele.
A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz kissa (ジャズ喫茶), or jazz coffee shop. These are even darker and more smoke-filled than normal kissaten, and frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz buffs who sit motionless and alone, soaking in the bebop played at high volumes from giant audio speakers.
Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室, or lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from a pricy kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions over matters such as business or meeting prospective spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and the drinks are pricey. To anyone looking for a cup of coffee: this is not your cup of tea.
During the summer months, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops which serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks. The speciality though is draft beer, and you can order large mugs of it or pay a fixed price for all you can drink. The most famous beer gardens in Tokyo are the Kudan Kaikan Beer Garden in Chiyoda-ku, Sekirei at the Meiji Kinenkan, Tamashii no Purukogi at the Tobu Department Store in Ikebukuro, the Mount Takao Beer Garden.
Despite its image as light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite heavy in salt and fat, with deep-fried meat or seafood being prominent. Vegetarians (much fewer vegans) may have difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products to some degree, particularly as the near-ubiquitous Japanese soup stock dashi is usually prepared with bonito.
An excellent option is the kaiten sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish. However, there are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that does not include fish or other marine creatures: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soybeans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled-gourd rolls), and, occasionally, yuba sushi (made with the delicate, tasty ‘skin’ of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi using marine animal products, so you may not be that common on the conveyor belt. Guests can, however, shout out the name of the type of sushi they want and the sushi chef will prepare them right away. When guests ready to leave, they call the waitress over to count the number and the type of plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always inexpensive. Whether eating vegetarian (or otherwise), kaiten sushi shops offer excellent value and are lots of fun.
While considerably harder to find, it is worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers shōjin ryori (精進料理), the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks.
Combini (convenience stores)
For tourists travelling on a budget, Japan’s numerous convenience stores can be a great place to grab a bite, as they operate around the clock. 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart are just a few of the many convenience chains found almost everywhere in Japan. They offer instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and even some small prepared meals. Onigiri (お握り) or sometimes called omusubi (お結び, rice balls with different ingredients such as fish and plum) can make for a great little meal.