Local Food in Japan
Food and Drink in Japan
Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and in fact its Japanese word gohan (ご飯) also means "meal". Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with many meals, but also tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but also many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is to discover the local specialties. Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don't miss the okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of:
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks. These are associated with funerary rites. If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let them take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate.
- When you are done using chopsticks, you can rest them across the edge of your bowl or plate. Most nicer restaurants put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting. You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to construct your own hashi-oki.
- Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class. Take a bite of your rice instead.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls (really anything other than food) is rude.
- Pointing at things with your chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people in general is rude; with chopsticks, doubly so.)
- Spearing food with your chopsticks is generally rude and should be used as only a last resort.
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bentō and other take-out foods. You shouldn't "whittle" your chopsticks after breaking them apart. Many restaurants give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with as soon as you sit down; use it for your hands, and not your face.
Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice; they eat bowls of rice plain, or sometimes with furikake, a blend of crumbled seaweed, fish, and spices. Soy sauce is used for dipping sushi in before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish and tofu as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly out of the bowl after you've chopsticked out the larger bits, and it's also normal to pick up a bowl of rice for easier eating. For main-dish soups like rāmen you will be given a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.
The number of restaurants in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out.
According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most "delicious" city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.
Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (定食), or 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 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus will, for most establishments, be in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can't read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for "bill" is kanjō or kaikei. When it's getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it's time for the "last order." When it's really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal — they start to play "Auld Lang Syne". (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means "pay up and move out."
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you'll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them. It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you're open-minded and flexible, you might get shōyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You'll always know how much you're spending so you'll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments. Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all you can eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題) or viking (バイキング).
Tipping is not customary in Japan, although fancy restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour "family restaurants" such as Denny's and Jonathan's usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō (食堂), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try ones in government buildings: often open to the public as well, they are subsidised by taxes and can be very good value, if uninspiring. When in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku (今日の定食), which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles.
A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). While travelling on JR, don't forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (駅弁) or "station bento", many unique to the region - or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally "rice bowl", meaning 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
You will also frequently encounter Japan's most popular dish, the ubiquitous curry rice (カレーライス karē raisu) — a thick, mild, brown paste that most Indians would hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.
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. Should they condescend to let you in — and many require introductions — you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience, which, quite frankly, will go right over the heads of most mere mortals visiting Japan for the first time.
Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative 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 cost only 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 sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu
- zaru soba (ざるそば) - chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi; popular in summer
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. The four major styles of ramen are:
- shio rāmen (塩ラーメン) - salty pork (or chicken) broth
- shōyu rāmen (醤油ラーメン) - soy broth, popular in Tokyo
- miso rāmen (味噌ラーメン) - miso (soybean paste) broth, originally from Hokkaido
- tonkotsu rāmen (豚骨ラーメン) - thick pork broth, a speciality of Kyushu
Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.
There is enough arcane sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are:
- nigiri (握り) - the canonical sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top
- maki (巻き) - fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks
- temaki (手巻き) - 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) - a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top
Nearly anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been turned into sushi, and most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall. A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm). Tuna belly comes in two different grades: ō-toro (大とろ), which is very fatty and very expensive, and chū-toro (中とろ), which is slightly cheaper and less fatty.
If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant, but can't or don't want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For instance the above mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu). Or order the kappa maki which is nothing more than sliced cucumber, rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.
Even in Japan, 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 tens 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 you sit by a conveyor belt and grab whatever strikes your fancy, at prices that can be as low as ¥100 per plate. Even in these cheaper places, it's still quite acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido, kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place with the low end restaurants serving little more than junk-food.
When eating sushi, it's perfectly acceptable to use your fingers; just dip the piece in a little soy sauce and pop the whole thing in your mouth. In Japan, the pieces typically have a dab of fiery wasabi radish already 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.
Despite fish sashimi being the most well known, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous ones. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally available, although it's not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi.
Fugu (ふぐ) or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricy due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Because of the skill required, fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). As a side note, the emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.
Grilled and fried dishes
The Japanese didn't eat much meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since then. Keep an eye on the price though, as meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive and luxury varieties like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include:
- okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) - Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat or seafood of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger; at many places you cook it yourself at your table
- teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) - meat grilled on a hot iron plate
- tempura (天ぷら) - light-battered shrimp, fish and vegetables deep-fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth
- tonkatsu (豚カツ) - deep-fried breaded pork cutlets elevated into an art form
- yakiniku (焼肉) - Japanese-style "Korean barbeque", cooked by yourself at your table
- yakitori (焼き鳥) - grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable, a classic accompaniment to alcohol
One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (うなぎ unagi), reputed to give strength and vitality in the drainingly hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in the mouth when eaten, and takes over ¥1000 from your wallet in the process.
A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 kujira), which tastes like fishy steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese don't hold whale in much esteem; it's associated with school lunches and wartime scarcity, and it's rarely found outside speciality restaurants such as kujira-ya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can.
Particularly in the cold winter months various "hot pot" stews (鍋 nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:
- chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋) - a hotchpotch steamboat much favored by sumo wrestlers.
- oden (おでん) - a variety of skewered fishcakes, daikon radish, tofu, and other ingredients simmered in fish soup for days. Primarily a winter dish, often sold in convenience stores and on the street in makeshift blue-tarp yatai tents.
- sukiyaki (すき焼き) - a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not that common in Japan.
- shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) - a hotpot of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but seafood, pork, and other variations exist) are briefly swished through the hot water to instantly cook them, then dipped in flavoured sauce
Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from molecular-level carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognizable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include:
- hambāgu (ハンバーグ) - not to be confused with a McDonald's hambāgā, this version of Hamburg steak is a standalone hamburger patty with gravy and toppings
- omuraisu (オムライス) - rice wrapped in an omelette with a dollop of ketchup
- wafū sutēki (和風ステーキ) - steak served Japanese-style with soy sauce
- korokke (コロッケ) - croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion
- karē (カレー) - Japanese-style curry, a mild brown curry served with rice; also available as katsu karē with a pork cutlet
During the summer months when it's not raining, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops and serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks. The specialty is, of course, draft beer (生ビール nama-biiru). You can order large mugs of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) course lasting for a set period of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets.
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Some chains to look out for:
- Yoshinoya (吉野家), Matsuya (松屋), and Sukiya (すき家) are gyūdon (beef bowl) specialists. While beef was off the menu for a while due to the mad cow scare, it's back now.
- 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 actually 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. Made to order, so guaranteed fresh, and unlike some fast-food places, MOS Burger products generally look like their advertising photos. A bit more expensive than McDonald's, but worth the extra. MOS stands for "Mountain, Ocean, Sun," by the way.
- Freshness Burger tries to be a bit less fast-foody and more like an "all-American" joint. The food's decent, but just be prepared for the tiniest burgers you've ever seen.
- 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 awesome. They also offer Poutine, which is of course a French Canadian snack consisting of french fries, gravy and cheese. The chilli topping needs to be tried. More often than not, you can pay with the JR Suica pre-paid re-chargeable multi use traincard.
- Ootoya (大戸屋) is really 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 you order at the counter before taking a seat, while at others servers come to your table.
- Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy soup kitchen chain that serves delicious soup all-year round, with a selection of cold soups in summer. It is a bit more expensive than most other fast food chains but you may consider it a healthier alternative to burgers.
- Lotteria Standard burger-type place.
- First Kitchen This chain offers a few dishes outside of the standard fast-food fare, including pasta, pizza, and fries with a wide assortment of flavorings.
- Coco Ichibanya serves Japanese style curry rice with a vast array of ingredient choices. English menus available.
American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald's restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.
There are also a number of Japanese "family restaurants", serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively uninteresting, 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. Skylark is owned by the same company and has similar fare, including a cheap and unlimited "drink bar," which makes these restaurants good places for reading or resting over extended periods. Denny's also has many stores in Japan.
- Royal Host - tries to market itself as a bit up-scale
- Sunday Sun - reasonable, decent food and menus
- Volks - specializes in steaks, and offers a large salad bar.
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