Food in Japan
Renowned for its fresh seafood and seasonal produce, Japanese food is sure to be one of the highlights of visiting the country. The big cities boast restaurants of practically every variety whilst individual regions, cities and even villages have their own specialities.
With a wealth of award-winning restaurants and the title of most ‘delicious’ city in the world, the question is not if you are going to eat out but where are you going to eat out? This might seem excessive but it is normal to eat out this much; Japanese prefer to socialise out of the home, and it doesn’t have to be too costly.
Eating out can be an inexpensive affair; lunchtime fixed menus teishoku (定食), are generally offered and can be quite cheap for an ample meal. Menus may only be in Japanese, but don’t be put off as most establishments have a sort of window display with models. It is fine to take the waiter to the window and point out what you want. You may face similar issues in Izakayas.
The Japanese equivalent to the pub, about one out of every five restaurants in Japan could be considered an izakaya.
The food served in izakaya is often seen as an accompaniment to drinking; food to be shared; food to line your stomach for the night ahead. Expect to find sushi and sashimi, western style fast food such as chips or pizza, and Karaage (Japanese fried chicken) amongst other dishes.
Izakaya try their hardest to keep customers; whilst it’s uncommon to find a live music performance, it’s more likely there will be other forms of entertainment, the stranger the better.
Sushi and sashimi
It would be a crime to go to Japan without trying some sushi (寿司or 鮨), raw fish over vinegared rice, or sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. While even a delicacy for the Japanese, you can minimise the damage to your pockets if you choose a fixed price equivalent, moriawase (盛り合わせ). It’s well worth the cost as you’ll never eat sushi that is as fresh or delicately prepared as in Japan. Chefs spend years in training, learning how to concoct this famous dish, and the range of options is oceanic. Common types include
- maki (巻き) – fish and rice enclosed in nori seaweed
- temaki (手巻き) – fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori
- nigiri (握り) – sushi consisting of a bed rice with fish pressed on top
Common fillings include
- sake (salmon)
- tamago (egg)
Staple rice bowls donburi (丼) are served across many of Japan’s shokudō (食堂), affordable, all-round eateries.
- oyakodon (親子丼) -“parent-and-child bowl”, this could be chicken and egg, or salmon and roe
- katsudon (カツ丼) – a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg
- gyūdon (牛丼) – beef and onion
If in doubt, you cannot go wrong with Japan’s most popular dish, curry rice (カレーライス karē raisu). You can recognise it by its trademark tower of brown curry paste; this dish will leave you full but not out of pocket.
An alternative to rice, there are two main types of Japanese noodle – thick wheat udon (うどん) and a thinner, buckwheat soba (そば)
Noodles are notoriously hard to eat, and here there really aren’t any table manners- so slurp away- apparently it cools them down and makes them even tastier!
If served soup, Miso is very popular, it is acceptable to drink from the bowl.
In general, when you arrive at a restaurant it is likely you will be brought a hot towel (o-shibori), and it’s customary to use it to wipe your hands, but not your face.
Most of the food you’ll come across in Japan is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). While not a difficult skill, there are some guidelines you should stick to as not to be rude. Try to avoid these culinary faux pas.
- Spearing your food should only be used as a last resort.
- Upright chopsticks in a bowl of rice and passing food to another person, even if it is to try, with your chopsticks, is a big no as associated with funerary rites.
- If you are finished place your chopsticks to the side of your bowl; if you want someone to try something, let them take it from your plate, or be inconspicuous.
- Licking and pointing with your chopsticks is considered impolite
Paying the bill is a little different in Japan. Instead of leaving the money on the table before walking out, it is better to take your bill and pay at the counter as you leave. If it’s getting near closing time, Japanese restaurants have a novel way of subtly signalling to customers; if “Auld Lang Syne” starts playing, start to make a move. As mentioned in Customs in Japan, tipping is not expected.