Food in Japan
Japanese cuisine, known for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The main ingredient in most meals is white rice, usually served steamed. In fact, the Japanese word gohan (ご飯) also means “meal”. Soybeans are an important source of protein and come in many forms, most notably miso soup (味噌), which is served with many dishes, but also in tōfu (豆腐), a bean curd, and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood plays a major role in Japanese cuisine, including not only sea creatures but also many types of seaweed, and a complete meal is always rounded off with some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and travelling within Japan is discovering the local specialities. Each region in the country has a range of delicious dishes based on locally available plants and fish. In Hokkaido, try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka, don’t miss the okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) filled with green onions and the squid balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Eating with chopsticks is surprisingly easy to learn, even if it takes a while to master. Some guidelines for eating with chopsticks that you should follow:
- Never place chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice and never pass anything from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks. These are associated with funeral rites. If you want to give someone a piece of food, let them take it from your plate or put it directly on their plate.
- When you have finished using chopsticks, you can place them over the edge of your bowl or plate. Most upscale restaurants place a small wooden or ceramic chopstick tray (hashi-oki) at each place setting. You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to make your own hashi-oki.
- Licking the ends of chopsticks is considered undignified. Instead, take a bite of your rice.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls (really anything that is not part of the meal) is rude.
- Pointing at things with chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people is rude in general; with chopsticks even more so).
- Impaling food with chopsticks is generally impolite and should only be used as a last resort.
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as at bentō and other take-away meals. You should not “chop” your chopsticks after you have broken them apart. Many restaurants will 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 are served with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on a bowl of rice; in fact, it is bad manners and indicates that the rice is not well prepared! Bowls of steamed rice are eaten plain, sometimes with furikake (a mixture of crumbled seaweed, fish and spices), or especially in bentō with umeboshi (very sour pickled ume plums). Soy sauce is used to dip sushi before eating, and it is also poured over grilled fish and tofu. Tonkatsu (pork chop) is served with a thicker sauce, tempura with a lighter, thinner sauce of soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup), while gyōza (potato sticks) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil.
Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly from the bowl after you have cut out the larger pieces, and it is also normal to take a bowl of rice with you to make it easier to eat. For main course soups like rāmen, you are handed a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.
Restaurants in Japan
The number of restaurants in Japan is overwhelming and you will never run out of places to eat. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese people almost never invite guests to their homes, so socialising almost always involves eating out. As a result, eating out is generally cheaper than in Western countries (although still expensive by Asian standards) if you stick to a simple rice or noodle dish at a local eatery, although at the other end of the spectrum, upscale cuisine can be very expensive indeed.
According to the Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the “tastiest” city in the world with over 150 restaurants receiving at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London together received a total of 148.
Most Japanese restaurants offer teishoku (定食), or set menus, for lunch. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish with a bowl of miso soup, pickles and rice (often with free extra portions). These can be as cheap as ¥600, but are also sufficient for a large appetite. Menus in most places are in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many with exquisite detail) of their dishes in the window, and if you can’t read the menu, it may be better to ask the waiter or waitress outside and point to what you’d like. You might also find this type of set meal at dinner. If you choose à la carte, you may have to pay a fee (usually ¥1000) to order à la carte.
Restaurants present you with the bill after your meal and you are expected to pay at the counter when you leave – don’t leave the payment on the table and walk out. The expression for “bill” is kanjō or kaikei. When it gets late, a waiter will usually come to your table to tell you that it is time for the “last order”. When it’s really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal – they start playing “Auld Lang Syne”. (This is true all over the country, except in the most expensive places.) It means “pay up and leave”.
Many cheap restaurant chains have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the waiter. However, in most of these restaurants you need to be able to read Japanese to use them. Some restaurants have amazingly lifelike plastic samples or photos of the food, labelled with names and prices. It is often possible to compare the price along with some of the kana (characters) with the selection on the machine. If you are open-minded and flexible, you might get shōyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soybean) ramen, or you might get katsu (pork chop) curry instead of beef curry. You will always know how much you are spending so you will never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these vending machine restaurants are really enjoyable places to eat as there is little or no conversation required in these places. Most customers are in a hurry, the staff employed are usually not interested in conversation and just read your order when they take your ticket, and the water/tea, napkins and eating utensils are either delivered automatically or for self-service. Some other places have all-you-can-eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題) or “Viking” (バイキング baikingu, because “Smorgasbord” would be too hard to pronounce in Japanese).
Tipping is not common in Japan, although many sit-down restaurants charge a 10% service charge and 24-hour “family restaurants” such as Denny’s and Jonathan’s usually charge a 10% late fee.
While most Japanese restaurants specialise in a particular type of dish, every neighbourhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō (食堂) serving simple, popular dishes and teishokusets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try the eateries in government buildings: they are often also open to the public, subsidised by taxes and can be very cheap, if uninspired. If in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku (今日の定食), which almost always consists of a main dish, rice, soup and pickles.
A closely related variation is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeaway boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). When travelling with JR, don’t forget to try the wide selection of ekiben (駅弁) or “station bento”, many of which are unique to the region – or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally “rice bowl”, i.e. a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular dishes include:
- oyakodon (親子丼) – lit. “parent-child dish”, usually chicken and egg (but sometimes also salmon and roe).
- katsudon (カツ丼) – a fried pork cutlet with egg
- gyūdon (牛丼) – beef and onions
- chūkadon (中華丼) – literally: “Chinese bowl”, stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce.
You’ll also often 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 barely recognise. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to fill you up. For about ¥100 more, you can upgrade to katsu karē to add a roasted pork cutlet.
Another great place to find cheap and overwhelming amounts of food: Department stores’ basements. They are often huge spaces filled with large quantities of fresh food from all over the country and local dishes. Here you can find bento boxes, takeaway food on sticks, bowls of soup and often samples of goodies to try. Desserts are also plentiful, and the department stores are great places to browse with the locals. You can also find restaurants in every single department stores’, often on the upper floors, serving a variety of genres of food in nice settings and varying prices.
Japan, along with France, is considered by many to be one of the world’s centres of fine dining and there is an abundance of upscale dining options in Japan. There are more Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo than in any other city in the world, and Japan ranks joint first with France as the country with the most Michelin-starred restaurants. There are a number of restaurants that try to serve French-Japanese fusion cuisine, using the best ingredients from both countries, often with interesting and surprisingly tasty results. Of course, there are also many options for Japanese cuisine, with some specialised sushi restaurants charging more than ¥20,000 per person.
For those who want to experience top Japanese gastronomy, there are the super exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world that serve gourmet kaiseki (会席 or 懐石) meals with a dozen or more small courses prepared from the very best and freshest seasonal ingredients. An introduction is usually required for a visit, and you can expect to pay upwards of ¥30,000 per person for an experience.
Even Japanese people want something other than rice from time to time, and the obvious alternative is noodles (麺 men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan has its own “famous” noodle dish, and they are often worth trying.
There are two main types of noodles that are native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Usually all the dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon, whichever you prefer, and a bowl costs only a few hundred yen, especially at the noodle restaurants with standing room in and near train stations.
- Kake Soba (かけそば) – simple broth and maybe a little spring onion on top.
- tsukimi soba (月見そば) – soup with a raw egg dripped into it, called “moon viewing” because of its resemblance to a moon behind clouds
- kitsune soba (きつねそば) – soup with sweetened thin sheets of fried tofu.
- zaru soba (ざるそば) – chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, scallions and wasabi; popular in summer.
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort and spices, typically containing a slice of barbecued pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered the signature dish of any city, and virtually every major city in Japan has its own unique style of ramen. The four main types of ramen are:
- shio rāmen (塩ラーメン) – salty broth made from pork (or chicken).
- 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 from Kyushu.
Another popular dish is yakisoba (焼きそば, “fried soba“), which is similar to Chinese chow mein and features noodles fried with vegetables and pork, garnished with aonoriseawe powder and pickled ginger. Despite the name “soba“, wheat noodles are actually used, similar to ramen. A variation called yakisoba-pan (焼きそばパン, “yakiso bread“) stuffs yakisoba into a hotdog bun.
Slurping the noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese, it cools the noodles and makes them taste better. The remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl. In Japan, it is common for noodle dishes to be served with a spoon. Simply pick up your noodles with the chopsticks and place them in the spoon, this way you can drink as much of the broth as possible and combine the noodles with other flavours in your bowl
Sushi and Sashimi
Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish on vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), simply raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are actually quite difficult to prepare: The fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years learning how to properly prepare the vinegar rice for sushi before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish in the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.
There is enough obscure 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 onto it.
- maki (巻き) – fish and rice rolled in noriseaweed and cut into bite-sized pieces.
- temaki (手巻き) – fish and rice rolled up in a large cone of nori
- Gunkan (軍艦) – “battleship” sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to hold the contents in place
- chirashi (ちらし) – a large bowl of vinegar-soaked rice with seafood scattered on top.
Almost anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been made into sushi, and most sushi restaurants have a handy multilingual decoding key at hand or hanging on the wall. A few species that are more or less guaranteed to be found in any 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 qualities: 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. Another way to prepare it is negi-toro (葱とろ), chopped tuna belly mixed with chopped spring onions and wasabi.
If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant but cannot or do not want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For example, the aforementioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet coating of 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 up bills in the tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (盛り合わせ) or omakase (お任せ) set, where the chef chooses whatever he thinks is good that day. In many of the top sushi restaurants, this is the only option, although you can be more or less sure that only the freshest seasonal ingredients go into your sushi. The chef usually adds wasabi to the sushi and glazes the fish with soy sauce for you. A separate saucer of soy sauce and wasabi is not usually provided, and it would be bad form to ask for one, as it implies that the chef is not doing a good job and not putting the right amount of soy sauce on the fish. Good sushi is always prepared so that you can put the whole piece in your mouth at once. You should eat the sushi immediately when the chef puts it on your plate and not wait until everyone in your group has had theirs, because part of the experience of eating fine sushi is that the rice and the fish are at different temperatures. Unlike in other countries, fine sushi restaurants in Japan itself usually serve only sushi and no starters or desserts.
Cheaper still are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, literally “spinning”) sushi shops, where you sit on an assembly line and take what you like at prices that can be as high as ¥100 per plate. (The plates are colour-coded by price; when you’re done, you call a waiter who counts your plates and tells you how much you owe). Even in these cheaper places, it is perfectly acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido the kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place, with restaurants at the lower end of the scale serving little more than junk food.
On the other hand, if you are adventurous, you can tell the chef, “Omakase onegaishimasu” (“I’ll leave it up to you”), and he will choose what is freshest that day. This may mean that you get a single full plate, or that you are served one piece at a time until you are full. In either case, keep in mind that you probably won’t know how much you’re spending unless you’ve specified an amount when you order.
When eating sushi, it’s perfectly fine 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 already have a blob of fiery wasabi radish inside, but you can always add more to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and endless green tea is always available for free.
Although fish sashimi is the most famous, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally offered, although it is not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi.
Fugu (ふぐ) or puffer fish is highly poisonous and is considered a delicacy in Japan. Its preparation requires a high degree of skill, as the internal organs containing the poison have to be removed. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death as licensed chefs are tested very rigorously every year to ensure that their preparation skills are up to scratch, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of training under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Actual deaths are very rare and are almost always from fishermen who have tried to prepare their own caught fugu. Fugu is usually only served in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). Incidentally, the Japanese emperor is forbidden to eat this dish for obvious reasons.
Grilled and fried dishes
Before the Meiji era, the Japanese didn’t eat much meat, but since then they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways of eating it. Watch the price, however, as meat (especially beef) can be very expensive and luxury options like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Some options usually served by specialised restaurants are:
- okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) – literally “cook it how you like it”, it is a Japanese pancake pizza based on a wheat and cabbage dough with your choice of meat, seafood and vegetable fillings, spread with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger; in many places you cook it yourself at your table
- Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) – meat grilled on a hot iron plate, confusingly known in America as “hibachi”.
- Tempura (天ぷら) – lightly fried prawns, fish and vegetables that are deep fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth.
- Tonkatsu (豚カツ) – deep-fried, breaded pork cutlets elevated to an art form.
- yakiniku (焼肉) – “Korean barbecue” in the Japanese style, prepared at the table itself.
- Yakitori (焼き鳥) – grilled skewers with every imaginable chicken part, a classic side dish with alcohol.
A must-try Japanese speciality is eel (うなぎ unagi), which is said to give strength and vitality during the hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in your mouth when eaten, taking over ¥3000 out of your wallet. (You can find it for less, but these are usually imported frozen and are not nearly as tasty).
A rather infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 kujira), which tastes like a fish steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese do not particularly appreciate whale; it is associated with school lunches and wartime shortages and is rarely found outside of speciality restaurants such as Kujiraya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale is also available in some grocery shops at a huge price for a small can.
Especially in the cold winter months, various “hot pot” stews (鍋 nabe) are a popular way to warm up. Common types are, for example:
- chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋) – a very popular steamer among sumo wrestlers.
- Oden (おでん) – a variety of skewered fish cakes, daikon radish, tofu and other ingredients cooked in fish soup for days. Mainly a winter dish, often sold in grocery shops and on the street in makeshift yatai tents with blue tarpaulins.
- sukiyaki (すき焼き) – a stew with beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not so common in Japan.
- shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) – a hot pot of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but there are also seafood, pork and other variations) are briefly tossed through the hot water to cook immediately, and then dipped in a flavoured sauce
All over Japan, you’ll find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from molecular copies of famous French pastries to barely recognisable Japaneseised dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. Popular only-in-Japan dishes include:
- hambāgu (ハンバーグ) – not to be confused with a McDonald’s hambāgā, this version of hamburger steak is a stand-alone hamburger patty with sauce and toppings.
- omuraisu (オムライス) – rice wrapped in an omelette with a blob of ketchup.
- wafū sutēki (和風ステーキ) – Japanese style steak served with soy sauce.
- korokke (コロッケ) – croquettes, usually stuffed with potatoes, along with some meat and onions.
- karē raisu (カレーライス) – Japanese-style curry, a mild brown curry served with rice; also available as katsu karē with a fried pork chop.
In the summer months, when it’s not raining, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their roofs, serving dishes such as fried chicken and fries, as well as light snacks. The speciality is, of course, draught beer (生ビール nama-biiru). You can order large pitchers of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink course (飲み放題 nomihōdai) that lasts a set amount of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets.
Fast food in Japan
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer an interesting seasonal selection that is very tasty. Some chains to look out for:
- Yoshinoya (吉野家), Matsuya (松屋) and Sukiya (すき家) are specialists in gyūdon (beef bowl). While beef was off the menu for a while because of mad cow disease, it is now back.
- Tenya (てんや) serves 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 burgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Also note the list of local produce suppliers displayed in each shop. Made to order, so guaranteed fresh, and unlike some fast food places, MOS Burger’s products generally look like they do in the promotional photos. A bit more expensive than McDonald’s, but worth the extra charge. By the way, MOS stands for “Mountain, Ocean, Sun”.
- Freshness Burger tries to be a little less fast food and more like an “all-American” place. The food is decent, but be prepared for the smallest burgers you’ve ever seen.
- Beckers, fast food burger restaurants operated by JR, are often found in and near JR stations in the Tokyo and Yokohama area. Beckers offers made-to-order burgers and menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, the buns are fresh and baked in-store. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking. Their Pork Teriyaki Burger is fantastic. They also offer Poutine, a French-Canadian snack that consists of fries, gravy and cheese. The chilli topping is a must try. Most of the time you can pay with your JR Suica train card.
- Ootoya (大戸屋) is really too good to be called fast food, with a menu and atmosphere to match any “homemade” Japanese restaurant. There are pictorial menus on signs, but ordering can be confusing: In some places you order at the counter before being seated, while in others the waitress comes to the table.
- Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy soup kitchen chain that serves delicious soups all year round, with a selection of cold soups in summer. It is a little more expensive than most other fast food chains, but you can consider it a healthier alternative to burgers.
- Lotteria is a standard burger joint.
- First Kitchen offers a few dishes outside the standard fast food fare, including pasta, pizza and fries with a wide range of flavours.
- Coco Ichibanya serves Japanese-style curry rice with a wide variety of ingredients. 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” that serve a wide variety of dishes, including steak, noodles, Chinese-style dishes, sandwiches and other food. Although the food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus so that travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to select and communicate their orders. Some chains around the country are:
- Jonathan’s is probably the most widely available local chain. Skylark is part of the same company and offers similar food, including a cheap and unlimited “drinks bar”, making these restaurants good places to read or rest for long periods. Denny’s also has many branches in Japan.
- Royal Host tries to market itself as something more upmarket.
- Sunday Sun is reasonable, with decent food and menus.
- Volks specialises in steaks and offers a large salad bar.
Coffee houses in Japan
Although 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. If you’re really looking for a caffeine boost, head to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors like Doutor. But if you want to escape the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, Kissaten is an oasis in the urban jungle. Most coffee shops are unique and reflect the tastes of their clientele. At a Ginza coffee shop, you’ll find soft “European” décor and sweet pastries for upscale customers recovering from their Ferragamos. At a coffee shop in Otemachi, businessmen in suits sit at the low tables before meeting their customers. In the all-night coffee shops of Roppongi, revellers take a break between clubs or snooze until the trains start running again in the morning.
A special kind of kissat is the jazz kissa (ジャズ喫茶), or jazz café. These are even darker and smokier than normal kissats and are frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz fans who sit motionless and alone, enjoying the bebop played at high volume from huge speakers. You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a big no-no.
Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室, or lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from an expensive kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions about matters such as business or meetings with future spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and drinks are very expensive. So don’t go to such a place if you just want a cup of coffee.
Convenience Stores in Japan
If you’re on a budget, Japan’s many convenience stores (コンビニ konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite and they’re almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart. They have instant noodles, sandwiches, meat rolls and even some small ready meals that you can heat up in the microwave right in the shop. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which are large rice balls filled with (say) fish or pickled plums and wrapped in seaweed, usually costing around ¥100 each.
Most convenience stores in Japan also have a toilet in the back. While most shops in suburban and rural areas let their customers use the toilets, this is not the case in many shops in big cities, especially in the inner cities and entertainment districts of Tokyo and Osaka. Therefore, you should first ask at the checkout if you can use the toilet, and then buy an item later if you want to show your appreciation.
Supermarkets in Japan
For those who are really on a budget, most supermarkets (sūpā) have a wide selection of ready meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, usually cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day.
One Japanese institution worth visiting is Depachika (デパ地下), or the food court in the basement of a department store, with dozens of tiny speciality stalls offering local delicacies, from exquisitely packaged tea ceremony sweets to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. Prices are often a little upmarket, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few budget stalls. In the evenings, many lower prices on unsold food, so look out for stickers like hangaku (半額, “half price”) or san-wari biki (3割引, “30% off”) for a bargain. 割 means “1/10” and 引 means “off”.
Dietary restrictions in Japan
Despite its image as a light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite high in salt and fat, with fried meat or seafood to the fore. Vegetarians (let alone vegans) might have serious trouble finding a meal that doesn’t contain animal products to some degree, especially since the almost ubiquitous Japanese soup broth dashi is usually made with fish and often shows up in unexpected places like miso, rice crackers, curries, omelets (including tamago sushi), instant noodles, and pretty much anywhere salt would be used in Western cooking. (There is a seaweed variation called kombudashi, but it’s pretty unusual). Soba and udon noodle soups in particular almost always use bonito-based katsuodashi, and the only vegetarian-safe dish on a noodle shop menu is usually zarusoba, or plain cold noodles – but even for that, the dipping sauce usually contains dashi.
An excellent option is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several types of rolled sushi in these shops that do not contain fish or other seafood: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soybeans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled pumpkin rolls) and occasionally yuba sushi (with the tender, tasty “skin” of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi with animal-based sea products, so you may not see them rotating on the conveyor belt right before your eyes. Just call out the name of the type of sushi you want, and the sushi chef will prepare it for you right away. When you are ready to leave, call the waitress over and she will count your plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always good value.
For those living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is the organic or macrobiotic food known as shizenshoku (自然食). While “vegetarian food” may sound boring or even unappetising to Japanese ears, shizenshoku has become quite fashionable recently, although meals cost around ¥3000 and menus may still include seafood. Considerably harder to find, but it’s worth looking for a restaurant (often run by temples) that serves shōjin ryori (精進料理), the pure vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded and therefore often very expensive, but often available at reasonable prices when staying at temples.
Fortunately, traditional Japanese cuisine contains a large amount of protein through its wide variety of soy products: tofu, miso, Nattō and edamame (tender green soybeans in their pods), for example. In the ready meal sections of supermarkets and department stores’ basements, you will also find many dishes with different types of beans, both sweet and savoury.
Travelling in Japan with life-threatening food allergies (アレルギー arerugī) is very difficult. Awareness of severe allergies is low and restaurant staff are rarely aware of trace ingredients in their menu items. Japanese law requires seven allergens to be listed on product packaging: Eggs (卵 tamago), milk (乳 nyū), wheat (小麦 komugi), buckwheat (そば or 蕎麦 soba), peanuts (落花生 rakkasei or ピーナッツ pīnattsu), shrimp (えび ebi) and crab (かに kani). Sometimes these are listed in a handy table, but more often you just have to read the small print in Japanese. The packaging is also often unhelpful for anything other than the seven mentioned, with ingredients like “starch” (でんぷん denpun) or “salad oil” (サラダ油 sarada-abura), which can contain basically anything.
A severe soy (大豆 daizu) allergy is basically incompatible with Japanese food. The bean is used everywhere, not just the obvious soy sauce and tofu, but also things like soy powder in crackers and soy oil for cooking.
A strict gluten-free diet when eating out is also almost impossible, as coeliac disease is very rare in Japan. Most common brands of soy sauce and mirin contain wheat, while miso is often made with barley or wheat. While sushi is traditionally prepared with 100% rice vinegar and pure wasabi root, commercially prepared sushi vinegar and wasabi can both contain gluten. However, if you have a certain tolerance, Japan and its wide variety of rice dishes is quite manageable. While udon and ramen noodles are both made from wheat and soba noodles are usually 80:20 buckwheat/wheat, tōwari or jūwari (十割り) soba is pure buckwheat and thus gluten-free, although the broth in which it is cooked or served usually contains traces of it.
Avoiding dairy products is easy, as none are used in traditional Japanese cuisine. Butter (バター bataa) appears occasionally, but is usually only mentioned by name.
Peanuts or other tree nuts are generally not used in Japanese cuisine, except for a few snacks and desserts where their presence should be obvious (and labelled in the ingredients). Peanut oil is rarely used.
Drinks in Japan
The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all kinds of alcoholic drinks in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorised that in a strictly conformist society, drinking is a much-needed outlet to vent feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.
In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and the smoking age). This is significantly higher than in most countries in Europe and America (with the exception of the United States). However, ID checks are almost never required in restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other vendors of alcohol, as long as the purchaser is not obviously underage. The main exception is the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are very popular with young Tokyoites and at peak times identify everyone who enters the club.
Drinking in public is legal in Japan, as is public drunkenness. It is especially common to drink at festivals and hanami. It is also not uncommon to have a small drinking party on the bullet trains.
Where to drink in Japan
If you are looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed, traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily recognisable by red lanterns marked with the sign “酒” (alcohol). Many of them offer an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deal for about ¥1,000 for 90 minutes (on average), although you are limited to certain types of drinks. An izakaya is very convenient and usually has a lively, convivial atmosphere, often serving as a sort of living room for office workers, students and senior citizens. The food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and all in all they are an experience not to be missed.
While you can find Western-style bars here and there that typically charge ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack bar (スナック sunakku). These are slightly dodgy establishments where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for service. Tourists are likely to feel out of place here and many don’t even let non-Japanese guests in.
Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have a lively gay scene. Most gay/lesbian bars cater to a small niche (muscular men, etc.) and don’t let anyone in who doesn’t fit that mould, including the opposite sex. While a few bars are for Japanese only, foreigners are welcome in most bars.
Note that izakaya, bars and snack bars usually charge a cover (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but in rare cases more, so ask if the place looks really fancy. In izakayas, you’ll often be served a small bite (お通し otōshi) when you sit down, and no, you can’t turn it down or pay for it. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for the peanuts served to you with your beer.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki) are ubiquitous in Japan, serving drinks around the clock at ¥120-150 per can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, there are also vending machines selling beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some vending machines also dispense hot drinks – look for a red label with the words あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually shut down at 11:00 pm. In addition, more and more of these vending machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special “sake pass”, which is available at the town hall of the town where the vending machine is located. The pass is available to anyone 20 years old or older. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo area accept payment with JR Suica or PASMO cards.
What to drink in Japan
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Although it is often referred to as rice wine, the process of making sake is completely different from making wine or beer. The fermentation process uses both a mould to break down the starch and yeast to produce the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (酒) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) is used to refer to what Westerners call “sake”.
Sake has about 15% alcohol and can be served at different temperatures, from hot (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温 jō-on, or “cool” 冷や hiya), to chilled (冷酒 reishu). Contrary to popular belief, most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but a standard room temperature is safe in most cases. If you tend to drink a sake hot or chilled in a restaurant, it would be a good idea to ask your waiter or bartender for a recommendation. In restaurants, a serving can start at around ¥500 and go up from there.
Sake has its own measurements and utensils. The small ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug for pouring is a tokkuri (徳利). Sometimes sake is poured into a small glass that sits in a wooden box to catch the overflow as the waiter pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass and then pour the excess from the box back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, especially if you drink it cold, you may sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the rim. Sake is typically measured in gō (合, 180 mL), which is roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard isshōbin (一升瓶) 1.8 L bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as that of wine, but the one indicator to look out for is nihonshu-do (日本酒度), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this “sake level” measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating a drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average today being +3 (slightly dry).
Sake is brewed in different degrees and styles depending on how much the rice is ground to avoid off-flavours, whether water is added or whether additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how heavily the rice has been milled, with daiginjo being more heavily milled and correspondingly more expensive. Alcohol can be added to both of these, mainly to improve the flavour and aroma. Honjōzō (本醸造) is less heavily milled, has alcohol added and can be less expensive; consider it an everyday type of sake. Junmai (純米), meaning pure rice, is an additional term indicating that only rice was used. When buying, the price is often a good indicator of quality.
A few special brews might be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake (濁り酒) is slightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Gently turn the bottle once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Although most sake ages poorly, some brewers are able to produce aged sake with a much stronger flavour and deep colours. These aged sake or koshu (古酒) can be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the lumpy home-brewed doburoku(どぶろく) version of sake that is drunk hot in winter (and often given away at shrines on New Year’s Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and tastes pretty much like fermented rice porridge (better than it sounds), but at least it’s cheap. As the name suggests, it is sweet.
If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of their English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo, and try a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Shōchū (焼酎) is sake’s big brother, a stronger-tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are two main types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are usually made from rice, sweet potato or grain, but can also be made from other materials such as potatoes. The other is more industrially made from sugar through multiple successive distillations and often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda, known as a chū-hai, short for “shōchū highball”. (Note, however, that canned chū-hai sold in shops does not use shōchū, but even cheaper alcohol).
Shōchū typically has around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served neat, on ice or mixed with hot or cold water. Once exclusively a working-class drink and still the cheapest beverage on the market at less than ¥1000 for a large 1-litre bottle, traditional shōchū has regained popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.
Umeshu (梅酒), incorrectly called “plum wine”, is prepared by soaking Japanese plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so that they absorb the flavour, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plums and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. It typically has about 10-15% alcohol and can be drunk neat, on ice (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).
There are several major brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. A little harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with some restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (地ビール), but these are still very rare. Most varieties are lagers, with an average strength of 5%.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or on tap (生 nama, meaning “fresh”). Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 ōbin (large, 0.66 L), 中瓶 chūbin (medium, 0.5 L) and 小瓶 kobin (small, 0.33 L), of which the medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to cultivate the custom of constantly refilling your companions’ glasses (and having your own refilled as well). If you order draught beer, everyone gets their own mug (jokki). In many pubs, a dai-jokki (“big mug”) holds a whole litre of beer.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half your cup with foam, leaving you with only half a glass of real beer. Although the Japanese like to pour their draft beer this way, you may find it irritating, especially if you are paying ￥600 for a glass of beer, as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the guts to ask for less foam, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai (“please, just a little foam”). You will stun your waiter, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have been popping up all over the country lately, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.
For those with a more humorous taste in beer, try kodomo biiru (こどもビール, literally children’s beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (it has 0% alcohol).
Happōshu and third beer
Thanks to Japan’s convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two near-beers on the market: happōshu (発泡酒), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (第3のビール dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients such as soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. With prices starting at ¥120, both are significantly cheaper than “real” beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, with brands like Sapporo’s “Draft One” and Asahi’s “Hon-Nama”, they are packaged very similarly to real beer, so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it must not say ビール (beer) but 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy name その他の雑酒(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), literally “other mixed alcohol, type 2”). Try to drink moderately, as both drinks can lead to nightmarish hangovers.
Japanese wine is actually quite nice, but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. There are several varieties, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. The selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialist shops and large department stores offering the most extensive range. One of Japan’s largest domestic wine-growing areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan’s largest producers, Suntory, has a winery there and offers tours. Most wine, both red and white, is served chilled and it can be difficult to get room temperature wine (常温 jō-on) when dining out.
By far the most popular drink is tea (お茶 o-cha), which is offered free with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge selection of tea in bottles and cans in the refrigerators of supermarkets and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); if you don’t specifically ask for it, you’ll probably get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.
The main types of Japanese tea are:
- Sencha (煎茶), the common green tea
- Matcha (抹茶), soup-like powdered ceremonial green tea. The cheaper varieties are bitter and the more expensive ones slightly sweet.
- hōjicha (ほうじ茶), roasted green tea
- genmaicha (玄米茶), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-like.
- mugicha (麦茶), a drink made from roasted barley, served iced in summer
Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk pure, without the use of milk or sugar. In most American fast-food chains, however, you can also find Western-style milk tea.
Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is very popular in Japan, although it is not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It is usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered-down coffee is called American. Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity and, like other drinks, is available in vending machines for around ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word “black” or the kanji 無糖 (“without sugar”) if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some places.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. Some restaurants such as Mister Donut, Jonathan’s and Skylark offer unlimited refilled coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some work done late at night).
There are many unique Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks at vending machines is one of Japan’s little pleasures. Some of them are Calpis (カルピス), a kind of yoghurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds, and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ), almost the same as Sprite or 7-Up, but notable for its unusual bottle, where you push a marble into an open space under the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only diet soda choices are Diet Coke, Coke Zero or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is almost impossible to find outside of special import shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale, however, is very popular and is often available in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually laced with ginseng).
In Japan, the term “juice” (ジュース jūsu) is a collective term for any kind of fruity soft drink – sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like – and extremely few are 100% juice. So if you want fruit juice drinks, ask for kajū (果汁). Drinks in Japan are required to list the percentage of fruit on the label; this can be very helpful in making sure you get the 100% orange juice you wanted, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.