Japanese Food: A Beginners' Guide to Eating in Japan
Jan Dodd tucks in...
While many people nowadays are familiar with sushi and tempura, there's a lot more to Japanese cuisine than these two delicacies alone. The country boasts a vast array of tempting and exotic foodstuffs, the best of which are exquisite works of art rather than mere stomach-fodder. There's something to please all tastes and all budgets. You can feast at one of the most elegant and probably most expensive restaurants you're ever likely to come across one day, and grab a gut-busting bowl of noodles in a stand-up stall the next. (For a run-down of the basic types of food on offer, see below).
Japanese sashimi for starters.
When it comes to finding somewhere to eat, the main worries for the first-time visitor are likely to be language and cost. Starting with language, while a good phrasebook is essential, the most important thing is not to get too hung up about it. Mastering a few words, such as please (onegai shimasu, when asking for something) or thank you (domo arigato), will earn you masses of brownie points, but no one will really expect you to speak the lingo. A lot of allowances are made for foreigners' eccentric behaviour, so just throw away your inhibitions and jump on in. And when in doubt, smile!
The good news is that many cheaper restaurants either have menus with photos or display plastic versions of their dishes in the window. In the latter case, just ask the waiting staff to come outside and show them what you want. Others, such as izakaya (bars with food), often have their fare on the counter or in a cooler. If all else fails, simply look at what people around you are eating and point to whatever takes your fancy. And, by the way, if you're not confident about using chopsticks, just ask the restaurant owner for a knife (naifu) and fork (fu). Who said Japanese is a difficult language?!
Prices. As a very rough estimate, you can expect to pay around Y500 for breakfast, 0002000 for lunch and 0003000 upwards for dinner at a low- or mid-range restaurant. However, unless you want to blow your entire budget in one go, it's always a good idea to know roughly how expensive a restaurant is before you start ordering not because you'll be diddled, but because even a rustic-looking place can turn out to be surprisingly costly. In a number of cases it may be difficult to tell: while all restaurants have to display their prices (on the menu, chalk boards or in the window), more traditional establishments may give the amounts in Japanese numerals rather than Western numerals. Again, it will help to learn the basic numbering system, which isn't complicated. Otherwise, it's probably safest to try somewhere else.
It's also worth noting that many restaurants, even quite smart places, offer well-priced set lunch menus (teishoku). If you fill up at lunchtime on one of these, you might get by with a hearty bowl of noodles or a simple rice dish for your evening meal. A few Western-style restaurants also lay on self-service buffets (mysteriously known as Baikingu, the Japanese pronunciation of Viking) at lunchtime they're sometimes a bit of a scrum, but great if you really want to pig out.
A good bet for cheap restaurants and fast-food outlets is around train stations and in shopping arcades. Some names will be all too familiar. In fact, there are so many McDonald's, Shakey's Pizza and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Japan you'd be forgiven for thinking they were invented here. Tempting though these places are cheap, easy and no surprises it's really worth trying one of the many local equivalents. The biggest chains are Mos Burger, Love Burger and Lotteria, of which Mos Burger is probably the most interesting. Their "rice burgers", consisting of various fillings sandwiched between rounds of compacted rice, are much tastier than they sound. Look out, too, for Freshness Burger, an up-and-coming chain which turns out decent burgers and crunchy side salads.
Other Japanese fast-food chains worth a try include Yoshinoya, serving gydon (beef and rice), and Ten'ya for tempura and rice. And you'll never be far from a noodle joint dishing up ren, soba and udon. A hearty bowl of ren, served in a hot broth with various toppings, is usually the cheapest option at around 00600, especially if you eat standing up at a counter or at a street stall (yatai).
Keep an eye open, as well, for kaitenzushi which serve sushi at very reasonable prices: simply sit at a counter and help yourself from the conveyor belt passing in front of you. Each plate is colour-coded according to the price, typically starting at around 00 for two pieces; stack the empty plates in front of you and when you get up to leave the cashier will tot up the bill.
The last main fast-food category is the bent the Japanese equivalent of a packed lunch. These boxed meals can be bought in train stations, convenience stores and in the food halls of department stores. Prices vary according to the contents, which at base level consist of rice, pickles, seafood or meat and vegetables, rising to more elaborate seasonal or regional specialities. The most expensive are packed in beautiful souvenir containers. By the way, even if you're not in the market for bent it's still worth browsing round the food hall of at least one big department store to feast your eyes on the fabulous array of Japanese foodstuffs. Well, not just your eyes you can also nibble on the free tasters put out to tempt shoppers.
Department stores are also useful if you're looking for somewhere to sit down for a more relaxed meal. Most major stores have at least one "restaurant floor", usually at the top, containing a whole range of different eateries. Among them you'll find a number of cheap-and-cheerful places with window displays offering a huge variety of foods, from salads, pizzas and omelettes to noodles, tempura and sashimi platters. The food is keenly priced, but when ordering it's worth noting that non-Japanese dishes are invariably adapted for local tastes. Don't expect the curry, for example, to be particularly spicy nor the pasta to remind you of your favourite little Napoli trattoria.
Along similar lines are the "family restaurants" generally located on main roads a little way outside the city centres. Denny's and Royal Host are the two biggest chains. Again, window displays, picture menus and a mix of Japanese and international dishes reliable but not hugely exciting are the order of the day.
Though Japanese cuisine isn't big on desserts (fruit or a small ice cream is the most you can hope for), these Western-style restaurants fill the gap with their eye-popping ice cream concoctions. Alternatively, sugar fiends can get a fix at one of the local coffee-shop chains such as Doutor, Pronto or Mr Donut. In addition to cheap if rather weak coffee, they serve a decent range of cakes, muffins, donuts and so forth.
All these fast-food outlets and Western-style places are very well, but it would be a great shame to miss out on the fantastic wealth of traditional restaurants. They are often small, sometimes no bigger than a broom-cupboard, and tend to specialise in one type of food sushi, yakitori, tempura and shabu-shabu, to name but a few. Depending on the type of establishment, some will have window displays or picture menus, while others might even boast an English-language menu or at least an English-speaking member of staff. You can't usually see inside, but don't be put off. Just slide open the door and duck under the noren (the split curtain hanging in the entrance) to find yourself in a different world. It might be dark and cosy with wooden beams and rustic knick-knacks, where you'll be greeted with a rousing chorus of irasshaimase (welcome), or maybe something far more elegant, all tatami mats and tinkling music, cocooned within shi screens. Part of the fun is in the discovery.
At the other end of the spectrum, but still very Japanese, are izakaya. These are essentially places where you go to drink, but they also serve a wide range of dishes which you order a few at a time as the evening progresses. The closest equivalent is probably the tapas bar, though izakaya tend to offer a greater variety of foodstuffs. They are also bigger and a lot more lively. Traditional izakaya are rustic affairs, identifiable by the red lanterns (aka-chhin) hanging outside. If those look a bit daunting, the big breweries have also got in on the act and opened reliable and reasonably cheap izakaya chains, such as Lion Beer Hall, run by Sapporo, and Kirin City. As long as you don't get too carried away, you should be able to eat for under 000 per person drinks on top.
Lastly, a word on breakfasts. Western-style breakfasts served in hotels and coffee shops usually consist of toast (or rather, a wadge of slightly sweet, soft white bread that's been wafted past a toaster) and perhaps a fried egg and/or salad, plus tea or coffee, sometimes with fruit juice thrown in; in coffee shops this combination is known as a "morning set" or "morning service". Alternatively, you may be offered a Japanese breakfast, particularly if you're staying in traditional inn (ryokan) or bed-and-breakfast (minshuku). Give it a try, but many Westerners find the combination of miso soup, cold fish, pickled vegetables and rice difficult to stomach first thing in the morning. Sometimes you'll be presented with a raw egg to mix with the rice, or natt fermented soybeans by all means, try it once, but just the smell of natt puts hairs on your chest. I'm not joking.