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).
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 (fawku). Who said Japanese is a difficult language?!
Prices. As a very rough estimate, you can expect to pay around 500 yen for breakfast, 2,000 yen for lunch and 3,000 yen 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 ("buy-king-goo"), 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, Freshness Burger and Lotteria, of which Mos Burger is probably the more interesting. Their "rice burgers", consisting of various fillings sandwiched between rounds of compacted rice, are much tastier than they sound. Freshness Burger is a smaller chain that turns out decent burgers and crunchy side salads.
Other Japanese fast-food chains worth a try include Yoshinoya, serving gyudon (beef and rice), and Ten'ya for tempura and rice. And you'll never be far from a noodle joint dishing up ramen, soba and udon. A hearty bowl of ramen, served in a hot broth with various toppings, is usually the cheapest option at around 600 yen, 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 color-coded according to the price, typically starting at around 100 yen 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 bento: 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 specialties. The most expensive are packed in beautiful souvenir containers. By the way, even if you're not in the market for bento, 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 centers. 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.
These fast-food outlets and Western-style places are all 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 the 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 may be something far more elegant, all tatami mats and tinkling music, cocooned within 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 of 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-chochin) 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 the 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 5,000 yen per person, with drinks on top of that.
Lastly, a word on breakfasts. Western-style breakfasts served in hotels and coffee shops usually consist of toast (or rather, a wedge 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 a 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 natto (fermented soybeans), By all means, try it once, but just the smell of natto puts hairs on your chest. I'm not joking.
Japanese Food Guide
Below are a few of the most common varieties of food you will encounter in Japan.
bowl of rice with various toppings, such as beef (gyudon), chicken and egg (oyako-don), eel (una-don), breaded pork cutlet and egg (katsu-don), tempura (ten-don).
soup flavoured with fermented bean paste (miso).
stew of meat or fish and vegetable, often cooked at the table.
fermented soybeans, often served at breakfast; an acquired taste.
chunks of vegetables, whole eggs and fish paste simmered in a thin broth and eaten with mustard.
means literally "as you like it": an Osaka specialty of egg-batter pancake containing various combinations of seafood, meat, vegetables, which you often mix and cook yourself - "as you like it" - on a griddle.
small parcels of rice stuffed with a taster of tuna, salmon roe, cucumber, pickled plum or the like, usually wrapped in seaweed.
Chinese-style egg noodles served in a soup flavoured with miso, soy sauce or pork. Other varieties include noodles topped with roast pork (chhmen), Chinese pork-filled dumplings (wantan-men), and barbecued beef (yaki-niku ren).
sliced raw fish eaten with wasabi (a fiery horseradish paste) and, of course, briefly dipped in soy sauce.
literally means "dabble" or "splash", describing how the vegetables and thin slices of meat (often beef) that comprise this dish are lightly cooked by dipping and stirring in a pan of boiling water at the table.
thin, buckwheat-flour noodles eaten either hot or cold, in a broth or on their own. Common varieties include tanuki soba (with tempura), kitsune soba (with fried tofu), tsukimi soba (with raw egg and dried seaweed). Zaru soba is served cold on a bamboo tray with a dipping sauce.
finely sliced beef cooked in a broth flavored with soy and sugar with vegetables, tofu and translucent noodles. Dip the meat into beaten raw egg before eating.
bite-size morsels of vinegared rice topped with raw fish, fish eggs, vegetables, egg etc and a dash of wasabi (grated horseradish).
literally means "octopus grill", being grilled balls of octopus in batter, often served from street stalls, especially at fairs.
vegetables and seafood coated in a light batter and fried.
chunky, deep-fried pork cutlet, coated with breadcrumbs and usually served on shredded cabbage with a thick, dark, sweet sauce.
thick, wheat-flour noodles served hot in various broths, as for soba.
not actually soba, but Chinese noodles (ramen) fried up with meat and vegetables, often in a thick, slightly sweet, sauce.
literally "grilled bird": skewers of grilled chicken meat and giblets - an amazing array of parts! Comes also with skewers of mushrooms, leeks, green peppers, etc.
as for yaki-soba, but using udon noodles.
Jan Dodd is the co-author of:
The Mini Rough Guide To Tokyo
The Rough Guide to Japan