One of the great pleasures of a trip to Japan is exploring the full and exotic range of Japanese food and drink. While dishes such as sushi and tempura are common the world over these days, there are hundreds of other types of local cuisine that will be new and delicious discoveries. Many Japanese recipes embody a subtlety of flavour and mixture of texture rarely found in other cuisines, and the presentation is often so exquisite that it feels an insult to the chef to eat what has been so painstakingly crafted.
Picking at delicate morsels with chopsticks is only one small part of the dining experience. It’s far more common to find Japanese tucking into robust and cheap dishes such as hearty bowls of ramen noodles or the comforting concoction karē raisu (curry rice) as well as burgers and fried chicken from ubiquitous Western-style fast-food outlets. All the major cities have an extensive range of restaurants serving Western and other Asian dishes, with Tokyo, Kyoto and Ōsaka in particular being major destinations for foodies. In addition, each region has its own distinctive culinary traditions.
Eating out needn’t cost the earth. Lunch is always the best-value meal of the day, seldom costing more than ¥2000. If you fuel up earlier in the day, a cheap bowl of noodles for dinner could carry you through the night.
Breakfast is generally served from around 7am to 9am at most hotels, ryokan and minshuku. At the top end and mid-range places you’ll generally have a choice between a Western-style breakfast or a traditional meal consisting of miso soup, grilled fish, pickles and rice; at the cheaper minshuku and ryokan only a Japanese-style meal will be available. Western-style breakfasts, when available, sometimes resemble what you might eat at home, but most commonly involve wedges of thick white tasteless bread, and some form of eggs and salad. Most cafés also have a “morning-service” menu which means kōhii and tōsuto (coffee and toast).
Restaurants generally open for lunch around 11.30am and finish serving at 2pm. Lacklustre sandwiches are best passed over in favour of a full meal at a restaurant; set menus (called teishoku) are always on offer and usually cost around ¥1000 for a couple of courses, plus a drink.
Teishoku are sometimes available at night, when you may also come across course menus, which involve a series of courses and are priced according to the number of courses and quality of ingredients used. At any time of day you can snack in stand-up noodle bars – often found around train stations – and from revolving conveyor belts at cheap sushi shops.
Dinner, the main meal of the day, is typically served from 6pm to around 9pm. The major cities are about the only option for late-night dining. In a traditional Japanese meal ( for a description of the main dishes) you’ll usually be served all your courses at the same time, but at more formal places rice and soup are always served last. You are most likely to finish your meal with a piece of seasonal fruit, such as melon, orange, persimmon or nashi (a crisp type of pear), or an ice cream (if it’s green, it will be flavoured with macha tea).
At tea ceremonies, small, intensely sweet wagashi are served – these prettily decorated sweetmeats are usually made of pounded rice, red azuki beans or chestnuts. Wagashi can also be bought from specialist shops and department stores and make lovely gifts.
Where to eat and drink
A shokudō is a kind of canteen that serves a range of traditional and generally inexpensive dishes. Usually found near train and subway stations and in busy shopping districts, shokudō can be identified by the displays of plastic meals in their windows. Other restaurants (resutoran) usually serve just one type of food, for example sushi and sashimi (sushi-ya), or yakitori (yakitori-ya), or specialize in a particular style of cooking, such as kaiseki (haute cuisine) or tepanyaki, where food is prepared on a steel griddle, either by yourself or a chef.
All over Japan, but particularly in city suburbs, you’ll find bright and breezy family restaurants, such as Royal Host and Jonathan’s, American-style operations specifically geared to family dining and serving Western and Japanese dishes – the food can be on the bland side, but is invariably keenly priced. They also have menus illustrated with photographs to make ordering easy. If you can’t decide what to eat, head for the restaurant floors of major department stores, where you’ll find a collection of Japanese and Western operations, often outlets of reputable local restaurants. Many will have plastic food displays in their front windows and daily special menus.
Western and other ethnic food restaurants proliferate in the cities, and it’s seldom a problem finding popular foreign cuisines such as Italian (Itaria-ryōri), French (Furansu-ryōri), Korean (Kankoku-ryōri), Chinese (Chūgokū or Chūka-ryōri) or Thai (Tai-ryōri) food. However, the recipes are often adapted to suit Japanese tastes, which can mean less spicy dishes than you may be used to.
Coffee shops (kissaten) are something of an institution in Japan, often designed to act as a lounge or business meeting place for patrons starved of space at home or the office. Others have weird designs or specialize in certain things, such as jazz or comic books. In such places a speciality coffee or tea will usually set you back ¥500 or more. There are also plenty of cheap and cheerful operations like Doutor and Starbucks, serving drinks and snacks at reasonable prices; search these places out for a cheap breakfast or a quick bite.
The best-value and liveliest places to drink are the izakaya pub-type restaurants, which also serve an extensive menu of mainly small dishes. Traditional izakaya are rather rustic-looking, although in the cities you’ll come across more modern, trendy operations aimed at the youth market. One type of traditional izakaya is the robatayaki, which serves charcoal-grilled food. Most izakaya open around 6pm and shut down around midnight if not later. From mid-June to late August, outdoor beer gardens – some attached to existing restaurants and izakayas, other stand-alone operations – flourish across Japan’s main cities and towns; look out for the fairy lights on the roofs of buildings, or in street-level gardens and plazas.
Regular bars, or nomiya, often consist of little more than a short counter and a table, and are run by a mama-san if female, or papa-san or master if male. Prices at most nomiya tend to be high and, although you’re less likely to be ripped off if you speak some Japanese, it’s no guarantee. All such bars operate a bottle keep system for regulars to stash a bottle of drink with their name on it behind the bar. It’s generally best to go to such bars with a regular, since they tend to operate like mini-clubs, with non-regulars being given the cold shoulder. Nomiya stay open to the early hours, provided there are customers. A variation on the nomiya is the tachinomiya or standing bar which are usually cheaper and more casual. Some specialize in selling premium wines or sake, and they often serve good food alongside the drinks.
Some bars also have cover charges (for which you’ll usually get some small snack with your drink), although there’s plenty of choice among those that don’t, so always check before buying your drink. Bars specializing in karaoke aren’t difficult to spot; if you decide to join in, there’s usually a small fee to pay and at least a couple of songs with English lyrics to choose from.
Ordering and etiquette
On walking into most restaurants in Japan you’ll be greeted by the word Irasshaimase (“welcome”). Indicate with your fingers how many places are needed. After being seated you’ll be handed an oshibori, a damp, folded hand towel, usually steaming hot, but sometimes offered refreshingly cold in summer. A chilled glass of water (mizu) will also usually be brought automatically.
To help you decipher the menu there’s a basic glossary of essential words and phrases; for more detail, try Japanese: A Rough Guide Phrasebook, or the comprehensive What’s What in Japanese Restaurants by Robb Satterwhite. It’s always worth asking if an English menu is available (eigo no menyū ga arimasu-ka). If a restaurant has a plastic food window display, get up from your seat and use it to point to your waiter or waitress what you want. If all else fails, look round at what your fellow diners are eating and point out what you fancy. Remember that the teishoku (set meal) or kōsu (course) meals offer the best value. The word Baikingu (written in katakana and standing for “Viking”) means a help-yourself buffet.
Don’t stick chopsticks (hashi) upright in your rice – this is an allusion to death. If you’re taking food from a shared plate, turn the chopsticks round and use the other end to pick up the food. Also, never cross your chopsticks when you put them on the table or use them to point at things. When it comes to eating soupy noodles, it’s considered good form to slurp them up noisily; it’s also fine to bring the bowl to your lips and drink directly from it.
When you want the bill, say okanjō kudasai; the usual form is to pay at the till on the way out, not to leave the money on the table. There’s no need to leave a tip, but it’s polite to say gochisō-sama deshita (“That was delicious!”) to the waiter or chef. Only the most upmarket Western restaurants and top hotels will add a service charge (typically ten percent).
Sushi, sashimi and seafood
Many non-Japanese falsely assume that all sushi is fish, but the name actually refers to the way the rice is prepared with vinegar, and you can also get sushi dishes with egg or vegetables. Fish and seafood are, of course, essential and traditional elements of Japanese cuisine, and range from the seaweed used in miso-shiru (soup) to the slices of tuna, salmon and squid laid across the slabs of sushi rice. Slices of raw fish and seafood on their own are called sashimi.
In a traditional sushi-ya each plate is freshly made by a team of chefs working in full view of the customers. If you’re not sure of the different types to order, point at the trays on show in the glass chiller cabinets at the counter, or go for the nigiri-zushi mori-awase, six or seven different types of fish and seafood on fingers of sushi rice. Other types of sushi include maki-zushi, rolled in a sheet of crisp seaweed, and chirashi-zushi, a layer of rice topped with fish, vegetables and cooked egg.
While a meal at a reputable sushi-ya averages ¥5000 (or much more at a high-class joint), at kaiten-zushi shops, where you choose whatever sushi dish you want from the continually replenished conveyor belt, the bill will rarely stretch beyond ¥3000 per person. In kaiten-zushi, plates are colour-coded according to how much they cost, and are totted up at the end for the total cost of the meal. If you can’t see what you want, you can ask the chefs to make it for you. Green tea is free, and you can usually order beer or sake.
To try fugu, or blowfish, go to a specialist fish restaurant, which can be easily identified by the picture or model of a balloon-like fish outside. Fugu’s reputation derives from its potentially fatally poisonous nature rather than its bland, rubbery taste. The actual risk of dropping dead at the counter is virtually nil – at least from fugu poisoning – and you’re more likely to keel over at the bill, which (cheaper, farmed fugu apart) will be in the ¥10,000 per-person bracket. Fugu is often served as part of a set course menu including raw slivers of fish (sashimi) and a stew made from other parts of the fish served with rice.
A more affordable and tasty seafood speciality is unagi, or eel, typically basted with a thick sauce of soy and sake, sizzled over charcoal and served on a bed of rice. This dish is particularly popular in summer, when it’s believed to provide strength in the face of sweltering heat.
The three main types of noodle are soba, udon and ramen. Soba are thin noodles made of brown buckwheat flour. If the noodles are green, they’ve been made with green tea powder.
There are two main styles of serving soba: hot and cold. Kake-soba is served in a clear hot broth, often with added ingredients such as tofu, vegetables and chicken. Cold noodles piled on a bamboo screen bed, with a cold sauce for dipping (which can be flavoured with chopped spring onions, seaweed flakes and wasabi – grated green horseradish paste) is called zaru-soba or mori-soba. In more traditional restaurants you’ll also be served a flask of the hot water (soba-yu) to cook the noodles, which is added to the dipping sauce to make a soup drink once you’ve finished the soba.
In most soba restaurants, udon will also be on the menu. These chunkier noodles are made with plain wheat flour and are served in the same hot or cold styles as soba. In yakisoba and yakiudon dishes the noodles are fried, often in a thick soy sauce, along with seaweed flakes, meat and vegetables.
Ramen, or yellow wheat-flour noodles, were originally imported from China but have now become part and parcel of Japanese cuisine. They’re usually served in big bowls in a steaming oily soup, which typically comes in three varieties: miso (flavoured with fermented bean paste), shio (a salty soup) or shōyu (a broth made with soy sauce). The dish is often finished off with a range of garnishes, including seaweed, bamboo shoots, pink and white swirls of fish paste, and pork slices. You can usually spice it up with condiments such as minced garlic or a red pepper mixture at your table. Wherever you eat ramen, you can also usually get gyōza, fried half-moon-shaped dumplings filled with pork or seafood, to accompany them.
A traditional meal isn’t considered finished until a bowl of rice has been eaten. This Japanese staple also forms the basis of both the alcoholic drink sake and mochi, a chewy dough made from pounded glutinous rice, usually prepared and eaten during festivals such as New Year.
Rice is an integral part of several cheap snack-type dishes. Onigiri are palm-sized triangles of rice with a filling of soy, tuna, salmon roe, or sour umeboshi (pickled plum), all wrapped up in a sheet of crisp nori (seaweed). They can be bought at convenience stores for around ¥150 each and are ingeniously packaged so that the nori stays crisp until the onigiri is unwrapped. Donburi is a bowl of rice with various toppings, such as chicken and egg (oyako-don, literally “parent and child”), strips of stewed beef (gyū-don) or katsu-don, which come with a tonkatsu pork cutlet.
A perennially popular Japanese comfort food is curry rice (karē raisu in rōmaji). Only mildly spicy, this bears little relation to the Indian dish: what goes into the sludgy brown sauce that makes up the curry is a mystery, and you’ll probably search in vain for evidence of any beef or chicken in the so-called biifu karē and chikin karē. The better concoctions are very tasty and invariably cheap.
Meat is an uncommon part of traditional Japanese cuisine, but in the last century dishes using beef, pork and chicken have become a major part of the national diet. Burger outlets are ubiquitous, and expensive steak restaurants, serving up dishes like sukiyaki (thin beef slices cooked in a soy, sugar and sake broth) and shabu-shabu (beef and vegetable slices cooked at the table in a light broth and dipped in various sauces), are popular treats.
Like sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, nabe (the name refers to the cooking pot) stews are prepared at the table over a gas or charcoal burner by diners who throw a range of raw ingredients (meat or fish along with vegetables) into the pot to cook. As things cook they’re fished out, and the last thing to be immersed is usually some type of noodle. Chanko-nabe is the famous chuck-it-all-in stew used to beef up sumo wrestlers.
Other popular meat dishes include: tonkatsu, breadcrumb-covered slabs of pork, crisply fried and usually served on a bed of shredded cabbage with a brown, semi-sweet sauce; and yakitori, delicious skewers of grilled chicken (and sometimes other meats and vegetables). At the cheapest yakitori-ya, you’ll pay for each skewer individually, typically around ¥100 or less a stick. Kushiage is a combination of tonkatsu and yakitori dishes, where skewers of meat, seafood and vegetables are coated in breadcrumbs and deep-fried.
Despite being the home of macrobiotic cooking, vegetarianism isn’t a widely practised or fully understood concept in Japan. You might ask for a vegetarian (saishoku) dish in a restaurant and still be served something with meat or fish in it. If you’re a committed vegetarian, things to watch out for include dashi stock, which contains bonito (dried tuna), and omelettes, which may contain chicken stock. To get a truly vegetarian meal you will have to be patient and be prepared to spell out exactly what you do and do not eat when you order. Vege-Navi (vege-navi.jp) lists many vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic options across the country.
If you’re willing to turn a blind eye to occasionally eating meat, fish or animal fats by mistake, then tuck in because Japan has bequeathed some marvellous vegetarian foods to the world. Top of the list is tofu, compacted cakes of soya-bean curd, which comes in two main varieties, momengoshi-dōfu (cotton tofu), so-called because of its fluffy texture, and the smoother, more fragile kinugoshi-dōfu (silk tofu). Buddhist cuisine, shōjin-ryōri, concocts whole menus based around different types of tofu dishes; although they can be expensive, it’s worth searching out the specialist restaurants serving this type of food, particularly in major temple cities, such as Kyoto, Nara and Nagano. Note, though, that the most popular tofu dish you’ll come across in restaurants – hiya yakko, a small slab of chilled tofu topped with grated ginger, spring onions and soy sauce – is usually sprinkled with bonito flakes.
Miso (fermented bean paste) is another crucial ingredient of Japanese cooking, used in virtually every meal, if only in the soup miso-shiru. It often serves as a flavouring in vegetable dishes and comes in two main varieties, the light shiro-miso and the darker, stronger-tasting aka-miso.
One question all foreigners in Japan are asked is “can you eat nattō?”. This sticky, stringy fermented bean paste has a strong taste, pungent aroma and unfamiliar texture, which can be off-putting to Western palates. It’s worth trying at least once, though, and is usually served in little tubs at breakfast, to be mixed with mustard and soy sauce and eaten with rice.
Other Japanese dishes
Said to have been introduced to Japan in the sixteenth century by Portuguese traders, tempura are lightly battered pieces of seafood and vegetables. Tempura are dipped in a bowl of light sauce (ten-tsuyu) mixed with grated daikon radish and sometimes ginger. At specialist tempura restaurants, you’ll generally order the teishoku set meal, which includes whole prawns, squid, aubergines, mushrooms and the aromatic leaf shiso.
Oden is a warming dish, usually served in winter but available at other times too – it tastes much more delicious than it looks. Large chunks of food, usually on skewers, are simmered in a thin broth, and often served from portable carts (yatai) on street corners or in convenience stores from beside the till. The main ingredients are blocks of tofu, daikon (a giant radish), konnyaku (a hard jelly made from a root vegetable), konbu (seaweed), hard-boiled eggs and fish cakes. All are best eaten with a smear of fiery English-style mustard.
Japan’s equivalent of the pizza is okonomiyaki, a fun, cheap meal that you can often assemble yourself. A pancake batter is used to bind shredded cabbage and other vegetables with either seafood or meat. If it’s a DIY restaurant, you’ll mix the individual ingredients and cook them on a griddle in the middle of the table. Otherwise, you can sit at the kitchen counter watching the chefs at work. Once cooked, okonomiyaki is coated in a sweet brown sauce and/or mayonnaise and dusted off with dried seaweed and flakes of bonito fish, which twist and curl in the rising heat. At most okonomiyaki restaurants you can also get fried noodles (yakisoba). In addition, okonomiyaki, along with its near-cousin takoyaki (battered balls of octopus), are often served from yatai carts at street festivals.
Authentic Western restaurants are now commonplace across Japan, but there is also a hybrid style of cooking known as yōshoku (“Western food”) that developed during the Meiji era at the turn of the twentieth century. Often served in shokudō, yōshoku dishes include omelettes with rice (omu-raisu), deep-fried potato croquettes (korokke) and hamburger steaks (hanbāgu) doused in a thick sauce. The contemporary version of yōshoku is mukokuseki or “no-nationality” cuisine, a mishmash of world cooking styles usually found in izakaya.
The Japanese are enthusiastic social drinkers. It’s not uncommon to see totally inebriated people slumped in the street, though on the whole drunkenness rarely leads to violence.
If you want a non-alcoholic drink, you’ll never be far from a coffee shop (kissaten) or a jidō hambaiki (vending machine), where you can get a vast range of canned drinks, both hot and cold; note canned tea and coffee is often very sweet. Soft drinks from machines typically cost ¥110 and hot drinks are identified by a red stripe under the display. Vending machines selling beer, sake and other alcoholic drinks shut down at 11pm, the same time as liquor stores. A few 24-hour convenience stores may sell alcohol after this time; look for the kanji for sake (酒) outside.
Legend has it that the ancient deities brewed sake (also known as nihonshu) – Japan’s most famous alcoholic beverage – from the first rice of the new year. Although often referred to as rice wine, the drink, which comes in thousands of different brands, is actually brewed so is more closely related to beer (which long ago surpassed sake as Japan’s most popular alcoholic drink).
Made either in sweet (amakuchi) or dry (karakuchi) varieties, sake is graded as tokkyū (superior), ikkyū (first) and nikyū (second), although this is mainly for tax purposes; if you’re after the best quality, connoisseurs recommend going for ginjō-zukuri (or ginjō-zō), the most expensive and rare of the junmai-shu pure rice sake. Some types of sake are cloudier and less refined than others, and there’s also the very sweet, milky amazaké, often served at temple festivals and at shrines over New Year.
In restaurants and izakaya you’ll be served sake in a small flask (tokkuri) so you can pour your own serving or share it with someone else. You will also be given the choice of drinking your sake warm (atsukan) or cold (reishu). The latter is usually the preferred way to enable you to taste the wine’s complex flavours properly; never drink premium sake warm. When served cold, sake is sometimes presented and drunk out of a small wooden box (masu) with a smidgen of salt on the rim to counter the slightly sweet taste. Glasses are traditionally filled right to the brim and are sometimes placed on a saucer or in a masu to catch any overflow; they’re generally small servings because, with an alcohol content of fifteen percent or more, sake is a strong drink – and it goes to your head even more quickly if drunk warm. For more on sake, check out whttp://www.sake-world.com.
American brewer William Copeland set up Japan’s first brewery in Yokohama in 1870 to serve beer to fellow expats streaming into the country in the wake of the Meiji Restoration. Back then the Japanese had to be bribed to drink it, but these days they need no such encouragement, knocking back a whopping 6.11 billion litres of beer and “beer-like beverages” a year. Copeland’s brewery eventually became Kirin, one of the nation’s big-four brewers along with Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. All turn out a range of lagers and ale-type beers (often called black beer), as well as half-and-half concoctions. There are also low-malt beers called happoshu, and no-malt varieties called dai-san-no-biiru, which have proved very popular of late because of their lower price (the higher the malt content, the higher the government tax), even if they generally taste insipid.
Standard-size cans of beer cost around ¥200 from a shop or vending machine, while bottles (bin-biiru) served in restaurants and bars usually start at ¥500. Draught beer (nama-biiru) is often available and, in beer halls, will be served in a jokki (mug-like glass), which comes in three different sizes: dai (big), chū (medium) and shō (small).
Microbrew craft beers from around Japan (sometimes called ji-biiru – “regional beer”) are becoming more popular and many have way more character than found in the products of the big four. For more information on the craft beer scene there’s the bilingual free magazine The Japan Beer Times (wJapanbeertimes.com) and the blog Beer in Japan (wbeerinjapan.com).
Other alcoholic drinks
Generally with a higher alcohol content and cheaper than sake is shōchū, a distilled white spirit made from rice, barley or potato. You can get an idea of its potency, anything from 25 to 50 percent proof, by its nickname: white lightning. Shōchū is typically mixed with a soft drink into a sawā (as in lemon-sour) or a chūhai highball cocktail, although premium brands can be enjoyed on their own or with ice. There’s something of a shōchū boom currently going on in Japan and the best brands are very drinkable and served like sake ( for more on shōchū). The cheap stuff, however, can give you a wicked hangover.
The Japanese love whisky, with the top brewers producing several respectable brands, often served with water and ice and called mizu-wari. In contrast, Japanese wine (wain), often very sweet, is a less successful product, at least to Western palates. Imported wines, however, are widely sold – not only are they becoming cheaper but there is now a better choice and higher quality available in both shops and restaurants.
Tea, coffee and soft drinks
Unless you’re in a specialist kissaten, most of the time when you order coffee in Japan you’ll get a blend (burendo), a medium-strength drink that is generally served black and comes in a choice of hot (hotto) or iced (aisu). If you want milk, ask for miruku-kōhii (milky coffee) or kafe-ōre (café au lait).
You can also get regular black tea in all coffee shops, served either with milk, lemon or iced. If you want the slightly bitter Japanese green tea, ocha (“honourable tea”), you’ll usually have to go to a traditional teahouse. Green teas, which are always served in small cups and drunk plain, are graded according to their quality. Bancha, the cheapest, is for everyday drinking and, in its roasted form, is used to make the smoky hōjicha, or mixed with popped brown rice for the nutty genmaicha. Medium-grade sencha is served in upmarket restaurants or to favoured guests, while top-ranking, slightly sweet gyokuro (dewdrop) is reserved for special occasions. Other types of tea you may come across are ūron-cha, a refreshing Chinese-style tea, and mugicha, made from roasted barley.
As well as the international brand-name soft drinks and fruit juices, there are many other soft drinks unique to Japan. You’ll probably want to try Pocari Sweat, Post Water or Calpis for the name on the can alone.