The traditional cuisine of Japan (和食, washoku), renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The country's history, with cultural isolation until the 19th century (see pre-modern Japan), and rapid modernization and globalization, is visible in the cuisine, which has a sharp divide between traditional and modern dishes. The main influence before modern times came from Chinese cuisine.
A culinary trip around Japan will make your taste buds dance between various flavors, topped with the platter's presentation that is delightful to the eyes. In addition to the famous sushi and ramen noodles that can be found virtually worldwide, each area in the country has its own local specialties that are exotic even to people from other parts of Japan. Okinawan cuisine in particular is distinct from that of the rest of Japan due to its history as a separate kingdom, and is in many ways more similar to Chinese cuisine than to mainland Japanese cuisine.
Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japanese cuisine has also adopted many influences from Western cuisines. Examples of this include the Japanese cheesecake, wagyu beef steak, deep fried chicken or pork cutlets (katsu) and Japanese chocolates.
Japanese diaspora communities have been established since the Meiji Restoration, with notable examples being the ones in the United States, Brazil and Peru. These communities often have Japanese-inspired dishes that cannot be found in Japan, such as Hawaii's spam musubi.
- Rice is a staple in every Japanese meal, and in fact its Japanese word gohan (ご飯) also means "meal". It can be eaten plain with other dishes, rolled into a sushi, formed into onigiri, morphed into mochi, or even fermented into sake.
- Fish and seafood are common in this island nation; the offering primarily depends on the region. The northern island of Hokkaido is famous for its sashimi and crab due to its cool waters, while octopus balls (takoyaki) are common in Osaka in Southern Japan.
- Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with many meals, but also tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu).
While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudō (食堂), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). Try ones in government buildings: often open to the public as well, they are subsidised by taxes and can be very good values, if uninspiring. When in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku (今日の定食), which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles.
A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). While travelling on JR, don't forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (駅弁) or "station bento", many unique to the region - or even the station.
A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), literally "rice bowl", meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:
- oyakodon (親子丼) - lit. "parent-and-child bowl", usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe)
- katsudon (カツ丼) - a fried pork cutlet with egg
- gyūdon (牛丼) - beef and onion
- chūkadon (中華丼) - literally: "Chinese bowl", stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce
You will also frequently 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 hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (大盛り ōmori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed. For about ¥100 more you can upgrade to katsu karē to add a fried pork cutlet.
Another great place to find affordable and overwhelming amounts of food: department store basements (デパ地下 depa chika). They are often huge spaces filled with expansive amounts of fresh food from throughout the country and local dishes. You can get bento boxes, take out food on a stick, bowls of soup, and often find samples of treats to try. Desserts and rice crackers are also plentiful and highly varied, and department stores are great places to browse with the locals. You can also find restaurants in every single department store, often on the top floors, serving a variety of genres of food in nice settings and varied prices.
Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (麺 men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own "famous" noodle dish, and they are often well worth trying.
There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Many noodle shops serve both. Common dishes for both soba and udon include:
- kake soba (かけそば) - plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top
- tsukimi soba (月見そば) - soup with a raw egg dropped in, named "moon-viewing" because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds
- kitsune soba (きつねそば) - soup with sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu
- zaru soba (ざるそば) - chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi; popular in summer
Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. The four major styles of ramen are:
- shio rāmen (塩ラーメン) - salty pork (or chicken) broth, popular in Hakodate, Hokkaido
- 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 Sapporo, Hokkaido
- tonkotsu rāmen (豚骨ラーメン) - thick pork broth, a speciality of Fukuoka, Kyushu
Another popular dish is yakisoba (焼きそば, "fried soba"), which is similar to Chinese chow mein, containing noodles stir-fried with vegetables and pork, garnished with aonori seaweed powder and pickled ginger. Despite the name "soba", it actually uses wheat noodles similar to ramen. A variation called yakisoba-pan (焼きそばパン, "yakisoba bread") stuffs yakisoba into a hot dog bun.
Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese it both cools the noodles down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl. It is commonplace in Japan for noodle dishes to be served with a spoon. Simply pick up your noodles with your chopsticks and place them in your spoon. This will allow you to drink as much of the broth as possible and combine the noodles with other tasty things in your bowl.
Sushi and sashimi
Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.
There is enough arcane 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 on top
- maki (巻き) - fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks
- temaki (手巻き) - fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori
- gunkan (軍艦) - "battleship" sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents
- chirashi (ちらし) - a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top; an excellent budget choice to get a wide variety of toppings for a good price
Nearly anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been turned into sushi, and most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall. A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sāmon (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 grades: 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 method of preparation is negi-toro (ねぎとろ), minced tuna belly, sometimes mixed with chopped spring onions.
If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant, but can't or don't want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For instance the above mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu). Or order the kappa maki which is nothing more than sliced cucumber, rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.
At the finest sushi restaurants, the chef would put a dab of fiery wasabi radish into the sushi, and glaze the fish with soy sauce for you. Thus, such sushi restaurants don't have individual bowls of soy sauce or wasabi, since the chef has already seasoned the food. Most restaurants, though, provide soy sauce at the table and a small bowl for dipping. (Turn nigiri sushi upside down before dipping, as the soy sauce is to flavor the fish, not to drown the rice.) Wasabi is considered a standard component of sushi, but similarly, some restaurants (particularly budget ones) have wasabi on the table for you to add to your liking. For children and those who don't like wasabi, you can sometimes find or ask for sabi-nuki (サビ抜き) sushi that omits the wasabi.
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 into 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 will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. In the finest sushi restaurants, this would be the only option, though you can be more or less guaranteed that only the freshest seasonal ingredients would go into your sushi. In general, the chef would put wasabi into the sushi, and glaze the fish with soy sauce for you, so a separate saucer with soy sauce and wasabi is typically not provided, and it would be bad manners to request one, since it implies that the chef is not doing a good job. Fine sushi is always made such that you can put the entire piece into your mouth at once. You should eat the sushi as soon as the chef places it on your plate, and not wait for everyone in your party to receive theirs, as having the rice and fish at different temperatures is part of the experience of eating fine sushi. Unlike in other countries, fine sushi restaurants in Japan generally only serve sushi and do not serve appetizers or dessert.
Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (回転, lit. "revolving") sushi shops, where you sit by a conveyor belt and grab whatever strikes your fancy, at prices that can be as low as ¥100 per plate. (Plates are color-coded by price; when you're done, call a waiter who will count your plates and tell you how much you owe.) Even in these cheaper places, it's still quite acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido, kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place with the low end restaurants serving little more than junk-food.
On the other hand, if you're adventurous you can tell the chef "Omakase onegaishimasu" ("I leave it in your hands"), and he'll select whatever is freshest that day. This could mean a single full plate, or it could mean they may keep feeding you one piece at a time until you're full. In either case, keep in mind that you probably won't know how much you're spending, unless you indicated an amount when you ordered.
When eating sushi, it's perfectly acceptable to use your fingers. Good sushi is always made such that you can put the entire piece into your mouth at once (except for conical temaki hand rolls and some other uncommon forms). You should eat the sushi as soon as the chef places it on your plate, and not wait for everyone in your party to receive theirs, as having the rice and fish at different temperatures is part of the experience of eating sushi. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free. Unlike in other countries, fine sushi restaurants in Japan itself generally only serve sushi and do not serve appetizers or dessert.
Despite fish sashimi being the most well known, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous ones. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally available, although it's not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi.
Fugu (ふぐ) or puffer fish is highly poisonous and considered a delicacy in Japan. It requires a tremendous amount of skill in its preparation, involving the removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it's highly unlikely you'll be poisoned to death as licensed chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Fatalities are very rare, and almost all are from fishermen who tried to prepare fugu they caught by themselves. Fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (ふぐ屋). Incidentally, the Japanese emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.
A quintessentially Japanese form of fine dining is known as kaiseki (懐石 or 会席), which consists of many small courses of many different types of dishes using only the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients. It is extremely expensive. Kaiseki is usually served at specialist kaiseki restaurants known as ryōtei (料亭), some of which are so exclusive that the only way to get a reservation is to be introduced by one their regular diners. Many of the most luxurious ryokan also provide their guests with a kaiseki dinner during their stay. Although available in virtually every Japanese city and even in some small towns, Kyoto is considered by most Japanese to be the spiritual home of kaiseki, and continues to be home to many of the top ryōtei to this day.
Grilled and fried dishes
The Japanese didn't eat much meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since then. The teppanyaki (鉄板焼き, confusingly known in the U.S. as "hibachi") and self-grill yakiniku (焼肉, Japanese-style "Korean barbecue") cooking methods, as well as the deep fried tempura (天ぷら) battered shrimp and vegetables originate here. Keep an eye on the price though, as meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive and luxury varieties like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving. Although traditionally considered to be casual food, tempura has entered the Japanese fine dining repertoire, and there are numerous fine tempura omakase restaurants in which the chef deep fries the dish in front of you and puts it directly on your plate to be eaten immediately.
Other uniquely Japanese foods include okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, "cook it how you like it", a batter with cabbage, meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings of your choice, often self-cooked at your table) and yakitori (焼き鳥, grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable).
- okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) - literally "cook it how you like it", it's a Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger; at 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) - light-battered shrimp, fish and vegetables deep-fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth. Tempura has also entered the Japanese fine dining repertoire, and there are specialist tempura omakase restaurants that have elevated this dish to an art form. In these places, the chef will deep fry the pieces in front of you and serve them directly onto your plate course by course. Okinawan tempura is thickly battered and a bit like a corn dog. Satsuma-age, a type of deep-fried fish paste, is also called tempura.
- tonkatsu (豚カツ) - deep-fried breaded pork cutlets elevated into an art form
- yakiniku (焼肉) - Japanese-style "Korean barbecue", cooked by yourself at your table
- yakitori (焼き鳥) - grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable, a classic accompaniment to alcohol. Tori means chicken, but in some areas, Yakitori refers to grilled pork skewers.
One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (うなぎ unagi), reputed to give strength and vitality in the drainingly hot summer months. A properly grilled eel simply melts in the mouth when eaten, and takes over ¥3000 from your wallet in the process. (You can find it for less, but these are usually imported frozen, and not nearly as tasty.)
A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (鯨 kujira), which tastes like fishy steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese don't hold whale in much esteem; it's associated with school lunches and wartime scarcity, and it's rarely found outside speciality restaurants such as Kujiraya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can. Bear in mind that the importation of whale meat in any quantity is banned in many countries under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, including the EU, the US and the UK, and can be met with significant fines and even imprisonment.
Particularly in the cold winter months various "hot pot" stews (鍋 nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:
- chankonabe (ちゃんこ鍋) - a hotchpotch steamboat much favored by sumo wrestlers. A cuisine born in the sumo stable. It means hot pot food eaten with chan (master) and ko (pupil). There are no rules on flavors or ingredients; flavors change depending on the sumo stable and the person making the dish, However, they do not eat any meat other than birds during the game season, in a superstitious sense. By the way, all the meals eaten in the sumo stable are called chanko.
- oden (おでん) - a variety of skewered fishcakes, daikon radish, tofu, and other ingredients simmered in fish soup for days. Primarily a winter dish, often sold in convenience stores and on the street in makeshift blue-tarp yatai tents.
- sukiyaki (すき焼き) - a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. The beef is typically dipped in beaten raw eggs after cooking.
- shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) - a hotpot of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but seafood, pork, and other variations exist) are briefly swished through the hot water to instantly cook them, then dipped in flavoured sauce
Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (洋食 yōshoku), ranging from molecular-level carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognizable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes. A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include:
- hambāgu (ハンバーグ) - not to be confused with a McDonald's hambāgā, this version of Hamburg steak is a standalone hamburger patty with gravy and toppings
- omuraisu (オムライス) - rice wrapped in an omelette with a dollop of ketchup
- wafū sutēki (和風ステーキ) - steak served Japanese-style with soy sauce
- korokke (コロッケ) - croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion
- 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 cutlet
Chinese food (中華料理 chūka ryōri) in Japan has been adapted to the point of being hardly recognizable in China. While ramen is perhaps the best known of such dishes, there are many others. These can often be eaten at (what are liberally described as) Chinese restaurants, ramen shops and izakayas.
- chāshū (チャーシュー) - based on the Cantonese dish char siu. Unlike the original Cantonese version, which is roasted, the Japanese version is instead stewed in a honey and soy mix (making it a misnomer, since the Cantonese word siu in char siu means "to roast"). Often served with ramen.
- gyōza (餃子) - derived from northern Chinese jiaozi, it is commonly sold in ramen shops. It is typically pan-fried and served with a dipping sauce consisting of soy-based tare sauced and chilli oil.
- manjū (饅頭) - derived from northern Chinese baozi, but typically with sweet instead of savory fillings. The type with savory fillings are known as nikuman (肉まん) in Japan.
- buta no kakuni (豚の角煮) - stewed pork belly, derived from the cuisine of Zhejiang.
- Suppon dishes (すっぽん料理, suppon ryouri) is dish using softshell turtle. It is eaten as a hot pot or fried. It has a texture and flavor similar to chicken. The shell part is gelatinous. It is said to be good for nutritional fortification.
- Funazushi (鮒寿司) is sushi made by pickling crucian carp in rice and sake lees and fermenting. It is the original form of sushi and is said to be the oldest existing method of cooking sushi. It is a specialty dish of Lake Biwa (琵琶湖, biwako).
- Kusaya (くさや) is dried fish made by pickling fish such as horse mackerel in a fermented liquid called kusaya ziru. It has a strong flavor but a unique smell. It is a specialty dish of Izu Islands (伊豆諸島, izusyoto).
- Kuchiko (くちこ) is dried gonad of sea cucumber. It is a specialty dish of Noto Peninsula (能登半島, notohanto).
- Konowata (このわた) is salted guts of sea cucumber.
- Fugu no ransou no nukazuke (ふぐの卵巣の糠漬け) is food made by salting the ovary of the deadly poison puffer fish and again pickling it in rice bran to remove the poison. Production is permitted only in Ishikawa.
- Unagi no Sashimi (鰻の刺身) is eel's blood is poisonous if you eat it raw, but we completely remove the blood and poison and eat it as sashimi. It is a rare dish with few restaurants where you can eat it. It can be eaten in Hamamatsu.
- Sea squirt (ホヤ, hoya) is called a sea pineapple from its appearance. When the freshness is lost, it smells unique, but the fresh one smells light and tastes good. Miyagi and Hokkaido are famous for their production areas.
- Yagi no sashi (ヤギの刺身) is goat meat sashimi. It smells like a beast. It also has sashimi of goat testicles sashimi. It can be eaten in Okinawa.
- Irabū jiru (イラブー汁) is soup is made from Sea Snake. It can be eaten in Okinawa.
Insect diet (昆虫食) is before the 1870 s when Western culture was adopted and meat eating became common, the main source of protein in Japan was fish caught in the sea, but in some mountainous areas where fresh fish was not available, insects were eaten instead of fish as a source of protein, and even today, there are regions where insects are eaten as a part of the culture.
- Inago no tsukudani (いなごの佃煮) is sweet and salty simmered dish of locusts with soy sauce and sugar. It is eaten in mountainous areas such as Nagano, Gifu, Gunma and Yamagata.
- Zazamushi no tsukudani (ざざむしの佃煮) is sweet and salty simmered dish of lmayfly or plecoptera with soy sauce and sugar. It is eaten in the [Kamiina] region of Nagano Prefecture.
- Hachinoko no tsukudani (はちのこの佃煮) is sweet and salty simmered dish of apanteles glomerata and other bee larvaewith soy sauce and sugar. It is eaten in the Gifu and Nagano.
Abroad, most of the items you find in a typical Japanese restaurant are actually a collection from various regions of the country. In Japan, the cuisine varies somewhat from region to region, and you will often find regional specialties (特産品 tokusanhin), some of which are even specific to a single city. These regional specialties often make use of local ingredients not found elsewhere in Japan, and also have very distinct taste profiles. Japanese often seek them out in restaurants and as souvenirs when they travel.
Being at the northern Pacific, the waters of this northernmost Japanese island has abundant seafood that are served to your table:
- Genghis Khan Barbecue (じんぎすかん / ジンギスカン jingisukan) - marinated lamb and mutton barbecued on top of vegetables, on a grill. Usually enjoyed communally.
- Ishikari Nabe (石狩鍋) - a nabemono dish of salmon pieces stewed with vegetables in a miso-based broth.
- Squid Noodles (いか素麺 Ika Soumen) - squid sliced into very thin noodle-like strips and eaten with a dipping sauce, like somen.
- Ruibe (ルイベ) - Thinly sliced raw and half-frozen salmon. Traditionally frozen outside, it leaves a taste that melts in the mouth.
- Ramen (ラーメン) - The ramen dish that is ubiquitous across Japan can also be found here in numerous variants. Sapporo is known for miso ramen (味噌ラーメン), which uses a pork and miso based broth, while Hakodate is known for shio ramen (塩ラーメン), which uses a pork and salt based broth.
Tohoku (Northern Honshu)
The rice haven of Japan is reflected in their traditional platters:
- Wanko Soba (わんこそば) - An all-you-can-eat small serving of soba with side dishes, originating from Iwate Prefecture.
- Kiritanpo (きりたんぽ) - a cooked rice cake molded into cylinders and skewered. Usually served with miso.
- Gyūtan (牛タン) - grilled beef tongue, usually served in yakiniku or yakitori restaurants.
- Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture, has a sizable Korean population, with their naengmyeon (cold noodle) and jajangmyeon (black noodle) being adapted to Japanese taste.
Kanto (Tokyo metropolitan area)
- Monjayaki (もんじゃ焼き) - Worcestershire sauce-flavored dough, mix in whatever toppings you desire and baked. It's similar to okonomiyaki, but the dough doesn't harden completely, so you scoop out a little bit with a spatula and eat it. At most restaurants you cook it yourself (staff can probably help, as it requires knowing the proper technique), and it's traditionally eaten directly off the griddle, one small spatula-full at a time.
- Chankonabe (鍋ちゃんこなべ ) - a protein-rich stew of chicken and beef with various vegetables in fish or chicken broth. Commonly as a sumo wrestler's diet.
- Sushi (寿司) - especially the Nigiri, originate from Edo, the Tokugawa Shogunate's fromer seat of power, now known as Tokyo. Most of Japan's finest and most exclusive sushi restaurants can be found in Tokyo, and this style of sushi is known as edomaezushi (江戸前寿司).
- Shoyu ramen (醬油ラーメン) - The variant of this dish from Tokyo uses a pork and soy sauce based broth.
Chubu and Tokai (Nagoya and Central Honshu)
- Unagi (うなぎ) - grilled eel, dipped and broiled in soy-based sauce. Usually served on its own with rice.
- Misokatsu (味噌カツ) - fried meat cutlet, topped with miso sauce
- Jibu-ni (じぶ煮) - Dashi stew with duck coated in flour, seasonal vegetables, and Kanazawa specialty sudare-fu (wheat gluten)
- Hōtō (ほうとう) - flat and wide udon in miso soup with vegetables
Kansai (Osaka metropolitan area)
- Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) - Osaka is home to the predominant style of okonomiyaki. Literally "cook it how you like it", it's a Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger. At many places you cook it yourself at your table.
- Takoyaki (たこ焼き) - a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special moulded pan, filled with octopus and served with Worcestershire sauce. A variety from Akakashi (明石焼き - akahaski yaki) has the snack made from egg batter and dipped in fish broth before consuming.
- Funa Zushi (鮒寿司) - Crucian carp eggs pickled in salt, and then steamed rice, for months, leaving a cheesy taste. It is said to be the predecessor of sushi.
- Sauce (ソース) - Sauce is an indispensable seasoning for the Japanese dining table. Especially in Osaka, sauce is used heavily, and in a variety of dishes such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, tonkatsu and kushikatsu. In Japan, the unqualified use of the word "sauce" means sauces similar to "Worcestershire sauce" such as "chuno sauce", "tonkatsu sauce" and "okonomiyaki sauce".
- Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) - Unlike Osaka's version, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is layered rather than mixed together. It usually includes yakisoba noodles and a lot more cabbage. Because the layering is trickier to do, Hiroshima-yaki is more often cooked by chefs. Traditionally, it didn't have mayonnaise (that's an Osaka addition), but today you can top it however you want.
- Izumo soba (出雲そば) - buckwheat noodles that you pour the sauce over. Can be eaten hot or cold.
- Okayama Bara-zushi (岡山ばら寿司) - A colorful mix of seafood that became popular in the Edo Period as a way to get around the local daimyo's "one dish on the table" order. The order was meant to force frugality and simplicity, but the local's used the dish as a legal rebellion, creating "one dish" with a lavish variety and gluttonous amount of seafood.
- Fugu (ふぐ) - Shimonoseki is known as the capital of fugu (blowfish).
- Katsuo no tataki (カツオのたたき) - A renowned dish from Kochi
- Sanuki udon (讃岐うどん) - Takamatsu is known as "udon country"
- Basashi (馬刺し) - horse meat sashimi, a speciality of Kumamoto
- Tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン) - also known as Hakata ramen (博多ラーメン). The local variant of the ubiquitous ramen, with a broth made by boiling pork bone until the broth reaches a cloudy white colour and a thick consistency. As its alternative name suggests, it originates from the Hakata district in the city of Fukuoka.
Places to eat
The number of restaurants (レストラン resutoran) in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out. As a result, eating out is generally cheaper than in Western countries (though still expensive by Asian standards) if you stick to a basic rice or noodles meal at a local joint, though at the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can be very expensive indeed.
According to the Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most "delicious" city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.
Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (定食), or fixed set meals. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as ¥600 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus will, for most establishments, be in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can't read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like. You might also find these types of set meals at dinner. If you opt for à la carte, you may be charged a fee (generally ¥1000) to order à la carte.
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you'll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some restaurants, there will be surprisingly lifelike plastic samples or photographs of the food labeled with names and prices. It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you're open-minded and flexible, you might get shōyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You'll always know how much you're spending so you'll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments. Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all-you-can-eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題), byuffe (ビュッフェ, "buffet"), or baikingu (バイキング "Viking", because "smorgasbord" would be too hard to pronounce in Japanese).
Japan, along with France, is considered by many to be one of the world's centers of fine dining and there is an abundance of fine dining options in Japan. Tokyo is home to more Michelin star restaurants than any other city in the world, and Japan is tied with France for first place as the country with the most Michelin star restaurants. Unfortunately, Japanese fine dining is notoriously inaccessible to foreign visitors; online bookings are typically not an option, staff typically speak little to no English, and most fine dining establishments do not accept reservations from new customers without an introduction from one of their regular diners. In some cases, your hotel concierge may be able to score you a reservation at one of these places provided you make the request well in advance, though this is generally only possible if you stay in the most expensive luxury hotels. Also keep in mind that unlike in other countries, many fine dining establishments do not accept credit cards, and you will be expected to pay for your meal in cash.
For those who wish to experience top end Japanese style fine dining, there are the super exclusive ryōtei (料亭), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (会席 or 懐石) meals of a dozen or more small courses prepared from the very best and freshest seasonal ingredients. You will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience.
Besides kaiseki, there are also many fine dining restaurants that specialise in sushi, and others specialising in tempura. In both these instances, the chef typically prepares each course in front of you, and serves it directly onto your plate. In addition, there are number of restaurants which attempt to serve French-Japanese fusion cuisine, using the finest ingredients from both, often with interesting and surprisingly tasty results.
Traditional Japanese inns (see Ryokan) are a common way for travellers to enjoy a fine kaiseki meal. The elaborate meals featuring local seasonal ingredients are considered an essential part of a visit to a ryokan, and factor heavily into many people's choice of inn. Some ryokan are notable destinations specifically because of their food rather than their hot springs or accommodations.
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Some chains to look out for:
- Yoshinoya (吉野家), Matsuya (松屋), and Sukiya (すき家) are gyūdon (beef bowl) specialists.
- 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 hamburgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Notice also the list of local produce suppliers posted in each shop. Made to order, so guaranteed fresh, and unlike some fast-food places, MOS Burger products generally look like their advertising photos. A bit more expensive than McDonald's, but worth the extra. MOS stands for "Mountain, Ocean, Sun," by the way.
- Freshness Burger tries to be a bit less fast-foody and more like an "all-American" joint. The food's decent, but just be prepared for the tiniest burgers you've ever seen.
- Beckers, fast-food burger restaurants operated by JR, are often found in and near JR stations in greater Tokyo and Yokohama. Beckers offers made to order burgers and Menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, their buns are fresh and baked inside the stores. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking them. Their Pork Teriyaki burger is awesome. They also offer poutine, a French Canadian snack consisting of french fries, gravy and cheese. The chili topping needs to be tried. More often than not, you can pay with the JR Suica traincard.
- Ootoya (大戸屋) is really too good to call fast food, with a menu and atmosphere that matches any "home-style" Japanese restaurant. While there are illustrated menus on signboards, ordering can be confusing: at some stores you order at the counter before taking a seat, while at others servers come to your table.
- Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy soup kitchen chain that serves delicious soup all-year round, with a selection of cold soups in summer. It is a bit more expensive than most other fast food chains but you may consider it a healthier alternative to burgers.
- Lotteria is a standard burger-type place.
- First Kitchen offers a few dishes outside of the standard fast-food fare, including pasta, pizza, and fries with a wide assortment of flavorings.
- Coco Ichibanya serves Japanese style curry rice with a vast array of ingredient choices. English menus available
Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Ken-chiki as it's known for short, has two dubious claims to fame in Japan.
One is that it's the traditional food for Christmas. Many years ago, American expats substituted KFC for their traditional Christmas turkey, a meat which even today is extremely difficult to find in Japan. In the 1970s KFC latched onto it as a marketing campaign, and now more than 3 million Japanese order KFC during the Christmas season, while the stores' statues of Colonel Sanders don a Santa suit. Don't think you can walk in and grab a box quickly, though; if you don't preorder several weeks in advance, you'll have to wait in line for hours. At around ¥3,780, the Christmas dinner meal includes a chocolate cake, while premium meals up to ¥7,280 offer whole roasted chicken or chicken in red wine sauce, and include extras like collectible plates.
The other claim to fame is the Curse of the Colonel. Fans of Osaka's Hanshin Tigers baseball team celebrating their 1985 Japan Championship Series victory tossed a statue of Colonel Sanders into the Dōtonbori River. (Apparently the Colonel resembled first baseman Randy Bass, inasmuch as both are bearded Americans.) The Tigers then went on an 18-year losing streak, and the legend of a curse was born. Their losing streak has since been broken, and the statue of the Colonel recovered in 2009 (although its glasses and left hand are still missing), but they have yet to win the Japan Series again.
American fast food chains are also present, including McDonald's (マクドナルド Makudonarudo) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (ケンタッキーフライドチキン Kentakii Furaido Chikin). McDonald's restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.
There are also a number of Japanese "family restaurants", serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus, so travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are:
- Jonathan's is probably the most ubiquitous local chain. Skylark is owned by the same company and has similar fare, including a cheap and unlimited "drink bar," which makes these restaurants good places for reading or resting over extended periods. Denny's also has many stores in Japan.
- Royal Host tries to market itself as a bit up-scale.
- Sunday Sun is reasonable, with decent food and menus.
- Volks specializes in steaks, and offers a large salad bar.
If you're travelling on the cheap, Japan's numerous convenience stores (コンビニ konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite to eat, and they're almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. You can find instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and even some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave right in the store. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which is a large ball of rice stuffed with (say) fish or pickled plum and wrapped in seaweed, and usually cost around ¥100 each.
Most convenience stores in Japan also have a restroom located in the back. While most of the stores located in suburban and rural areas will let customers use their bathrooms, many in large cities, especially those in downtown areas and amusement districts of Tokyo and Osaka, will not. Therefore, you should ask whether you can use the bathroom at the cashier first, then buy an item later if you want to show your appreciation.
Supermarkets and department stores
For those on a budget, most supermarkets (sūpā) have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, generally cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day.
Another great place to find affordable and overwhelming amounts of food: department store basements. They are often huge spaces filled with expansive amounts of fresh food from throughout the country and local dishes. You can get bento boxes, take out food on a stick, bowls of soup, and often find samples of treats to try. Desserts are also plentiful, and department stores are great places to browse with the locals. You can also find restaurants in every single department store, often on the top floors, serving a variety of genres of food in nice settings and varied prices.
Known as depachika (デパ地下), the department store basement food court, featuring dozens of tiny specialist stalls dishing up local specialties ranging from exquisitely packed tea ceremony candies to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. They're often a little upmarket pricewise, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few reasonably priced ones in the mix. In the evenings, many slash prices on unsold food, so look for stickers like hangaku (半額, "half price") or san-wari biki (3割引, "30% off") to get a bargain. 割 means "1/10" and 引 means "off".
Despite its image as light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite heavy in salt and fat, with deep-fried meat or seafood being prominent. Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have serious difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products to some degree, particularly as the near-ubiquitous Japanese soup stock dashi is usually prepared with fish and often pops up in unexpected places like miso, rice crackers, curry, omelettes (including tamago sushi), instant noodles and pretty much anywhere salt would be used in Western cuisine. (There is a kelp variant called kombudashi, but it's fairly uncommon.) Soba and udon noodle soups, in particular, virtually always use bonito-based katsuodashi, and typically the only vegetarian-safe item on the menu in a noodle shop is zarusoba, or plain cold noodles — but even for this the dipping sauce typically contains dashi.
An excellent option is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that does not include fish or other marine creatures: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), nattō maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soy beans, an acquired taste for many), kanpyō maki (pickled-gourd rolls), and, occasionally, yuba sushi (made with the delicate, tasty 'skin' of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi using marine animal products, so you may not see them revolving in front of your eyes on the conveyor belt. Just shout 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'll count your plates. The vegetarian sushi options are always inexpensive.
For anyone living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is organic or macrobiotic food, known as shizenshoku (自然食). While "vegetarian food" may sound boring or even unappetizing to Japanese ears, shizenshoku is quite in vogue as of late, although meals may cost about ¥3000 and menus may still contain seafood items. While considerably harder to find, it's worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers shōjin ryōri (精進料理), the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded and thus often very expensive, but is often available at reasonable prices if you stay at temples.
Fortunately, traditional Japanese cuisine contains an ample amount of protein through its great variety of soy products: tofu, miso, nattō, and edamame (tender green soy beans in their pods), for example. In the prepared food sections of supermarkets and department store basements, you can also find many dishes including various types of beans, both sweet and savory.
Travelers with halal dietary restrictions (not eating pork) are given special attention in Japan. The JNTO has a dedicated website that lists all restaurants that are certified halal, and the location of mosques and prayer rooms all across the country.
Muslim travelers should look for food that indicates if they are served with pork (豚肉 butaniku or ポーク pōku) or indicate to the server that you refrain from it. Sushi restaurants are often the safest bet since all of their meats are seafood, while ramen stalls are the places where one should exercise caution.
As there is no local Jewish community in Japan, kosher food is very hard to come by. That said, there is a community of Jewish expatriates from Western countries, and there are two Chabad houses in Tokyo catering to that community. Your best bet in finding kosher food is to contact them for assistance.
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 that seven allergens 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'll need to read the tiny print in Japanese only. Packaging is also often less than helpful for anything outside these seven, with ingredients like "starch" (でんぷん denpun) or "salad oil" (サラダ油 sarada-abura) that can contain basically anything.
A serious 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 soybean powder in crackers and soybean oil for cooking.
Keeping a strict gluten-free diet while eating out is also close to impossible, as celiac 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 made with 100% rice vinegar and pure wasabi root, commercially prepared sushi vinegar and wasabi may both contain gluten. If you have some tolerance, though, Japan and its vast variety of rice dishes is quite navigable. 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 stock it's cooked in or served with will usually have trace quantities.
Avoiding dairy products is straightforward, as they are uncommon in traditional Japanese cuisine. Butter (バター bataa) does make an occasional appearance, but is usually mentioned by name. Pseudo-Western dishes also often feature dairy, so be cognizant of this if you are lactose intolerant.
Peanuts or other tree nuts are basically not used in Japanese cooking, with the exception of a few snacks and desserts, where their presence should be obvious (and marked in the ingredients). Peanut oil is rarely used.
See § Eating vegetarian above for the difficulty of avoiding fish and shellfish.
The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.
In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States). However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club.
Drinking in public is legal in Japan, as is public intoxication. It's especially common to drink at festivals and hanami. It's also not unusual to have a small drinking party on the bullet trains.
Where to drink
If you're looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character 酒 ("alcohol") hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deals at about ¥1,000 for 90 minutes (on average), although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.
While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack (スナック sunakku). These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons.
Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have busy gay scenes. Most gay/lesbian bars serve a small niche (muscular men, etc.) and will not permit those who do not fit the mold, including the opposite sex, to enter. While a few are Japanese only, foreigners are welcome at most bars.
Izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble (お通し otōshi) as you sit down, and no, you can't refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you're served with your beer.
Karaoke parlors serve drinks and snacks, which is a fun way to drink and party noisily at the same time. Orders are placed via a phone on the wall, by pressing a button to summon staff, or in high-tech ones using the karaoke machine's tablet or remote control.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki, or jihanki in slang) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 23:00. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special "Sake Pass" obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards.
- Green and black tea is the traditional non-alcoholic drink. Tea is drunk straight, without milk or sugar.
- Coffee, usually black and sweet, has been popularized in modern times. Vending machines for hot coffee, served in aluminum cans, are a Japanese specialty.
- Sake is a fermented rice beverage, with a status comparable to that of wine elsewhere.
- Shōchū (焼酎) is a distilled rice liquor that originated in Kyūshū.
- Awamori (泡盛) is an Okinawan distilled rice liquor, similar to shochu but with a different taste.
- Though Japanese production of beer, wine and whiskey has a short history, their quality rivals Western competitors.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called "rice wine", in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create 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 is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温 jō-on, or "cool" 冷や hiya), down 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 defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for a recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there.
Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (徳利). Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in gō (合, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L isshōbin (一升瓶) bottle.
The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking 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 drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average today being around +3 (slightly dry).
Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honjōzō (本醸造) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (純米), meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake (濁り酒) is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake ages badly, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colors. These aged sake or koshu (古酒) may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.
Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the lumpy homebrewed doburoku (どぶろく) version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year's Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (better than it sounds), but at least it is cheap. As its name implies, it is sweet.
If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.
Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for "shōchū highball". (Canned chū-hai sold on store shelves do not use shōchū but even cheaper alcoholic material.)
Shōchū is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity, and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.
Umeshu (梅酒), inaccurately called "plum wine", is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (ロック rokku) or mixed with soda (ソダ割り soda-wari).
Whisky (ウイスキー uisukī) has been popular in Japan for over 150 years. Japanese whisky (called, straightforwardly enough, ジャパニーズ・ウイスキー japanīzu uisukī) began almost a century ago as a fairly exacting recreation of the style of Scotch whiskies. Distilleries' modern efforts to broaden their range of styles without compromising quality have won Japanese whisky numerous international awards.
While fine Japanese whisky can certainly be had neat/straight (ストレート sutorēto) or on the rocks (オン・ザ・ロック on za rokku or simply ロック rokku), it's much more common to dilute it, the same as with shōchū. The most common preparation is a highball (ハイボール haibōru), 1 part whisky and 2 parts soda water over ice; the light flavor and easy drinkability (particularly in hot, muggy summers) suits Japanese palates and is very traditional. Another common drink uses cold mineral water (水割り mizu-wari) in the same proportions, or in the winter, hot water (お湯割り o-yu-wari).
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール bīru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Most Japanese beers are dry pilsners, with strengths averaging 5%, which pair well with Japanese food but are definitely light in flavor. Even the few dark beers like Asahi Super Dry Black are actually dark lagers, so despite their color they're still not very full-bodied. Microbreweries are quickly picking up steam, and their kurafuto bia (クラフトビア "craft beer") or ji-bīru (地ビール "local beer") bring some welcome diversity to the market. You'll likely have to hunt around to find them, though; besides brewpubs and good liquor stores like the widespread Yamaya (店舗 or やまや), another good place to look is department store basements.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (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 medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions' glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki ("big mug") holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating, especially when you pay ¥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say "Awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai" ("Please, just a little foam"). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country.
For those with a more humorous tastes in beer, try kodomo bīru (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 (there is 0% alcohol content).
Happōshu and third beer
Thanks to Japan's convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-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 bīru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than "real" beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo's "Draft One" and Asahi's "Hon-Nama", so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it will not say ビール ("beer"), but will instead say 発泡酒 (happōshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.
During the summer months when it's not raining, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops and serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks. The specialty is, of course, draft beer (生ビール nama-biiru). You can order large mugs of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) course lasting for a set period of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets.
Japanese wine is actually quite nice but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan's largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan's largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (常温 jō-on) wine when dining out.
The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); if you don't ask for it specifically you're likely to get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea (ウーロン茶 ūron cha) is also very popular.
The major types of Japanese tea are:
- sencha (煎茶), the common green tea
- matcha (抹茶), soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet.
- hōjicha (ほうじ茶), roasted green tea
- genmaicha (玄米茶), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y
- mugicha (麦茶), a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer
- sobacha (そば茶) is a tea made by roasting buckwheat. It may be provided for free at restaurants, so those with allergies should be careful.
Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk neat, without the use of any milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea can also be found in convenience stores and most of the American fast food chains.
Uji is often called the "tea capital of Japan"; it's famous for matcha, which it has produced for over a thousand years. Shizuoka grows 45% of Japan's tea crop, and more than 70% of Japanese teas are processed there (even if grown elsewhere). Kagoshima is the second-largest grower, where the warm sunny climate and different varieties of the tea plant yield teas that are known for their distinctive, full-bodied flavor.
Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is quite popular in Japan, though it's not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It's 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 widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word "Black" or the kanji 無糖 ("no sugar") if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.
There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan's and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some late-night work done).
Though 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 jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors such as Doutor. But if you're trying to get out of the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, the kissaten is an oasis in an urban jungle. Most coffee shops are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele. In a Ginza coffee shop, you'll find a soft "European" decor and sweet pastries for upscale shoppers taking a load off their Ferragamos. In an Otemachi coffee shop, businessmen in suits huddle over the low tables before meeting their clients. In Roppongi's all-night coffee shops, the night owls pause between clubs, or doze until the trains start running again in the morning.
A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazu kissa (ジャズ喫茶), or jazz coffee shop. These are even darker and more smoke-filled than normal kissaten, and frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz buffs who sit motionless and alone, soaking in the bebop played at high volumes from giant audio speakers. You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a big no-no. (See also § Music above.)
Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (談話室), or lounge. The appearance is indistinguishable from a pricy kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions over matters such as business or meeting prospective spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and the drinks are pricey. So don't wander into one if you're just looking for a cup of coffee.
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks from vending machines is one of the little traveller's joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis (カルピス Karupisu), a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds, and the famous Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット Pokari Suetto), a Gatorade-style isotonic drink. A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ), nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where you push down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.
Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, etc.) are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root beer is nearly impossible to find outside of specialty import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular, however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng).
In Japan, the term "juice" (ジュース jūsu) is a catch-all term for any kind of soft drink — including even Coca-Cola and the like — so if it's fruit squeezings you want, ask for fruit juice (フルーツジュース). There are also things other than 100% juice. Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label (Example, 果汁100%, kajū 100%); this can be very helpful to ensure you get the mixture ratio juice you were wanting.
Candy sells well in Japan, because it is a convenient hostess gift in the omiyage tradition. You can buy presentation-style boxes of candy in many stores, train stations, and even from street vendors. Familiar brands of candy in flavors sold only in Asia, such as green tea KitKat candy bars, may be popular gifts upon your return.
Wagashi (和菓子) The main ingredients are mainly beans and rice, and many of them are a combination of Anko and Mochi (rice cake). Anko is a paste made by boiling beans, chestnuts, sweet potatoes and so on in sugar. Mochi is a rice cake, pounding made by steaming rice and dumping it in paste. It is divided into namagashi, hannamagashi, and higashi according to the amount of water contained.
- Namagashi (生菓子) is a confectionery containing 30% or more water.
- Daifuku (だいふく, 大福餅) is confection of sweet anko wrapped in thin rice cake. There are also unique ones with fruits such as strawberries inside.
- Manju (まんじゅう, 饅頭) is confection of sweet anko wrapped in thin wheat dough. There are saka-manju made with sake and cha-manju made with brown sugar and so on.
- Dorayaki (どら焼き) is a confection of sweet anko sandwiched in a dough like a pancake.
- Mizuyoukan (水ようかん, 水羊羹) is confectionery made by solidifying Anko with agar.
- Hannamagashi (半生菓子) is Confectionery containing 10-30% water.
- Monaka (もなか, 最中) is confectionery with sweet bean paste sandwiched between crispy rice wafers.
- Kingyokukan (きんぎょくかん, 錦玉羹) is clear jelly-like confection made by solidifying agar.
- Youkan (ようかん, 羊羹) is confectionery made by solidifying Anko with agar.
- Amanattō (あまなっとう, 甘納豆) is bean glasse.
- Higashi (干菓子) is confectionery with less than 10% water content.
- Amezaiku (あめざいく, 飴細工) are traditional, hand-sculpted lollipops, usually in the shape of an animal. These are edible, but they are so beautiful and expensive that it would be a shame to eat them. The simplest hand-painted disks will set you back a few dollars. For a complex shape, such as a three-dimensional, lifelike, painted goldfish, expect to pay around US $30 each.
- Konpeito (こんぺいとう, 金平糖) are knobby hard sugar candies with cultural importance that travel well and traditionally are unflavored – a perfect gift for picky eaters back home.
- Rakugan (らくがん, 落雁) is confectionery made by adding sugar to the flour of beans, rice and chestnuts and pressing them together.
- Karintou (かりんとう) is confectionery made by frying the dough of wheat flour and coating it with brown sugar or sugar.
- Senbei (せんべい, 煎餅) is salty confectionery made by drying and baking rice cake and seasoning it with soy sauce, etc.
Dagashi (駄菓子) is cheap ones are snacks sold for ¥10 and you can eat them casually.
Kashipan (菓子パン) is sweet bread like sweets. Pan comes from the Portuguese word pão, meaning bread.
- Anpan (あんぱん) is bread with red anko.
- Melonpan (メロンパン) is bread with a mesh pattern similar to that of a muskmelon. Basically it doesn't contain melons, but some contain melon cream.
- Creampan (クリームパン) is bread containing custard cream.
All of these things are great to buy in Japan and take home with you. If you buy Namagashi or Hannamagashi as souvenirs, be careful about the expiration date. However, if you are traveling to Japan to visit colleagues or friends, you will be expected to bring a beautifully wrapped gift that is from your home country, rather than something they could buy locally. Individually wrapped chocolates or candies from a famous local candymaker are usually a good choice, but avoid licorice or root beer flavors, as these taste much too similar to traditional medicines to feel like a treat.
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of:
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks. These are associated with funerary rites. If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let them take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate.
- When you are done using chopsticks, you can rest them across the edge of your bowl or plate. Most nicer restaurants put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting. You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to construct your own hashi-oki.
- Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class. Take a bite of your rice instead.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls (really anything other than food) is rude.
- Pointing at things with your chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people in general is rude; with chopsticks, doubly so.)
- Spearing food with your chopsticks is generally rude and should be used as only a last resort.
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bentō and other take-out foods. You shouldn't "whittle" your chopsticks after breaking them apart (which would imply you think they're cheap), but for cleanliness it is good manners to put them back in their paper wrapper when you're finished eating.
Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly out of the bowl after you've chopsticked out the larger bits, and it's also normal to pick up a bowl of rice for easier eating. For main-dish soups like rāmen you will be given a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.
Many restaurants 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 come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on a bowl of rice; in fact doing so is bad manners, and implies you think the rice isn't prepared well! Bowls of steamed rice are eaten plain, or sometimes with furikake (a blend of crumbled seaweed, fish, and spices), or especially in bentō are served with umeboshi (very sour pickled ume plums). Soy sauce is used for dipping sushi in before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish and tofu as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
Japanese don't like to waste food (including soy sauce, so don't pour more than you need), but it's fine in most restaurants if you leave some food on your plates. However, in formal dining or particularly if you eat at someone's house, finishing your meal indicates that you're satisfied with it (whereas leaving some indicates you want more), and you should especially try to finish your rice down to the very last grain.
In all types of Japanese restaurants, staff generally ignore you until you ask for something. Some restaurants may have a button to call a waiter. Otherwise, loudly say "Sumimasen" (すみません, "Excuse me") and maybe raise your hand at a large restaurant. At small shops or food stalls with minimal staff who are busy cooking, after saying "Sumimasen" just assume they're listening (which they always are) and say your request.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for "bill" is kanjō or kaikei. When it's getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it's time for the "last order." When it's really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal — they start to play "Auld Lang Syne". (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means "pay up and move out."
Tipping is not customary in Japan, although many sit-down restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour "family restaurants" such as Denny's and Jonathan's usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
Seasonings on tables in restaurants:
- Shoyu (醤油, soy sauce) is fermented seasoning made by steaming soybeans, crushed wheat, adding salt and rice malt, and fermenting them. It is one of the most common basic seasonings used in Japanese cuisine. There are well balanced and versatile koikuchi shoyu (濃口醤油) that is most commonly used, light colored usukuchi shoyu (淡口醤油), very light colored shiro shoyu (白醤油), and Rich tamari shoyu (たまり醤油) and saishikomi shoyu (再仕込み醤油) used for sashimi etc.
- Sauce (ソース, sōsu) is general term for Worcester sauce based sauce. In Japan, the unqualified use of the word "sauce" means sauces similar to "Worcestershire sauce" (ウスターソース) such as "chunō sauce" (中濃ソース), "tonkatsu sauce" (トンカツソース) and "okonomiyaki sauce" (お好み焼きソース). Especially in Osaka, sauce is used heavily, and in a variety of dishes such as okonomiyaki, takoyaki, yakisoba, tonkatsu and kushikatsu.
- Ponzu shoyu (ポン酢醤油) is ponzu means citrus juice, a seasoning made by adding citrus juice or vinegar to soy sauce. It is used as a seasoning for tonkatsu and hot pots (鍋物, nabemono). The origin of the word is "pons" which means citrus juice in Dutch.
- Su (酢, vinegar): Kokumotsu su (穀物酢, Grain vinegar) is vinegar made from wheat or corn. Kome zuz (米酢, rice vinegar) is vinegar made from rice. It has the rich flavor and soft aroma of rice. Milder than grain vinegar.
- Wasabi (わさび, 山葵) has a refreshing scent and a spice that stings your nose. Wasabi is a plant grown in Japanese mountain streams, and cheap wasabi is often horseradish instead of Japanese wasabi.
- Karashi (からし, 辛子) is hot mustard. It's hot, so be careful not to use too much.
- Yuzu kosho (柚子胡椒) is a condiment made by preserving green yuzu peel and green chili with salt. The refreshing scent of yuzu and the hot taste of chili go well with various dishes.
- Kanzuri (かんずり) is seasoning made by exposing salt soaked peppers to snow to remove bitterness, adding koji and fermenting.
- Sansho (山椒, Japanese pepper) is a small fruit about 5 mm from a citrus plant. The spice is characterized by the refreshing citrus fragrance and the pungent taste which makes your tongue numb.
- Shichimi tougarashi (七味唐辛子) is mixture of 7 spices. It mainly contains red peppers, sansho (japanese pepper), chenpi (陳皮, mandarin orange peel), green laver, sesame seeds, hemp seeds and poppy seeds.
- Rāyu (ラー油) is hot pepper oil for Chinese food.
- Hibāchi (ヒバーチ, Java long pepper) is a rare pepper with a sweet smell like cinnamon that is grown in Okinawa.
- Kōrēgūsu (コーレーグース) is spicy seasoning made by pickling Okinawa red pepper in awamori. You put it in Okinawa soba and so on. Children need to be careful because it contains alcohol.
Hardly any foodstuff is taboo in Japan, and some of the more exotic ingredients can make foreigners disgusted. Some endangered animals such as whale are delicacies in Japan; see animal ethics for more information.
Table manners tend to be rather formal, though, especially when it comes to traditional dishes such as rice, tea and sake.