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 in 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 also offers some exotic snacks and dishes.
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.
- Rice is a staple in every Japanese 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. 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). Typically all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference and a bowl will cost only a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations.
- 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), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm). Tuna belly comes in two different 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 (葱とろ), minced tuna belly mixed with chopped spring onions and wasabi.
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.
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; just dip the piece in a little soy sauce and pop the whole thing in your mouth. In Japan, the pieces typically have a dab of fiery wasabi radish already lurking inside, but you can always add more according to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free.
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. Needless to say, it is extremely expensive. Kaiseki is usually served at specialist kaiseki restaurants known as ryotei (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 ryotei 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. 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. Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include:
- 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
- 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
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.
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.
- 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. Well known in the West, but not that common in Japan.
- 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
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.
Most of the Japanese food items you find in a typical restaurant, especially outside Japan is actually a collection from various regions of the country. Each boasts their own special ingredients and taste.
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) - Similar to okonomiyaki but uses liquid-based batter: water, flour, and Worchestershire sauce.
- 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 the Edo kingdom that resided in Tokyo.
- 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) - 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. Comes in two distinct styles; Osaka style and Hiroshima style.
- 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.
- Basashi (馬刺し) - horse meat sashimi, a speciality of Kumamoto
- Fugu (ふぐ) - puffer dish, a speciality of Shimonoseki
- 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. As its alternative name suggests, it originates from the Hakata district in the city of Fukuoka.
Places to eat
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. While beef was off the menu for a while due to the mad cow scare, it's back now.
- 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.
American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald's restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.
There are also a number of Japanese "family restaurants", 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.
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 jazz 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.
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.
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.
For those really 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.
One Japanese institution worth checking out is the depachika (デパ地下) or 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 ryori (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) have recently been given special attention in Japan. It even has a dedicated website that lists all restaurants that are certified halal, as well as the location of mosques/prayer rooms all across the country.
Muslim travelers should look for food that indicates if they are served with pork (豚肉 or ポーク butaniku) 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.
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 none are used 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.
- 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.
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. Amezaiku 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 are knobby hard sugar candies with cultural importance that travel well and traditionally are unflavored – a perfect gift for picky eaters back home.
All of these things are great to buy in Japan and take home with you. 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.
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.