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Travel Guide > Asia > Japan

Japan Restaurants & Eating

  
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Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and in fact its Japanese word gohan also means "meal". Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso soup served with almost every meal, but also tofu bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (shoyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (tsukemono).

One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is to discover the local specialties. Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don't miss the okonomiyaki stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (takoyaki).

Restaurants

The number of restaurants 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.
According to the world famous 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 michelin star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.

Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku, 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.

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 kanjo 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."
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 of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them. 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 shoyu (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 tabehodai or viking.

Tipping is not customary in Japan, although fancy restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour "family restaurants" such as Denny's and Jonathan usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.

All-around eateries

While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokudo, 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 value, if uninspiring. When in doubt, go for the daily special or ky%u014D no teishoku, which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles.

A closely related variant is the bento-ya, which serves takeout boxes known as o-bento. While travelling on JR, don't forget to sample the vast array of ekiben or "station bento", many unique to the region - or even the station.
A staple of the shokudo is the donburi, literally "rice bowl", meaning a bowl of rice with a topping. Popular ones include:

  • oyakodon - lit. "parent-and-child bowl", usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe)
  • katsudon - a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg
  • gy%u016Bdon - beef and onion
  • ch%u016Bkadon - lit. "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 (kare raisu) - a thick, mild, brown paste that most Indians would hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (omori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.

At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ryotei, the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki meals prepared from the very best seasonal ingredients. Should they condescend to let you in — and many require introductions — you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience which, quite frankly, will go right over the heads of most mere mortals visiting Japan for the first time.

Noodles

Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (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 and thick wheat udon. Typically all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference and a bowl will only cost a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations.

  • kake soba - plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top
  • tsukimi soba - soup with a raw egg dropped in named "moon-viewing" because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds
  • kitsune soba - soup with sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu
  • zaru soba - chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi, popular in summer

Chinese egg noodles or ramen 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 ramen - salty pork (or chicken) broth
  • shoyu ramen - soy broth, popular in Tokyo
  • miso ramen - miso (soybean paste) broth, originally from Hokkaido
  • tonkotsu ramen - thick pork broth, a speciality of Kyushu

Slurping your noodles is not only acceptable, but expected. According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl.

Sushi and sashimi

Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports are sushi, usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi, 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 - the canonical sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top
  • maki - fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks
  • temaki - fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori
  • gunkan - "battleship" sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents
  • chirashi - a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top

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), shake (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: o-toro, which is very fatty and very expensive, and chu-toro, which is slightly cheaper and less fatty.

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 you bills into tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (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. 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.

When eating sushi, it's perfectly acceptable to use your fingers; just dip the piece in soy and pop it 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

Fugu or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricey due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs which is where the poison is found. Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as 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. Because of the skill required, fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya. As a side note, the Emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.

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 - Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat or seafood of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayo, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger
  • teppanyaki - meat grilled on a hot iron plate
  • tempura - light-battered shrimp, fish and vegetables deep-fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth
  • tonkatsu - deep-fried breaded pork cutlets elevated into an art form
  • yakiniku - Japanese-style "Korean barbeque", cooked by yourself at your table
  • yakitori - grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable, a classic accompaniment to alcohol

One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (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 ¥1000 from your wallet in the process.

A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (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.

Stewed dishes

Particularly in the cold winter months various "hot pot" stews (nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Common types include:

  • chankonabe - a hotchpotch steamboat much favored by sumo wrestlers.
  • oden - 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 - a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not that common in Japan.
  • shabu-shabu - 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

Pseudo-Western dishes

Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (yoshoku), 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:

  • hambaagu - not to be confused with the McDonalds-style hambaagaa, this is a standalone hamburger patty with fixings
  • omuraisu - rice wrapped in an omelette with a complimentary dollop of ketchup
  • wafu suteeki - steak served Japanese-style with soy
  • korokke - croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion.
  • kare - Japanese-style curry, it is not as spicy as Indian curry

Beer gardens

During the summer months (when it is not raining) many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops which serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks. The specialty though is (of course) draft beer (nama-biiru), and you can order large mugs of it or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (nomihodai%uFF09 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.

Fast food

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:

American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald's, Wendy's, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonalds 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:

Coffee shops

Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten 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, 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 no-no.

Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (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.

Restaurants in Japan

Local Makishi Public Market Restaurants
The upper floor of the Makishi Market in Heiwa Dori really is one of the most interesting places to eat in central Naha City.  It consists of various restaurants around all four walls.  Tables are cafeteria style... more
 1 Fans, Low Budget, Mains from ¥600 to ¥1000., in Naha
Dessert Dessert Labo Chocolat
Dessert Labo Chocolat is a wonderful shop to visit for a bit of tasty decadence.  There are a wide variety of cakes on display for customers to choose from.  The menu is limited, with most people choosing the cak... more
 1 Fans, Top End, ¥700 for a cake set, in Naha
 
International 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.
in Japan
International Tenya
(てんや), the best tempura you'll ever eat for less than ¥500.
in Japan
 
International 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 guarantee... more
in Japan
International 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.
in Japan
 
International Beckers
Operated by JR, these fastfood burger restaurants 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 sto... more
in Japan
International 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 ... more
in Japan
 
International 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.
in Japan
International Lotteria
Standard burger-type place.
in Japan
 
These are just 10 of 33 Restaurants in Japan. Show more.




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