Biking, hiking and wandering through Japan can certainly help you work up an appetite, and the flavors and nuances of Japanese cuisine (和食, washoku) are so culturally defining that one can gain a world of knowledge about the country and its people just by watching the way a bowl of ramen is served, the way a piece of sushi is prepared or how a convenience store sandwich is wrapped. Around every corner and at each meal here, an abundance of gastronomical delights is certain to be enjoyed.
The Dining Experience in Japan
Restaurants in Japan range from mobile food stands to centuries-old ryōtei. The Japanese dining experience also includes atmospheric bars, seasonally erected terraces over rivers, cheap restaurant chains and unique theme restaurants. Many restaurants specialize in a single type of dish, but others offer a variety of dining options. International food is also gaining popularity across Japan. This trend is spreading as chefs from across the globe come to Japan to study historic culinary techniques and leave behind a trail of delicious dishes that take on new, fresh identities with Japanese ingredients. French, Chinese, Korean and classic American foods are all available, especially in larger cities.
Izakaya are the most common type of casual dining establishments, and they’re the perfect environment to try a variety of Japanese foods. The menus revolve around small bites that are meant to pair with beer or other libations. They’re found in droves near train stations and in entertainment districts, and they mostly serve popular food items, such as yakitori, sashimi and, of course, beer.
Fine-dining restaurants are often found on the top floors of skyscrapers and major hotels; this is especially true in Tokyo, which has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world. The fine dining in this metropolitan hub is renowned, and the high-end restaurants found here serve a variety of cuisines from traditional Japanese to international to fusion fare. They tend to be priced accordingly, though, and many require reservations.
Themed cafes are a wacky option when dining out in Japan. Want maids and butlers to serve you? Want to dine while surrounded by cats, rabbits or birds or to be served by a ninja, comic book character or robot? If yes, themed dining experiences are for you. Some of these restaurants simply provide the opportunity to dine in alternative environments, but others offer themed menus or entertaining shows. Look for this sort of experience in city centers, especially in Tokyo, and expect a small cover charge to be added to your bill for the spectacle of it all.
If costumed characters aren’t of interest to you, perhaps you’d rather dig into a specific type of food. Food theme parks (or food museums) centered on ramen, gyoza or sweets are also available in major cities. Despite the name, these establishments are typically indoors and work like a food court, except all the vendors sell variations of the same dish.
The easiest place to obtain a Japanese-style breakfast is in a hotel, many of which offer Japanese breakfast set meals or buffets featuring both Japanese and Western dishes. Outside of this, Japanese-style breakfasts can be difficult to find as most restaurants and coffee shops exclusively serve Western-style breakfasts or coffee and toast sets.
Typical Japanese Dishes
Japanese cuisine has a large variety of dishes and regional specialties, but no matter where you are in the country, search out these quintessentially Japanese options:
This is raw fish served atop a small ball of rice. It’s often dipped in soy sauce (shoyu) and seasoned with wasabi. Ideally, the fish will be fresh (caught that day) and served at room temperature (rather than very cold).
These buckwheat noodles are one of the most popular dishes across Japan. In Tokyo, they can be found all across the city, including at standing soba eateries and establishments specializing in soba (known as “soba-ya”). The dipping sauce used in Tokyo is traditionally very flavorful, and diners are encouraged to dip their noodles into it lightly.
Who can resist these deep, warming bowls of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat- or fish-based broth? They’re often flavored with soy sauce or miso and are topped with delicious items, including sliced pork, dried seaweed, bamboo shoots and green onions. Different regions have their own styles and typical toppings, so plan to experience delightful variations as you travel throughout the country.
Various styles of this pancake-like dish are popular across Japan. In Osaka, for example, shredded cabbage and a whole range of other ingredients (squid, prawn, octopus or other meat) are mixed into a flour-based batter and cooked. This is then eaten with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, green laver (aonori) and dried bonito (katsuobushi). In some restaurants, customers prepare the okonomiyaki on hot plates at their tables.
These Japanese pickles are one of the three core foods Japanese diners base all their meals around. (The other two are rice and soup.) Tart, pungent and often imbued with funky overtones, Japanese pickles are best enjoyed in small bites. In the context of the larger meal, they traverse the boundary between side dish and condiment, and they provide color, flavor and texture that harmonize the aesthetics and flavors of any meal.
This is another one of Japan's famous dishes. Historically, only vegetables were done in a tempura style, and then cooks during the Edo period started to deep fry seafood in the batter. A visit to a specialized tempura restaurant (tempura-ya) is the recommended way to enjoy this dish.
“Teppanyaki” means “grilling on a metal plate,” and it refers to cooking a meal on an iron griddle in the presence of a customer. At teppanyaki restaurants, diners are seated at the counter, and the chef prepares the food and then serves it immediately. Part of the enjoyment is derived from the sight of the chef skillfully maneuvering the ingredients. Most often, the main dish is a piece of high-grade beef or seafood, but a wide variety of ingredients can be used.
While tofu in the United States can seem like a flavorless addition to any meal, in Japanese cuisine, it’s a necessary and flavor-packed component. Agedashi tofu (fried tofu) has a texture unlike most other tofu presentations. Search for little silky lumps in soups, salads and all sorts of other lovely places as well.
Don’t expect to find herbal tea bags in Japan, a country known for the ceremony and honor that surround this common but elevated drink. Instead, the Japanese consume large amounts of green tea in various grades. It’s also sometimes pounded with other ingredients, such as brown rice to make traditional genmaicha. This comforting drink is served at many restaurants.
Different than sushi, sashimi is a Japanese delicacy consisting of very fresh raw meat or fish sliced into thin pieces. It’s often eaten with soy sauce.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Each distinct Japanese region comes with its own culinary traditions, meaning travelers can enjoy a diverse set of regional foods as they move from city to city.
● Nigirizushi (Tokyo)
The most popular type of sushi today, this originated as a fast food dish in Tokyo. Consisting of a piece of seafood on a small rice ball, nigirizushi is served at all sushi restaurants, from inexpensive establishments with sushi conveyor belts to Michelin-starred restaurants.
● Chankonabe (Tokyo)
This hot pot dish serves as the diet of many sumo wrestlers. It’s a healthy, protein-rich dish that contains mainly fish or chicken and seasonal vegetables. The dish is easiest to find in the specialty restaurants surrounding Kokugikan Sumo Stadium in Ryogoku, Tokyo. Ex-sumo wrestlers run many of these establishments.
● Monjayaki (Tokyo)
Monjayaki is a type of pancake made of mixed flour and water. Ingredients, including sliced cabbage and small pieces of seafood and meat, are added in, and the whole mixture is cooked on a hot grill. A small spatula is used to scrape some of the cooked monjayaki off the grill for eating.
● Tsukudani (Tokyo)
Tsukudani is small pieces of food simmered in a mixture of soy sauce and sweet sake for preservation. The result is commonly enjoyed with a bowl of cooked rice. Tsukudani hails from Tsukudajima Island, near Tsukishima, where Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu relocated fishermen skilled in making the dish.
● Sweets (Tokyo)
Tokyo is home to various types of traditional Japanese sweets (wagashi), including ningyoyaki, small cakes shaped like dolls or other forms and filled with red bean paste; dorayaki, a pastry made of sweet pancakes with a layer of red bean paste between and anmitsu, agar jelly, a scoop of red bean paste, small mochi balls and seasonal fruits topped with a sweet black syrup.
● Takoyaki (Osaka)
Literally “grilled octopus,” takoyaki consists of s flour and egg batter that’s cooked with a filling of octopus slices, pickled ginger and green onion. Chefs use a special takoyaki pan that molds the ingredients into small balls. Takoyaki sauce and other toppings, including mayonnaise, dried bonito (katsuobushi) and green laver (aonori), are often added to finish off this popular street snack.
● Kushikatsu (Osaka)
These are simply battered and deep-fried pieces of food on skewers. Meat and vegetables are most commonly used for kushikatsu, but some restaurants also provide more exotic varieties, such as strawberries.
Backroads Pro Tip
Many actions that involve exchanging items in Japan happen with both hands. When presenting a bill or receipt, for example, your server will use both hands. The same is true when presenting a card or other object. Using both hands is a gesture of respect, and a slight bow often follows. Respect those who assist you by reciprocating the gesture and using both hands.
Japanese Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Meat: 肉 (niku)
Vegetarians, look away now! This character, which represents a piece of meat with two carat-shaped bones, appears in the names of most meat-based dishes, including chicken (鶏肉toriniku), pork (豚肉, butaniku) and beef (牛肉, gyuniku). It's also used in the word for “grilled meat” (焼肉, yakiniku). The left kanji means “grill.” This is found in the word for “grilled chicken” (焼き鳥, yakitori), as well as “grilled octopus dumplings” (たこ焼き, takoyaki) and okonomiyaki (お好み焼き).
● Fish: 魚 (sakana)
Do you see a head at the top, the scales in the middle and four small fins below? This character makes up the (very) long list of Japanese fish, such as salmon (鮭, shake) or tuna (鮪, maguro). The kanji for “sushi” is “鮨”, but it's more commonly written this way: 寿司. Note, the “fish” character doesn’t appear in the word “sashimi” (刺身). That actually means “sliced body.”
● Rice:ご飯 (gohan)
Rice is the basis of the Japanese diet. This is so fundamentally true that the word also simply means “meal.”
● Miso Soup: 味噌汁 (misoshiru)
Concentrate on the last character: 十. Three small water drops appear on the left side, which illustrate the character involves soup.
● Noodles: 麺 (men)
The kanji might look painfully complicated, but Japanese noodles, including ramen (often written in katakana as “ラーメン”) and sōmen, are pleasures for the taste buds!
● Spice: 辛 (kara)
-Slightly spicy: 甘口 (amakuchi)
-Moderately spicy: 中辛 (chukara)
-Spicy: 辛口 (karakuchi)
-Literally “violently spicy;” proceed with caution!: 激辛 (gekikara)
● Beverages: 飲み物 (nomimono)
-Sake: 酒 (sake)
Like the kanji for “soup,” three water drops appear on the left side of the character, which show it's a liquid-related word. “Sake” can also mean alcoholic beverages in general.
-Wine: ワイン (wain)
-Red wine: 赤ワイン (aka wain)
-White wine: 白ワイン (shiro wain)
-Beer: ビール (biiru)
-Tea: お茶 (ocha)
Words to Know When Dining Out
Many Japanese people speak exceptional English, and when possible, they’ll often attempt to bridge any language barrier. That said, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. Japanese contains many Western “loan” words (gairaigo). These words originated in other languages and possess phonetic similarities to the words in those languages, such as English. Here are a few words and phrases (loan and otherwise) to get you started at a local restaurant:
● Excuse me (to get the server’s attention): sumimasen
● A table for two, please.: Futari yoo no teeburu o onegai shimasu.
● Do you have a vegetarian dish?: Bejitarian yoo no menyuu wa arimasu ka?
● Enjoy the meal!: Doozo goyukkuri!
● Cheers!: Kanpai!
● It's delicious!: Oishii desu ne!
● Is the tip included?: Chippu wa fukumarete imasu ka?
● The check, please.: Okanjoo o onegai shimasu.
● Breakfast: Chooshoku (“cho-shoku”)
● Lunch: Chuushoku (“chu-shoku”)
● Dinner: Yuushoku
● Plate: Sara
● Fork: Fooku
● Knife: Naifu
● Spoon: Supuun
● Napkin: Napukin
● Restroom: Toire
● Thank you: Arigatōgozaimashita
● Please: Onegaishimasu
Many Japanese believe good service is expected, and tipping, therefore, isn’t necessary here. However, some staff members who work for Japanese tourist companies are accustomed to receiving tips and are grateful when receiving small gratuities. If you do decide to tip in Japan, don’t give cash directly from your pocket or purse. Always place the money in an envelope before you hand it over.
Don’t be surprised if spa, service, restaurant or hotel staff members in Japan reject a tip. Remember, tour guides or other travel-related service members are typically accustomed to receiving tips, so it’s perfectly acceptable to offer a small gratuity if you feel so inclined.
The Japanese eat three meals a day, and they have some meal conventions that are similar to Western practices.
At many Japanese hotels, breakfast is a sizeable affair, with a focus on savory dishes, soup and (of course!) pickles. Don’t be surprised if coffee shops cater to European or Western tourists and only serve coffee and small bites for breakfast.
Japanese dining establishments are increasingly offering Western-style experiences (with chairs rather than floor seating, cutlery and the like). There are, however, many traditional dining experiences still present in Japan. In these situations, patrons eat at low dining tables and sit on cushions placed on tatami (straw matting). In formal situations, both men and women sit seiza-style (kneel), while in casual situations, men sit cross-legged, and women sit with both legs to one side.
The most important person at each meal sits at the kamiza (seat of honor). The kamiza is placed farthest from the entrance to the room where the meal is held. If there’s a tokonoma (a built-in recessed space), guests sit in front of it. The host sits at the middle of the table on one side.
In restaurants and bars, an oshibori (hot steamed towel) is provided in order to clean your hands. Never wipe your face with this towel. At home, people are expected to wash their hands before the meal starts.
A meal begins once the main guest, family member or server makes a gesture to start eating. This gesture usually involves some form of gratitude, such as the term “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”). When finishing the meal, a common saying is “Gochisosama deshita” (“Thank you for the meal”).
Many Japanese traditions concerning table manners surround the use of chopsticks. Not only should they be held correctly, but one must never leave chopsticks standing vertically in a bowl of food. (This resembles an offering made at funerals.) When not in use, place your chopsticks on a hashioki (chopstick stand). It’s also not polite to talk while holding your chopsticks, so put them down if you’re having a chat.
Refrain from eating directly from a communal dish, and try not to hover with the chopsticks over these communal dishes when deciding what to eat next.
Never point your chopsticks when talking, and never use them to pass food to someone else’s chopsticks.
· Handling Food and Dishes
When eating from small bowls, simply pick up the bowl with your hand and lead it to your mouth. Never cup your hand to catch falling food; this is considered bad manners.
Ideally, food should always be eaten in one bite, so try not to bite food into smaller bits. This includes sushi, sashimi and sushi rolls. You should also refrain from raising your food above your mouth.
You shouldn’t start drinking until everybody at the table has a beverage and the glasses are raised. (Kampai is the Japanese drinking salute.) When holding glasses, women should put their hands underneath them. Men should also do this as a sign of respect when talking to people superior to them.
When drinking alcoholic beverages, it’s customary to serve others rather than to pour your own drink.
Japanese soups contain lots of ingredients, so spoons are rarely used. Instead, try to eat your soup using chopsticks. Don’t be afraid to slurp! Most Japanese believe inhaling air when eating noodles enhances the taste.
When consuming miso soup, drink the soup directly from the bowl, and then fish out the solid bits using chopsticks.
· Soy Sauce
Pour the necessary amount of soy sauce into the shallow, empty bowl provided. Try not to pour too much, though. This is seen as disrespectful to the ingredient and wasteful.
When eating sushi, don’t mix the entire lump of wasabi into your soy sauce bowl. This can be an insult to the chef because wasabi is said to restrict the taste of the sushi. A small amount of wasabi added to the sushi or mixed into the soy sauce is acceptable.
· Tea Ceremonies
Tea ceremonies require strict adherence to rules designed to promote tranquility. Remove your shoes upon entering, and greet guests with a slight bow. Don’t talk or shake hands. Instead, be seated silently.
· Ending the Meal
When you’ve finished your meal, return the table to how it looked in the beginning. Put your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in the paper holder. Put any lids back on dishes.
· Paying the Bill
Generally speaking, the person who invited everyone pays for the meal.
Backroads Pro Tip
Breaking apart wooden chopsticks and rubbing them together to get rid of splinters is considered rude in Japan. Only poor-quality chopsticks need to be rubbed together, and doing so, however inadvertently, implies you think your host is cheap.