One of the joys of travel is sampling the food. In Japan, this means sushi, of course. And noodles. But there’s also a whole world of often-overlooked food to explore. Here’s some basic information to help you on your way. Check out the list photos for a more thorough overview.
- Nomihōdai (飲み放題) and Tabehōdai (食べ放題) – This is an all-you-can-drink (nomihōdai) or all-you-can-eat (tabehōdai) scheme where patrons pay a set fee for drinks (including alcohol) and/or food for a set period of time, usually around 90 minutes.
- Izakaya (居酒屋) – This is a Japanese-style bar and grill. Dishes consist of Japanese and Western foods in small portions. Some popular offerings include edamame (枝豆, soybeans), karāge (からあげ, breaded chicken), yakitori (焼き鳥, chicken skewers), and fried potatoes (フライドポテト, french fries). Groups usually order numerous dishes and share. Many izakayas offer nomihōdai deals.
- Fast Food – Fast food in Japan includes McDonald’s, albeit with a Japanese flavor (hamburgers with fried eggs, teriyaki burgers, avocado burgers, etc). There are also Japanese hamburger chains similar to McDonald’s, the most prevalent being Mos Burger. Many Japanese foods are also offered through fast food chains. These include Japanese curry, gyūdon (牛丼, rice bowls with meat on top), and noodles (soba, udon, and ramen). Some popular Japanese fast food chains include curry shops Coco Ichiban and C & C Curry, and rice bowl/curry shops Yoshinoya and Matsuya.
- Ticket Machines – Many fast food restaurants use ticket machines to collect money. To purchase food, insert money and press the button that indicates the food you’d like to order. You’ll receive a ticket, which you should give to the shopkeeper. Often, the buttons on the machines are not in English. However, there is sometimes a numbered food display nearby. If so, you can match the number from the display to the buttons on the machine. If there are no numbers and you’re up to the challenge, you can also try matching the Japanese characters.
- O-Bentō (お弁当) Meals – O-bentō meals are boxed lunches. Japanese workers and students often prepare o-bentō meals at home to take with them, but they can also be purchased at o-bentō shops and grocery stores.
- Convenience Stores – Convenience stores (konbini, コンビニ) offer take-out o-bentō meals, stuffed rice balls (onigiri, おにぎり), and a variety of other fast foods such as oden (おでん, stewed eggs, fishcakes, etc.) and nikuman (肉まん, bread pouches stuffed with meat). The staff will heat up your o-bentō meal in the microwave, and plasticware is provided.
- Tax and Tipping – Sales tax is included in the advertised price. Tipping is not customary in Japan.
- Splitting the Bill – Restauranteurs do not typically split up bills among patrons in the same group. Also, if you are dining with Japanese folks, be aware that everyone usually pays the same amount. It would seem odd to say “I’m only paying 1,000 yen because I didn’t eat any of the more expensive sushi.”
Japanese food: A guide for travelers
Festival Food – Any festival will have interesting food (that’s why we go, right?). The selections are often regional or seasonal. In the hot summer months, you may find cold cucumbers on sticks. In Okinawa, roasted sweet potatoes (purple on the inside, unlike our orange North American variety) are popular. This photos, taken on New Year’s Eve 2009 in Naha, Okinawa, shows an array of Japanese and Western street foods. Note the noodles, called yakisoba (焼きそば) on the left — a common festival food.
Yakisoba can be made at home from noodle packets sold at grocery stores. First, saute your meat and vegetables. Then add the noodles, a small amount of water, and spice packet. Voila! Street food in your home.
Yakitori (焼き鳥) generally means grilled chicken skewers, although non-poultry skewers are also sold. You’ll find yakitori prepared with a variety of sauces, and, well, animal parts, to include chicken skin, chicken meatballs, beef tongue, and internal organs. A common street and izakaya food.
Karāge (唐揚げ) means fried, usually with soy sauce, garlic, and breading. Karāge chicken is pictured here, a common izakaya food.
Tempura (天ぷら) is another breading/frying method that uses iced water during the breading process. Tempura meats and vegetables are often served over soup noodles (udon or soba) or rice (tempura tendon).
Takoyaki (たこ焼き or 蛸焼き)
Two takoyaki (たこ焼き or 蛸焼き) chefs pose for a photo in Nakano, Tokyo. Takoyaki are octopus balls — bits of octopus cooked in breading, usually topped with a tangy sauce, mayonaise, and bonito flakes (katsuobushi, 鰹節). Originally an Osaka favorite, takoyaki stands can be found throughout Japan.
Takoyaki at home
Takoyaki can be prepared at home, if you have the right pan. The batter is placed in half-sphere forms. Bits of octopus are then poked into the center of each takoyaki ball.
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a savory pancake loaded with a variety of ingredients — cabbage, pork, octopus, squid, shrimp, mochi (rice cake), cheese, mayonaise, and/or bonito flakes (katsuobushi, 鰹節) to name a few. An Osaka and Hiroshima specialty, regional variations can be found throughout Japan. Osaka okonomiyaki typically uses a batter pancake for its base, while Hiroshima style uses a pancake of noodles (yakisoba or udon).
Some okonomiyaki restaurants have do-it-yourself tables, where patrons prepare their own pancakes at their tables. This can be daunting to the uninitiated. Go with an experienced okonomiyaki diner, or to a restaurant where the staff cooks it up for you. Pictured here is a simpler okonomiyaki pancake dressed with mayonaise.
Yakiniku (Korean BBQ, 焼肉)
Yakiniku (焼肉), literally “grilled meat,” is usually grilled yourself at the table, although in upscale restaurants the staff may grill it for you. Choose from plates of thinly-sliced meats, organs, and/or vegetables and a variety of dipping sauces (a soy sauce/sugar/mirin mixture is common). Yakiniku is associated with Korean cuisine in Japan, and usually other Korean dishes, suches as kimchi, are available.
Yakiniku Beef Organs
For the adventurous, here’s a poster with some common yakiniku (焼肉) beef organs. You may hear the term “hormone” at restaurants. Don’t worry, no one is trying to serve you a plate of testosterone or estrogen. Horumon (ホルモン) means internal organs or guts. If that’s still too adventurous for your tastes and you want to play it safe, karubi (カルビ, beef rib) is a common, non-organ choice.
Starting from the heart and going clockwise:
- ハツ (hatsu) – heart
- ハラミ(harami) – skirt steak (from the diaphragm)
- レバー (rebā) – liver
- 丸チョウ (maruchō) – small intestines
- 上ホルモン (uehorumon) – a tender part of the large intestine
- ギャラ (gyara or giyara) – abomasum (the 4th chamber of a cow’s stomach)
- サンマイ (senmai) – omasum (the 3rd stomach chamber)
- ハチノス (hachisosu) – reticulum (the 2nd stomach chamber)
- ミノ (mino) – rumen (the 1st stomach chamber)
- ウルテ (urute) – tracheal rings; cartilage from the windpipe
- タン (tan) – tongue
Sushi and Sashimi
Of course, you can’t talk about Japanese food without bringing in sushi. Sushi restaurants abound in Japan, from high-end Michelin-starred establishments, to conveyor belt sushi (kaitenzushi, 回転寿司), to take-out maki rolls at grocery stores.
Note that the terms in Japanese differ from the way they’re used in English. Sushi refers to any dish served with vinegar sushi rice, which sometimes includes raw fish. Sashimi refers to raw fish.
The conveyor belt kaitenzushi experience, while not always offering the absolute freshest fish, can be an interesting dining experience for travelers. Simply select the dishes you want as they pass by. Your bill is calculated by tallying your empty plates. Many restaurants have a color-coding scheme: A gold-colored plate of sushi may be 500 yen, a pink plate 350 yen, a blue plate 250, etc.
If you’re traveling throughout Japan, take advantage of local specialties, especially in coastal cities (and most cities in Japan are coastal). For example, Hakodate in southwestern Hokkaido is famous for its squid.
Nabe (なべ or 鍋)
Nabe (なべ or 鍋) refers to a variety of Japanese stews derived from the Chinese hot pot. It’s often served at home in winter, with family and friends gathered around and eating from a central cooking dish.
In restaurants, nabe takes two popular forms: shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) and sukiyaki (すき焼きor 鋤焼). A spicier, red pepper variety of shabu shabu has also become popular in recent years. These are usually cooked at the table by the diners themselves.
Shabu shabu, a savory dish, takes its name from the sound made by the meat, tofu, and vegetables boiling in the broth (dashi, だし or 出汁). After cooking in the dashi, the food is plucked out with chopsticks and dipped into a strongly-flavored, often pungent sauce.
Sukiyaki is sweeter than shabu shabu. The food is usually dipped into beaten, raw egg after cooking. This photo shows a divided hot pot, with sukiyaki on the left and shabu shabu on the right.
Ramen (ラーメン). If you’re thinking of those four-for-a-dollar instant noodle packages that college kids live on, you’re way off base. Ramen in Japan is ubiquitous, hearty, and delicious. There are numerous regional varieties. The most common include:
- shōyu (醤油) – With a soy sauce-based broth
- shio (塩) – A salt-based broth
- miso (味噌) – A broth made from soybean paste
- tonkotsu (豚骨) – A rich broth made from pork bone and fat
Noodles (Men, 麺)
There are as many noodle dishes in Japan as there are cities and towns, if not more. The noodles themselves (men, 麺) include the previously discussed ramen (ラーメン) and:
- udon (うどん, 饂飩)
- soba (そば, 蕎麦)
- sōmen (そうめん, 素麺)
All are wheat based, and served with varying broths and toppings. Udon is usually thicker, chewier, and a lighter color. Soba contains buckwheat and is darker with a rougher texture. Sōmen are thin and white. Soba and sōmen can be served cold, popular in the summer months (sōmen is usually served cold). The broths are usually made from soy sauce, dashi, and a rice wine called mirin (みりん、味醂).
Jakoten (じゃこ天) udon is pictured here, a specialty of Ehime prefecture in Shikoku that features a fish patty. Kitsune (きつね、狐) udon is a common variety that’s topped with sweet, deep-fried tofu. Hot udon and soba soups are also frequently served with tempura (天ぷら) — breaded and fried seafood and/or vegetables.
Soba that is served cold is called zaru soba (ざるそば). The noodles are served on a bamboo mat (called a zaru) and dipped into the sauce (tsuyu, つゆ).
Sōmen isn’t as commonly seen in restaurants, with the exception of nagashi sōmen (流しそうめん), where the noodles are fed into a stream of water that runs through the dining area via an open chute. Customers try to grab the noodles with their chopsticks as they shoot by. Like zaru soba, sōmen is served cold and dipped into tsuyu sauce.
Oden (おでん) consists of various foods — fish cakes, hard-boiled eggs, daikon (大根, Japanese radish) — cooked in a lightly-flavored broth of soy sauce and dashi. Oden can be found in convenience stores, some restaurants, and at food stalls during festivals, especially in the wintertime.
Onigiri (おにぎり, Rice ball)
Onigiri (おにぎり) are rice balls wrapped in nori (海苔, dried seaweed) and stuffed with various fillings. Common fillings include tuna, chicken, fish roe, and plum. Onigiri can be found in convenience stores.
Miso Soup (miso shiro, みそ汁、味噌汁)
Miso Soup (miso shiro, みそ汁、味噌汁), made from soybean paste, is often included in lunch and dinner sets. It’s typically eaten with rice, after the main dish. You don’t need a spoon — in Japan it’s acceptable to lift the bowl to your mouth and sip directly from the bowl, and you can use your chopsticks for any bits of tofu or seaweed.
Sweets (Okashi, お菓子)
You’ll have plenty of opportunities to try satisfy your sweet tooth in Japan. In general, most Westerners find Japanese sweets more subtle than Western counterparts. The exception is certain types of wagashi (和菓子), traditional Japanese sweets served with powdered green tea (matcha, 抹茶). Some varieties of wagashi are extremely sweet to contrast and balance with the flavor of the matcha. For more information about this delicate art, check out the March 2012 newsletter from The Green Teaist, a Chicago-area Japanese tea salon.
If you spend any time in Japan at all, you will almost certainly hear about mochi (餅). It is often translated as “rice cake” in English, but the translation leaves a lot to be desired, as the final product does not resemble what most would call cake. Mochi is made from rice that is pounded and ground into paste and then formed into blocks. A soft mochi is often used for sweets. Mochi sweets are featured at the bottom left of this photograph.
French culinary traditions have left their mark on Japan. Cream puffs are sometimes sold at stands in larger train stations. Many of the pastries found in coffee shops are French with a Japanese twist. For example, the Mont Blanc in Japan has a light cake as a base rather than a meringue, and sometimes comes in flavors other than chestnut. If you don’t speak Japanese and are trying to use foreign words, remember to opt for the French rather than the English. Chestnut is marron in French, maron (マロン) in Japanese, and the dessert is called mon buran (モンブラン) after the French Mont Blanc. Cream puff is chou à la crème in French, and shū kurīma (シュークリーム), as in chou cream, in Japanese.
Mochi (rice cake, 餅)
Mochi (餅) in its unadorned form is actually quite plain. This is how it looks in the grocery store. It’s a traditional New Year’s food (osechiryori, おせち料理) and served in a variety of ways – grilled, wrapped in nori (dried kelp, 海苔) and dipped in soy sauce; or boiled in soup. When it’s heated (grilled, boiled, or — gasp! microwaved), it softens and greatly expands in size.
Beans are commonly used in sweets in Japan. Sweet red bean paste is called anko (餡こ), white bean paste is shiroan (白餡). Bean paste is often combined with mochi and pastries for local specialties. Candied chestnuts are also popular.
Dango (団子) and Matcha (抹茶)
Dango (団子) is used to refer to any ball-shaped food, often skewered. Grilled mochi dongo served with savory soy-based sauces can be found at trailheads of popular mountain hikes. Here, a sweet dongo is served with matcha (powdered green tea, 抹茶).
Alcohol is consumed fairly freely in Japan, partially due to a drinking culture that developed from office workers drinking with their bosses after work. But it would, of course, be incorrect to say that all Japanese are avid drinkers. Many have a genetic aversion alcohol and avoid it altogether.
The term izakaya (居酒屋) refers to a Japanese-style bar and grill. Dishes are shared as a group. The quantities are small, so several dishes are usually ordered, which provides for a wide sampling of the food. Note that the bill is generally split equally among everyone at the table, regardless of who consumes what.
Nomihōdai (飲み放題) is an all-you-can drink scheme where a set price is paid for unlimited drinking for a specified period of time, usually 60 to 90 minutes. Be sure to pay attention to when the last order is, often 15 to 30 minutes prior to the end time.
Sake is readily available at any drinking establishment. Note that the word sake (酒) in Japan just means alcohol in general. If you want sake, ask for nihonshū (日本酒). Shochu (掌中) is another rice-based alcohol, similar to vodka. It’s served in many cocktails.
Convenience stores (konbini, コンビニ) sell alcohol, cold beer by the can, and a popular citrus-flavored carbonated alcoholic drink called Chūhai (チューハイ).
A flight of Sapporo Beer, a major brewery in Hokkaido, is pictured here. Hokkaido also hosts several micro breweries with German roots, and a few Trappist-style ones as well.