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Photo: Shibuya Foodshow court. Giving it a deep thought and choosing the right kind of pastry is a national pastime.

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Japan Travel Guide

Japanese Food, food... and more food
eating out isn't a necessity, it's a hobby, a date, a lifestyle
Photo: Having a blast at he takoyaki stand at a university festival in Kanda, Tokyo
Having takoyaki (and fun)
at Kanda, Tokyo

Be prepared... this is probably a less known fact of Japan, but people simply love to eat. And especially women. And before you try to find the contradiction, there isn't any.

With an already definite cuisine, a Japanese style cooking that isn't something to get easily bored of, in cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, but just about anywhere in the country you'll find so many restaurants, pastries and fastfood chains offering meals from all around the world that you'll eyes will start turning. Might sound a bit overboard but for someone who has a limit to available financial resources... no matter what those might be... choosing THE right place for dinner can be a time consuming, even though fun effort. Not because there's so few fine places, but rather quite the opposite. Not a rare sight to see people, couples, small companies go up to the window, browse through the fifth to tenth menu and still wander off to the next. It's a lucky tradition that the menu is displayed by the actual meal in the window... made from plastic but to look like a ninety-five to hundred percent accurate depiction of the real thing.

Photo: Shopkeeper lady talking customer into buying at the Tokyu Foodshow, Shibuya, Tokyo
Bargaining at
the Tokyu FoodShow

Eating, choosing what to eat, and for some even reading up on eating, watching shows on eating, learning to cook for the sake of having or having someone eat good food are all in the top twenty national pastimes. And before this turns into a misunderstanding, it's not really about quantity.

It's about variety of taste.

And in case you've never experienced the dizzy feel of turning round and round in the middle of a food court, instead of strengthening your resolve just getting more and more confused on what to get... just find the right floor in any department store, or train station and dive into it head start. Great examples for those on the go are FoodShow in Shibuya, the basement of Seibu, Ikebukuro, Porta in Kyoto Station, and more or less half of Sapporo station in Hokkaido.

Fastfood

The only thing that surpasses both cafes and vending machines in density, if not only in downtown, are fast, and semi-fast restaurants. The basics are the same, you order from a somewhat limited menu, get your meal fast, then either eat or eat on the go. Or if you're under twenty and if you want to, you can stay for hours even afterwards. There are many names you will recognize, or think that you have recognized in fastfood chains, and quickly get accustomed to the huge number of the rest as well, for the main categories in where and what to eat are more or less easy to memorize.

Photo: pan lineup in the Andersen Bakery in Tokyu Foodshow, Shibuya, Tokyo
Andersen bakery
at Tokyu FoodShow

Pan

Pan or in other words... bread... means a whole lot of variety of baked food that includes... well, bread as its common accessory. All types of buns, rolls and sweetbuns are pan in general. One popular type which can be found nearly in any store is yakisoba-pan ( fried soba bread ) which has none other filling than actual yakisoba, fried noodles with meat, vegetables and soy sauce... another is karee-pan, with a similarly spicy filling of curry stew, but there are a wide variety of cheese-filled buns, and melon-pan, which is a yellow to sometimes greenish shaded huge sweet bun. But aside these classics which just about any convenience store has, there are lots and lots of pastries downtown and near most stations selling freshly baked buns, rolls, bread and cakes of a huge selection...

Some are themed after the country the recipes originate from, but really only originate from, for the sweets and bread sold there are always original and absolutely delicious by all means. For a culture not even liking bread up until only recently it's pretty good to have stores that sell world class freshly baked food. Among classics of Danish, French and German bakery products there are lots and lots of Japanese takes on the same ingredients, most resulting in quite a well rounded original taste. Note that these stores have nearly always at least five to ten people waiting in line with their fully packed trays, for while the selecting part is self-service, packing the goods properly seems to be of utmost importance, thus slowing down the process. Add an additional five minutes to your schedule if you want to buy something in a popular shop, but remember that they're popular for a reason... you won't regret it.

Photo: lining up for pan in the Andersen Bakery in Tokyu Foodshow, Shibuya, Tokyo
And the Andersen queue
at the Tokyu FoodShow

You'll find these pastries to be the ideal source for your daily portion on bread, if you're the type who can't live without wheat... supermarkets and convenience stores just don't tend to have this quality, at least not without slicing it up and shoving it into plastic bags.

But what's really good is the more complex buns and rolls with fillings like huge chunks of cheese, cream, sweet potato, onions, marmalade, cinnamon, vegetables or a more stylish take on classics like karee-pan... variations on seasonal cakes, let it be Xmas or Valentine's day, and pastries you just can't miss out on if you like quality baked sweets.

Photo: Click for another MOS Burger shop near Susukino, in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Brokkoli soup
at MOS Burger

Burgers

Some names might ring a bell. Like McDonald's. But perhaps even such a place can hold some surprises as American and European menus rarely include seasonal offers like the ebiburger ( shrimp in fried gratin ), might not ask you to sort the trash before you leave but...
...also might not allow you to smoke on the second floor while eating.

Our favorite however is MOS Burger, the Japanese chain offering refreshing things like the natsume-fish burger, which is a burger without the buns, presented between two quite extensive layers of lettuce. Don't need to be skeptic, the mayonnaise won't even drip. Also the cheese-buns which taste exactly like eastern European pastry, and a broccoli soup which would fit any American school meal. But the menu always includes burgers that are probably the same in any part of the world, plus the usual Japanese style seasoning, and a huge variety of seafood in all kinds of shapes and mixture.

Photo: Shibuya, the Spainzaka slope, literally packed with  small restaurants, arcades and clothing stores.
Freshness Burger
to the right, at Spainzaka, Shibuya

Another huge chain is Lotteria, which you may notice by its huge L logo and quite the stereotype yellow with red choice of colors for it. The menu here is quite extensive, basically there's a different item for every combination of topping, meat, seasoning, seafood, and an amazing number of versions considering baked potatoes and French fries.

If you're after a more filling, if a bit more expensive diner-like burger find the nearest FreshnessBurger shop. The portions are slightly larger, the variety, shape and even the taste tends towards classic burgers and the fries aren't made of mashed then reshaped potatoes.


Photo: Typical plastic food menu for a generic shokudo, selling Soba, Udon, Katuson, Karee, in Ebisu, Tokyo
Classic menus
in Ebisu, Tokyo


Useful links
(off site):

Soba and Udon recipies
( as easy as it gets :)

Soba and Udon

Soba and udon, if you don't know already, are the names of two different types of noodles. Soba being the thinner, with grayish-brown color and usually served cold with a cold broth of soy taste ( zarusoba, morisoba ) or in a hot soup with some topping. Udon is made of wheat instead of buckwheat, is much more thick, bright white, and loses its shape within like five minutes because of its somewhat raw substance. Both are delicious and filling, but are not the least heavy.

With the soups the taste greatly varies by the kind of broth you order them with. The only common thing is the light soy sauce, the negi ( green onions ), the five-taste seasoning on the counter, ginger, and some... seaweeds we won't look the English name up for not to scare anyone away, but be reassured they are all edible.

Most of the time in classic soba shops payment is made at a vending machine near the entrance, for which you'll receive food tickets. The only thing that is NOT decided by these tickets is whether you'd like soba or udon. The broth, the topping, everything else is paid there. The tickets are then passed on to the people at the counter who will ask which noodle you'd like.

The food itself isn't characterized by this, or at least it shouldn't be but... the stores that specialize in them are rarely visited by any other people than salarymen on the run, curious young, and those who love this kind of food. When in downtown, be prepared to experience a timeless atmosphere of a makeshift food stand at a train station, regardless of your actual location. Even the colors used to decorate the restaurants tend to be none other than gray, brown, black, white and shades in between, and is a less likely place to see "baito" teenagers fooling around behind the counter. Seeing this quite a typical lifelong career of making soba and udon, if you have never been to one of these shops, you'll see characters you'll remember for a long time. Stands and small restaurants selling soba and udon are the original... or perhaps traditional fastfood stands in Japan, and by stands this means that sometimes even shops that otherwise look like a diner will lack any seating. This is an extreme example on fastfood, and is of course outnumbered by stores that offer you a chair. Otherwise the customers who don't mind to eat noodles and soup while standing at the counter... rarely do so for just the fun of it.

But since the food is both cheap and great, if you can't afford time and/or money to go to a shokudo or restaurant and order it as an appetizer or side-dish, and don't prepare it at home... find a good specialty store with good atmosphere, there are lots of them. Just peek in through the window... and you'll get the idea whether it is the place for you.

Gyuudon, Katsudon

Photo: Gyudon restaurant near Yoga station, Tokyo
Gyudon restaurant
in Yoga, Tokyo

The most popular dishes regardless of age are Gyuudon and Katsudon. Somewhere in between fastfood and a specialty restaurant, stores that sell them often sell many other kinds of meals as well, but none of them are this easy to like. Basically a huge bowl of rice as your side-dish, and a topping of sliced beef ( gyuudon ) or pork cutlet ( katsudon ), the later with variations like beef cutlet or beef-katsu and cheese topping also are quite the lunch. Some chains that specialize in selling gyuudon were recently hit hard by the occurrence of mad cow disease in the US, not that a single case has ever occured in Japan but the fear of that it might happen was enough for people to abandon this meal, only to all chains that use beef, including McDonald's to switch their capacity entirely to Australian beef during 2005, so that customers may rest assured and return to eating their favorite food. From a street point of view this revival has already happened.

Photo: Having Ume Onigiri for a quick snack on an Aomori train
Ume Onigiri - (click to eat)
Triangle shaped fresh, salty rice with pickled plum in it


Useful links
(off site):

How to make onigiri
Another site on onigiri

( both include photos btw )

Onigiri

While it sure is more likely to be prepared at home than anywhere else, all kiosks in all train stations and all convenience stores sell an amazing whole of variety, freshly made every day. In case you wonder, onigiri is a handful of steamed rice, grasped together with salt and some sesame ( or other ) seasoning into either a triangle or a round shape, and then packed into nori seaweed, a thin green leaf. And yes, the nori is edible too. In the middle there are different kinds of fillings, like tuna with mayonnaise, wa-fuu tuna, seachiken with mayonnaise, or maguro. In case you didn't know the above list is basically all tuna. Be prepared for this. But salmon, salmon roe, and all kinds of other fish fillings are available as well, and for those who like some variety in taste, or like the Hanshin Tigers we recommend the ume or picked plum filling and a mirror to look into, every time they take the first bite.

Two onigiri is probably enough for a quick snack, six is about the same amount as eating an entire meal. With prices about a hundred yen in convenience stores, you better catch the time before the morning and evening rush-hour to be able to get the kind you wanted.

Sandwiches

The Subway chain may sound familiar for just about anyone. Somewhat different in available fillings, but perhaps more extended than different, always fresh and amazingly cheap, considering that it actually offers things like cheese and tomato, which somehow seem to be more expensive in Japan than in Europe or America. The stores aren't always located in the restaurant rows where all the other big fastfood chains are trying to catch attention, but a bit further off the road, meaning you won't find them right in the middle of Shibuya but there is one on Bunkamura dori.

Cafes usually offer their own sandwiches as well, but considering the reasons of also providing a safe haven from the madness of downtown streets they will price you an amount some might find regretting, even with the great taste of the food.

Places like Little Italian Tomato Jr. also have their own variety, but are only a tad cheaper than a cafe sandwich... too bad because the curry - tuna - mayonnaise mixture is really something.

All in all the most likely place to buy cheap and fresh sandwiches are the kiosks at train stations, pastries and most of all convenience stores, which stock up... or rather actually need to stock up after every rush hour, considering the number of hungry schoolgirls, boys, students and people returning from work who aren't planning to go straight home.

The variety differs from chain to chain, but the basics are probably the same. Triangle shaped white-bread, two or three sandwiches packed into one box, most of the time pairing different fillings. If someone has ever eaten a prepackaged sandwich at a gas stand or cafeteria in America or Europe... This isn't like that. It's much better, fresh, doesn't feel like a compromise, it's real bread with real fillings.

Variations include ham and eggs, ham and cheese, ham cheese and lettuce, tuna, tuna and eggs, tuna and mayonnaise, tuna and mayonnaise and lettuce, katsusando ( pork cutlet sandwich ) usually with cheese, lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and a whole lot more. The price is around one-hundred and fifty to three-hundred yen, which basically only differs on how desperate someone might be to be able to buy one. Non-franchise, strategically placed stands catering people who actually forgot about food up until then... might be more expensive.

Also, mostly at train stations you'll find the six-pack mini-sandwiches which are actually just three sandwiches cut in half not into triangles, and packed neatly side by side into a plastic box ready to be stuffed into the back of the seat of the shinkansen.

Ramen

The ideal all-in-one food. Esthetically and price-wise somewhere in between a restaurant meal and fastfood, a huge ( and it really is huge ) bowl filled with noodles, soup, vegetables, meat, mushrooms, eggs, in a combination you ordered them.

No one expects any person below 65 kilos and after at least a meal that day to be able to eat it all. But that's not the point. Start with what you like and if you're still hungry after devastating the contents, you can still sip out the approx. one liter of heavy, tasty broth. Even though you might need to rest afterwards.

There's nothing really special in Ramen, and it probably is present in different form with a different name all around the world. Its sheer practical nature, tasty toppings and seasoning however made it the most popular food in Japan during the last two decades. Although it originates from China.

Ordering ramen you'll first need to find a ramenya, or ramen store. These are nearly always specialty restaurants selling nothing but ramen, with the exception of Chinese restaurants and ramen shops that sell some more solid food as side-dishes to the soup. A near-station ramen stand is only recommended for people who are willing to drink heavily. You'll see how these two things are connected once you try.

There are three different broths for ramen, which are the base for the soup, and are responsible for the overall taste. One is Shooyuu ramen, which is soy sauce based, the other is shio ramen, which is basically plain salty soup, and the third, which is the Japanese version of ramen is miso ramen. The first two are usually chicken, pork or beef soup stock prepared freshly. The last one however is miso... thus is advised for anyone liking its taste and those who don't like the idea of eating anything that touched meat.

The noodles are pretty much a given, boiled separately and added to the soup only in its bowl, and preparation-wise the same goes to all the toppings that might come with your order... but... if you simply say miso ramen, or shooyuu ramen, you'll get something you could call the regular set. The usual toppings are a couple of slices of meat, some vegetables, eggs, ginger, negi ( green onions ), making up to a complete meal. But there are different specialties in every store, which sometimes even try hard to brand themselves with a unique version, thus taking a peek at the menu and deciphering the imaginative names might not hurt. For those who are worried about the portion of solid vs. liquid substance, there's a store in Shibuya that pretty much sells meat with just a hint of ramen below it... you can buy up to seven slices of pork and some eggs to go with it... but don't go on weekends unless you want to stand in a queue of about three dozen people aiming for the same goal.

The vegetarian version would be yasai tappuri miso ramen ( or tanmen for those less conscience or strict about what's to be considered as so ) which will be filled with lots of tasty, and really tasty vegetables along with the noodles. Make sure to order it "niku nuki de" though. Meaning without meat. The broth of miso ramen is miso, which is fermented soy bean paste.

Also, don't forget about the seasonings on the counter either. Adding pepper and the ramenyuu isn't only for enthusiasts, it's for the right taste.

Takoyaki

Dubbed in English as octopus ball or octopus puff, it's a traditional fastfood of the kansai area, but is very popular in all of Japan... dense, pasta and vegetable base mixed together and fried into neat little balls on a special griddle with dozens of half-spheres in it for the proper shape... of course all this made with a little piece of konnyaku and octopus in their centers. Although it's said to be excluded from the original recipe, most people will tell you that takoyaki just isn't takoyaki without its sauce topping. For those who'd like a hint on what it's like, well... it's a filling portion of 8 balls per pack, and tastes like the Japanese Worcestershire sauce it's soaking in. It's really good. Although chewing on the usually hard, gumlike leg of an octopus might not be okay with everyone. May sound disrespectful to rob the takoyaki of its namesake ingredient but sometimes it feels like as if the octopus was just the initial excuse to flap all the delicious stuff around it. But you'll have to try it to decide for yourself. Eastern Europeans will recognize it as langos in a ball shape with octopus in the middle.

Taiyaki

Another traditional food of all kinds of festivals, but lucky for those who like it, can be bought any time of year in its specialty stores. The griddle here is shaped like a fish, and the paste doesn't really include any special ingredients that isn't in any pancake on an American table at breakfast. However the little waffle like fish are always filled with either anko ( sweet bean jam ) or custard... or even both... making them quite a filling snack... and are a great thing to grab onto from late autumn to early spring until the temperature rises. It will warm your hands and heart in a matter of seconds.

Crepes

The Japanese version of crepes is said to be in closest compliance with the Greek... a cardboard thick, fresh and flexible pancake of the size of a steering wheel, wrapped up into a cone... filled with loads and loads of delicious stuff. And whipped creme. Which you have to say so if you don't want.

No need to search hard to find a stand, just try walking down in the arcades of Namba in Osaka, Susukino in Sapporo, or Takeshita dori in Harajuku without crossing a line of girls waiting in front of one. Plastic version is a must, and even though there are only about ten to twelve ingredients, somehow mixing the right combinations together seems to be a huge task no matter how determined one was while in the line. Thus all versions of all combinations are cast into plastic and put in the window, only to confuse us even further. But it doesn't really matter for you can't really go wrong.

The most basic fillings are the above mentioned whipped cream, or namakuriimu, fresh fruit like strawberry or bananas, syrup of choice ( usually chocolate or caramel ), ice cream of different tastes ( or perhaps only different names and colors ), and whole piece pastry like cheese cake or mille-feuille. Might sound silly but cheese cake in crepes is... quite good.

The other, more filling version, which is much like a sandwich, may sound strange for those who thought crepes was all sweets. It has ingredients like cream cheese, lettuce, and tuna, meaning it's salty instead of being sweet, and definitely closer to what you'd call a warm meal. In case there's no other option to fill your stomach than to eat crepes and you're not up for sweets, at least there's an option.

Omuraisu, omusoba

A huge and thick round shaped omelet folded in half... but filled up with loads and loads of delicious stuff beforehand... then decorated with boring jigsaw lines of either ketchup or some different, darker sauces like demi glace or Worcestershire. Meaning that from the outside they will look like a huge drop of the same yelow substance but once you cut into it, the fillings will flow out steaming with a delicious scent, crying out for some mayonnaise to top off the crazy mix of taste. At least for some people in Kansai. Omuraisu features chikinraisu as its filling, for lovers of Italian food it's much like chicken risotto, only less wet and all-red because of the ketchup used for seasoning... for omusoba you'll find yakisoba inside the package, the thin, gray noodles fried together with vegetables, soy sauce and often some kind of meat, mostly chicken.
Overall don't expect this meal to be on the same light level as ham and eggs for your breakfast, it's name might be deceiving but if you're having omuraisu or omusoba it's unlikely that you'll need to order anything else to fill your stomach.

Kaitenzushi

Perhaps there's no need to explain what sushi is. But if you still don't know, once you are in Japan just head to the nearest kaitenzushi restaurant, sit by the counter and watch the different kinds of seafood march round and round on the moving pavement-like tabletop. Not sure about other Asian countries but in Europe and America there simply isn't as much variety in sushi, it rarely can be as fresh, and often costs about three times more than in Japan. Even in Tokyo, and even in a kaitenzushi it still is to be considered somewhat more expensive than near the seas which actually still have fish in them... but in a kaitenzushi all you pay for is what you eat, taking the little plates down from the counter, and stocking them up in front of you. Cost is calculated by the number of plates that take up the pile... if there is any difference in cost between them their color will give you a hint. Unless you specifically order ootoro and things like that you are unlikely to just encounter the really expensive pieces by chance.

If thirsty just take a teacup and fill it with the green tea powder you'll find right in between the pickled ginger and soy sauce ( location may vary ), and push it to the little tap that will fill it with hot water. But do be careful that water is really hot. But at least the tea is free, no one will frown you for having three refills of hot water and only two plates of maguro sushi.

Most of the time you can get a menu with photos on them, so that if something isn't circulating atop the counter you still can order it, even if you don't speak Japanese at all. But the most basic sushi are probably available already anyway, just wait for them to pass through in front of you.

Pizza, spaghetti

While there are lots and lots of Italian restaurants that serve delicious food, the fastest way to get yourself a portion of spaghetti is probably either First Kitchen or Italian Tomato Jr. Both chains are somewhere in between a family and a fastfood restaurant with Italian Tomato being one class higher in terms of service, taste, price and interior design... First kitchen is more like McDonalds than let's say, Skylark Gasto. Be warned that while both pizza and spaghetti taste quite good, the portions are only about half of that served in a restaurant...

But then again even restaurants serve pizzas of paper thin pasta compared to what people might be used to in America or from Pizza Hut.

Also, and this goes in general for any other food as well... as opposed to American and European prices, in Japan the most costly ingredients are cheese and tomato. Thus travelers arriving from such places will be amazed to see that the toppings served nearly free at home are the most expensive while seafood and other things more common to Japan are the cheapest.

Gyros, a.k.a. doner kebab

If you don't know what it is go downtown and look for it. No matter where you live you ought to run into a food stand, restaurant or like in Shinjuku a big red truck with a Turkish person inside it trying to attract customers.

One thing if you not only know what doner kebab is but also might be looking for other usually related stuff like soups, Turkish rice, musaka or falafel... is that you won't find any. The gyros truck sells gyros and gyros only.

Sentimental food - things you like for other reasons than their street version

Curry

Curry is quite common, both the Japanese version, kareeraisu ( curry with rice ) and the dishes of traditional Indian cuisine. The latter is only served in Indian restaurants though, which are of course not fastfood, both service and prices are higher. Karee is a big time favorite of children, partially for its all-in-one tastiness and partially because all you have to do is grab a spoon and dig in, which can't be said for most Japanese meals. While this dish is mostly included on school and workplace cafeteria menus only, there are fastfood chains specializing in kareeraisu, which anyone would simply call curry in the country. This might be confusing people who had the Indian meal in mind. Not that it's that much different, but be prepared that the ingredients in Japanese karee might not be fit for people who - again - don't wish to eat meat. Which is as far as we know isn't at all uncommon among the fans of Indian food. Curry with not even a hint of meat is not available in the Japanese restaurants, only the Indian menu includes such dishes.

The taste is... well... curry. Both types are hot, tasty, and range from vibrant yellow to pitch black based on the ingredients. Not to mention the spinach based Indian meals which are also delicious.

Bento

Only for those who are prepared to eat stuff out of the box. Bento made in industrial quantities rarely taste as good as home cooking. It's a good option if you're traveling or want to have at least the illusion of eating a normal meal but if you'd like to taste how the food listed on the label really should be like, you better order it fresh in a shokudo or restaurant... or search for a place where they sell the boxed lunch in small enough quantities to have time to concentrate on quality. Bento bought at a station isn't bad... it's just not gourmet cuisine that's all. Convenience store bento may be a bit different but that's based on the chain the shop belongs to, time of day, and day of week.

Oden

Well definitely not fastfood. But some places like 711 have oden freshly boiling aside the counter and for a price you can't complain about. If you didn't know what oden is, basically it's a lot of stuff boiled together in separate little sacks, but in the same broth, to both share each other's and keep their own individual taste... when buying you just name which one of the ingredients you'd like and the people at the counter will assemble your own personal mix. Okay this is the convenience store version, the oden stand or home made oden is the real thing.

Ingredients include noodles, eggs, meat, daikon ( radish ), mushrooms, vegetables, and tons of other stuff depending on who's preparing it... you just pick the ones you like, get it shoved into a bowl with some soup and you're ready to eat.

Fun food

Okonomiyaki

Cook what you like... more or less this might be the English translation. Definitely not the same fun when alone, the point is to sit around the griddle with the mixture of ingredients in a bowl, much like a dense paste for a pancake only that it's full of fillings you'd expect from more serious meals... but as its name indicates you can pretty much drop anything into your bowl from bonito flakes to carrots, given that you ordered the necessary material from the menu. Once mixed to a state you can't recognize what's in it just drip it on the griddle and fry until it needs to be flipped to the other side. It's not unusual to drown it in mayonnaise once on your plate.

Vegetarian food

An important notice to anyone who would like to avoid eating meat. In Japan most of the food that otherwise doesn't have any visual traces of animal products may very well still be seasoned with crumbs of bacon, boiled together with chicken broth or prepared together with meat in general. In case you're not sure whether something you'd order has anything in it that you dislike, you'd better ask right ahead. And also... asking whether there's any meat in the food will not do any good, for people will only tell whether there's a slice or chunks of meat included as an ingredient or topping. Ask whether the food has been prepared using even the slightest pieces of animal products, even if only for seasoning...

And you'll be probably amazed how Japanese who are said to not eat that much meat... which is true by the way... still use tiny amounts in most meals if only for the taste.

But don't panic, Japanese restaurants and food stands prepare meals fresh for everyone, more often than not, you can try ordering whatever catches your eye without meat. Just ask whether it's possible, and you'll get your own vegetarian version of the same dish, while practicing some Japanese "Nikunuki demo dekimasuka ?" ( Can this be without meat as well? ) And if the answer is somewhere around yes or "Nantoka shimasu" ( we'll figure something out ) you're all set. Just be reasonable, and don't order all-meat dishes without it.

Eating on the street...

Eating anything other on the street than crepes, ice cream, waffle or other similar one-hand pastry probably isn't a good idea, at least not in downtown. Find a place where you can at least sit down even if you're in a hurry... not that it's against anything else than common sense to run around with food in your hands and mouth. Most food courts and department stores have some area for this purpose... somewhere... if you don't find it you can always ask. With the exception of the above mentioned gyros truck, no fastfood facility will leave you without at least a bench that you could enjoy your food on undisturbed.

Not fastfood

Restaurants

Two things you should know about entering a restaurant... one is that once you get in, you'll have to answer to the question on how many of you are there ( Nanmeisama desuka ? ) ... answer depends. If you haven't learned numbers in Japanese just show the number with your fingers. But then don't plan to go with a company of more than ten people. The other thing is that a really popular restaurant will have a line of people waiting in front of it. Especially on weekends and holidays, and of course only during dinnertime, a place with some word spread about it will queue hungry customers up to thirty people. As mentioned before, deciding what to eat has probably been a hard time for all of them, so don't expect anyone with a strengthened resolve to just leave. You'll find a row of pretty comfortable chairs in front of the entrance, enough to exchange the entire interior with a new load of people. If you're among those who can't live without the food served there, or at least will probably feel that way for the next half hour, just sit down and wait patiently. And also, don't be surprised that the people working there will eventually come up to you with the menu so that you can order your food even while waiting... thus when you finally can enter the store and sit down it could be presented in only a matter of minutes. Serving drinks to customers waiting outside is not uncommon either.

And two things when inside the restaurant... waiters will most likely refrain from bothering you while you're eating, nor confront you with suggestive questions on whether you'd like to order anything more or would please leave. You'll get none of that, but... in exchange you'll have to signal if you'd like anything with a loud "sumimasen!" at the least to get the proper attention. ( Don't worry all it means is "excuse me" ). Also, unless specifically told otherwise you'll only find free refills of things other than water in family restaurants.

And finally when you're about to leave take your bill to the counter or "reji" at the exit, and that's it. Unless in a traditional restaurant it's unlikely that you need to pay at the table. If you don't have the bill on your table already you may either not need or just have to ask for it.

And don't tip. You don't have to, you shouldn't, no one wants you to. ( "No we don't take tips. But in exchange the wage is great." )

Photo: A full course Japanese meal  in Shin Osaka.
Full course Japanese meal
Shin Osaka Station, Osaka

Japanese restaurants

Since this is only a supplementary travel guide we'd like to refrain from providing a complete list of available facilities and food. If you're visitin Japan, apart of some general information, money and the will to eat things you haven't before you don't really need anything anyway.

What you might want to look out for is that most restaurants serve dinner at different, meaning higher prices than lunch, if they serve any lunch at all. During dinnertime however the menu is usually much more extensive, and most of the time you can still eat a complete meal within the budget of two thousand yen. As probably anywhere else in the world, the costly part is not the food but the drinks. You might want to skip on the idea of getting drunk in a restaurant if you have to worry about your financial well-being.

Food is usually of larger portions and is delicious. If you don't know Japanese cuisine and are hesitant even if you're told that you don't have to be, try tempura for starters, which is basically quite the common ingredients deep-fried and usually served with rice, salad and the obligatory tasty sauce you dip it into. You can't really go wrong as most of the tempura is either seafood or vegetables. Sashimi might also ring a bell to those who've been to a Japanese restaurant overseas, and is basically fish with rice. Again something you can't really go wrong with, except that the finest ingredients may be quite costly in a high class restaurant.

French restaurants

We wouldn't know. Sorry but the word combination of French and restaurant literally means robbery in Japan and no one we know has ever felt like losing the food money for four consecutive days to eat something with a fancy name. On a more serious note, French restaurants tend to be fashioned as the possible highest class to eat at, with only a few exceptions.

Family restaurants

Basically quite a globalized feel, you could be anywhere from Canada to China or a space station on the moon... except for the menu which is of course Japanese The refills for your juice is free, sometimes even coffee is free, all you need is order the cup for it. Food is, well... quite good, service is fast, the interior is much like a diner, for it actually is a diner. You'll find a pretty international menu of stuff from hamburgers to Japanese style spaghetti to potato gratin baked with cheese, pizza, a wide variety of soups and an even wider variety of cakes and other desserts for the most sensitive target audience. The best part is that most of the family restaurants are open until very late, when even most ramenya are already closed... you can walk in at one at night and still get the same service, and same mid-low price.

For those who are arriving to Japan from America, you'll find that there is Denny's as well. With a somewhat localized menu of course.

Italian restaurants

Ranging from places with unique interior design and atmosphere at the 8th floor of a Shibuya building to places equipped with food ticket vending machines below the basement of... a Shibuya building. Prices vary for a bowl of pasta between three hundred to a thousand something yens, with of course the portions, taste and surroundings being much better in higher class restaurants. Chains like LaPausa will provide you with an easy to understand alternative, payable for anyone and serving the same stuff from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

Of course you should try the many many specialties and takes on classic Italian themes by Japanese chefs, for they are quite good at what they're doing. Perhaps surprisingly good considering that most ingredients and recipes are far from being a traditional Japanese favorite, yet most Italian restaurants, perhaps thanks to the young chefs, are preparing great meals from both classic and original recipes of their own.

Chinese restaurants

Perhaps the second most popular and most common to Japanese restaurants are the Chinese counterparts, with a huge number of dishes on the menu that might sound familiar to anyone, and just as many local specialties. The ingredients are more or less the same worldwide, thus if you'd like a Peking duck you can get one even at the most remote places. Fried rice or chahan, beefun, gyoza in all kinds of variations, steamed buns or manjuu, Sichuan to mandarin cuisine, whatever you wish for it's probably available. And if it's not, just head down to Chuukagai in Yokohama, it's less than an hour away even from downtown Tokyo, and start exploring the hundreds of restaurants and food stands from their plastic menus displayed in the windows. The variety is great, both in service and prices... but a quick option for a near fastfood like experience, there's the restaurant chain Hiday with a store or two in every single downtown district.

Chinese food is very common and popular, even with the already huge number of other international restaurants on the rise. It's quite hard to tell for some dishes where their mainland history ends and their Japanese history begins.

 

Other options for dining include all kinds of intermixes between pubs and restaurants, both Japanese and western style. Places with cheap but smaller portions of food with lots and lots of variety in both solid and liquid items on the menu, mainly popular among city dwelling people for most of the time they are either located in some alley near the main roads or at the top floor of malls, department stores or even skyscrapers for the sake of stunning views. Of course the class is a bit different and you wouldn't find an izakaya ( Japanese pub ) in the Seibu department store. Also there's at least one Irish or British pub in every town center of Tokyo that will jump in front of you even without looking for it.

But finally the most inexpensive and sometimes most tasty option is...
To go to the nearest supermarket or food court, stock up on ingredients or freshly prepared ready to eat portions to you liking, go home, prepare then eat it.

Anyway, enjoy your meal!


Japan Guide

- Japan Visa, border entry, what to bring and be prepared with
- Japanese maps, Navi mobile navigation, easy orientation for travelers
- Convenience stores, the resupply stations that sell everything
- Japanese Vending machines, for drinks, tickets, cigarettes and more
- Japanese Food, and all kinds of food in Japan, restaurants, fast food, cheap food...

Tokyo guide

- Tokyo - as we see it - introduction
- Budget Tokyo apartment rental, accommodation, let go of the concern
- Tokyo Prices, the real cost vs. western legends, how to make most of your budget
- Cheap Tokyo Stores, bargain tips, where to find what, fashion to electronics
- Tokyo Cafe life, a guide to Cafes serving as meeting points, hangouts and life-savers
- Tokyo Parks and Gardens, well maintained icons of tranquility, tradition or having fun
- The Tokyo crowd... escaping from Tokyo to Tokyo, evading downtown rushhours

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