After only a short time in Japan, it can be understood why many Japanese find eating in Western countries a daunting or unappetising experience. A single dinner plate covered with a large slab of meat, surrounded by nondescript heaps of vegetables is as appealing to the Japanese as, well, a small plate of thinly sliced raw fish, grated white radish and edible leaf might be to a Western person.
If the thought of this kind of spread, or other local delicacies, such as raw horse’s tongue, raw chicken organs and dishes made entirely from tofu aren’t entirely appealing, there’s yet no need to be deterred from a trip to Japan, as many other more familiar kinds of food are readily available.
To be on the safe side, unadventurous visitors can dine in family restaurants where they’ll be entirely at ease with the food on offer. Many restaurants also have plastic models of food in window displays, plus colour photograph menus, all of which give a clear idea of what’s on offer inside.
However, as one of the compelling reasons to visit Japan is surely the food, visits to family restaurants are best kept to a minimum, perhaps just whenever a steak fix becomes an overwhelming need. For those sensible enough to plan and research their Japan visit, an acquiring of some knowledge of Japanese cuisine is well worthwhile, with visits to restaurants featuring favoured food suggested as a key aspect of the trip, both the food itself and the dining environment to be savoured.
There are two main styles of food presentation in Japan: formal or traditional (kaiseki) and casual. Kaiseki, which started out as cuisine developed to accompany the tea ceremony, can be found at Japanese style places of accommodation, such as minshuku and ryokan, and at expensive restaurants. A more casual style, covering many varieties, is available at cheaper restaurants and eaten in most homes. The Japanese do not eat raw fish (sashimi) and sushi every day, although some would like to, and in both cases don’t always prepare it themselves.
All kinds of cooked food are home delivered (demae), usually on scooters with a specially adapted, spring-operated carrying apparatus behind the driver, or with a roof. Larger spreads, such as a family serving of sushi and sashimi, would probably come by mini delivery car.
Demae can also include noodles, pizza, sandwiches, and curry with rice. Many people, especially university students who always live alone when not living with their family, avail themselves of these services. After use, the crockery and tray is washed and left outside the front door for collection later that day, or the next.
Restaurants can be graded according to price, ranging from under ¥1,000 for a meal, to ¥8,000-10,000 and more. Quality, variety of food and style of restaurant all vary according to price, however the cheapest places are always quite adequate for lunch and often dinner. Usually there’s no need to spend more than ¥2,000 for a good evening meal, ¥3,000 at the most.
Lunches are cheaper everywhere, with many places offering reduced price lunch sets, which may be featured in a plastic model or colour photo in the entrance or window. Smorgasbords (baikingu) are a popular form of lunch. Baikingu comes from the word Viking, the name of the first restaurant in Japan to offer this kind of eating, after its owner had experienced it in Denmark. These can offer good value to the hungry diner, and are popular dining places for trainee sumo wrestlers when attending out of town tournaments.
Eating is quite an event in Japan, the arrangement of bowls and dishes creating a sense of occasion. As in the West with the appetiser/entrée/main course sequence, the more traditional style Japanese meals also progress in a well-known order. A drink usually precedes any eating, often for the purpose of proposing a toast, with the accompanying cries of kanpai, beer the most common starter, but wine also popular. The first food will invariably be snack size on small dishes, rice soon appearing, perhaps with o-cha. Most meals are presented as a series of smaller dishes, which might number more than a dozen, and any dessert will probably only appear as fresh fruit, possibly with ice cream.
Overnight stays at hot springs, minshuku and ryokan are a long-standing, highly popular recreational pursuit in Japan, the food an important component of the total experience. At such places eating might take place in the room, or in a dining area. In all but the most casual restaurants, the importance of presentation is considered to be on a par with taste, making many meals worth photographing, and service is hard to fault anywhere.
Over recent years Japanese food has gained wider acceptance in the West, with sushi bars becoming a common sight, however most travellers to Japan are surprised at the great variety of food types and cooking styles available, and how they can vary from one region to another. In addition, the seasons and the kinds of food that come and go with them, are an important factor in Japanese cuisine.
Western style restaurants are generously sprinkled throughout most urban areas, especially on main roads, easily identifiable by their modern appearance, well-lit facade and interior, and surrounding car parking. Their large neon signs contain names such as Royal Host, Joyful, Gust, Volks, Big Boy and so on. A gathering of various kinds of restaurants can also always be found in department stores, either on the top floor or in the basement, very convenient for subway users as most department stores are located atop stations.
Traditional style restaurants are more discreetly located, and usually marked with a neon or illuminated vertical sign containing the name in kanji characters. Rarely is anything written in English inside either. The name may also be written on a curtain hanging in the doorway (noren), or on a red lantern (akachochin) at the entrance. These restaurants don’t have plastic model window displays. It may be a little intimidating to enter the cosy confines of such places, but a warm welcome will be received inside, where the warmth in winter and coolness in summer will make entry worthwhile.
The common form of greeting in restaurants, as in all places serving the public, is irrashaimase, welcome. If it’s a very casual place, proceed to an available table, or counter chairs, on entry. In other places a staff member will ask how many and show them to a table. A hot towel (oshibori) and glasses of water will soon be brought to each diner.
On entering any restaurant it will be seen whether it’s a shoes on or off establishment. Dining at a low table on tatami matting will be without shoes, and everywhere except family restaurants eating will be with chopsticks. Often stored in a small table top box, these are made of wood, joined as a pair, which can be easily pulled apart. Only the better kind of restaurants provide properly designed and painted chopsticks, placed on chopstick rests (hashioku) in front of each diner.
There may be a printed menu, but due to the seasonality of food the names of available dishes may be printed on pieces of paper or wood attached to the walls. With the vast array of restaurants in all cities and the kind of food changing from area to area, specialisation is common. When service in a restaurant is required there’s no need to feel shy about calling out – do so by using the word for excuse me (sumimasen).
A thank you (arigato), or more fully, arigato gozaimashita, will be appreciated at any time, probably responded to by the even stronger domo arigato gozaimashita. Upon finishing diners will want to pay the bill (okanjo), which might have been left at the table from the time the order was placed, and updated with any additional orders. Upon departing the restaurant, to indicate the meal was enjoyed, the expression go-chiso-sama deshita is used, which basically means it was a memorable occasion.
A comparison of menus of the more traditional kind of restaurant with modern family restaurants shows how the long-established dietary habits of the Japanese differ from the modern ones. In the past virtually no meat was eaten in Japan, largely because the teachings of Buddhism forbade the eating of four-legged animals. While the menus of the Japanese style restaurants still contain this emphasis on fish, many of the Western style ones are themed on meat, either steak or hamburgers, and eating in the latter restaurants is invariably cheaper.
Because of restrictions on fishing worldwide, some in response to over-fishing by Japanese fishing boats, fish farming is becoming increasingly common, and necessary, in Japan, although as yet with the exception of the blue fin tuna, the most favoured fish for sushi. Echoing the fate of many farming localities, as the traditional fishermen die, so too do some of the traditional fishing villages, the younger inhabitants not interested in continuing their parents’ livelihoods.
Of increasing popularity for dining, especially among university students and young working people, are Japanese pubs (izakaya), where unlimited amounts of food and drink are usually available for an all-inclusive fee. Some inner city buildings also have beer gardens, open only in the warmer months. The cheapest kind of bars are drinking shops (tachinomiya), where food is consumed standing up.
These places are not permitted to serve hot cooked food, but usually provide a wide selection of dried sea food and cold fried food. Examples can include hard boiled eggs, boiled octopus in vinegar, other small grilled fish such as herrings, sliced raw squid, and cold potato cakes. In winter, their charcoal heaters are used by customers as braziers on which they grill their own dried squid.
For casual night-time and early morning dining and drinking, portable pavement food stalls (yatai) can be an interesting experience, an integral part of inner city night life in some cities. They exist in two main forms. The first is the kind that service a small number of city centres, one being Fukuoka, and which are wheeled out onto pavements from late afternoon, remaining there until last customers leave, which can be anytime between midnight and 5am. They provide an unparalleled opportunity for visitors to, literally, rub shoulders with locals, while eating and drinking in a relaxed, casual and friendly atmosphere. Before embarking on a lengthy session at one, it might be worthwhile ascertaining where the nearest public conveniences are located, as these might be a city block or two away. Common menu items include yakitori and oden.
The second kind of yatai are the food stalls found at virtually every shrine and temple festival, commonly selling takoyaki, kori (flavoured grated ice in cones or cups), okonomiyaki, yakisoba, cobs of corn, grilled squid, and soft drinks. Operators of yatai are called tekiya, and in many localities have connections to the local yakuza, who in some localities have control over use of pavement space.
Due to this control, yakuza invariably also require buskers to pay them a fee, which will vary according to the location and its proximity to high volume pedestrian traffic, plus the perceived skill of the performer. For the better performers, such as professionally trained violinists and other musicians, a daily fee of up to ¥5,000 is of little consequence when daily earnings, especially in the warmer months, can exceed ¥100,000. One such busker from the United States was known to have amassed enough non-taxable earnings after five years in Tokyo, interspersed with a once a year trip back home, to return to America and pay cash for a luxury home and music shop business.
A trip to Japan is not complete without at least one meal, usually lunch, taking the form of a lunch box (bento), a common sight piled up on the counters of street food stalls and station platform kiosks. In the latter case they’re referred to as ekiben, eki meaning station, and can also be purchased from hostesses as they walk up and down the aisles of express train or Shinkansen carriages. Dining, or more likely lunching, on ekiben is a good way of sampling regional styles of food, and throughout the country there are about 3,000 different varieties of ekiben. Although the contents of most bento comprise one third or more of rice, the accompanying selection of such items as grilled fish, salted baked salmon (shiojake), cooked meat (yaki niku), wieners, fried prawns, small eggs, plus a few cooked vegetables, can make for a satisfying meal.
For decades the better containers were made of wood, but this is uncommon now. The most simple bento, which comprises a red pickled plum, umeboshi, on a full bed of rice, is called a hinomaru, the name for the Japanese flag, as this is what it most resembles. A fastidiousness for freshness of bento can be seen from the use-by details on the wrapper showing an hour of the day, rather than a date.
There are many human-crafted objects in Japanese daily life that can validly be described as works of art, food being an area foremost among them. When it comes to bento boxes, even the most simple and utilitarian are presented in a neatly compacted, aesthetically pleasing manner, the sight easy on the eye, the taste satisfying to the palate.
Yet where the bento is taken to its greatest extreme as an art form is by mothers, with the meals they prepare for their young children. One of the many rites of passage for women as successful mothers is their ability to display artistic talent in decorating the various home-made quilted bags children use for kindergarten, and in the production of any bento meals the children take with them. At kindergarten and primary school lunch is often provided, however on the days when it isn’t a bento must be taken.
With these bento the contents must not only be nutritious, but imaginatively placed in the container in an appetising and attractive manner, such as depicting a recognisable scene, or the face of an animal. By striving her hardest on each occasion to achieve such level of artistic merit, the mother is considered to be expressing her love for her child, not only as viewed by the child, but all others around the child, such as teachers and other children, who will undoubtedly view the contents of the bento.
The most favoured designs are those of cartoon characters with, for example, a base of rice moulded into a facial shape, added to by sliced carrot, cherry tomatoes and other carefully manicured pieces of food for eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Non-Japanese mothers are under pressure to quickly acquire these advanced bento making skills, or risk peer group disapproval and classroom rejection for their children. Some municipalities hold cooking classes for newly arrived wives of Japanese men from other Asian countries, to help them more quickly master these important aspects of motherhood.
Kinds of food
Of all food in Japan that has for long been a staple, umeboshi would have to have one of the most distinctive flavours. Plum trees first came to Japan from China in the 8th century, and as their reddish pink blossoms are the first signs of spring, they acquired a position of some importance in Japanese culture. With a high concentration of citric acid, their fruit first entered the Japanese diet as one of the country’s earliest forms of medicine.
When people subsequently discovered the plums could be preserved, and eaten all year round, they became an integral part of the diet, and continue to be so to this day. The process of preserving them involves adding salt to well-ripened plums, covering them with a red leaf that creates the red colour, pressing them close together for a few days, then drying them in the sun. In addition to their value as a vitamin C source, they are an effective laxative.
There are a number of other food types and flavours frequently found permeating Japanese cuisine. Because the adding of one kind or other of sauce to dishes is common with Japanese cooking, the flavours of these sauces, such as shoyu and ponzu, occur frequently, particularly the former. Shoyu probably first came to Japan from China in the 14th century, but didn’t become available to the general populace for another 300 years.
Up until the nation’s post World War II prosperity, a substantial portion of the Japanese diet was taken up by rice (gohan), miso and shoyu. Rice provided the carbohydrates and protein, but to gain required levels of protein large amounts of rice had to be eaten. To stimulate the appetite for this large amount of rice, and add flavour to it, grain-based condiments such as shoyu and miso were necessary.
Some of the main food types popular today include:
- sushi, the most recognised kind of Japanese food outside Japan, and for the Japanese the equivalent of a sandwich, it may contain only raw fish plus rice, or other ingredients. At the time of its first use it was popular because it was cheap and easily eaten, and its method of production helped preserve its contents – vinegar added to the rice, rolled around the raw fish, preserved it.
- sashimi, made from the best parts of certain kinds of raw fish, cut in a special way, eaten with rice and often with diced white radish (daikon), dipped into a mixture of wasabi and shoyu in a small side dish.
- furikake, used for sprinkling on rice, comes in various savory flavours, in single servings or sealable packs, of dried pieces of seaweed, sesame seeds, dried fish flakes and salt.
- miso, a fermented paste made from cooked soy beans, used in soups, stews and sauces . nori, dark green, almost black, sheets of dried seaweed, in which rice is wrapped to make sushi and onigiri, and which can be cut up into small pieces and sprinkled onto rice and other dishes.
- hijiki, another kind of seaweed, added to cooked dishes for flavouring.
- kombu, sea kelp, used to add flavour to various dishes.
- dashi, made from dried bonito fish flakes and kombu, which is used as a stock for many dishes cooked in water.
- shiso, a vegetable, the edible leaves of which are used as an accompaniment to sashimi.
- tofu, eaten once a day by most Japanese. A common side dish comprises uncooked tofu, topped with shoyu and bonito.
- tempura, seafood, small pieces of fish and sliced vegetables cooked in a fine light batter.
- wasabi, Japanese horseradish, a very hot, green paste usually purchased in a tube or as powder.
- satō, sugar, is often used in Japanese cooking is sugar, so it isn’t surprising to find some dishes quite sweet. Sometimes a sweet, weak rice wine called mirin is used for this purpose instead.
Certain kinds of food and types of restaurant lend themselves more to lunch than evening dining, including the following:
- noodles of any kind, including thin, grey soba, made of buckwheat and served cold on a bamboo lattice frame; thick, white udon, made of wheat flour, and served in a bowl of dashi broth with fishcake, eggs, seaweed and chicken; the rice noodle ramen, served hot and now often eaten out of an instant pack; and somen, a thin, wheat noodle, served hot or cold with shrimp, mushrooms, and parsley. In some outdoor locations, somen is served by being flushed with water through long open bamboo pipes, diners picking up the strands as they float past.
- okonomiyaki, a thick pancake containing vegetables (primarily cut up cabbage) and pieces of pork or seafood, plus sometimes noodles, with a dark brown sauce and mayonnaise squirted (out of soft plastic containers) on top, and further topped off with a sprinkling of dried fish flakes (katsuobushi). Styles, ingredients and sauces vary from one region to another.
- yakisoba, grilled noodles with pork or seafood, perhaps with a thin fried egg covering, sometimes eaten as an accompaniment to okonomiyaki.
- sushi, usually presented as nigirizushi, single bite-sized pressed lumps of rice spread with a fine layer of wasabi and topped with pieces of raw fish or seafood . donburi, comprising rice in a bowl topped by a pork cutlet (katsudon), chicken and egg (oyakodon), beef and onion (gyudon), or boiled eel (unadon).
- curry rice, comprising rice on a plate with beef stew, usually mostly gravy, too mild to be considered a real curry.
- takoyaki, octopus fritters, made from a batter placed in a half-sphere shaped mould and heated.
Some of the other best known dishes include:
- tempura, seafood and vegetables deep fried in thin batter.
- yakitori, barbequed chicken on skewers, small meatballs, baked potatoes, grilled capsicum and more.
- sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, boiled beef, tofu and vegetables.
- nabemono, fish, chicken and vegetables cooked in a hotpot, and best suited to the cold months.
- teppanyaki and yakiniku, grilled beef.
- oden, fishcakes, potatoes and eggs cooked as a kind of stew.
- robatayaki,a variety of seafood, meat and vegetables cooked upon selection by the diner.
- kaiseki ryori, the traditional style of Japanese meal comprising a multitude of dishes.
Incidentally, yaki comes from the verb yaku, to grill, roast or otherwise cook.
Two other culinary experiences worth trying are matsutake, Japan’s truffle, which only grow wild in remote mountainous areas, and fugu. A kind of highly poisonous porcupine fish or blowfish, fugu has caused the death of about 700 diners since the 1880s, and nowadays can only be prepared and served by chefs who have completed a specially designed two year course. Due to the lack of meat-eating in the past, there were no sausages, but instead fish were used as a source of paste (nerimono), of which today there are many varieties, such as the pink and white kamaboko.
Through American and Australian imports, the 1990s saw a drop in the price of beef in Japanese supermarkets, and a corresponding increase in its consumption. Aussie Beef comprises about 30% of all beef sold in Japan. The kind of beef traditionally eaten in Japan, such as for sukiyaki and teppanyaki, is the fat-marbled variety, the most expensive of which is wagyu, now also supplied from Australia. Individual farms stock perhaps only five or six animals, treating them like members of the family for their two to three year lifespan, giving them regular beer massages and the same beverage to drink.
For centuries of course Japan was self-sufficient in food, with rice and fish the main staples, supplemented by various other kinds of food on a seasonal basis. A feature among these was citrus fruit, still common and popular. Varieties include:
- mikan, a mix of tangerine and mandarin, with easily-peeled loose skin and few seeds, ripening in autumn through winter.
- yuzu, a greenish lemon, the juice of which is an ingredient in the sauce ponzu.
- sudachi, also green, used as a garnish with cooked fish and added to drinks.
- kinkan, the Japanese cumquat, small orange coloured fruit usually eaten with the skin.
- amanatsu, about the size of a grapefruit, yellow-orange in colour.
- kabosu, green-skinned with light orange flesh.
- aomikan, like a tangerine with green skin and orange flesh.
Following is a list of other common types of locally grown food:
- kaki, persimmon, comprising the amagaki, sweet variety, and shibugaki, astringent kind. In the popular dried format, it’s known as hoshigaki.
- kuri, chestnuts, often used as a sweetener in small Japanese cakes.
- nashi, the Japanese pear.
- momo, the Japanese peach.
- ringo, apples.
- suika, water melons, plus melons.
- ichijiku, figs.
- budo, grapes, usually round and large.
- ichigo, strawberries, also usually large.
- ume, plums.
- sakuranbo, cherries.
- biwa, loquats.