Eating out

 

 

Few countries take their food more seriously than Japan. Visit any town and you’ll find a choice of fast food eateries and fine dining restaurants. Head out into the streets of the major cities and the selection of food on offer is bewildering; you name it and someone will cook it for you. While large Japanese cities will offer a variety of international cuisine (Italian restaurants and French patisseries are commonplace) there are certain Japanese mainstays that you’ll never struggle to find. These dishes make up an essential part of the Japanese dining experience and can be enjoyed even by those visiting Japan on a modest budget.

 

Sushi

Most sushi restaurants operate a conveyer belt system with freshly prepared plates making their way slowly around the room. Typical prices are around 250 yen for a plate (2 or 3 pieces). A system where no speaking to staff is required should be a blessing to a foreigner but be warned; each restaurant operates in its own particular way and if you’re like me you’ll inevitably make a mess of the system and create panic for the staff. The best advice is to stay calm, smile, pay the bill, say your thanks and leave quickly.

 

Curry and rice

If you’re familiar with a Wagamama chicken katsu dish a Japanese curry won’t present any culinary surprises.  Of all the choices that are displayed using plastic models in the window of restaurants few look as unappetising as a Japanese curry; half a plate of rice and half of a lifeless unidentifiable sludge. The good news is that it is tasty and usually very good value (around 700 yen a dish). If you like your curries hot there are usually chillies and pickles to help add flavour to your meal.

 

Ramen

You’ll find ramen places pretty much everywhere and as a hot meal for a reasonable price it’s hard to beat. Noodles, meat, veg in a bowl with hot broth; simple but highly effective, especially on a cold day. It’s not surprising that ramen is most popular in the northern island of Hokkaido, where Sapporo ramen is considered the nation’s finest. Expect to pay around 700 yen for a very generous helping.

 

Udon noodles

A staple of Japanese cuisine, these are served in some of the most humble places and often ordered via a vending machine. Pay your money (typically around 500-600 yen), press a button and wait for your dish to be served. A word of warning however: many people in Japan prefer their noodles cold. If you are not tempted by the thought of a meal that tastes like a ‘morning after’ breakfast then confirm that your noodles will indeed be ‘hotto’.

 

Okonomiyaki

While in Japan take the chance to try okonomiyaki at least once. The dish itself is a fairly humble offering: a variation of a pancake stuffed with pork, egg, vegetables, seafood and often noodles.  The okonomiyaki restaurants however are something of a show. You can watch the chefs rushing around in the steamy open kitchen preparing your meal alongside a dozen others. Your table is quite likely to consist of a hot plate so you can choose just how brown you’d like your dinner.  Expect to pay around 700 yen per dish.

 

Burger Joints

There are more McDonalds in Japan than any country in the world outside of the US. Step out on any main street and you’re likely to catch a glimpse of the golden arches. If you do have a craving for a burger but you’re still keen to stay with Japanese dining, head for Freshness Burger or Mosburger, two popular Japanese chains that offer pretty much the same fare as their American rivals with the added bonus that you probably won’t know what you’re ordering. A standard quarter-pounder type burger costs around 350 yen.

 

Drinks

Water is free and offered without prompting in almost every restaurant; it is often the same with green tea. In fact in most of the places listed above you’ll rarely be asked for a drinks order and will need to accost a waitress to get a beer.

 

Beer

The most common beer in Japan is Asahi and you won’t find too many places that don’t offer it as standard. Among Japanese beer drinkers Sapporo is considered a better beer and if you happen to be in the city of that name then the brewery tour is the no.1 attraction. Expect to pay around 400 yen for a half litre glass.

 

Sake

Japan’s spirit of choice, no party is complete without a generous supply of sake. It is used to toast the cherry blossom, public holidays and pretty much any day ending in a ‘y’. It can easily double your restaurant bill but after a few glasses you probably won’t be too bothered.

 

Photo courtesy of  JNTO