Welcome to this series about traveling in Japan. I’m launching into my third visit and in the next posts will combine details from earlier visits at very different times of my life and with very different travel styles. The intention is to help you arrange your own trip and in this post, learn more about what to eat in Japan.
On my first trip I was traveling with my husband and then five-year-old son. We were treated like royalty by our hosts. The second trip was a business-hosted van tour with a dozen Americans. Again everything was taken care of. This last trip on my own with my sister has a more personal itinerary. Needless to say we’ll be on a budget and I imagine that getting around will be challenging but fun. Knowing that in advance hopefully makes it a bit easier!
I hope you enjoy this exploration of what to eat in Japan. Many more stories are on the way. Leave a comment! I’d love to know about your favorite Japanese foods. Also, this post contains affiliate links to help cover expenses at no expense to you should you find them helpful.
Savories in Sakai
On a side street in the Osaka port suburb of Sakai, a small restaurant was emblazoned with bright red banners full of kanji characters. Inside, two, low tables were embedded with long metal warming trays. The entire space seated no more than 20. Across from the close seating area, two chefs chopped and stirred. Then over a low griddle, poured out round batters of eggy batter filled with seafood, wagyu beef, and vegetables in different combinations. Each ‘pancake’ was spread with a sauce. Then quickly paddle-sized spatulas lifted the large paddies and slid them onto the table trays. Each of us dug in with chopsticks and small spatulas, cutting our own portions. The Korean-based cuisine has become a welcome comfort, or as our hosts put it, ‘soul food’ for the neighborhood.
That interests me because of what I learned from the Japanese/Korean memoir that I just finished – Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The National Book Award Finalist is a compelling novel about several generations and the challenges Korean immigrant families faced in Japan. Wonderful to find the cultures melded in this small restaurant.
Comfort and choices
So much is comforting when you consider what to eat in Japan and the choices are almost limitless. You may not enjoy eating sashimi, or raw fish (that likely comes from Tokyo’s famous fish market,) but most traditional meals consist of a dozen different small dishes, cooked or not, all arranged with creative and loving care. On the street you’ll find crisp and hot rice cakes slathered with soy sauce. Bright green, iced deserts are dusted with Matcha tea and inside Tokyo’s Kabuki theater lobby, fish shaped cookies are filled with tasty, sweet red bean paste then grilled just before you bite into them. Yakitori, tempura, and ramen will erase your hunger. Japan is no place to diet.
In the most luxurious Ryokan’s, traditional lodging houses, elaborate meals are placed on low tables before guests. I was told that these are special event meals (something like Thanksgiving feasts but Japanese-style for guests.) They may include varieties of miso soup, many different preparations of fish and tofu, often noodles in a broth that cooks on small multi-tiered burners at each place. A small bowl of rice is offered at the end in case you’re still hungry. It’s a welcome texture even if your tummy is full.
On my first trip to Kyoto, my young family stayed in the ancient Gion district. Our Ryokan entrance was nondescript from the cobblestone street but opened to an ancient, elegant interior. The traditional tatami sleeping room windows faced a bonsai garden and we rose to have breakfast in a trim, wood paneled dining room. On our first morning we were served a delicious American style breakfast complete with coffee and milk! We were shocked and thanked our kind hostess, who was so proud of her accomplishment. Trying to keep from insulting her efforts, we asked for a traditional Japanese breakfast for our last mornings. She seemed happy to serve small roasted fish, rice and soup which were the perfect fuel for days of sight-seeing. Upon leaving the landlady gifted me with a bag of green tea, “Because I know how much you enjoy it,” she sweetly said. I will never forget her kindness.
Special diet? You won’t go hungry
Many restaurants offer less elaborate meals. Ask for selections like Agedashi tofu, which is a light tempura but make sure the traditional shaved bonito is left off. Otherwise you face thin slices of fish that wiggle in reaction to the hot broth! You’ll find pickled vegetables, noodles and miso. Ask for rice noodles if you have a gluten intolerance. Guests fortunate to join the monk’s near Kyoto’s Nanzen-ji Temple are served small dishes in Ryokan style, only there is no meat or fish. Instead tofu is featured in different textures and styles with sauces, vegetables, and a steaming soup crowded with thick udon noodles.
What to eat in Japan for the luxury to budget traveler
Of course, hotels and penthouse restaurants in Tokyo serve elegant meals and many include prix fixe menus. At the Grand China, 24 floors above the street, I was entranced by the lights of the city reaching towards the horizon and the impeccable service. At our Western style table a soup bowl full of broth was placed in front of me. I noticed an odd shape floating in the center and almost shrieked to recognize it. Shark Fin soup! As soon as I realized it, I put down my spoon. Luckily, one taste was enough to keep from insulting my host. It was a cultural reminder that what we might find abhorrent (or illegal at home in California) may be considered an honorary delicacy in another land.
The more hurried and budget traveler can find what to eat in Japan at stands along roadsides and near temples; in train or bus stations where a quick meal can be had for less than $15. Small prepared Bento boxes hold some of the same, elaborate meal preparations as in restaurants but there are fewer portions and they’re served cold. Nevertheless, the boxes make an easy and satisfying meal to hold on your lap while riding the bullet train or waiting for a bus. Some hotels will prepare them for you – such as Kamaya Ryokan in Hongu along the Kumano Kodo trail.
Lauren Purvis, founder of the Mizuba Tea Company, recommends looking for “Kaiten” sushi restaurants in Tokyo. “The conveyor belt sushi is 10x better than anything you’ve ever had in the US and it’s so cheap. and fun. and amazing.” She also recommends checking the food stalls in lower floors of the department stores like her favorite, the original Tokyou Hands in the Shibuya neighborhood.
Izakaya – Far beyond happy hour
Izakaya means tavern and it’s the Japanese version of a bar with dependable food. Traditionally they’re spots for after-work drinking and have been compared to Irish pubs, tapas bars or early American saloons and taverns. Along with sake and beer you can select from many different dishes. It’s customary to share plates with your group (family-style, we’d say in the US.) Most are affordable depending on the location. Ask about ingredients if you’re a squeamish eater. My now 23 year old son was served a small plate of raw horse meat! He said it tastes a bit like tuna, but it’s another cultural delicacy that won’t ever, consciously, cross my lips.
Musings about Matcha
America has discovered the joys of drinking Matcha green tea. Each fresh cup offers a healthy dose of anti-oxidents; it’s blended into iced drinks and infused into all kinds of desserts. What’s less generally understood are the different grades and sources for Matcha. You may have found the taste was bitter. Much depends on cultivation, shade and many variables. My favorite is the freshest Ceremonial grade matcha. It’s a bit more expensive and needs to be used fairly quickly.
I first sipped ceremonial green tea during a crowded presentation before a Kyoto Kabuki show. It was unsweetened and served in a traditional bowl. A small cookie added a bit of sweetness. In Osaka, my host’s daughter knelt before a small table and during a traditional green tea ceremony carefully presented each guest with a bowl of the bright green broth. Since then, I seek out the freshest Matcha for home and indulge in the Starbuck’s matcha for an occasional afternoon pick me up (no sugar!) I find the buzz from green tea is effective but much more even and mild than with coffee or black tea.
Considering a food tour while you’re in Japan? There are many options like these from Viator.
On my next Japanese journey I’ll visit the village where traditional Matcha tea is grown and ground. Come back to hear more about what to see, do, and eat in Japan.