The most important tip I can give you on Japan  local food, and the only one that will make you elevate from being a tourist to becoming a real traveler immersed in the local culture, is “Stay away from McDonalds“. When visiting Japan, there is awesome local food to try. Head to the local eateries too, and go where the locals go. For me, the food, wine and and even the water is part of the travel experience.

What to Eat in Japan

Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and in fact its Japanese word gohan (??) also means “meal”. Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (??) soup served with many meals, but also t?fu (??) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (?? sh?yu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but also many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (?? tsukemono). One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is to discover the local specialties.

Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don’t miss the okonomiyaki (?????) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (???? takoyaki). Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (? hashi). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of: Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks. These are associated with funerary rites. If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let them take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate. When you are done using chopsticks, you can rest them across the edge of your bowl or plate. Most nicer restaurants put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting.

You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to construct your own hashi-oki. Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class. Take a bite of your rice instead. Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls (really anything other than food) is rude. Pointing at things with your chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people in general is rude; with chopsticks, doubly so.) Spearing food with your chopsticks is generally rude and should be used as only a last resort. Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bent? and other take-out foods.

You shouldn’t “whittle” your chopsticks after breaking them apart. Many restaurants give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with as soon as you sit down; use it for your hands, and not your face. Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice; they eat bowls of rice plain, or sometimes with furikake, a blend of crumbled seaweed, fish, and spices. Soy sauce is used for dipping sushi in before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish and tofu as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gy?za (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.

Japanese Food photo

Photo by bryan…

Most soups and broths, especially miso, are drunk directly out of the bowl after you’ve chopsticked out the larger bits, and it’s also normal to pick up a bowl of rice for easier eating. For main-dish soups like r?men you will be given a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons. Restaurants Fugu (blowfish) restaurant, Osaka The number of restaurants in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out. According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most “delicious” city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three).

In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them. Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (??), or fixed set meals. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as ¥600 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus will, for most establishments, be in Japanese only; however, many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can’t read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like.

Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for “bill” is kanj? or kaikei. When it’s getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it’s time for the “last order.” When it’s really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal — they start to play “Auld Lang Syne”. (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means “pay up and move out.” Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them.

It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you’re open-minded and flexible, you might get sh?yu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You’ll always know how much you’re spending so you’ll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments.

Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all you can eat meals called tabeh?dai (????) or viking (?????). Tipping is not customary in Japan, although fancy restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour “family restaurants” such as Denny’s and Jonathan’s usually have a 10% late-night surcharge. All-around eateries While most restaurants in Japanese specialize in a certain type of dish, each neighborhood is guaranteed to have a few shokud? (??), serving up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000).

Try ones in government buildings: often open to the public as well, they are subsidised by taxes and can be very good value, if uninspiring. When in doubt, go for the daily special or ky? no teishoku (?????), which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles. A closely related variant is the bent?-ya (???), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bent? (???). While travelling on JR, don’t forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (??) or “station bento”, many unique to the region – or even the station. A staple of the shokud? is the donburi (?), literally “rice bowl”, meaning a bowl of rice with a topping.

Popular ones include: oyakodon (???) – lit. “parent-and-child bowl”, usually chicken and egg (but sometimes salmon and roe) katsudon (???) – a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg gy?don (??) – beef and onion ch?kadon (???) – lit. “Chinese bowl”, stir-fried vegetables and meat in a thick sauce You will also frequently encounter Japan’s most popular dish, the ubiquitous curry rice (?????? kar? raisu) — a thick, mild, brown paste that most Indians would hardly recognize. Often the cheapest dish on the menu, a large portion (??? ?mori) is guaranteed to leave you stuffed.

At the other extreme of the spectrum are super-exclusive ry?tei (??), the Michelin three-star restaurants of the Japanese food world, which serve gourmet kaiseki (??) meals prepared from the very best seasonal ingredients. Should they condescend to let you in — and many require introductions — you will be looking at upwards of ¥30,000 per head for an experience, which, quite frankly, will go right over the heads of most mere mortals visiting Japan for the first time.

Noodles Bukkake udon with tempura, Kurashiki Ch?sh? ramen, Onomichi Even Japanese want something other than rice every now and then, and the obvious alternative is noodles (? men). Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own “famous” noodle dish, and they are often well worth trying. There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (??) and thick wheat udon (???). Typically all dishes below can be ordered with either soba or udon depending on your preference and a bowl will cost only a few hundred yen, especially at the standing-room-only noodle joints in and near train stations. kake soba (????) – plain broth and maybe a little spring onion on top tsukimi soba (????) – soup with a raw egg dropped in, named “moon-viewing” because of the resemblance to a moon behind clouds kitsune soba (?????) – soup with sweetened thin sheets of deep-fried tofu zaru soba (????) – chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, shallot and wasabi; popular in summer Chinese egg noodles or r?men (????) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500+) due to the greater effort involved and the condiments, which typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables.

Japanese Food photo

Photo by llee_wu

Ramen can be considered to be the defining dish of each city, and practically every sizable city in Japan will have its own unique style of ramen. The four major styles of ramen are: shio r?men (?????) – salty pork (or chicken) broth sh?yu r?men (??????) – soy broth, popular in Tokyo miso r?men (??????) – miso (soybean paste) broth, originally from Hokkaido tonkotsu r?men (??????) – thick pork broth, a speciality of Kyushu There is also a brand of chinese noodles called “Jirou.” The soup is pork based and very greasy. The restaurants that handle this usually only handle “Jirou” type of noodles. If you tell the waiter “mashimashi” they well add great amounts of vegetables for free. Left overs are unacceptable so be sure to have an empty stomach. Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected.

According to the Japanese it both cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl. Sushi and sashimi Sushi breakfast in Tsukiji, Tokyo Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (?? or ?), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (??), plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and apprentices spend years just learning how to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, before moving on to the arcane arts of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets.

A fancy nigiri assortment. Top from left: salmon (sake), squid (ika), amberjack/yellowtail (hamachi), egg (tamago), crab (kani), ark shell/red clam (akagai) Bottom from left: scallop (hotate), halfbeak (sayori), sweet shrimp (amaebi), mackerel (saba), sardine (iwashi), oyster (kaki), ginger (gari) There is enough arcane sushi terminology to fill entire books, but the most common types are: nigiri (??) – the canonical sushi form consisting of rice with fish pressed on top maki (??) – fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed and cut into bite-size chunks temaki (???) – fish and rice rolled up in a big cone of nori gunkan (??) – “battleship” sushi, like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents chirashi (???) – a large bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top Nearly anything that swims or lurks in the sea can and has been turned into sushi, and most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall.

A few species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid), tako (octopus), and tamago (egg). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly, very expensive) and shirako (fish sperm). Tuna belly comes in two different grades: ?-toro (???), which is very fatty and very expensive, and ch?-toro (???), which is slightly cheaper and less fatty. If you somehow ended up in a sushi restaurant, but can’t or don’t want to eat raw fish, there are usually several alternatives. For instance the above mentioned tamago, various vegetables on rice, or the very tasty inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep fried tofu). Or order the kappa maki which is nothing more than sliced cucumber, rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori.

Even in Japan, sushi is a bit of a delicacy and the most expensive restaurants, where you order piece by piece from a chef, can run you bills into tens of thousands of yen. You can limit the damage by ordering a fixed-price moriawase (?????) set, where the chef will choose whatever he thinks is good that day. Cheaper yet are the ubiquitous kaiten (??, lit. “revolving”) sushi shops, where you sit by a conveyor belt and grab whatever strikes your fancy, at prices that can be as low as ¥100 per plate. Even in these cheaper places, it’s still quite acceptable to order directly from the chef. While in some areas like Hokkaido, kaiten sushi is of consistently good quality, in larger cities (especially Tokyo and Kyoto) the quality varies considerably from place to place with the low end restaurants serving little more than junk-food. When eating sushi, it’s perfectly acceptable to use your fingers; just dip the piece in a little soy sauce and pop the whole thing in your mouth.

In Japan, the pieces typically have a dab of fiery wasabi radish already lurking inside, but you can always add more according to your taste. Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate and infinite refills of green tea are always available for free. Despite fish sashimi being the most well known, there is no shortage of other types of sashimi for the adventurous ones. Hokkaido crab sashimi and lobster sashimi are considered delicacies and are definitely worth a try. Whale is also occasionally available, although it’s not very common, and Kumamoto is famous for horse meat sashimi. Fugu Fugu (??) or puffer fish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricy due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found.

Despite the potential danger, it is highly unlikely that you will be poisoned to death by it as chefs are assessed very stringently every year to ensure their preparation skills are up to the mark, and the Japanese government requires new chefs to undergo years of apprenticeship under experienced chefs before they are licensed to prepare the dish. Because of the skill required, fugu is typically served only in speciality restaurants known as fugu-ya (???). As a side note, the emperor is banned from eating this dish for obvious reasons.

Grilled and fried dishes Yakiniku-style beef waiting to be grilled, Ishigaki, Okinawa Okonomiyaki (?????) in Hiroshima The Japanese didn’t eat much meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since then. Keep an eye on the price though, as meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive and luxury varieties like the famous marbled Kobe beef can cost thousands or even tens of thousands of yen per serving.

Some options, usually served by specialist restaurants, include: okonomiyaki (?????) – Japanese pancake-pizza, based on a wheat-cabbage batter with meat or seafood of your choice, slathered with sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, dried seaweed and pickled ginger; at many places you cook it yourself at your table teppanyaki (????) – meat grilled on a hot iron plate tempura (???) – light-battered shrimp, fish and vegetables deep-fried very quickly, served with a dipping broth tonkatsu (???) – deep-fried breaded pork cutlets elevated into an art form yakiniku (??) – Japanese-style “Korean barbeque”, cooked by yourself at your table yakitori (???) – grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable, a classic accompaniment to alcohol One Japanese specialty worth seeking out is eel (??? unagi), reputed to give strength and vitality in the drainingly hot summer months.

A properly grilled eel simply melts in the mouth when eaten, and takes over ¥1000 from your wallet in the process. A rather more infamous Japanese delicacy is whale (? kujira), which tastes like fishy steak and is served both raw and cooked. However, most Japanese don’t hold whale in much esteem; it’s associated with school lunches and wartime scarcity, and it’s rarely found outside speciality restaurants such as kujira-ya in Shibuya, Tokyo. Canned whale can also be found in some grocery stores at a huge price for a small can. Stewed dishes A pot of Yonezawa beef sukiyaki Particularly in the cold winter months various “hot pot” stews (? nabe) are popular ways to warm up.

Common types include: chankonabe (?????) – a hotchpotch steamboat much favored by sumo wrestlers. oden (???) – a variety of skewered fishcakes, daikon radish, tofu, and other ingredients simmered in fish soup for days. Primarily a winter dish, often sold in convenience stores and on the street in makeshift blue-tarp yatai tents. sukiyaki (????) – a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more, often somewhat sweet. Well known in the West, but not that common in Japan. shabu-shabu (??????) – a hotpot of clear water or very light broth; very thin slices of meat (traditionally beef, but seafood, pork, and other variations exist) are briefly swished through the hot water to instantly cook them, then dipped in flavoured sauce Pseudo-Western dishes Throughout Japan you can find cafés and restaurants serving Western food (?? y?shoku), ranging from molecular-level carbon copies of famous French pastries to hardly recognizable Japanized dishes like corn-and-potato pizza and spaghetti omelettes.

A few popular only-in-Japan dishes include: hamb?gu (?????) – not to be confused with a McDonald’s hamb?g?, this version of Hamburg steak is a standalone hamburger patty with gravy and toppings omuraisu (?????) – rice wrapped in an omelette with a dollop of ketchup waf? sut?ki (??????) – steak served Japanese-style with soy sauce korokke (????) – croquettes, usually filled with potato, along with some meat and onion kar? (???) – Japanese-style curry, a mild brown curry served with rice; also available as katsu kar? with a pork cutlet Beer gardens During the summer months when it’s not raining, many buildings and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops and serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries, as well as light snacks.

The specialty is, of course, draft beer (???? nama-biiru). You can order large mugs of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (???? nomih?dai) course lasting for a set period of time (usually up to 2 hours). Cocktails and other drinks are also often available as part of all-you-can-drink sets. These beer gardens are often taken place at Ebisu. Ebisu is the neighbor area of Shibuya, near Roppongi and Hiroo. Near by Ebisu Station (Hibiya line, JR Yamanote line) is Yebisu Garden Place(???????????): a compound square of shopping, offices, restaurants & cafes. Fast food Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices.

Japanese Food photo

Photo by planetc1

Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Some chains to look out for: Yoshinoya (???), Matsuya (??), and Sukiya (???) are gy?don (beef bowl) specialists. While beef was off the menu for a while due to the mad cow scare, it’s back now. Tenya (???), the best tempura you’ll ever eat for less than ¥500. MOS Burger seems like just another fast food chain, but actually has a pretty interesting menu — for hamburgers with a twist, how about grilled eel between two rice buns? Notice also the list of local produce suppliers posted in each shop. Made to order, so guaranteed fresh, and unlike some fast-food places, MOS Burger products generally look like their advertising photos.

A bit more expensive than McDonald’s, but worth the extra. MOS stands for “Mountain, Ocean, Sun,” by the way. Freshness Burger tries to be a bit less fast-foody and more like an “all-American” joint. The food’s decent, but just be prepared for the tiniest burgers you’ve ever seen. Beckers Operated by JR, these fastfood burger restaurants are often found in and near JR stations in greater Tokyo and Yokohama. Beckers offers made to order burgers and Menchi burgers (minced black pork). Unlike most shops, their buns are fresh and baked inside the stores. Unused buns are thrown away if not used 1.5 hours after baking them. Their Pork Teriyaki burger is awesome.

They also offer Poutine, which is of course a French Canadian snack consisting of french fries, gravy and cheese. The chilli topping needs to be tried. More often than not, you can pay with the JR Suica pre-paid re-chargeable multi use traincard. Ootoya (???) [36] is really too good to call fast food, with a menu and atmosphere that matches any “home-style” Japanese restaurant. While there are illustrated menus on signboards, ordering can be confusing: at some stores you order at the counter before taking a seat, while at others servers come to your table. Soup Stock Tokyo is a trendy soup kitchen chain that serves delicious soup all-year round, with a selection of cold soups in summer.

It is a bit more expensive than most other fast food chains but you may consider it a healthier alternative to burgers. Lotteria Standard burger-type place. First Kitchen This chain offers a few dishes outside of the standard fast-food fare, including pasta, pizza, and fries with a wide assortment of flavorings. Coco Ichibanya serves Japanese style curry rice with a vast array of ingredient choices. English menus available. American fast food chains are also ubiquitous, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. McDonald’s restaurants are almost as ubiquitous as vending machines.

There are also a number of Japanese “family restaurants”, serving a wide variety of dishes, including steak, pasta, Chinese style dishes, sandwiches, and other foods. Though their food is relatively uninteresting, these restaurants usually have illustrated menus, so travellers who cannot read Japanese can use the photos to choose and communicate their orders. Some chains across the country are: Jonathan’s is probably the most ubiquitous local chain. Skylark is owned by the same company and has similar fare, including a cheap and unlimited “drink bar,” which makes these restaurants good places for reading or resting over extended periods.

Denny’s also has many stores in Japan. Royal Host – tries to market itself as a bit up-scale Sunday Sun – reasonable, decent food and menus Volks – specializes in steaks, and offers a large salad bar. Coffee shops Though Starbucks has planted its flag in Japan almost as well as in the United States, the Japanese kissaten (???) has a long history. If you’re really looking for a jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese predecessors such as Doutor. But if you’re trying to get out of the rain, the heat or the crowds for a while, the kissaten is an oasis in an urban jungle. Most coffee shops are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele.

In a Ginza coffee shop, you’ll find a soft “European” decor and sweet pastries for upscale shoppers taking a load off their Ferragamos. In an Otemachi coffee shop, businessmen in suits huddle over the low tables before meeting their clients. In Roppongi’s all-night coffee shops, the night owls pause between clubs, or doze until the trains start running again in the morning. A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz kissa (?????), or jazz coffee shop. These are even darker and more smoke-filled than normal kissaten, and frequented by extremely serious-looking jazz buffs who sit motionless and alone, soaking in the bebop played at high volumes from giant audio speakers.

You go to a jazz kissa to listen; conversation is a no-no. Another offshoot is the danwashitsu (???, or lounge). The appearance is indistinguishable from a pricy kissaten, but the purpose is more specific: serious discussions over matters such as business or meeting prospective spouses. All tables are in separate booths, reservations are usually required, and the drinks are pricey. So don’t wander into one if you’re just looking for a cup of coffee. Convenience stores If you’re traveling on the cheap, Japan’s numerous convenience stores (???? konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite to eat, and they’re almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart.

You can find instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and even some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave right in the store. An excellent option for food on the go is onigiri (or omusubi), which is a large ball of rice stuffed with (say) fish or pickled plum and wrapped in seaweed, and usually cost around ¥100 each. Most convenience stores in Japan also have a restroom located in the back. While most of the stores located in suburban and rural areas will let customers use their bathrooms, many in large cities, especially those in downtown areas and amusement districts of Tokyo and Osaka, will not. Therefore, you should ask whether you can use the bathroom at the cashier first, then buy an item later if you want to show your appreciation. Supermarkets For those really on a budget, most supermarkets (s?p?) have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, generally cheaper than convenience stores.

Some supermarkets are even open 24 hours a day. One Japanese institution worth checking out is the depachika (????) or department store basement food court, featuring dozens of tiny specialist stalls dishing up local specialties ranging from exquisitely packed tea ceremony candies to fresh sushi and Chinese takeaway. They’re often a little upmarket pricewise, but almost all offer free samples and there are always a few reasonably priced ones in the mix. In the evenings, many slash prices on unsold food, so look for stickers like hangaku (??, “half price”) or san-wari biki (3??, “30% off”) to get a bargain. ? means “1/10” and ? means “off”. Eating vegetarian Despite its image as light and healthy cuisine, everyday Japanese food can be quite heavy in salt and fat, with deep-fried meat or seafood being prominent.

Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have serious difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products to some degree, particularly as the near-ubiquitous Japanese soup stock dashi is usually prepared with fish and often pops up in unexpected places like miso, rice crackers, curry, omelettes (including tamago sushi), instant noodles and pretty much anywhere salt would be used in Western cuisine. (There is a kelp variant called kombudashi, but it’s fairly uncommon.) Soba and udon noodle soups, in particular, virtually always use bonito-based katsuodashi, and typically the only vegetarian-safe item on the menu in a noodle shop is zarusoba, or plain cold noodles — but even for this the dipping sauce typically contains dashi. One possibility for vegetarian/ vegan options is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop.

Westerners tend to associate sushi with fish, but there are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that does not include fish or other marine creatures: kappa maki (cucumber rolls), natt? maki (sushi filled with stringy fermented soy beans, an acquired taste for many), kanpy? maki (pickled-gourd rolls), and, occasionally, yuba sushi (made with the delicate, tasty ‘skin’ of tofu). These types of sushi tend to be less popular than the sushi using marine animal products, so you may not see them revolving in front of your eyes on the conveyor belt. Just shout out the name of the type of sushi you want and the sushi chef will prepare it for you right away. When you are ready to leave, call the waitress over and she’ll count your plates.

The vegetarian sushi options are always inexpensive. For anyone living in big cities, especially Tokyo, an excellent option is organic or macrobiotic food, known as shizenshoku (???). While “vegetarian food” may sound boring or even unappetizing to Japanese ears, shizenshoku is quite in vogue as of late, although meals may cost about ¥3000 and menus may still contain seafood items. While considerably harder to find, it’s worth looking out for a restaurant (often run by temples) that offers sh?jin ryori (????), the purely vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. This cuisine is highly regarded and thus often very expensive, but is often available at reasonable prices if you stay at temples. Fortunately, traditional Japanese cuisine contains an ample amount of protein through its great variety of soy products: tofu, miso, natto, and edamame (tender green soy beans in their pods), for example.

In the prepared food sections of supermarkets and department store basements, you can also find many dishes including various types of beans, both sweet and savory. The number of vegetarian restaurants and even vegetarian food festivals (such as the Tokyo VegeFood Festa that takes place in the autumn) are increasing. Some vegetarians have been networking to help each other find suitable places to eat. For example, since 2006, a vegan meet-up group in Tokyo has been holding monthly buffets at local restaurants. Vegetarians in Tokyo or travelers passing through, can find out about the feast at the vegan meet-up page [37].

The Happy Cow is a website [38] that provides information about vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Japan and all over the world. They now have an excellent free app for the iOS and Android systems [39]. For those of you who like Indian vegetarian fare, there’s a small chain of vegetarian Indian restaurants in Tokyo that have a satisfying lunch-time buffet every weekday. They have branches in Gaien Mae, Ginza and Ogikubo. The restaurant is called Nataraj. Nearly half the menu offers vegan options, including nan made from a Japanese green, leafy vegetable (komatsuna). The hors d’oeuvres are especially good.

What to Drink in Japan

The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning. In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States). However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage.

The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club. However, most clubs will accept any form of ID. They will normally ask for a passport, but if you show them a driver’s license (legitimate or non-legitimate), they will accept it. See also “Japanese sake tourism” article. Where to drink If you’re looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (???, Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character “?” (alcohol) hanging out front.

Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (???? nomih?dai) deals at about ¥1,000 (US$10) for 90 min (on average), although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed. While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack (???? sunakku).

These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons. Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have busy gay scenes. Most gay/lesbian bars serve a small niche (muscular men, etc) and will not permit those who do not fit the mold, including the opposite sex, to enter. While a few are Japanese only, foreigners are welcome at most bars.

Japanese drinks photo

Photo by petercooperuk

Note that izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (??????? kab? ch?ji), usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble (??? ot?shi) as you sit down, and no, you can’t refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you’re served with your beer. Vending machines (????? jid?hanbaiki) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor.

In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing ????? (atatakai) instead of the usual blue ???? (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 11PM. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special “Sake Pass” obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over.

Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards. Sake/nihonshu Flat sakazuki tray, a small choko cup and a wooden masu box Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (?) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (???) is used to refer to what Westerners call “sake”. Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (?? atsukan), to room temperature (??jo-on), down to chilled (?? hiya).

Contrary to popular belief most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for a recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there. Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (???) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (??). Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go.

Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (?), sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in g? (?, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L issh?bin (???) bottle. The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (????), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this “sake level” measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.

Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginj? (??) and daiginj? (???) are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honj?z? (???) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (??), meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality. A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting.

Nigorizake (???) is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake ages badly, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colors. These aged sake or koshu (??) may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal. Worth a special mention is amazake (??), similar to the the lumpy homebrewed doburoku (????) version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year’s Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (better than it sounds), but at least it is cheap. As its name implies, it is sweet.

If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen. Shochu Sh?ch? (??) is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of sh?ch?; traditional sh?ch? are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a ch?-hai, short for “sh?ch? highball”. (Note however that canned ch?-hai sold on store shelves do not use sh?ch? but even cheaper alcoholic material.)Sh?ch? is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water at your choice.

Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional sh?ch? has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest sh?ch? now fetch prices as high as the finest sake. Liquor Umeshu (??), inaccurately called “plum wine”, is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).

Beer Okinawa’s Orion beer: “For your happy time”! There are several large brands of Japanese beer (??? biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (????) but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%. You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles (? bin), or draft (? nama meaning “fresh”). Bottles come in three sizes, ?? ?bin (large, 0.66 L), ?? ch?bin (medium, 0.5 L) and ?? kobin (small, 0.33 L), of which medium is the most common.

Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions’ glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki (“big mug”) holds a full liter of brew. Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating, especially when you pay ?600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars.

If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai (“please, just a little foam”). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer. Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks. For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (??????, literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content). Happ?shu and third beer Thanks to Japan’s convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happ?shu (???), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (?3???? dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt.

Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than “real” beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo’s “Draft One” and Asahi’s “Hon-Nama”, so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say ??? (beer), but will instead say ??? (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker ??????(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. “other mixed alcohol, type 2”). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.

Western wine Japanese wine is actually quite nice but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan’s largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan’s largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there.

Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (?? j?-on) wine when dining out. Tea Matcha and traditional sweets, Kanazawa The most popular beverage by far is tea (?? o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called k?cha (??); if you don’t ask for it specifically you’re likely to get Japanese brown or green tea.

Chinese oolong tea is also very popular. The major types of Japanese tea are: sencha (??), the common green tea matcha (??), soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet. h?jicha (????), roasted green tea genmaicha (???), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y mugicha (??), a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk neat, without the use of any milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea can also be found in most of the American fast food chains. Coffee Coffee (???? k?h?) is quite popular in Japan, though it’s not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It’s usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American.

Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet,?so look for brands with the English word “Black” or the kanji ?? (“no sugar”) if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations. There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior.

A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan’s and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some late-night work done). Soft drinks There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis (????), a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (???), nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener. Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available.

The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of speciality import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng). In Japan, the term “juice” (???? j?su) is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink – sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like – and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it’s fruit squeezings you want, ask for kaj? (??). Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.

Bathe Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and be it a scenic onsen hot spring, a neighhorbood sent? bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Japanese wax lyrical about the joys of hot water (? yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with a honorific (??? o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ? on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor. Onsen Rotenburo outdoor bath in the Oku-Hida Onsen Villages Midwinter in Shirabu Onsen. It’s warm in there! (Really!) Onsen (??), quite literally “hot springs”, are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters of hot spring inns pop up wherever there’s a suitable source of hot water, and in volcanic Japan, they’re everywhere.

Japanese drinks photo

Photo by Kanko*

The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo (????): outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours alone, known as family baths, racier “romance baths” or just plain old reserved baths (???? kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (?? sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (?? uchiyu). While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), especially in remote areas there are free publicly maintained baths that offer minimal facilities but, more often than not, stunning views to make up for it.

Many of these are mixed (?? kon’yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it’s a rare woman who’ll enter one without a bathing suit these days. Commercial operations with kon’yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes. To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japanese Association to Protect Hidden Hot Springs (???????? Nihon hit? wo mamoru kai) [40], which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country.

Many onsen prohibit the entry of visitors with tattoos. Intended to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often sport full-back tattoos), the rule is usually applied with a modicum of common sense, but heavily tattood visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave. Sent? and spas Sent? (??) are public bath houses found in any large city. Intended for people without their own home tub, they are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its break-neck modernization. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into spas (?? supa), which, in Japan, does not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel (see Sleep) bolted on the side.

As you might expect, these come in varying degrees of legitimacy — in particular, beware any place advertising “esthe”, “health”, or “soap” — but most are surprisingly decent. Etiquette The layout of a typical sento Japanese are understanding of the funny ways of foreigners, but there’s one rule where no exceptions are made: you have to wash yourself and rinse off all foam before entering the bath. The water in the tub will be reused by the next person, and the Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else’s dirt! Basically, wash up as well as you hope the guy next to you has done. Be it a fancy onsen or a barebones sent?, the choreography of an entire visit goes roughly as follows: Shared bathing areas are usually sex-segregated, so look for the characters “man” (?) and “woman” (?) to pick the correct entrance.

Men’s baths also typically have blue curtains, while women’s are red. Enter the changing room, leaving shoes or slippers at the doorway; at public baths there may be keyed lockers. At public baths (sent?), you either pay the attendant directly (often through the changing room entrance, and it’s almost always a woman), or use a vending machine in the entrance to buy tickets for entry and extra items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the attendant. On vending machines, look near the top for the Japanese words for “adult” (?? otona) and “child” (?? kodomo). (If the vending machine is too difficult to figure out, you can probably walk in and say sumimasen (“excuse me”) to the attendant and accomplish the rest by gesturing.) Inside the changing room, there will be rows of clothes lockers or baskets.

Pick a locker and undress completely, placing all your garments in the basket. Be sure to place your valuables in lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bath. You’ll be given a teeny-weeny washcloth for free, or sometimes a token fee. It’s not particularly good for covering your privates (it’s too small) and it’s not much use for drying off, either. Larger towels are available, again sometimes for a fee; men should leave these in the changing room and take only their washcloth, but women can use these to wrap up with.

If you’d like one, ask the attendant for a taoru. After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a little stool and a bucket, sit down at a faucet, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all foam off once clean. Try not to leave the water running, or get water on other people. Only now can you enter the bath tub. Do so slowly, as the water can often be very hot indeed; if it’s unbearable, try another tub. If you do manage to get in, don’t let your washcloth touch the water, as it’s considered mildly bad form; you may wish to fold it atop your head, or just lay it aside.

When sufficiently cooked, you may wash yourself once again if you’re so inclined and repeat the process in reverse; it’s fine to save washing your hair for after the bath, too, if you prefer. (At natural hot springs, though, you shouldn’t rinse off the bath water, which is full of minerals that the Japanese consider healthy folk medicine.) Note that the bath is for soaking and light conversation; don’t roughhouse, submerge your head, or make a lot of noise. Japanese people may be a bit wary of foreigners in the bath, mostly because they’re afraid you’ll try to talk to them in English and they’ll be embarrassed that they can’t communicate with you. Just give them a token nod/bow, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa depending on the time of day, and wait to see if they’re interested in talking to you. After your bath is finished, you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (??? ky?keishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby.

Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap. Toilets A typical washlet control panel. Some features of Japan’s toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. (If you’re unfamiliar with these, it’s simple: pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the curved hood of the toilet. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss.) In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.

However, most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world’s leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan’s homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (???????), which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese) at first glance bearing more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC. Don’t panic — help is at hand.

The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. (In rare cases, mostly with very high-end gear, flushing is integrated; if lifting your bottom off the seat doesn’t do the trick, look for buttons labeled ? or ?, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall.) The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled ? on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything.

Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer. Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following: Oshiri (???) – “buttocks”, for spraying your rear – typically shown in blue with a stylized butt icon; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid – by the second or third attempt it will seem normal Bidet (??) – for spraying your front – typically shown in pink with a female icon Kans? (??) – “dry”, for drying off when finished – typically yellow with a wavy air icon Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat. To be polite and save energy, you should leave the cover down on heated toilet seats.

Other local foods, or drinks that you recommend? Please add and comment.