Looking back at my passport stamps (how nostalgic!), I have a clear tendency to visit Japan compared to other countries, having been there 5 times in the last 10 years.
2008, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Two of those trips were a month long around the country. Over these trips I have been able to observe a few things about food in Japan that is worth sharing, this is aimed to help set expectations for first timers to Japan.
Note: this is a series of posts relating to travels to Japan. We will start from Tokyo until Easter, take a break and return to posting recipes, then post more about other cities. All pictures are my own unless otherwise indicated. Happy reading and feel free to write a comment and tell me what you think!
Most europeans struggle with this one, as it is mostly the sugary white bread that dominates (except in European looking bakeries where you can get slightly darker bread). If you are someone who need to have a daily rugbrød type dense bread fix, grab a loaf at Lagkagehuset (and have them sliced) before you get on the plane in Copenhagen.
Fauchon bakery display in japan
Veggies (or should I say, the lack of)
Most of the popular Japanese dishes have very little veggies in it: ramen, gyoza dumplings, takoyaki (savory æbleskiver with octopus bits), yakisoba (fried noodles), yakiniku (grilled meat), omuraisu (fried rice wrapped in an omelette). Even in finer restaurants where they serve a large tray full of different delicious small dishes, I still feel that there are not enough veggies in the meal. In Japan it seems that a meal with lots of vegetables is a specific type of offering, which means they are not in the mainstream food but more as speciality restaurants and cafes offering vegetables and/or raw food.
Varies greatly depending on your accomodation.
- 4 stars or above english speaking hotel: descent japan and western style buffet
- Ryokan (Traditional japanese inn) and Onsen (hot spring) hotels: most likely japanese style
- A note on Japanese style breakfast: while I would happily stomach my grill fish, raw egg, rice and miso soup for breakfast every day, my travel companion (european and first time visitor to japan) did enjoy the food but had difficulty digesting it all afterwards. It is polite to eat up, yes, but please only do so to your best abilities!
- Budget hotels: I would not even bother paying for the breakfast, all you will get is a tiny tray with a sad little piece of ham, tiny portion of eggs and some white bread. I would much rather go get a warm chocolate croissant from Choco Cro (website in japanese only, please have your hotel or host to help search for the closest chain. Weirdly enough I cannot seem to look it up on Tabelog)
- Airbnb with live in host: if your host is a mom/dad, and you have had a little nice chat with them, you may be offered a cooked japanese style breakfast. I am a huge fan of japanese breakfast, and the homemade ones are particularly tasty and puts my yoghurt and muesli breakfast to shame
In general it is pretty difficult to find a restaurant that serves bad Japanese food in Japan. Western food can be a bit of a hit and miss, I once went to a Spanish restaurant which had ok ratings on Tabelog but the food turned out to be sub-optimal. So if you have been walking around all day and just want to walk into the closest Japanese restaurant for some food, please do so, chances are you will be served ok food. If you would like to make the most of your trip to taste specific types of food, here are some ideas for Tokyo (which are my favourites).
A side but important note about Tabelog:
Tabelog.com is one of the most used online restaurant review sites in Japan, which is available also in english. ‘Tabe’ is from ‘taberu’ which means to eat. I use it to check for address and opening hours. If you have internet access in Japan, Tabelog can help you get to the restaurants at ease. Very handy when after a long day walking around, you want to have dinner but do not just wish to head into a random one.
Be aware though that Tabelog is not perfect. Some info might not be up to date to the day (fair enough when they have almost 400000 restaurants listed on the site) and occasionally under ‘remarks’ there are relevant information but written in Japanese (for one restaurant, I read that you cannot pay by credit card at lunch time).
Sometimes Tabelog throws in a few japanese characters under Opening Hours:
It reads Mon – Fre on the first line, followed by Sat, Sun and public holiday.
A crash course in Japanese, this was the first image which came up when I googled “japanese weekdays kanji”
Vegetarians and vegans
Happy Cow would be more relevant than Tabelog as it focuses specifically on vegetarians and vegan restaurants.
You see what you get
In front of many restaurants there is a window display of the dishes offered. Do not worry, there are no food waste as they are made out of plastic! Bizzare but somewhat useful if you want to know exactly what you will get. If you see restaurants with plastic displays, it is a good indication that the place will be mid-priced (they do not do this at fine dining restaurants), food quality is not going to blow you away, but would be descent.
No surprise, most of the really good restaurants only have menu written in Japanese.
Whilst it might be impossible to translate every single dish into english, we have decided to start by translating the drinks section, so at least you will not be thirsty 🙂
(click on the picture for larger resolution, feel free to download it on your phone as well)
By the way, do not expect that juice means fresh pressed juice. Juice usually translates to “artificial sugar replenishment liquid” for me.
Now that you know what to expect, you can go onto discovering what Japan has got to offer!