I used to live near Yoko Sushi in Vienna, Virginia, and I ate there at least once a week, sometimes twice. So when we decided to visit Japan, I was pretty excited about eating the food, especially the sushi. I know sushi, udon noodles, ramen, and those Japanese steak houses where people sit around a flaming griddle and try to catch oil-soaked shrimp in their mouths. What I didn’t know about was yakitori, okonomiyaki, shabu shabu, tonkatsu, and much more. Luckily, I was about to find out…
Before we get into the specifics, here are some general tips for eating out in Japan:
» Most restaurants only serve one type of food, so if you’re going out with a group, everyone needs to agree on what to eat. Ramen places serve ramen and not much else. Udon places serve udon; tonkatsu places serve tonkatsu. If you want a variety of choices, your best bet is going to a grill place — maybe a yakitori or robata restaurant.
» We found that most places do not have English menus or English-speaking staff. Luckily, many restaurants display plastic models of the food that they serve inside, and many have photos on the menu. If you don’t speak or read Japanese, you can get by with the photos, a sense of adventure, and a little luck.
» A lot of restaurants will offer food in a “set.” This means that it comes with many things, like soup, rice, etc., to make a whole meal.
» If you’re a vegetarian or have some other special diet, you might find it challenging to get what you need. You should definitely do your research before you go. And if you’re at all squeamish about eating things you can’t identify, you will surely be tested!
» Portions tend to be small. I took this as a good thing, and actually lost a little weight despite eating my way through Japan.
Here are some, but certainly not all, of the types of cuisine that you’ll find in Japan:
Miso. Most of us know miso soup from our neighborhood sushi restaurants, but I had a few bowls in Japan that were a step above the usual. There was a delicious, subtle smoky flavor that doesn’t usually show up at home. This smoky taste also appeared in a couple of soba noodle soups and some clear broths that I ate. I learned that this taste likely comes from dashi, a stock made from various combinations of dried and/or smoked fish that is used to add umami flavor. Dashi can be bought in powdered form or as powder inside tea-bag-like packets. Note: if you don’t get a spoon with your soup, you’re supposed to drink it out of the bowl.
Udon. Homemade Udon noodles are long, very thick, chewy, juicy wheat noodles, served in broth. I’ve had amazing Udon in the U.S. — thick noodles in a flavorful broth with vegetables, and a little chicken or seafood. This was something I was really looking forward to, but alas, the restaurant that we chose in Meguro was not good. The noodles were perfect, but the broth tasted like someone poured a strong, fishy broth into a pot of soapy dishwater. This was one of the rare disappointments on my Japanese food journey, but don’t let that discourage you. I’m sure this is not the norm.
Ramen. Ramen is another type of noodle soup. Ramen noodles are thinner than Udon, and also made of wheat. Ramen broth is most often made of pork, and can be very rich, but we found a Ramen place in the Kyoto train station that had a very tasty chicken stock base. The soup usually has some pork or chicken, an egg, and vegetables as well. This Ramen is a hearty, satisfying meal and is nothing like the cup-o-noodles that you lived on in college.
Soba. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat, and have a stronger, earthier taste than the other noodles. Soba is either served as a plate of cold noodles along with a dipping sauce, or in a bowl of soup. Of all the meals I had in Japan, my number-one favorite was a rustic bowl of soba noodle soup served at Hida Takayama Kyoya in Takayama. It was simple, and delicious, and perfectly satisfying on a cold, rainy night. The soba noodle soup at Teuchisoba Ebisu, also in Takayama, was a close second. (This meal is the main feature photo on this post.) From an outside window, we watched a man make the noodles, patiently cutting them with an enormous knife. Both of these restaurants required us to take off our shoes and sit on the floor. We didn’t seem to have enough space around the small tables for our American limbs, and we did a lot of fidgeting, but the locals handled it just fine.
As you might imagine, sushi is amazing here. We went to a few automated sushi restaurants, where the chefs put the sushi on little plates that run around a conveyor belt along the sushi bar. The first one we tried (and loved) was Hinatomaru. This was located along the famous Sushiya-Dori (sushi street) in Asakusa, Tokyo. After you make your tea and get your ginger and soy sauce ready, you grab whatever looks appealing and eat it. At the end of your meal, the waitress counts your plates and adds up your bill. Some restaurants had chips in the plates, and the waitress used a scanner to add up the cost. All of these restaurants had a good variety of fish and some sent out quickly seared fish as well as raw. No matter where we ate sushi, it was always super fresh. Two new items that I tried and fell in love with were salmon roe, which were big, bright orange bursts of salty goodness, and uni (sea urchin), which was like a mousse made from the sea.
On my birthday we ate in Nakameguro at Sushi no ISOMATSU. It’s a small, intimate restaurant under the train tracks, and we had a multiple-course sushi meal where the chef keeps putting food in front of you for what seems like hours. By the way, cold dry sake goes great with sushi. Apparently the better sakes are cold, and lower quality sakes are served hot. Anyway, I’ve never done this before. Everything was going great until he put a snail on my plate. I was a vegetarian for most of my life, and even though I’ve branched out to fish and chicken, I’m not that adventurous about a lot of non-vegetable foods. Snails are something I planned to never put in my mouth, but the chef was right there in front of me. My other table mates were eating everything, and I felt pressured to at least taste it. So I mustered up my courage and took a bite. It was actually quite good and not at all slimy like I expected. But I looked down and saw those cute little antennae things still in the shell, and I slipped the rest of it onto my husband’s plate. The sushi kept coming and coming. It was good, but it was getting to be too much food. I was completely stuffed, but you don’t want to insult the chef, so towards the end of the meal I’d take a bite and give the rest to my husband. I highly recommend this restaurant, and if you’re not a big eater, you don’t have to order the whole meal — you can order a la carte.
Apparently, there are some rules about eating sushi in Japan:
» Don’t let soy sauce touch rice. You have to be dexterous with those chop sticks to turn your sushi over. I guess you can forget about soy sauce if you’re eating rolls.
» In some restaurants, there is no wasabi because the chef will put it on the pieces that he thinks needs it.
» Pickled ginger is eaten alone between bites, not at the same time as sushi.
That said, I found the Japanese people to be very polite, and I doubt you would get chastised for doing it “wrong.”
I found the most variety at restaurants that served grilled food. Yakitori restaurants serve meat on skewers. Traditionally, it’s chicken on a stick, but the yakitori restaurant we went to in Kyoto had everything, including succulent scallops in the shell. (Now I know that we are getting ripped off when we eat scallops in the U.S. They are cutting off half of the scallop, which is perfectly delicious, just because someone decided it’s not attractive.) Another type of grilled food is rabata. It’s mostly whole food and takes longer to cook. There is a pretty famous rabata restaurant in Tokyo, called Roppongi Robataya. We went, and it’s very inviting, and the raw food placed in baskets all around the grill is excellent quality. They have seafood, meats, and vegetables. There is one problem with this restaurant: It’s outrageously expensive, even for Tokyo. Insist on looking at the menu so you won’t be shocked. We went in with the notion that we were just getting appetizers here, and we’d fill up somewhere else later. One large asparagus spear was $10, one shrimp was $40, so things added up very quickly and we had to control ourselves. It was fun: They cooked our food over a grill and served it to us on huge paddles that looked like oars, and the staff was very jolly. Everything was absolutely delicious, but knowing that our meal could end up costing as much as a month’s rent created a little stress. If money is no object, go here. If you need to be reasonable, either set a budget for this place or choose another rabata restaurant. Another good grill restaurant, where you cook your own food on a grill built into your table is Hida Takayama Kyoya, which I mentioned in the soba noodle section. I ordered vegetables and shrimp to cook, but the portion was so small that I ended up also ordering that delicious soba noodle soup.
We had this on our first and last night in Tokyo. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake with cabbage and a variety of other fillings. These are usually served at a Teppanyaki restaurant, teppanyaki meaning that it’s cooked on a griddle. This is not to be confused with the Benihana-show type teppanyaki restaurants you know from home, but Teppanyaki places are good bets to have a little variety also. Our first try was a restaurant in Meguro with a very friendly staff. I’m not 100% sure, but Google translate says the name is Hideout Teppanyaki Shop. This is also where I first tried lotus root, which is a mild, crunchy vegetable that looks like a flower when sliced. I loved it, and I ate it at every opportunity. On our last night, we ate okonomiyaki at Teppan Baby in Shinjuku.
My step-son and tour-guide, Dylan, was raving about tonkatsu — a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, which is apparently much better than it sounds. Since I don’t eat pork, we kept passing up the tonkatsu restaurants until we ran into Katsukura on a covered shopping street in Kyoto, right next to the Sir Thomas Lipton shop. The guys ordered pork, and I ordered the prawn and veggie combo, and it was all absolutely delicious and still memorable. This is also the first time I had iribancha tea, which is a smoky green tea specifically from Kyoto. It was also served at a couple of other restaurants in Kyoto, and I tracked it down to the Ippodo tea shop and brought some home. My other favorite green tea is Hojicha, which is roasted and has a more mild, less bitter flavor than matcha.
Teishoku is a set meal of many little things. There’s often soup, rice, pickled vegetables, fish cake, and more. It looks very pretty, and there’s usually at least one thing that you have no idea what it is. We had a nice set near the Meiji Temple in Tokyo, that we could mostly figure out, but we had a more complicated one at a hotel in a mountain town where no one spoke English. There was a whole, dry fish, some raw meat and raw shrimp and a candle, among other things. Our patient waitress explained what to do many times in Japanese, but each time we remained just as ignorant. Finally someone at the next table spoke up and told us to cook our meat over the candle and to eat the whole fish — head, skin, and all! (No can do. I butchered it with my chopsticks in an attempt to pick out the meat.) Later she told me that I could drink the plum wine that I was dipping my food into. I had no idea that the little dish it was served in was a drinking vessel. All in all, we embarrassed ourselves pretty good at that meal.
In general, I’m not a big fan of sweets in Japan. I like the fact that desserts aren’t as sugary as they are in the U.S., but I didn’t like the texture of most things that I tried. You’ll find rubbery filled pancakes, lots of unusual Kit-Kat bars, and very pretty things made of a strange doughy/gummy mostly flavorless substance. I usually skipped treats unless it was one of the following:
Taiyaki – a cake shaped like a fish, usually filled with bean paste or sweet potato. Only eat them when they’re fresh and warm.
Ice Cream – Haagen Daz makes special ice cream flavors for Japan and sells them in tiny little cups that are just perfect for one serving. My favorite was Hojicha Latte — a roasted green tea flavor that is more nutty and mild than regular green tea. I bought these at 7-Elevens. In Kanazawa, you will find a few places with soft-serve ice cream dipped in gold leaf. It’s pretty expensive, but I had to try it. The gold didn’t add any taste, but it sure was pretty!
Double Baked Sweet Potato – We had this in the Meguro train station, and it tasted kind of like pumpkin cheesecake. It was good!
OK. The one meal that was a complete fail for my American stomach was Japanese breakfast. The first time I went to a breakfast buffet at the Westin in Kyoto, which claimed to serve both western and Japanese breakfasts, I almost hurled. My stomach started doing summersaults as soon as I smelled the aromas of fish and other pungent ingredients. I’m just not used to those odors first thing in the morning, and I never did get used to it. The “western” items did not appear very western to me, and the omelettes cooked for 20 seconds just did not cut it. For the next two days at the Westin, I must confess that I stayed in and ordered pancakes from room service, which were indeed done American style. Otherwise, we ate things that we bought in grocery stores at the train stations or in 7-Elevens. At one hotel where we had no other option, I left my whole fish and raw egg on the plate, and when I got back to my room I ate a granola bar that I brought from home. Not very adventurous, but, hey — I did eat a snail!
There are other types of foods, but I think this is a good start. Let me know what your favorites are, or if you had any interesting experiences eating in Japan.