Japanese Dining 101
Updated: 4 days ago
As I plan for my second adventure to Japan coming up in the spring, I wanted to try and steer my family towards certain types of dining that I encountered in 2016. With so many varieties of restaurants, it is hard for an outsider to understand what to get where. It's not like the states where you can get 50 different types of cuisine on one menu. Often times, Japanese restaurants specialize in one dish, and that's the main (if not only) dish served in the restaurant. Read on for a little bit about what I experienced in Japan from traditional dining to vending machine ramen.
Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.
Served often in a traditional setting, perhaps sitting on the floor on tatami mats, kaiseki is old-style Japanese food often served as a set meal. You may get some rice, a broth soup, fish cakes and fish balls, green tea, and other unrecognizable substances. It's worth a try if you have an adventurous palate. Very fresh and very healthy. It is not uncommon for this meal to be vegetarian.
Hot pot comes in many forms and styles in Japan, but the two most prominent that I can tell are shabu shabu and sukiyaki. I got to experience a very special Hida Beef dinner in Takayama, where the black haired cattle (hida beef) comes from. It is a special type of wagyu beef, beautifully marbleized. For my meal, we cooked the Hida Beef in the sukiyaki style, which is a bubbling hot pot of meat, vegetables and noodles that you cook yourself. With the raw beef on the table, you cook it in the hot pot and when it is ready to eat you dip it in a raw egg bath before slurping it up. Yum.
One of my personal favorites, okonomiyaki is a flat griddled pancake of noodles and vegetables, sometimes served thick and fluffy, other times crispy and crunchy. There's a wild amount of variations of things you can put inside, but in it's basic form it is a slop of cole slaw like batter with noodles and vegetables. It may not sound all that appetizing, but I've had the homemade stuff from a Japanese friend, and plenty of it in Japan. Either way, it's been outrageously good. Find this in Izakayas (pubs) or in standalone restaurants.
Similar to Korean BBQ, this is cooked the same way but using Japanese-sourced ingredients. Tables have grill top centerpieces or sometimes a plug in table top grill. Plates of food come raw for cooking yourself at your pace, to your desired doneness. This is a great communal dinner to enjoy with a bigger group of people.
An Izakaya is a Japanese pub or tavern. Get ideas of an Irish pub out of your head - it's not a stand around a bar drunk fest type of place. Instead, Izakayas are often small 5 or 6 stool restaurants where you can get a cold beer and a snack. You'll find edamame, yakitori (meat on sticks), sushi, takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki, or other snacky style foods. Almost like going to a tapas bar in Spain, if I had to compare it to something. Larger izakayas allow for bigger groups to sit down around long tables. This is popular for business men to kick a few back after work. The smaller ones offer beer crates as stools or other tiny plastic seats - spilling onto sidewalks or saddling up to a griddled bar. In any case, it's a quick-casual type of environment for a seated snack. One of the more popular (and slightly touristy) spots to find an Izakaya alley full of options is in Tokyo at Omoide Yokocho, Shinjuku. In Osaka you can find an izakaya in the busy streets of Dotonburi. Or, just look around any street corner - you're sure to find one.
Ramen is globally known for being a hangover cure, a delicious brothy, noodley revival tool. In Japan, it's a staple. You can go to ramen restaurants or even get ramen from a vending machine. These are pretty cool - you order and pay from push buttons that say nothing more than 'soup' or 'chicken' in English, or if you are lucky you may get a little image along with it. Choose your adventure and bring the ticket to the counter. They will prepare your food and let you know when it is ready to sit down and eat.
You can also find restaurants specializing in soba or udon, both forms of noodles. All the noodle dishes come with or without broth and and variety of vegetables, offals and meats. Noodles are always a safe bet if you are unsure what to eat.
While this list is meant to be a representation of what I ate in Japan, there are far more options beyond this. You can find:
Sashimi, nigiri, maki and more!
Fried vegetables, shrimp and whatever else your heart desires.
Not Benihana, but close enough. Teppanyaki is a grill top dinner with a bit of a show - created for the post-war era tourism in Japan. Still for tourists today!
Love dumplings? Give this a go.
Missing Popeyes? Get this special fried meat cutlet at Tonkatsu restaurants.