Updated: Oct 18
In America, the common way to dine out is to visit a restaurant with numerous styles of cuisine on one menu. The Cheesecake Factory is a splendid example of an all American establishment full of variety. Picky eaters, folks with allergies, those on special diets, or people who just have a hankering for something specific will likely all find what they want on the one menu.
In Japan, it's wildly different. Often times, Japanese restaurants specialize in one dish, and that's the main (if not only) dish served in the restaurant. Dining out in Japan doesn't have to be a challenge, but you'll need to understand the basics of what types of restaurants serve what types of dishes. Here's 10 types of Japanese restaurants you simply have to try if you are going to visit.
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In this article you will find info about restaurants all about:
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. The meals are very fresh and very healthy. It is not uncommon for this meal to be vegetarian.
The kaiseki meal can be served for breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on what you're after. Breakfast meals often come as part of a package at a hotel, or more commonly a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese lodging house.
Meals may be communal as seen below, or served at Western tables. In any case, expect a very unique and very special meal if you are having kaiseki.
Hot Pot Restaurants
Hot pot comes in many forms and styles in Japan, but the two very popular styles are shabu shabu and sukiyaki.
Sukiyaki is found prepared as bubbling broth with vegetables, and served with raw meat, which you dip in an egg bath. One favorite style of sukiyaki I have experienced is the style called gyunabe, made famous in the port town of Yokohama near Tokyo.
I also got to experience a very special Hida Beef dinner in Takayama, where the black haired cattle (hida beef) comes from. It is a top shelf type of wagyu beef, beautifully marbleized.
For my meal, we cooked the Hida Beef in the sukiyaki style, again 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.
Personal recommendation on where to go: Araiya in Yokohama
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 its basic form it consists of a cole slaw like batter of cabbage with noodles and vegetables.
Find this in Izakayas (pubs) or in standalone restaurants.
Personal recommendation on where to go:
Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro near Asakusa in Tokyo serves primarily okonomiyaki, vegetables and noodles. We chose additions of kimchi, scallops and shrimp.
As you can see, in this type of restaurant you cook everything yourself. From mixing the ingredients to topping with the final drizzle of mayo and brown sauce, it's a very interactive and fun feast.
Just don't go on a hot day, because you might roast from the heat of the grill!
Pro tip on Asakusa Okonomiyaki Sometaro: go early and get in line before the doors open for lunch, which is at noon. Otherwise you will have to wait for the first round of people to finish their meal before entering.
It is especially suggested to get some oyster okonomiyaki in Miyajima Island near Hiroshima.
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.
If you like cold noodles, you definitely need to look into trying something called Nagashi Somen, where you literally pluck your noodz with a chopstick from a flowing bamboo waterslide. It's fun, interactive and oh-so delicious. This can be found in Kyoto area and also easily doable as part of a day trip to Kamakura.
If you are a big fan of ramen, it's worth venturing over to Yokohama to visit the Cup of Noodles museum, where the original cup of noodles flavor can be sampled in their super cool, retro global village marketplace.
You can also reliably find a chain of ramen restaurants called IPPUDO. We sampled their options in Yokohama as well, and found them to be a good and consistent option for inexpensive fast-casual ramen. There wasn't much fuss there, meaning no insane menus or vending machines, and it was very navigable to a novice.
Get sashimi, nigiri, maki and more! Go for an omakase meal and let the chef be your guide.
You really can't go wrong at any sushi restaurant, but keep in mind it's not like sushi at home. You won't find deep-fried rolls, cream cheese, crazy sauces or tempura battered ingredients.
What you will find is really fresh fish. Be adventurous or choose the general bases that you know you already like, like salmon, tuna, shrimp, escolar, etc. You'll recognize a lot more than you think if you are a common sushi eater at home.
Be sure to follow proper etiquette when eating sushi, so as not to offend your host!
Find fried vegetables, shrimp and whatever else your heart desires. In Osaka, you can find specialty restaurants serving up "kushikatsu" set meals. Kushikatsu is a skewered street food created with a good batter and hot frying oil.
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 and especially popular for Kobe beef in Osaka.
Get this special fried meat cutlet at katsu restaurants. You will find katsu is often accompanied by either a brown curry sauce or an A1 style dark sauce.
It is incredibly simple and incredibly delicious!
Like most meals, it may be served alongside rice and miso soup.