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. Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso soup (味噌汁 miso shiru) served with many meals, but also tofu (豆腐 tōfu) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including creatures of the sea and many varieties of seaweed. A complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and travelling 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 (お好み焼き) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
The Michelin Guide is considered by many Western visitors to be the benchmark of good restaurants in Japan. But many top fine dining restaurants are not listed in it by choice. Tabelog is the go-to directory for Japanese people looking at restaurant reviews, but most of the reviews are posted in Japanese.
Most Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while.
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice; You can rest chopsticks across the edge of your bowl, plate or chopstick rest.
- Never pass something from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks.
- Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls 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.
You shouldn’t “whittle” your disposable chopsticks after breaking them apart (which would imply you think they’re cheap), but for cleanliness it is good manners to put them back in their paper wrapper when you’re finished eating.
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 rāmen you will be given a spoon. Curry rice and fried rice are also eaten with spoons.
Many restaurants give you a hot towel (o-shibori) to wipe your hands with (not your face) as soon as you sit down.
Japanese never put soy sauce on a bowl of rice. Japanese don’t like to waste food (including soy sauce, so don’t pour more than you need), but it’s fine in most restaurants if you leave some food on your plates.
In all types of Japanese restaurants, staff generally ignore you until you ask for something. Say “sumimasen” (“excuse me”) and maybe raise your hand at a large restaurant. Restaurants will present you with the bill after the meal. Pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. Tipping is not customary in Japan, although many sit-down restaurants apply 10% service charges and 24-hour “family restaurants” usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.
The number of restaurants (レストラン resutoran) in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out. Eating out is generally cheaper than in Western countries, though still expensive by Asian standards, if you stick to a basic rice or noodles meal at a local joint. At the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can be very expensive indeed.
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. There may be photographs of the food labeled with names and prices.
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At many of these restaurants, you’ll have to be able to read Japanese or match the price from models or picture menus, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. Some other places have all-you-can-eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題), byuffe (ビュッフェ, “buffet”), or baikingu (バイキング “Viking”, because “smorgasbord” would be too hard to pronounce in Japanese).
Shokudō (食堂 “cafeteria” or “dining hall”) serve up simple, popular dishes and teishoku sets at affordable prices (¥500-1000). When in doubt, go for the daily special or kyō no teishoku (今日の定食), which nearly always consists of a main course, rice, soup and pickles. A staple of the shokudō is the donburi (丼), meaning a bowl of rice with a topping.
A closely related variant is the bentō-ya (弁当屋), which serves takeout boxes known as o-bentō (お弁当). While travelling on JR, don’t forget to sample the vast array of ekiben (駅弁) or “station bento”.
Department store basements are often huge spaces filled with expansive amounts of fresh food from throughout the country and local dishes. You can get bento boxes, take out food on a stick, bowls of soup, and often find samples of treats to try. You can also find restaurants in department stores, often on the top floors.
Japan is considered by many to be one of the world’s centers of fine dining. Japan is tied with France for first place as the country with the most Michelin-star restaurants. Japanese fine dining is notoriously inaccessible to foreign visitors; online bookings are typically not an option, staff typically speak little to no English, and most fine dining establishments do not accept reservations from new customers without an introduction from one of their regular diners. In some cases, a concierge in your luxury hotel may be able to score you a reservation at one of these places provided you make the request well in advance.
Traditional Japanese inns (see § Ryokan) are a common way for travellers to enjoy a fine kaiseki meal. The elaborate meals featuring local seasonal ingredients are considered an essential part of a visit to a ryokan, and factor heavily into many people’s choice of inn.
Practically every town and hamlet in Japan boasts its own “famous” noodle (麺 men) dish.
There are two major noodle types native to Japan: thin buckwheat soba (そば) and thick wheat udon (うどん). Chinese egg noodles or rāmen (ラーメン) are also very popular but more expensive (¥500 and up) and typically include a slice of grilled pork and a variety of vegetables. Slurping your noodles is acceptable and even expected. According to the Japanese, it cools them down and makes them taste better. Any remaining broth can be drunk directly from the bowl.
Sushi and sashimi:
Perhaps Japan’s most famous culinary exports are sushi (寿司 or 鮨), usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi (刺身), plain raw fish. Most sushi restaurants keep a handy multilingual decoding key on hand or on the wall.
At the finest sushi restaurants, the chef puts a dab of fiery wasabi radish into the sushi, and glazes the fish with soy sauce for you. Thus, such sushi restaurants don’t have individual bowls of soy sauce or wasabi. Most restaurants, though, provide them at the table. (Turn nigiri sushi upside down before dipping, as the soy sauce is to flavor the fish, not to drown the rice.) Slices of pickled ginger (gari) refresh the palate.
When eating sushi, it’s perfectly acceptable to use your fingers. Good sushi is always made such that you can put the entire piece into your mouth at once.
Grilled and fried dishes:
The teppanyaki (鉄板焼き, confusingly known in the U.S. as “hibachi”) and self-grill yakiniku (焼肉, Japanese-style “Korean barbecue”) cooking methods, as well as the deep fried tempura (天ぷら) battered shrimp and vegetables originate here. Meat (especially beef) can be fiercely expensive, like the famous marbled Kobe beef, which can cost thousands per serving. Tempura has entered the Japanese fine dining repertoire, and there are numerous fine tempura omakase restaurants in which the chef deep-fries the dish in front of you and puts it directly on your plate to be eaten immediately.
Other uniquely Japanese foods include okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, “cook it how you like it”, a batter with cabbage, meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings of your choice, often self-cooked at your table) and yakitori (焼き鳥, grilled skewers of every chicken part imaginable).
Various types of hot pot (鍋 nabe), as well a number of stewed food items known as oden (おでん) are popular in Japan during the winter. You can often find pseudo-Western dishes, which were adapted from European and American cuisines, but often heavily Japanized. See the Japanese cuisine article for more details.
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 (生ビール nama-biiru). You can order large mugs of beer or pay a fixed price for an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) 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.
Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Many chains offer interesting seasonal choices that are quite tasty. Fast food chains offer the range from classic Japanese food through to modern American junk food.
There are also a number of Japanese family restaurants (ファミレス famiresu or ファミリーレストラン famirii resutoran), 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.
If you’re travelling on the cheap, Japan’s numerous convenience stores (コンビニ konbini) can be a great place to grab a bite to eat; they are everywhere and almost always open 24/7. Major chains include 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart. You can find instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and some small prepared meals, which can be heated up in a microwave 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 ¥100-150 each (as of Mar 2019).
For those really on a budget, most supermarkets (sūpā) have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentos, sandwiches, snacks and the like, generally cheaper than convenience stores. Some supermarkets are open 24 hours a day.
One Japanese institution worth checking out is the depachika (デパ地下) 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.
Vegetarians (much less vegans) may have serious difficulty finding a meal that does not include animal products, 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. Soba and udon noodle soups 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.
A safe bet is to look for Buddhist cuisine (精進料理 shōjin ryōri), which is based on the cuisine eaten by Japanese Buddhist monks, and uses only the highest quality ingredients. As per Mahayana Buddhist tradition, it does not include dairy products, eggs or any other animals products. However, it is usually rather expensive.
An excellent option is the kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi shop. There are several kinds of rolled sushi available in these shops that do not include fish or other marine creatures. You may have to ask for the type of sushi you want and the sushi chef will prepare it for you.
Traditional Japanese cuisine contains an ample amount of protein through its great variety of soy products. 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.
Vegetarians may want to seek out Indian or Italian restaurants in larger cities.
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. The drinking age is 20. However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, or convenience stores, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which during busy times will ID everyone entering the club.
Drinking in public is legal in Japan, as is public intoxication. It’s especially common to drink at festivals and hanami. It’s also not unusual to have a small drinking party on the bullet trains.
Where to drink:
If you’re looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character 酒 (“alcohol”) hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deals at about ¥1,000 for 90 minutes (on average), although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced.
A common Japanese institution is the snack (スナック 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.
Izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), 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 (お通し otōshi) 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.
Karaoke parlors serve drinks and snacks. Orders are placed via a phone on the wall, by pressing a button to summon staff, or in high-tech ones using the karaoke machine’s tablet or remote control.
If you’re just looking for a jolt of caffeine, go to Starbucks or one of its Japanese competitors such as Doutor or Excelsior. But for a more calm and unique experience, the Japanese coffee shop, kissaten (喫茶店), has a long history. Most are one-of-a-kind affairs, and reflect the tastes of their clientele. A peculiar kind of kissaten is the jazz coffee shop; these moody joints for jazz buffs are strictly for quiet listening, and not for conversation.
Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki, or jihanki in slang) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and hard liquor. In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 23:00.
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. The Japanese word sake (酒) can mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) is used to refer to what Westerners call “sake”. Sake is around 15% alcohol, and contrary to popular belief, is usually not served hot, but often chilled; defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. Bottles and menus often show the nihonshu-do (日本酒度), a “sake level” that measures the sweetness or dryness of the brew, the average today being around +3 (slightly dry). When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.
Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger-tasting distilled type of alcohol. Traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. Typically around 25% alcohol and often cheap at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, these can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water. Shōchū industrially made out of sugar is often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for “shōchū highball”.
Umeshu (梅酒), 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 (ロック rokku) or mixed with soda (ソダ割り soda-wari).
Japanese whisky ([ジャパニーズ] ウイスキー [japanīzu] uisukī), although popular domestically for over 150 years, has recently come to international attention and won numerous awards. It can be had neat/straight (ストレート sutorēto) or on the rocks (オン・ザ・ロック on za rokku or simply ロック rokku), but it’s much more common to dilute it, the same as with shōchū. The most common preparation is a highball (ハイボール haibōru), 1 part whisky and 2 parts soda water over ice. Another common drink uses cold mineral water (水割り mizu-wari) in the same proportions, or in the winter, hot water (お湯割り o-yu-wari).
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. In Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in various sizes of bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning “fresh”). Most Japanese beers are dry pilsners, with strengths averaging 5%, which pair well with Japanese food but are definitely light in flavor. Even the few dark beers like Asahi Super Dry Black are actually dark lagers, so despite their color they’re still not very full-bodied. Microbreweries are quickly picking up steam, and their kurafuto bia (クラフトビア “craft beer”) or ji-biiru (地ビール “local beer”) bring some welcome diversity to the market. You’ll likely have to hunt around to find them, though; besides brewpubs and good liquor stores like the widespread Yamaya (店舗 or やまや), another good place to look is department store basements.
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. Specialized stores and large department stores offer the most extensive offerings. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (常温 jō-on) wine when dining out.
The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 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. Unless specified, tea is usually Japanese green tea; Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶), and Chinese oolong tea (ウーロン茶 ūron cha) is also popular. 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 (コーヒー kōhī) is quite popular in Japan. 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 for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word “Black” or the kanji 無糖 (“no sugar”) if you want it unsweetened.
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks from vending machines is one of the little traveller’s joys of Japan. Calpis (カルピス Karupisu) is a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds. The famous Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット Pokari Suetto) is a Gatorade-style isotonic drink. A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ), 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.
American soft drink brands are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. In Japan, the term “juice” (ジュース jūsu) is a catch-all term for any kind of soft drink — including even Coca-Cola and the like — so if it’s fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū (果汁). Extremely few are 100% juice.