The food! It would be a sufficient reason for me to come back to Japan, this was by far the best food experience in my life. The quality of ingredients and the cooking, the arrangement of foods on the plate, the service – even cheap places have it top notch. Today I want to talk about the main differences between the Japanese and European food culture.
Features of Japanese restaurants
I find it convenient to divide the diversity of Japanese restaurants into three major types.
The first type are “normal” restaurants a la carte. The only thing to keep in mind is that often the dish includes not only a side dish (rice or noodles) but also miso soup and pickles. The resulting amount might be quite challenging to eat:
The second type are restaurants that serve kaiseki – traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. It is somewhat similar to degustation menus in Europe: small portions, but many, many plates. You do not get to choose your food, and you pay for the entire dinner upfront. Drinks are not included, you order them as usual from the menu (normally only green tea is included).
In my impression, kaiseki is a higher level of cuisine and price: for a kaiseki dinner we paid from 7 to 20 thousand yen while a main dish at a regular restaurant costs 1-3 thousand. On the other hand, kaiseki is classy, pretty, high quality and exclusive – it is usually served in a private room.
The third type are DIY places. There you get raw ingredients, sometimes dressed with a sauce or spices. The guests cook on their own: sometimes grill, sometimes boil in a pot, sometimes just fry on a table which is also a stove. A possible benefit is a possibility to try out high quality meat for a moderate price and make sure it is cooked to your liking.
Of course this list might be incomplete… Some places we just could not get into so I have nothing to say there 🙁 Tokyo has hundreds of tiny restaurants with just 5-6 seats: people line up along the counters, and to the other side of them is the kitchen. If someone needs to get out, all the others have to stand up because there is no space to exit otherwise. Such places for sure have their own features too, but we did not manage to get in as we were four people…
Super useful for breaking the language barrier. Even if a place has no English menu, the Japanese one will have pictures so you can just point with your finger if no one seems to understand you.
Also many places have plastic models of their food outside. This is crazy convenient: first, you see what choice you have even before walking in. Second, the models seem to match the reality quite consistently. Like:
Some restaurants still have traditional floors made of straw. One must take off their shoes before walking on such floors. The tables are low so that you eat while sitting on the floor.
Going to a bathroom in such a restaurant is quite funny because you have to put your shoes back on, walk to the bathroom, change into toilet slippers. And, of course, reverse all that on the way back to the table.
It is widely known that tipping is impolite in Japan. The more surprising is the quality of service which is considerably higher even than in the US where waiters live on tips and make everything for you to like them. Japanese waiters are always polite and the dishes come fast.
Some places have a table cover fee (300-500 yen per person). Bars have it more often than restaurants or cafes. Sometimes the tax is not included in the price (the menu will have a note in that case).
Often you get the bill right after ordering (if you order more, they will just write on the bill with a pencil). When you are done eating, you should pick it up and go to the exit because the cashier is there (waiters do not handle payments, only bring food).
Unfortunately, a lot of restaurants are cash only so make sure to have enough before walking in.
The main rule is to respect the chopsticks: do not wave, point, or play with them, do not rub them against each other – generally don’t do anything except actual eating. When they are not needed, put them down on a special stand or on a corner of your bowl.
It is also very difficult to remember to take off the toilet slippers 😀
Higher class restaurants
Expensive, nearly impossible to book, divine food =) Definitely worth the coin and the trouble with booking. While in Tokyo, give a try to Kobe marbled beef and sushi by a famous chef. Get a counter seat if possible so that you see how they cook, it is just magical: nothing looks complicated, but the result is undescribable. Sushi by a Michelin chef is just a different dish that has nothing in common with your usual sushi.
You will need help with booking: your hotel or special booking sites like Voyagin can be of help. It is important to ask them way in advance: the bookings in popular high-end places open a month or two before the date and close within hours, so you should make sure to request your reservation even before that.
No surprise that seafood is the basis of Japanese food culture. The ocean around brings in excellent quality fish and other fruits of the sea – no wonder they eat them raw. Even cheap supermarket sushi in Japan are tastier than at an upscale European sushi restaurant…
On the other hand, oysters are boiled and fried here:
Tempura prawns and veggies – yummy!
If you don’t like seafood,
don’t go to Japan there are many other options. Japan is famous for its marbled beef which you can check out at a steak house or a BBQ restaurant.
Some simpler non-seafood dishes are soups with noodles of different kinds. One of the most famous dishes of that type is ramen cooked with seaweed, boiled egg, and pork. (In the background are gyoza dumplings which normally have chicken inside).
I was pleasantly surprised with cold noodles – much tastier than I could think!
Popular drinks are sake, plum wine, and green tea. In Japan there is just a cult of tea – it is literally everywhere, even in ice cream =)
Here is another matcha tea dessert:
Dining at a restaurant might be slow even at the lightning speed of Japanese service. During high season add waiting for a table to free up. What do you do to save priceless minutes?
Thankfully, fastfood is also a thing in Japan =) Naturally, like everything in Japan, it has some rules around it. It is considered bad manners to eat while walking, which means you have to find a place to sit down and eat in peace before walking on.
Where do you get a snack? First of all, the vending machines are literally everywhere (we have even seen one inside a shrine, right between altars) and they normally have soft and hot drinks in bottles.
Some vending machines even sell warm food! Reheated frozen foods are not the best but still better than running around hungry =)
Secondly, Japan has plenty of kiosks and convenience stores scattered all over the place (for example, 7-Eleven). Sometimes there is even a kettle/microwave to cook your noodles or reheat the food that you just bought =) Hot drinks are also often sold at such stores.
Last, street food stands and souvenir shops in touristic areas will also help you fight the hunger off. Food stands offer grilled seafood, and souvenir stores have a great choice of sweets (with matcha, obviously).
I think if you are in Japan you should try everything that gets in your sight. Even the weird stuff =) I am not going to talk about everything that I have experienced, but here are my top three weird things and the weirdest drink.
The third place goes to “rice dumplings”. It is a dessert made of grilled rice in some sweet syrup. Taste like a mixture of burned sugar with rice. Surprisingly popular, sold at food stands in most of the touristic places and parks.
In the second place is the pickled plum which combines the worst of pickles and plums. Tried this on my second day in Tokyo and was not prepared for it…
And my personal anti-favourite is with no doubt natto, fermented beans. Think twice before opening this box covered with many layers of protective plastic. The first hit you get in your nose the moment you open the box. The next shock comes when trying to pick the beans with chopsticks and put them into your mouth (the smell was not enough, huh?). One does not simply eat natto without covering all surrounding surfaces with sticky rotten liquid. Compared to that the taste itself is not even that disgusting.
The weirdest and nastiest drink was sokenbicha, barley tea (on the right on the picture). Unsweetened, just tastes like barley. It’s like you are drinking bread. Green tea is normally also unsweetened but that’s ok to get used to.
Arrrrgh, some things I would just like to forget =) I think I will leave you here. Have some wonderful sashimi here to keep pleasant aftertaste =)