I remember that my father used to tell me, “the further into East you move, the tastier the food gets”, and I guess he was not wrong. Don’t misunderstand me, European cuisine is just as exquisite and delicious, but there is something enchanting about Oriental cuisine, and especially the Japanese one. So let us dwell into the world of Japanese deliciousness!
As you may already know, Japan is an island nation, in other words, it’s surrounded by water from all four sides. This, of course, has influenced Japanese cuisine: seafood plays a big part in the lives of the Japanese people, though do not assume that they eat sushi everyday! While seafood is an essential component of Japanese cuisine, it is not, by any means, limited to just fish and the likes. There is much more to it…!
You might already know, but the Japanese (as well as many other Asian people) eat rice with pretty much everything; consider it to be a replacement for bread. While I really like rice, and I think that it is absolutely a necessary component when eating Japanese style, this has caused me some minor issues. You ask what exactly? Well, there is a very simple answer. I come from Armenia, a country where bread is pretty much worshipped since pagan days; we eat bread every day, with almost everything, just like the Japanese eat rice. Since I came to Japan I bought bread in many different ‘European’ bakeries, yet none of those tasted authentic. So be cautious: if you are a bread lover, you might consider the fact that you will probably be cutting it out of your daily rations.
Sushi has become some sort of an icon of Japan in the Western world, alongside with samurai and geisha. Yet opposed to widely spread opinion, Japanese people do not eat sushi all the time. In any Western country sushi is an expensive treat, which makes it unsuitable for acting as a regular meal. Sushi is just as expensive in Japan! Of course there are wide range of prices you can choose from. If you want to have cheap, fast, but still fresh and tasty sushi, your best choice is going to a kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) store. As a matter of fact, a famous kaitenzushi chain spread all over the country is called Sushiro (スシロー), and I urge you to try it out! In Sushiro, and many other kaitenzushi restaurants you can eat until you choke and spend less than 2-3,000yen. Of course, there are sushi restaurants and bars with high class chefs. Since I have arrived in Japan I have been to such a place only once, and for only two people we paid over 15,000yen! But then again, the sushi was so good it was practically melting in your mouth!
After a trip to Sushiro
Ramen may be one of the most, if not THE most popular dish in Japan. It is basically noodle soup with different types of toppings depending on the type of ramen. Not surprisingly, ramen has been brought to Japan from China. Nowadays, you can find a ramen store practically in every corner of the country. In my honest opinion, ramen is very delicious dish, yet one that is very hard to eat and digest. The broth is usually very oily and you’re not expected to drink all of it. Yet again, even if I am unable to finish my ramen most of the time, I consider it to be one of the most unique and must-try dishes in Japan. It is also quite cheap, you will probably not spend more than 600-800yen on ramen.
If you are a fan of ramen, or want to try some unforgettable ramen, I will advice you go to the chain store called Jiro (二郎), you can easily find it in most of the largest cities of Japan. It may not be the most delicious ramen, but you will probably have to wait for at least an hour in line before you can enter the tiny store. This place is famous for its HUGE servings, hence it is popular amongst young men.
There is one more experience I would like to share connected to ramen. This is probably the most conflicted I have been in my life. Since the day I was able to hold a fork, a knife and a spoon myself, my father had been teaching me table manners and etiquette. Of course, holding the fork and the knife correctly was a given, but while eating soup or anything noodle-like, to make a sound would earn me my father’s long preachings. In Japan, on the contrary, people make slurping sounds while eating ramen. Yet again, no matter how much I tried, I failed at making those sounds without looking like an idiot or spilling anything on my clothes…!
Soba and Tempura
Soba is also a kind of noodles, yet they are made of buckwheat flour. Soba is usually available all year round, it can be found in different forms, you can have it both hot and cold. Soba is one of the beloved dishes in Japan: this can be deduced from the tradition of eating a special kind of soba, called Toshikoshi soba, on the New Year’s Eve. A more or less accessible chain of stores would be Yude Taro (ゆで太郎).
It is very common to find soba served together with tempura. Tempura is basically deep-fried seafood and vegetables. Tempura is also served with a bowl of rice, and this is called tendon. If you are interested in tempura you can try going to Tendon Tenya (天丼てんや), another chain store available almost at every largely populated part of the country.
Tenpura & Soba
Yakiniku is one of the most beloved dishes of the Japanese. This is basically the Japanese variation of a BBQ. You get the opportunity to cook your food yourself. The ‘stove’ is placed in the middle of the table, so everyone can reach it. Yakiniku is usually eaten together with rice, since otherwise it might be a bit heavy on your stomach. Yakiniku comes in many shapes: beef, chicken, seafood, pork, etc. You can also get some vegetables, tofu as well as Konjac.
This is a nabe (hotpot) dish. Opposed to yakiniku, shabu-shabu is basically meat and vegetables cooked in boiling water. Since this method gets rid of all of the oily parts of the meat, it is much easier to eat and digest compare to yakiniku. You can use beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and pretty much anything to make shabu-shabu. The key point is having it all sliced thinly. Shabu-shabu, just like yakiniku, allows the customers to cook themselves, by putting a nabe in the middle of the table.
Well, this is practically the tip of the iceberg. Trying to introduce Japanese cuisine in just one go is impossible, which is why I am planning to come back to this topic at a later point. Meanwhile have some facts about Japanese restaurants and diners:
Tabehoudai (lit. eat all you can) – This is a specific course found only in Japanese restaurants. You get the place for approximately 90 minutes (the times vary from place to place), pay a certain amount and eat until you blow up!
Nomihoudai (lit. drink all you can) – Just as in case of tabehoudai, you get a place for a certain amount of time and drink until you pass out. In most cases when you get nomihoudai you also get a set meal course.
After entering the restaurant…
When you get seated in practically any restaurant in Japan you will be served wet towels for cleaning your hands. Depending on the season these may be warm or freezing cool. Some places serve wet tissues instead.
You will always be served water, sometimes even green tea for free! You can get refills for as many times as you want!
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it was of some help to you. Thanks for reading, and see you soon!
Graduated from Yerevan State University and received MA Degree. Currently researching Japanese history and culture.
An avid reader and an aspiring writer who started writing as a freelancer in early 2015. Living, studying, and working in Japan has opened her eyes to the perks and detriments of Japanese society, leading to both hardships and rewarding experiences.