Food, of all types and from every country under the sun, is one of the great pleasures of life in Japan. Not only has Japan developed one of the world’s great cuisines, which offers palate-tickling sensations that range from the subtle joys of sashimi to the hearty basics of its noodles, but also some of the best world-class chefs have come to Japan to cook for its discriminating gourmets. Tokyo especially, as befits its status as a global capital of finance and business, is host to a lip-smacking cornucopia of food flavors and textures.
To begin scratching the surface of Japan’s vast selection of culinary variety, take a walk in the vicinity of any subway or train station. The eating and drinking establishments that congregate here are sure to represent a plethora of domestic cooking, with prices generally quite reasonable. For non-Japanese speakers, many restaurants display plastic and wax replicas of their dishes in their front windows, or provide a menu with color photos. Another good place to find reasonably priced meals is in larger department stores, which will often devote an entire upper or basement floor to a variety of different restaurants. Some modestly priced restaurants ask patrons to purchase tickets for each dish, either from the cashier’s counter or a vending machine. Tipping, by the way, is not practiced in Japan.
From the heights of Chinese culinary delights to the peaks of French haute cuisine, Japan’s premier restaurants are second to none. Most are located in the best hotels or in fashionable city districts such as Tokyo’s Ginza, Roppongi, Akasaka and Harajuku. Gourmets may discover new taste sensations never before encountered.
More affordable restaurants abound in downtown office building basements, the dining floors of department stores, urban shopping centers, and the underground malls of the busiest railway stations.
At lunchtime, office workers crowd these dining spots. Many order teishoku, a low-priced complete meal on a tray. Most restaurants in the moderate to inexpensive price range have realistic plastic models of their dishes, with prices, in a showcase outside the entrance. If you don’t know what to order, point to the dish you want to try. Some restaurants have bilingual (Japanese and English) menus, and you can use JNTO’s Tourist’s Handbook as a handy phrase book for dining out. Paperback guidebooks to inexpensive Japanese dishes are available at major bookstores.
For people in a hurry, noodle stands, coffee shops, fast-food outlets and vending machines provide a variety of food and drink at very low cost.
At most restaurants, you receive a bill and pay as you leave. A few have you buy a meal coupon in advance and hand it to the waiter or waitress. Payment is made in cash except when credit cards are accepted. Inexpensive restaurants, coffee shops and fast-food outlets accept cash only. No tipping, please.
Other places to eat Japanese Dishes
- Box lunches, some unique to a particular area, are sold aboard trains.
- Dinner on a cruise ship during an evening bay cruise lets you see city lights from the water.
- Street side yatai stalls, some with stools, offer inexpensive taste treats.
- Dinner-shows at deluxe hotels combine fine food and live entertainment for an evening you’ll never forget.
- Convenience stores have sandwiches, box lunches and other cooked dishes you can take out.
- Department store basements are great places to sample many kinds of food for free.
- Kaiten Sushi: Customers sit at a round counter and receive low-priced sushi on a circling conveyor belt.
How to eat tips
If you are not familiar with how to use chopsticks then dining at Japanese or other Asian cuisine restaurants may present a challenge at first. But once you have mastered them then eating with this simple instrument is a genuine pleasure.
Except in Chinese restaurants that provide plastic chopsticks, you eat with wooden chopsticks that come in a paper wrapper. Take them out, split them in half, and hold the two halves in one hand with your thumb, forefinger and middle finger, as if holding two pencils. Then let the middle finger slip between the two sticks. One stick will rest between the forefinger and middle finger, the other between the middle and ring fingers. Watch how other people manipulate the sticks to figure out how to pick up pieces of food correctly.
To deal with soup, pick up the small bowl with one hand and sip from the edge of the bowl. You can dip your chopsticks into the soup to pick up small chunks of bean curd or thin slices of seaweed.
Noodles served on a wooden tray are simply picked up in bite-size portions. If served in a hot broth, alternate between picking them up and lifting the bowl to sip the broth. Slurping is a sign of a good appetite and eating with pleasure, and is in this instance, perfectly acceptable.