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Japanese Cuisine

Those familiar with Japanese cuisine ( nihon ryōri ) know that eating is half the fun of travelling in Japan. Even if you’ve already tried some of Japan’s better-known specialities, you’re likely to be surprised by how delicious the original is when served on its home turf. More importantly, the adventurous eater will be delighted to find that Japanese food is far more than just sushi, tempura or sukiyaki. Indeed, it is possible to spend a month in Japan and sample a different speciality restaurant every day.

With the exception of shokudō (all-round restaurants) and izakaya (pub-eateries), most Japanese restaurants concentrate on a speciality cuisine. In this chapter we discuss the main types of restaurants you are likely to encounter and we provide sample menus for each type. If you familiarise yourself with the main types of restaurants and what they serve, you’ll be able to get the most out of Japan’s incredible culinary scene.

Of course, you may baulk at charging into a restaurant where both the language and the menu are likely to be incomprehensible. Those timid of heart should take solace in the fact that the Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and will help you to order. To assist you further, eating reviews in this book recommend specific dishes for restaurants in which no English menu is available. If there is an English menu, this is indicated in the review with the symbol .

In this guide, restaurant listings are organised by price category, indicated by the symbols $ (budget), $$ (midrange) or $$$ (top end). Budget options cost ¥1000 or less; midrange meals cost between ¥1000 and ¥4000; and top-end meals will cost more than ¥4000.


When you enter a restaurant in Japan, you’ll be greeted with a hearty ‘ irasshaimase ’ (Welcome!). In all but the most casual places the waiter will next ask you ‘ nan-mei sama ’ (How many people?). Answer with your fingers, which is what the Japanese do. You will then be led to a table, a place at the counter or a tatami room.

At this point you will be given an o-shibori (a hot towel), a cup of tea and a menu. The o-shibori is for wiping your hands and face. When you’re done with it, just roll it up and leave it next to your place. Now comes the hard part: ordering. If you don’t read Japanese, you can use the romanisations and translations in this book to help you, or direct the waiter’s attention to the Japanese script. If this doesn’t work, there are two phrases that may help: ‘ o-susume wa nan desu ka ’ (What do you recommend?) and ‘ o-makase shimasu’ (Please decide for me).

When you’ve finished eating, you can signal for the bill by crossing one index finger over the other to form the sign of an ‘x’. This is the standard sign for ‘Bill, please’. You can also say ‘ o-kanjō kudasai’ . Remember there is no tipping in Japan and tea is free of charge. Usually you will be given a bill to take to the cashier at the front of the restaurant. Only the bigger and more international places take credit cards, so cash is always the surer option. When leaving, it is polite to say to the restaurant staff ‘ gochisō-sama deshita ’, which means ‘It was a real feast’.

Japan Today

The year 2011 was indeed a terrible year for the Japanese, and it came hard on the heels of two pretty tough years by any standards, with the severe economic downturn brought on by the global financial crisis of 2008.

In March 2011, just as the plum trees had burst into bloom and the nation was gearing up for the annual orgy of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan. The resulting tsunami (a word that, not coincidentally, happens to be Japanese) was of epic proportions: reaching almost 40m in height, it washed away entire villages along the east coast of Tōhoku (the northern part of the main island of Japan).

To add to the devastation, the tsunami also triggered a major crisis at a nuclear powerplant in Fukushima Prefecture, about 240km northeast of Tokyo. At press time, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plants, working with the Japanese government, seemed to have brought that situation under control, but the entire nation was still jittery and wondering how long it would be before the power stations could be declared cooled, cleared and no longer a concern.

» Population: 126.5 million (2011 estimate)
» GDP: US$4.4 trillion (purchasing power parity; 2010 estimate)
» GDP per capita: US$34,200 (2010 estimate)
» Inflation: -0.7% (2010 estimate)

Even without a sluggish economy and a severe natural disaster, things were already pretty tough for the Japanese as they set out into the new millennium.

In September 2010 the Japanese Coast Guard took the crew of a Chinese trawler into custody after a collision near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. About a week later, the Japanese were forced to release the crew in the face of threats by the Chinese. If you listened closely, you could almost hear the nation letting out a resounding ‘Ara!’ (‘uh-oh!’). The reason is this: since the end of WWII, Japan has done little to cultivate warm relations with China (some would say they’ve even actively antagonised China) and has, instead, focused on its alliances with Western nations. Now, with China rising fast (the nation overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010), Japan faces a new and rather unsettling geopolitical situation.

Compounding the problems is the situation at home. The population of Japan fell by more than 100,000 people in 2010 and experts predict that – barring large-scale immigration, which most Japanese oppose – the population may shrink to 100 million people by 2050 (from its present level of 126.5 million). Don’t think for a moment that the Japanese are unaware of this. Indeed, the words shōshika (declining birthrate) and kōreika (ageing population) find their way into every bathhouse, bar and cafe conversation.

» Number of onsen: more than 3000
» World’s busiest station: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, servicing 740,000 passengers a day
» Cruising speed of the shinkansen (bullet train): 300km/h
» Islands in the Japanese archipelago: approximately 3900

Reading all this, you might think that the Japanese were down for the count. But here’s the surprising part: that’s not the case at all. As shown by the Japanese people’s response to the earthquake and tsunami, when faced with a tough situation they band together, roll up their sleeves and get to work. Let’s not forget that these are the same people who took a country that was little more than rubble in 1945 and turned it into one of the world’s most advanced and efficient countries in just a few short decades.

But more than rebuilding, one senses that the crisis of 2011 will yield a variety of benefits for Japan, and the world as a whole. Nuclear power will come under some serious scrutiny (some countries may abandon it, while others will make their nuclear powerplants safer). Japan, already a leader in solar-energy technology, will surely explore other forms of alternative energy and energy conservation.

And perhaps best of all, in the days following the quake, the Japanese news showed rescue teams arriving from around the world, including China, and Japan deeply and sincerely felt the strength and warmth of the world’s support. In a country where debts are scrupulously honoured, this can only bring Japan closer to the world, and the world closer to Japan.

Dos & Don’ts

» Do take off your shoes when entering a house, the inner hall of a temple, or any place where you step up onto tatami mats. Try to step out of your shoes right onto the tatami mats (ie don’t take off your shoes a short distance away and walk over).
» Do learn a few Japanese pleasantries, but don’t worry too much about communication difficulties – the Japanese don’t expect you to speak their language, and they might know a bit of English.
» Don’t get into a sento (public bath) or onsen (hot springs)bath tub before thoroughly rinsing your body.
» Do slurp when you eat noodles.

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