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. EATING IN A JAPANESE RESTAURANT
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’. Yakitori
Yakitori (skewers of charcoal-grilled chicken and vegetables) is a popular after-work meal. Yakitori is not so much a full meal as an accompaniment for beer and sake. At a yakitori-ya ( yakitori restaurant) you sit around a counter with the other patrons and watch the chef grill your selections over charcoal. The best way to eat here is to order several varieties, then order seconds of the ones you really like. Ordering in these places can be a little confusing since one serving often means two or three skewers (be careful – the price listed on the menu is usually that of a single skewer).
In summer, the beverage of choice at a yakitori restaurant is beer or cold sake, while in winter it’s hot sake. A few drinks and enough skewers to fill you up should cost ¥3000 to ¥4000 per person. Yakitori restaurants are usually small places, often located near train stations, and are best identified by a red lantern outside and the smell of grilled Soba & Udon
Soba (thin brown buckwheat noodles) and udon (thick white wheat noodles) are Japan’s answer to Chinese-style rāmen . Most Japanese noodle shops serve both soba and udon in a variety of ways.
Noodles are usually served in a bowl containing a light, bonito-flavoured broth, but you can also order them served cold and piled onto a bamboo screen along with a cold broth for dipping the noodles (this is called zaru soba ). If you order zaru soba, you will additionally receive a small plate of wasabi and sliced spring onions – you put these into the cup of broth and then eat the noodles by dipping them into this mixture. When you have finished your noodles, the waiter will give you some hot broth to mix with the leftover sauce, which you drink like a kind of tea. As with rāmen, you should feel free to slurp as loudly as you please.
Soba and udon places are usually quite cheap (about ¥800 a dish), but some fancy places can be significantly more expensive (the decor is a good indication of the price). Okonomiyaki
Sometimes described as Japanese pizza or pancake, the resemblance is in form only. Actually, okonomiyaki are various forms of batter and cabbage cakes cooked on a griddle.
At an okonomiyaki restaurant you sit around a teppan (iron hotplate), armed with a spatula and chopsticks to cook your choice of meat, seafood and vegetables in a cabbage and vegetable batter.
Some restaurants will do most of the cooking and bring the nearly finished product over to your hotplate for you to season with katsuo bushi (bonito flakes), shōyu, ao-nori (an ingredient similar to parsley), Japanese Worcestershire-style sauce and mayonnaise. Cheaper places, however, will simply hand you a bowl filled with the ingredients and expect you to cook it for yourself. If this happens, don’t panic. First, mix the batter and filling thoroughly, then place it on the hotplate, flattening it into a pancake shape. After five minutes or so, use the spatula to flip it and cook for another five minutes. Then dig in.
Most okonomiyaki places also serve yaki-soba (fried noodles with meat and vegetables) and yasai-itame (stir-fried vegetables). All of this is washed down with mugs of draught beer.
One final word: don’t worry too much about preparation of the food – as a foreigner you will be expected to be awkward, and the waiter will keep a sharp eye on you to make sure no real disasters occur.