The second most common question I get asked on Twitter (after “When is Nanban opening?) is “I’m going to Japan; what/where should I eat?”
It’s a tricky one for me to answer. Giving specifics can be perilous; if I recommend a restaurant, there will be a chance that it’s closed down, it’s not good anymore, or that my fondness for it had more to do with specific contexts than the food itself. If I recommend a dish, there’s the chance that whoever’s asking might try a poor version of it, or that they simply won’t like it. Even among people who like Japanese food, I admit that my tastes can be a little strange.
So I think maybe the question is flawed. A better one might be: “How should I eat in Japan?” I can give specific recommendations, but that would impose unnecessary limitations on a country full of great food that’s best approached with an exploratory mindset. Instead, I think it’s better to give general guidelines for making the most of your trip. So here are a few general dos and don’ts to keep in mind.
Do research and plan ahead. The first question you should ask yourself (and answer) when you’re planning a holiday to Japan is: what do you want to get out of this trip? Do you want to indulge in Tokyo’s opulent Michelin-starred fine dining, or the refined kaiseki cuisine of Kyoto, or the street stalls of Fukuoka? A little of everything? Do you want to experience the “greatest hits” of Japan, or enjoy some of the country’s lesser known destinations and dishes? Do you want to cover a broad geographic spread, or are you happy to stay in one or two locations? Answer questions like these and then get to work.
Find out about local foods by trawling the internet or asking a travel agent. You can either plan your trip around them (like I do), or decide on an itinerary first, and then see what each of your destinations is known for. Either way you’ll have great food. In most towns you’ll be able to find the local specialties without much of an effort, but I’d recommend deciding on a specific restaurant or two and printing out maps of them, because Japanese addresses are useless nonsense if you’re not accustomed to them (and even then, they’re pretty screwy). And that goes for everything, not just restaurants. Mobile data is expensive in Japan, networks are patchy, and wifi is rare – you won’t be able to rely on Google Maps when you’re out and about.
Keep seasonal produce in mind, and try to eat a lot of it – like white peaches in summer, matsutake mushrooms in autumn, citrus fruits in winter, and fiddlehead ferns in spring. Memorize the names of foods and drinks you want to try. Remember what they look like so you can identify them on menus and signs. Print out train and bus routes and timetables if you’re dining out beyond city centres. Double-check restaurant opening hours – they often close on odd days of the week. It is totally possible to have a good time and eat good food if you just wing it, but it’s more likely if you make a plan. Save spontaneity for after dinner (and then go nuts).
Ask locals for help. English language ability is not great in Japan. It’s not like going to Paris or Amsterdam. That said, most people will still be more than willing to help best they can if you’ve got questions, using a combination of piecemeal English, gestures, and maps or pictures. Hotel concierges, station attendants, shop workers, and police officers have all helped me out with directions or with recommendations for good restaurants or bars when I didn’t know where to go. And on more than one occasion, I’ve been offered help without even asking when I looked obviously lost and confused. People are nice.
Be polite. It should go without saying that you should also be nice. But I’ve seen a lot of foreigners in Japan act like entitled, obnoxious assholes. Nobody will expect you to know all the rules of Japanese etiquette, but a little decorum will make things more pleasant for both you and your hosts. You’ll have a better time if you smile apologetically a lot and learn to say arigatō and sumimasen.
Carry cash. And lots of it. Eating out in Japan is not cheap in general, and it’s less common for restaurants to accept card payments than it is in Europe or America. Furthermore, almost all Japanese ATMs have set operating hours, and you won’t be able to get cash out after a certain time, depending on the day of the week. So be prepared. I forgot this rule one night during my most recent trip, and I had to run around for an hour (no exaggeration) looking for an open ATM so I could pay our bill. Not fun.
Stay in a ryokan at least once. Shacking up in the traditional inns of Japan, which are found all over the country in both cities and the countryside, is a great and easy way to try a wide variety of foods. Typically a ryokan stay is inclusive of dinner and breakfast, both of which are often impressive multi-course feasts of local foods prepared by traditional methods. Last time I was in Japan I had two such dinners; one of them included delicious mountain vegetables and sashimi of a certain fish I’d never had before and probably will never get to have again; the other included around 30 immaculately presented individual dishes, all delightful and unique. A feast like this, accompanied by sake and followed by a dip in a hot spring and then bed, is one of the most deliriously relaxing and satisfying experiences you can have not only in Japan, but in the whole world.
Slurp some noodles. Soba, udon, ramen, etc. – they’re all good, and pretty much everywhere in Japan has its own special variation on at least one of them, like miso ramen in Sapporo, Shinshū soba in Nagano, hōtō in Yamanashi, Sanuki udon in Shikoku, or tonkotsu ramen in Kyushu. And learn to slurp. The way to eat noodles – especially ramen – is by aggressively hoovering in mouthfuls of noodles, guided through your chopsticks. This helps you inhale a good amount of soup along with the noodles while simultaneously drawing in cool air to prevent scalding your mouth. Once you get the hang of it, it’s great fun.
Buy souvenirs. In most countries, souvenir stands are the last place you’d look for good food. Not so in Japan, where a culture of ritual gift giving has given rise to an amazing array of confections, snacks, and spirits available in train stations and hotel lobbies. The word for souvenir, omiyage, is written using kanji characters that literally mean “produce from the earth,” or in other words, “stuff from around here.” Instead of generic biscuits like you’d find at Luton or Edinburgh airports, you get treats made with celebrated local ingredients like sweetcorn and cheese in Hokkaido, sweet potatoes in Kagoshima, or eel in Hamamatsu. The majority of these are not available except in the place where they’re made, so not buying them when you have the chance is a missed opportunity, and they’re an easy way to get a quick taste of an area even if you’re just passing through.
Visit (super)markets. This is an obvious tip for finding good food just about anywhere, and of course it holds true in Japan as well. Tsukiji in Tokyo and Nishiki in Kyoto are two of the most frequented by tourists, but this doesn’t make them any less impressive. Even if you don’t plan to buy anything, they’re great for just taking in the sights and smells. And be sure to visit supermarkets and department stores’ subterranean food halls – the former are good for fruit, snacks, and ingredients to bring home, and the latter offer beautiful pastries, good booze, high-quality picnic fodder, and excellent, jaw-droppingly expensive fresh produce, including the legendary ¥10000 cantaloupes you may have read about.
Go to a festival. Summer is the season for festivals in Japan, but if you do a little planning you can usually work at least one into your itinerary regardless of the time of year. And sometimes you may just happen upon one unexpectedly. Festivals are great for cheap, often unhealthy food suitable to an atmosphere of beer-fuelled revelry: fried chicken, okonomiyaki-wrapped hot dogs, soft cream, buttered potatoes, and squid on a stick are some of my favorites.
Don’t avoid “convenience food.” Some of Japan’s tastiest treats come from fast food chains, train station kiosks, vending machines, and convenience stores. In particular, ekiben – station bento – should be at the top of your must-eat list. Often featuring miniaturized versions of local dishes, these lunchboxes are one of the most enjoyable things about domestic travel in Japan and it would be a shame to miss out on them. I fondly recall a bento from Kagoshima that contained small portions of ten different local specialities, which allowed me a little taste of the things I didn’t get to try during my stay, and a happy reprise of some of the things I’d already enjoyed.
Like train station fare, convenience store fare in Japan is entirely different from what you find in the UK and the USA, partly due to their unique distribution model that allows multiple deliveries of fresh food throughout the day. The sandwiches, onigiri, and salads very rarely sit on the shelf for more than 12 hours. They also boast more variety than you might expect, and are a good place to find cool KitKat bar flavors, like red wine or melon.
Don’t dine sober. Local drinks taste good; a little Dutch courage makes you more open-minded to try strange foods; and with a drop of booze in you, you’re more likely to ignore the language barrier and get to know some locals. A couple of pre-meal beers can often make the difference between a not-bad dining experience and one you’ll remember with great fondness. (Too much, of course, and you won’t remember much of anything. So be careful with the chu-hai!)
Don’t skip breakfast. It’s advice we should probably all heed even when we’re not on holiday, but it’s especially true when we are. Hotel breakfasts in Japan are usually surprisingly delicious and diverse, whether they’re Western-style buffets or Japanese-style set meals. Miso soup in the morning is as invigorating as any cup of coffee.
Don’t limit yourself. You don’t have to eat Japanese food exclusively to eat well in Japan. In fact, considering it’s a country where ethnic minorities make up less than 2% of the general population, the quality and diversity of non-Japanese food is often surprising. If an excess of rice or miso or soy sauce has you feeling fatigued, go get some pasta, French pastries, or Korean barbecue.
But of course, you should also always keep an open mind, even when it comes to things you’ve already had. When I first had mentaiko, the chilli-cured cod roe famous in Fukuoka, I thought it was really quite weird. But after a few tries I came to love it. I know several people who’ve said they never liked sushi until they went to Japan, because it’s just so much better there – if you cross sushi off your list because you think you don’t like it, you may obstruct yourself from a potential gastronomic revelation.
Don’t be afraid. On my very first trip to Japan, back when I was a goofy and awkward 17 year old, I spent an embarrassing amount of time in my hotel room watching anime because I was too overwhelmed by my surroundings. I still had a good time, and I more than made up for it on my research trip in 2005 and in the two years I lived there, but if you’re only in Japan for a couple weeks, make the most of it! A friend of mine once said that Japan is the easiest place in the world to have fun. I’d say that’s pretty true, but you have to let it happen. Go to arcades, go to strange bars, do karaoke, do purikura, bathe naked with strangers, and try as many foods as you can. You’ll have fun and eat well as long as you are open to all the amazing experiences Japan has to offer.
Blogs are a good place to start. Kavey and MiMi have very helpful posts on Japan. And so do I. Most of them cover Kyushu – Fukuoka (beer and ramen), Nagasaki, Kumamoto (including Kurokawa and Aso), Kagoshima, and Miyazaki – but I’ve also written about Tokyo, Sapporo, and Osaka.