A traveller in Japan, or even a Japanese local, is spoiled for choice when it comes to excellent quality food at great value. I have documented some of my food experiences in Japan in my past travel blogs. I have never had a bad meal in Japan. Never felt ‘ripped-off’. I have only ever been amazed at the quality and freshness of the food and the unique environments in which you can eat. There is such a broad range of dining experiences. Today I wanted to give you all the options that I have experienced as well as some general knowledge about how to find cheaper alternatives. If you are travelling solo on a budget, or as a family, don’t fear as there are options available for everyone. The eating journey across Japan is a delight and one of the key reasons to visit this fantastic country. Eat. Up.
Go up. Go Down.
At least here in Australia, most restaurants will be located on ground level with a frontage that attracts customers. In some cases you may go up to the next level or in really fancy hotel style restaurants, you may even be on the top floor. In Japan, and especially in busy cities like Tokyo, the sit-down restaurants can be several levels up or even down in the basement of a building. Do not let this concern you. Real estate is such a premium that a multi-level structure is a perfect place for several restaurants to reside. Usually, on the ground floor, there will be a restaurant directory and a sample menu with lots of pictures for each. The ground floor restaurants are usually more expensive. So go up a couple of floors or even check out what is in the basement.
Walk away a little.
I noticed that when I was in Kyoto, the closer you were to the central Kyoto Station, the more expensive and touristy the restaurants were. And also, the seemingly less authentic the dishes were. A lot of restaurants would sell Western-style food to appease the tourists. But by taking a stroll a couple of blocks away from the main streets and you will come across more and more traditional Japanese eateries with reasonable prices and options.
Department store delights
If you are looking at picking up some seriously yummy and traditional Japanese snacks and meals, then often big department stores will have a serious underground area of small delicatessen style stalls selling everything from bento boxes and sandwiches, to cuts of salmon and fresh fruit and vegetables. You can also buy some great food based gifts to take home with you as souvenirs. Plus, a lot of the department stores will have at least one decent restaurant somewhere in the building. I have found these options to be really reasonably priced too. In some of the bigger city stations, that are linked via vast underground thoroughfares, there will be several basement levels that are just packed full of restaurants and cafes. I came across Ramen Street in the basement of a giant department store in Tokyo that had dozens of Ramen stores.
Here in Australia, you would not go to a 7/11 to pick up lunch or dinner. In Japan, however, the convenience stores all stock a massive amount of hot and cold meals and drinks. Fresh foods, fluffy egg sandwiches, bento boxes, sushi, beer, wine and all the usual convenient store goodies. Hot meals can be heated in-store or take them home. 7/11, Lawson and Family Mart are all reliable sources of snacks and meals. Locally, they are referred to as Kombini.
Picnic in peace
Japanese cities have an incredible amount of parklands and gardens for everyone to enjoy. And many people make the most of this during the finer weather. In the big Tokyo parks like Yoyogi and Shinjuku Goen, picnickers are frequently seen. So hit up that Kombini and soak up some fresh air with a meal and a beer.
Choo, choo, chew!
The first time I took a bullet train was on a trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima. The morning trip was relatively subdued, but I did notice a lot of people with plastic bags with sandwiches and bento boxes and a drink. On the return trip, I saw many businessmen with their meal and a tall can of cold beer. Turns out, there are special meals that the Japanese people enjoy the long train rides. Ekibento is a particular type of bento box that is sold either in the train stations, on the platforms or in some cases on the train itself. They are usually seasonal with rice, fresh vegetables, meat or tofu, egg and much much more. They even sell kids themed Ekibento.
Street food bliss.
Street food in Japan is so incredibly amazing you could spend all day just trying all the fantastic snack-size treats just in one street. Most areas around the big cities will have recognisable and easy to locate street food streets. They sell everything from hot dumplings, skewered meats and fried chicken to cold noodles and seasonal delights. If you have any doubts, then search YouTube for Tokyo street food and prepare to salivate!
Japan has a sweet tooth. Thye love sweets and especially handcrafted delicacies that have taken inspiration from bakeries and patisseries all over the world. I am not a sweet guy myself but will make an exception for some Matcha ice cream in Asakusa whenever I am nearby. There is even a store in Tokyo that specialises in creating customer Kit-Kats. You know the good old Kit-Kat – well Japan go nuts for them, and in this store, the customer chooses the filling and the toppings. They pick it up gift wrapped at the end of the day.
Night and day
As I have written in the past, it takes a long time for many restaurants and cafes to get going and open. Some won’t stir until 10 or 11am. So if you are looking for an early morning bacon-toastie or a strong coffee, you are going to have to find a Starbucks. Restaurants and cafes will usually stay open late in big cities. Some are open 24 hours especially in busy areas like Tokyo. I saw some late night Ramen bars in Shibuya and Shinjuku open late when out taking photos. But be warned, if you travel across town to that must have Gyoza restaurant, keep an eye on when your last train home is.
Western junk has an Eastern funk!
Initially, I scoffed at the idea of going into a McDonalds or KFC while staying in such a culinary-rich place like Japan. Why would you have Macca’s when you can get the worlds freshest Sushi just across the street. I even remember once an American family was walking through Shibuya in front of me and be delighted to see a KFC. “Finally, real food!” they exclaimed. But, I must say my attitude has changed a little as more often than not there will be a seasonal menu of Japanese only items. Just saying. KFC is massive in Japan on Christmas Day. They order their Christmas Day feast months ahead of time.
This is one of my favourites. Izakayas are tiny bars that serve a handful of cooked dishes along with a variety of Sake and local beer – usually only one type. Izakaya is usually found in small skinny alleyways where dozens of them clump together. They are tiny. Some will only seat four customers, and you are crammed in with your belly against the bar and your back against the wall. I spent a night with a Japanese photography friend in such a bar. It was in Shinjuku Omoide Yokocho. There are lots of other Yokocho or alleys around big towns. We ate non-descript skewered meats, fish gut soup and lots of fresh tomato and cucumber. And of course lots of Sapporo on tap. Such a fantastic time getting to know one another despite the language barrier.
Themed restaurants and cafes in Japan are big. They love, as do tourists, going into a cafe where the decor and food are themed after their favourite video game series, manga or anime series. There are some classics too usually themed after Disney franchises. And of course, for the older generations, there are maid cafes. They are not as sleazy as they sound. I promise I have never been in one. But basically cute Japanese girls in French Maid outfits will take you and seat you and be your private waitress. You are not allowed to touch them, and apparently, any attempt will be met with a playful slap. I have been to the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. But my favourite was the Straw Hat Cafe at the Ghibli Museum. It was such a fun, and you can read about my day at the Ghibli Museum here.
If the locals’ queue…you queue too!
Generally in Australia, if you really want to eat at that particular place, you make a reservation. Although the waiting-out-front for-brunch-in-your-activewear culture has taken on a new power on Saturday and Sunday mornings around town. In Japan, if you see a queue of people waiting outside a restaurant, then that is like a 5-star rating in a review guide! If the locals love it, then it is worth checking out. Just get in line and wait a little while.
Beer is everywhere
As I have made clear in many, many blogs, I like beer. And in my Japan blogs, I have talked about the prevalence of beer everywhere. Sitting in a park in Shinjuku on a hot, humid day? Just grab a beer from the little coffee hut. Taking a long train journey? Grab a beer from the Kmobini on the platform. Spent the day walking all over Tokyo and just want to unwind in the tub? Grab a beer from the vending machine at the end of the hall. Obviously, they have other drinks in Japan and alcohol, in general, is very cheap. What. A. Shame!
Order outside and pay the robot
Before you walk into a restaurant selling some form of noodle soup dishes like Ramen or Udon, first you have to pay the machine outside. Yes, in some cases, before you even walk into the restaurant, you have to navigate a vending machine that allows you to choose dishes, extra toppings and even your drinks. Don’t be put off. It is actually a lot of fun looking at the large images of the meals on the outside wall and then finding the corresponding button on the machine. You then drop in your notes and coins and take your change and the printed ticket into the restaurant. Take a seat and hand it to the guy behind the counter.
Vending vending vending
Vending machines are everywhere in Japan. Literally everywhere! They are usually in small clusters and depending on the time of year will sell seasonal drinks. IN hotter months there will be a great variety of cold beverages including some seasonal specialities. LIke Coca Cola with a hint of cherry blossom! IN the colder months, the machines will sell more hot drinks and even small pots of soup ready for instant and hot consumption. There are far less of the chocolate/chip style vending machines we see here. But in some places vending machines sell everything from hot meals to children’s toys.
I recently wrote a blog about safety in Japan. This is an excerpt from that about food safety. ‘It is safe to drink the water from the tap in Japan and equally safe to accept water in restaurants and cafes. If you don’t feel comfortable accepting tap water, there are vending machines everywhere selling every kind of drink you could imagine…As for food, I have never had a lousy meal experience. The food from all manner of restaurants and food stalls is always fresh and prepared with high standards. Japanese food is some of the most fantastic tasting food you will ever experience as they rely on the freshness of ingredients to add to the flavour experience. Street food vendors and izakaya bars all sell freshly cooked food. You can decide for yourself if the cleanliness of a place is up to your standards.’
Stand and stuff
The last time I was in Tokyo I was amazed to find a couple of standing eateries. One indoor and one outdoor. The indoor one was a standing sushi bar. The restaurant was tiny, and the customers stood at a timber counter around the walls and ate their sushi. The other, the outdoor one, was a street food vendor selling a type of noodle soup. It was served in proper crockery. People stood in the side alley and ate their noodle soup before returning their bowl to the cook.
Use an app – Gurunavi
I have only just become aware of this app. It is an app that allows you to find restaurants, bars and cafe in Japan. Sounds simple enough but this app gives you the option to select the style of meal – Curry to Izakaya. It also allows you to pick a price range for an average meal. This is great for the budget conscious traveller. Another great option is that you can seek restaurants that have English menus and even English speaking staff. But stay tuned for more about food in a future blog.
Vegetarian and Vegan
Granted there is lots of meat and fish consumption in Japan. Finding Vegetarian or Vegan meals on a menu is not my priority but for many of you I imagine it may be. Fortunately more and more restaurants and cafes are providing Western travellers with English menus. The website Happy Cow allows you to source vegan and vegetarian options in Japan. You can check out that site here. According to the site, there are 453 vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo alone.
I know that was a long blog with a lot of information. But, at least you and I know what options are available. This is espeically good if you are a first timer to Japan, tavelling on a budget or even taking your family. I hope to document my food journey in a little more detail on my Tokyo 2019 tour. I have written about food expereinces in many past blogs. The most comprehensive was from my Tokyo 2017 trip. You can read about that here. Happy eating.