Eating out is a favorite occupation for most Japanese, especially when dining with friends or business colleagues, as living quarters tend to be quite small and unsuited for dinner parties. In the cities and large towns, there’s a huge choice of international cuisines, as well as every variety of regional and fast food. Tokyo has the widest selection of both Japanese and local delicacies at all price levels, including fine dining at many of the luxury hotels. For a superb take-out meal, visit the basement food courts in department stores where you’ll find stalls selling every possible culinary specialty often with free samples and impressive ceramic sushi displays.
Bars and Pubbing in Japan
The bar scene is firmly established in Japan and forms a large part of big city nightlife along with pubs in the traditional Irish and English style more for expats. Many bars are called izekayas, friendly after-work gathering places which have a menu of skewered, grilled meat and vegetables called yakitori, sashimi, and noodle dishes―Japan’s answer to tapas. Izekayas are identified by red lanterns hanging outside and are great places for people-watching, but be warned, most still allow smoking inside. Western-style bars are found in most cities and tourist areas, with Irish pubs popular for grabbing a beer. For a taste of Britain, the Aldgate British Pub (Shin-iwasaki Building, 3rd Floor, Udagawa-Cho, Shibuya, Tokyo) serves the best fish and chips in Japan. If you want a crazier night out, Motown House 2 (Roppongi Plaza, Tokyo), in the heart of the clubbing district, can be fun.
Dining and Cuisine in Japan
Restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in regional or specific dishes such as sushi and sashimi, hot or cold noodles, or seafood including the notorious, but delicious fugu blowfish―poisonous if not prepared by a specially-trained chef. In the big cities, entire streets are devoted to specialty eateries, including the ever-popular Korean cuisine.
For visitors, the best-known delicacies are sushi and sashimi, prepared on order at conveyor-belt sushi bars, as well as at upscale eateries famous for their masterful chefs. For a special treat in the spring, the beautiful cherry blossom trees bring sakura-flavored pastries and ice cream.
Japanese dishes are based on seasonal availability, always using the freshest of ingredients, and lovers of fine cuisine will appreciate the difference. Favorites include the traditional Kyoto kaiseki ryori, based on ‘less is more’, the vegetarian shojin ryori, the delicious obanzi ryori peasant dishes and even the thick, high-calorie hot-pot stews favored by Sumo wrestlers. This delicious dish can be found at the Chanko Tomoegata (2-17-6 Ryogoku, Tokyo) restaurant not far from the stadium in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district.
Traditionally, seafood is the preferred protein in Japan, as eating meat was virtually prohibited until the late 1800’s. Nowadays, pork is part of many specialties such as domburimono (rice topped with a grilled cutlet) and beef used in savory sukiyaki stews or cook-it-yourself shabu-shabu hot pots similar to fondue. A favorite in Osaka and Kyoto is okonomiyaki, a cross between an omelet and a pancake topped vegetables, seafood, or meat and doused with special sauce. Another regional specialty in Osaka is takoyaki balls, deep fried octopus dumplings sold from street vendors.
Ramen, thin wheat noodle soup, and udon, thicker flour noodles are served hot in winter and deliciously cold in summer. Tsukemen is another way of preparing soup, in which you dip the noodles in a separate bowl of broth and are provided with limes and seaweed to make a sandwich. In all local eateries, a bowl of miso soup comes as part of the meal.
For Japanese visitors craving international cuisine, there’s a great choice at all prices ranging from fast food to European delicacies in the cities and tourist areas. Aside from fine dining establishments, water, beer or sake is the drink of choice, with wine seldom found. Uosaburo (adjacent to Keihan Fushimi Momoyama Station, Kyoto) is a favorite with locals and visitors for its upscale Kyoto cuisine.
Most lunchtime and informal restaurants serve set bento box lunches on a tray, with the ceramic examples of the various meals on display, making it easy for non-Japanese speakers to select by pointing. Many of these restaurants are found in food courts in the basement of department stores and under railway stations. Kushinobu is just one of the options at the Kyoto Train Station. Another form of casual dining, yakitori (anything grilled on skewers and priced by the stick) is accompanied with sake or beer in bars and, for vegetarians, tempura deep-fried and battered vegetables are available alongside seafood.
Chopsticks are universal, but most restaurants will also provide knives, forks, and spoons if requested. Soup is to be drunk straight from the bowl and it’s actually flattering to slurp your noodles.