No trip to Japan would be complete without exploring its incredible culinary universe. The familiar flavours of sushi and teriyaki may please the Western tongue, but it’s the robot cabarets, vending machine waiters and catch-your-own seafood restaurants that give Japanese dining an entirely different dimension.
Born from centuries of history encompassing imperial courts, military shoguns and traditional inns, eating in Japan is an experience that comes wrapped in a complex web of etiquette.
There are even handcrafted utensils for every conceivable purpose: the lacquered lidded bowl used to serve miso soup; the small porcelain cup specifically designed to hold sauce for dipping noodles.
Meal time etiquette in Japan
Not every meal is elaborate in ceremony, especially among the younger Japanese, who are fast adopting increasingly Westernised meal habits. However, there are still a few rules that hold true. For example, it’s unusual to see Japanese people eating while doing other things, like walking down the street – it’s considered bad manners, and worth avoiding even as a visitor.
Another tip is to watch the way you use your chopsticks. Don’t cross your chopsticks, and never use them individually to poke or spear food. Always return them to their dedicated rest when you’ve finished your meal, and never, ever leave them sticking upright out of your bowl.
Seasonality is also big in Japanese dining. The word ‘shun’ represents the exact moment in any season when a food is at its peak and ready to be enjoyed. It’s the moment when a piece of fruit is perfectly ripe, or when a vegetable is at its best and freshest. This aspirational, intensely seasonal eating is at the heart of Japan’s finest cooking and dining.
Japanese restaurant styles
It’s almost impossible to live in any global city and not be familiar with sushi, sashimi, and steaming bowls of ramen, udon and miso – it’s likely you’ve tried Japanese food even if you’ve never travelled to Japan.
Dining options range from pub-style (izakaya) and casual family restaurants (shokudo), to the more formal and expensive (kaiseki ryori).
Sushi dining in Japan is complex. Visitors are often baffled by the stringent conventions involved in ordering and eating, and overwhelmed by the sheer number of sushi varieties available. However, an authentic Japanese sushi experience will be one to remember.
Like the popular sushi-train format enjoyed around the world, it’s commonplace for patrons at traditional sushi restaurants to sit facing their chefs. You’ll marvel at the deft blade-work of these sushi masters as they craft your elegant meals.
It’s important to note that sushi dining can be a serious, almost reverent affair – some chefs have even been known to refuse loud customers. Show your respect for these experts and the subtle flavours they create by eating your serving promptly once it arrives, with care and admiration.
If dining in a high-quality sushi establishment, your best bet is to try the seasonal, freshly-caught fish. When ordering, it’s acceptable to say “omakase,” which translates to “I leave it to you.” This gives the chef free-reign to serve you the best regional produce of the day.
Izakaya (pub food)
Izakaya restaurants can be considered Japan’s answer to the traditional Irish pub or American saloon, the atmospheric eateries humming with after-work crowds enjoying a drink and meal.
Courses are often light and meant for sharing, like edamame beans, sashimi and meat skewers. And of course, any authentic Izakaya experience should include a small glass of sake to wash it all down.
All you can drink and all you can eat are popular formats for Izakaya restaurants, and cosplay (dressing up as a character) venues are becoming increasingly popular. Spotting an Izakaya can be as easy as identifying the symbolic red paper lanterns hanging above them.
Shokudo (casual family restaurants)
Shokudo restaurants are typically small, independently owned and economical. Traditional noodle dishes like udon, ramen and soba are served alongside simple rice and seafood meals.
These unassuming eateries can be as small as hole-in-the-wall local favourites, or more accommodating, tourist-friendly venues. Depending on the location, don’t expect an English menu or Western-style seating – you’ll likely find low-table dining with the traditional tatami mats to sit on.
Many casual dining establishments still only accept cash, so it’s worth confirming this before you order.
Kaiseki ryori (fine dining)
Kaiseki ryori is comparable to fine dining in the West. Expensive, exquisitely-constructed meals are served as part of a set menu that includes the best of delectable Japanese cuisine.
These meals typically follow a format that includes an appetiser, sashimi and sushi, simmered vegetables with meat, tofu or fish, soups, hot pots, rice dishes and a seasonal dessert to finish.
These indulgent meals don’t come cheap; you can expect to pay above 15,000 yen for a kaiseki dinner experience - and that’s without drinks! Lunch options are typically cheaper, if you’re restricted to a more modest budget.
What’s for dessert?
For the sweet toothed among us, there are endless delectable options. Traditional Japanese sweets, known as ‘wagashi’, are small and delicate, often made with rice flour or bean paste and usually served with tea.
In Tokyo, you’ll also find countless specialist patisseries, such as boutiques that sell nothing but crème brûlée, or designer soft-serve ice creams in quirky flavours (wasabi, anyone?).
So obsessed are the Japanese with their sweets that they have a special word ‘betsubara’, meaning ‘dessert stomach’, that comes into play when you think you’re too full from your main meal.
Unique dining in Japan
For a restaurant experience you won’t soon forget, there’s the Zauo Restaurant in Shinjuku. The name consists of the words for ‘sit’ and ‘fish’, and that’s just what you’ll do here.
A large boat structure is set in the centre of an enormous fish tank filled with all kinds of species. You’re given a fishing rod and some bait, and in no time (fingers crossed) you’ll be reeling in your own dinner, which is handed to the kitchen with your cooking instructions, whether it’s tempura, sashimi or grilled.
However, the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku is about as crazy an experience as you’re likely to have in Tokyo. Flashing lights, lasers, skimpily dressed dancers, loud music and, yes, robots, all combine for a surreal concert in an underground auditorium. Be sure to switch your phone to flight mode once you’re inside – all the robots operate via GPS and Wi-Fi signals, so any interference risks sending the performers off course.
Vending machines in Japan
In Tokyo in particular, but throughout wider Japan too, there are vending machines available for almost everything. Some say this retail model thrives best in Japan due to the lack of vandalism (indeed, you’ll be hard-pressed to find graffiti anywhere). But the sheer volume of foot traffic also plays a role. In any case, you can find just about anything you need in a vending machine, which can be great fun for tourists – shop for coffee, fruit, noodles, even flower arrangements.
Some casual restaurants and fast food chains even use a version of the vending machine to order, which is particularly useful if you don’t speak Japanese. Simply select your meal from one of the many photos, drop in your cash, and take your ticket. Hand over your ticket when you take a seat, then just wait for your food to arrive.
While the trademark delicacy of Japanese flavours draws food-lovers from around the world, the full-sensory and often bizarre dining experiences are also sure to captivate. Traditional sushi restaurants share the street with modernistic eating oddities, representing the marriage of old and new that defines modern Japan.