When it comes to food, the Japanese are among the most enthusiastic and passionate of any race. Ask any Japanese person about a recent trip within Japan and the conversation almost always includes talk of the local food. In fact, for many Japanese travelling outside of their hometowns, food is often one of the primary motivators for travelling.
For this reason many towns and cities in Japan are known first and foremost for their local speciality, whether it be a type of sweet, fish, noodle, seaweed or tofu etc. Such is the Japanese passion for food that you can turn on your TV at almost any time of the day or night and almost undoubtedly catch a show about food.
Careful preparation and meticulous presentation are crucial elements of Japanese cuisine. Food is an art form and even the simplest dishes are often prepared by chefs who have trained for many years.
Once traded as currency, rice has been a staple food for the Japanese for over 2,000 years and still accompanies or forms the base of many meals.
Harvesting rice is very labour-intensive and the Japanese are reminded of this from a very young age, which is why rice is rarely wasted and leftover rice is put to good use.
Aside from sushi, popular dishes include donburi (simmered fish, meat or vegetables served over rice), onigiri (small parcels of rice wrapped in dried seaweed), kayu (a rice porridge), mochi (pounded rice cakes) and chazuke (cooked rice with green tea often served with salmon or cod roe), to name a few.
Seasonal & local food
Japan is very proud of its four very distinctive seasons and each season marks the beginning of more delicious offerings. This is very evident in supermarkets, hotels and inns and restaurants where menus are frequently changed to reflect what is available and what is in season.
In fact, there is such a diverse range of food on offer that it is not an exaggeration to say that many Japanese would struggle to name (for example) all the countless varieties of seaweed, mushrooms and fish on the shelves of their local shop.
Kaiseki cuisine (kaiseki ryori) are small dishes containing up to as many as 12 beautifully presented courses of steamed, simmered or grilled dishes, sliced raw fish sashimi, tempura, soup, rice, pickles and a small dessert. Dishes usually reflect what is available and in season. Kyoto is a great place to enjoy this wonderful treat for all the senses.
Thanks to the great variety of regional specialities (known as meibutsu in Japanese) there is no shortage of restaurants dedicated to proudly serving local dishes.
One of the best known regional dishes is okonomiyaki (a type of savoury pancake) famous in Hiroshima and Osaka. A trip to Hiroshima is not complete without visiting Okonomimura (okonomiyaki village) where watching the chefs prepare the food is as much fun as tasting this unique regional delicacy.
It’s fair to say that fish is an integral part of the Japanese diet. Whether it’s eaten almost live (odorigui – still dancing!) raw (nama or sashimi), grilled (yaki) or deep fried (tempura), it seems that the Japanese have tried and tested every possible method of preparation.
The vast array of fish on offer is simply mind-boggling. If you’re a lover of fish then a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market (the world’s largest wholesale fish and seafood market) is a must for an early morning breakfast of some of the freshest sushi in the world. For those that don’t like the sound of a fish breakfast in the early hours there are plenty of conveyor-belt sushi restaurants (kaiten zushi) all over Japan.
Meat & other foodstuffs
Of course the food offering in Japan extends to far more than just fish. Japan has a huge variety of fruit and vegetables, a whole host of noodle dishes (including one dish served with ice!) and some of the best patisseries outside of France (some say the best in the world, although the French may dispute this!).
Kobe with its wonderful array of cafes is the place to head for those with a sweet tooth. Kobe beef, a delicacy renowned worldwide is produced from cows raised according to strict tradition and provides a wonderful flavour that melts in your mouth. However, be prepared to fork out an arm and a leg for a genuine Kobe beef steak at a good restaurant!
If everything so far sounds a bit meat and fish orientated don’t be alarmed – there are plenty of vegetarian options in Japan. In fact eating meat was prohibited in Japan for more than a thousand years prior to 1868!
Try the wonderful zaru soba (buck-wheat noodles served cold with a dipping sauce), a bowl of udon (thicker noodles) in a mountain vegetable soup, tofu steak or okonomiyaki. If you are feeling adventurous you could try natto – a sticky and slightly smelly concoction made of fermented soya beans. The Japanese liken it to marmite – you’ll either love it or hate it.
Eating out in Japan is as much about the experience as the food. Many Japanese restaurants specialize in one particular type of food and there are countless different styles including the famous kaiten-zushi restaurants now gaining more popularity in the west.
Others include restaurants that specialise in skewers (kushiyaki), ramen (noodles in a broth), tempura (deep-fried fish or vegetables), cook-your-own Korean-style BBQ (usually with a hotplate in the table), teriyaki (marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg) the list goes on.
Don’t rule out festival food, which offers an array of interesting eats including takoyaki (small pieces of octopus cooked in a bread dough-like dumpling), kakigori (shaved ice) and okonomiyaki to name a few.
If you want a more general selection, then the best place to go is an izakaya (Japanese pub) where you will find an extensive and pretty cheap choice of food and drink. Izakaya often offer tabehodai or nomihodai deals – for a set price you get an hour or two to eat or drink as much as you like. Choosing exactly what to eat is made easier by well illustrated menus or plastic food displays at the doorway that Madame Tussaud would be proud of – just point and see what you get.
From a country that survived on a diet of mainly fish and vegetables just over a century ago, Japan has reached the stage where there are now a number of well known fast-food restaurant chains available to choose from. Japanese-style family restaurants (famiresu) often based on the concept of western chains are also worth a look.
Unlike their counterparts in the west, family restaurants in Japan offer exceptionally good value, tasty food and great service. Some of the better known restaurants are Gusto, Coco-ichi (specializing in Japanese style curry) and Joyful (mainly found in the west of Japan). Of course being Japan the restaurants are always spotlessly clean too. For those with a love of Korean and Chinese food there is also plenty of choice on offer.