Possibly more than any nationality in the world, the Japanese love to eat out, and the cornucopia of culinary options, even in the smallest towns, is dizzying. There’s something for every taste and budget, from the oft-excellent, humble workmen’s canteens, to famous specialist restaurants that will satisfy even the most particular gourmets. There are scores of different styles of cooking, and specialist restaurants to match. Here are some of the most common.
Literally, the ‘red lanterns’, aka-chōchin are downmarket, inexpensive bars-cum-eateries, serving regular izakaya fare in unpretentious surroundings. Find them by the red lanterns that give them their name in any neighbourhood, but especially in the backstreets near major transit terminals. Quality varies massively, as does service, but a friendly, good-quality aka-chōchin establishment is worth its weight in sea urchin.
Whenever the craving for assorted gastropods, vague amphibians, unidentifiable molluscs or miscellaneous insects becomes overwhelming, head for these oases of the weird and wonderful. Getemono-ya are devoted to culinary ingredients, that no one would eat unless they were on the verge of starvation. Thanks to the proliferation of such exotic comestibles as vegetables, beans, cows and fish, these places are a dying breed. Spot them by a dilapidated exterior, and the locals’ warnings not to set foot within a mile of the place.
Welcome to the izakaya, part-restaurant, part-pub, part rural hideaway, part trendy city date-spot. Visually they are a mixed bag, from cool-looking bars set in authentic wooden buildings, to cavernous pseudo-German ‘beer halls’. They are never exorbitantly pricey, and are often good value. The name means ‘the place where there is sake’, and they are simply unmissable. Quality is not guaranteed, but then again, that may not really be the point. The menu features a wide variety of fried goods, from kara-age (fried chicken) to nabemono (hotpot dishes), rice dishes, and a fair amount of pseudo-western fare.
Post-work refuge for frazzled salarymen; students’ small luxury; and non-vegetarian foreigner favourite, yakitori-ya (grilled chicken restaurants) are inexpensive, informal, and usually very good indeed. They are often just small establishments with rows of stools at a counter, or are even yatai (outdoor food stalls), they serve bite-sized pieces of chicken on skewers, either basted with tare (a sweet shōyu) or sprinkled with salt. In Tokyo, the ‘master’ will ask you which you want. In western Japan almost all yakitori is served as tare. Traditionally, yakitori is washed down with glasses of cold beer, accompanied with beans, yaki-shiitake and other assorted vegetables.
These ‘portable kitchens’ are found in the big cities, around railway stations (and everywhere in Fukuoka, Kyushu), specialising in either ramen, yakitori, yakisoba or udon. Most stallholders set up, or wheel in their stands, just before dusk to service the post-office salaryman crowd and the late night post-karaoke clientele.
In space- and privacy-starved Japan, its kissaten (coffee shops) serve more as a cheap place to meet rather than as centres of culinary excellence. However, for the casual visitor, they serve the essential role of providing that early morning, low-cost godsend, the mōningu-setto. Served until around 11am, the ‘morning set’ is coffee with toast and jam (or marmalade), or in its slightly pricier version, with toast, ham and egg.
Kushi-age (deep-fried, skewered food) restaurants fall into two distinct categories – the cheap and cheerful, and the posh and pricey. Both serve a variety of vegetables, meat and seafood ingredients grilled on skewers. With the former you order individual dishes, with the latter you select a price ceiling and the chef keeps flinging kushi at you until you’re bursting. Both are likely to feature shrimp, scallops, crab claws, green peppers, shiitake mushrooms, and beef. Best of all is guji-shiso (sea bream wrapped in beefsteak plant leaf).
These restaurants, specialising in wheat and buckwheat noodles, are found on almost every Japanese street. Often family-run, with the best known dating back through several generations, their name simply means ‘noodle place’. As menus are broadly similar at every restaurant, most udon-ya (wheat noodle shops) and soba-ya (buckwheat noodle shops) superficially look more or less alike, and there’s no overt advertising (Japan’s menruichefs guard the secret of their dashi) so you never know what you’re going to find. One surefire indication of quality is the appearance of the Japanese word ‘honke’ (‘original house’) indicating a shop’s pedigree. Soba shops, especially the artfully decorated variety, can be a little pricey, or even a little snooty – some will refuse to admit children.
For great home cooking outside the home, osōzai can’t be beaten. Small places, usually run by a ‘mother’, perhaps with help from another family member, they are little more than a line of chairs at a counter. However, atop the counter are a series of large bowls, perhaps a dozen, containing today’s mama’s specials. You pick and choose from such dishes as sardines marinated in vinegar, seaweed salad, mixed bean salad, or beef and potato stew. Rice, and miso soup, will be offered automatically. Osōzai restaurants are great places to sample good-quality food at budget prices. Kyoto, where the idea originated, is especially known for its osōzai havens.
Cheery, working-class hostelries serving a hotpot of vegetables, meat and compressed fish paste, these down-to-earth establishments are, due to some unwritten law, always run by middle-aged women. The stock, in which the boiled eggs; ganmodoki (tofu dumplings containing beans and woody ear tree fungus); potato; and burdock (wrapped in fish paste and fried) are simmered, is never allowed to fully evaporate. The previous day’s stock forms the basis for today’s, and some oden shops claim to have used the same base for decades. Tokyo’s oden sauce is notably stronger than Kansai’s.
These are cheery, noisy, no-frills establishments, where part of the fun is cooking up your own okonomi-yaki (savoury pancake) mix under the stern gaze of the demanding proprietress, or else enduring her torrent of advise/abuse while she does it for you. They are often pretty rough and ready places.
Japan’s love affair with ramen (yellow wheat noodles) knows no bounds. Part of the attraction of this economical noodle dish is in the individuality of each store. Almost anyone can set up a ramen shop with relative ease, and its blue-collar roots lend it a certain macho mystique. It is only recently that young women have been venturing into the stores. Quality ranges from the sublime to the outstandingly awful, and even cleanliness can’t be equated with culinary godliness.
Originally, robata-yaki referred to izakaya in which the individual dishes were passed out to customers from the central kitchen area on long wooden paddles. Of late, however, the word has come to mean any generic izakaya, especially those in which the customers eat around the central serving area. This arrangement is a true foodie’s dream, as you can watch precisely what the chef does. They also like to talk with the customers, even more so if you buy them a beer.
These pork cutlet specialists are easy to locate. Almost all have some large, often hilarious, representation of the porcine form adorning the shopfront. At tonkatsu-ya, price does generally reflect quality, with the top of the heap being the succulent hirekatsu (fried pork fillet). Katsudon, deep-fried pork cutlets served on a bowl of rice, is probably Japan’s most widespread ‘fusion’ dish. The katsu part, the cutlet, was introduced from Europe in the 16th century, but it really became popular during the Meiji era when Japan reopened to the west, when it was served atop a dish of boiled rice, accompanied with sliced welsh onion, a well-beaten egg and dashi. It is warming, inexpensive fare.
Often family run, these canteens, aimed at blue-collar workers and students, are a great quality-meets-value-for-money option. Their higawari-teishoku (lunch sets that change daily) are filling and inexpensive. Pick them in shopping arcades or near train stations and universities, by their plastic food displays that reveal a huge variety of dishes. Some have a large refrigerated display case, from which you lift several plates of your choice. You carry these to the register where you’ll be offered misoshiru and white rice. Expect to see yaki-zakana (grilled fish), tōfu, nattō (fermented soy beans), noodle dishes and that Japanese peculiarity hanbagu (hamburgers without bread).
More expensive options
Restaurants specialising in vegetables, meat and fish, cooked with dashi in white rice in small kama (literally, ‘kilns’). The dish is a winter speciality, and as it’s a little expensive, a trip to a kamameshi-ya is considered a small luxury.
If you’ve the yen for good food, in both senses of that phrase, kappō restaurants are the place to go. They are usually small, and are run by self-confessed food lovers. Kappō ryōri-ya are upmarket equivalents of the izakaya. Often there will be seats at an expensive wooden counter – made, perhaps, from a single block of cedar – where the diner can chat with the ‘master’ as he offers up classic dishes and those of his own creation. Expect the top-end hors d’oeuvres such as sea urchin and kani-miso (crab reproductive organs), as well as some creative main dishes. Balancing out the new will be standards such as sashimi and katsuo no tataki (seared bonito with a dipping sauce), with emphasis on the freshest regional ingredients.
Whilst most nabemono (hotpots) are offered up in private homes, izakaya or as part of a ryōri-ryokan menu, some establishments specialise in one particular type. Best known are the chanko-nabe restaurants serving the high-calorie, multi-ingredient sumō wrestler favourite, and Kyoto’s yudōfu (tōfu hotpot) specialists. While Kyoto’s yudōfu spots are rather refined, nabemono restaurants often feature a deliberately rustic atmosphere, be this authentic or contrived.
Whereas all ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) serve food, ryōri-ryokan in particular pride themselves on their food. Most likely this will feature regional and seasonal specialities, and those that boast their own onsen (hot-spring baths) are especially convivial. Quality does, however, vary considerably, and cost is not a guarantee of great food. Some travelling epicures prefer to stay at a more modest minshuku (family-run inns), and eat out at a regionally famed kappō restaurant or good-quality izakaya. When you make a reservation at ryōri-ryokan, the manager will automatically assume – unless you specify otherwise – that you want to eat a full meal on the evening of your arrival, with a full Japanese breakfast the following morning. This is ippaku-nishoku-tsuki (one night with two meals). If you decide to eat out ask for chōshoku-tsuki (‘with breakfast’). That will be a Japanese-style breakfast, complete with yaki-zakana (grilled fish), misoshiru (miso soup), tsukemono (pickles) and green tea, along with raw egg to crack on your rice, and dried nori (sea laver) in which to wrap the gloopy rice-egg mix. If you’re really on a budget, ask for 'Sudomari' ('Just staying'). However, ryōri-ryokan are unlikely to allow this except during the quietest periods.
Japan’s luxury restaurants are not for everyone. One visit is a must, for these traditional, top-notch establishments offer the full-on Japanese dining experience, whether they serve kaiseki/cha-kaiseki (tea ceremony cuisine) or honzen-ryōri (celebration cuisine). Pristine tatami rooms, hanging calligraphy scrolls, seasonal flower arrangements, and politely aloof kimono-clad waitresses are de rigueur, and even the most jaded gourmand-traveller will be impressed by the restrained elegance of it all. Yet, they will cost you an arm, a leg and perhaps several other appendages too.
Sukiyaki & Shabu-shabu
When Japanese go out to eat sukiyaki (beef, vegetables and tofu cooked in an iron pan, then dipped in raw egg) or shabu-shabu (where thinly sliced meat is dipped into a boiling hotpot, then into various sauces), there is always the sense of it being a special occasion, even more so than a trip to the sushi-ya. Sukiyaki restaurants grill mainly beef, sometimes chicken, on a hot skillet with welsh onions, shiitake and enoki-dake mushrooms, yakidōfu (grilled tofu) and the thread-like ito-konnyaku (thinly sliced konnyaku), most often with beef suet. Some add a last-minute raw egg.
Despite its fame in the west, eating out at a sushi-ya (sushi restaurant) is usually considered a special event for a Japanese family, a chichi date-spot, or a celebratory post-work slap-up. Unless, that is, you stop off at a kaiten-zushi (conveyor-belt sushi) spot for lunch or dinner to grab tasty vinegar-rice morcels from colour-coded plates as they whizz by. Your bill is totted up at the end, according to how many plates are at your side. Rumour has it that Osaka conveyor belts move 14% more quickly than their Tokyo counterparts, which, though as yet unconfirmed, would surprise no one.
This well-known dish is often served as part of a course at a ryōtei (high-class Japanese restaurant), in cheap canteens, or in the stand-up noodle restaurants on the platforms of major railway stations. The latter are cheap, and immensely satisfying in that junk-food-fix fashion. The most common oil used for tempura is that of the soy bean, followed by cottonseed, sesame and rapeseed oils. A full tempura course will feature seafood such as giant prawn, squid, octopus and sardines, with vegetables such as renkon (lotus root), shiitake mushrooms and onion. Dip them in a tsuyu (dipping sauce) of shōyu, mirin and dashi (stock), perhaps with grated daikon or grated ginger. Alternatively, dip them in matcha-shio (a mix of salt and powdered green tea).
Better known abroad than in-country, thanks to the major success of Japanese-American Rocky Aoki’s chain of Benihana restaurants, it’s relatively difficult to find a solely teppan (hotplate) restaurant outside the plush major hotels. The ingredient of choice is prime steak, grilled in front of you to your requirements. Side orders include shrimp and assorted vegies. Teppanyaki isn’t cheap.
Eel specialists are more likely to be busy in the hot summer months, when eating the slippery morsel is said to defeat the enervating heat. It comes at its most delicious in unagi no kabayaki, charcoal-grilled eel, dusted with a sweet teriyaki sauce and topped with powdered sanshō (prickly ash pepper). Recognise unagi-ya by the sign featuring the hiragana character for ‘U’ shaped like an ascending eel, or the magnificent, irresistible aroma of the charcoal-grilled fish. It is one of the Japan’s marvellous streetside smells that will stay permanently in your memory.
More guides to eateries in other countries here.