At its best, Japanese food is highly seasonal, drawing on fresh local ingredients coaxed into goodness with a light touch. In 2013 washoku (Japanese cuisine) was added to Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are classic dishes, like tempura, that can be found all over and regional specialities that may be local to just one small town. Larger cities, meanwhile, have vibrant, cosmopolitan dining scenes.

Japanese Restaurant Basics

When you enter a restaurant in Japan, you'll be greeted with a hearty irasshaimase (Welcome!). In all but the most casual places, the waiter will next ask you nan-mei sama (How many people?). Indicate the answer with your fingers, which is what the Japanese do. You may also be asked if you would like to sit at a zashiki (low table on the tatami), at a tēburu (table) or the kauntā (counter). Once seated you will be given an o-shibori (hot towel), a cup of tea or water (this is free) and a menu.

Ordering: more and more restaurants these days (especially in touristy areas) have English menus. If they don't and you can't work out what to order, there are two phrases that may help: o-susume wa nan desu ka (What do you recommend?) and omakase shimasu (Please decide for me).

Often the bill will be placed discreetly on your table. If not, you can ask for it by catching the server's eye and making a cross in the air (to form a kind of 'x') with your index fingers. You can also say o-kanjō kudasai.

There's no tipping, though higher-end restaurants usually tack on a 10% service fee. During dinner service, some restaurants (especially izakaya) may instead levy a kind of cover charge (usually a few hundred yen); this will be the case if you are served a small appetiser (called o-tsumami, or 'charm') when you sit down.

Payment is usually settled at the register near the entrance. Keep in mind that many smaller restaurants, especially those in the countryside, may not accept credit cards.

Feature: Magic Words for Dining in Japan

If you're generally an adventurous (or curious) eater, don't let the absence of an English menu put you off. Instead, tell the staff (or ideally the chef), omakase de onegaishimasu (I'll leave it up to you).

This works especially well when you're sitting at the counter of a smaller restaurant or izakaya, where a rapport naturally develops between the diners and the cooks. It's best said with enthusiasm and a disarming smile, to reassure everyone that you really are game.

This isn't just a tourist hack: Japanese diners do this all the time. Menus might not reflect seasonal dishes and odds are the chef is working on something new that he or she is keen to test out on the willing.

It's probably a good idea to set a price cap, like: hitori de san-zen-en (one person for ¥3000).

Eating Etiquette

All but the most extreme type-A chefs will say they’d rather have foreign visitors enjoy their meal than agonise over getting the etiquette right. Still, a few points to note if you want to make a good impression:

Chopsticks This is really the only big deal: do not stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice or pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another – both are reminiscent of Japanese funereal rites. When serving yourself from a shared dish, it's polite to use the back end of your chopsticks (ie not the end that goes into your mouth) to place the food on your own small dish.

Lunchtime Lunch is one of Japan's great bargains; however, restaurants can only offer cheap lunch deals because they anticipate high turnover. Spending too long sipping coffee after finishing your meal might earn you dagger eyes from the kitchen.

Polite Expressions Before digging in, it is customary in Japan to say itadakimasu (literally 'I will receive' but closer to ‘bon appétit’ in meaning). Similarly, at the end of the meal, thanks is given to the host or cook with the phrase, gochisō-sama deshita, which means 'It was a real feast'.

Soy Sauce There’s nothing that makes a Japanese chef grimace more than out-of-towners who over-season their food – a little soy sauce and wasabi goes a long way (and heaven forbid, don’t pour soy sauce all over your rice; it makes it much harder to eat with chopsticks).

Kampai It's considered bad form to fill your own glass. Instead, fill the drained glasses around you and someone will quickly reciprocate; when they do, raise your glass slightly with two hands – a graceful way to receive anything. Once everyone's glass has been filled, the usual starting signal is a chorus of kampai, which means 'Cheers!'.

Slurp In Japan, it's perfectly OK, even expected, to slurp your noodles. They should be eaten at whip speed, before they go soggy (letting them do so would be an affront to the chef); that's why you'll hear diners slurping, sucking in air to cool their mouths.

Where & What to Eat

The Japanese dining scene is distinguished by (at the very minimum) two things: the sheer number of restaurants and the fact that most of them are rather small, often specialising in just one or two things. Sushi shops make sushi; tempura shops make tempura. A restaurant that does too much might be suspect: how can it compare to a speciality shop that has been honing its craft for three generations?

An unintended benefit of this is that it simplifies ordering. Restaurants with broader menus, especially franchises, will often have picture menus. High-end restaurants often have no menu at all – just a set course decided that day by the chef depending on what happened to look good at the market that morning.

Shokudō

Dining trends may come and go but shokudō (食堂; inexpensive, all-round eateries) are forever. You’ll find them in and around train stations and in tourist areas.

They serve classic comfort foods like rice bowls with various toppings (donburi; どんぶり or 丼) and katsu (breaded and fried) dishes. Office workers love shokudō because they're quick and cheap (a meal often costs less than ¥1000); families love them because there's a good variety of things kids will likely eat.

At lunch, and sometimes dinner, the easiest meal to order at a shokudō is a teishoku (set-course meal), which is sometimes also called ranchi setto (lunch set). This generally includes a main dish of meat or fish, a bowl of rice, miso-shiru (bean-paste soup), shredded cabbage and some tsukemono (Japanese pickles).

Many shokudō have plastic food displays in the windows, which of course makes ordering simple. If it's a smaller place, odds are they will have a daily lunch special (kyō-no-ranchi; 今日のランチ).

ebi-katsu海老カツbreaded and fried prawns
katsu-donかつ丼rice topped with a fried pork cutlet
katsu-karēカツカレーrice topped with a fried pork cutlet and curry
omu-raisuオムライスomelet and fried rice, with ketchup
oyako-don親子丼rice topped with egg and chicken
shōga-yaki生姜焼きstir-fried pork and ginger
ten-don天丼rice topped with tempura prawns and vegetables

Izakaya

Izakaya (居酒屋) translates as ‘drinking house’ – the Japanese equivalent of a pub – and you'll find them all over Japan. Visiting one is a great way to dig into Japanese culture.

An evening at an izakaya is dinner and drinks all in one: food is ordered for the table a few dishes at a time along with rounds of beer, sake or shōchū (a strong distilled alcohol often made from potatoes). While the vibe is lively and social, it's perfectly acceptable to go by yourself and sit at the counter. If you don't want alcohol, it's fine to order a soft drink instead (but it would be strange to not order at least one drink).

There are orthodox, family run izakaya, often with rustic interiors, that serve sashimi and grilled fish to go with sake; large, cheap chains, popular with students, that often have a healthy (er, unhealthy) dose of Western pub-style dishes (like chips); and there are also stylish chef-driven ones with creative menus.

A night out at an average izakaya should run ¥2500 to ¥5000 per person, depending on how much you drink. Chains often have deals where you can pay a set price for a certain amount of dishes and free drinks.

agedashi-tōfu揚げだし豆腐deep-fried tofu in a dashi (fish) broth
edamame枝豆salted and boiled fresh soy beans
hiyayakko冷奴a cold block of tofu with soy sauce and spring onions
jaga-batāジャガバ夕一baked potatoes with butter
karaage唐揚げfried chicken
moro-kyūもろきゅうsliced cucumbers and chunky barley miso
niku-jaga肉ジャガbeef and potato stew
sashimi mori-awase刺身盛り合わせa selection of sliced sashimi
shio-yaki-zakana塩焼魚a whole fish grilled with salt
yaki-onigiri焼きおにぎりa triangle of grilled rice with yakitori sauce

Yakitori

Putting away skewers of yakitori (charcoal-grilled chicken and vegetables), along with beer, is a popular after-work ritual. Most yakitori-ya (yakitori restaurants) are convivial counter joints where the food is grilled over hot coals in front of you. It's typical to order a few skewers at a time. They're usually priced between ¥100 and ¥300 a piece; one order may mean two skewers (and thus may mean double the price). The chef will ask if you want your skewers seasoned with shio (salt) or tare (sauce). Yakitori restaurants are often located near train stations and are best identified by a red lantern outside (and the smell of grilled chicken).

hasami/negimaはさみ/ねぎまpieces of white meat alternating with leek
kawachicken skin
piimanピーマンsmall green capsicums (peppers)
rebāレバーchicken livers
sasamiささみskinless chicken-breast pieces
shiitakeしいたけJapanese mushrooms
tama-negi玉ねぎround white onions
tebasaki手羽先chicken wings
tsukuneつくねchicken meatballs
yaki-onigiri焼きおにぎりa triangle of grilled rice with yakitori sauce

Sushi & Sashimi

Sushi (寿司 or 鮨) is raw fish and rice seasoned with vinegar and it comes in many forms. The most common kind is nigiri-zushi, the bite-sized slivers of seafood hand-pressed onto pedestals of rice. This style originated in Tokyo but is now served all over. It can be very high-end, served piece by piece at exclusive sushi-ya (sushi restaurants) where a meal of seasonal delicacies could run over ¥20,000 per person.

It can also be very cheap, at kaiten-zushi (回転寿司), for example, where ready-made plates of sushi (about ¥200 each) are sent around the restaurant on a conveyor belt. Here there's no need to order: just grab whatever looks good.

At an average sushi-ya, a meal should run between ¥2000 and ¥5000 per person. You can order à la carte – often by just pointing to the fish in the refrigerated glass case on the counter – or mori-awase, as an assortment plate; the latter is a better deal (unless you are set on eating only your favourites). These usually come in three grades: futsū or nami (regular), (special) and toku-jō (extra-special). The price difference is determined more by the value of the ingredients than by volume.

Unless otherwise instructed by the chef (who may have preseasoned some pieces), you can dip each piece lightly in shōyu (soy sauce), which you pour from a small decanter into a low dish specially provided for the purpose. Nigiri-sushi is usually made with wasabi, so if you'd prefer it without, order wasabi-nuki.

Sushi is one of the few foods in Japan that is perfectly acceptable to eat with your hands (even at high-end places!). Slices of gari (pickled ginger) are served to refresh the palate.

Sushi restaurants usually serve chirashi-zushi, bite-sized pieces of seafood scattered on a bowl of rice; this too tends to be offered at different grades (using the same terms) and makes for a great lunch. You can also order seafood without rice, called sashimi or o-tsukuri, or rolled in rice and seaweed (maki-zushi).

Though much is made of the freshness of the ingredients in modern sushi, the dish originated as a way to make fish last longer: the vinegar in the rice was a preserving agent. An older form of sushi, called hako-zushi or oshi-zushi ('box' or 'pressed' sushi) and more common in western Japan, is made of fish pressed onto a bed of heavily vinegared rice in a wooden mould with a weighted top. Left to rest, it acquires a slight tang of fermentation.

ama-ebi甘海老sweet shrimp
awabiあわびabalone
ebi海老prawn or shrimp
hamachiはまちyellowtail
ikaいかsquid
ikuraイクラsalmon roe
kai-bashira貝柱scallop
kaniかにcrab
katsuoかつおbonito
maguroまぐろtuna
taisea bream
tamagoたまごsweetened egg
toroとろthe choice cut of fatty tuna belly
unagiうなぎeel with a sweet sauce
uniうにsea-urchin roe

Sukiyaki & Shabu-shabu

Both sukiyaki and shabu-shabu are hotpot dishes, cooked by diners at the table, and the same restaurant usually serves both (but may be known for one or the other). For sukiyaki, thin slices of beef are briefly simmered in a broth of shōyu (soy sauce), sugar and sake and then dipped in raw egg (you can skip the last part, though it makes the marbled beef taste even creamier).

For shabu-shabu, thin slices of pork and/or beef are swished around in boiling broth, then dipped in either a sesame sauce (goma-dare) or ponzu (citrus and soy sauce).

In either case, a healthy mix of veggies and tofu are added to the pot a little bit at a time followed by noodles at the end. So while sukiyaki and shabu-shabu can seem expensive (from around ¥3000 per person to upwards of ¥10,000 for premium beef), it is an all-inclusive meal.

One party shares the pot and the minimum order is usually two (though some places do lunch deals for solo diners); so unless there are four or more of you, you'll all have to choose one or the other, sukiyaki or shabu-shabu. The waitstaff will set everything up for you and most likely mime instructions.

Tempura

Tempura is seafood (fish, eel or prawns) and vegetables (like pumpkin, green pepper, sweet potato or onion) lightly battered and deep-fried in sesame oil. Season by dipping each piece lightly in salt or a bowl of ten-tsuyu (broth for tempura) mixed with grated daikon (Japanese radish).

Tempura is usually served as a set (all at once, with rice and soup) or as a course, with pieces delivered one at a time freshly cooked; a tempura meal can cost between ¥2000 and ¥10,000, with a course being the most expensive.

kaki ageかき揚げtempura with shredded vegetables or fish
shōjin age精進揚げvegetarian tempura
tempura moriawase天ぷら盛り合わせa selection of tempura

Ramen

Ramen originated in China, but its popularity in Japan is epic. If a town has only one restaurant, odds are it's a ramen shop.

Your basic ramen is a big bowl of crinkly egg noodles in broth, served with toppings such as chāshū (sliced roast pork), moyashi (bean sprouts) and negi (leeks). The broth can be made from pork or chicken bones or dried seafood; usually it's a top-secret combination of some or all of the above, falling somewhere on the spectrum between kotteri (thick and fatty – a signature of pork bone ramen) or assari (thin and light).

It's typically seasoned with shio (salt), shōyu (soy sauce) or hearty miso – though at less orthodox places, anything goes. Most shops will specialise in one or two broths and offer a variety of seasonings and toppings. Another popular style is tsukemen, noodles that come with a dipping sauce (like a really condensed broth) on the side.

Given the option, most diners get their noodles katame (literally ‘hard’ but more like al dente). If you’re really hungry, ask for kaedama (another serving of noodles), usually only a couple of hundred yen more.

Well-executed ramen is a complex, layered dish – though it rarely costs more than ¥1000 a bowl. Costs are minimised by fast-food-style service: often you order from a vending machine (you'll get a paper ticket, which you hand to the chef); water is self-serve. Many ramen-ya (ramen restaurants) also serve chāhan (fried rice) and gyōza (dumplings).

chāshū-menチャーシュー麺ramen topped with slices of roasted pork
miso ramenみそラーメンramen with miso-flavoured broth
ramenラーメンsoup and egg noodles topped with meat and vegetables
tsuke-menつけ麺ramen noodles with soup on the side

Soba & Udon

Soba (thin brown buckwheat noodles, often cut with wheat) and udon (thick white wheat noodles) are Japan's traditional noodles. Restaurants usually serve both, though eastern Japan tends to favour soba while western Japan leans towards udon.

Cheap noodle shops, where a meal costs less than ¥1000, are everywhere. There are also nicer ones, with tasteful, often rustic interiors, that specialise in handcut noodles made from premium flours and mountain spring water. Here, a meal might cost two or three times more.

Noodles can be ordered in a hot broth lightly flavoured with bonito and soy sauce with various toppings. They can also be ordered cooled, with dipping sauce (a more condensed broth) on the side. The weather may be a deciding factor but so is personal preference: cooled noodles won't go mushy like those in hot broth so can be savoured (rather than scoffed).

At a good soba shop, one dish to try is zaru soba (ざるそば), cooled soba served on a bamboo mat with a cup of broth on the side. Season the broth to taste with wasabi and sliced spring onions and scoop up one mouthful of noodles at a time with your chopsticks, sinking them in the broth before slurping them up. When you finish the noodles, staff will bring you a kettle of hot soba-yu (the water in which the noodles were cooked), which you can add to the remaining broth to drink like hot soup.

kake soba/udonかけそば/うどんsoba/udon noodles in broth
kitsune soba/udonきつねそば/うどんsoba/udon noodles with fried tofu
tempura soba/udon天ぷらそば/うどんsoba/udon noodles with tempura prawns
tsukimi soba/udon月見そば/うどんsoba/udon noodles with raw egg
te-uchi手打ちhandmade
to-wari soba十割そばsoba made with 100% buckwheat (not cut with wheat)

Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu is a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, almost always served as a set meal that includes rice, miso soup and a heaping mound of shredded cabbage. At around ¥1500 to ¥2500 a meal, it's perfect for when you want something hearty and filling. When ordering at a speciality shop, you can choose between rōsu (a fatter cut of pork) and hire (a leaner cut). Season with tonkatsu sauce, a curious (and highly addictive) ketchup-y Worcestershire-like condiment.

hire katsuヒレかつtonkatsu fillet
tonkatsu teishokuとんかつ定食a set meal of tonkatsu, rice, miso-shiru (bean-paste soup) and shredded cabbage
rōsu katsuロースかつtonkatsu pork loin

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a dish that flies in the face of the prevailing image of Japanese food being subtle. It's a thick, savoury pancake, stuffed with pork, squid, cabbage, cheese, mochi (pounded rice cake) – anything really (okonomi means 'as you like'; yaki means fry). Once cooked, it's seasoned with katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes), shōyu (soy sauce), ao-nori (an ingredient similar to parsley), a tonkatsu sauce and mayonnaise.

Restaurants specialising in okonomiyaki have hotplates built into the tables or counter. Some places do the cooking for you; others give you a bowl of batter and fillings and leave you to it. (Don't panic: the staff will mime instructions and probably keep an eye on you to make sure no real disasters occur.)

gyū okonomiyaki牛お好み焼きbeef okonomiyaki
ika okonomiyakiいかお好み焼きsquid okonomiyaki
mikkusuミックスお好み焼きokonomiyaki with a mix of fillings, including seafood, meat and vegetables
modan-yakiモダン焼きokonomiyaki with yaki-soba and a fried egg
negi okonomiyakiネギお好み焼きthin okonomiyaki with spring onions

Kaiseki

Kaiseki is the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine, where ingredients, preparation, setting and presentation come together to create a highly ritualised, aesthetically sophisticated dining experience. It was born in Kyoto as an adjunct to the tea ceremony; though fish is often served, meat never appears in traditional kaiseki.

The meal is served in several small courses, giving the diner an opportunity to admire the plates and bowls, which are carefully chosen to complement the food and season. It usually includes sashimi (raw fish), something steamed, something grilled, soup and finishes with rice and then a simple dessert (though there may be many more courses).

At its best, it's eaten in the private room of a ryōtei (an especially elegant style of traditional restaurant), often overlooking a private, tranquil garden. This is about as pricey as dining can get in Japan, upwards of ¥20,000 per person, with advance reservations required. There are cheaper places though, and lunch can be a good deal as some restaurants do boxed lunches containing a small sampling of their dinner fare for around ¥2500.

bentō弁当boxed meal with rice and several side dishes
kaiseki懐石traditional Japanese haute cuisine
matsuextra-special course
takespecial course
umeregular course

Sweets

Dessert isn't really a thing in Japanese cuisine, though some restaurants serve sliced fruit or ice cream at the end of a meal; instead, sweets are generally an accompaniment for tea.

Japanese confections are known generically as wagashi (as opposed to yōgashi, Western-style sweets like cake and cookies). The basic ingredients are just rice and a sweetened paste of red azuki beans (called anko). Flavour (usually subtle) and design (often exquisite) are influenced by the seasons. In spring they may be shaped like cherry blossoms or wrapped in cherry leaves; in autumn they might be golden coloured, like the leaves, or flavoured with chestnut.

Okashi-ya (sweet shops) are easy to spot: they usually have open fronts with their wares laid out in wooden trays to entice passers-by. Buying sweets is simple – just point at what you want and indicate with your fingers how many you'd like.

ankoあんこsweet paste or jam made from azuki beans
kashiwa-mochi柏餅pounded glutinous rice with a sweet filling, wrapped in an aromatic oak leaf
mochipounded rice cakes made of glutinous rice
wagashi和菓子Japanese-style sweets
yōkanようかんsweet red-bean jelly

Feature: Dining Made Easy

Some tips for when the options seem overwhelming and you just want to grab a bite.

Department Stores

Department stores always have restaurant floors on their upper levels; often the restaurants are branches of famous ones, the food quality rather high and the price point not bad. These restaurants also tend to be family- and wheelchair-friendly and have English menus. Takeaway and deli dishes can be purchased in the food halls in the basement; go just before closing to get discounted items.

Chain Restaurants

Fast food is plenty big in Japan and there are several domestic chains that have loyal followings. Bonus: many have English menus.

Curry House CoCo Ichibanya 'Coco Ichi' does big plates of Japanese-style curry and rice.

MOS Burger Swap your standard patty for a shrimp croquette or the bun for one made of rice. Has veggie burgers, too.

Ootoya (大戸屋) Shokudō-style standby for healthy set meals of rice, fish, vegetables and soup.

Yoshinoya (吉野家) Gyūdon (sukiyaki-style beef served over a bowl of rice) is the speciality here; it's filling and super cheap.

Convenience Stores

Always good in a pinch – and virtually everywhere – konbini (コンビニ; convenience stores) sell bentō (boxed meals, which you can ask to have microwaved), sandwiches and onigiri (stuffed rice balls) packaged to go. Next to the register, look for niku-man (肉まん), which are steamed buns filled with pork, curry and more; and, in winter, oden, a dish of fish cakes, hard-boiled egg and vegetables in dashi (fish stock) broth.

Special Diets

Vegetarian & Vegan

On the surface, Japan would appear to be an easy place for veggies and vegans, but the devil is in the details: many dishes (including miso soup) are seasoned with dashi, a broth made from fish.

Many cities in Japan do have restaurants that specifically offer vegetarian and vegan dishes. Happy Cow (www.happycow.net/asia/japan) is a good resource. In the countryside, you'll need to work a little bit harder and be prepared to explain what you can and cannot eat. If you're staying in a ryokan, make sure to put in a request for a vegetarian meal when you book; places that regularly get foreign travellers can usually accommodate this.

You might want to seek out shōjin-ryōri, the traditionally vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist monks; Kōya-san in Kansai is a good place for this.

Gluten Free & Allergies

Many chain restaurants and deli counters label their dishes with icons indicating potential allergens (such as dairy, eggs, peanuts, wheat and shellfish). Gluten free is hard: many kitchen staples, like soy sauce, contain wheat and even restaurant staff may not be aware of this. The Gluten Free Expats Japan Facebook group is a good resource.

Halal

Japan now has more halal options than it used to have. See Halal Gourmet Japan (www.halalgourmet.jp) for a list of restaurants that can accommodate halal (and vegetarian) diners.

The Basics

You can eat well on any budget in Japan and only high-end restaurants require advance booking. Cities have a good spread of international options; otherwise it's mostly local cuisine.

  • Izakaya Japanese-style pubs serving small plates to go with sake or beer; open 5pm to late.
  • Sushi-ya Counter joints (both casual and fancy) specialising in sushi (raw fish on rice); open for lunch and dinner.
  • Shokudō Inexpensive eateries that serve set meals of home-cooking classics; open for lunch and dinner.
  • Cafes Come before 11am for 'morning sets' of discounted coffee, toast and a hardboiled egg.
  • Convenience Stores (Konbini) Ubiquitous 24-hour snack emporiums.