Japan has a mind boggling array of eating establishments that cover all budgets, tastes, and quirks. However, for inexperienced visitors to this gastronomic fantasy land deciding where to eat and then picking up the courage to sit down and order can be very difficult.
Hopefully these ten picks will help travelers get fed without resorting to fast food chains.
The Family Restaurant
Let’s start off gently with this great leveler of Japanese society. Family restaurants are best described as the Japanese take on the American diner. The food is cheap and there is usually an ‘all you can drink’ deal for a couple of bucks. Nobody is too good for them and only the desperately poor can’t scrape together a few yen to make use of them.
For the traveler, family restaurants are budget friendly, very accessible and a good place to meet a whole cross section of society. Another added bonus is that you can loiter over your coffee for hours without fascist wait staff giving you the stink-eye.
Perfect for– chatting with friends, killing time whilst you wait on transport, giving impromptu English lessons to giggling high school students.
The Standing Bar
Only the Japanese could claim to be so busy that they’ve developed a gastronomic institution for those who haven’t the time to sit down and eat.
Standing bars are most commonly found around train stations and tend to be the realm of the stressed male office worker. The food is simple – ramen (bowls of noodles in soup), gyudon (a bowl of meat served on rice) and curries, and the prices are cheap (usually in the $2-$3 range). A Japanese friend of mine thinks it a damning reflection on society that people are reduced to getting their meals in such places. That said, it is considered rude to eat on the move here and so the standing bar may be the best compromise.
Hard core travelers will love the prices and can feel smug that one almost never sees other travelers eating here. For ease of use seek out establishments that collect orders by machine (just push a button under the picture of your meal, insert your money and hand the ticket over to the staff).
Perfect for – an über quick meal, being one of the locals.
For all that’s great about the Japanese eating experience there’s not a lot of it to be found on the street, except when a festival rolls into town. There’s the possibility of a festival at any time of year but your chances of catching one will be highest between May and September.
Festival food stalls are great for the reticent traveler as you can see what’s on offer, how it’s being cooked, and make orders by pointing. Staples include, yakisoba (fried noodles), okonomiyaki (a stodgy pancake filled with veggies and bits of octopus) and yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer). Some travelers might get a kick out of the phallic bananas that have been dipped sweet sauces.
Fireworks festivals come highly recommended. Usually held on river banks during summer, here you can enjoy your street food with tens of thousands of others, all ‘ooh’ing and ‘ahhh’ing at the displays.
Perfect for – an easy ‘traditional’ eating experience.
The Sushi Train
Naysayers may look upon this Japanese classic with disdain but let’s be honest, could you tell the difference between sushi that costs $1 a piece and that which costs $10? And even if you could, would you be able to find and navigate your way around that place in Japan?
No, the sushi train isn’t just an exploitative novelty Japanese export, it’s the real deal and is immensely popular with the locals. Business types come here for a quick bite along side three generations of family enjoying a celebratory dinner and young couples filling up before heading off to do that which their parents told them not to.
Only the most cynical foreign visitor wouldn’t get a kick out of ordering crab brain sushi (kanimiso) from a funky touch-screen menu to have it delivered by a model bullet train.
Perfect for – an unashamedly fun Japanese experience.
The Fancy Restaurant
OK, so fancy restaurants are the same the world over – high prices, small portions, boasts about being awarded stars from a company that makes car tires, and celebrity chiefs telling you that you eat like a pig. So what separates those in Japan from the rest? Well, there’s more of them for a start, with cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka ranking high on lists of the world’s great ‘food’ cities. Also, they’re often found on the upper floors of very tall buildings giving you a chance to do your Bill Murray ‘Lost in Translation’ thing. But more importantly they are a far less intimidating prospect than might be had else where. Maybe it’s thanks to Japanese humility or the group mentality but there just doesn’t seem to be the latent snobbery that can often spoil a fine dining experience.
For those who haven’t a shirt to throw on the next step down would be to head to the top floor of a department store where you’ll find great views, lush decor and meals at a third of the price.
Perfect for – popping the question, saying sorry, moving things to the bedroom – the usual sort of stuff only you’ll be able to say you did it in Japan!
If you prefer your food served with plenty of beer in a robust atmosphere, an izakaya is the place to come. Dishes range from Western standards to Japanese classics and are served tapas style for everyone to share.
Seating is usually a choice between a groovy little cubicle/room for the group or the counter (usually the choice for dating couples rather than lonely middle aged men who can’t face going home!).
It’s in an izakaya that you’ll see the Japanese loosen their ties along with their inhibitions after a long day at the office.
A quick warning, be sure you’re wearing a passable pair of socks as many establishments require you to take off your shoes.
Perfect for – a boozy evening with your mates, cheap alcohol and grub before hitting the club.
The Do It Yourself Restaurant
Old timers might balk at the idea of paying good money in a restaurant only to have to cook the food themselves. The truth is though, this is a really fun eating experience and there are loads of places in Japan where you can partake. The set up is simple and sociable – a small grill or hotplate in the center of your table and a menu of fresh meats and vegetables for you to cook up with your mates. Classics include yakiniku (originating from Korea, customers barbecue thin cuts of meat and the odd green), shabu-shabu (boiling instead of barbecuing), okonomiyaki/monjyayaki (see ‘The Festival’. A potentially messy one for beginners. Bring a Japanese friend.).
Perfect for – a first date, having a laugh with friends.
Otherwise known as ‘the lunchbox’, this may not seem glamorous but Japanese bento can be a work of art. The food is often divided into sections which can include combinations of chicken, fish, rice and pickles. The attention to presentation looks to have been painstaking.
For the best choice of bento check out the basement floors of department stores and then head to the park and enjoy your purchase.
Perfect for – cherry blossom season and/or a fine day, solo travelers.
The Themed Restaurant
More than just clumsy recreations of a bygone era, there are themed establishments here that tap into the psyche and fantasies of many Japanese.
In Tokyo’s Akihabara district you’ll find the Gundam Cafe which has a menu and decor themed around the animation and models of said title (although quite what the cocktail Quattro Vageena has to do with high performance robotic suits, I’m not sure).
Next door is the AKB48 Cafe, a shrine to the shamefully popular and ethically questionable all girl J-Pop group.
Tacky marketing ploy? Culturally bankrupt? Try telling that to the legions of fans who flock to these places.
Perfect for – an insight into Japanese pop culture phenomena, geeks.
The Maid Cafe
Staying in Akihabara (but not exclusive to the area) we’ll round off this list with maid cafes, where you’ll pay a high table charge to have your coffee and cake served by, well, maids. Not hard working moms who clean houses for the rich, rather girl next door types dressed to the nines in maid outfits that look like Tim Burton’s burlesque interpretation of Alice in Wonderland.
The theme here is all cute, fantasy innocence although I can’t help but feel that they’re really catering to Japan’s unfortunately large population of dirty old men and sweaty palmed nerds, who get turned on by innocence rather than experience. Or maybe I’ve just missed the point.
Whatever you’re thoughts, they are very Japanese and so have made it onto this list.
Perfect for – collectors of bizarre experience, fetishists.