Eat, Drink and Party in Japan!
Here we will introduce some of the unique characteristics of Japanese restaurants, bars and cuisine. Please use this section as a reference when selecting the establishments you want to visit. In Japan there are so many places where you can enjoy good food and a good time. Visit as many as you can while you are in Japan!
Beer gardens are restaurants where you can drink beer outside (in Japan there are no laws prohibiting the drinking of alcohol outdoors). Many beer gardens are only set up during the summer months at hotels, rooftops and other wide open spaces.
Deserts / Café
Japan has many cafes called “kissaten” that serve delicious coffees, teas, light meals and deserts. These cafes are casually used for breaks, meetings and other purposes. Cafes operated by famous cakes shops have become very popular with women (Japanese cakes are among some of the most beautiful and delicious in the world).
These restaurants have their own styles that adopt the best from eastern and western cuisines. Popular menus provide the Japanese with tastes from around the world. Everything from Japanese favorites to Italian, Chinese, curry and ramen noodles are served. These establishments are commonly referred to as “family restaurants” as they cater to the entire family.
Izakaya (Japanese-style Pubs)
The secret behind the popularity of Izakaya is their energy, casual atmospheres and diverse menus. You are sure to be surprised at the variety of Japanese dishes that is offered. There are also wide selections of sake, shochu and other alcoholic beverages. The dishes are usually small and affordably priced, which makes an Izakaya the perfect stop for someone that wants to sample many different foods. Izakaya’s usually have photo menus and so tourists that can not read Japanese will have no trouble ordering.
In addition to being delicious and healthy, Japanese cuisine is also known for its beautiful presentation. The Japanese love to mark the changing of the seasons, and this is apparent in the skillful ways that seasonal ingredients are incorporated into Japanese foods. Common spring dishes have bamboo shoots, fresh leaf buds and early-summer bonito fish. Popular dishes in the summer include chilled noodles, summer vegetables and eel, a great source of stamina. In Japan autumn is said to be the season “when the skies clear and the horses grow stout”. Autumn is the season when the harvest is made and almost everything tastes great. The typical fall meals include “matsutake” mushrooms and Pacific saury. In the winter everyone likes to gather around piping hot stew pots. Various regional products are added to the pots to bring even more variety to the Japanese dinner table. During your visit to Japan be sure to sample foods unique to the season and region.
Many restaurants and bars have karaoke equipment on the premises, but “karaoke boxes” are establishments that specialize in this uniquely Japanese form of entertainment. At the reception counter you tell the staff how long you want to use the facilities and then you are provided with a private room equipped with karaoke equipment. Here you can sing and also enjoy alcoholic beverages. Fees are based on the number of people in your party and the amount of time spent using the facilities. There are tons of English songs to sing. Some karaoke boxes can even let you make your own original CD recording.
Eel / Loach
Eel, or unagi, has become an important food in Japan because it is loaded with protein and very easy to digest. There are now many “Unagi-ya” restaurants specializing in eel. Eating eel in the summer is very common as it has the nutrition needed to overcome the dog days of this season. Loach has long been a popular fresh-water fish in Japan. There are some restaurants that specialize in loach, but you will usually find loach served at a restaurant that also handles eel.
Kaiseki Ryori / Shojin Ryori
Kaiseki-ryori (formal course meal) is a proud part of the Japanese culinary tradition using the freshest seasonal ingredients and skillful cooking techniques along with an inviting presentation. The kaiseki-ryori served today in Japanese restaurants originated from purification foods in Zen Buddhism and from the foods served before tea ceremonies. This purification food was originally vegetarian cooking made from vegetables, beans and grains to be offered to the Buddhist monks.
Kushi-yaki / Kushi-age
Fish, shellfish, vegetables and other items placed on skewers and grilled are called “kushi-yaki” and those deep-fried are called “kushi-age”. These are very popular as they provide an easy way to enjoy many different foods. You can also enjoy the combinations and seasonings unique to each restaurant.
Nabe (hot pots)
Hot pots are very popular in the winter. Various ingredients are placed into a big pot and boiled with a special soup. The steaming pot is then placed at the center of the table so that everyone can pick out their favorite parts with their own chopsticks. There is an infinite variety of hot pots based on the ingredients used, which are mainly crab, oyster, chicken and fish. The flavors also vary depending on regional traditions. The famous food of sumo wrestlers is a hot pot called “chanko nabe”. Hot pots provide a great deal of nutrition due to the wide variety of ingredients that are included and they have recently become a popular type of health food. Kyoto-style boiled tofu is also a popular ingredient for hot pots and this dish is a must for any lover of tofu.
Okonomi-yaki / Monja-yaki / Tako-yaki
Okonomi-yaki” is a thin, flat cake of unsweetened batter fried with various ingredients. The name literally means “fry what you like”, because there is so much freedom in choosing the ingredients to be used. Osaka and Hiroshima are said to be the best places for okonomi-yaki. Some people say it is similar to making a pizza. “Monja-yaki”, which originated in the old town section of Tokyo, is similar to okonomi-yaki, but more water is used. “Tako-yaki” refers to grilled balls stuffed with octopus meat. These balls are about the size and shape of golf balls. All three of these treats are very popular among the common folk of Japan.
Pork cutlets are made by deep frying pork with flour, egg and bread crumbs. Pork cutlet is served up with a large helping of cabbage (seconds of cabbage provided for free). Pork cutlet cooked with egg and a small amount of soup and then served over a bowl of rice is called “katsu-don”. This is a popular dish among business men because of the large volume.
Sukiyaki / Shabu-Shabu
Sukiyaki consists of thinly cut beef, onions, shiitake mushrooms, tofu, vegetables and other ingredients cooked together at your table on an iron pan with some sugar and soy sauce. Diners can pick out the items that they want and dip them lightly in raw egg before eating. Up until the Edo Period the Japanese diet consisted of almost no meat. However, the opening of the Yokohama Port through the U.S.-Japan Commerce Treaty of 1859 led to the introduction of more meat dishes. It has been said that sukiyaki originated from the “beef pots” of Yokohama. Along with sukiyaki, shabu-shabu is a well known Japanese meat dish. Shabu-shabu is thinly cut high-grade beef that is boiled in a big pot for only a few seconds and then eaten with soy sauce or sesame sauce. Vegetables and other foods are enjoyed along with shabu-shabu. Since shabu-shabu is light and simple, it is a good way to get your fill of beef. The special shabu-shabu pots used to boil the beef have a unique donut shape.
The Japanese love ramen. In fact, instant ramen and cups of instant ramen were invented in Japan. There are many small ramen shops all across Japan and long lines form outside the more popular shops.
Soba, Udon and Kishimen Noodles
Soba is a type of noodle made from buckwheat. These noodles are delicious hot or cold. Soba is the most popular on the last day of the year. People eat soba on December 31 as a way to pray for health and happiness in the New Year. In the past there was the custom of giving your new neighbors soba when you moved. This entails the wish of hoping to live next to your new neighbors for a long time as these noodles are long and the Japanese word for “next door” or “nearby” is also pronounced as “soba”. Udon is made from flour and so is more elastic than soba. The soup is made from soy sauce, but flavors vary between Japan’s Kanto and Kansai regions. Udon is also delicious served hot or cold. There are the “kitsune” (fox) and “tanuki” (raccoon dog) types of udon that differ based on the types of toppings used. Kishimen is a type of flat udon popular in the Kansai region.
Sushi is popular both in Japan and around the world. Nigiri-sushi (hand-rolled sushi) places sashimi, fish eggs, cooked egg and other ingredients on top of rice with vinegar and then eaten with wasabi or soy sauce. Box sushi originated from the Kansai region. There are many other variations such as the home-style “chirashi sushi”(sushi rice with vegetables) and “inari sushi” (rolled sushi). At a sushi bar you can order a sushi set or you can sit at the counter and order individual sushi from the sushi chef. However, one of the easiest and most affordable options is to visit a “kaiten-zushi” (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant. Here individual sushi on small plates circle about on a conveyor belt. Simply grab and eat the items you want. The prices are different depending on the type of plate. Your bill will be based on the number of empty plates left in front of you when you are finished eating.
Tempura is made by adding a flour and egg coating to meat, seafood and vegetables, which are then deep fried. It has been said that the name for tempura originates either from the Spanish word for “temple” or the Portuguese word for “cooking”. Special soups, salts and squeezed lemon juice have been prepared to make tempura even more delicious. During the Edo Period tempura was readily sold along roadsides, making it an early type of fast-food. Today there are many unique varieties, including an ice cream tempura.
Yakitori (grilled chicken)
Chicken is placed on skewers, cooked over an open flame and then eaten with special sauces and salts. Yakitori is very affordable and businessmen frequently visit these restaurants to take a breather and to socialize. Sake and shochu are the common drinks at yakitori restaurants.
Yoshoku refers to western dishes developed in Japan and arranged in the Japanese manner. These include such dishes as fried pork cutlet, omelet with fried rice, curry with rice and hashed meat with rice.