Eating in Japan can either be much cheaper than you expect or can literally empty your wallet. Tokyo has more Michelin star restaurants than Paris. The attention paid to the quality of ingredients, and the craftsmanship placed into a meal for both high end Western and Japanese food is among the most refined in the world, and this trickles down into the mid-range allowing travellers to get a very good quality meal for a reasonable price.
I often recommend that most travelers plan the bulk of their meals at the same places local Japanese eat: izakaya, ramen and noodle, shops and at the 7-11 while you’re on the road. This help you save money, so you can splurge and have on or two very nice meals. It will also give you a very good idea of what life is like in Japan.
I’m going to cover a few of the basic things to know about eating out in Japan as a tourist. Most places in Japan are sit-down dining places, even if it is just a coffee shop or a fast food joint. With the exception of super express trains, no one eats or drinks while on the move, it’s almost always in, or find a place in the park or on a bench to have a drink and a snac
It is difficult to make reservations in Japan if you do not speak the language. Higher end restaurants will have a web form in English you can use to book a reservation, but many mid-tier restaurants will not, nor will they take reservations to begin with. Alternatively, you can have your hotel concierge assist you with making a reservation if you really must eat at a place.
The phrase for reservations is “yo-ya-ku”.
Since most people don’t make reservations, you will often have to wait for a table if you try going to a popular place. The staff will often give you an accurate wait time. If it is a very long time off, you can either come back another day, or go off to find a drink and a snack while you wait for your table.
The process to be seated is no different than in north America. You’ll usually walk in and be greeted, at which point you tell the host/hostess how many people are in your party. You can usually do this by holding up fingers. Watch their body language response, they will more than likely gesture you in if there is a table ready right away or they will ask you for your name if there isn’t.
In some of the busier places, there may be a sheet at the entrance if there are a lot of people waiting. You can put your name down but be aware you may want to write in katakana as many will not know English very well.
You may hear the staff yell out “irasshaimasse!” when you enter. This is a normal greeting when you enter a store or a restaurant; it is not necessary to respond.
Some lower end places and fast food style places will require you to order and pay upfront before sitting and waiting for your food. Your hostess will generally indicate if this is the case.
Menus and Ordering
Some of the more tourist friendly places will have English menus. These are usually condensed versions and you may miss out on some dishes which may be written in Japanese only. This is where it helps to have a visual translator such as Google Lens, or to know a little bit of Japanese. Often, there are pictures to go with the menu so you can just point and say “kore” and that will generally suffice.
In larger more modern establishments there may be digital menus and integrated digital ordering systems. This will allow you to select from a screen at the table what dishes you want and in what quantities. Some of these screens will also have an English option.
There may also be a doorbell, or a buzzer at the table. This is used for calling your waiter/waitress to place an order. Places with this buzzer system expect you to buzz if you need service. The wait staff will not come by on their own unless called.
In some automated sushi bars (kaiten sushi) you may be seated at a long counter with two tracks, one below with a constantly moving conveyer and one track on top with an automated platform (or some combination of both). These will also usually have touch screens to order drinks and food. You can take what you want off the lower conveyer and eat what is provided.
Stack the plates near you so that when you’re done, you can call the waitress to provide you with the final bill. If you order something off the screen, pay attention to the top movable track. Once your order is ready, the top track will run out your plate and the screen will flash notifying you that your order is there. Just take the order off the top track and stack the plate with the others when you’re done eating. If you don’t notice or forget to take your plate, one of the wait staff will run it out to you. There will also be tea dispensing spouts near you and empty cups which will allow you to serve yourself tea.
Payment & Departure
Most mid-end places will not have tableside payment. You will ask for your bill and pay up front at the cash register. Fast food places will require you to order and pay up front at the till. Only high-end places will bring you the bill and allow for tableside payment.
The phrase to ask for the bill is “o-kai-ke” which usually followed by please or, “o-ne-gai-shi-masu”.
Although some larger chain restaurants in the larger cities will allow you to pay with credit card, it is not consistent from place to place. When outside of the major cities, it is rare that you will be able to use your card. I recommend that you always carry enough cash to cover your meal.
You may also hear the staff yell “itterasshai!” when you leave. This is a farewell akin to “See you again!”. You may choose to respond with a “go-chi-so-sama deshita” meaning, “thank you for the food”.
Restaurants and Food to Try
Izakaya. The izakaya is a place to eat and drink to your heart’s content. They serve a very large selection of food, including yakitori, udon, salads, grilled meats, soups, and snacks. Most izakayas compete on price so you can often find some of these where all drinks and food can be just 200-300¥ per dish or glass. This is a great deal for partying in groups and on a budget. I highly recommend making izakaya a main part of your eating experience for dinners as you can stay and eat and drink for hours. You can recognize izakayas from the street as they will often have a red lantern or sign outside with the name of the establishment. The best thing about it is that many newer places in the large cities will have picture menus or electronic ordering with pictures and/or English.
Ramen. The much beloved staple; you will be able to find a ramen shop no matter where you go, or what neighbourhood you are in. Each ramen shop will cater to a specific style of ramen. It may not be immediately apparent which style but checking sites like Tabelog may provide you some detail. I generally prefer thicker style kotteri ramens such as the tonkotsu (pork bone based) or gyokai (blended with seafood broth) Hakata style ramens. I have been eating a lot of tsukemen (dipping ramen) as well.
Udon & Soba. There are usually two camps in Japan, either you prefer ramen, or you prefer udon and soba. Both udon and soba are a delicious alternative to ramen. I highly recommend having zaru soba in the summer, a plate of cold buckwheat noodles which you can dip into tsuyu (sauce) for a refreshing meal. In the winter a bowl of curry udon, or udon in curry broth can be satisfying and warming.
Donburi (rice bowl). The other salaryman staple. This usually involved some type of meat and veg on top of rice, with the Yoshinoya gyu-don (beef and onions on rice) being the most famous don of all time. This is usually quick and cheap meal, served at a counter.
Unangi (eel). Unangi will be one of the more expensive mid-range meals as you will generally have to go to a special unangi restaurant. Most unangi set meals with rice will start at about 3000¥ to 4000¥ and can range beyond 10,000¥ per person. The increasing price gets you larger portions and more side dishes such as soup, pickles, and other items (for the most part). I highly recommend trying one of the set meals with rice as this is one of the most delicious meals you can have in Japan.
Yakitori and Kushiyaki. Yakitori is grilled chicken on skewers, usually over a charcoal or electric grill. Kushiyaki is a more general term for anything grilled on skewers. All yakitori is kushiyaki, but not all kushiyaki is yakitori. Most mid-range yakitori places will serve both, but some high-end yakitori places will only serve chicken. Kawa (skin), momo (thigh), tsukune (meatball), gyu-tan (beef tounge), and shishito (peppers) are some of my favourite things to order.
Kushiage. This is similar to yakitori and kushiyaki, but instead of grilling, everything is usually deep fried, usually with a light batter. This style of meat-on-a-stick is very famous in the Osaka area so be sure to try it while you’re there. Renkon (lotus root) is especially delicious because of its texture.
Burgers. Japan has the most delicious fast food burger joints anywhere in the world. Even McDonalds tastes quite different than the ones in Canada, and the large selection of burgers built for Japanese tastes makes this a great experience. If you want something unique, find a Kua ‘Aina burger, Freshness Burger, or my personal favourite, MOS Burger. Try the spicy MOS burger, and the burgers which use rice instead of bread as the buns. Shake Shack has made an appearance in Japan as well. Although it is not much different than Shake Shack in NYC, it is damn delicious.
Yakiniku. This is possibly one of my favourite meals to eat in Japan, and in the Kobe area. This is Japanese style BBQ derived from Korean BBQ. You order plates of sliced meat, usually beef, pork, and chicken, and grill it yourself over a grill in the center of the table. In many places you can even get special types of wagyu (Japanese cow, of which Kobe beef is a variety of wagyu) although it can be very expensive. Look for harami (skirt steak) and gyu-tan (tongue) as they are cheaper and more delicious than your usual cuts of beef. There are yakiniku places which offer tabehodai (all you can eat) and nomihodai (all you can drink), collectively called tabe-nomi-hodai, for the course of a few hours only costing a modest set fee of between 5000¥ to 8000¥
Sukiyaki and Shabu-shabu. These are both nabemono, or food traditionally cooked in earthenware pots. It is usually a mixture of meats, vegetables, tofu, fish cakes, and other staples boiled in either a sweet soy-mirin sauce (sukiyaki) or a more savory broth (shabu-shabu). To prevent overcooking the meat, the meat is usually slice and presented on the side where you can cook it to your desired doneness. Shabu-shabu is often finished with udon or rice to accompany the broth. There are also places which do tabe-nomi-hodai for both sukiyaki and shabu-shabu so be on the lookout for a great eating and drinking experience.
Robatayaki. Robatayaki is a wider form of yakiniku, where more than just meat is cooked over a charcoal hearth. There are some delicious techniques, such as cooking large pieces of fish over burning hay to impart a smoky and unique flavour. This is traditionally considered a more casual form of dining but has recently seen a lot of resurgence because of its simplicity and diversity.
Okonomiyaki. This is a mixture of cabbage, yam, pork, ginger, egg, and a few other ingredients to form a savoury fried pancake which is then topped with mayonnaise, a dark soy-based sauce, fish flakes, and scallions. It is mainly a Kansai dish but can be found all over. I don’t personally like it all that much, but a lot of my friends can’t get enough of it.
Tonkatsu. This is a fried breaded pork cutlet which can be served with mayo, onions, and sauce on rice, put into a curry sauce, or put into a soup on top of noodles. Although this is usually served in shops specializing in don, curry, or noodles, there is the occasional shops which specializes in tonkatsu. There is also something called a katsu sando, which is short for a tonkatsu sandwich. These are delicious ways to enjoy a tonkatsu on the go, and if you do run into a speciality katsu sando shop, stop by and get a snack. You won’t regret it.
Curry. Curry and rice or noodles is a very common lunch. You can get multiple types of meat, vegetables, and even control the level of spiciness. Be aware than Japanese curries are a lot milder and sweeter than curries from south Asia.
Chanko nabe. This is a specialized type of nabe (stew, but literally the pot it is cooked in) which is prepared for sumo wrestlers. Most chanko restaurants are run by ex-sumo wrestlers and will consist of boiling broths with large pieces of meat and/or meatballs, with a lot of starchy root vegetables and noodles, and some vegetables. This is a meal best shared with friends and with alcohol.
Train Station bento. If you’re going to be on a train for a while and you need a meal, most of the larger train stations will have an area selling bento boxes. These can range from simple rice and a pickled plum for 800¥, to a wagyu beef bento for close to 5000¥. Many of these are prepare fresh for you and is as delicious as any meal you can get at a restaurant.
Cakes and Pastries. If you have a sweet tooth or if you love breads, the Japanese have perfected the art of cakes and pastries. There are dedicated cake shops which serve any type of cake or sweet you could possibly imagine. These shops are often packed with tables of women who sit around, eat sweets and drink coffee all day. Strawberry shortcakes are delicious and Japanese style cheesecakes are light and fluffy. Treat yourself one afternoon if you are so inclined.
Allergies and Other Dietary Restrictions
It used to be that allergies and dietary restrictions were almost unknown in Japan. Restaurants would have serious trouble understanding that you couldn’t eat something due to a dietary restriction, or that you didn’t eat meat if you weren’t a monk. Many restaurants have gotten much better at understanding restrictions, but the bulk of restaurants still don’t cater to restrictions and allergies very well.
Allergies. I would recommend carrying epi pens. The translation factor alone would be enough risk. A lot of people are accommodating to some allergies, some are more difficult than others.
Pork. Pork is very common all over Asia, but it is possible to avoid eating it. Chicken based ramen exists, and yakitori/kushiyaki shops have a good variety of meats. Sukiyaki/shabu-shabu and yakiniku places serve a lot of beef, and you always have the option to stick to fish at many places.
Celiac. The problem with Celiac in japan is the use of soy sauce. Almost everything has soy or some soy derivative in it. Sushi and yakitori is often brushed with soy, most of the marinades are soy based, miso is a no go, barley tea will cause issues, and even soba is rarely 100% buckwheat. Even rice cracker snacks are often coated with a little soy, so you may not even be able to have some snacks. Celiacs will find it very difficult to find something to eat. There are a few sites via Google search which talk about living gluten-free in Japan, I recommend you look those up.
Vegetarian/Vegan. It is reasonably easy to go vegetarian in Japan, but going vegan is much more difficult. Pescatarians will be just fine as there will always be a fish option. Vegetarians will be presented with a lot of good options from noodles made for dipping bento with tempura vegetables, onigiri with pickled plums, and bubbling hot pots with little or no meat. Vegans will find it much more difficult, but there are options such as zaru soba, plain yakionigiri, konnyakku, vegetable tempura, and tofu such as gamodoki. Just watch out for any broth as it could be made from bones or bonito (fish) You’ll need to seek out specialized restaurants. There has been an increasing vegetarian/vegan movement in Japan and it is much easier to find accommodating restaurants than it used to be.
One tool which has helped me greatly is Tabelog. In many ways Tabelog is like a reputable Yelp. The reviews are harsh but fair, and no one uses Tabelog to blackmail the restaurant. Any restaurant with a rating of 3.5 or higher is a pretty good place to eat and anything over a 4.2 is a very good restaurant.
The site is broken up by location and by type of food, so you will be able to find anything you could possibly want.
Drinks & Alcohol
Most places, especially non-western fast food places such as ramen shops, curry shops, kaiten sushi, and similar places will provide self-serve tea for no extra charge.
At most places, you will be able to order beer. There is no real stigma about drinking at each meal. I do tend to order beer, pronounced “beer-u”, with every meal. Most places will have beer from the tap, which is referred to as “nama beer-u” or raw/fresh beer.
Note that what we call “sake” in the western world means something different in Japan. “O-sake” is the phrase for general alcohol, while “nihonshu” is what we would call sake – brewed rice alcohol. There are thousands of localized nihonshu breweries in Japan which only supply to the local market. If you have an interest, try as many as you can as the local terroir allows for great diversity for each regional brewer. If it is a good quality nihonshu, please drink it cold, as warming up nihonshu is for winter, or used for poor quality nihonshu to mask the impurities.
Shochu is the Japanese version of vodka. It is a distilled spirit to about 25% ABV, and can be served cold on ice, or diluted with hot water and lemon. Shochu has previously been derided as an “old man’s drink” as it was cheap and came packaged in milk cartons, but there has been a recent revival of interest in this old spirit. Shochu can be made from barley, called mugi-shochu, sweet potato, called imo-shochu, or more recently from other interesting ingredients such as sesame, called goma-shochu. Each one imparts a very distinctive taste with imo-shochu being earthy and full, and goma-shochu having a slight sweetness.
The final drink which I indulge in are chuhai or sours, sometimes referred to as highballs. This is usually made from shochu or whiskey, mixed with plain soda, and a juice or other sweet drink. Grapefruit chuhai or lemon sours are very refreshing on hot days, when you don’t feel like getting bloated from beer, or just don’t feel like drinking hard alcohol. You can hardly taste the alcohol in these drinks so be aware that they will put you down very quickly.
This was a long chapter but it only briefly covers the types of food and misses a lot of nuances of dining out in Japan. I encourage you to try dining out as much as possible. If you want to see me write another more in-depth piece of my favourite dishes, leave me a note or get in touch.