Tokyo is a foodie's paradise. In fact, I'd have to say that Tokyoites are obsessed with food, fanatics ever on the prowl for the best of the best, whether it's for the city's best sushi or its best burger. If you see a long queue outside a restaurant, chances are it's been written up in some magazine, inducing food-crazed hordes to endure long waits for the privilege of dining at the newest hot spot.
But I have to admit, whenever I leave Japan, it's the food I miss the most. Sure, there are sushi bars and other Japanese specialty restaurants in major cities elsewhere, but they don't offer nearly the variety available in Japan (and they often aren't nearly as good). Just as America has more to offer than hamburgers and steaks, Japan has more than sushi and teppanyaki. For both the gourmet and the uninitiated, Tokyo is a treasure-trove of culinary surprises.
There are more than a dozen different and distinct types of Japanese cuisine, plus countless regional specialties. A good deal of what you eat may be completely new to you, as well as completely unidentifiable. No need to worry -- even the Japanese themselves don't always know what they're eating, so varied and so wide is the range of available edibles. The rule is simply to enjoy, and enjoyment begins even before you raise your chopsticks to your mouth.
To the Japanese, presentation of food is as important as the food itself, and dishes are designed to appeal to the eye as well as to the palate. In contrast to the Western way of piling as much food as possible onto a single plate, the Japanese often use many small plates, each arranged artfully with bite-size morsels of food. After you see what can be done with maple leaves, flowers, bits of bamboo, and even pebbles to enhance the appearance of food, your relationship with what you eat may change forever.
Below are explanations of some of the most common types of Japanese cuisine. Generally, only one type of cuisine is served in a given restaurant -- for example, only raw seafood is served in a sushi bar, while tempura is served at a tempura counter. There are some exceptions to this, especially in regard to raw fish and vegetables, which are served as appetizers and side dishes in many restaurants. In addition, some of Japan's drinking establishments (called izakaya or nomiya) offer a wide range of foods, from soups to sushi to skewered pieces of chicken known as yakitori. Japanese restaurants in hotels may also offer great variety in order to appeal to as large a customer base as possible.
Fugu -- Known as blowfish, puffer fish, or globefish in English, fugu is one of the most exotic and adventurous foods in Japan -- if it's not prepared properly, it means almost certain death for the consumer! In the past decade or so, some 50 people in Japan have died from fugu poisoning, usually because they tried preparing it at home. The ovaries and intestines of the fugu are deadly and must be entirely removed without being punctured. So why eat fugu if it can kill you? Well, for one thing, it's delicious, and for another, fugu chefs are strictly licensed by the government and greatly skilled in preparing fugu dishes. You can order fugu raw (fugu-sashi), sliced paper-thin and dipped into soy sauce with bitter orange and chives; in a stew (fugu-chiri) cooked with vegetables at your table; or in a rice porridge (fugu-zosui). There's even fugu-laced sake. The season for fresh fugu is October or November through March, but some restaurants serve it year-round.
Kaiseki -- The king of Japanese cuisine, kaiseki is the epitome of delicately and exquisitely arranged food, the ultimate in aesthetic appeal. It's also among the most expensive meals you'll ever find. A kaiseki dinner can cost ¥25,000 or more per person; some restaurants, however, do offer more affordable mini-kaiseki courses. In addition, the better ryokan (Japanese inns) serve kaiseki, one reason for a ryokan's high cost. Kaiseki, which is not a specific dish but rather a complete meal, is expensive because much time and skill are involved in preparing each of the many dishes, with the ingredients cooked to preserve natural flavors. Even the plates are chosen with great care to enhance the color, texture, and shape of each piece of food.
Kaiseki cuisine, both in selection of food and presentation, is based on the four seasons. In spring, for example, cherries and cherry blossoms are often incorporated into dishes. The kaiseki gourmet can tell what time of year it is just by looking at a meal.
A kaiseki meal is usually a lengthy affair, with various dishes appearing in set order. First come the appetizer, clear broth, and one uncooked dish. These are followed by boiled, broiled, fried, steamed, heated, and vinegared dishes, which are finally followed by another soup, rice, pickled vegetables, and fruit. Although meals vary greatly depending on what's fresh, common dishes include some type of sashimi, tempura, cooked seasonal fish, and an array of bite-size pieces of vegetables. Because kaiseki is always a set meal, there's no problem in ordering; let your budget be your guide.
Kushiage -- Kushiage foods (also called kushikatsu) are breaded and deep-fried on skewers and include chicken, beef, seafood, and lots of seasonal vegetables (snow peas, green peppers, gingko nuts, lotus roots, and the like). They're served with a slice of lemon and usually a specialty sauce. The result is delicious, and I highly recommend trying it. Ordering the set meal is easiest; what you receive may be determined by the chef and the season. A restaurant serving kushiage, called a kushiage-ya, is often open only for dinner.
Okonomiyaki -- Okonomiyaki, which originated in Osaka after World War II and literally means "as you like it," is often referred to as Japanese pizza. To me, it's more like a pancake to which meat or fish, shredded cabbage, and vegetables are added, topped with a thick Worcestershire sauce. Because it's a popular offering of street vendors, restaurants specializing in this type of cuisine are very reasonably priced. At some places the cook makes it for you, but at other places it's do-it-yourself at your table, which can be quite fun if you're with a group. Yakisoba (fried Chinese noodles and cabbage) are also usually on offer at okonomiyaki restaurants.
Rice -- As in other Asian countries, rice has been a Japanese staple for about 2,000 years. In fact, rice is so important to the Japanese diet that gohan means both "rice" and "meal." In the old days, not everyone could afford the expensive white kind of rice, which was grown primarily to pay taxes or rent to the feudal lord; the peasants had to be satisfied with a mixture of brown rice, millet, and greens. Today, some Japanese still eat rice three times a day, although they're now just as apt to have bread and coffee for breakfast. In any case, Japanese rice is sticky, making it easier to pick up with chopsticks. It's eaten plain -- no salt, no butter, no soy sauce (it's considered rather uncouth to dump a lot of sauces in your rice) -- though trendy restaurants nowadays may sprinkle rice bowls with black sesame seeds, plum powder, or other seasoning. Most restaurants serve polished white rice, while health-conscious restaurants may also offer unpolished brown rice (genmai).
Robatayaki -- Robatayaki refers to restaurants in which seafood, meats, and vegetables are cooked over an open charcoal grill. In the old days, an open fireplace (robata) in the middle of an old Japanese house was the center of activity for cooking, eating, socializing, and simply keeping warm. Today's robatayaki restaurants are like nostalgia trips into Japan's past and are often decorated in rustic farmhouse style, with staff dressed in traditional clothing. Robatayaki restaurants, usually open only in the evening, are popular among office workers for both eating and drinking.
There's no special menu in a robatayaki restaurant -- rather, it includes just about everything eaten in Japan. The difference is that most of the food will be grilled. Favorites of mine include gingko nuts (ginnan), asparagus wrapped in bacon (asparagus bacon), green peppers (piman), mushrooms (various kinds), potatoes (jagabataa), and just about any kind of fish. You can also usually get skewers of beef or chicken as well as a stew of meat and potatoes (nikujaga) -- delicious during cold winter months. Some restaurants offer set meals. If ordering is only a la carte, you'll just have to look and point (some restaurants display all their foods available for grilling).
Sashimi & Sushi -- It's estimated that the average Japanese eats 38 kilograms (84 lb.) of seafood a year -- that's six times the average American consumption. Although this seafood may be served in any number of ways, from grilled to boiled, a great deal of it is eaten raw.
Sashimi is raw seafood, usually served as an appetizer and eaten alone (that is, without rice). If you've never tried it, a good choice to start with is maguro, or lean tuna, which doesn't taste fishy at all and is so delicate in texture that it almost melts in your mouth. The way to eat sashimi is to first put wasabi (pungent green horseradish) into a small dish of soy sauce, and then dip the raw fish in the sauce using chopsticks.
Sushi, which is raw fish with vinegared rice, comes in many varieties. The best known in Tokyo is nigiri-zushi: raw fish or seafood placed on top of vinegared rice with just a touch of wasabi. It's also dipped in soy sauce. Use chopsticks or your fingers to eat sushi; remember, you're supposed to eat each piece in one bite -- quite a mouthful, but about the only way to keep it from falling apart. Another trick is to turn it upside down when you dip it in the sauce, to keep the rice from crumbling.
Also popular is maki-zushi, which consists of seafood, vegetables, or pickles rolled with rice inside a sheet of nori seaweed. Inari-zushi is vinegared rice and chopped vegetables inside a pouch of fried tofu bean curd.
Typical sushi includes tuna (maguro), flounder (hirame), sea bream (tai), squid (ika), octopus (tako), shrimp (ebi), sea eel (anago), and omelet (tamago). Ordering is easy because you usually sit at a counter, where you can see all the food in a refrigerated glass case in front of you. You also get to see the sushi chefs at work. The typical meal begins with sashimi and is followed by sushi, but if you don't want to order separately, there are always various set courses (seto). Pickled ginger is part of any sushi meal.
By the way, the least expensive way to enjoy sushi is chiraishi, which is a selection of fish, seafood, and usually tamago on a large flat bowl of rice. Because you get more rice, those of you with bigger appetites may want to order chiraishi. Another way to enjoy sushi without spending a fortune is to eat at a kaiten sushi shop, in which plates of sushi circulate on a conveyor belt on the counter -- customers reach for the dishes they want and pay for the number they take.
Shabu-Shabu & Sukiyaki -- Until about 120 years ago, the Japanese could think of nothing so disgusting as eating the flesh of animals (though fish was okay). Considered unclean by Buddhists, meat consumption was banned by the emperor in the 7th century. It wasn't until late in the 19th century, when Emperor Meiji himself announced his intention to eat meat, that the Japanese accepted the idea. Today, the Japanese have become skilled in preparing a number of beef dishes.
Sukiyaki is among Japan's best-known beef dishes and is preferred by many Westerners. Sukiyaki is thinly sliced beef cooked at the table in a broth of soy sauce, stock, and sake, with scallions, spinach, mushrooms, tofu, bamboo shoots, and other vegetables. All diners serve themselves from the simmering pot and then dip their morsels into their own bowl of raw egg. You can skip the raw egg if you want (most Westerners do), but it adds to the taste and cools the food down enough so that it doesn't burn your tongue.
Shabu-shabu is also prepared at your table and consists of thinly sliced beef cooked in a broth with vegetables, in a kind of Japanese fondue. (It's named for the swishing sound the beef supposedly makes when cooking.) The main difference between the two dishes is the broth: Whereas in sukiyaki it consists of stock flavored with soy sauce and sake and is slightly sweet, in shabu-shabu it's relatively clear and has little taste of its own. The pots used are also different.
Using their chopsticks, shabu-shabu diners hold pieces of meat in the watery broth until they're cooked. This usually takes only a few seconds. Vegetables are left in longer, to swim around until fished out. For dipping, there's either sesame sauce with diced green onions or a more bitter fish-stock sauce. Restaurants serving sukiyaki usually serve shabu-shabu as well.
Soba & Udon Noodles -- The Japanese love eating noodles, and I suspect at least part of the joy comes from the way they eat them -- they slurp, sucking in the noodles with gravity-defying speed. What's more, slurping noodles is considered proper etiquette. Fearing that it would stick with me forever, however, I've neglected to learn the technique. Places serving noodles range from stand-up eateries -- often found at train and subway stations and the ultimate in fast food -- to more refined noodle restaurants with tatami seating. Regardless of where you eat them, noodles are among the least expensive dishes in Japan.
There are many different kinds of noodles -- some are eaten plain, some are eaten in combination with other foods such as shrimp tempura; some are served hot, others cold. Soba, made from buckwheat flour, is eaten hot (kake-soba) or cold (zaru-soba or mori-soba). Udon is a thick, white wheat noodle originally from Osaka; it's usually served hot. Somen is a fine, white noodle eaten cold in the summer and dunked in a cold sauce.
Tempura -- Today a well-known Japanese food, tempura was actually introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Tempura is fish and vegetables delicately coated in a batter of egg, water, and wheat flour and then deep-fried; it's served piping hot. To eat tempura, you usually dip it in a sauce of soy, fish stock, radish (daikon), and grated ginger; in some restaurants, only some salt, powdered green tea, and perhaps a lemon wedge are provided as accompaniments. Tempura specialties include eggplant (nasu), mushroom (shiitake), sweet potato (satsumaimo), small green pepper (shishito), sliced lotus root (renkon), shrimp (ebi), squid (ika), lemon-mint leaf (shiso), and many kinds of fish. Again, the easiest thing to do is to order the set meal, the teishoku.
Teppanyaki -- A teppanyaki restaurant is a Japanese steakhouse. As in the well-known Benihana restaurants in many U.S. cities, the chef slices, dices, and cooks your meal of tenderloin or sirloin steak and vegetables on a smooth hot grill right in front of you -- though with much less fanfare than in the U.S. Because beef is relatively new in Japanese cooking, some people categorize teppanyaki restaurants as "Western." However, I consider this style of cooking and presentation unique, and in this guide I refer to such restaurants as Japanese. Teppanyaki restaurants tend to be expensive, simply because of the price of beef in Japan, with Kobe beef among the most prized.
Tonkatsu -- Tonkatsu is the Japanese word for "pork cutlet," made by dredging pork in wheat flour, moistening it with egg and water, dipping it in bread crumbs, and deep-frying it in vegetable oil. Because restaurants serving tonkatsu are generally inexpensive, they're popular with office workers and families. The easiest order is the teishoku, which usually features either lean pork filet (hirekatsu) or pork loin with some fat on it (rosukatsu). In any case, your tonkatsu is served on a bed of shredded cabbage, and one or two sauces will be at your table -- a Worcestershire sauce and perhaps a specialty sauce. If you order the teishoku, it will come with rice, miso soup, and shredded cabbage.
Unagi -- I'll bet that if you eat unagi without knowing what it is, you'll find it very tasty -- and you'll probably be very surprised to learn you've just eaten eel. Popular as a health food because of its high vitamin A content, eel is supposed to help fight fatigue during hot summer months but is eaten year-round. Broiled eel (kabayaki) is prepared by grilling filet strips over a charcoal fire; the eel is repeatedly dipped in a sweetened barbecue soy sauce while cooking. A favorite way to eat broiled eel is on top of rice, in which case it's called unaju or unagi donburi. Do yourself a favor and try it.
Yakitori -- Yakitori is chunks of chicken meat or chicken parts basted in a sweet soy sauce and grilled over a charcoal fire on thin skewers. Places that specialize in yakitori (yakitori-ya, often identifiable by a red paper lantern outside the front door) are technically not restaurants but drinking establishments; they usually don't open until 5 or 6pm. Most yakitori-ya are popular with workers as inexpensive places to drink, eat, and be merry.
The cheapest way to dine on yakitori is to order a set course, which will often include various parts of the chicken, including the skin, heart, and liver. If this is not to your taste, you may wish to order a la carte, which is more expensive but gets you exactly what you want. In addition to chicken, other skewered, charcoaled delicacies are usually offered (called kushi-yaki). If you're ordering by the stick, you might want to try chicken breast (sasami), chicken meatballs (tsukune), green peppers (piman), chicken and leeks (negima), mushrooms (shiitake), or gingko nuts (ginnan).
Other Cuisines -- During your dining expeditions you might also run into these types of Japanese cuisine: Kamameshi is a rice casserole, served in individual-size cast-iron pots, with different kinds of toppings that might include seafood, meat, or vegetables. Donburi is also a rice dish, topped with tempura, eggs, and meat such as chicken or pork. Nabe, a stew cooked in an earthenware pot at your table and popular mostly in winter, consists of chicken, beef, pork, or seafood; noodles; and vegetables. Oden is a broth with fish cakes, tofu, eggs, and vegetables, served with hot mustard. If a restaurant advertises that it specializes in Kyodo-Ryori, it serves local specialties for which the region is famous and is often very rustic in decor. Shojin Ryori is a vegetarian meal, created centuries ago to serve the needs of Zen Buddhist priests and pilgrims. A more recent trend is crossover fusion cuisine -- creative dishes inspired by ingredients from both sides of the Pacific Rim. A precursor to fusion cuisine is Yoshoku, dishes created in Japan after it opened its doors to the outside world and which are considered Western but are unique to Japan, including omelet with fried rice.
Although technically Chinese fast-food restaurants, ramen shops are a big part of inexpensive dining in Japan. Serving what I consider to be generic Chinese noodles, soups, and other dishes, ramen shops can be found everywhere; they're easily recognizable by red signs, flashing lights, and quite often pictures of dishes displayed beside the front door. Many are stand-up affairs -- just a high counter to rest your bowl on. In addition to ramen (noodle and vegetable soup), you can also get such items as yakisoba (fried noodles) or -- my favorite -- gyoza (fried pork dumplings). What these places lack in atmosphere is made up for by cost: Most dishes average about ¥650 to ¥800, making them one of the cheapest places in Japan for a quick meal.
Note that some Japanese restaurants, but more commonly Japanese-style pubs, levy a per-person table charge, or snack charge (otsumami), which usually includes a snack.
All Japanese restaurants serve complimentary Japanese green tea with meals. If that's a little too weak for your taste, you may want to try sake (pronounced sah-kay), also called Nihon-shu, an alcoholic beverage made from rice and served either hot or cold. It goes well with most forms of Japanese cuisine. Produced since about the 3rd century, sake varies by region, production method, alcoholic content, color, aroma, and taste. Altogether, there are more than 1,800 sake brewers in Japan producing about 10,000 varieties of sake. Miyabi is a prized classic sake; other popular brands are Gekkeikan, Koshinokanbai, Hakutsuru (meaning "white crane"), and Ozeki.
Japanese beer is also very popular. The biggest sellers are Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi, and Suntory, each with its own bewildering variety of brews. There are also many microbreweries. Businessmen are fond of whiskey, usually mixed with ice and water. Popular in recent years is shochu, an alcoholic beverage produced mainly in southern Japan and generally made from rice but sometimes from wheat, sweet potatoes, or sugar cane. It used to be considered a drink of the lower classes, but sales have increased so much that it's threatening the sake and whiskey businesses. A clear liquid, comparable, perhaps, to vodka, it can be consumed straight but is often combined with soda water in a drink called chu-hai. My own favorite mixture is ume-shu, a plum-flavored shochu. But watch out -- the stuff can be deadly. Wine, usually available only at restaurants serving Western food, has gained in popularity in recent years, with both domestic and imported brands available. Although cocktails are available in discos, hotel lounges, and fancier bars at rather inflated prices, most Japanese stick with beer, sake, or whiskey.
Dining Procedure & Etiquette
Upon Arrival -- Although rare in Tokyo, you may be asked to remove your shoes at the entryway and place them in a wooden locker near the door. Then, as soon as you're seated in a Japanese restaurant (that is, a restaurant serving Japanese food), you'll be given a wet towel, which will be steaming hot in winter or pleasantly cool in summer. Called an oshibori, it's for wiping your hands. In all but the fanciest restaurants, men can get away with wiping their faces as well, but women are not supposed to (I ignore this if it's hot and humid outside). The oshibori is a great custom, one you'll wish would be adopted back home. Sadly, some cheaper Japanese restaurants now resort to a paper towel wrapped in plastic, which isn't nearly the same. Oshibori are generally not provided in Western restaurants.
Chopsticks -- The next thing you'll probably be confronted with is chopsticks (though knives and forks are used in restaurants serving Western food). The proper way to use a pair is to place the first chopstick between the base of the thumb and the top of the ring finger (this chopstick remains stationary), and the second one between the top of the thumb and the middle and index fingers (this second chopstick is the one you move to pick up food). The best way to learn to use chopsticks is to let a Japanese person show you. How proficiently foreigners handle chopsticks is a matter of great curiosity for the Japanese, and they're surprised if you know how to use them; even if you were to live in Japan for 20 years, you would never stop receiving compliments on how talented you are with chopsticks. And it's perfectly okay to pick up a bowl of rice or small dish while eating.
As for etiquette involving chopsticks, if you're taking something from a communal bowl or tray, turn your chopsticks upside down and use the part that hasn't been in your mouth to transfer the food to your plate. Then you turn the chopsticks back to their proper position. The exceptions are shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. Never point your chopsticks at anyone. Also, never stick your chopsticks down vertically into your bowl of rice and leave them there, and never pass anything from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks -- both actions have origins relating to funerary rites but are now mostly considered bad manners.
Eating Soup -- If you're eating soup, you won't use a spoon. Rather, you'll pick up the bowl and drink from it. Use your chopsticks to fish out larger morsels of food. It's considered in good taste to slurp with gusto, especially if you're eating noodles. Noodle shops in Japan are always well orchestrated with slurps and smacks.
Drinking -- If you're drinking in Japan, the main thing to remember is that you never pour your own glass. Bottles of beer are so large that people often share one. The rule is that, in turn, one person pours for everyone else in the group, so be sure to hold up your glass when someone is pouring for you. Only as the night progresses do the Japanese get sloppy about this rule. It took me a while to figure this out, but if no one notices your empty glass, the best thing to do is to pour everyone else a drink so that someone will pour yours. If someone wants to pour you a drink and your glass is full, the proper thing to do is to take a few gulps so that he or she can fill your glass; or, if you truly don't want to drink any more, leave your glass full and politely refuse any more offers. At any rate, because each person is continually filling everyone else's glass, you never know exactly how much you've had to drink, which (depending on how you look at it) is either very good or very bad.
Paying the Bill -- If you go out with a group of friends (not as a visiting guest of honor and not with business associates), it's customary to split the dinner bill equally, even if you all ordered different things. This makes it difficult if you're trying to spend wisely, especially if others had a lot more to eat and drink. But even foreigners living in Japan adopt the practice of splitting the bill; it certainly makes figuring everyone's share easier, especially since there's no tipping in Japan.
Other Etiquette Tips -- It's considered bad manners to walk down the street in Japan eating or drinking (except at a festival). You'll notice that if a Japanese buys a drink from a vending machine, he'll stand there, gulp it down, and throw away the container before moving on. To the chagrin of the elders, young Japanese sometimes ignore this rule.