How to eat & drink in Japan
January 1, 1970
by Kate Bertram
For someone who had no intention of ever trying Japanese food, let alone liking it, Japan’s cuisine really struck me and my stomach by surprise. Oh my gosh the food. Once you eat Japanese food, you’ll never go back. It’s handy to know that Japan is one of the safest (and cleanest) countries in the world and you’re unlikely to get sick.
Japan is the world capital of convenience. From vending machines to train station bento boxes, you’ll never go hungry.
Vending machines: Being a tourist is tough, and you often get thirsty. Lucky for us tourists, Japan has solved this problem with a pretty simple concept – food & beverage vending machines. In large cities like Tokyo, expect to see a vending machine every 5 metres (not kidding). My first of many encounters with a vending machine was shortly after arriving at Narita airport. We had to follow this asphalt running track (yes Japan is… different, you get used to it) to the airport train, and after about 5 minutes of walking in humid weather, we got thirsty. And as if it were a miracle, a vending machine appeared, offering us about 20 different drink options – bottled green tea, Dr Pepper, milk tea (which is delicious), and cans of iced coffee were just some of our options. All for about 100 Yen each ($1.25 AUD). We continued walking to discover another 10 vending machines, and we soon realised this wasn’t a miracle, it was Japan. And don’t stress if you’re hungry or need toilet paper, these delightful machines literally sell everything. Sapporo beer, hot soup, hot dogs, and even freshly made butterscotch mocha.
Bento Box: I don’t know how they do it, or what their OHS practices are, but Japanese food is always perfectly fine to eat. One thing you need to try is a Bento Box. Usually found in convenient spots like train stations, at the sumo wrestling or from the trolley lady on a Shinkansen (bullet train), you have many yummy options. They come in little boxes with a few sections separating each foods, usually consisting of some form of rice, a few vegetables, and fish or meat. Delicious and great for travelling.
7/11: If you’ve ever been to a 7/11, you’ve probably thought “Do people actually buy this food?”. In Japan, 7/11 food is totally safe and delicious to eat for every meal of the day (not saying it’s healthy but you know, budget). My first night in Tokyo, I decided to test how good the food was. After fried chicken, a fried potato croquette, a corn dog, triangle sushi, a spaghetti roll (yep) and a can of Starbucks matcha latte, I can honestly say it was one of the best meals I had the whole time. Except for feeling very full afterwards, I had no sickness from it at all. And if the nearest vending machine is 10 metres away and you don’t want to walk that far, 7/11 has an even wider range of hot and cold take-away beverages to choose from. 7/11 food is totally something you should try, and you should try everything. Even the spaghetti roll.
Tsukiji Fish Market: a large fish market in Tsukiji, Tokyo, you can smell it from miles away. From 5:25 in the morning, about 60 visitors can get a chance to watch the tuna auctions, if you can wake up early enough. If you’re a late riser like me, visit the outer market where tiny lanes are filled with bustling restaurants and small retail shops. You can pick up traditional tea pots, a wide range of green teas, fried eel (which I’m definitely not a fan of), and ice-cream flavours like black sesame, green tea and whale. In preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this historical market will be moving to Toyosu by the end of the year, so if you can get to the original market before it relocates, do it!
Okonomiyaki: BEST. THING. EVER. Okonomiyaki is pan fried batter and cabbage with lots of different fillings and a yummy special sauce that tastes like a mix of bbq and Worcestershire sauce. The best one I had was at a place in Hiroshima called Teppanyaki Kumaya, a small restaurant where the chef made the food right in front of us, no plates needed!
Yakiniku restaurant: A Yakiniku literally means grilled meat. In this case, you’re required to cook the meat yourself at a little hot plate at your table. Meats on offer include ribs, thighs, tits, tongue – yep, mostly offal. What if I don’t cook the meat enough, and what if it catches on fire? Well, both of those happened to me and my piece of advice is, act cool about it. The burnt meal still will taste good, and I’m pretty sure the meat is cured so if it’s not cooked enough for you, you probably won’t get sick.
Izakaya: A Japanese pub, usually separated into little booths. They have a huge range of drinks including sake, beer, cocktails (try the peach oolong tea cocktail), but beware, some Izakaya’s may require you to order 1 drink and 1 food per person before you can leave.
Matcha: Japan is evidently famous for its matcha tea, and rightfully so – the health benefits associated with matcha are ridiculous. If you’re not in Japan, matcha is expensive to buy, so make the most of the complimentary tea at most casual restaurants and stock up from department store Don Quijote to last you until next time. If you have time, book in for a tea ceremony at Joukeian in Kyoto where Sokou eagerly shares this cultural experience with you.
Traditional Japanese breakfast: If your Ryokan does it, ask for the traditional Japanese breakfast. You’ll set a time for breakfast to be served in the morning and get to sit zashiki style (on a tatami mat). Prep your chopsticks, this doesn’t have a fork option.
What the f**k
KFC Buffet: This is not a drill, this exists people. The only KFC in the WHOLE world can be found in Japan in Osaka at the Expo City Complex. You will need to prepare yourself for this, and you’ll have a fairly long trip on public transport to do so because it’s not the easiest place to get to, but trust me when I say it’s worth it. For 80 minutes and only 1,880 Yen (lunch time price, about $25 AUD), you’ll have access to unlimited KFC nuggets, crispy strips, fried chicken, chips, and other not so important food like salads, pastas and desserts. Be prepared to put your name on a waiting list and come with an entirely empty and ready stomach. P.S. Japanese people will look at you weird for stacking your plate high, but it’s okay because this is your only chance to eat buffet style at KFC.
Square watermelon: It’s not a myth, or a legend. I saw one and here’s a picture to prove it. Be warned, they cost well into the hundreds of dollars.
Golden Gai: Tucked away in Shinjuku, Tokyo, lies lanes and lanes of tiny little bars that fit no more than 10 people. This is one of those areas that hasn’t been knocked down and re-built, and is evident by it’s down-to-earth, less technologically influenced bars. Each bar has it’s own uniqueness, from halloween themed to record collecting. Trying to pick a bar to go to will give you anxiety, but I recommend Champion for cheap drinks on the street, karaoke, and a large western (usually drunk) crowd.
Gum syrup: Goodbye sugar, raw sugar, sweetener, etc. Japan uses gum syrup, a really delicious liquid sugar alternative.
Sushi trains: You may have seen these in your city, but you haven’t experience a sushi train until you’ve been to one in Japan. For a twist on the traditional conveyor belt, I recommend the Uobei Bullet Train Sushi in Shibuya, Tokyo. The idea is you order whatever you want on a personal touchscreen tablet, up to 3 plates at a time. A few minutes later a little plate with your food comes zooming out to your seat on a train-like system fresh from the kitchen. It’s so cool.
Vending machine restaurant: Sorry for bringing up vending machines again but they will become a huge part of your life in Japan. There are restaurants where you order out the front at a vending machine, pay, receive a ‘meal ticket’, then take it inside where they prepare your meal. Try Kamukura Ramen in Shinjuku, or the only restaurant at the 5th station on Mt. Fuji.
Animal cafe: Cat cafes were once the coolest things on earth. Why wouldn’t you want to sip a cup of tea and cuddle up to a rescued stray cat!? Now-a-days, cat cafes are old news when you can dine with a reptile, bird, rabbit or even an owl.