As long as you are prepared to be a little adventurous and see what a random order in a restaurant might bring you, there’s no need to go hungry in Japan. Far from it: there’s a huge amount of choice. In fact not knowing what food will arrive as a result of having pressed an unidentified button on a food ordering machine is half the fun although this may not always work out as you expected 100% of the time.
L: Pork katsu curry; R: sashimi bowl
That said, if you are a little more discerning or indeed have any dietary requirements (especially if you are vegetarian), things could be a lot trickier. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of fish and, in particular, a lot of shellfish. But perhaps a little more surprisingly, we found ourselves eating a lot of meat, especially pork. In fact, we happily tucked into everything from chicken skewers in yakitori restaurants, tapas like dishes in izakuyas (Japanese pub eateries), kobe beef in Kinosaki, hida beef in Takayama as well as tempura, noodles (ramen, udon, soba etc) and katsu curry (which I didn’t see until my final week and was just beginning to think that it was an English invention like chicken tikka masala but no, it’s proper Japanese cuisine although here its proper title is tonkatsu) and the rest.
Ramen noodle dishes
If you are still struggling to work out what might be served in any particular restaurant, all is not lost: the Japanese restauranteurs seem quite keen on displaying their culinary wares in elaborate plastic displays or alternatively, there are often photos in menus. True this doesn’t happen everywhere but it’s not just a tourist gimmick for foreigners who don’t speak Japanese or read any kanji or hiragana scripts. It has to be said some make the food look more appetising than others (and, where there are English translations, some are definitely more appealing than others (“raw ham” anyone?)). It was also quite fun to discover whether in fact the plastic representation (or photo in the menu) would actually bear any resemblance to the served dish.
Hida beef: L: window display and R: the final dish
But it sounds like I’m doing the cuisine a dis-service which is not my intention at all. We ate well even while on a relative budget. We immediately fell off our vegetarian pedestal that we’d been on in India but then in the country which is the home of sushi (one of my absolute favourites), this was always going to be a tricky one. The sushi was great; as well as more formal sushi restaurants, we also happily ate in some conveyor belt sushi bars even if these are a bit gimmicky. While queuing in one place, we noted with some surprise the number of plates another customer had managed to stack up next to him; I generously suggested that perhaps the pile was for both the man and his partner (slightly ignoring the stack of plates to her left), only of course for our own plate stacks to completely overshadow his only an hour or so later. And at Tsjukiji fish market (Tokyo’s famous fish market), we were lucky enough to sample some of the freshest possible sashimi and sushi and very nice it was too.
Plastic food window displays can be quite elaborate and detailed
On balance (although this is a very tricky one), our favourite Japanese cuisine was probably okonomiyaki (which we took ages to learn how to say properly). In these very casual restaurants, you sit around a metal counter which is one huge hot plate and your food is cooked in front of you (or in others you do some of your own cooking armed with an over-size spatula and chopsticks). And you end up with a sort of pancake comprising cabbage, egg, noodles topped with meat or fish (or even “small intestines”) although I think that description may not be doing this cuisine any favours! As well as being a fun experience, it was very filling fodder and was especially nice washed down with a cold beer or two. Just watch out for the hot plate when you’ve had a few beers!
Okonomiyaki with grilled small intestines: L: the picture and R: the final product