One way to immerse yourself in another culture is through food. Eating like a native provides you with a different perspective of a culture than which you would receive from touring temples, wandering through tiny towns or talking with locals. Nihon ryōri, or Japanese cuisine, is no different. Japanese cuisine is prepared using a delicate balance of intricate and subtle flavors, typically utilizing a few basic staples, mainly rice, fish and soy. Gohan, or cooked rice, is so significant to Japanese food that the word is even used to mean "meal" and variations - asa-gohan, hiru-gohan and ban-gohan mean breakfast, lunch and dinner, respectively.
Most regions in Japan have their own unique preparation for popular dishes - therefore the dish Ise Udon (pictured on the left) is remarkably different from nearby Kansai Udon. Many restaurants specialize in one or two dishes, for example, a soba-ya will offer dishes made from soba, a buckwheat noodle whereas a tofu-ya will have a menu created around tofu. However, if you're with a group which can not agree on one type of food shokudō, all-around restaurants,are common and you can try a variety of different foods, both Japanese and Western.
Japanese food is traditionally eaten with hashi, chopsticks. Unless a visitor only plans on eating at Western-style restaurants while in Japan he should learn to use chopsticks because knives and forks are rare in most restaurants. Though initially using chopsticks can seem like a daunting task for foreigners it is a skill which can be mastered after some practice. Chopstick etiquette is relatively basic - do not use them as toys, stick straight up and down in food or pass food between them.
Please enjoy our pictures of different dishes we tried below and read the captions for more information on each one!
"Ise Udon" - a set lunch consisting of Ise Udon, thick udon noodles with soy sauce. The set also includes chicken legs, vegetables (both pickled and cooked) and miso soup.
"Festival food", typically served on a stick for convenience, is not exclusively sold at festivals. Many of the popular food items can be found in izakaya (pub-styled restaurants) or at small shops. However, dishes such as yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), ikayaki (grilled squid), takoyaki (octopus dumplings) and karaage (fried chicken) are festival staples. The aroma of fried and grilled food fill the air during these events, which helps to create the festive atmosphere. Festivals usually feature a wide range of food and game stalls, all part of the overall experience.
"Stick Food" - Collin, Dr. Roemer and Andrew enjoy butabara, grilled pork skewers, during Yoiyama at Gion Matsuri.
Kaiseki with the Yoshida Family
Kaiseki, a traditional multi-course meal, is a rare treat for both Japanese and foreigners alike. We were very fortunate to be invited to enjoy a very special kaiseki meal with the Yoshida family, friends of Dr. Roemer. Kaiseki typically are arranged around a theme, in this case Gion Matsuri, and highlight seasonal ingredients. The food is usually subtle in flavor with special attention given not only to taste and texture but also the presentation. Dishes, from the plates to the bowls, are carefully chosen to enhance the overall aesthetic appearance of the food. A kaiseki meal rarely includes meat, instead it incorporates fresh vegetables and fish. Kaiseki are typically served at ryōtei, a type of very elegant and traditional Japanese restaurant.
"Gion Matsuri Kaiseki" - The second course of our meal featured a miniature float cart which could be opened to find a dish of seasonal vegetables inside.
Probably the most easily recognizable Japanese food in the West it is also one of the most misunderstood. Sushi does not mean raw fish, instead it refers to the specially prepared rice which is integral to the dish. There are many different types of sushi, the two most common are nigiri-zushi, a ball of rice typically topped with fish or a sweet omelet or maki-zushi, a seaweed roll with a filling of rice and assorted vegetables or fish. Other types of sushi include chirashi-zushi, a bowl of sushi rice with toppings, and inari zushi, pockets of sweetened fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice.
Popular nigiri-zushi toppings include a variety of raw and cooked seafood such a unagi (eel), tako (octupus), sake (salmon), ebi (shrimp) and maguro (tuna), As previously mentioned sushi is not just seafood though and tamago (sweetened omelet) is popular along with kappa-zushi (cucumber roll) and oshinko-zushi (pickled vegetable roll). Westernized sushi creations, for example the California roll, can be found at some sushi restaurants.
A meal of sushi can range from the inexpensive to the costly depending on the restaurant, quality of seafood and amount you eat. A kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant is typically the most economical choice, with the average person spending $15-20. You grab your choice of sushi as it passes you on a conveyor belt - the different colored plates indicate different prices (some have one set price for all plates). However, high quality sushi can be incredibly expensive with a person spending well over $100 for a single meal. Thankfully, there are many mid-range sushi restaurants throughout Japan where the average bill falls between $35-50 per person.
"Kaiten-zushi" - The front window of a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant has a miniature conveyor belt in its front window to tempt people passing by.
Yaki-niku, literally grilled meat, is translated in Japan as Korean barbecue. In fact many Japanese do not consider the dish to be Japanese food. However, yaki-niku is remarkably different from bulgogi, the Korean dish that inspired it. Instead of the meat being marinated before cooking as is common with bulgogi, yaki-niku involves grilling the meat before dipping it in a selection of soy based sauces. Yaki-niku restaurants offer a wide variety of types meat, typically beef or pork, thinly sliced. Though yaki-niku is definitely a meat-centric dish restaurants offer a variety of vegetables you can grill, including onions, sweet potatoes and cabbage.
Most yaki-niku restaurants are do-it-yourself meaning you have a hot grill at each table and you and your table-mates cook your dinner. Many restaurants are also tabehodai, all you can eat. You pay a set amount for a limited amount of time and are able to eat as much as you want. However, you must be careful as some restaurants charge you extra if there is a substantial amount of food leftover when your time is up. These restaurants are also typically nomihodai, all you can drink, offering up a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
"Yaki-niku" - Students pause to smile at the camera while grilling at the yaki-niku restaurant.
Japanese sweets, typically not as sugary and sweet as their Western counterparts, incorporate flavors such as green tea and red beans. Western-style cakes are very popular, especially sponge cake with whipped cream topping and strawberries. Kakigori, sweetened shaved ice, is sold nearly everywhere during the hot summer months in Japan. Ice cream is just as popular in the summer, familiar flavors in the West such as vanilla and chocolate are easy to find as well as some less familiar flavors including matcha (green tea), sesame and ginger. Wagashi, a generic term for traditional Japanese confectioneries, are usually made with mochi (rice cake) and anko (azuki bean paste) and accompany matcha, a slightly bitter green tea.
"Matcha Kakigori" - Green tea flavored sweetened shaved ice is a refreshing dessert at a restaurant in Kyoto.
Western and European Cuisine
For those who shy away from traditional Japanese foods, Western and European influence is a notable presence in possible options. Food similar to this cake peek from display windows and familiar chains dot the city. In our travels we noted McDonalds, Starbucks, Dennys, and an Applebees as available dining locations.
We were treated to a delicious French-fusion lunch at Daisho University where Dr. Roemer studied for a year as an undergrad. This meal delicately balanced Western inspired flavors with Japanese ingredients and presentation.
"Green Tea Chocolate Tart" - A fusion of Japanese flavors with a Western dessert from Lipton Cafe in Kyoto.
Grocery stores provide a glimpse into what Japanese eat on a daily basis - including what is prepared at home and bento, boxed lunches taken to work or school. It is interesting to explore a grocery store to get a feel for Japanese food. One item many foreigners are surprised to see are the relatively high prices for some items such as fruit.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji is a market in Tokyo known for being one of the largest fish markets in the world. Fresh fish, meat, and produce is sold here daily. It opens up at the crack of dawn in order for local business to come in and bid on some of the biggest and freshest tuna. It is packed with people. Ranging from business owners, chefs, foodies, and tourists, it is hard to navigate within the market itself. While it doesn't sound like too much fun to wake up and go to see a bunch of seafood at 5:00 AM, it is very thrilling. You will also probably be very hungry by the time you leave.
Bibliography: Bestor, Theodore C. "Supply-Side Sushi:Commodity, Market, and the Global City". American Anthropologist. 103 (1): 76-95. "English". Shimogamo. 4 Aug. 2010 http://www.shimogamo-jinja.or.jp/pg217.html Rowthorn, Chris, Andrew Bender, Matthew D. Firestone, Timothy N. Hornyak, Benedict Walker, Paul Warham and Wendy Yanagihara. Lonely Planet: Japan. Oakland, CA: Lonely Planet Publications, 2009