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Eating and Drinking in Japan

The Japanese people have a love for top quality ingredients and are masters of technique, from precise grilling and frying to cooking rice. It is hard not to eat well in Japan.

If you are travelling to Japan, make sure to try their food, like ramen, sushi, sashimi, as well as the beverages like matcha tea and sake. Don’t forget to follow some etiquette to respect the chef and also the food prepared.

Highlights

  • Japanese food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world.
  • For tea connoisseurs Japan is tea heaven.
  • Japanese people drink many soft drinks, and you can find many funky flavors here and there.
  • Travel with Asia Highlights and explore Japanese cuisine like the locals do.
  • When it comes to eating, there are a few things you should and shouldn’t do. Read the table manners below to explore more!

Eating in Japan

The Japanese food scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. The Japanese love to eat out, and the profusion of culinary options, even in the smallest towns, can be overwhelming. There is something for every taste and budget, from humble slurp-and-go noodle stands, to refined traditional eateries serving seasonal fare.

Restaurants in Japan

With Japan’s range of dishes and cooking styles, comes a range of specialist restaurants – here are just a few of the most common.

Ryotei: Haute Cuisine

These elegant establishments offer a highly refined traditional Japanese dining experience. They are especially recommended for experiencing kaiseki – a multicourse event of carefully presented vegetable and seafood dishes, using the best seasonal ingredients.

Shojin Ryori

Shojin ryori is the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks in Japan. The cuisine is made without meat, fish or other animal products and can therefore be enjoyed by vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

Sushi Restaurants

Eating out at a sushi-ya is usually considered a special event. At a sushi-ya, diners order a portion at a time while the knife-wielding chefs work away behind the counter making each serving fresh.

Noodle Shops

Most Japanese noodle places, known collectively as men-dokoro, serve both, udon (thick white wheat noodles) and soba (thin brown buckwheat noodles).

Entering a Restaurant and Seating Arrangement

Within a distance of entering a Japanese restaurant, all visitors encounter the phrase "irasshaimase!" meaning "welcome to the store!" or "come on in!” And don’t be surprised if you are being asked to remove your shoes before entering.

There are several types of seating arrangement, for example bar/counter seating, which can be found in all kinds of informal dining establishments in Japan. Then there is tatami seating, which is a traditional Japanese restaurant seating arrangement, featuring a low table set on tatami flooring. Other than that, you can also find table and booth seating.

How to Order

After you pick your seat or are seated by a waiter, you will be given a free glass of water or tea, if it isn’t served, usually the drinks are available for self-service. To order food in Japan, just say the name of the dish, followed by how many orders of it you want. For example, if you want 3 tempura sets, you would say: “Tenpura setto, mittsu (kudasai)”. “Kudasai“ means “please”.

If you ever need your waiter’s attention, you can always just raise your hand and say “sumimasen” (excuse me). Many Japanese restaurants also have call buttons for each table, so you can simply press the button and a server will be there shortly.

If you can’t read anything on the menu or don’t know what to order, you can ask your waiter for any recommendations by saying: “Osusume wa arimasu ka?” (what do you recommend?).

Popular Dishes

Japanese food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, and for good reasons, here are some of the popular dishes:

Sushi

Sushi is, without doubt, one of the most famous foods to come from Japan. A dish that was born in ancient times, sushi originated from the process of preserving fish in fermented rice. Today it is made with vinegar flavored rice and fresh fish, presented in a number of ways and shapes.

Sashimi

Centuries before Japanese people were eating sushi, they first enjoyed raw fish without the rice. While the name “sashimi” refers to any thinly sliced raw food, including raw beef (gyuu-sashi), chicken (tori-zashi), and even horse (basashi), fish and seafood are the most popular varieties.

Udon

Udon is a dense and chewy noodle made from wheat flour. It is one of the most popular foods in Japan, due to its delicious taste and uniqueness.

Tempura

Tempura is a dish of battered and fried fish, seafood or vegetables.

Prices and Paying

When you are ready to pay the bill, you need to get the check from your waiter.

Once you get your bill, bring it to the cashier, who is almost always located near the entrance of the restaurant. Remember that many small restaurants take cash only. If you eat in an upscale hotel, or department store restaurant, paying by any major credit card should be no problem.

Drinking in Japan

While exploring Japan you are sure to stumble upon the national beverage sake and green tea. Tea is the most commonly drunk beverage in Japan and an important part of Japanese food culture, while sake is widely spread across Japan and is served at all types of restaurants and drinking establishments. Sake is an alcoholic drink.

Japanese Tea

Tea was originally brought to Japan by Buddhist monks during the Song dynasty, after which Japan developed their own unique styles. The three most popular teas in Japan are matcha, sencha and genmaicha. Matcha is the form of green tea that is used in the tea ceremony. Only the highest quality leaves are used for matcha, which are dried and milled into a fine powder which is then mixed with hot water.

Sencha tea will make any day feel like a beautiful spring day. A delicately sweet, herbaceous aroma emanates from the long, flat, naturally dark emerald tea leaves. Genmaicha is a traditional Japanese green tea. The lovely vegetal green flavor, indicative of Japan's steaming process, is balanced by the nutty flavor imparted by the roasted rice.

The tea ceremony is called sado or simply ocha in Japanese. It is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea, together with traditional Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea.

Japanese Sake

Sake is an alcoholic drink made from rice. The process of making sake is quite complicated and includes: milling the rice, washing, soaking and steaming the rice, making koji, moto or shuo for the fermentation starter, moromi – the main mash, pressing, filtration, pasteurization, storage, then bottling.

In order to make sake, rice grains are polished to get rid of protein and fat that attribute to off-flavors of sake, leaving the inner center that is close to pure starch. Basically, the more the rice is polished, the cleaner and lighter-bodied the sake tends to become.

The alcohol in sake is produced in a time- and cost-consuming fermentation process. There are many different types of sake. However, Junmai, Honjozo and Futsushu are the most popular types of sake in Japan.

You can enjoy sake with friends and family, and with food. There is no particular rule you need to follow to enjoy sake. You can do it your way!

Soft Drinks

One thing Japan has taken to new levels, is its soft drinks. There are many different varieties of soft drinks in Japan, which you can try while you are there. Calpis and Pocari Sweat are the most popular soft drinks. You can also try some weird Pepsi. What makes it weird is the taste ranging from salty watermelon or yoghurt to strawberry. Make sure to give it a try!

Table Manners

At the beginning of your meal or when you sit down in a restaurant, you will be given a wet towel, or o-shibori. Use this to clean your hands. Japanese-style meals are eaten with chopsticks. When you get disposable wooden chopsticks in a restaurant that you have to break in two, please refrain from rubbing them together.

While eating rice with chopsticks, Japanese people often hold the bowl in their other hand rather than leave it on the table. As for sushi, you can eat it with your hands, but most of the time you will get chopsticks.

When you are eating in a restaurant, there is some crucial dining etiquette you need to follow such as: Do not stab your food with your chopsticks; never mix wasabi into your soy sauce; do slurp away your soup; do not rest your chopsticks across the top of your bowl. At the end of a meal you say “Gochisosama deshita”, which means “thanks for the food”.

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