Another in my Japan updating series – a fresh look at stories I wrote early in 2021 when I began this blog.
Japan is a foodie’s heaven. Let me make this perfectly clear. It is not all about sushi and seafood. For a start, I don’t eat seafood – apart from smoked salmon and trout, both of which I have gained an appreciation for late in life. My dislike of seafood generally has always been about the smell. Every Friday in my childhood Catholic home, it pervaded the kitchen and dining room. Fish on Fridays was always on the family menu. My Mum respected my dislike of fish, as I ate just about everything else on the family table. So whilst the family ate their way through fresh locally caught fish, crayfish, crabs and other seafood delights, my Fridays were usually about peanut butter or cheese sandwiches!
So, I feel I am well placed to assure you that there is a smorgasbord of wonderful foods to enjoy in JAPAN, other than seafood.
Japan has the most Michelin star awarded cities in the world. More than 100 of them are in the ancient capital of Kyoto. And Tokyo doesn’t do too badly either! This year (2022) MICHELIN Guide Tokyo has recognised432 restaurants, including 12 3-star, 41 2-star, 150 1-star and 229 Bib Gourmands.
Of these, 14 restaurants received the Michelin Green Star for their commitment to sustainable gastronomy. Two new awards, the Mentor Chef and the Service Award, were also announced for Tokyo restaurants for the first time this year. So for the well heeled, you are well catered for.
Of course, not all travellers can afford Michelin star fare. Regrettably, I can’t. But such a high standard of culinary excellence seems to have swept through the whole food industry in JAPAN. Rest assured, you will enjoy a delicious culinary adventure in Japan, even on a shoe string budget.
Street food, cafe fare, restaurants of every description, takeaways, fresh fruit and vegetables – it’s all superb. Ensure you pack your walking shoes, because you’ll probably need to whittle away the calories as you explore Japan’s very tasty food culture.
Food costs and what to eat in Japan were my concerns when embarking on my first visit there 20 years ago.
I knew nothing about Japanese cuisine, apart from Californian roll style sushi, green tea which I had never tasted, and ‘fishy’ food! How my culinary world has expanded since discovering Japan!
I’m not saying you won’t strike a bad meal – I once ordered a Japanese curry and it was all sauce – finding meat in it was like a ‘where’s Wally’ game. But it was the exception to the rule.
My youngest son did a home stay in Japan as a high school student, and warned me that sweets, chocolates and bakery items in Japan often contained bean paste and were to be avoided. This assumed I would not like bean paste. It wasn’t until my second trip to Japan that I experimented and found that sweetened bean paste appeals to my taste buds . Most bakeries in Japan today offer plenty of traditional western products without bean paste. It is simply a matter of checking what is in that danish pastry or sweet bun!
Here’s a big statement – and I stand by it. I’ve tasted better pastries and cakes in Japan than I did in France! Their chocolates are as good as Europe’s too.
Convenience stores are a first stop for tasty, cheap, quality takeaway food. Known in Japan as Konbine, they are unlike any convenience store I’ve encountered in my home country of Australia. The most well known ones are 7 Eleven, Lawsons and Family Mart. Don’t confuse Japanese 7 Eleven’s with the same name badge in Australia. They are nothing like each other.
Japanese convenience stores have an excellent range of quality food and other products. Everything from the most delicious and most fresh sandwiches you’ll probably ever enjoy through to take away dishes you can heat up in the store microwave! Their fresh fruit salads also are not to be missed.
Major railway stations in Japan have an abundance of food stores, grocery shops , cafes and excellent restaurants where you don’t need to stretch your budget very far. And definitely look out for the food halls of major department stores known as depachika. Usually you’ll find them on the underground level, and they offer everything from fresh meat (maybe you are cooking for yourself in a tourist apartment or a rental house) to fruit, ready to eat food and deli items. They are wonderful, and you’ll often be offered free tastings!
And do check out if there are any local markets nearby. In Takayama, a popular tourist town, you’ll find morning markets by the river where the locals sell fruit, vegetables and a lot of regional foodie specialities such as dried mountain blueberries from the Gifu region that are gifts to your taste buds!
When booking my trips to Japan, note any good hotel deals that include a buffet breakfast. Breakfast at hotels is usually a similar price to a similar hotel breakfast in Australia.
Most Western Style hotels will offer a combination of Western and Japanese breakfast foods. So if you are desperate for your Weeties or Corn Flakes, then this is the way to go. But it’s also a chance to try out Japanese breakfast food. And sometimes the view from a hotel breakfast room is something you can’t pass up!
In these covid times, many Japanese hotels have currently abandoned self serve buffets, replacing with table service.
I usually only eat ‘in house’ when I am in a remote place with no nearby cafes or restaurants.
CAFE BREAKFAST SETS
Away from the hotels, there are usually plenty of cafes that offer ‘breakfast sets’. The cafes will have details of their ‘breakfast sets’ on their doors or windows, complete with pictures. Very easy to understand. These won’t break the bank. Usually a set will cost under $10, including a drink. Sometimes even ‘endless’ drinks are offered as part of a breakfast set.
You will find more than a thousand American Starbucks cafes in Japan. They are not a favourite of mine. I prefer Japanese cafes – individually run cafes or even chains such as Excelsior which has shops throughout metropolitan areas in Japan for simple food.
My breakfast favourite is a coffee with a danish or croissant – I’m a light early morning eater. This costs around $A5. My hubby usually goes for a fried or scrambled egg on toast, coffee or an orange juice, and a side salad – about $10. Japan serves simple green salads as a side dish a lot with most ‘set’ meals, including breakfast. Toast is usually made from thick white bread. I haven’t seen much bacon offered in cafe breakfast sets, though often there is a small piece of ham with egg sets.
COFFEE IN JAPAN
Did you think you might miss out on your morning coffee? Is Japan all about green tea? In fact, Japan has a great coffee culture. Most cafes and restaurants, particularly in cities and large towns, will offer all the coffees you love at home and some you may not have experienced such as ‘gingerbread latte’!
With green tea – there’s a lot of variety. Basically, there is matcha – that’s the green powder you see Japanese whisk in traditional tea ceremonies. Then there’s sencha, infusing tea leaves in hot water. It’s sencha you will find in green tea bags. Tea from different regions of Japan can have different flavours. Then there’s other teas such as Hojicha, gyokuro, even some made from camellia leaves. Japan also produces a handful of specialty black teas. I’m no expert, so I’ll leave you to explore the wonderful world of Japanese tea.
The Japanese also take coffee very seriously, and have been drinking it since Dutch traders arrived in the 1700’s. Japan opened its first coffee shop by the late 1800’s. By the late 1960’s, the Japanese were the first in the world to develop ‘coffee in a can’, and today both hot and cold coffee in a can are available in vending machines throughout the country.
Canned coffee is an acquired taste. True coffee connoisseurs may not appreciate it, but I’m a little addicted to it! The American actor Tommy Lee Jones has made millions of dollars from promoting the Boss brand of Japanese coffee. His television ads in Japan are hilarious. You can check them out on the Internet. Trawl for Tommy Lee Jones and Boss.
My only mistake to date with Japan’s coffee culture was ordering an iced coffee on a very hot day. I thought it would be a chilled milky coffee, probably with ice cream. But it came out like a large chilled expresso, with little sachets of liquid sweetener to add if desired. I understand it’s a product called Gomme syrup – a mix of sugar, water and gum arabic.
So unless you like that, check what they mean by iced coffee. Of late, I’ve also learnt about Japan’s love of coffee jelly as a desert. I tried making it at home, but I’m keen to eat it in Japan to see if I managed to replicate it successfully or not.
A check of some menus online tells me that Japanese cafe/restaurant food prices haven’t risen much during the pandemic. A welcome surprise.
One treat I haven’t tried is Ekiben – bento boxed meals sold on trains and at train stations in Japan. They come with disposable chopsticks or spoons, and many have food specific to the regions they are sold in. I’ve seen plenty of them, but the writing on the boxes was in Japanese and I couldn’t quite tell from the pictures what was in them. Unfortunately, I didn’t come across a seller who spoke English.
On my upcoming trip, I will be equipped with a free google translator on my phone, which allows me to take a photo of an ekiben, and find out in english what is in it! I’m looking for a particular type of ekiben, one that produces hot food. Apparently, you can buy an ekiben with foods such as rice and bq beef – pull a little string on the box – and magic – within minutes the food inside is piping hot. I kid you not! Could this come to Australia? Well, it’s been 20 years since I saw hot coffee and hot soup in cans in vending machines in Japan, and they haven’t arrived here yet!
Japan’s food culture and innovations deserve far more than one blog. Luckily, I’m heading back to Japan soon – so I’ll deal with lunch, dinner and foodie treats in-between on my return. I’m taking a smart phone with me for the first time. Not so much for phone calls, but because I find them great for food photos!