Japan is a foodie’s heaven. It has the most Michelin star awarded cities in the world. More than 100 of them are in the ancient capital of Kyoto. Time Out Tokyo (my travel bible) has reported that last year Tokyo had 212 restaurants with Michelin stars, as well many restaurants given Michelin Bib Gourmand status for their ‘exceptionally good food at moderate prices’.
But not all travellers can afford Michelin star fare. So will eating in Japan cost you a fortune and will you even find food that you like?
Rest assured you will enjoy a wonderful culinary adventure in Japan that can be done even on a shoe string budget. 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 because I was travelling on a small budget and I don’t eat fish!
I knew nothing back then about Japanese cuisine apart from Californian roll style sushi, green tea and ‘fishy’ food! That’s such an inaccurate myth. The food scene in Japan is amongst the best in the world, no matter what your budget. Street food, cafe fare, restaurants of every description, takeaways, fresh fruit and vegetables – it’s simply superb.
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 it appeals to my taste buds . And that most bakeries today offer plenty of traditional western products without bean paste. I’ve tasted better pastries and cakes in Japan than I did in France! Their chocolates are superb too.
Convenience stores are a first stop for tasty cheap takeaway food. They are unlike any convenience store I’ve ever encountered in my home country of Australia. The most well known ones are 7 Eleven, Lawsons and Family Mart. They have everything from the most delicious fresh sandwiches you’ll probably ever enjoy through to take away dishes you can heat up in the store microwave! Their fresh fruit salads are also 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 wonderful 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, I take advantage of any good hotel deals that include a buffet breakfast. 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. 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!
At the Best Western hotel in Takayama, breakfast is offered in two rooms. The Western buffet is the most popular and presented in a big open room in the usual way you see buffets at hotels. But with the Japanese breakfast, you are taken to a special room where you are seated in your own little private alcove. It’s quite an experience!
CAFE BREAKFAST SETS
Away from the hotels, cafes 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. I prefer Japanese cafes – individually run cafes or even chains such as Excelsior which has shops throughout the country 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 an egg on toast, coffee or an orange juice, and a side salad. Japan serves simple green salads as a side dish a lot with most 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’!
The Japanese take coffee very seriously, and have been drinking it since Dutch traders arrived in the 1700’s. They opened their 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.
Japan’s food culture deserves far more than one blog – so I’ll deal with lunch, dinner and foodie treats in-between in other blogs! Stay tuned!