Here are some of the main things I noticed:
- Everything seems to be good: cheap and tasty, some of the best places we ate at were just random little joints at stations etc.
- There are often long lines outside the most popular places. Sometimes we would wait too, but more often than not we would just move on because it was too cold to wait when we knew the next place was probably going to be good too.
- Vending machines seem to be a common way to order – especially at Ramen shops. Place your order as you arrive, pay and take a token. Once you take a seat, hand over the token and the chef will make your food.
- Different regions have different specialities, usually based on their location and their surrounding resources. For example Tokyo’s is seafood (Tsujiki Market!), Kyoto is famous for its tea and sweets, Kobe has its beef and so on.
- Starbucks are literally everywhere. At least you know what you are getting.
- It is cheaper to splurge at lunch than dinner – restaurants really seem to hike their prices up for the evening meal.
Here is a dictionary with words we commonly came across:
- Onigiri: triangles of sushi at 7/11 stores, wrapped in nori (seaweed). So cheap!
- Izakaya: a Japanese pub-eater. Usually a longer meal over a few jugs of beer – think karaage chicken, edamame, and gyoza.
- Gyoza: dumplings – most commonly pork.
- Matcha: powdered green tea. Brace yourself, it is everywhere! Icecream, coffee, desserts… you name it.
- Tonkatsu: breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets – come with curry sauce and rice.
My impression of food in Tokyo:
- There were SO many options. Tokyo is known for its famous fish market (read about that here) as well as for Kaiten-sushi, which are basically sushi-trains. They actually weren’t as common across Japan as we had originally expected, but they were definitely most prevalent in Tokyo.
- Yakitori is meat and vegetables served on skewers. They were especially popular down Memory Lane in Shinjuku (read about that here). You should definitely brace yourself for some unusual meats though – the Japanese like to use as much of the animal as they possibly can!
- Tokyo Ramen Street is a really cool spot in Tokyo Station, near the Imperial Palace. There are eight different ramen shops all in this one area of the station. Vending machine style, you place your order and then take a seat (see above). Another really good ramen shop we ate at was Afuri (read here).
- Kiwi-owned Iki is a must stop for a classic New Zealand style brunch. These guys would easily survive in a place like Wellington, and with Wellington’s massive turnover, that is supposed to be a compliment! Read here.
My thoughts on the food in Osaka:
- Specialities include Takoyaki, which are grilled octopus dumplings usually sold at street stalls (in particular Dotonburi) and Okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake topped with shredded cabbage, meat and vegetables. They were really delicious, although I early on discovered that I hate bonito (fish flakes) with a passion. The Japanese basically put them on everything hot, and then you have to watch them wriggle and dance before you eat these gross fishy tasting flakes. I quickly learnt to request no bonito or Katsuobushi.
- The Osaka style of cooking frequently taking the yakitori skewers that we came so familiar with in Tokyo, and deep frying them. So the skewers of meat, seafood and vegetables are now deep fried in a delicious batter, making them extremely tasty!
- Out of town a wee way is Japan’s only all-you-can-eat KFC. It is pretty expensive and a bit of a mission to get to, so we didn’t actually end up going. I know that it’s popularly talked about though!
- Animal cafes. So many types of animal cafe, not just your standard cat cafe. We saw amphibian cafes, owl cafes, pug cafes… the list goes on! Just Google what kind of cafe you are interested in and see if one exists.