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Japanese cuisine is globally renowned. However, when asked what they know, people often get stuck after sushi and ramen. But Japanese food has so much more to offer. Here’s a quick-fire introduction to ten types of cuisine and restaurants you’ll find in Japan.
The izakaya is often dubbed a “Japanese pub,” a moniker which does it a disservice. Unlike the pubs found in the United Kingdom which change from restaurant to bar over the course of the day, izakaya provide a seated affair with food being served well into the night. Izakaya serve a variety of drinks – shochu (焼酎; shouchuu) and sake (日本酒; nihonshu), to name a few) – and tapas-style dishes which pair well with alcohol such as karaage (唐揚げ; karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken), meat or vegetable skewers, heaps of edamame beans, and maybe even horse sashimi.
While in Japan you will probably find yourself at either a chain izakaya (Tori Kizoku, Kin no Kura, or Watami, to name a few), or at a smaller independently run store. Although fundamentally the same, there are a few key differences. In a chain izakaya, you usually order your food from tablets, and sometimes you’ll be sat in solo booths. As you would expect from a chain, prices are usually cheap, with the added bonus of the privacy of a booth.
By contrast, in the smaller, independently run stores, you will be sat in front of, or at least nearby, the owner in an open-plan space. These kinds of izakaya can give a wonderfully intimate experience, so if you’re feeling brave I would advise seeking out the neighborhood’s local haunt.
However, be prepared for the unexpected – when I first went to Sharakutei, an Okinawan-style izakaya in Senkawa, I realized that nothing was priced, you were given what the chef felt like making (a style of serving known as omakase), and the owner’s English was…not perfect. If you’re feeling up for the unexpected, these experiences can give you some of the most unique experiences of your stay.
2. Famiresu (ファミレス)
Famiresu are everywhere, providing a reliable and predictable offering. As indicated by the name (famiresu being a contraction of “family restaurant”), famiresu are a good low to mid-range option that provide a nice balance between price and quality. Popular examples of famiresu include Jonathan’s (ジョナサン) and Saizeriya (サイゼリヤ).
Famiresu tend to be ideal for groups. Many of them are chains, and are easily able to accommodate big groups. They’re also very economical, meaning they won’t break anybody’s bank. Additionally, many famiresu will serve both Japanese style food (和食; washoku) as well as Japan’s take on “Western” food (洋食; youshoku) – dishes like omelet rice, hamburg and spaghetti, and Japan-specific dishes such as doria. This makes them appropriate for large groups of people with diverse tastes; even the picky eaters in your group can find something to eat!
Famiresu are very popular among students and solo diners. After all, almost every famiresu is equipped with a cheap, free refill “drink bar”, and as there are no general rules about length of stay, you can work in peace on school work, language study, or anything you want with endless coffee on tap.
3. Teishoku (定食)
Teishoku refers to fixed meals you can get at various eateries in Japan. Although there is some variation, the meal generally consists of a bowl of rice, miso soup, a side dish (usually a small salad) and the main portion of the spread. Some teishoku places will serve these sides as fixed portions, while others will offer them as a buffet options – known in Japanese as “viking” (バイキング) style.
The main portion is flexible, and can include dishes such as grilled fish, shogayaki (生姜焼き; shougayaki, or ginger-fried pork), to fried oysters (焼き牡蠣; yakikaki – my personal favorite). Teishoku is served in many outlets, some specializing in it, but also at famiresu or shokudo.
4. Shokudo (食堂; shokudou)
Shokudo, literally meaning “dining hall”, refers to a number of small Japanese eateries that serve a lot of what I would call Japanese comfort food. You can usually find shokudo on street corners in rural neighborhoods and they provide a nice homely menu. Come to one of these for some delicious omelette rice (オムライス; omuraisu), teishoku, or Japanese curry at very reasonable prices.
5. Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)
Okonomiyaki is generally dubbed “Japanese pancakes.” Although those of us who come from a sweet pancake culture may find this nomenclature a bit surprising, it is clear that this dish has a lot in common with its savory pancake brethren.
A simple mix of flour, eggs, cabbage, spring onion, adorned with a variety of toppings, the okonomiyaki is a hearty dish perfect to fill you up on its own. Literally meaning “grilled as you like it”, the joy of okonomiyaki comes in the amount of variations in available toppings. With okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes and seaweed as standard, you can enjoy the addition of pork, beef, cheese and vegetarian toppings. One fun aspect is that as the grill is integrated into your table, a number of places allow you to cook it yourself!
Should you find yourself in Hiroshima or Osaka, take note, for each city prides itself on their local variety. The basic difference is that Osaka okonomiyaki contains more cabbage and meat (beef or pork), whereas the Hiroshima style contains noodles and vegetables. Give them both a try!
6. Hot Pot (鍋; nabe)
Hot pot is a vastly underrated dish and there are two Japanese variants that are worth knowing – sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. In either case, as with most hot pot establishments, you’ll be sat in front of a broth-filled hot pot. You can then order a set amount of meat, tofu, and vegetables and cook it right in front of your eyes, where it will be ready to eat in no time. Whereas much Japanese cuisine doesn’t contain a lot of vegetables, most hot pot places will provide you with all you can eat veg, and recently more vegetarian options have become available.
Where the two styles differ is mainly in the broth. Sukiyaki finds its origins in Edo-period farmers who used their hoes (suki) as a hot-plate on which they cooked (yaki) fish and vegetables. Nowadays, sukiyaki is a term generally given to hot pots containing a broth which is seasoned with sugar and soy sauce. A unique part of sukiyaki, is the option of having a soft-boiled egg to dip your cooked meat and vegetables in.
Shabu-shabu is a relatively recent dish, finding its origins in Osaka in the 1950s, with the name being an onomatopoeia of the sound of the bubbling pot. The traditional shabu-shabu pot contains a simple dashi broth and you are given ponzu and sesame seed sauces to dip your food in before eating.
7. Donburi (丼)
For those wanting a filling meal, donburi will hit the spot. Donburi is a simple dish of a bowl of rice with various toppings – usually pork or beef. There are donburi outlets all across Japan, with chains like Sukiya, Matsuya, and Katsuya dominating the landscape. There’s a donburi for everyone, with traditional pork-topped bowls, katsudon topped with pork cutlets, and even the delicious yet grotesquely named oyakodon (親子丼; oyakodon – literally mother and child bowl) which is topped with chicken cutlets and egg.
8. Soba (蕎麦) and Udon (うどん)
Soba and udon are two of ramen’s noodle cousins which are less well-known outside of Japan. Whereas ramen is a heartier, heavier dish, the light freshness of soba and udon provides a feast that will leave you feeling less stuffed than a night out at the local ramen joint. One key difference between these noodles and ramen is the option to choose whether to have them hot or cold, providing an all-year appeal.
Soba comes in a few standard options, such as delicious deep-fried toppings kitsune and tanuki. When it comes to udon, however, there are endless varieties. Should you find yourself up in the colds of Akita like I was one year, I would recommend a hearty curry udon.
You can often find soba and udon at small eateries on mountain climbs, so take care to refresh after all that physical exertion.
9. Ramen (ラーメン)
Ramen is a staple for any visitor to Japan. There are many varieties so it would be best to be aware of what’s available before going.
The three standard broth options are shio (塩; salt), miso (味噌), and tonkotsu (豚骨; pork). At most ramen restaurants, you order beforehand from a machine, where you can also customize your dish – you can choose the thickness and amount of noodles, or even to add extra toppings.
Another less-known option to try is tsukemen (つけ麺). This off-shoot of ramen comes with the broth and noodles served separately. The broth is slightly thicker, used instead as a dipping sauce. Not even a century old, this unique dish is definitely worth a try for any ramen lover.
10. Sushi (寿司)
Probably the most famous Japanese cuisine in the world, the sushi you get in Japan puts the sushi you can get in almost any other country to shame.
Broadly speaking, there are two main types you’ll find – makizushi (巻き寿司), the sushi rolled in rice and seaweed that’s common in the US, and nigirizushi (握り寿司), which is a cut of raw fish over a roll of rice and more common in Japan. Most sushi places will serve you by the plate with two pieces of nigirizushi per order, or one for the pricier cuts, and six rolls of small makizushi. Of course, you can get dishes which will serve a whole range of different fish at a discount, but for picky eaters, it may be wiser to approach the meal one plate at a time.
Again, your service will depend whether you head to a chain or an independently run store. Chains such as Sushiro (スシロー) will usually have a conveyor belt (回転寿司; kaiten-zushi), and a tablet to order plates which aren’t currently circling around. At an independently run sushi restaurant, you usually order directly from the chef and the sushi will be prepared before your eyes. It goes without saying that the closer you are to the sea, the fresher, and therefore tastier, the fish is.
Also, if there is the opportunity, be sure to try out the kaisendon, a relative of the earlier mentioned donburi. Literally meaning “seafood bowl”, you can enjoy a bowl of rice topped with a variety of diced, raw fish.
There are many other delicious types of cuisine you can get in Japan. Be sure to keep an eye out for delicious Okinawan food, or local specialties like the interestingly named jingisukan (yes, named after that Ghengis Khan) from Hokkaido, or champon from Nagasaki!