Eating in Japan is like a embarking on a treasure hunt in a vast, mysterious place. Explore the bizarre and wonderful products you can purchase and order. Marvel at the ingenious use of English on labels and menus. If you’re not sure what something on a menu is, be adventurous and try it anyway! Ask your waiter for his or her recommendation and just go with it! Most important, keep an open mind!
Vegetarians, pescetarians, and vegans may have heard quite a bit of discouraging information about eating in Japan. However, it’s certainly not as hard as many think. Check out the section on being Vegetarian and Vegan in Japan for more info.
To make shopping and dining easier, download a Japanese-English dictionary application to your smart phone so you can conveniently look up words you don’t know. Imiwa and Japanese are convenient options. Learning kanji associated with menus and food labels will go a long way.
Before leaving home, stuff your face with all your favorite foods. Even though you can almost certainly find or recreate your favorite cuisine, it may not be the same or the hassle may not be worth it. Don’t start off your culinary adventures in Japan wishing you’d made one more trip to Chipotle!
Shopping for food
As mentioned above, your first shopping experience in Japan will likely be incredibly overwhelming. Until you get used to supermarkets and conbinis, you’ll probably spend a lot of time wandering the aisles trying to work out exactly what it is you’re looking at. Your main options for buying food are:
- Convenience stores (Konbini): Lawson, Seven Eleven, Family Mart, Mini Stop: these stores are the backbone of Japan. They sell quite a lot of products, including alcohol, drinks, packaged meals, snacks, and stationery. You can find them everywhere and anywhere, and most are open 24/7, 365 days a year. They often have ATMs and also provide basic postal services. You can even pay your bills at them – everything from gas utilities to an airplane ticket to Seoul. Head for your local convenience store, but be aware that prices are a bit higher than elsewhere. Given their size and how ubiquitous they are, they are much more manageable than supermarkets for quick trips.
- Supermarkets (Suupa): For larger food runs, supermarkets are the best option. You’ll probably do most of your food shopping at your local supermarket, where you’ll find almost all the essentials you would in a supermarket anywhere in the world: bread, pasta, fruits, vegetables, sauces, milk, meat, rice, yogurt, juice, noodles, beer, wine, spirits, candy, etc. Food culture in Japan emphasizes fresh, seasonal food, so look forward to enjoying high-quality fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Expect a smaller selection of frozen and canned options. Supermarkets also carry a good selection of household and hygiene products. Prices may be more expensive that what you’re used to, especially for foods like cheese and butter that aren’t as prevalent in a Japanese diet. Supermarkets in large shopping malls tend to have better selections than standalone stores.
- Vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. Most sell drinks, but you can also find machines that sell snacks, beer, giant bags of rice, and even bananas. Like supermarkets, vending machines adapt their product lineup to the season: expect to see hot drinks appear around November as the weather begins to turn cold. As is the case with convenience stores, vending machines are a little pricier than supermarkets.
The options above will provide you with almost all of the ingredients you need to cook any dish, but there will come a time when you are searching for an ingredient that just isn’t sold in your area. Don’t despair! There are plenty of options for tracking down those hard-to-find and imported ingredients. Think of it as less of a hassle and more of an adventure! The following stores offer a selection of foreign foods:
- Kaldi (located in Youme Town in Saga City)
- Jupiter (located in Mallage in Saga City)
- A-Price (located in Saga City, with other locations throughout the prefecture)
- Toy R’ Us (seriously)
- Don Quixote (located in Saga City near Youme Town)
Costco, located in Fukuoka Prefecture, is also a great option if you have both a car and a membership. For those who don’t, you can consider using The Flying Pig or Hilo Market, both services which will deliver goods from Costco.
If physical stores fail you, there are a number of online marketplaces:
- iHerb for lots of organic and health foods, as well as supplements and personal care products
- Rakuten for a hit-or-miss collection of various foreign items
- Amazon can link you to various smaller shops that ship to Japan
- The Meat Guy sells high-quality meat and cheese which, can be hard to obtain in Japan
- The Foreign Buyer’s Club
- Indojin stocks many ingredients for Indian cuisine which are otherwise very expensive in Japan
There are a few items you might wish to consider packing with you due to the price or difficulty to obtain them, though. For one, vitamins are quite expensive, so consider bringing enough to last a while. If you anticipate making recipes that you used at home, you might want to bring measuring cups and spoons or arrange for some to be shipped to you. A standard Japanese cup is 200mL, which is smaller than the cup sizes used elsewhere. Similarly, measuring spoons are commonly available in 5mL and 10mL sizes; if you use something different you might want to bring it. Americans will want to make sure they are comfortable with the metric system, since most Japanese recipes are not Standard-friendly (this includes temperatures).
Cooking at home
Your apartment will have a refrigerator and a gas-burning stove. You will most likely also have a rice cooker and a microwave provided by your board of education (BOE) or predecessor. Your microwave may even function as an oven: check for オーブン (oven in katakana). Note that ovens are much smaller and will require getting used to. It is certainly not unheard of to have to purchase a combination microwave/oven for your apartment.
There is no need to bring any kind of appliance with you; the voltage is probably different, and you can purchase any products you are missing. Second-hand shops usually have a wide selection of goods in almost-new condition, and Amazon, Rakuten, and Costco provide wider selections if you desire.
For other kitchen implements (pots, pans, utensils, gadgets, etc), check out Nitori, Seiyu, Daiso and other ￥100 shops, and more upscale stores like Orange House, etc. You can probably even find a wider variety of kitchen accoutrements in Japan than your own country.
The biggest difference between restaurants in Japan and those in the U.S. is that you don’t tip! This makes a meal a slightly better deal than you might initially think it is. You may even find that dining out is very inexpensive compared to what you are used to. In general, Japanese restaurants serve smaller portions than Western ones, so you’ll probably eat all of what you order. As a result, most restaurants don’t offer the option of taking home leftovers (though you can feel free to ask).
If you love trying new foods and are willing to take a few risks when you get here you’ll be rewarded with a lot of great choices. For a sampling of what each area has to offer food-wise, check out the individual district pages. Most include a list of popular restaurants. Expect the following options:
Ramen is a delicious bowl of noodles in various types of soup. It’s a cheap, tasty, and very filling option, and ever so much better with a plate of gyoza (grilled dumplings). In Kyushu, ramen is made with a tonkotsu (pork bone) broth. Ippudo, an international chain that had its start in Fukuoka, is the undisputed champion of tonkotsu ramen. Tantanmen is a popular variation made with a spicy sesame broth. Fukuoka also has its own style of ramen, called Hakata ramen.
Soba and udon noodles are two other popular noodle options. Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served cold to be dipped in sauce or hot in a soup; they’re an interesting alternative to ramen and much more healthful. Udon are thick noodles also served in a soup or in curry. Both are found in many types of restaurants, including those that specialize in the noodles themselves.
Sushi is often cheaper and better than what you’d get back home. A popular way to enjoy this delicious and healthful meal is at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant (kaiten-zushi) where one plate will set you back about 100 yen. For vegetarians, there are many agreeable alternatives such as cucumber and corn sushi. But be wary of fish-based dashi; it’s commonly used as flavoring in tamago yaki (egg cake) and inari (tofu skin).
Sashimi is raw fish, but, unlike sushi, it has no rice. It can be more expensive than sushi, but is an amazing, authentic Japanese experience. Sometimes you can even see it being prepared, which is an art unto itself.
Yakitori means “grilled chicken”, but in reality it encompasses a variety of skewered, grilled foods. Expect to be able to order various types and parts of a chicken, beef, seafood, vegetables, tofu, and the occasional pork.
Izakaya are bar-restaurants that serve a broad variety of Japanese and Western foods. It is best to find ones that offer all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai), all-you-can-eat (tabehoudai), or a combination thereof. These places usually run between 3000-4500 yen for nomi/tabehoudai. Izakaya can be found under ever spreading tree in Japan, so ask around, make friends, and enjoy a night out on the town!
Non-Japanese restaurants in Saga include Italian, French, Indian, Korean, Jamaican, Chinese, and fast food (KFC and McDonald’s — or Mos Burger, the Japanese alternative). They’re usually found in and around the larger cities and towns. Most pizza in Japan is quite different than what you’ll be used to (and expensive to boot), but good pizza can be found if you know where to look (i.e. Dominos). Contrary to popular belief, you can also get steak, but you’ll usually find cheaper and better cuts of meat at a Yakiniku (Korean-style BBQ) restaurant. For the homesick, choices from home are particularly plentiful Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture, due to the United States Navy base there, and in the largest city in Kyushu, Fukuoka City.
Eating at school
Information on eating at your particular level of school can be found in the respective school sections.