Figuring out what to eat in another country can be challenging. You might have visions in your head of strange seafood dishes or foods you cannot decipher, but let me assure you that you will have no problem finding plenty to eat in Japan, even if you are the pickiest of eaters.
There’s so much more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and ramen. Did you know that Japan boasts some of the finest cuisine in the world? They also have some amazing ‘casual food’, street food and local delicacies that you’ll wish you could get back home!
In this article I have outlined what you can expect from mealtimes, menus and more. Everything you need to figure out how and what to eat in Japan!
What To Expect For Your 3 Meals
Breakfast & Coffee
This isn’t a super common meal in Japan and many coffee shops don’t open until 10 or 11am. Your best bet for a North American breakfast is McDonalds (they will hand you a menu that you can point to all of your choices, which include photos). Starbucks is everywhere and opens early, which is great if you’re jet-lagged when you arrive like we were (P.S. Starbucks and McDonalds are cheaper there than they are at home).
You can also visit one of the many, many amazing pastry shops. The pastries in Japan are better than anything we’ve had anywhere else, including Paris! If you want fruits, pastries, or other breakfast-like things, then head to a large train station as there are TONS of places to grab food underground there.
Most lunch places are open from 11am-2pm and then close until 5pm for dinner, so be conscious of this time window because if you’re looking for lunch after 2pm, it can be tricky to find a place that is open. Most lunch options include ramen, soba, bowls, tempura and the occasional Yakiniku place. You can often order a lunch “set” (shown below with soba noodles) that features a number of different items. If all else fails, head to a 7-11 or a train station for some takeout.
Lunch establishments fill up quickly, but people are usually in and out with expediency in order to get back to work in a timely fashion, so don’t be too discouraged by lines.
Another amazing Japanese lunch treat for you to try is their curry dishes! These curries are like nothing you’ve tried before and are a bit difficult to describe. It’s almost like a curry gravy served over rice and a breaded chicken or pork cutlet. It’s warm and delicious and serves as incredible comfort food on a rainy day. You can often find these dishes at train and ferry stations.
If you want a reservation somewhere, you can get the concierge at your hotel to call and make it for you (Open Table isn’t there yet!) and/or head to the restaurant and put your name on the list in person for a later time. Places tend to fill up quickly so keep this in mind.
If you want Yakiniku, you’ll have to get there right at 5pm when they open and/or get on a list – these places fill up super fast, especially our favorite, Gyu-Kaku (there is one here in Calgary on 6th and 6th SW) if you want to try it before you go!.
5 Things To Expect When Eating in Japan
Street food is pretty inexpensive as are local markets and convenience stores. Most takeout or items like coffee, pastries, snacks, etc. are less expensive than in North America. A ‘nice dinner’ out is close to the equivalent of what you would pay at a restaurant in North American cities. Sushi restaurants can be quite pricy (among the most expensive food that you will find) but there are some less expensive Sushi options as well.
Types of Food (A Quick Overview):
There are so many different kinds of Japanese food to try and each region has a local delicacy that they specialize in, too. There is sushi, which I think we are all familiar with, Yakiniku: Japanese BBQ, often where you grill your own meats and veggies, Teppanyaki style (think Benihana Habachi), Ramen and Soba (buckwheat) noodles, Teriyaki and so much more.
Japanese beef is also fantastic. All of their beef is Wagyu beef there, as opposed to being something extra special on the menu like it is here. If you have the option to visit a steakhouse or a Yakiniku restaurant, I highly recommend it.
There are a lot of delicacies with rice/rice flour, items with Matcha in them and probably the best soft serve you’ve ever eaten (all made with real, organic fruit). You will also see the most pristine produce you’ve ever seen in your life. The best place to try sweets is in Kyoto where they specialize in sweets and all things Matcha.
Try to be as open minded as possible to the different foods available to you in Japan as it is such an amazing part of the culture. It may be the one place that I visited where I ate the most food (and I am a notoriously picky eater).
If you suffer from food allergies, bring a card with you with your allergies written out in Japanese that you can present to restaurant staff before ordering to ensure you don’t get sick.
More often than not, when you are seated at a restaurant in Japan and you are not visibly Japanese, you will be provided with an English menu with pictures of the offerings. If the server does not speak enough English, simply pointing to the dish(es) you wish to order will be sufficient.
How to Eat Street Food:
In Japan, eating while walking is considered rude and is frowned upon. But given the number of street food vendors, how do you eat while on the go? Each vendor or collection of vendors will have a common area of benches or high top tables and counters where you can sit and enjoy your snack or meal before carrying on walking again. The only thing we saw people in Japan eating while walking was soft-serve ice cream (a must-try in my opinion).