Forget Italy and France. There’s nowhere better in the world for a consistently excellent culinary experience than Japan. Japanese cuisine comes in many forms and can satisfy all kinds of appetites and preferences. To best experience all that Japanese cuisine has to offer, we bring you a foodie introduction to Japanese dining.
Types of restaurants
In Western countries, most Japanese restaurants are typically varied and offer some combination of sushi, ramen, and fried specialties. But in Japan, many restaurants are specialized by cuisine, which ensures that chefs are experts at this one specific type of food. These are just some of the most common types of restaurants in Japan, though the list is not by any means exhaustive.
Yakitori literally translates to “grilled chicken.” Yakitori restaurants specialize in skewered chicken which is typically in a relaxed environment where drinking is also common. Though chicken breast or thigh are most popular, all parts of the chicken can be grilled to suit adventurous palates.
Izakayas are the Japanese equivalent to a bar and grill. Izakaya restaurants are relatively informal restaurants where people often go have beer and some food after work. That doesn’t mean the food is second rate. In fact, some of the best food we had in Japan, from fresh fish to yakisoba noodles, was from an unassuming izakaya.
Katsu is the Japanese word for meat that’s covered in bread crumbs and fried. Katsu restaurants are so specialized that they’re usually specific to one type of meat. Tonkatsu, for example, refers to breaded pork whereas gyukatsu refers to breaded beef. Torikatsu is specifically breaded chicken, which is sometimes served with curry sauce.
For many, Japan is the holy grail of sushi though many Westerners are surprised by the lack of large and complex sushi rolls. When you eat sushi in Japan, it will be nigiri – perfect bite-size slices of fresh fish on a bed of rice. Sushi restaurants vary according to price point and dining style, and I recommend you try all of them. High-end sushi restaurants often have a set menu which is based on whatever is freshest that day.
Other popular sushi restaurants in Japan including conveyor belt sushi and standing sushi restaurants. At conveyor belt restaurants, diners can serve themselves from varying dishes that float by them on a conveyor belt. Standing sushi restaurants are like sushi fast food and can be found in train stations or other busy areas where patrons might need to stop by for a quick lunch.
Kaiseki dining refers to haute multi-course dining restaurants where you can experience a variety of Japanese cooking techniques in one place. Kaiseki cuisine dates back to traditional tea ceremonies and was designed to provide small snacks and cakes along with tea. Now it represents high-end dining experiences that feature many types of small attractive dishes served in traditional restaurants with tatami seating, where you sit on a mat on the floor. These kinds of traditional restaurants are popular in Kyoto.
Yakiniku is a type of grilled cuisine where finely cut pieces of meat are cooked, often by the diners themselves on a mesh or iron plate over a coal, gas, or electric grill. Most yakiniku restaurants offer a variety of meats to grill at varying prices and quality, so you may cook yourself some vegetables and chicken or splurge and grill the best rated wagyu beef on the menu.
Teppanyaki is a cuisine that exclusively uses an iron griddle to cook. You’d be surprised by the amount of dishes you can make on a griddle, making this a great type of Japanese restaurant to try a variety of local dishes including yakisoba, steak, gyoza, and okonomiyaki (savory Japanese pancake).
Often served in the same restaurants, udon and soba noodles are a staple of Japanese cuisine. Udon noodles are thick wheat noodles that are typically served in a broth with veggies or meat. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and can be served in a similar way. Udon and soba restaurants may offer several broth flavors and soups can be customized with a variety of proteins or veggies.
Though ramen is considered poor college student food in the West, ramen in Japan is a big part of the culinary landscape. Ramen restaurants are typically simple and inexpensive, so they are busy constantly. In fact, some ramen restaurants are open 24 hours a day. In many ramen restaurants, you order from a machine where you can customize your bowl of ramen and pay before sitting down.
Tempura restaurants specialize in deep frying seafood and vegetables in a light batter, so the resulting dish is crunchy but doesn’t feel too heavy. Shrimp, fish, and meaty veggies like mushrooms, pumpkin, and eggplant are common foods that are served tempura-style.
Popular street food
Of course, the dedication to culinary perfection doesn’t just extend to Japanese restaurants. In fact, chowing down on some street food is one of the best ways to experience Japanese food. Though eating while walking is considered rude, there are plenty of yatai (food carts) around popular tourist attractions and in food markets where you can enjoy an assortment of goodies. It’s good etiquette to eat in front of the stall where you bought the food and return your trash to them before you go on your way.
Some of the most interesting savory dishes you definitely want to try include:
- Takoyaki, which is a bite-sized ball of batter and octopus pieces that is topped with sweet sauce and bonito flakes.
- Okonomiyaki – a savory pancake that is full of rich ingredients such cabbage and other veggies, egg, shrimp, octopus, or beef.
- Kushiten, which is a fried fish or shrimp cake that is served like a lollipop on a stick.
- Onigiri – a triangular Japanese rice ball that can have different fillings such as tuna or red bean paste. In addition to food stalls, this is a popular thing to eat from convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
- Dango, which are mochi-like dumpling balls grilled on a skewer and dipped in sweet sauce.
- Candied fruit like strawberries or grapes.
- Crepes, which are usually served in a paper cone and stuffed with all kinds of fillings like fruit, chocolate, or cream.
- Kakigori shaved ice, which comes in various fruit flavors.
- Daifuku, a delicate fruit-filled mochi.
- Taiyaki, or as I like to call them “the fishes,” which are sweet fish-shaped pancakes filled with red bean paste, custard, or chocolate.
Understanding Japanese queue culture
As with public transportation, popular restaurants from simple ramen shops to steakhouses often have an orderly queue outside. This means many of the most hyped restaurants in Japan will require a wait due to their popularity. Unlike many Western restaurants where you can put down your name and return when they notify you that a table is ready, you’re required to wait in person. Part of the reason for this is that they sometimes take your order while you’re waiting in line so that your food is ready for you as soon as a table is ready. This helps make the line go faster.
As a general rule, if reviews for a place suggest that the wait is 1-2 hours, it’s in your best interest to go before they open. Arriving just 10-15 minutes ahead of opening time can guarantee you a table in the first seating.
Getting restaurant reservations in Japan
If you don’t fancy waiting in line to have dinner, there are plenty of restaurants that take reservations. Many restaurants don’t have their own web reservation system, so they rely on third party websites – which are often only in Japanese – to manage reservations. So you’ll probably need to create several accounts with sites like Hot Pepper and Tabelog before traveling to Japan. You may be required to reserve with a Japanese phone number, in which case the hotel number where you’re staying is usually fine. If you can reserve via email, read the email carefully. Many restaurants ask you to confirm your reservation again after they first respond to confirm your desired time.
You’ll notice higher end restaurants take reservations more often than your average izakaya. This also means that you may be required to pay for a specific set menu in advance. In such cases, there is usually a penalty for cancelling within a certain time period, which is usually some percentage of what you paid in advance.
Some restaurant recommendations
These are the places that stood out most on our trip to Japan, each a wonderful introduction to traditional Japanese food.
KABUKI Sushi, Tokyo
Located in Shinjuku, this is hands down the best sushi we had on our trip, and it’s a top contender for some of the best sushi I’ve had in my life. You can make reservations online ahead of time, and sushi is sold by the piece or according to different set menus. The sushi is both beautiful and delicious, but the vibe is comfortable and laid back.
Tsukiji Sushi Sei, Tokyo
Though it has a reputation for being a tourist trap, there is no denying that Tsukiji Outer Market is a great place to get incredibly fresh sushi. You’ll have your pick of many sushi restaurants in the heart of the market, but I can only speak for Sushi Sei. With two floors of counter seating and one tatami room on the third for large groups, the sushi chefs are incredibly welcoming and the sushi is top tier.
Kikyo Sushi, Kyoto
This great sushi restaurant can be reserved via email, but some people try their luck waiting in line and succeed. The sushi is fresh and can be paired with tempura. You can expect a welcoming atmosphere where you’ll want to stay for a beer or sake.
Beef and wagyu
Gyukatsu Motomura, Tokyo and Kyoto
This is actually a chain that exclusively serves reasonably priced beef cutlets with a basic set menu of rice and several other sides including a small mochi dessert. The beef is fried medium rare and you can finish it on a tabletop stone to your liking. They don’t take reservations and the lines can be very long, but some of their shops are more popular than others. For instance, the shop in the Coredo shopping mall in Tokyo is likely to have a short or no wait at all.
Teppan Tavern Tenamoya, Kyoto
This husband-and-wife teppanyaki restaurant has among their varied offering the best steak I’ve ever had, a perfectly A5 grilled wagyu steak, which is the highest wagyu beef rating. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, even though the email reservation process can be intimidating. Everything on the menu from the yakisoba to the okonomiyaki is stellar, although you’ll probably just want to order more steak.
Located in Tokyo Ramen Street, this is one of Tokyo’s most popular Tsukemen ramen restaurants in Tokyo. Tsukemen are cold Japanese noodles that you can dip in broth, though you can get a warm bowl of ramen here as well. I loved it for its melt-in-your mouth pork that comes in the ramen. You can’t make a reservation at this simple ramen shop, and it will have one of the longest lines in Tokyo Ramen Street, but that’s only a testament to its awesomeness.
Ichiran, all over Japan
This is such a popular Japanese chain that it has made its way abroad. In Japan, Ichiran is so popular that its 24-hour restaurants have a line at all hours, but there’s nothing better than a hearty bowl of ramen after you land in Tokyo at 5 am and everything else is closed. Like Rokurinsha and many other ramen places, you’ll have to order from a machine and then wait in another line to sit. It’s the perfect place to eat alone since the counter seats are completely private.
Shina Soba Ken, Fujikawaguchiko
This small family-owned restaurant has a line out the door with locals on their lunch break, but it’s worth the wait. In addition to their amazing ramen, their fried rice is extremely popular, and it did not disappoint. Come with an appetite; the portions are generous.
One of the more delightful meals we had in Japan was at Tanpopo, which is only searchable on Google Maps as たんぽぽ. When I told the owner/server that I had a shrimp allergy (via the translator machine she used), she said “We don’t use high quality ingredients such as this in our humble izakaya.” And then she proceeded to serve us an incredible assortment of sashimi, fish, tempura, croquettes, and other fried goodies. It’s a great place to sit and eat among locals.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Japan?