Eating in Japan is a fascinating beast. On one hand the Japanese clearly have an amazing food culture, from the amazingly good curry udon to the four course 70 dollar puffer fish dinner for ONE. And then on your other hand grasping that rusty sawed off shotgun you’re hiding behind the counter are the cheap and dirty bento meals that have a bare sprinkling of vegetation and the exchange of all things chicken or fishy into karrage. Sometimes you feel immersed in the rich and authentic food culture that you see on travel and cooking shows, but more often than not you can’t go to a supermarket or convenience store without seeing the true Japanese food of the masses and wonder how the hell these people stay so bloody thin.
Fortunately the following isn’t a rant about the dietary habits of Japan(or me for that matter). Instead the following is a list things that may surprise you about getting grub in Japan.
The Rule of Starch and Meat
Japanese eat a lot of starch, be it rice, noodle or bread. Your meals will come with a healthy dose of rice usually and the supermarket is practically overflowing with various wonder breads. If you live a low carb lifestyle abandon all hope, it is not possible in Japan. At the same time Japan eats a shocking amount of meat. Really. Having eaten sushi all my life, had Japanese relatives and friends and been part of a Judo club I felt extremely confident in my Japanese food expertise. I wasn’t convinced I knew all aspects of Japanese food, but I was confident it was mainly going to be the weird and wild that surprised me.
I was wrong.
Japanese eat a lot of meat. Festivals have fried chicken everywhere, its like the Japanese equivalent to a hot dog stand. There are a dozen different BBQ joints in spitting distance of my work and at least half as many all you can eat BBQ places that are busy EVERY night. There are far more bentos with meat than fish, and even then fish isn’t being eaten by the young whippersnappers. The younger generation has a gotten a taste for red meat and they aren’t going back.
Ask yourself one question: have you ever been to a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver(or Seattle, LA, Toronto, etc) that serves curry? I’m willing to bet a good bottle of scotch that the answer is no. Back home I never saw Japanese curry. Ever. It wasn’t The Great White Whale of Japanese food, the philosophers stone or the Land That Time Forgot. It wasn’t a thing in any joint I hit up. Hell, Japanese supermarkets in Vancouver don’t have curry. It is non-existent.
But hop on over across the Big P and what do I find? Curry! Everywhere! Curry breakfast buns, curry udon, curry ramen, curry and rice, curry steamed buns, curry bento! The Japanese are nuts for curry in ways I never expected in my entire life. And in the typical Japanese fashion of overthinking and designing something, curry restaurants like CoCo Ichiban let you customize your curry in ways you never imagined. Choose your flavour of curry, colour of curry, consistency, spiciness, meat, vegetation, and extras. This stuff can be ordered over the phone and delivered! Japan. Loves. Curry.
Back home All-You-Can-Eat sushi is the “fast food” sushi and for a lot of people its the standard way they eat sushi. And sushi usually comes in roll or maki form. But not out here. Kaiten sushi is the “fast food” sushi of Japan, those restaurants where food comes around on a conveyor belt and you can order by tablet in Japanese or English.
These sushi joints mostly do nigiri sushi with an occasional smattering of roll or maki sushi. Nigiri is the way the vast majority of sushi is done out here and they will put ANYTHING on that little lump of rice. I do mean anything. Fried talapia? Done. Roast beef? Check. Bacon? Check. BBQ salmon with a mint? You got it. Lamb with mango chutney? I haven’t seen it yet, but give me some time in Tokyo. If roll is your style of choice you better be ready to adapt and accept the odd and unusual.
It’s everywhere. Learn to love it because its basically THE fast food of Japan. I can usual go in, sit down, order and eat all in 10 minutes. It costs in the range of seven to 10 bucks(over 10 is considered expensive) and that’s with a set meal of rice and egg. If you don’t like ramen, may I recommend you have yourself waterboarded until you do? I prefer pho to ramen, but thats not because ramen is bad. It’s great and amazing out here and the ramen in Vancouver does not compare.
Oh, and don’t drink the soup. Taste it, but don’t drink it. It is shockingly unhealthy for you, salt and fat out the wazoo.
If you want cheap food convenience stores are not the way to go. Nor is McDonalds or ramen. Supermarkets have by far and away the cheapest bentos you will find on a regular basis. One place in town has a full sized bento(larger than the ones at the supermarket near my work) for 3 bucks. Just let that sink in. For 10 bucks a day you can eat a prepared meal for breakfast lunch and dinner.
And the supermarket sushi will not get you sick. This isn’t the 7-11 sushi you’ve heard about. It’s properly done sushi that is honestly very solid. I get it fairly regularly. If you’re budgeting hard and cooking isn’t one of your fortes, supermarkets will do you right. Combinis will have the same stuff for more and with less. Don’t bother.
As a final note, you can’t take away any food you don’t finish in Japanese restaurants. They do not do it and will not do it for you. Suck it up princess. Japan is a very wasteful country, get used to it.