The Japanese are strict rule-followers by nature, with signs and rules posted all over the country, varying from how to hold your bag on an escalator to not eating whilst walking.
Japanese sign - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
And restaurants in Japan are no exception. Indeed, even booking a table in advance can be difficult because most restaurants don’t work alongside tour operators or travel agents. Some even have strict conditions which you must agree to before making a reservation. Here I hope to help explain some of the best ways to enjoy the food this incredible country has to offer, without having to worry about making a reservation…
Izakaya bar - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
Head to an Izakaya
These are the best place to meet the locals and spend an evening. They’re teeny-tiny bars, usually with about five seats or standing room only – almost like a sort of tapas bar. Some have menus written on the walls with local dishes, while others simply serve the day’s top choices depending on what they bought at the markets. You even get izakayas that only offer drinks and tiny savoury snacks on the side! The important thing to know about them, though, is that they tend to be clumped together. In one izakaya we entered in Golden Gai, Tokyo, the bartender decided to lavish me with gifts – I was handed a flashing plastic cherry ring, a Venetian mask and a light-up fairy wand. With the language barrier, I never did find out what it meant, but he also gave the same items to the four other patrons inside who, despite being salarymen (Japanese white-collar workers), all put them on too! Everyone seemed to be up for a bit of fun.
Food and drink at an izakaya - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
Choose to try some sake (a rice wine that’s usually around 15-25% abv, although the bottle will rarely tell you the exact figure), plum wine, or Chu-Hi – a drink made with local liquor, soda and a flavour unique to the izakaya. This might be lemon, lime, pickled ginger, lychee, turmeric – all sorts! Some izakayas specialise in certain drinks but most will have a selection of beer and the odd Western spirit too.
A traditional kaiseki dinner - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
When staying at the traditional Ryokans, you’ll normally be asked to don a kimono before being served a wonderful array of dishes as part of a kaisaki dinner. Expect multi-courses showing a huge array of skills and techniques which you just don’t see in the Western world. These are not for the faint-hearted, and not really for fussy eaters, or anyone with an allergy.
Kaiseki dish – beautifully served raw prawns and tuna - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
Expect to be served raw fish and shellfish, mushrooms, a broth, and perhaps even to grill your own piece of meat or mushrooms. This style of dining is usually included in the room rate, and breakfast isn’t much different to dinner either. Don’t count on bacon and eggs for breakfast, or even toast in some Ryokans.
Pick and barbecue your own mushrooms - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
We’re all more familiar with katsu dishes now they have become a popular dish in many UK eateries (Wagamama, we’re looking at you). These irresistible breaded cutlets are usually served with a delicious nutty curry sauce alongside shredded or pickled cabbage and rice.
In some restaurants, you choose your katsu dish – whether it be pork or chicken – and then are given the raw sauce ingredients along with a pestle and mortar, so you can grind your own Katsu-style curry sauce. One example of this style of restaurant is in the CUBE shopping centre in Kyoto, on the top floor, named Katsukura.
Cooking our own wagyu katsu - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
However, why not try wagyu katsu? In an underground restaurant in Tokyo, you are served the breaded meat but it’s served very rare (almost blue) and you actually have your own grill to cook it to your liking – simply delicious. Served with salads, rice, dipping sauces and tea, it’s the perfect meal.
Ramen dishes - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
A staple dish in Japan, you will come across many opportunities to try a bowl of steaming hot miso broth filled with meats, noodles, mushrooms, vegetables, eggs and more. Some eateries even have a form of vending machine out front dispensing this delicious noodle soup. All you need do is pop in your cash, choose the bowl of choice, take a seat and the food is served to you. The menu will rarely be in English but there will often be a photo to reflect what you are ordering. Moreover, it’s considered polite to slurp in Japan so don’t be ashamed to get the bowl right in your face!
Ramen close-up - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
Train travel is a huge part of Japanese culture but, what makes it all the more special is the vast array of meals and snacks you can buy at the stations to enjoy onboard. Pick up a tray of sushi, a chocolate or custard-filled (and fish-shaped!) pastry, onigiri (a triangular-shaped rice ball with a filling surrounded by nori seaweed and packaged in a convenient wrapper, so you can eat without getting your fingers sticky), or a simple plum jam or katsu chicken sandwich.
It started with cat cafés, but now the options are endless. Hedgehogs cafés, owl cafés, miniature pig cafés and so much more. Don’t be fooled by the titles though, these places are more about seeing the animals as opposed to actually dining. Admission will include a drink from a vending machine, but the joy is seeing how beloved and cared for the animals are here. To arrange your visit, head to the café first thing and purchase your entrance ticket, you’ll then be given a time to come back for entry.
Themed café bathroom - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
Alternatively, there are plenty of other non-animal themed cafés. Tokyo’s famous Robot Restaurant can be booked as part of your holiday package with us; you’ll be served a tray of delicious food and get to watch a larger-than-life pop-culture show at the same time! I also loved the Kawaii Monster Café near Tokyo’s Harajuku area. Think crazy meets cute meets sugar – family friendly with cocktails too! Step inside and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, Disney’s got nothing on this place.
Kawaii Monster Café - (image: Jennifer Poynton)
An overload of colour and crazy characters, there are four distinct areas from bizarre, to cutesy, to a mushroom disco with unicorns and jellyfish. Just sit in a teacup and watch icing drip down the walls as you tuck into some neon-coloured dishes. Several performances take place during the day, when the techno music and truly Instagrammable poses come out.