This post shows how I made my way through the heap of fish and pork to eat healthy veg food in Japan. Also, how Ashrith devoured seafood without any guilt.
- Japan Dining etiquettes
- Types of food Joints.
- Typical meals
- Facts about Japan’s Food
- Japanese Drinks
- Surviving in Japan as a vegetarian
- Food we loved in Japan
- Is Japanese food actually good?
What is proper dining etiquette in Japan?
We highly recommend taking food tour or a Tuna auction tour at the beginning of your Japan expedition that takes you through Japanese food markets and street food areas. So that you will learn how/where/what food to eat in Japan like the locals do.
These may seem like a lot of rules. But when you are in Japan, following this isn’t hard. When in doubt, ask Japanese. They teach you with a broad smiles on their face.
- Use wet towels provided at restaurants to clean only your hands before eating. I wiped my camera body with it once and got a puzzled look from the chef!
- Japanese say ” “Itadakimasu” while receiving food from waiters. It means –
“I receive the food with gratitude” and it is nice if you do the same.
- Remove shoes at food joints that have Tatami mats for flooring.
Some food joints in Japan may have specific rules which they usually display right at the entrance. Like :
- Each person must buy at least one food and drink. So two in a restaurant buying one dish may not be allowed in some places.
- Busiest restaurants may have a time limit for sitting – Like one or two hours
Do Japanese people use chopsticks for everything?
The Japanese use chopsticks to eat rice, meat, noodles, salad, and almost everything else. Traditional and streetside food joints may not give you forks and spoons. Ashrith learned the art of using chopsticks quickly while I struggled and ate at a snail’s pace for all 19 days. So learn it before you go.
How do you use chopsticks correctly?
- Don’t stick chopsticks vertically on the rice. It resembles a Japanese funeral ritual.
- Holding chopsticks like a sword with all the fingers or crossing the two sticks is considered bad manners.
- Hold it like a pen, don’t bridge it on the bowl. Don’t drag the bowls with chopsticks – pull the bowls/plate using your hands.
What not to do when eating in Japan?
- Eating while walking is frowned upon.
- Don’t blow your nose or make a loud burp while having food in Japan – But slurping your noodles is considered as you appreciating the food in Japan.
- Re-arrange your dishes after the meal neatly while including replacing the lids on containers .
- Refrain from mixing two types of sauces together. For example, pouring soy sauce over cooked rice may make your chef cringe.
Ask waiters or chef if you don’t know how to eat Sushi.
- Holding the Sushi in the wrong direction may get you awkward stares.
- When eating from smaller bowls, pick up the bowl with your hand and lead it close to your mouth when eating from it.
- Finishing the meal to the last grain is considered good manners.
- Leftover food makes the chef/waiters worried – They think you didn’t like the food. If you’re so full that it’s impossible to finish your food, express your gratitude to the staff by saying “Oishi”, meaning Delicious.
Interesting facts about Food Joints in Japan
We have walked 195km in 19 days in small towns & big cities. Never were we far from a Shinto Shrine or a food joint in Japan.
Is it tough to order food in Japan’s restaurants?
Most restaurants in tourist-oriented neighbourhoods will have plastic replicas of food in their front window displace. Or photos on the menu, along with English descriptions. Otherwise, you can use Google Translate to know what you are about to eat.
So there exists dozens of variety of eating places.
Kauntaseki – The seating in front of the chef’s cooking counter. It allows you to chat with the chef. This is the best way to get insights into Japanese cuisine and culture. And our favourite type.
Boosuseki – Booth seating arrangement is common in casual dining places.
Recessed Floor Seating (Horigotatsu) – This is a traditional seating arrangement where the table is low to the ground. The floor is usually a Tatami mat, and you are given a cushion to sit on. This is not just limited to temple food joints. But some modern eateries also have this seating.
Yatai – Movable food stalls with two or three stools for sitting.
Based on the Ambience :
- Hibachi: Where you sit in front of the iron griddle or your table has an iron griddle.
- Izakaya: Japanese pubs where dining and drinking are casual. This place is the liveliest– laughter in the room filled with smoke from charcoal burning. Grilled and finger food is their signature.
- Shokudo: Family-run restaurants in a small set-up. They usually serve authentic Japanese food. These are the most inexpensive eateries and are locals’ favourites.
- Kissaten or coffee shops: Places that sell western things like Latte and Donuts. Doutorand Tully’s are also very popular. But Starbucks is the king of all. Japan was Starbucks’ first international location since it began in the USA in the 1970s. The small island nation stands in the 57th position in size. But ranks 4th in the number of Starbucks outlets.
What do the Japanese eat daily?
They eat healthy- Perhaps healthier than any other nation. Traditionally Japan’s diet, “Washoku”, is whole-food based, rich in seafood and a bit of rice. The definition of Washoku, in our understanding, goes like this – Simple, smaller, aesthetically pleasing, healthier light meals with fresh and seasonal ingredients only. They hardly add any processed ingredients.
They emphasise dishes’ natural flavours rather than masking them with sauces or seasonings. So, for example, if they say it is Soba with sea kelp, sea kelp will be the hero of the dish.
What is the main food of Japan?
- Japanese have 3 meals a day. Most meals, irrespective time of the day, come with rice and meat. Usually, there is no curry with rice, and it is accompanied by fish, seaweed, or boiled vegetables along with Soya sauce.
- Their meat preference goes in the order of : Fish, Beef, Pork, Other seafood and chicken. You hardly find lamb.
- Tamagoyaki is a tasty breakfast egg dish served in Japan.
- The lunch comes with meat on noodles or rice. In addition, you find raw egg given in a cup along with most of your lunch set.
- Red beans, AKA Azuki Beans, are common in most sweet dishes.
Interesting facts about Japan’s food
- They hardly use oil, chilli, garlic and tomato in their food.
- It doesn’t look like a lot of food, but it is.
- The Japanese love their sweets wrapped beautifully. So food packaging itself is a big industry in Japan.
- The food stalls in Japan will have a mindblowing display of fake food in front – They look super real and makes you drool over them.
- “Japan’s food varies drastically with the region. The Tokyo Sushi tastes way different from Osaka,”- Ashrith says.
- Japan has many patents over “Fishing cooking/preserving technique”- Including a technique to keep the fish aliive but immobile after captured so that it stays fresh until cut to cook!
- Japanese seafood markets are NOT for the faint-hearted! You see giant octopuses, some weird- slimy creatures ready to be eaten alive. The way they cut frozen Tuna at Toyosu market reminded me of psychopath series like Dexters. You will get grossed out easily.
Does Japan have good street food?
Don’t control your urge to try street food sold in a random cart. Japan has strict guidelines for food safety. We ate street food mostly as it is pocket friendly. Not even once we felt any discomfort.
The future “master chefs” wait your table.
The trainee chefs work in restaurants for years together under the Masterchef before they are allowed to handle fish. So the person who waits your table and serves you may be the Masterchef in the making. They earn decent wages. It is considered an insult to tip them.
What do Japanese drink with meals?
They serve hot green tea AKA Matcha, which is unlimited in most restaurants. It tastes like rice water – The water left over after making or soaking rice.Usually, it is kept in a kettle, and you pour it yourself.
Don’t be hesitant to ask for alcoholic drinks like beer for lunch except at temples. More than beer, their Sake ( Rice wine) is one of the best things you can have with your meals. It kicks you enough to make you feel lighter. And doesn’t leave you hung over.
Can you find veg food in Japan?
It may shock you as much as it did us to know that meat consumption is relatively new in Japan! Influenced by Buddhist tradition, the Japanese were restricted from eating meat. However, once Japan opened up to the western world in 1872, they fell in love with meat.
Does Japan’s food have a lot of vegetables?
The fish markets and local supermarkets sell tons of vegetables. Their meat-oriented meals will also have a heap of fresh veggies – But finding vegetarian food takes a lot of work.
Many Japanese consider fish a vegetarian food. The restaurant attendees got worried when I said, I don’t take seafood. Surprised, asked, “Not even sea shells.” So finding vegetarian food in Japan is more challenging than in Iran. The first two days were tough for me, and I ended up eating all three meals for 7-11 and croissants. But slowly, I figured out how to find good veg food beyond kombini.
How to find veg food in Japan?
The vegetarian cup noodles you find in supermarkets aren’t purely vegetarian, even though the shopkeeper says so. Because most of them will have- Dachi flakes. “Dachi”, AKA sardine fish flakes, is a common topping in almost every food in Japan. It looks like a pinkish-white flower or carved piece of radish.
Knowing basic Japanese phrases to say “I am vegetarian” won’t help you much. Your Japanese accent may convey a different message. Plus, you need to specify that you don’t even eat Dachi.
Using Google Translate worked like a charm instead of my broken Japanese.
It was easy for restaurant owners to understand what I needed. Knowing if veg food is available became easier.
Things to keep in mind while looking for veg food in Japan:
- The major ingredient in Japanese veg food is – sweet potato, seaweed, green onions and radish.
- Finding veg food was easier in Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nagano than in Tokyo and Nagoya.
- It is better to google Vegan restaurants than vegetarian restaurants. So that you are sure of getting your meal.
- There are only a few vegetarian foods in Japan. But they are healthy and tasty. So as a vegetarian, you can still try some authentic food instead of going continental.
- Veg Sushi is a real thing and not modified for tourists!
Does all types of Food Joints seve veg food in Japan?
You find the Best Vegan Food in Japan made by lovely people at Zirael in Kyoto
- Traditional smaller local food joints hardly sell anything vegetarian. So ask politely before getting seated with the help of the above screenshot.
- Temples serve awesome vegetarian set meals but are the most expensive. So consider temple dining as a one-time experience and not an everyday meal.
- Food joints famous among tourists create the Veg version of many Japanese dishes.
- Look for the “Leaf” symbol or green letters if the entire menu is in Japanese.
- When you find no veg food in Japan, head to the nearest Starbucks. They have two plant-based meals (as of December 2022) – Avocado Mexican wrap and a Soya sandwich. The first one is delicious.
- The next available choice is Lottera or MoS burger which has a soya patty burger.
- The last option should be heading to an Italian or Indian restaurant where you surely get at least one veg food.
Best Vegetrian Dishes in Japan:
Savoury pancake made with a base of egg and milk batter and toppings. This food is traditional to Hiroshima and very much influenced by American pancakes.
The signature dish of the local Japanese pub is essentially skewered chicken. But for us, they make it with Grilled Vegetables like Negi and mushrooms smeared with a special sweet sauce.
Wheat-based noodles are popular with-based soup. But don’t you worry. Vegan Ramen is getting quite popular in Japan recently.
Udon with seaweed & radish
Chewy, elastic, glossy white buckwheat noodles go awesome with many vegetables. You find these quick meals at shops near train stations mainly. While Soba is made of buckwheat with veggies didn’t taste as great as Udon.
What kind of Sushi is vegetarian?
Sushi translates to Vinegar rice’s sourness. But it is interchangeably used with fish. Hence, Veg Sushi in Japan is real and not a hooked-up dish to please vegetarian tourists. Maki sushi made with Cucumber slices wrapped in a thin roll of rice and edible seaweed makes a fine Sushi. Then, when you dip it in Soya sauce, you touch the doors of tasty heaven.
What are the top 8 Japanese foods?
Ashrith neither eats beef nor pork. So famous beef-based dishes like Wagyu of Kobe and pork-based Gyudon aren’t on this list. So here goes the list of Ashrith’s favourite non-veg food in Japan.
After tasting Sushi in Thailand, I wondered why people are crazy about this famous food in Japan! So, I took a Tuna auction tour to see how gigantic Tuna fish are and to witness the fish market vibe. Thank god, this tour showed me how real Sushis taste!
You have five types of Sushi in Japan.
- Uramaki – Meaning back and roll. Rice ball outside wraps seaweed and fish inside.
- Temaki – The seaweed layer is rolled like a cone (similar to the paper cone we Indians use to eat Kalle Poori), and the fillings are put inside. Usually, these are made at house parties because it is easy to serve.
- Maki – Like Temaki, the rice and fish are in the outside layer, and the seaweed leaf covers them in a smaller size.
- Nigiri – The most popular of all and the best of the three types of Sushi I had in Japan is Nigiri. This sushi is raw or cooked fish on top of a small rice ball, sometimes with some wasabi inside.
- Sashimi ( Not really Sushi) is raw fish (or meat), thinly sliced and often served on ice with soy sauce and wasabi without rice!
Apart from this, you can classify Sushi based on the kind of fish used. Like Tuna, Salmon, Shrimp and even Octopus! I enjoyed Osaka and Tokyo Sushi more than anywhere else.
2. Omu Rice
If you want to taste a Japan food that is rich in multiple flavours and leaves your taste buds tickled, taste Omu rice. Omurice, or omelette rice, is a Japanese rice-and-egg dish that fuses local cuisine with the Westerner’s love for ketchup.
This is perhaps one rare Japanese food that doesn’t have fish. Instead, fried rice is made along with various vegetables and meat. The rice is poured either with beef sauce or Soya Sauce. And the omelette that caps the rice heap is smeared with plentiful ketchup.
Is omurice popular in Japan?
In our opinion, the Japanese love food where flavours are unmasked. The individual ingredients are left to be the heroes instead of adding another flavour to subdue them. In contrast, Omu rice has several elements, and ketchup is the main ingredient. So, when you eat Omu Rice, you won’t. Instead, the taste is a team effort of dozens of ingredients. So, Omu Rice may not be the local’s “Go-to” dish every day. But popular among tourists.
Where can I find omurice in Japan?
More than any other city we visited in Japan, Kyoto is the place for Omu Rice. The legendary, social media-famous Kichi Kichi Omu rice deserves all the hype. The taste is unforgettable, the show is amazing, and the chef is the most energetic person we have ever met.
3. Chicken Karaage
Fried Chicken in Japan is another rare “fish-less” dish of Japan that goes excellent with rice. It is flavourful, juicy, ultra-crispy and mildly spicy. Usually, Chicken Karaage is served as part of the set menu in Japan. You can add toppings like raw egg or vegetables.
The best place to have Chicken Karaage in Japan is any Yoshinoya outlet.
The American pancake-influenced dish is made with eggs, flour, shredded cabbage, and meat blended in so well that and creates a magical event on your tongue. Typically, Okonomiyaki is pork belly based. But you find seafood like oysters and Octopus also.
5. Nooldes – Udon / Ramen and Soba.
Not having traditional Japanese noodles in Japan is a crime. The thin buckwheat Soba with chicken slices was an excellent hot meal at Mount Fuji. The wheat-based Ramen with seasoned cod roe and flavoured boiled egg felt like it was born to make me happy. Udon’s chewy texture went awesome with shrimp and tints of garlic.
Udon and Soba serve as fast food. So trying them at train/metro stations is cheaper and quicker.
6. Takoyaki – Octopus balls
When you walk in Osaka’s Dotonbori or Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood, you will spot at least 10 shops selling Takoyaki in 100m. The strips of Octopus, the sourness of pickled ginger and the freshness of green onions create a unique taste bonanza.
The special Takoyaki sauce poured on the balls looks like Soya sauce and tastes very different and delicious.
7. Grilled Oysters.
They are huge and won’t dry out too fast on the grill. They taste better when they squeeze a few drops of lemon into them. The smell of charcoal zest of citrus makes this a cheap and best street food.
This mouthwatering egg dish is slightly sweet, custardy in texture and looks like a Cheese cube! These are made by spreading egg on the hot pan, frequently flipping and rolling until it becomes a fluffy cube. This comes as a part of the Bento box, breakfast, and Sushi.
Best deserts and snacks in Japan
1. Cheese Cake
Jiggly cheesecake is one of the many Japanese things that went viral on social media. As a result, you may find hundreds of shops, including 7/11 selling packaged cheesecake. But nothing can beat Osaka’s Uncle Rikuro cheesecake.
It is fluffy, bouncy, and delicious with its flavours of cheese mixed with egg and raisins at the bottom. Be patient to wait 45 minutes to get it at the shop hot right from the oven.
2. Tofu Manjyu
Steamed cakes in Japan are the cheapest street food. Though it is just a snack, two or three buns can actually fill your stomach. The usual Manjyu have a beef filling. But in a place like Kyoto, you get Tofu or Soy pulp filling.
3. Kyo baum
Kyoto’s very own dessert is a matcha-infused sweet made using Soy milk. Because of this, it gets a soft and moist texture, with a pleasant mild taste of matcha. For the sweet tooth, this is an amazing souvenir to take back home – If only you use it within a week.
This is a Japanese dessert made of sweet rice flour. The dough is often tinted with green tea powder (matcha) or other food colourings. Wrapped around a sweet centre to form a small, bite-sized confection is a chewy, smooth, elastic texture. There are bakeries which pioneered, in particular, Mochis since the 1870s in the Nihonbashi area of Tokyo. A food tour is a must to spot and have the best of these.
5. Waguri Montblanc
Waguri, AKA Chestnut Montblanc, is a sweet combination of chestnuts and cream. It is a cake with frozen shavings of chestnut on top. The nutty flavour of chestnut reduces the sweetness of the dessert, making it a scrumptious dessert post-lunch. It not only satisfies your taste bud but is also super satisfying to watch yourself cutting the cake!
6. Taiyaki – Fish Shaped waffles.
Japanese fish-shaped cake is commonly sold as street food. The adzuki-based red bean paste is put between waffles and grilled on charcoal.
The waffles crunch with a smokey smell adds to the delight created by adzuki beans, sweet being pocket and belly friendly.
7. Matcha cake / rolls with whipped cream.
Whether it is Starbucks, a local pastry shop or 7/11, look for matcha cakes with whipped cream. When Matcha marries Japanese whipped cream inside freshly baked bread, you can reach the doors of Dessert heaven at the lowest price.
8. Ice Cream
The super health-conscious Japanese can’t let go of their ice creams even in winter. As they grow strawberries, oranges and apples, you get the freshest ice cream of these flavours. Needless to say, as a habit of adding matcha to everything, their Matcha icecreams are the most famous and surprisingly super tasty.
9. Strawberry-based Crepes!
Harajuku’s crepes are something to drool for. So make sure you buy the one with the highest strawberry content. And they will ensure they pour the freshest strawberry sauce and toss some fresh berries.
Food in Japan that didn’t delight our taste buds.
These are some of the most famous Japanese food we didn’t enjoy much. But, of course, this is purely personal, and we suggest you try them before disliking them. We all have different tastebuds. Don’t we?
- Tempura – Fried veggies with a batter of flour, egg, and ice water. Though the batter was light and the dish wasn’t oily, Tempura never tasted great.
- Miso soup – Fermented soybean paste soup. Not my favourite, but it helped me survive many times.
- Japanese curry – Somehow, I didn’t find it worth the hype. I would prefer Thai curry and Indian curry over Japanese curry any day.
- Tsukemono – Japanese pickled vegetables. They are healthy, but it wasn’t worth the hype.
Non Vegetarian Food that Ashrith disliked
- Sashami- It’s basically Sushi minus the vinegared rice. Having raw fish isn’t his thing.
- Teriyaki chicken burgers and sandwiches – It neither tasted spicy nor juicy! These burgers are common in Lottera, Mos burgers and Mc Donalds. I tried everywhere and regretted it.
Is Japanese food actually good?
Japanese food culture is an integral part of their lifestyle. They emphasise quality and take care of quantity consciously. “Umami” is what scientists and chefs describe Japanese food as. It is one of the five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter taste sensations.
But what do we feel about Japan’s food?
I have read many traveller’s blogs who go to Japan several times to explore food from various prefectures solely. We don’t come into that category. Then some say Japanese food is bland, tasteless and very raw. The Japanese consume more raw meat than anyone else, but we don’t agree that it is tasteless. It is unique and tasty!
As a vegetarian traveller, I dream of Turkish food – I love everything about it. However, Ashrith being a non-vegetarian loves to devour Persian delicacies. So Japanese food may not be our personal choice. But definitely something worth trying when in Japan.
What do you think of Food in Japan? Let us know in the comment section below.
Heads up – we are very honest and keep it no secret.
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