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Published January 15th 2020
A taste of Japan for first time visitors
Are you planning a trip to Japan and unsure about the food? For tourists it can be quite a culture shock as Japanese food is very different to our own. Allow me to ease some anxiety by sharing my tips for tourists about the food in Japan.
One of the concerns I had before our trip to Japan was that I didn't speak Japanese and didn't know how we would be able to order food or know what we were eating. I needn't have worried. In restaurants, especially in tourist areas, there will often be either an English menu or a glass display case showing plastic replicas of the food on the menu which you can use to order from. However there may still be some instances where you are not quite sure of what you are eating.
We had a few misses along the way, such as when we mistook a photo of grated radish for boiled rice, not a very pleasant surprise. On the other hand it was in this way that we discovered that Unagi no kabayaki – grilled freshwater eel in a soy sauce – is absolutely delicious. It's all part of the fun, adventure and cultural experience of a trip to Japan. So here's what you need to know:
Konbini are Japanese convenience stores which are open 24 hours, seven days a week. Unlike convenience stores in Australia, konbini offer a very wide range of food, drinks, products and services. What's more, they are everywhere, you can barely go two blocks in major cities without coming across a konbini. The most common convenience stores are 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart.
Just a small selection of food & drinks available from the konbini
You know the food is going to be fresh as konbini receive 2 -5 deliveries per day. You will find a huge range of fresh sandwiches featuring a wide variety of fillings. The bread in Japan is usually thick, white and soft and the packaged sandwiches generally have the crusts cut off. Nevertheless they taste pretty good and are an easy option for lunch (or breakfast) when you are on the go. Konbini also sell sushi, onigiri (rice balls), bento boxes, prepared meals and salads. They are a great option for breakfast, lunch or dinner when you are on the go, or after a busy day of sightseeing in Japan.
You will also find an extensive range of pastries, drinks, alcohol, lollies, chocolates and ice-creams. Services provided include ATM's , photocopiers, toilets and some even have space to sit and eat in the store and will also heat your food for you if required.
We used konbini every day on our visit to Japan. We bought bread to make toast at our hotel, drinks, sandwiches, sushi and onigiri for lunch. We stopped in after dinner to buy an ice cream or pastry for dessert. We could always find one close by our hotel or just a short walk away.
Get your Green Tea, Coffee, Beer & Soft Drinks here
Just like Konbini, you will find an abundance of vending machines in Japanese cities. Vending machines sell soft drinks, coffee and tea, alcohol, cigarettes, food and much more. You can find them on virtually every street and train station platform. We bought cold drinks and coffee in a can (for the novelty value) which comes out of the machine piping hot!
A novelty for tourists - hot coffee from the vending machine
Green tea is one of the most commonly consumed beverages in Japan. You will see it everywhere, served hot and cold, in vending machines, konbini and in restaurants and it may even be served on your flight to Japan. While I am not usually a tea drinker, in the spirit of "when in Japan", I felt it would be remiss of me not to try some whilst there.
We were fortunate to be able to participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and prepared our own green tea using "matcha", a powdered form of green tea which has quite a strong flavour and is probably an acquired taste.
Okonomiyaki is a Japanese style savoury pancake which, according to our tour guide Fumiko, originated in the Hiroshima area. Okonomiyaki is made with a thin crepe-like batter which is then piled high with ingredients such as cabbage, bean sprouts, egg and noodles and finished off with a special sauce. We sampled this local cuisine at a restaurant on Miyajima Island. The okonomiyaki was made on a hotplate in front of us as we sat and watched the theatrical process. The result is a savoury, flavoursome masterpiece which you can customise to your personal taste. Believe me, you will not be hungry after finishing one of these.
Momiji Manju is a steamed sweet bun, made and sold on Miyajima Island (which is just a short ferry ride from Hiroshima). The bun has a distinctive Japanese maple leaf shape and can include a variety of fillings such as red bean paste, cream cheese, custard, chocolate or green tea.
You can buy them pre-packaged or freshly baked on Miyajima Island and they are a delicious sweet treat that you won't want to miss.
Bento boxes are common in Japan and you can find them everywhere, in train stations, dedicated bento shops, konbini and department stores. A bento is a packed lunch which usually includes rice, vegetables, meat or fish, served in a disposable box. We bought Bento boxes on days when we were travelling across the country on Shinkansen (bullet trains). It was a really convenient meal on those days when we were travelling for many hours.
Choose from a wide variety of bento boxes for lunch on the go
I've had many tempura dishes, but this was the first time I'd tried Lotus Root (Renkon) Tempura. It has a fibrous texture, a mild and pleasant flavour and the tempura gives it some crunch. It is also pleasing to the eye with its floral-patterned shape.
When in doubt, my philosophy is go with Gyoza and you won't go wrong. Gyoza is a steamed or fried dumpling. They are typically filled with pork, but can also be filled with vegetables or other fillings. They are delicious and are the perfect meal or snack accompanied with a beer or a highball.
Japan is known for its unique cuisine and this list is just the tip of the iceberg. My best advice is to be adventurous, try something new and you will probably be pleasantly surprised.
in the meantime my favourite good cheap local Japanese restaurants are keeping me happy
for anyone who hasn't been to Japan - there's excellent good cheap food - starting from $1.40 breakfast onigiri (seaweed wrapped rice triangles with different fillings like tuna or pickled plum) from kombini (7-11/Lawson, etc. convenience stores) up to huge lunch specials for like $8 - just look around away from the tourist spots and see where the old people are eating.