Posted by: David Stewart | December 15, 2008

Food in Japan

I often think of Japan as a culturally unified whole, high on consistency and togetherness.

But in fact, for a fairly small island nation, there is a large diversity of tastes and styles of cooking. There is no single kind of “Japanese food”, there are lots of kinds. Here are a few from my recent trip.


Toncatsu, pork cutlet lunch

Here is my work associate Takashi, who did a wonderful job taking care of me while I was in Tokyo. According to Takashi, there are some parts of Japan where his grandparents live where he can only understand maybe a third of the Japanese they speak! We went for lunch one day and had Toncatsu, or Japanese pork cutlet:

Toncatsu, pork cutlet lunch

The basic setup consists of a breaded piece of pork meat, which has been fried. Here you can also see shreds of radish. This place also has sesame seeds that you grind up and mix with a brown sauce to dip pieces of your meat:

Toncatsu, pork cutlet lunch

Below are the lunch selections from a place which was grilling fish over a charcoal fire:

Japanese fish grill
Japanese fish grill
Japanese fish grill

Just grilled fish, rice, miso soup and some other things.


A lot of people think sushi and sashimi when they think of Japanese food. There are a wide range of choices here of course. This is a place I ate at in the Tokyo Fish Market at Tsukiji. There are many choices of little eateries in the market, this is one recommended by a western travel guide called Sushi Dai:
Sushi Dai, Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

They open at 5:00AM, and by 5:15AM the place was packed and there was a line outside. Of course, the place could only seat 12 people!
Sushi Dai, Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Reportedly it is traditional to visit the Fish Market at the end of a night of drinking, partying and karaoke to eat sushi. Most of the people sharing the sushi bar with me were dressed for a night out and were drinking sake or beer with their raw fish.
Sushi Dai, Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

I chose the “set” which produced miso soup with some shell fish in it, about 14 pieces of sushi which came out one at a time as individuals, a little omelet that you can see to the right of the photo, and included such tastes as yellow tail, makerel, spanish makerel, shrimp, and sushi roll pieces, plus one of my choice.

This is about the only time and place I will go for raw fish at breakfast.


This is a little snack being cooked in a market in northern Tokyo, a little pancake sandwich stuffed with bean paste and cream cheese:
Snack from Sugamo

Or how about McDonalds, where you can get an Ebi Fillet (which I think is a shrimp burger):
McDonald's "Ebi Filet", Tokyo

I feel like I’m leaving out a lot of other options too:

  • Ramen – basically noodle soup, which I had at least once.
  • Yakitori – Skewers of various meats and veggies, grilled up and accompanied by beer and sake. It’s Japanese bar food, most yakitori-ya are drunken dives after work.
  • Shabu-shabu – which I have never had before, pieces of raw meat cooked at table-side
  • Kobe beef – extremely expensive but wonderful meat, or so I hear. I have never been able to afford this!
  • Tempura – batter-covered, deep-fried veggies and meats. Very bad for you, I’m sure!

What am I forgetting?

At the lowest end of the foodie spectrum is train station food. The stations are really good places to pick up a snack or a meal on the train, particularly if you have a long ride ahead of you. But like everything else on the train in Japan, it is done most discretely:

Train station lunch, Tokyo

And if you just have a jones for a cup ‘a joe, you can go to countless vending machines scattered around the city streets for a nice warm can of Boss Coffee. Here is a typical vending display with Tommy Lee Jones looking like a really tired boss.
Tommy Lee Jones, selling Boss Coffee



  1. I re-read this post several times, trying to imagine…and get away form my preconceived notions of what my reaction to the options would be. Thank you so much for this post!

  2. Well, Melinda, you will just need me to come with you to Tokyo. I think I’m only comfortable with the options because I’ve been there enough times. So it helps having someone go with you and show you the ropes. I’m still a bit put off by menus with no English, which is commonly where the best values are. Anne is really fantastic to have along because she actually reads Japanese and took us straight to a basement English-free raman shop. I think you would enjoy it!

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