I love sampling exotic cuisine and understanding culinary traditions, so when I recently traveled to Japan for two weeks it was quite a treat! Japan offers sixteen different types of cuisines and I made a point of sampling all of them among 14 cities. Additionally, I went on a restaurant crawl tour in Tokyo, a bento box cooking class in Kyoto and visited each cities’ distinct food markets.
One caveat for picky eaters is that many Japanese dishes are based on utilizing every part of the land and sea. I can attest to eating fall foliage leaves and live sea creatures. I even have to admit that one night I dined at the grand opening of Domino’s Pizza in Tokyo just to take a break from the unique cuisine.
Food is taken very seriously in Japan – from the preparation to the presentation to the consumption. You may be surprised to know that in 2017, Tokyo has surpassed Paris with 14 Michelin three-star restaurants. Being employed in a Japanese restaurant is a highly revered profession; as many apprentice chefs train in establishments for 10 or 12 years before they are allowed to even touch or handle the fish and meat.
The following are some interesting observations about my recent Japanese food experiences.
Don’t Fret if You are Shouted at When Entering a Restaurant
It is a century-old convention for workers at Japanese restaurants to shout “Irasshaimase!” when you enter their establishment. This is form of greeting and translates to “Welcome to the store” or “Come on in.” Often times they don’t smile at you and just shout, but they are really trying to welcome you, so don’t be surprised. The phrase was originally used by marketplace sellers trying to bring customers closer to their particular stall. Be ready for the other shout “Arigato gozaimashita!” as you exit restaurants, meaning “Thank you!”
Knowing how to use chopsticks is essential for dining in Japanese restaurants. First, start by lifting the chopsticks with both hands and remember that they are eating utensils – just like a knife and fork.
- Suck sauces off of your chopsticks
- Wave your chopsticks over the food on the table, especially if family style
- Point them at someone while talking
- Pass food with your chopsticks
Another important note, when first seated, many restaurants offer you a wet towel. Please refrain from using this on your face or neck, instead use it to clean your hands only.
Fake Food Models Are Everywhere
In the late 1920’s, Japanese artisans and candle makers created food models so restaurant patrons could order easily without having to print menus. This tradition is widespread still in Japan and sometimes the craftsmanship is raised to an art form. Some of the plastic food models were exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In the town of Gujo-Hachiman, the food replica capital of Japan, tourists can attend workshops and create their own fake food. If you can’t make it to a workshop, a variety of DIY kits are sold in Japanese department stores for purchase.
Loud slurping when eating noodles is not considered rude in Japan. It is also acceptable to bring the bowl up to your mouth and use your chopsticks. Making loud slurping noises shows that you are enjoying the noodles and the meal is appreciated. A scientific reason also lends itself to this practice, indicating that the noodles will taste better if you slurp, allowing the flavors of the broth and noodles to mingle. This action is similar to wine connoisseurs gurgling wine and sucking air through their mouths to force air into the nasal passage, allowing the flavors to spread.
The Best Food Can be Found in Department Store Basements
Some of the best food can be found underground in Japan. When looking for exclusive Japanese food and beverages, visit what they call “depachika” or basements of department stores. Various higher end department stores with great assortments are Mitsukoshi, Takashimaya and Isetan.
The Art of Bento Boxes
I had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a hands-on culinary class in Kyoto that focused on creating your own bento box. The bento box is usually consumed for lunch and comes in all shapes and sizes and contains a variety of food items separated individually.The earliest record of these packed lunches in Japan date back to the 5th century when people going out to farm, hunt or wage war took provisions in wooden boxes. They typically carried dried fish and rice.
In my travels, I saw many varieties of bento boxes – from elaborate artisan ones in five-star hotel restaurants, to grade school children carrying theirs to school with R2-D2 and Pokemon carrying cases. I attended the Sun Cooking Studio in Kyoto’s Higashinakasuji area for a three-hour class where I learned about the history of the bento box and the various cooking techniques. Then it was on to work, making sushi rolls, pickling vegetables, deep frying shrimp tempura, skewering teriyaki chicken and making the accompanying miso soup. At the conclusion of the class, all participants sat down and enjoyed the fruits of our labor.
Interesting, during our class, a Tokyo television station was filming our activities and interviewed us for a program airing the next month. Little did I know that I would be a “celebrity chef” on Japanese television. If interested, please contact me for the various options for culinary classes while in Tokyo and Kyoto.
Never Pour Your Own Drink
Meals are often accompanied or followed with drinks, either beer or sake. Etiquette calls for you to wait for all glasses to be filled before you touch yours. Then wait for someone to offer a cheers in Japanese before you raise your glass and take the first drink. The Japanese word for “cheers” is “kanpai” which translates to “empty cup” – the Western equivalent to “bottoms up.” Additionally, protocol calls for you to never pour your own drink, so be on the lookout for those dining mates who need a refresher. Tradition once dictated that guests were expected to finish their cup of sake in one shot; that is why the sake cups are conveniently small.
The typical Japanese diet is quite healthy; daily staples like rice, tofu, and fresh vegetables are common; which has resulted in Japan having one of the highest life expectancy statistics. But many Japanese people also have a weakness for familiar American comfort food—most notably, fried chicken. In major cities, there is often a Kentucky Fried Chicken to be found every few blocks, with each restaurant hosting a life-sized statue of Colonel Sanders standing out front. Although only a small handful of Japanese are Christian, they have adopted KFC as a Christmas Eve tradition. On December 24th, every KFC in Japan features lines out the door with many people making reservations months in advance.