OK, before I start let’s get two things perfectly clear:
- I didn’t come to Japan for the food.
- I am not an adventurous eater.
If you want a gourmet guide to Japanese cuisine, this is not the blog for you. However, if you want a picky-eater’s Tokyo survival guide, this might be just what you are looking for.
Japanese food is scary. I mean literally, it has tentacles. OK, it can be insanely cute too – they basket meals into little plastic boxes with all kinds of decorations, and parents often shape rice-balls into the faces of popular cartoon characters – presentation of food is hugely important here. In restaurants practically every other meal is garnished by a fried egg.
So if you are hungry where can you get food? Well there’s quite a range of options.
Of course. There are big chain restaurants, little family restaurants, steakhouses, Chinese restaurants, Indian restaurants, Italian restaurants, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, and restaurants for local cuisine from different districts of Japan. Some specialise in seafood, some in curry, some in noodles, some in sushi. Generally the bigger, more commercial restaurants are easier for foreigners to use. Some have English menus (and English speaking staff), and the ones that don’t will be able to show you pictures of all the meals on the menu so you can point and pick. Paying can be difficult – do you wait for the bill or go to the counter – but this is the same in any country and varies restaurant to restaurant. Tipping is not a custom in Japan (in fact they can get offended by it). There is often a button on the table that you can press for service. As for chopsticks – they are the default setting but most restaurants will be happy to offer you a fork if you are struggling. Don’t be a hero. Take the fork.
I have generally only visited restaurants with Japanese-speaking colleagues who handled all the ordering and paying. The exception is the Indian restaurant next door – most Indians have pretty good English (or at least good enough to take an order accurately), and most Indian food will be familiar to the average British customer. I did try an Italian restaurant in Kasai and wasn’t very impressed. The best food I’ve had was probably at the Chinese restaurant in Nishi Kasai, as part of a large group. The only down side to this one was that smoking indoors was permitted – not a pleasant eating atmosphere. Despite this, perhaps it is good advice not to just look at street-level restaurants, go into the buildings, go up to the 2nd and 3rd and 4th floors where many establishments are based.
If you like KFC and McDonalds, you won’t be disappointed in Tokyo. Unless, like me, you think KFC seems to be a bit more expensive here, the Pepsi doesn’t taste like Pepsi, and McDonalds doesn’t sell McFlurries here, the only reason I usually go in that place. You can get really good quality fried chicken at a much better price from Family Mart (one of the Konbini).
There are local brands too – MosBurger and Detours (similar to Subway, although they have Subway here too). There’s a doughnut chain called Mister Donut, sushi bars, and lots of tempura seafood places that offer take-away options. But be careful. There’s a shop called Gindaco that sells little fried balls of dough with various toppings, it smells delicious but a little bit of research quickly revealed the dough balls are actually built around grilled octopus tentacle. Lovely.
One thing to remember with fast food is that eating on the go is generally frowned upon. Either take the food home, or to your office, or find a quiet corner of the street and eat it there. Or of course you can just sit in the restaurant or at the bar.
Izakaya are more about the drinking than about the food, but you can get pretty good quality and good value meals there too. Again, most of these places will allow smoking so bear that in mind if you like to eat in clean air. These are a bit more difficult to negotiate if you don’t speak Japanese, they don’t always have picture menus or anyone who might speak English.
There are hundreds of these in some districts (Monzen-Nakacho for example) – once you go off the main roads and into the back streets it can be just building after building of bright lights and inebriated laughing businessmen.
Of course, you can always buy your own ingredients and cook at home, but this brings its own problems. My biggest one is that my sharehouse doesn’t have an oven – just a tiny grill oven that is smaller than a microwave. So I am eating a lot more fried meat than roasted meat now.
Japanese supermarkets are jam-packed full of products that I couldn’t even begin to identify. Fortunately I mainly cook with chicken and minced beef, and both of these are easy enough to recognised and packaged in a similar way to in the UK. I didn’t take any chances with the herbs and spices and got the ones I wanted from an import shop. Fruit and vegetables are ok (though there are a few in the supermarkets that I couldn’t put an English name to), but beyond that I struggle.
Take crisps and snacks, for example. You can find the American brand Lays, but only in two flavours, plain and sour cream. Potato crisps are not so popular here, there are a few from a company called Calbee, but the packages give no pictorial hints as to what the different flavours are and all the writing is Japanese. The ones whose flavours are obvious mostly tend to just be plain salted. I found a puffed corn product called Uracara Corn that is comparable to what we know as Cheesy Wotsits (I’ve eaten a lot of these) but they are only available in large 150g bags. I found another product that seems to be the same as barbecue flavoured Nik-naks – no idea what it is called, but there was a gorilla on the front, holding a burger, that was good enough for me.
I buy Cup Noodles from time to time – just something quick and filling to have handy. Some have English writing, like Curry Cup Noodle or Chili Tomato so you know what you are getting. Most have pictures but only Japanese writing, so you’re largely guessing what the ingredients are.
Drinks are another source of annoyance. You can get Pepsi Cola (branded here as Japan Cola) but only in small bottles. Rarely, you find larger bottles but only for the “Zero” or “Special Edition” variants which don’t taste very nice at all. So I’ve mostly been buying big bottles of Coke, because it works out cheaper than lots of little bottles of Pepsi.
The only chocolate I recognise here are Snickers, Milky Way and the ubiquitous Kit-Kat – usually genetically mutated into strange local flavours. No Mars Bars – why is that? They have their own brands of chocolate, of course, but seem very reluctant to combine it with caramel.
The three big convenience stores, Family Mart, 7-11 and Lawson are handy for essential items that you might need after the supermarkets close, if you are more adventurous than me you might also appreciate their extensive range of bento – pre-packed meals that you can take home and heat up (or even eat in the shop, they will heat it for you and some branches have bars and stools).
They also sell hot meat products – kebab skewers, fried chicken, other stuff I’m not sure exactly what it is. I just tried the Family Mart fried chicken yesterday after hearing a guy on YouTube raving about it, and have to admit it is just as good as the KFC you can get here.
These are lifesavers, and you can find them in just about every big mall that is next to a station. Kaldi is the most prominent but I haven’t been too impressed with their range, for me the best example is Caferrant, which is in Aeon Mall both here in Nishi Kasai and at Shin Urayasu. Like Kaldi it is primarily a coffee importer, with two or three aisles dedicated to coffee, but plenty of other global products too. For me the discovery of Mexican tortillas, spice mixes and sauces was a huge relief – they even have the UK brand leader Old El Paso. They have a wider range of candy than the Konbini and supermarkets – though I have so far resisted buying bags of Lindor and Werthers, even Terry’s Chocolate Orange! They also have A&W Cream Soda which is such a rare product I can’t even get it in England – but is so delicious I suspect I will be buying a lot of it when I am back in Shin Urayasu on Thursday!
Further afield there are some surprises too. There is a Japanese chain – I can’t read their name but they have a branch in Shin Urayasu and another in Ichikawa, and they have some interesting import products too – such as Weetabix and bran flakes. The Ichikawa branch is the only place in Tokyo I have found selling real salt-and-vinegar crisps (Tyrell’s kettle chips, in fact) – much better than the Pringles at the other import shops. The same shop also has spice mix for fajitas – not the same flavour as the ones I brought with me from England, but an acceptable substitution. The only problem is I have no business in Ichikawa until September, I made a special trip yesterday just for the shopping, on my way to Inage!
There is also a specialty store in the mall at Inage station where I found actual lemon marmalade! So it pays to hunt around, and if I am at a place with an import store and not in a hurry, I will always have a browse just to see what is available – the nature of these shops is that their product range can change week to week.