Let’s talk food in Japan, because holy mother of God…the food here is just as good as you would expect. Now, before I continue, keep in mind that I’m not here on vacation, so the really expensive stuff is very much out of reach for me. (I’m saving the Kobe/Wagyu beef and Michelin Guide restaurants for my next trip here when I have the money for it.) Every place I’m going to talk about is within a normal person’s dinner budget, and- to my surprise- for the most part, there are a ton of affordable and delicious options.
Let’s start with ramen. To be honest, I’ve become a bit of a ramen addict here. I’ve eaten at a fair number of places and started to develop a taste for it in a way I never had before. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality here. I’d tried real, authentic ramen before in New York City and it was amazing; that said, even though that restaurant was listed in the Michelin guide, I happened across a tiny, family-owned-and-operated local shop here that isn’t fancy in the slightest but serves the most delicious ramen I’ve ever eaten. I get the same “gyoza dinner set” for 940 yen (about $8.50-8.75) every time: six delicious, well-seasoned pork gyoza (pan fried dumplings), a heaping bowl of fluffy white rice, a small bowl of Japanese pickled root vegetables, and a generous portion of a ramen with a sublime pork-soy sauce broth. I eat there about once a week since the portion size is so great, the price is really decent, and the food is some of the best I’ve had in Japan. The mother and daughters who own and operate the place really care about the food they make, and it shows: it’s comforting and delicious, with a precise yet homemade feel to it that simply can’t be beat. I take all my friends there, and they of course recognize me as a regular at this point.
Of course, I can’t call myself a ramen addict if I haven’t been elsewhere for a bowl of delicious noodles. I’ve also visited Ichiran, one of the most famous ramen chains here in Japan. It was really solid ramen: spicy, fatty, and satisfying. There’s no question they’re aware of their status as one of the most renowned ramen chains in Japan, though: they charge twice as much for a single “deluxe” bowl of their usual ramen than I pay at my usual joint, and I think they don’t emphasize their passion for ramen as much as a single owner-operator does, as there were some small issues with quality control. Of course, there’s also the issue that Ichiran is known for having single-seat booths for eating your ramen, and they are TINY. I’m very tall and wide even by American standards, and I had to hold my left arm behind my back just to be able to eat inside the booth.
Other neighborhood shops also have their charm, of course: a place near the University’s entrance that is known for super-fatty, super-rich ramen and $1.00 bottomless rice bowls; a small alleyway joint in Kawaramachi known for clear-tasting salt-broth ramen; a small ramen stand near a local high school known for plain soy sauce broth. (Of course, I keep coming back to my favorite place, but that’s expected. I’ll keep searching for more delicious ramen, of course.) Admittedly, I haven’t really gotten into instant ramen here yet either since I’m not normally a huge fan of it in the U.S., but it’s on my list to try. A few of my friends here certainly have, and I’ll likely take their recommendations. If I like it, it may be where I need to box it up and ship a bunch back to the US as gifts, as well as for me to eat over the month or so while I get situated upon arriving back Stateside.
Next, sushi. I can’t afford the fancy stuff, but as it turns out, I really don’t need to pay that much to get decent sushi here. There’s a range of kaiten sushi places here in Japan, where plates of sushi are carried to your table by conveyor belt after being assembled in the back room of the restaurant. They make both special orders- where you order what you specifically want using a touchscreen- and have ready-made plates circulating for people who just want to grab the first thing they see. The sushi ranges from about $0.75 per plate to about $1.25 per plate, with each plate having a few pieces of sushi on it. (The exception is the really expensive sushi, like the ikura (salmon roe) roll and the fatty tuna, where you only get one per plate.) The profit margins are low per plate, but they deal in such quantity each day and don’t have to spend money on people serving tables that it actually works out for both the restaurant and the consumer: they make money, while you get good value for each dollar you spend. Most importantly, they go through so many ingredients each day that it is all incredibly fresh and both the taste and quality blow even fancier sushi places in the United States completely out of the water.
Sure, I’ve had a fair share of foreign foods here in Japan too, because there are foreign restaurants now here in Japan that have started to find success. One that seems to be common is Indian food; I suppose since the Japanese are used to their style of curry, they probably like Indian curry as well. The main difference between the two: Japanese curry tends to be slightly less hot and considerably more sweet than Indian curry. I found that out at a local Indian place just a block away from my nearest train station. No surprises here: it was delicious.
One of the most surprising things I’ve found here in Japan is the sheer amount of French food. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that there are maybe four or five French bakeries within a twenty-minute walking distance of my dormitory, and that’s in a virtually all-residential area. There are dozens of different bakeries I’ve happened upon just in Kyoto alone, not to mention my time so far in Osaka and Tokyo. I’ve eaten at many of them, and they’re all surprisingly good, too. French restaurants are not uncommon at all, either, for some reason. I really wonder why this is, and I’ll need to look into it at some point to satisfy my curiosity. Again, though, for some reason it seems as though you can’t go wrong eating at one of the many places serving French food here in Japan, as I’ve been repeatedly surprised by the quality.
Obviously, Chinese cuisine is extremely popular here. Unfortunately, most of the places near me are rather expensive, so it’s one of the things I really haven’t had much of since arriving in Japan. I’m planning on making a trip to Kobe and Yokohama to check out their respective Chinatowns sometime in the coming weeks and visiting Taiwan for a class trip over Christmas, so I’ll definitely get to try some good Chinese food soon.
Since Kyoto is a major city, there are a few outliers as well that aren’t as common in Japan’s smaller cities: German, Turkish, and even British cuisines can be found without looking too hard. Of course, they aren’t exactly easy to find either and are not very widespread, so it’s one of those things you can try when you visit downtown and other high-traffic areas. (I did try some “California Mexican” here as well, and it was about what you would expect from a lackluster Mexican chain restaurant in Mississippi.)
Of course, I’m a bit homesick for American food at times, and it can be irritatingly hard to find good examples. Sure, Japan has McDonald’s and Wendy’s, but that’s sub-par food and nothing special. Sure, they both have some cool Japan-only specialty items, and they can be good (or really not, like the garlic pepper burger from McDonald’s), but they’re still fast-food chains that focus more on novelty or quantity more than quantity. When you get away from those fast-food chains or go to Japanese burger chains, they use a mix of beef and pork that is- in my experience- only really used in meatloaf in the ‘States. In fact, to further back up that point, they tend to mix other things into the patty like breadcrumbs or minced onion, which only serves to take away from the meaty flavor of an all-beef patty and make the sandwich taste more like diner meatloaf. And I HATE diner meatloaf. Sure, I’m a purist because I’m fat, but I know when I order American food I want it to be the real thing. I’m lucky that I found a few good places for a burger here in town, but admittedly because of the cost of beef here in Japan it is not cheap in the slightest. (If you’re wondering, Shake Shack and Freshness Burger are my suggestions if you get a hankering for a good burger here too.)
I’ll write more about the food I’m experiencing in another post here soon, where I’ll discuss convenience stores, izakayas, sweets, and grocery stores. Until then, stay posted 🙂