Japan is a wonderful place to try a wonderful variety of foods you may not usually eat at home and a great experience for children. A lot of the food in Japan is very colourful, nicely decorated and often very “Kawai” cute!
If you are travelling with your children, my tips on eating out in Japan are:
- Remember, each restaurant usually specialises in a particular type of food. For example, a sushi restaurant will not usually sell ramen (noodle broth) and a ramen restaurant will not sell Okonomiyaki.
- Something to be aware of which we discovered on our first trip to Tokyo when our children were only 7 and 10 is that most restaurants in Japan do not have forks. So, unless your children and yourselves are handy with chopsticks, take your own knife and fork set with you when eating out. You can purchase these at supermarkets in a handy carry case before you leave home. Just make sure you pack them in your suitcase and not in your carry-on hand luggage!
- Many restaurants have plastic displays of the food they offer on display in the window of their eatery, which makes it easier to see what is available. My kids loved looking at these.
- There are many affordable restaurants and eateries located in train stations (usually on the lower levels) and in food halls in department stores such as the Takashimaya and Daimaru Department stores (located in the basement levels). If you don’t feel like going to a restaurant to eat, the food halls in department stores are a great place to pick up easy meals you can eat back in your hotel room. This is a great idea if the kids are tired and just want to eat in their pyjamas!
- Japanese food can be seasonal so, foods may only be available at certain times of the year.
- Eateries often have a number system where you choose the corresponding number to the food you wish to order, take a ticket from a machine, and pay at the counter. Servers will then bring you your food once it is cooked.
- Tipping is not required in Japan.
- Nearly every restaurant we went to provided free iced water or tea with our meal which was very handy.
- Vegans may have a difficult time finding food that suits them, as even vegetable dishes use dashi stock made with dried tuna flakes. Ask your hotel concierge to write a note in Japanese saying you are Vegan as it may help to show this to the wait staff at restaurants.
- Restaurants often have low-price child meals available. Ask for the Oko sama setto which is a children’s set meal, or Kidozu menyuu, children’s menu.
These are some of the favourite meals our children enjoyed in Japan. They decided to give the eels and sea urchins a miss, though your children may be more adventurous and give them a try.
Okonomiyaki is a savoury egg and noodle pancake to which a variety of toppings are added including pork, prawn, shrimp, chicken, and vegetables.
Curry rice Japanese curry is milder and more smooth than other styles of curry. Katsu-kare is a curry served with a breaded pork cutlet and is very popular. Curry rice can be found at Joto Curry.
Sushi train Little plates of food circle around on a conveyer belt and you simply choose what you want to eat and pay for the total amount of plates at the end. Nemuro Hanamaru is an example of a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
Yakitori Skewered chicken or other meat typically brushed with a sweet soy sauce glaze and barbecued over coals. Yakitori can be found in Yakitori Street Kabuki-Cho, in Shinjuku.
Nabe is hotpots of meat or seafood with vegetables and noodles. You add the ingredients to a simmering broth yourself and eat when cooked.
Ramen tasty hot noodles served in a rich broth. Additions include corn, boiled egg, pork slices, shallots, bean sprouts, seaweed strips, tofu. Ichiran Ramen is a popular ramen chain of restaurants throughout Japan. Ramen Street at the basement 1 level of Tokyo Train Station near the Yaesu South Exit is worth visiting. Eight of Tokyo’s best ramen restaurants have set up shop and serve excellent Ramen; there is often a queue.
Gyoza is another of our favourites. Dumplings that are either fried or steamed and include pork, seafood or vegetables accompanied with a dipping sauce. We prefer the fried variety which has a crispy base. Harajuku Gyozarou is a popular restaurant serving Gyoza in Tokyo.
Yoshoku is the name given to Western foods that have been uniquely adapted to Japanese tastes through the use of Japanese ingredients and techniques. An example is the Spaghetti Hashiya restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, which serves only spaghetti but with Japanese sauces.
Tonkatsu is a little like a schnitzel. A thick pork cutlet breaded and deep-fried to a golden crisp. Maisen is a popular tonkatsu restaurant.
Shabu is a hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat, vegetables and noodles boiled in a broth. We loved this dish as you can often cook your own at the restaurant table. An example is Kisoji in Tokyo.
Other places we found helpful when eating out with out children were
Chain restaurants and Themed Restaurants – If your children want a change from Japanese food, there are several restaurant chains which serve western-style food with a Japanese twist. Examples are Starbucks, Hardrock Cafes, Krispy Cremes, Freshness Burger, Denny’s, and themed restaurants such as Alice in Wonderland and the Hello Kitty Cafe.
Convenience stores stock ready-made meals such as bento boxes, onigiri rice balls and ramen noodles. On one of our trips to Japan, we arrived in the evening and after a long flight, everyone was tired. After checking into our hotel rather than finding a restaurant to eat at we went to a Lawson’s family mart located next door to where we were staying and bought some ready-made food to take back to the hotel. It was an easy, cheap and simple solution for dinner. Examples of convenience stores in Tokyo are 7-Eleven, Lawley’s, and Family Mart.
Bakeries – Although not a traditional Japanese food, I just had to mention the bakeries they have in Japan. They serve rows and rows of tempting pastries and bread both savoury and sweet, often decorated as cute characters and animals which my children just adored. They make an easy lunchtime snack too, just be sure not to walk around while eating them as it is considered bad manners to eat and walk. Find a park to sit in or take them back to your hotel.
The food halls in the major department stores such as the Takashimaya and Daimaru in Japan are amazing and an excellent place to find food to take back to your hotel if you want a break from eating out. They are usually located in the basement floors.
TIP Even if you are not buying anything, the food halls are a wonderful place to look at. There are so many interesting foods, all brightly wrapped and presented that the kids (and yourself) will love the experience of browsing through them. It’s also a good rainy-day activity to while away an hour or so while you wait for the weather to clear!