When you think of a foodie nation, you probably think of a place like France, Italy or the like: countries famed for high quality food and fussy eaters who know good food (and bad food) when they taste it. I’d like to humbly submit Japan to this list.
It’s strange, because even though we all know about Japan’s numerous famous dishes (sushi, sashimi etc), people rarely make food their main priority when visiting Japan. Which is kind of a compliment, I suppose: Japan has a lot to offer the visitor besides food. But there are many factors at play which I think makes Japan not just a great food destination, but also possibly the greatest.
What might strike you when you first visit Japan is just how many restaurants there are. Head to any major urban center and the eateries are stacked on top of one another for 6, 7, 8 floors or more. Venture into the countryside and even the tiniest village will have a restaurant of some sort. This is born out of necessity: Japanese people don’t usually entertain guests at home. Houses aren’t big enough, they leak noise through their thin walls and annoy neighbours, and they don’t feel comfortable inviting masses of people into their private space. So people tend to go out to eat and socialize, and Japan caters big time for that. From the cheap and cheerful family restaurants to the smoky boozy izakayas; from the tiny family-run ramen place that can only seat 3 people to the vast food courts in shopping malls than stretch for over 200 meters, ‘gaishoku’ (eating out) is a part of the social fabric here. It’s not just for special occasions: people eat out when on business trips (which is a very regular occurrence), for example. There’s a wealth of cheap options out there that don’t break the bank.
But cheap food in Japan does not equal poor quality. Japanese people are quite demanding of their food quality, and restaurants that don’t meet the mark won’t be actively shunned by the community – that’s not the Japanese way – but patronage will steadily decline until that place changes its ways or shuts down.
And because of the density of Japan’s urban areas, finding a place to eat out in Japan offers a spoil of choices. Back in the UK, you had to either go into the city center or find a pub. Not so in Japan, they’re everywhere. EVERYWHERE. No joke, I live in Japanese suburbia, and within a 5 minute walk of where I live I have access to:
A sushi restaurant, two shabu-shabu restaurants, two local Japanese-style restaurants, two more Japanese-style branch restaurants, three yakiniku places, three ramen places, one tsukemen place, two udon restaurants, a French restaurant, two Italian restaurants, an Indian restaurant, two Chinese restaurants, a “Steak-Don” restaurant, an organic cafe, a McDonalds, a KFC, a subway, a Baskin Robbins, a Starbucks…
The list goes on. This is a VERY conservative list as well. Seriously, these are the ones that jump to mind, I’m probably forgetting a few. Some of them I haven’t even visted yet. And I want to emphasize that this is within a FIVE MINUTE WALK, by the way. If I had a car, I would be obese for sure! My situation isn’t special, either: this is the rule, not the exception.
And you’ll also notice the sheer variety on offer. It’s definitely not all Japanese food. In fact, I think the only thing I don’t have immediate access to is an English-style restaurant, and what would that be anyway? Pub food? An afternoon tea house? Meh, not bothered personally.
Even at home the Japanese love affair with ‘gaishoku’ doesn’t stop. Nearly every TV show’s favorite topic is to discover the hot new restaurant in town with the longest queue. There’s something of a running joke that TV talents, when sampling the food, will only ever say ‘oishii’ or ‘umai’ (delicious) and nothing more. That’s not strictly true: most of the time they do go into a bit more detail about why it’s ‘oishii’, and it’s here where you’ll notice just how honed the Japanese food palette is. Now, perhaps this is just British culture or my working class roots, but for me there’s two types of food: tasty and not tasty. If it’s tasty it’s going in my belly. If not, I will think twice before it goes in my belly. So when I hear my wife talking about how a certain vegetable is sweet or how adding a certain condiment makes that meat sour, it blows my mind. When I cooked Chicken Renkon for her a few weeks ago, no word of a lie she could tell that I’d added a teaspoon of sugar to the recipe. At first, I thought that that was just good ol’ fashioned witchcraft. But no, despite first impressions the Japanese are very particular about their food, whether eating out or at home.
My wife insists that we eat a proper home-cooked meal on every work night, even after we’ve both had long days at work and I assure her that getting fast food or a quick ready meal is fine. Even when she, in her own words, “makes a super simple dinner”, it’s still at least a balanced meal with three separate dishes including a salad.
And it’s always multiple dishes. Unlike in the U.K. where a meal is typically plated onto one big plate, in Japan the standard is to have several smaller dishes, which demands variety of whoever is preparing it. Usually you have a small bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, a ‘main’ dish (like a meat or fish) and a salad. Historically, Japan’s multi-dish meals stem from a mix of the small kitchens, where everything can’t be prepared at once, and also due to the desire to be gracious hosts if people are visiting: rather than having them wait ages for all food to come out at once, they can be occupied with a constant stream of smaller dishes. So even the most basic home meal or the cheapest, quickest ‘gaishoku’ in Japan feels like a set course meal.
If this all sounds like Japan caters exclusively for high-end dining, believe me it doesn’t! Japan does simple and street food better than anyone. Again, it’s born of necessity; in a country where people work long hours, they need places where people can eat fast and without fuss. The aforementioned family restaurants are popular choices here, offering meals for under 1000 yen (10 dollars) including a vast drink bar to choose from. Again, the Japanese emphasis on quality and service means cheap eats never feel cheap. Local and Japanese-style restaurants often fall into the same price range and simplicity too. Heck, even Japan’s national dish, sushi, is often viewed as a fast food here: most sushi places offer two pieces for 100 yen, and pass by you on the conveyor belt less than one minute after ordering.
So yes, I firmly believe that Japan is the best foodie nation on the planet. An excellent combination of variety, value, customer service, insistence on quality and ease of access is unparalleled. I never used to care much about what I ate, viewing food as nothing more than fuel, but Japan has made me realize it can be so much more than that. So when you visit Japan, by all means plan out your itinerary of where you want to go and what you want to see, but I urge to plan out your meals as well: take advantage of the best food on the planet. But don’t be ambitious in every meal choice, try the simple choice as well. I’d even recommend trying a McDonald’s why you’re here, it’s so much better than your local one!