Japan has amazing food. You better like seafood and vegetables, but there’s a wide variety. Chinese, Indian, Thai and Korean cuisine are very popular, and there is a sort of Italian and European fusion in pasta dishes. Desserts are European-style; not very sweet and often fruit based.
In Japan, each restaurant serves one thing (with the exception of Family Restaurants, which I’ll get to later). A sushi restaurant serves sushi. A curry restaurant serves curry. A noodle shop serves noodles. This is very difficult for some foreigners to accept; most restaurants in America have a few other items on the menu to try and appease all the customers, but the Japanese do not. In addition, in Japan, you do not ask for substitutions or deletions to an item; it insults the chef, and they typically don’t have the other ingredients. For example, my husband used to work in a wonderful sushi restaurant. One night, a group of Americans came in; one was a vegan and demanded a vegan vegetable roll, but all the rice was made with fish stock. The customer argued with him for a long time about how they should be able to make plain rice, and why wouldn’t they make her a vegan plate, and so on. He asked the chef, who said he was not going to clean the rice cooker to make “plain, flavorless rice,” and why in the world would a vegan come to a sushi place? My husband suggested to her that she go to the soba shop downstairs, which did make vegan food, and she screamed at him about being incompetent and hating vegans. He came home that night and said, “Are all Americans like that? Because if they are I’m not moving there.”
Most restaurants only have Japanese menus (or “translated” menus with useful descriptions like “exploded skin of the fish” and “it hangs the cheese”), but they often have a window display of very detailed plastic food to show you what they offer. If you don’t know what it’s called, the waiter will walk outside with you so that you can point at what you’d like.
Drinks are small, and there are no refills; if you want more you have to buy a new drink. You must ask if you want water. Tea and coffee is served scalding hot and strong. Very weak coffee is known as “American style,” though it’s still scalding. Drinks are typically not sweetened, and putting sweetener in Japanese tea is looked down on. You can do it with Western style tea, though.
In the winter, food is served hot. In the summer, many of the same dishes will be served cold.
There are a few chains called family restaurants, such as Fujiya, Skylark and my favorite, Saizeriya. These places have a very wide variety of food, and it’s cheap. These restaurants do offer free refills on drinks and have a more laid back atmosphere. They’re also often open all night in bigger cities if you need a snack.
A few basic table manners:
Chopsticks: Chopsticks are the default at the table; a fork may be offered, but it’s usually a small, two-pronged thing–the chopsticks are easier. If you get the wooden kind that you have to break apart; do not rub them together! It implies that the chopsticks are dirty and is an insult. Some people say they rub them together to remove splinters–but you’re not supposed to eat with that end, and I’ve never gotten a splinter from chopsticks. Do not feed another person with your chopsticks, stab your food with your chopsticks, and above all, do not stick them straight up in your food. Placing chopsticks straight up implies you’re offering food to the dead and mimicking a funeral or death rite.
Food is brought out when it’s done and hot, so not everyone will get it at the same time. Pause politely, and your tablemates will encourage you to eat. Don’t wait any longer than that! Enjoy your food while it’s hot. Waiting until others get their food makes them uncomfortable, because they worry your food will be ruined. Japanese service is so fast it usually doesn’t take long, anyway.
When eating noodles or rice, pick up the bowl, hold it under your mouth, and shovel the food with your chopsticks. Slurp you noodles, and be loud about it. It’s a sign you’re enjoying yourself and a complement to the cook. Plus, the noodles are so long it’s impossible not to. Pick up the bowl and drink your soup, then eat the solids out with your chopsticks.
Do not, under any circumstances, blow your nose at the table. Blowing your nose in public is taboo anyway, but doing it at the table is guaranteed to disgust your companions.
Go easy on the soy sauce. Drowning your plate in it implies the food is bad.
For all meals, vegetables dominate the dishes, with a bit of protein and rice. Try everything! You’ll probably be surprised at how good most of the food is.