Japan Gastronomy: A Primer


“I love Tokyo. If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it. Most chefs I know would agree with me…” – Anthony Bourdain.

Japan is inseparable from its gastronomy. It is a society, in the truest expression of that word, that lives to eat. Apologies to Spain, Italy and, of course, my Gallic friends, but there is no culinary equal. Forget the fact it is one of only two countries whose entire culinary heritage is recognized by UNESCO. Japan may lie behind France in the number of Michelin stars, but hey, home advantage.

Underlying Japanese cuisine is a single word…care. In an era when restaurants seem more concerned about their looks and social media presence than the quality of food, to wit, style over substance, in Japan, care underlies everything from mom ‘n pop noodle bars to deluxe destination restaurants, an ethos that extends to sourcing, preparation, artistry, plating and service. To an outsider, this can be interpreted as obsession, and that’s not far from the truth. Japan’s fixation with cuisine is ingrained from childhood. Students learn about cooking, maintaining balanced diets, nutrition and the importance of seasonality from an early age. School canteens are renowned for their kyushoku (給食), lunches that serve a wide array of top-notch Japanese dishes or meticulously prepared bento boxes instead of the soggy Dickensian gruel served in the UK.

There is only one way to really appreciate Japan’s gastronomic landscape. No, not to queue up outside Wagamama, but board that plane and experience it first-hand. Once you’ve made it to Japan, look around and count the number of places to eat. You’ll find yourself surrounded by tempting places, eateries occupying multiple floors of single buildings and alleys that reward those who venture off the beaten path.

Let me throw a number at you…


That’s the estimated number of restaurants in Tokyo alone. That compares to between 23,000 and 24,000 in New York and London (pre-COVID). However, locals advised that there has been a reduction of izakaya (居酒屋), ostensibly the Japanese bistro, after the pandemic. According to one source, the number of places to eat in Japan has decreased from 1,424,000 to 935,000 in 2023. That remains a dizzying figure to comprehend.

Living in Japan in the mid-nineties, I assumed gentrification would sweep away the countless cubby-hole bars and counters, interstitial watering holes and eateries that occupy every available valuable nook and cranny in a metropolis where space is a scarce resource. Miraculously, in 2023, it was patently clear that they are thriving and remain the lifeblood of Japan. Practically everywhere I travel, I see places heaving with diners for lunch and dinner, queues snaking out of doorways when word gets out about a hot new place to dine.

I returned to Japan for the first time after five years and visited a number of restaurants with a view to composing articles for Vinous Table. Rather than launching straight into the first, I thought it better to offer a primer for the uninitiated, perhaps something that might encourage readers to stop enjoying Japan’s cuisine vicariously and visit the country. It aims to serve as a very simple guide and give a few pointers and tips for navigating what can be a disorientating place. Like everywhere, there are tourist traps and pitfalls to avoid. Those living in Japan will have a far better knowledge of the contemporary dining scene, so I must stress that this article is based on my personal experience.

It was 38° Celsius outside. What’s better than a plate of cold soba? This was at Naraya near Ikebukuro Station.

Why Dine in Japan?

First and foremost, Japan offers something completely different. As a historically isolationist island state, until Commodore Perry commandeered his ships into Tokyo harbor in 1853, Japan evolved a singular pescatarian-leaning cuisine, as one would expect from an archipelago comprising almost 7,000 islands, the metronomic lap of waves never distant. It would be incorrect to assume that every famous dish has Japanese origins. Yakiniku is Korean barbecue, and tempura is of Portuguese extraction, with others originating from China. However, over the centuries, Japan developed its own distinctive style. Since its islands strand a larger area than many foreigners assume, each region gestated its own gastronomy based on local and, in particular, seasonal ingredients. Techniques passed down through generations. The question is: How deep do you want to go?

Reason number two…most Japanese food is refreshingly healthy. You can gorge yourself silly and depart without feeling bloated and ruing your calorific intake. That’s because dishes tend to be small in size, more like tapas, with plenty of vegetables, seaweed and, of course, raw fish, all which are generally beneficial, full of natural oils, sustenance for a long and healthy life as evidenced by Japan’s 92,000 centurions. Even their famed red meat, wagyu, is healthier, as I explained in a Vinous Table for Ginza Cobau.

Thirdly, banal as it sounds – at the time of writing and against received opinion, eating out in Japan is your wallet’s best friend. It is as ridiculously cheap or expensive as you want it to be. If you crave munching a perfect bunch of grapes selling for £200 a box, I can take you there in a jiffy, and if you refuse to board your flight home until you’ve dined at Narisawa, then sure, it will cost a small fortune, in the unlikely chance you obtain a seat. Let’s get real. You can easily eat top-quality Japanese food for £15-£30 per head. The only caveat is that you’ll feel stupid for having overpaid for that limp, over-priced sashimi back home. You can buy a supremely well-prepared Japanese meal, a sushi set with all the trimmings, for between 1,500 to 5,000 Yen ($9.87 to $32.91). Even for around 1,000 Yen ($6.58), the cost of a fast-food meal, you can devour delicious cold noodles or a bowl of steaming ramen, quite possibly prepared by someone who’s spent years perfecting their technique and to utilize that word again, really cares about what you consume. Underlying this is the current weakness of the Yen, which renders already well-priced restaurants even cheaper. Now is the time to take advantage. As I saw first-hand in the summer of 2023, cities like Kyoto were bursting at the seams with tourists.

When Should I Go?

I have always gone in the summer because of school holidays and my work schedule. That means I miss the rainy English “summer”; however, temperatures in Japan hover at around 33°C to 37°C after June’s rainy/typhoon season, with humidity levels that leave your clothes drenched as soon as you walk outside. It’s not a place I advise if you cannot cope with hot weather. Tokyo touched 40°C last summer. Then again, given the heat wave in southern Europe, perhaps that gap is not as large as it once was? Another bonus is that you can see many of the annual festivals at this time, such as the spectacular Gion (祇園祭) in Kyoto (July) and O-bon (お盆) across the country in mid-August, usually accompanied by eye-popping fireworks.

Some tourists will be tempted by sakura or cherry blossom season in April. Yes, the benign springtime weather is lovely, though you will find travel and accommodation pricier because it coincides with Japanese national holidays. My favorite time to go is actually in September or October, when the heat is dialed down, its countryside ablaze with autumnal hues, known as koyo. Alas, barrel tastings in Burgundy preclude this writer from visiting at that time of year, but that is when I suggest friends should visit.

There's no English on this map of JR lines in Tokyo at Shibuya Station.

Where Should I Go?

I am often asked this question. With limited time, I would spend no more than a week in Tokyo in order to visit other cities like Osaka (perhaps the hottest culinary scene at present) or up north in Sapporo, not least historic Kyoto, bejeweled with temples and shrines. Japan’s mountainous and densely forested countryside is panoramic, plus you can travel around effortlessly on the shinkansen (bullet train), a transport system that, without exaggeration, works like clockwork. Tokyo is a never-ending metropolis whose size can be daunting and even claustrophobic for first-time visitors. There are few street names, so you rely on postcodes to calculate your bearings and use landmarks to navigate your way around. Google Maps is a lifesaver, so you should buy a domestic data package upon arrival. Nowadays, there is more signage in English. That said, I still passed through major stations where I had to use my basic knowledge of kanji (Chinese characters) to work out where I needed to disembark. Again, use your smartphone for these and menus written in Japanese script.

Other cities are easier to get around and perhaps offer a less frenetic urban atmosphere that may facilitate navigating its restaurant scene. My trip included several days to Tokyo, but also Nagano, Matsumoto, Kanazawa and Kyoto. I will give my impressions of each in respective articles.

Also, try to spend a night at a ryokan (旅館), a traditional Japanese rural inn, the interior comprised of spartan tatami-floored rooms, sliding doors and rolled-out futons. Don your bathing robe or yukata and chill in your Zen-like surroundings. Preferably, choose one with an open-air spring bath or onsen (温泉) where you can strip off and share a communal spa. (For Westerners that have not shared a closed space with fellow bathers in their birthday suits since school showers, you may need to pluck up the courage.) I enjoy onsen with pungent sulphur that clears the airways. I mention this because, in my experience, the evening meals at ryokan can be outstanding. Guests can savor traditional Japanese fare in an evocative, unique setting, perhaps either on a sunken table or cross-legged on tatami in a private room. I often stay near Ueda, a couple of hours from Tokyo, but ryokan and onsen are ubiquitous.

Tips for Enjoying Restaurants in Japan

Do your research before going. Plan your trip, the towns you want to visit and where you want to eat. Experience the country’s gastronomic eclecticism. One warning. You can eat like a king or queen and still depart dissatisfied simply because there are so many places you had to miss. Be content having scratched the surface. That’s all you’ll be able to do. You can always come back.

Go to a large department store. My usual haunt is Seibu in Ikebukuro in Tokyo, located above the sprawling station. Go mid-morning to tour the bustling food department, usually located in the basement, where you will find a cornucopia of mouth-watering Japanese and overseas delicacies crafted to incredibly high standards. Once you’ve picked your jaw up from the floor, head to the top floors occupied by an array of restaurants conveniently located next to each other. You will find most types of cuisine under one roof, all which tend to be excellent. 

The Omichi market in Kanazawa on the northern coast

Contrary to what I just advised…Get lost! On my most recent trip, my two favorite restaurants were ones stumbled upon by chance; not the first time it’s happened and not the last. For reasons already mentioned, the odds are that you’ll discover an amazing place because the general standard is so high that the odds are stacked in your favor. So, channel your “inner Bourdain”. Poke your head under those curtains. Dive down small alleys. Japan rewards those who throw away the compass and allows instinct to take them wherever.

Visit a market. Set the alarm early. The famous Tsukiji market, once a Mecca for sushi lovers eating freshly caught fish at market-side counters at daybreak, moved from central Tokyo because of the Olympics. I took a trip to Omichi market in Kanazawa on the northern coast, famed for fish and crustacea and enjoyed fabulous sushi and sashimi at numerous counters. (I did feel sorry for the snow crabs, who are obviously still alive in their polystyrene prisons and trying to escape back to the sea.)

Learn a few words of Japanese. Contrary to what you might think, Japanese is easier to pronounce than French or English, and unlike Mandarin or Cantonese, there is no intonation. To me, it is etiquette to utter a few native phrases. Say Konnichi-wa (Hello) as you enter, Itadakemasu (Bon appetite) once you are about to eat, Kanpai (Cheers – word of warning – chin-chin has another meaning in Japanese) and Domo arigato (Thank you) as you depart. It means a lot. Most usefully: Oishii desu…(Delicious).

The language barrier exists, and it can deny entry to some places. That’s not necessarily rudeness or xenophobia; it’s more often because of direct interaction between chef and their customers. Some chefs don’t want to be embarrassed or be misinterpreted, something keenly felt and avoided in Japan’s society. A few places impose a discrete ban upon foreigners. I’m fortunate to be able to dine with Japanese friends and family and see the difference it makes. That said, when I made an impromptu visit to another in Kyoto, my basic Japanese got me through, and many chefs enjoy cooking for someone from afar. It can be fun. It entirely depends on the establishment.

Eat the best Japan can offer. Getting a place at one of Japan’s most esteemed restaurants with just half a dozen fought-over seats booked millennia in advance can seem futile. I must confess, the idea of fighting for a coveted place does not appeal, never has. I would contentiously argue that these shrines do not represent real Japan. But if you do want a seat at such an establishment, then you can use the concierge at top hotels to make inquiries on your behalf. Alternatively, use sites such as www.pocketconcierge.jp or www.tablecheck.com (there are several others). Enter your personal details and bank card so that you can pay for the dinner upfront. Drinks are charged afterwards. This guarantees that the restaurant will not lose out in case of a no-show, which is apparently occurring more frequently. No-shows incur huge pecuniary damage because restaurants source ingredients on that day according to the number of guests that evening. I heard of one restaurant bankrupted because it happened so frequently. It acts as insurance for the restaurant and guarantees a seat at the hottest tables.

Keep it simple. Contrary to the above paragraph, alongside the word care to describe Japanese cuisine, the other is simplicity. Whereas French haut cuisine covets complexity and multiple ingredients to create intricate dishes and so forth, Japan is the polar opposite. At its core, Japanese cuisine is about taking the simplest dish to its zenith. The pursuit of perfection. It’s epitomized by the Japanese woman who has made the same ramen her entire life that attracts long queues each morning, that plate of cold noodles on a baking summer’s day, that melt-in-your-mouth squid and so forth. Some of my favorite dishes in forthcoming Vinous Tables consisted of one ingredient, but one ingredient that sends tastebuds into ecstasy. It extends to everything. Take the simple café latte. Two of the best I have ever drunk were in Japan on this trip. Each was prepared as if the barista was competing in the World Café Latte Championship. The chap, pictured below, owns Davada Coffee & Records in Kyoto and even has a second-hand vinyl shop attached.

Davada Coffee & Records in Kyoto

Types of Japanese Cuisine and Common Terms

In this article, I keep my focus on Japanese cuisine. However, you will be amazed by the internationalism of the country’s restaurant landscape. A commonly heard expression is: “I had my best Italian/Chinese/Mexican/Spanish/French (add any country and delete as appropriate) meal in Japan.” When I lived there, I could even find English fish and chips. Japan ravenously imports foreign cuisine not to copy but to refine and perfect it, fuelled by obsessiveness with quality, a sense of pride and a competitive streak. When I visit Japan, I naturally want to consume Japanese as much as possible, but that is to deny myself the seemingly limitless alternatives on offer.

Below, I summarise the most common types of Japanese cuisine that are too often stereotyped as sushi. In addition, some terms that readers might be familiar with. It pays to know so you can plan your gourmet trip and savor the multifarious delights of Japan. You could write volumes on the subjects listed below, and I encourage further research through eating as well as reading.

Sushi (寿司)– Some conflate sushi with sashimi. Basically, both are raw fish. Whereas sushi is laid upon rice with a dab of wasabi underneath, sashimi is just the raw fish. Both are dipped into a small bowl of soy sauce, not too much, mind you, as you will overwhelm the flavor. I am constantly admonished for ostensibly macerating my sushi or sashimi in soy.

Sashimi (刺身)– Personally, I prefer sashimi because I want to savor the deliciousness and texture of the raw fish. The most popular for both sashimi and sushi are salmon (toro being the fattiest belly and most coveted), tuna (maguro), sea bream (tai), squid (ika) and prawn (ebi). There are many more, such as sea urchin (uni), regarded as a delicacy, yellowtail (buri or kampachi depending on the fish age) and cod roe. The greater the variety, the better in my book, though for me, it reaches its apogee with the finest maguro.

Rice – (米)is the staple of the Japansese diet, and as you would expect, a dazzling array of types exist according to region, polish and brand. Derived from the Japonica cultivatar, Japanese rice is short-grain and is more glutinous and stickier than long-grain rice such as basmati or pilau, enabling you to pick it up almost by adhesion with your chopsticks (箸) or o-hashi. There are various kinds, although I don’t think you can surpass white rice (hakumai) even if brown rice (genmai) is healthier. I eat a lot of the latter at home. By the way, it is polite to eat every grain of rice in your bowl, so practice picking single grains like the most steady-handed surgeon.

Tempura (天ぷら) – “Deep fried whatever in batter” is how you might banally describe tempura, which was introduced by the Portuguese in Nagasaki back in the 16th century. The batter is made of ice-cold water, flour and egg yolk and should be applied thinly, which is why the Japanese look disdainfully down at British fish & chips, where the former is entombed in a thick batter. You cannot beat tempura shrimp because the batter enhances its sweetness, but I also enjoy many vegetables served this way, such as pumpkin (kabocha), sweet potato (satsumaimo), shiso leaf and aubergine (nasu). What makes a great tempura is the standard of ingredients, the thinness/delicacy of the batter, the quality of the dipping sauce and the chef's skill in timing the frying to perfection. You will find tempura restaurants everywhere.

Ramen (拉麺) – basically noodles in a large bowl of soup. This is actually an import from China, cheap and easily found across the entirety of Japan. There are countless types, though I have a soft spot for miso-based ramen from Hokkaido. It’s a hearty winter warmer, though if you think no skill is involved, watch the film Tampopo, which will give you an idea about Japanese attitudes to cooking. Some say ramen is a dish that does not export well abroad, and I am inclined to agree. Nothing tastes quite like ramen slurped on a cold, wintry night in Japan.

Udon/Soba (うどん/そば) - both are Japanese noodles. The difference is in the type of flour used: Udon uses wheat to create a slightly more glutinous texture and is whiter and glossier in appearance. Soba uses buckwheat flour that is a bit grainier, thinner and darker in hue. It is also slightly healthier than Udon. Both are delicious.

Wagyu (和牛肉) – This literally translates as “Japanese cow”, which sounds banal and yet nothing compares with beef from Japan. It is much misunderstood, partly because so many restaurants have misappropriated the word to triple the price of their burger. Fortunately, I have already explained Wagyu to Vinous readers, which you can read here. You’ll find out about the gradings of meat and why it’s healthier for you.

Yakiniku ((焼肉) – a.k.a. “Korean barbecue”. It's best when there’s a group of you. The waiter will deliver meat to your table so customers can cook for themselves on a gas-fired grill embedded in the table. These places range from cheap chains where families flock with their kids to some of Japan’s most coveted restaurants. The difference? The quality of meat. If you want the finest Wagyu known to humankind, then you’ll pay for it, though even at the lower end, it’s easy to find yakiniku restaurants serving meat that would surpass anything in my home country.  

Sizzling away on my first night in Tokyo, where we took my mother-in-law for a local yakiniku.

Shabu-Shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) – Basically, the above, but instead of grilling the meat, it is boiled at the table. I love shabu-shabu, although if push comes to shove, I’m a yakiniku man as I like the charring.

Yakitori (焼き鳥) – Yakitori translates as “cooked bird”. It is simply skewers of diced chicken cooked over charcoal, either served with a pinch of salt (shio) or, my preference, glazed in soy sauce (tare) that adds piquancy. You can buy basic yakitori from street stalls for little more than a couple of dollars, while at the higher end, chefs source particular breeds of chicken for their flavor. Though the breast is the most common, all parts of the foul are used: thigh, skin, gizzards, heart and so forth. Normally, yakitori forms part of a menu, though there are restaurants that specialize solely in it and become renowned. For what it’s worth, I loved yakitori so much that when I left Japan in 1995, I bought a t-shirt emblazoned with “yakitori” in hiragana, which prompted a few curious looks from Japanese tourists.

Since 1994, I have eaten an obscene amount of yakitori. This is the best I’ve ever eaten, late at night at SiCX京都蒸溜所 in Kyoto. It was a café bar with a bijou gin distillery attached. I almost cried. The yakitori was so mouth-wateringly delicious.

Omakase (お任せ) – literally translates as “leave it up to you”. Not you, dear readers, but up to the chef tasked with creating that evening’s menu. Ostensibly, it’s what the French call prix fixe, though omakase in Japan has much more emphasis on the chef’s decision made on that day based upon ingredients, so it’s generally more fluid.

Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) – a Japanese pancake made from wheat, flour and cabbage. I dislike cabbage, so I don’t eat it often. It’s not generally found in top restaurants, which probably means there’s a Michelin-starred restaurant specializing in okonomiyaki that I don’t know about.

Unagi (うなぎ) – Japanese eel can be divine. I find it another dish that does not translate outside Japan. Even within the country, this category can leave you disappointed, as entry-level restaurants usually import cheaper eels and compensate for the lack of taste with an overly rich or salty soy sauce. Preferably, you want eel caught in Japanese waters and given a judicious seasoning. You have to pay a bit more, say around 5,000 Yen ($32.91) upwards for quality unagi, but it’s worth it.

This is one of the best unagi I have tasted in Japan, in Tokyo at Matsukawa, just off the main “Scramble Square” in Shibuya. This set was a little more expensive but worth every Yen.

Wine Scene in Japan

I am not going to write too much here. I am not as familiar with the wine landscape as I was twenty years ago when I was employed by an importer bringing fine wine to the Japanese masses. Those who reside in Japan will know much more than I do. Suffice it to say that Japan is a ‘mature’ Asian country with respect to its embracing of wine and developing a wine culture. Japan’s taste for wine began in the late Sixties and accelerated during the economic boom of the 1980s, peaking in the late 1990s when it experienced a wine boom similar to Hong Kong’s a decade later. Bar owners partly fueled this, many of them women, realizing they could profit far more from an expensive wine that had to be replaced when one of their regulars visited compared to cognac that remained on the shelf. It was an era when fine wine was affordable, and the burgeoning numbers of oenophiles could afford claret or Burgundy. I should know as I was involved in its importing and distribution. Top restaurants gravitated towards classic wine regions. However, there has since been a significant shift towards the New World, particularly natural and biodynamic wines that sit comfortably with their minimalist ethos. Sommeliers in Japan are legion and influential. I can vouchsafe from my own experience that they have immense knowledge, many inspired by Shinya Tasaki’s headline-grabbing crowning as Meilleur Sommelier du Monde in 1995 and, of course, the immensely popular Drops of God manga.

Visiting Tokyo and indeed other cities, it is easy to find independent wine stores, as well as larger chains, most notably Enoteca. While prices can be expensive for tourists, the weak yen makes buying wine in Japan more cost-effective than a couple of years ago. Some restaurants offer BYO/corkage, which must be arranged in advance. It is usually only allowed for regulars or if you have contacts. Some menus write wines using their phonetic alphabetic, katakana, though your Smartphone can translate most of it. Of course, the beverage synonymous with Japan is sake, and there will be reviews in forthcoming Vinous Tables where I eschew wine altogether. Perhaps this was the trip where I finally fell for sake. When you are in Japan, sake complements the cuisine and lends the occasion authenticity in the same way as drinking Barolo in Piedmont or Riesling in the Mosel.

That is all I will write for now. There are reams of books on the subject, dedicated websites and members on the Vinous forum should you wish to investigate further or perhaps are now considering it is time to visit this wonderful country instead of just dreaming about it.

I have written five Vinous Tables, and we will publish one Vinous Table each day next week. I hope they will give a flavor of what to expect when dining in Japan; mind you, it is just a flavor…

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