• Life & Culture

Discover Japan through food

Japanese food on wooden table

When someone says the words “Japanese food,” you are likely to think sushi, tempura and, sukiyaki. Yet, Japan’s everyday cuisine has a far wider range. Meals in Japan can be broadly divided into three types, Japanese, Western, and Chinese, providing a great variety of menus to enjoy. There will be plenty of familiar food as well as new choices you will come to enjoy.

Social trends, such as delaying marriage and more women entering the workforce, are broadly changing eating habits. People are dining out more at family restaurants and fast food outlets, and when they do eat at home, they may choose instant or frozen foods that need little preparation time. With convenience stores open around the clock, more people are buying and eating food when it suits them, regardless of the hour.

Modern preservation techniques, as well as foods imported from countries with climates different from Japan’s, have made it possible to buy almost any type of food at practically any time of year. Even so, the Japanese penchant for eating fresh foods in the season still remains, and the desire to mark special events with food representing that time of year still holds strong.


Daily Meals

The daily meal is usually based on a Japanese, Chinese, or Western menu, with the latter two adapted, more or less, to suit Japanese tastes. Rice is the staple food. When Chinese side dishes are served, they come with rice, and this is often true with Western side dishes as well. To the Japanese, rice goes down best with a bowl of miso soup. Miso soup differs in taste and ingredients, depending on the region and household, thus typifying “mom’s home cooking.” The daily special at a restaurant will have a main dish and the inevitable rice and miso soup.

Bread is popular, too. More bakeries are selling freshly baked bread on counters open to the street, and some stores use recipes from a number of different countries. Bread is generally thought of as part of a light meal, so it is often eaten at breakfast, during a quick lunch, or as a snack.

Some families eat the traditional way, sitting on tatami mats at a low table, while others eat Western style, on chairs at a table that is high by comparison.

Lunch for school children might be prepared by the school. It may also be brought from home or bought at a convenience store or store that sells hot box lunches. Workers often bring lunch from home or eat out.

The evening meal is more elaborate in size and variety, and the ideal is for all family members to eat together. However, in today’s busy world, it is all too common for family members with conflicting schedules to eat different meals at different times.


Supermarket Shopping

Supermarket shopping is an art you will learn quickly, often through trial and error. Most Japanese supermarkets are not very big but are always well stocked. You will be familiar with many of the packages as they can often be the same as those in your home country, only with Japanese writing. Other products, although unfamiliar, are obvious because you can see the products themselves or the package has pictures. A large number of product descriptions are written in English.

Unlike in many other countries, it can be difficult to purchase personal care products, bathroom products such as soaps and shampoos, laundry products, and household cleaning products from a supermarket. Japanese tend to purchase these items separately from drug stores, which often resemble a store on the scale of a supermarket.

To save money, a growing number of families will go to large discount outlets, such as Costco, in the suburbs to buy large quantities of instant, canned, and frozen foods, which have a long storage life. As an Interac ALT, it might not be easy to access a large discount outlet; however, you can be reassured that you will have access to one or more supermarkets that stock a wide range of products. Shopping online for your favorite products is common. Such outlets include the Foreign Buyers Club.


Convenience and Familiar Brands

It is likely that your main source of food, at least between visits to the supermarket, will be your local convenience store. There are more than 50,000 convenience stores in Japan. Most of them are open 24 hours a day. They offer a huge range of products, from freshly pre-prepared meals to even light bulbs.

Although the café culture of many foreign countries hasn’t totally caught on in Japan, the Japanese have developed their own café culture, especially over the last decade. There are approximately 1,000 Starbucks locations as well.

Traditional fast food consumption is on the rise and so is the proliferation of brands such as McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC along with Japanese brands like MOS Burger, First Kitchen, and Freshness Burger. Japanese style fast food or convenience restaurants like Yoshinoya and Sukiya are very popular.


Seasonal Dishes for Spring

When winter fades away and spring arrives, it’s time to enjoy the sunshine, perhaps with a lunch outdoors. When the cherry blossoms are in their prime throughout the country, they seem to invite people to party under them. At this time of year, the hues of spring are reflected in the colorful meals. The traditional box lunch for such an occasion comes in a number of varieties, including chirashi-zushi (colored ingredients scattered on sushi rice). Exotic additions, like nanohana (rapeseed blossoms), taranome (angelica buds), and nemitsuba (a type of honeywort) signify spring and are especially delicious.


Seasonal Dishes for Summer

Summer in Japan means hot and humid weather. Appetites decline, and some people lose weight. To forget the heat, people eat chilled noodles, perhaps thin ones, called “somen,” in a light broth or brown ones made of buckwheat, called “soba.” Others are served Chinese-style. A different approach might be to restore energy with some barbecued meat, tempura (deep fried delicacies), eel, or curry.

Summer also means cold beer. Drop into a beer hall on the way home from work, and you will surely find many business people with the same idea. Stores also do a thriving business selling ice cream, ice candy, and soft drinks.


Seasonal Dishes for Autumn

The fall months bring a lush harvest and revitalized appetites. Many fine foods are in season, adding special flavors to meals and announcing fall’s arrival. This is a good time to eat rice cooked with freshly picked mushrooms or Pacific saury with its appetizing fatty flavor. There is also fruit to enjoy, like apples and nashi pears.


Seasonal Dishes for Winter

Christmas, New Year’s Day, and parties before and after the new year give plenty of opportunities to have fun and celebrate.

Taking a page out of the West’s cultural calendar, the Japanese have made Christmas Eve and Christmas Day a time to get together with friends and family to enjoy cake and good food. The cold weather outside indicates it’s time for hot stews in a pot or for oden (various simmered ingredients). Pot stews are fun to eat with family members and friends, so they are often seen at New Year’s parties. On the last day of the year, it is customary to serve buckwheat noodles, as the long noodles represent the hope for a long life. The New Year brings traditional and colorful o-sechi-ryori cuisine and o-zoni (rice cakes in soup).


Traditional Dishes

Food tastes best just after the harvest, as anyone who partakes in Japanese cuisine knows. Seafood and food from deep in the country are called “joys from sea and mountain” as a way of thanking nature for her bountiful supply of food.

The Japanese did not eat beef or pork before the Meiji Period, which began in 1868. Prior to that, most animal protein came from seafood, so it is natural that different ways of preserving and serving seafood developed throughout Japan. One delicious, traditional delicacy is sashimi, which is thinly sliced fresh, raw fish.

What would Japanese cuisine be without rice? Boiled rice has been a staple food since ancient times. Cooked rice can also be pounded to make mochi rice cakes, and rice flour can be made into confectionaries. Sake is traditional rice wine.

Two of the most commonly used seasonings are soy sauce and miso. Both are made primarily from soy beans, which are rich in protein. Soy sauce is very versatile. It can be added to ingredients when they are simmered or boiled, it can be sprinkled on food during a meal, or food can be dipped in it to pick up extra flavor. Miso has excellent nutritional and preservative qualities and is found in many different recipes. Taste and color vary greatly by region. Some miso is a reddish brown, some a very light color.