We were all pretty excited about the delicious foods to try in Japan. We have a Japanese restaurant near our home in Melbourne that we love and visit regularly. The food is different to what many people are used to at home, but we find it to be fresh, tasty and most importantly, kid friendly. There is a huge variation of food types with more than enough options to keep everyone happy.
Japan was the first stop on our 12 month trip around the world and we were sticking to a tight budget. As such, our list of 5 foods you have to try won’t break the bank and doesn’t include visits to any of the countless Michelin starred restaurants dotted around the country. However, the good news is that the food in Japan is varied and delicious and it is possible to enjoy the foods the country is famous for without paying a lot of money. This list is for those who are looking for a cheaper yet still unique food experience in Japan with kids!
Literally meaning “yaki” – to grill, and “tori”- bird, Yakitori restaurants offer chicken cooked on wooden skewers cooked over a charcoal barbecue. There are a number of casual restaurant chains as well as more high end and pub style restaurants to choose from.
Skewers can be ordered individually and are delivered in record time, making this the perfect meal out with kids. Sometimes there is an english menu. More often than not there would be a menu in Japanese with pictures. So take your chances and select from the pictures and cross your fingers!
We would sit up at the bar overlooking the kitchen, order a beer for us and a drink for the kids and watch the chef at work. Most places also offer vegetable skewers. Mushrooms and peppers were our favourite vegetarian options.
In some places you hold onto the wooden skewers and pay by the stick at the end. In others they give you a sheet of paper and tally your bill as you go. It is a surprisingly fun and cheap meal out. Be warned that ALL parts of the chicken are offered, so unless you are fans of heart, liver, neck etc, you may want to check the translation on the menu before ordering.
2. Sushi Train
Also known as conveyor belt sushi we think this is another must-do in Japan. We have these restaurants in Australia but didn’t want to miss visiting one while in Japan, the home of sushi. You can often find these restaurants in the shopping complexes at train stations. Don’t worry if there is a queue – they generally move very quickly as people come and go.
So how does it work? Sushi is prepared fresh and placed on plates that travel on a conveyor belt that moves past all the seats. You take a seat at the bar, watch the chefs at work and select what looks good from the plates going by.
There is sometimes a menu but it is easier just to go with what looks good and what others around you are eating. Usually there are a number of different coloured plates and each plate colour is a different price. Look around on the walls for the coloured plates with the price per plate.
As you eat you build a pile of plates and at the end of the meal a waiter will tally your plates to prepare your bill.
Worried your kids won’t like sushi? There are often other meals available such as fried chicken or noodles. Our kids weren’t so keen on some of the raw fish but were happy with chicken and eel plates. With green tea and water on tap at your table, being able to self serve from the conveyor belt, this makes for a great meal out with kids.
We were hungry on our arrival in Tokyo and thankfully our AirBnB host had left us with a long list of recommended local restaurants. We were excited to see that a local ramen bar was the top recommendation of our host.
Ramen comes in many different guises and there are thousands of restaurants offering what must be one of the most popular meals in Japan. Out we ventured down small alleys looking for the symbol on the door. Finally we found it – a simple, tiny little place with 6 high stools facing onto a small kitchen where an older couple were busy preparing huge steaming bowls of noodles.
We were helped through the process of ordering our meal at the vending machine at the front door. It was a combination of mime and pointing at ingredients as there wasn’t any english spoken! In less than 10 minutes four bowls of delicious goodness appeared. Tasty broth, delicious noodles, chunks of pork, piled high with bean sprouts.
It was possibly the best meal I had our entire time in Japan. Coming in from the freezing cold, taking off our jackets and slurping our way through the biggest bowl of ramen I have ever had made for a wonderful and cheap meal out. I am bummed I didn’t get a picture of this meal. I think we were all too busy eating!
Low Interaction Dining!
Another place to look out for if you have older kids are Ichiran ramen chains. A completely unique japanese experience they offer “low interaction dining”. Confused? On entering the restaurant you order your meal at the vending machine and take your place at individual sectioned off seats where you place your order directly with the kitchen under a curtain. Your bowl of ramen is delivered by a mysterious pair of hands at your booth. Perhaps for those days when no-one feels like talking?
Apart from being one of Matt’s favourite words, this dish is one of my favourites in Japan. Taken from the word okonomi which means “how you like”, and yaki which we already know means grill, it pretty much means grill whatever you like together in a savoury pancake.
The pancake is traditionally made from a batter containing flour, cabbage, eggs, meat or fish, vegetables and cheese. What makes this one of my favourite things to eat is the pancake is then topped with a thick/sweet dark sauce, seaweed flakes, bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and pickled ginger. It is a saucy, cheesey pancake of yuminess (if that is a word?).
The most fun way to experience Okonomiyaki it is to go to a restaurant where you can make it yourself. Each table has a central hotplate and you are provided with the batter to cook yourself. The kids had a lot of fun adding the ingredients and topping the pancake with their favourite sauces. Definitely add this to your list of foods to try in Japan.
KitKat I hear you say? Well, yes. For those not in the know, KitKats are a chocolate bar, and like most countries we have regular flavoured KitKats here in Australia. However, in Japan over 300 different flavours have been produced since 2000.
We most commonly found them at train stations, convenience stores, candy stores and the airport. Our mission? To try as many different flavours as we could find during our stay. From the ubiquitous matcha tea to strawberry, raspberry and wasabi, it was a novel and fun experience trying the different flavours. The verdict? Matcha green tea was our kids’ favourite.
While not in our 5 foods to try you really must check out the vending machines. Seemingly stationed on every street corner, Japan has taken the vending machine to a level we didn’t see anywhere else in the world. Our kids LOVED perusing the vending machines.
Not satisfied with offering cold drinks, in Japan you can find almost anything for sale in a vending machine. From a food perspective you can find hot coffee and hot chocolate (perfect for staying warm while out and about), icy cold beer, fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, noodles, even sliced fruit. Next time you are in Japan stop and take a look at what is on offer at the machines that line the streets.
Eating on a budget
In order to stay on budget in Japan one of the best tips I have for you is to become best friends with the local 7-Eleven. Coming from Australia the only thing I had ever bought at 7-Eleven was a slurpee. I definitely wouldn’t ever consider buying a meal there.
In Japan it seems there is one on every corner. Not only that, they stock a huge array of fresh and pre-prepared food at value prices. The 7-Eleven is so popular with the locals that meals are continuously re-stocked during the day. No soggy sandwiches here.
So as well as cold and hot drinks, beer, chocolates and instant noodles you can find bento boxes, sushi, salads, pasta and noodles. You can take out the food or often there is a small bench or table to eat in.
We regularly purchased either lunch or dinner at 7-Eleven and took it back to our AirBnB to heat up and eat on the bed-aka-couch-aka-dining table. For those on a budget you can’t beat 7-Eleven.
What do you think of our list of foods to try in Japan? What is your favourite food in Japan? Leave a comment! We would love to hear from you!
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