A ceramic bowl full of chopped ingredients.

Ingredients for okonomiyaki (a type of savory pancake) presented at a grill-your-own restaurant. Photo © Kyler Kwock, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

In a country surrounded by bountiful oceans, food from the sea is a big part of the diet, from seaweed to fish and whales (although there is mounting international pressure to cease killing the latter). After the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear accident in 2011, the government set strict guidelines on the amount of radiation (cesium) allowable in seafood, vegetables, and fruit. You can be assured that restaurants and stores follow these guidelines.

When you arrive in Japan, you may be surprised to find vending machines supplying sake and beer.Seafood seasoned with soy, along with rice and vegetables, is the main ingredient for a traditional meal. Sushi (which means “vinegared rice”) is squeezed (nigiri), rolled (maki), or hand-rolled (temaki) and combined with strips of seafood (raw or cooked), vegetables, or eggs. Other kinds of food—Western, Korean, Indian, Nigerian, and more—are equally popular and available. You can have pizza with sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, or ika (squid), nori (dried seaweed), and corn, or have your spaghetti in a bread bowl. Order cake or cream anmitsu (sweet bean à la mode) for dessert or a snack.

Meat consumption has increased, as can be witnessed at any Makudo (McDonald’s), MosBurger, or yakiniku (Korean barbecue) establishment. McDonald’s offers non-American fare such as teriyaki burgers and melon shakes. MosBurger is famous for its rice burgers—two grilled rice patties with strips of meat and vegetables in between. Eating more meat has resulted in rising cholesterol levels and higher rates of heart disease.

As far as alcohol, hot or cold sake (pronounced “SA-keh,” not “SA-kee”) is a favorite accompaniment to traditional meals. When you arrive in Japan, you may be surprised to find vending machines supplying sake and beer. Signs warn youth under age 20 not to purchase the product, and the machines shut down after 11 P.M.

Ocha (green tea) holds an honored place in the tea ceremony and in everyday life, but coffee is extremely popular. Doutor was the first discount coffee shop chain to open in Japan. They revolutionized the market by selling coffee for ¥180 ($2.25) a cup, instead of the typical ¥400 ($5) or ¥500 ($6.25). Starbucks has expanded rapidly, and specialty gourmet coffee is becoming popular. Coffee is brewed by the cup and served in a fancy cup. While you’re in Tokyo, try Cafe Bach. Where there is coffee, you will likely find smokers, although their number is decreasing. If you don’t care for smoke, ask for a ki’n-en-seki (nonsmoking seat). Then enjoy the caffeine rush—decaffeinated coffee is unknown in Japan!


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Japan.