Although it is possible to spend enormous sums in top-class restaurants in Japan, there are also very reasonably-priced eating options around which make it fun and easy to eat on a budget.
Food is often presented in a way which makes it easy to choose, and see the price and contents of what is on offer. Plastic models of the plates are displayed in many restaurant windows (making it possible to show the staff what you want, by pointing at the model). At some modest establishments, there is a payment point outside, allowing you to choose your dish, pay for it, and take the receipt into the restaurant to collect your dish.
A meal in a box. As most Japanese food can be eaten cold, the cuisine lends itself to being packed – often very attractively – in a box for handy consumption anywhere. Prices vary according to the contents, but are usually very reasonable. Bento meals are available in many restaurants (to eat in) like the one pictured here. But cheaper and more basically-packaged bento are sold in supermarkets and food halls, from kiosks at railway stations (“ekiben”), and from trolleys on trains themselves; they are very convenient for train journeys.
A one-bowl lunchtime dish, consisting of a donburi (big bowl) full of hot steamed rice with various savoury toppings:
Katsudon: with deep-fried breaded pork cutlet (also tonkatsudon)
Tekkadon: with tuna sashimi
Oyakodon: (“Parent and child”): topped with chicken and egg (or sometimes salmon and salmon roe)
Gyudon: with seasoned beef
Tendon: with tempura
Unadon: with broiled eel (unagi) and vegetables.
Wheat noodles in a meat-based broth (eg. chicken), with a topping such as sliced pork, (chashu), seaweed, kamaboko (see above), green onions, and even corn. Almost every locality or prefecture in Japan has its own variety of ramen, from the tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen of Kyushu to the miso ramen of Hokkaido.
This is a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour. It is served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup. They are a cheap fast food, often sold at train stations, but can also be served by exclusive and expensive speciality restaurants, and are also made at home. Soba is virtually always eaten with chopsticks, and it is usual to slurp the noodles noisily. (For the hot variety, this helps to cool the soup down.) Soba noodles are often served drained and chilled in the summer, and hot in the winter with a soy-based dashi broth. Extra toppings can be added onto both hot and cold soba. Chilled soba is often served on a sieve-like bamboo tray called a zaru (see photo), with a dipping sauce known as soba tsuyu on the side. The tsuyu is made of a strong mixture of dashi broth, sweet soy sauce and mirin. Using chopsticks, you pick up a small amount of soba from the tray and swirl it in the cold tsuyu before eating it. Wasabi, scallions and grated ginger are often mixed into the tsuyu. Soba is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve.
The iconic Japanese food: an elongated ball of boiled rice with a thin slice of raw fish on top. Conveyor belt sushi (kaiten zushi) restaurants are a popular, reasonably-priced way of eating sushi. At these restaurants, the sushi is sometimes served on colour-coded plates, with each colour denoting the cost. You choose your dishes as they pass by on the belt, and your bill is calculated by counting how many plates of each colour you have taken.
At lunchtimes, many moderate restaurants offer a reasonably-priced set lunch menu called “teishoku” (around 1,000-1,500 yen).
Tender beef, seafood and fresh vegetables are cooked on a griddle set in the centre of your table. Teppan = iron plate, yaki = grilled. The teppanyaki chef cooks the food according to your taste, with the beef and any other large items being cut into bite-size pieces.
Grilled, broiled, or pan-fried meat, fish, chicken or vegetables glazed with a sweetened soy sauce. Fish such as tuna, salmon, trout and mackerel are preferred in Japan; chicken, pork and beef are more usual in the West. The fish or meat should be dipped in, or brushed with, the sauce several times before completion. The sauce (consisting of soy sauce, sake or mirin, and sugar or honey) is boiled and reduced to the desired thickness before it is used to marinate the meat. The meat is then grilled or broiled. Sometimes ginger is added, and the final dish is often garnished with spring onions. Teriyaki can also be served cold, as it often is in a bento box meal.
Another noodle. This one is usually served hot in a mildly flavoured broth: kake udon. It is usually topped with finely chopped spring onions. Tempura or eggs toppings are also common.
Yaki (grilled) tori (bird): pieces of chicken barbecued on a bamboo skewer. It is a favourite snack to have on the way home from work: a yakitori and a beer from a yakitori stall. Yakitori is also a common, cheap accompaniment to beer in izakayas (pub-style informal drinking establishments).