From fine dining to mom-and-pop diners, Japan’s unique food culture represents an eater’s paradise renowned for its transcendental experiences. Its delicious terrain has been explored by culinary icons like Anthony Bourdain and mined by gourmet publications like the Michelin Guide.
Occasionally though, I’m frustrated by its big cities with eateries secreted away in 10-storey towers. I tire of wrestling with Google Maps. I’ve circled madly and emerged from mazes of subway lines, only to be greeted with a cryptic, curt: “Head north.” Thanks Google, I don’t have a natural sense of direction.
Luckily, Japan has welcoming, accessible food hubs aplenty, all conveniently embedded in its landscape. Glorious gateways into its complex cuisine, elevated into tourist attractions in their own right. When I wasn’t hunting down dives in winding alleys, these were invaluable for initiating me into the sometimes-scary but wondrous world of Japanese food.
Konbini: frontline for Japanese snacks
Centuries ago, ruling warlords Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, colloquially known today as the Three Unifiers of Japan, extended their empires across the country. How would these ancient leaders view modern Japan, seemingly conquered by the “Three Kings of Convenience”: 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson — the chains that comprise approximately 80% of Japan’s over 56,400 convenience stores (according to a 2017 Statistica report).
… a cheap, low-risk entry to a sparkling universe of Japanese meals and snacks.
This country’s amazing number of konbini (convenience stores) — almost literally on every street corner — offer a cheap, low-risk entry to a sparkling universe of Japanese meals and snacks. Which konbini reigns supreme? Is it Lawson’s egg sandwich? Family Mart’s fried chicken? Is it 7-Eleven’s baked cheesecake that clinches your allegiance? Or are you a wandering ronin (masterless samurai), loyal to none? Perhaps you’re mourning a former homeland, like the now-defunct Sunkus (absorbed by Family Mart.) Or you’re a rebel, following splinter factions like Natural Lawson, Mini-Stop or Daily Yamazaki.
In the konbini wars, ferocious competition spurs endless food innovations. When new products are launched, sales data is fed back to headquarters in real time; by the next day, these corporations already know if they have a hit. Processed tuna mayo onigiri (rice balls) are the classic konbini-driven invention. They’re a solid top seller — never before has “sea chicken” reached such lofty heights.
But beware — many goodies are seasonal or are swept aside by market forces. On my second trip, I fell hard for some citrus-flavored potato chips. Sadly, they’d vanished by my next visit.
I still think about those chips. Pine for them like some girls long for a lost boyfriend. So, on my fourth trip, when my friend went gaga for a particular green tea cake, I implored her to eat it as much as possible. She did — eight times — and I beamed, knowing I’d possibly spared her some konbini heartbreak.
Konbini nerds can even check out the latest releases and rankings on the Mogu Navi konbini product website (Japanese). If you can’t find a treasured treat in these literal convenience stores, my next choice is usually the cavernous food and beverage aisles of the Don Quijote mega stores if one is close.
Ekiben: regional pride in a box
The moment I suspected I’d become an ekiben otaku (nerd) was when I arrived two hours early at Matsumoto station in Nagano Prefecture to buy a special eki (station) bento (Japanese boxed lunch).
“Come back at 11 a.m,” the shop lady laughed. I returned for the fancy, limited quantity, two-tiered box. Inside were 14 little dishes including fried buckwheat noodles, cucumber wrapped in pork, grape jelly and Fuji apple simmered in wine. It cost ¥1,200 and was sublime.
Ekiben showcase regional cooking and ingredients. Often made by small, family-run businesses, they’re a charming portal into local home-style eats, enhanced by the romance of long rail journeys.
… a charming portal into local home-style eats, enhanced by the romance of long rail journeys.
They evolved alongside train travel from the 1880s. Once, ekiben hawkers with trays slung around their necks frequently worked the platforms; today, you might only see these traditional-style hawkers at about five stations (Japanese). If you’re lucky, you’ll hear their sing-song cries of, “Obent-oo! Obent-oo!”
Local train station boxed lunch sales dropped with the adoption of cars and planes but ekiben culture still draws hardcore fans. The Ekiben Museum website (Japanese) lists 10 of the most popular boxes nationwide. The website of Uesugi Tsuyoshi (Japanese), an enthusiast for over 40 years, holds an extensive archive with images of exquisite wrapper artwork.
Tokyo station’s Ekibenya Matsuri store sells over 170 choices from around Japan. Ekibenya Itadaki is its sister branch in Shinjuku station. You can also visit annual ekiben fairs — the largest are at Shinjuku, Tokyo’s Keio, Osaka’s Hanshin or Kumamoto’s Tsuruya department stores.
These extravaganzas — or the release of new and improved regional box lunches — fuel the kind of frenzy associated with an iPhone debut in other countries. The sight of normally restrained, orderly locals stampeding for lunch sets is an “only-in-Japan” vignette that further endears me to this food-obsessed nation.
Depachika: underground food utopias
I’m terrified of the tsukemono (pickled vegetable) man at Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku. I tried some of his complimentary wares but when I returned for second helpings, he shot me a stern look and I slunk off in shame. I’m addicted to cruising depachika (basement department store food halls). Sunday is the best day to get showered with freebies. But there’s a line between polite appreciation and sample abuse.
That pickle seller has no clue how depachika helped me master my fear of unfamiliar, exotic Japanese foods. I once spurned pickles but covet them now thanks to generous department store samples.
You can also test new foods by purchasing single portions of buns or sweets, sticks of skewered snacks or dishes by the gram. Join locals in queues for the hottest desserts or jostle for discounted bento half an hour before closing time. Feel transported across the globe from London to Paris via outlets of famed Western purveyors like Harrods and Hediard.
In a zombie apocalypse, please let me be barricaded in a Japanese depachika.
Major cities house the best depachika and they’re often near or linked to main train stations — making them a fine diversion on a rainy day. Tokyo’s biggest is Tobu in Ikebukuro, while the city’s Isetan and Mitsukoshi stores (in Shinjuku and Ginza, respectively) epitomize high-end opulence.
The Hankyu store in Umeda, Osaka is my favorite, though. There’s always a line there for the Bâton d’or biscuits (sold only in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Fukuoka), a premium type of the ubiquitous chocolate-covered biscuit stick beloved by Japanese nationwide — Pocky. You can discover more area and branch exclusives in this guide from the Japan Department Stores Association.
In a zombie apocalypse, please let me be barricaded in a Japanese depachika. I can’t think of a better place for my last stand.
The foods you should try in Japan require a guide and itinerary — the country is a gastronomic goldmine. Memorable meals can be sourced from Tabelog, a trusted peer-review restaurant guide. Gurunavi and Savor Japan also have recommendations, plus useful articles. Vegans and vegetarians can use the digital Tokyo Vegan Guide (available for download in the GaijinPot Store, ¥810) or consult HappyCow. The KyoudoRyouri site outlines specific must-try regional fare.
In the meantime, I’ll keep chasing the high of finding a rare Japan-only Häagen-Dazs ice cream after searching six konbini, relishing an ekiben on a speeding bullet train with a side dish of dazzling scenery or descending an escalator — heart fluttering — towards another depachika adventure.
It says something about this country’s culture — its artistry, refinement and meticulousness — when even its most prosaic, everyday food avenues are polished to such sumptuous heights of perfection.