Japanese food is perhaps one of the things the country is best known for internationally. From the ubiquitous sushi to the much maligned natto, not to mention the ever-popular array of convenience options such as bento and onigiri, the chances are that most people can think of a food that they associate with Japan.
Indeed, some of the most common questions asked of a foreigner in Japan are food related – “Can you eat raw fish?” (Answer: yes, but I prefer not to), “Can you use chopsticks?” (Yes), “Have you tried natto?” (Yes, and I rather liked it). So naturally, I was keen to sample some of the country’s culinary delights. Being mostly* vegetarian and something of a picky eater has presented its challenges, for sure, but I certainly don’t go hungry.
If you’re newly arrived and living alone, the chances are you will have limited cooking facilities at home – if you’re lucky you may have a gas or electric stove with two burners, but most likely your kitchen space will amount to a small sink and a single heating element. Space to store food is also likely to be very limited, so if you cook at home then planning in advance will be very important.
If you can get yourself a rice cooker, microwave and toaster oven then your options will increase somewhat. As for where to buy your ingredients and store cupboard staples, the main supermarket chains (in Tokyo, at least) are Seiyu (owned by Walmart), Aeon, Daiei, Maruetsu and LIFE.
In residential areas you will also find many smaller independent shops selling fruits and vegetables, snacks and baked goods. From time to time you may even stumble across a vending machine stocked by a local producer, selling fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs at a very reasonable price. And for those times when you crave a taste of home, check out Yamaya or Kaldi Coffee for a reasonable selection of imported goods which won’t break the bank.
While some foods can be expensive, in general I’ve found the prices of everyday goods to be comparable to or cheaper than in the UK – you could easily throw together a curry that will provide 2-3 servings for a couple of hundred yen.
Eating out is very popular in Tokyo – much more so than I remember it being back home. There are some very affordable places, eating alone is not unusual, and long working hours make a quick bowl of ramen or a fast food set the practical choice for many busy people.
Chain stores like Matsuya and Yoshinoya offer traditional Japanese fare on the cheap, whereas at places like Saizeria or Jonathan’s you can enjoy a local take on Western favourites. A few of my personal favourites for a delicious vegetarian meal are: T’s Tan Tan in Tokyo Station (100% vegan ramen), Chabuton in Shimokitazawa (a chain ramen restaurant whose offerings include vegetarian ramen and gyoza imbued with spirulina) and Cafe Deva Deva in Kichijoji (assorted vegetarian soups, curries and burgers).
If sushi is your thing, many places offer at least a couple of vegetarian options with toppings such as cucumber or natto. For fast food cravings, it’s worth noting that domestic hamburger chain Mos Burger has the option to switch to a soy patty with many of their burgers (although some of the sauces still contain meat, so you may wish to check if this is the case before ordering).
The Japanese curry chain CoCo Ichibanya also now offers a vegetarian range in selected branches – check their website for a full list (in Japanese) of participating stores.
Another option if you don’t have the time, inclination or facilities to cook is, of course, the conbini. Walk into any branch of any convenience store chain and you will find an array of pre-prepared meals, bento, sandwiches, onigiri and snacks, as well as hot foods such as fried chicken, nikuman and, in the colder months, oden.
The staff will offer to warm your meal for you and provide utensils and napkins – some larger stores even have seating areas so you can sit down and eat right there. Vegetarian options are rare but not unheard of – you can get plain onigiri as well as ones with a seaweed filling such as konbu or wakame, and occasionally you might find a meat-free ready meal such as cheese and tomato pasta.
For those without specific dietary requirements/preferences and who have an adventurous pallet, Tokyo is a veritable food heaven. But with an increasing number of eateries keen to cater to the varied tastes of a wider market, even the less adventurous among us can still get a satisfying taste of some of the best food in the world. (By the way, for amazing pizza in Tokyo I highly recommend Pizza Slice in Shibuya.)
*While I prefer a primarily vegetarian diet, since arriving here I often turn a blind eye to animal-derived ingredients in foods such as cheese and cooking oil. If you are strictly vegetarian, check the vegetarian guide written by GP Contributor Anne Lauenroth.
The days have been getting hotter and hotter in Tokyo recently – come back next time for some advice on dealing with Japan’s notoriously humid summer months.