When people think of Japanese food, the first things that come to mind are sushi, tempura, or maybe teriyaki. But we'd like to take this opportunity to introduce the much larger world of Japanese cuisine, washoku (和食). While the term literally means "Japanese food," in reality the term refers to a much broader and important cultural concept. In 2013, washoku was actually added to UNESCO's list of intangible cultural heritages. The organization's explanation of washoku reveals why it is so much more than food, and why it deserves to be enshrined as an invaluable part of world culture. UNESCO defines washoku as a "social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge, practice, and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food." UNESCO paid particular attention to the traditional food prepared around the new year, including mochi rice cakes and osechi, elaborate boxed foods. Washoku favors use of natural and mostly local ingredients, such as rice, fish, vegetables and other plants, and emphasizes the seasons with the choice of ingredients and appearance of dishes. If you have a chance to visit Japan and visit some of the fancier eating establishments, you'll no doubt want to keep an eye out for these details! 

A sashimi dish, part of kaiseki ryori, the classiest and usually most expensive dining experience you can have in Japan.  ©TOKI

A sashimi dish, part of kaiseki ryori, the classiest and usually most expensive dining experience you can have in Japan.  ©TOKI

Some of the best representations of authentic Japanese cuisine can be found at the restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide. You might be wondering, "Why is a tire company responsible for a guide to high-end restaurants around the world?" In 1900, during the early days of motoring, the Michelin company began publishing an annual list for drivers of high-quality restaurants, and in 1920 introduced a ranking system, awarding restaurants from one to three stars, with three being the highest rank. The guide has continued today, and expanded to include restaurants in cities across the world. The city awarded the most stars for the last nine years straight is none other than Japan's capital, Tokyo! Before we go into too much of the specifics of Japanese restaurants, let's talk a bit about how we got here.

A brief history of Japanese cuisine

To understand the early development of Japanese dietary culture, we can look back to Japan's early history. Author Naomichi Ishige identifies a formative period that extends from the sixth century to the end of the fifteenth century. One of the earliest major developments we see is in the early 6th century, when Buddhism first came to Japan. Buddhism, as well as local Shinto beliefs, discouraged and in some cases even prohibited consumption of meat. Also, because of Japan's geographical limitations, horses and cows were not entirely unheard of, but mostly unsuitable for small farms, and had not traditionally been a main part of Japanese cuisine. The archipelago's geography made fish, on the other hand, a natural choice throughout Japan's history.

In 607, Japan sent its first embassy to China to learn more about Chinese food culture. Subsequently, much of Japan's own early food culture came from China and Korea, including diet and eating customs such as noodles and basic utensils. Up until the 16th century, Japan had very little contact with European countries, limiting outside influence to these countries during that period. Over time, imported foods and customs were integrated and altered, setting the foundations for the culture we recognize today. 

A tatami mat room in a washoku restaurant with traditional decorations in the alcove.  ©TOKI

A tatami mat room in a washoku restaurant with traditional decorations in the alcove.  ©TOKI

Thanks to an excavation in what is now the city of Nara, we know that nobility in Japan used chopsticks as early as 710, and that they had likely spread to the general population by as early as 784. Around this time, the nobility also mimicked the Chinese court's use of metal spoons in formal cuisine, but after the break in diplomatic ties in 894, the spoon fell out of favor. Chopsticks work best in conjunction with small bowls, which is why the combination is so ubiquitous in Japan to this day. Unlike western households, many households in Japan have sets of bowls, cups, and chopsticks used by only one family member, stemming not just from a need for hygiene, but possibly more from the Shinto idea of avoiding personal defilement.

A basic form of noodles appeared in Japan around the 8th century. However, popular types of noodles associated with Japan today took much longer to develop. Udon (thick wheat noodles), nowadays served hot or cold in broth, did not appear until the 14th century. Somen noodles (similar to vermicelli), often served chilled during the summer in modern times, did not appear until the 15th century. Soba (buckwheat noodles), usually served hot and sometimes pan-fried, finally appears in records from the 16th century. 

Almost of the major food preparation styles in traditional Japanese cuisine were well established by the ninth century, such as grilling, simmering, steaming, and pickling, among others. However, one noticeable style missing is cooking with fat or oil. While tempura is seen as a staple of Japanese food culture today, the deep-frying technique only came to Japan via the Portuguese in the 16th century, and was regarded as very low class cuisine. European visitors begin introducing a variety of new foods and cooking methods around this time, such as namban (sweets using egg yolk and sugar, including the ever-popular kasutera cake), and meat preparation. 

During the 16th century, Japan also experienced important developments in its native cuisine, with the codification of rules in kaiseki-style cuisine, thanks to Sen-no-Rikkyu, Japan's legendary tea master, who may have been influenced by the simplistic cooking methods traditionally used in Buddhism. After this, Japan enters what we refer to as the Edo period, an era of relative stability from 1603 to 1868, which allowed Japanese food culture to grow and mature with relatively little foreign influence.

After Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its doors to trade with the U.S. and European nations in 1853, Japanese society began a dramatic and rapid process of Westernization, also reflected in changes in the cuisine. In the early years of the Meiji period (1868-1912), the first beef stew restaurant opened in Tokyo, and a group of Americans residing in Yokohama established a brewery that eventually became the Kirin beer company. Bread even began to challenge rice as the primary source of carbohydrates in the Japanese diet. 

Starting in the early Meiji period and ending with its surrender in World War II, Japan experienced a long period of militarization and war, diverting most resources away from leisure activities and cultural development. Rice shortages during the war forced Japan to introduce potatoes as a substitute for much of the population. Japan's surrender and subsequent demilitarization began the post-war era of recovery and reconstruction. This included improved relations with European countries and the U.S., including an increased western influence on Japanese cuisine. 

While throughout much of the 1970s Japanese people developed a stronger taste for American fast food, recent years have seen a resurgence in pride for local cuisine and food products throughout Japan. And as mentioned above, this has culminated in the 2013 inclusion of washoku on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritages.  

Now that we know a bit about how we arrived at modern Japanese cuisine, let's look at some of the traditional methods for making Japanese cuisine. 

What are some of the main ways Japanese foods are prepared?

A nimono (stewed) dish prepared with pumpkin and carrots.  ©TOKI

A nimono (stewed) dish prepared with pumpkin and carrots.  ©TOKI

  • Boiled/stewed dishes (煮物 nimono
    • This method is very common for everyday foods such as Japanese curry, oden (a winter dish made of egg, daikon, konjac, and fishcake stewed in broth ), and konbumaki (fish wrapped in seaweed)
  • Grilled and pan-fried dishes (焼き物 yakimono)
    • This type of cooking includes cooking on a skillet or oven, as well as using skewers over an open flame. Examples include shioyaki, where salt is sprinkled over fish before grilling, 
  • Deep-fried dishes - (揚げ物 agemono)
    • Deep-fried dishes have been a favorite among the Japanese population for a very long time, with prominent examples such as karaage (deep-fried bite-size pieces of meat or fish), tempura, and tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet).
  • Steamed dishes - (蒸し物 mushimono)
    • Steamed dishes often reflect the influence Chinese culture has had on Japan, such as nikuman, steamed pork buns. Steamers are usually ceramic, metal, or bamboo. One steamed dish unique to Japan is chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し, "steamed in a tea bowl"), an egg custard dish that includes soy sauce, dashi (soup stock), mirin (cooking wine), mushrooms, fish cake, lily root, ginkgo, and shrimp.
  • Vinegared or pickled dishes - (酢の物 sunomono
    • Sunomono are usually vegetables that have been marinated in rice vinegar. One example is cucumber salad, a frequently seen side dish.
  • Uncooked
    • Some foods are simply served uncooked, such as sashimi, also known as raw fish, a delicacy in Japanese cuisine culture. Sushi (which refers to foods using a ball or roll of vinegared rice) sometimes also has raw fish, of course. 

Types of eating establishments you'll see in Japan

According to a 2010 survey, Japan actually has the highest restaurant density out of every country in the world! There are many different types of restaurants you'll encounter that make full use of these cooking methods we've described. Let's take a look at some of the main types.

Street Food

Taiyaki, a tai fish-shaped waffle typically filled with sweet bean paste, chocolate, custard or matcha filling. ©TOKI

Taiyaki, a tai fish-shaped waffle typically filled with sweet bean paste, chocolate, custard or matcha filling. ©TOKI

While Japanese etiquette discourages eating while walking, people will frequently try food from street vendors. In general they can be found near train stations, where people are often in a hurry and don't have time for a sit-down meal. Food carts (yatai) are also plentiful at all manner of festivals. There are a few street foods no traveler should miss out on! One classic is taiyaki, a waffle in the shape of a tai fish filled with sweet bean paste, popular as a warm treat during cold winters. Another favorite in Japan is takoyaki, fried balls of batter containing chunks of octopus and vegetables. During the winter, you'll often see oden on the streets (and now in convenience stores!), a kind of stew using a fish base, filled with potato slices, kamaboko (slices of fish paste), boiled eggs, konnyaku (devil's foot root), tofu, and taro. 

Izakaya

This kind of drinking establishment can be found all over Japan, and serves alcohol usually with a variety of snacks and lighter foods, often including edamame, karaage (chicken deep-fried in oil), and yakisoba (pan fried noodles) among others. These places often offer all-you-can-drink deals, where you can order as many drinks as you want for 2 or 3 hours, although you have to pay separately for food. These are popular places for young people to hold social gatherings, including college students, since dormitories are not suitable for large numbers of people. 

Standard sit-down restaurants

If you'd prefer a more standard restaurant experience, there are plenty of places where you can do so while sampling more of Japanese cuisine culture. There are a few types of cuisines you'll probably encounter.

Soba (buckwheat) noodles with a side of nimono (stewed dishes).  ©TOKI

Soba (buckwheat) noodles with a side of nimono (stewed dishes).  ©TOKI

  • Curry rice - Dishes consisting of curry, rice and meat/vegetables are all over Japan.
  • Donburi - This is one of the most convenient and simplest dishes, consisting simple of meat, vegetables, and perhaps an egg simmered and served over rice. 
  • Ramen - This isn't like the instant ramen you'll find in a college student's dorm room. A typical ramen will have wheat noodles in a soup broth (shoyu, miso, etc.), as well as meat (usually pork, although chicken is also possible), and vegetables. If you want to show your expertise, remember the terms kotteri and assari, referring to a heavy rich flavor versus a light one, used to describe ramen. 
  • Udon - These are thick wheat-flour noodles that can be served hot or cold. One very affordable dish we'd recommend trying is kitsune udon, literally meaning fox udon. This refers to the mythical belief that foxes love aburaage, the deep-fried tofu included with this dish.
  • Soba - Soba (buckwheat) noodles are also enjoyed throughout Japan in a few notable forms. One is yakisoba, where the noodles are pan-fried along with pork and vegetables (cabbage, onion, carrots). Another popular recipe is zarusoba, where soba noodles are served chilled over a bamboo strainer (zaru refers to the strainer), with tsuyu dipping sauce on the side.  

"Make-it-yourself" restaurants

Osaka-style okonomiyaki made by combining vegetables, meat, and seafood in a batter and brushed with a sweet sauce.  ©TOKI

Osaka-style okonomiyaki made by combining vegetables, meat, and seafood in a batter and brushed with a sweet sauce.  ©TOKI

In Japan, you'll encounter a few types of restaurants where you'll order your food, and they'll deliver ingredients to you that you prepare at your leisure using the cooking equipment on your table. One example of this is shabu-shabu, where a large pot is filled with soup stock and placed over a burner. People put in a variety of vegetables and thin slices of meat that are quickly ready to eat. Another category is yakitori or yakiniku (grilled chicken or grilled meat) restaurants. Rather than having a shared pot, there is a small shared grilling area in the middle of each table, and people can cook their choice of meat right at the table. 

A Japanese specialty we recommend above all is called okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), which translates to frying whatever you like! Okonomiyaki is a dish very unique to Japan that resembles a combination of pancake and pizza. While some places will do all the preparation work for you, we suggest that you try a restaurant where you can cook it right on your table! You'll have a bowl of batter containing egg, flour, and small bits of whatever you'd like, including various kinds of vegetables, meat, and seafood. The whole thing is spread onto the griddle, which will take up much of the table, and cooked until it forms a large pancake. People in Japan love to douse okonomiyaki with a kind of sweet sauce similar to Worcestershire, and sometimes mayo (which tastes a little different in Japan). If you really want to look like a pro, know the difference between the two main regional variants. Hiroshima-style contains soba noodles and are made more methodically in layers, while Osaka-style usually does not contain noodles, and is almost always made by stirring all the ingredients in a bowl. Both regions take great pride in their own style of okonomiyaki, so be sure to try them both out! 

Sushi from a counter sushi restaurant (versus a conveyer belt sushi restaurant), a higher end style sushi restaurant.  ©TOKI

Sushi from a counter sushi restaurant (versus a conveyer belt sushi restaurant), a higher end style sushi restaurant.  ©TOKI

Different cuts of the same fish will present a different flavor profile. ©TOKI

Different cuts of the same fish will present a different flavor profile. ©TOKI

Sushi/sashimi (寿司、刺身)

No trip to Japan is complete without visiting a sushi restaurant, of course. There are two main types of restaurants you'll see that serve sushi. The more casual type is called kaiten, or conveyor belt sushi, which is someone like the fast-food version of sushi, and something you might see as a novelty outside of Japan, as well. Plates will often be color-coordinated to indicate the price. Rolls with cucumber and egg are cheaper than unagi (eel) sushi, and so the plate colors may be different. However, some restaurants charge the same for all plates, so take advantage of that and try out some of the more expensive varieties! 

The more expensive and classier variety is counter sushi. The reason these restaurants are more expensive is not only because of the food quality, but also the individualized service and intimacy of the environment. In most restaurant settings, you will not even see the chef, let alone have face-to-face interactions, but at a counter sushi restaurant, this is one of the main things you are paying for. You can talk to the sushi chef, receive personalized recommendations, and learn about your food. You will also be receiving service that you don't even notice. This is part of the Japanese concept of omotenashi, referring to both the seen and unseen ways that service is provided to customers, such as the chef noting the customer's dominant hand and placing sushi so that it is more convenient to reach, or slicing the fish so that the pieces have a higher fat content to suit a customer's taste. Keep these things in mind if you ever visit a counter sushi restaurant to fully appreciate the experience!

Ryotei (料亭) - Traditional Japanese Restaurants

Unlike many of the other eating establishments we've talked about, ryotei are as much about the atmosphere in the restaurant as they are the food - or perhaps more. Also unlike many more conventional restaurants, they will not be widely advertised, or even marked at the entrance to the establishment. Upon entering, you will be greeted by hosts wearing traditional clothing, and they will lead you down polished wood floor corridors, often bordered by small gardens, until you reach your group's tatami mat room. As part of the traditional style, the room will have a tokonoma (床の間), a small alcove containing a seasonal display (usually including flowers). 

An eel dish, part of multi-course meal, kaiseki ryori.  ©TOKI

An eel dish, part of multi-course meal, kaiseki ryori.  ©TOKI

Those of you visiting a ryotei may have your first chance to sample kaiseki ryori (懐石料理), the classiest (and usually most expensive) dining experience you can have in Japan. Rather than choosing your own appetizers and main course, the meal is split into as many as 14 small courses, all chosen by the host and meticulously prepared to be of the highest quality in terms of both taste and appearance. Kaiseki is where you will see the characteristics of washoku most clearly expressed. (See our separate post that goes into detail on kaiseki!)

In the end, the best way to learn about Japanese food culture is to try it for yourself! When you visit Japan, make sure to try out lots of different venues, and lots of different foods! Even the restaurants we think of as standardized vary throughout the different regions of the country, so have fun as you taste all that Japan has to offer! 


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