Japan Survival Guide Point 4 – Food and grocery shopping.
So, you’re coming to live in Japan. You’re going to teach English probably, and you’ll have your own apartment and quite often you’ll be cooking for yourself. What’s that like? What is Japanese food like and what are my choices when I eat out?
These are all important questions. Let’s start with self-catering and seamlessly melt into eating out via the convenience store, a big part in the lives of people in Japan, foreigners and Japanese. The first question you may have is – ‘Are supermarkets significantly different to those at home?’
Well, yes, and no. Firstly, fruit and vegetables are very seasonal here. I come from Australia, and things are not so seasonal at home because of our mild to non-existent winters. In Japan there’s plenty of snow, so that affects produce. Also, there simply isn’t that much land here to farm, and so much of that land is used for, you guessed it, rice.
We studied chapters at school which talked about Japan’s importing of food, and there’s so much that is imported. A high percentage of the beef and meat comes from other countries, including Australia. They like to marble the beef with strains of fat, so lean beef is not so easy to find. That’s the way they like it here. You will also find that meat is often sold in small, thin ‘strips’, rather than fillets.
There are a lot of noodle products, usually plenty of vegetables with an unhealthy obsession with radishes. Vegetables, I feel, are pretty expensive, especially in winter. A tomato could cost you $1.50 or more for one, and they tend to price per unit, not by weight although that is not always true. There are plenty of chips on the shelves and it’s often hard to know what flavour they are by the packet.
Lots of ice cream too, and you’ll find green tea is a very popular flavour here for it. And many other things as well. Ham and cheese especially are disappointing for quality and choice. Sausages are hard to find, unless you are looking for wieners. Self-raising flour is very rare. Bread is ALWAYS sold as a half loaf, is usually white and sweet and cut into very thick pieces. 1.5 cm is pretty standard and it gets thicker from there. That’s why I have made my own bread for two years in Japan, I want it cut thinner, I want it brown and with less sugar and chemicals. You can leave you bread in the fridge for weeks here and it doesn’t change. Yes, bread is disappointing. I HAVE seen bread as thick as an INCH.
I could go on but you get the idea. Then you get home and most houses, apartments and whatnot don’t have an oven, just a stove. And that usually doesn’t come with your apartment, so you end up renting or buying a one burner stove and that’s what you cook with. So no baking for you! Or roasting. Keep that in mind when you try to whip things up of an evening. Also, I find prices more expensive here in Yokohama than I did in Iwate which makes little sense, unless it’s sales tax.
If you’re in a rush, you can do what everyone does and that’s go to a convenience store, or as they call it here, a ‘conbini’. 7/11, Lawson, Family Mart, Sun K us… there are a legion of them here, I have never seen so many. They carry bentos (a kind of prepared lunch pack), sandwiches (not advised, will send you to the loo!), hot dogs, some very nice fried chicken, hot pockets, chips… for a few dollars you can sort a meal out for yourself with a bit of variety. Of course, it’s unlikely to score well in being healthy. But this is what a lot of Japanese people do and they love their conbinis very much.
Then you could go to a restaurant. And truly, of course you must try some Japanese food whilst you’re here. Here are some examples.
Sushi – you know sushi and sashimi right? A sort of rice ball or tube with raw fish, or vegetables, or egg or maybe something else on top or inside? You’ll find them at supermarkets, conbinis and restaurants and they are actually pretty healthy.
Okonomiyaki – well this one is a sort of omelette thing I guess. It involves egg, cabbage and a mixture of various other vegetables, often sprouts, a bit of meat maybe, restaurants specialise in this one. You can often make it yourself with a little hot plate included on your table! Cook it yourself and then smother it in ketchup, mayo or brown sauce. It ends up not being really healthy, and I don’t much go in for it, but many love it.
Yaki-soba – can be really delicious. It’s a sort of noodle thing mixed with cabbage, pork (or some other meat) and other vegetables. Really really nice! My favourite Japanese food.
Natto – this one is more for the brave I think. Strong smelling beans in a sort of sauce served usually with rice. It hails from Iwate I believe, and to be honest is not my cup of tea. But it might be yours!
Ramen – and if none of these appeal to you, try a bowl of ramen noodles. I like it with pork slices on top, the ramen noodles are in a delicious soup with vegetables too.
Tempura – well tempura can be many things from chicken to vegetables to shrimp. It’s basically just a Japanese take on covering something in batter and frying it. And yes it can be pretty darned tasty, and no, it’s usually not healthy.
You might also want to try –
Yakitori – grilled chicken on a stick in a sauce, really nice.
Onigiri (Rice balls) – People here LOVE rice balls for lunch or snack, usually wrapped in seaweed. Me? Not so much.
Soba, udon – more interesting kinds of noodles. There are many!
Curry & Rice – known more simply as Curry Rice, it’s usually a curry with maybe a little potato or other vegetables, and rice. It’s very popular up in Iwate, tastes okay and is usually not particularly hot.
So there are a few quick ideas to start you off for eating in Japan. Japanese cuisine is varied and usually tastes very strong, they don’t like things mild here. Again, I have only touched the surface there are so many different Japanese dishes. Be adventurous, but be aware you may end up with a bowl of something you can’t stand! Japanese food is really a love or hate it sort of deal.