Japanese restaurants typically specialize in one type of food. You choose the restaurant by the type of food, preparation, and style of service you want.
Japanese breakfast is an exception. It’s fairly standard—miso soup, made of a bean broth and eaten from a lacquered wooden bowl that you raise to your mouth, typically accompanied by hard-to-identify pickled seasonal vegetables, tofu, a small piece of an egg soufflé, fresh fish (usually salmon), sometimes also smoked salmon, rice or porridge, seaweed sheets and green tea. Usually breakfast is served on a tray without choices, but buffets and a la carte is available, too. When in Japan, finish off your breakfast with a shot of flavored vinegar, such as blueberry vinegar. Very healthy, I’m told.
To make a sushi-like concoction at breakfast, wrap the fresh fish in the seaweed paper with some rice. It takes practice to get it right, especially if you follow the unwritten rules. Use chopsticks for everything. Never add a liquid to the rice, as rice, served with nearly every meal, is considered almost sacred. Instead, want soy sauce on the rice? Bring a bite of rice to the soy sauce dish. You drink the tea by raising the cup with both hands. These “rules” enable locals to know exactly who the foreigners in their midst are. Fortunately, foreigners, considered crass anyway, get a break from the rules.
After breakfast, specialty restaurants dominate. Well-known sushi, like other meals, is typically eaten sitting on a pillow on the floor at a very low table. Leave your shoes at the door so the tatami floors don’t get soiled. Sitting like this for an entire meal will involve some pain at first. Try eating another commonly-known food, the kobe steak, this way. It has to meet strict requirements about what the cows are fed and how much marbling is in the meat. Another specialty restaurant will serve blowfish. The chefs have to be certified, as this fish is poison if not prepared correctly. Another possible favorite specialty is unagi or eel.
Ramen is a dried noodle, originally from China, that comes to life when liquid is added to it. Yakisoba is a pan-fried-noodle. Want Udon? Go to a udon house. This is a fresh thick noodle served in a soup bowl typically covered with a fish-based broth. You add toppings to taste from a long list including seaweed, sesame, and many choices you won’t recognize.
Kushikatsu houses serve deep fried skewers. You eat it with a bowl of rice. Various fishes, meats, tofu, and vegetables, served one at a time fresh from the deep fryer, will be brought to you by your server. Tempura, similar to kushikatsu, has a batter which is much lighter.
Besides types of foods, there are regional specialties. For example, Hiroshima is known for takoyaki, or ocotopus balls, fried dough with octopus inside. Other Hiroshima specialties include oysters and okonomiyaki, a pancake topped with a fried egg and noodles, sauces, and other ingredients. Okonomiyaki houses are also very popular in Osaka which has its own variation with a thicker pancake.
For larger meals, you’ll need to know about two Japanese meal styles. Teppanki is the Benihana-style eating where the food is cooked in front of you on a grill, albeit without the high entertainment touches added in America. The second is the haute cuisine of Japan known as kaiseki, an art form in which a variety of tastes in very small portions are offered, akin to Spanish tapas.
Many restaurants display plastic replicas or photos of dishes so foreigners can point to order. Ethnic Italian, French, and other foods are available just like in the US. Or you can eat McDonald’s and Subway. But why go to Japan and eat that? The next time you go to a Japanese restaurant in the US, realize that the chef may have a harder job here than in Japan because he or she must cook many varieties of Japanese food, not just the specialty food of the restaurant.