We went to Japan with every expectation of enjoying the food. We’d had what purported to be authentic sukiyaki in San Francisco in 1970 and had vague memories of having enjoyed at least the experience and probably the food as well. I’d had what purported to be authentic sushi in Seattle in 2003 and had vivid memories of enjoying both the experience and the food (though there was too much of it). Returnees from Japan (my parents among them) had prepared food that was at least Japanese-inspired, and my Japanese sister-in-law had occasionally treated us to Japanese fare. So we were predisposed to welcome the Japanese dining experience.
And for the most part we did. The younger members of our party were perhaps more adventurous, sampling such staples of the culture as soba (buckwheat noodle) stands. The rest of us were more conservative in our choices (and somewhat limited by location and mobility).
At the outset we embraced all things Japanese. Our first meal in Osaka was a lavish breakfast buffet at Windows on the World at the top of the Hilton. Like most of the breakfast buffets we experienced, it offered a stupefying selection of both Japanese and Western cuisine, and the temptation to mix and match and end up with entirely too much to eat was hard to resist. To be presented with rolls and sweet breads, cereals, fresh fruit (very expensive in Japan) and fruit juices, eggs cooked in a variety of ways, and in addition, the full panoply of a Japanese breakfast: salad, grilled fish, miso soup, noodles, pickles, and a plethora of unidentifiable delicacies (including squares of a strange gelatinous substance that we later learned was jellied fish paste) was overwhelming at first. What a luxury to have smoked salmon every morning! What fun to eat breakfast with chopsticks! The one thing we did find was that the Japanese are more adept at raw meat than cooked: we never got a crisp rasher of bacon in Japan. Scrambled eggs were also very underdone.
After a few days this began to pall. We faced the fact that, unless we skipped lunch, there was no way we could get enough exercise to walk off the effects of pigging out on both Japanese and Western cuisine. Knowing, however, that the “free” breakfast included in our tour package would have cost the equivalent of $25 if purchased separately, we felt an obligation to try to get our money’s worth! Once we were on our own, however, we balked at paying this kind of money for this kind of breakfast and were delighted to find that the Japanese version of Denny’s $5 Grand Slam breakfast (two eggs, bacon or sausage, toast or pancakes, salad, juice, and coffee) cost only about $5.75 (¥609) at the Denny’s in Yokohama.
For our other meals we depended heavily on “bargain basements.” Real estate in Japanese cities is dear in every sense of the word, very scarce and precious and correspondingly expensive. Consequently, skyscrapers are built not only up but also down, most having several levels underground. These levels are occupied by shops and restaurants (and department stores often have a restaurant floor above ground). The same is true (not surprisingly) of rail and subway stations. Like U.S. airports, these stations provide a variety of shopping opportunities. Like some of their U.S. counterparts, these trackless caverns of subterranean commerce can be very disorienting. We walked many miles in train and subway stations and never ate at the same place twice because we could never find it again. Still, everywhere we ate was good.
One Japanese delicacy that we became quite fond of was green tea ice cream. We sampled this first as we were leaving Tōdai-ji and thereafter sought it out wherever ice cream was available. Ice cream in general was very popular, as the weather was quite warm. Whenever we headed back to our tour buses, it seemed the women were aiming for one last trip to the restrooms, and the men were heading for the ice cream stall.
We saw many convenience stores (“kombini”) in Japan. Ironically, 7-Eleven currently has the most stores, but Lawson Station (where we shopped in Kyoto) and FamilyMart locations are also numerous. In Yokohama, we frequently had the opportunity to shop in a FamilyMart that was near the hotel. Although our purchases were limited mostly to ice cream bars, we couldn’t help being fascinated by the assortment of edibles on offer. There were many sorts of prepared dishes (which could be warmed up in the microwave on the premises), mixed in with obvious souvenir items, such as cookies with the design of the Yokohama Marine Tower printed on them (these were similar to packages we’d seen—with other designs—at the Fifth Station shop on Mount Fuji and at the rest stops on the expressway). The uniquely Japanese sweets were intriguing (and attractively packaged), but we knew from experience they would not be to our taste. Barney did succumb to one disaster—something he took to be cheese sticks. The word “cheese” was clearly part of the limited English on the package, but it became clear when we opened them that the cheese was just a thread of filling running through wiener-like tubes of something that was obviously made from soybeans! Those, along with the remains of our Pocky and the Quaker oatmeal squares we’d brought from home, were left with Glenn when we departed (and quickly disposed of, he says).
Another source of food and drink that is ubiquitous in Japan is vending machines or Jidoohanbaiki, which, in addition to a myriad of nonfood items (especially cigarettes), purvey a variety of both hot and cold items, including canned coffee and tea (hot and cold) as well as a plethora of mysterious Japanese pop and fruit drinks. We heard reports of beer vending machines, but I’m not sure I ever actually saw one; what we did see was soft-drink vending machines branded by Suntory and other beer brewers (I’ve since learned that “About 70% of Japan's beer vending machines were reportedly shut down voluntarily in 2000.”)
A word about our meals at Wendy’s, KFC, Denny’s, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and the like. They were not due to any homesickness or cravings for “American” food (certainly not fried chicken or hamburgers). Rather, these were the only restaurants we found where food was not outrageously expensive. Glenn had warned us very candidly what to expect, but it was still a shock. By the time we left we had become somewhat inured to the prices and considered any meal that cost less than ¥2,000 apiece “reasonable,” but we were still glad we don’t have to pay such prices all the time. (Ironically, though, the most expensive meal of the trip was the one we enjoyed in San Francisco before leaving for Japan!)
What we found most interesting, however, was the syncretism everywhere in evidence. Western influences on Japanese cuisine were abundant, but of more interest were the Japanese adaptations of Western cuisine. The distinguishing feature of all Japanese meals was presentation. I wish that I had taken a picture of every meal we ate, every buffet we chose from, as nothing could better illustrate the Japanese attention to detail. The photos below, however, will give an idea of what we experienced (click on the thumbnails to see larger photos).
This restaurant was on the lower level of our Hilton hotel in Osaka. In this photo you see some of our party seated around the semicircular bar and griddle. The “yaki” in Japanese words for food means “grilled” or “fried on a griddle,” and I’m told that “okonomi” means “as you like it,” which suggests the variety of ingredients that may be added. See this site for a picture of one version of the result and recipes. There is further information here and more pictures here.
As noted on the Day 4 page, the primary ingredient of okonomiyaki is shredded cabbage. When we learned this, we felt it justified our description of it as “fried coleslaw.” Traditionally, it has been described in English as “Osaka pancake” (there is also a distinctive Hiroshima version), and I’ve also seen it described as an “omelet,” but many modern Japanese and Westerners feel that “pizza” better describes both the way it is eaten (in wedge-shaped slices), its composition (a standard base to which toppings selected by the customer are added), and the cultural niche it fills in the Japanese cuisine.
had our first meal on our own at this café overlooking the lobby of the Osaka
International Convention Center (OICC or Cube). We got there a bit late for
lunch, and they were out of all the sandwiches on the menu, so we had
beef” over rice, with beer, followed by pastries. At ¥3,200 for two, it turned
out to be one of the most expensive meals we paid for (and far from the best).
In this photo you can see Barney standing in front of the “menu” at 551 Horai, a restaurant we found in the Dojima Underground shopping center in Osaka. Our meal is not shown here, as it was the “special,” but the restaurant’s regular offerings are displayed. Replica food is an art in itself in Japan, and more than one tourist (including my mother) has been compelled to bring some home as a souvenir. Moreover, our experience with most meals in Japan was that they tended to look exactly like the plastic models or menu photos from which we ordered them.
This photo shows the actual meal we received: tea, fried chicken, sweet and sour shrimp, soup, pickles, rice, and a dessert of mandarin oranges and tofu (¥1,200 apiece, to which we added a shared pint of Asahi beer for ¥570). A word about the beer: one of the first things we learned was that in general the price of beer and the price of soft drinks were about the same, so there was no reason to settle for soft drinks. In this particular instance, some sort of cold tea-like drink was served with the meal, but we had already ordered before we figured that out.
Barney and I were so proud of ourselves for having gone to an authentic Japanese restaurant and ordered, received, and consumed a meal without benefit of more than the tiniest smattering of Japanese. To my chagrin, I later learned that 551 Horai is a Chinese restaurant chain! It is also, however, credited with the invention, in 1952, of “butaman,” a Chinese steamed bread (dumpling) filled with minced pork and onion, which can be seen on the 551 Horai home page.
This restaurant in the New York section of Universal Studios was the only one left open by the time we finally felt we could think about eating again. The Specialty of the House was “Spider Pizza,” a “crispy pizza topped with pasta and soft-shell crab.” In other circumstances this would have been very appealing. As it was, we settled for lasagna, and I for one had trouble stuffing it in.
Billed as “A Slice of Italy,” the restaurant promises: “Enjoy authentic Italian cuisine in the relaxed atmosphere of Louie’s dining room, modeled after sets appearing in several famous movies. Try one of our large 45cm pizzas, with a crisp base and our own special sauce for a deliciousness you won’t find anywhere else. There is also a large range of pastas, cakes, gelato and other rich Italian desserts to choose from.”
Debby needed to replace her lipstick, which we figured she could do in the huge Daimaru department store in front of the JR Osaka station. We had heard there was a restaurant floor in the Daimaru, but a little research suggested that the restaurants would be pricey, so we decided to explore the subway station mall instead. After rejecting several restaurants as not offering enough seating for our entire party, we settled on this small restaurant, though we still had to wait for several patrons to leave in order to get seats more or less together and as close as possible to the entrance, since there was no nonsmoking area, and the restaurant (like so many other spaces in Japan) was filled with smoke. The shrimp and avocado sandwich (¥370) and iced caffè lattè (¥320) were excellent, and for dessert we couldn’t resist the “pain au chocolat banana” (¥420). Bananas are evidently as much a delicacy in Japan as they are ordinary in the United States. We noticed that bananas vanished from the breakfast buffet as fast as they were put out, and we often took a banana with us when we left the restaurant in the morning.
As best I can tell from looking at Web sites entirely in Japanese, Café de Clever is a chain, founded in 1954 and headquartered in Osaka; I saw photos of at least two stores in Osaka that did not look like the one where we ate.
restaurant was in the new Kyoto railroad station. Barney, Matthew, and I ate
here with Tom, Joan, and their sons. We reportedly had “various rice/noodle
dishes and beer.” The order of participants around the table (clockwise from
lower right) is Barney, me, Tom, Joan, Chris, Jeff, and Joseph. Since we’re
all there, presumably the fuzziness of the photo is due to its being taken by
This restaurant was in the
Porta Mall in Kyoto. This
underground shopping center was part of the complex that included bus and subway
stations and the new
JR-West station. The photo shows (left) the plastic model
of the meal we ordered (which looked just like the model). For ¥1,160, I got the
meal shown, which included salad, soup, and tea.
The first photo shows the exterior of the restaurant, which
was located in the JR-West station in Kyoto. The second photo shows the meal I
had: beef doria and spaghetti carbonara, plus salad, beverage, and dessert, for
¥990. This meal was incredibly good, and by the time I ate it the price seemed
of several Japanese upscale coffee chains (created in imitation of Starbucks,
Seattle’s Best Coffee, and their ilk), this one is the most reasonable (¥160 for
a cup of ordinary coffee). After our dinner at Café de Anri, we stopped here for
a cup of joe and a cookie (¥50). The store shown here is a typical one—not
the specific one where we stopped.
As can be seen from this map, Wendy's is a very popular franchise in the Tokyo area. We ate at the Shinjuku location twice. Barney had a hamburger both times, but the second time I had a Grilled Chicken Caesar salad.
We had lunch in this very old and elegant hotel as we were
departing from Hakone. The photo shows the ancient part of the hotel (which was
not where the dining room was). The dining room
here was very ornate,
and the ambiance was even more pretentious than at the Sengokuhara Prince in
Hakone. The menu included bisque of shrimp or possibly just tomato (we weren’t
sure), a whole pan-fried trout (bones, head, tail, and all) accompanied by one
new potato, a roast chicken leg with crinkle fries, mixed vegetables (carrots,
broccoli, and cauliflower), a small green salad, raisin and white breads,
vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup, and coffee or tea. Barney recalls that
we were told that the trout was local (from Lake Chuzenji); it did not change
his opinion of the delectability of trout.
was not and would not have been our first choice (we were shooting for Wendy’s,
but it was closing by the time we finally got there), but we had quite a good
sandwich—ham and cheese on some kind of foccacia bread—with
iced mocha lattè (¥1,620 for the two of us). Not surprisingly, in coffee-mad Japan, Starbucks stores are
ubiquitous—and have inspired a variety of native imitators (including Caffè
had breakfast in this lovely restaurant on the second floor of the Keio Plaza
Hotel the second and third mornings we were in Tokyo. The Japanese/Western
buffet had much the same variety of food we’d
encountered everywhere else. Both times we sat in the dining room
overlooking the street, watching early-morning commuters hurrying to work.
I suspect we may actually have been sitting in the Jurin
Coffee House; at least this picture (right) looks very like the area where we
Although I had Kyoko write down the name of this restaurant, which was on one of the upper floors of the Shinjuku Sumitomo Building, I cannot find out anything about it. It was described to us, however, as a “Japanese-style” restaurant, and we were served (by women in kimono) a “traditional” Japanese meal. The menu, which our guides had written out by hand, was (literatim) as follows:
When we arrived in Yokohama and checked into
the Novotel, it was nearly noon, so we took the line of least resistance and had
the “lunch set” (shown at left) in the hotel coffee shop.
It included some sort of meat or fish with sauce, vegetables, soup and pickles,
rolls, a drink, and dessert. At ¥1,499, it seemed
like a “bargain.” I charged it to our room and at checkout was surprised to find
it had been discounted to ¥1,350 ($12.40). The lunch was the same each day for a
week, so I actually took this picture of the model a day or two after we ate the
Denny’s was where we had breakfast every morning
while in Yokohama, eschewing the ¥2,000 breakfast buffet available at the Novotel in favor of the ¥609
Grand Slam. As can be seen from the photo, the
restaurant was upstairs over a
McDonald’s, where we had lunch one day, finding
that Big Macs were on sale for ¥300. With drinks and tax, lunch for two came to
just ¥778 ($7.30).
This was the restaurant on the second floor of the Novotel
where Chie hosted a banquet for us. Glenn described it as
“the best restaurant in Yokohama…,with the imaginative and unpreditable Chef
Sakata serving up Asian-Pacific fusion food (or whatever inspires him on that
day).” The guests are described on the
page. The following menu was provided by Chef Sakata:
Glenn added: “I'll trust [Chef Sakata’s] memory over my own, but I thought there was one more course. Nothing shows up in any of my photos, though.” In addition to the listed items, we consumed several bottles of wine, which made it even more difficult for anyone to remember the menu—not to mention that we were engaged in lively conversation throughout, which probably distracted us from the food.
Chef Sakata introduced the first course by saying that he figured we had probably been in Japan long enough to become homesick; the barbecued ribs were intended to provide a taste of home. He also gave a spirited description of the snapper, which is evidently a very nimble fish (or something—it seems no one remembers that, either). Web searches return the information that “itoyori” is not a snapper at all but a name given to various types of “threadfin bream.” Hmm. One of them, however (Nemipterus japonicus, Japanese threadfin bream), does at least seem to be red like a snapper (another common name is “pink perch”). Another variety, the golden threadfin bream, is commonly used to make surimi (minced fish used to make such products as imitation crabmeat and scallops).
We foregathered here before the banquet and (some of
us) reassembled the next afternoon for a drink with Glenn’s friend Robert Stern.
Before the banquet we sat at the bar. The next afternoon we sat on sofas in the
lounge area in the background of this photo.
“Serving croissants and Danish pastries baked fresh on the premises daily and a selection of special coffees for the serious coffee drinker. A stylish bakery cafe modeled on the street cafes of Europe. Sandwiches made from freshly baked croissants are a popular favorite.” We got sandwiches and later dessert from this restaurant in Terminal 1 of Tokyo’s Narita Airport. All three of us got the same kind of sandwich, but none of us can remember what it was; we just remember that it was something slightly exotic but quite good (Matthew suggests it might have been salmon and cream cheese). For dessert, Barney had a fried apple pie, and Matthew and I had pain au chocolat.