Did you know that in 2013, “washoku” (Japanese cuisine) was added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity list? We’re back to introducing all the fun facts about Japan – part 2 of a 3-part series. In this post, we are talking about – yes, it’s everyone’s favourite – Japanese food.
Do you remember what we said about Japan’s geography in the first post? With a hot and humid climate, surrounded by the sea on all sides, and a mountainous (water-rich) topography, Japan has naturally been eating rice and fish for a very long time. On the other hand, the cold and dry climate of Europe is perfect for wheat production and livestock farming. As a result, wheat, meat and dairy products are staples in the European diet and quite different compared to the main food culture in Japan.
Here is a list we compiled about Japanese food culture and what you should know before travelling to Japan.
1. Japanese food is healthy
Japanese food is synonymous with healthy food, and there is a strong correlation to the country’s long average lifespan (males 81.09 years, 3rd in the world, and females 87.26 years, 2nd in the world in 2017). Their longevity can be attributed to a healthy daily diet and extensive medical care. In Japan, there is a term called ‘ichijyusansai’, which refers to a meal consisting of white rice and soup, a meat or fish side dish, and a vegetable or seaweed side dish – all seasoned lightly to feature the natural flavours of the ingredients. Furthermore, Japanese cuisine is considered a beautiful, healthy and ideal diet.
2. Meat is relatively new to Japan
In fact, until the middle of the 19th century, eating meat was not very common due to the Buddhist influence that prohibited the killing of animals. Since the Meiji Restoration* in 1868, the eating habits of Japanese people have changed dramatically. Japan abolished the isolation policy that lasted for more than 200 years and aimed at establishing a Western European-style modern nation as soon as its doors opened. One of the symbols of that Westernisation is the consumption of meat.
3. ‘Western food’ in Japan is amazing
From the late 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, the Japanese began to incorporate meat in their dishes using Japanese cooking styles and methods. These dishes are called ‘Western food’, and to this day, some of the most popular Japanese dishes include tonkatsu (pork cutlet), curry rice and sukiyaki, all of which were born during this period. As such, Western food culture has developed even further since the 20th century and has influenced the entire nation. Something interesting that you’ll find in Japan are the elaborate plastic food samples reflecting the in-store menu to help guide customers visually before they enter restaurants.
4. Bento ‘lunch box’ culture is big (and delicious)
Recently, even at supermarkets in London, you’ll easily find packed lunches of Japanese food such as sushi and seaweed salads. However, Japan's original packed lunch is called ‘bento’ and the contents are completely different. One of the most popular lunchboxes you can buy is the ‘makunouchi bento’. These bentos typically include white rice (with sesame and plum radish), pickles, Japanese omelette, a deep-fried dish and cooked vegetables. As you can see, there’s a pattern – the basic contents of home-made lunchboxes are white rice, meat and a vegetable dish. Many tourists visiting Japan are astonished by the brilliantly colourful ‘ekiben’ (bento boxes sold at train stations) lined up at the food stalls inside Tokyo Station.
5. Tokyo is home to the world’s best restaurants
In Japan’s capital, you can find some of the world’s best restaurants. Did you know that Tokyo came in 1st place, beating Paris, for having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world in 2019? But it’s not only fine dining that one can enjoy in Tokyo. We encourage visitors to try all the local foods. For example, something that became a hot topic in Japan during President Trump’s recent visit was "robata yaki". This is a style of cooking where the chef grills fresh food on charcoal grills in front of the customer – everything made to order. There are many variations of this style, such as ‘yakitori’ (chicken skewers), ‘kushiage’ (meat and vegetable skewers), ‘teppanyaki’ (cooked on a hot plate), and ‘okonomiyaki’ (savoury pancake). On the other hand, there are also other styles of cooking where customers cook the food themselves, such as shabu-shabu, sukiyaki and monjayaki. Of course, there are many eateries and izakayas (Japanese gastro pubs) where you can eat and drink well at affordable prices. As a result, with so many choices, you will have a hard time choosing a restaurant in Tokyo!
As you can see, the food culture in Japan is extensive enough to be featured on its own. We encourage you to visit Japan on multiple occasions during different seasons and enjoy its colourful culinary scene. Perhaps you’ll return home with a new palate and a greater appreciation for food.
For those planning a trip to Japan, don’t forget to sort out your mobile phone’s SIM before you arrive at the airport. That way you can share photos and message your friends and family as soon as the plane lands. Check out our prepaid SIM cards for travel in Japan.
*The series of westernisation which occurred in the second half of the 19th century, including politics and economy to food, clothing and housing.