Yakitori, chicken grilled on skewers (the less adventurous type should take care in ordering — yakitori chefs pride themselves on using every available part of the chicken), is the fast food of Japanese cuisine. The skewered chicken is lightly dipped in barbecue sauce and grilled. Some restaurants may also grill various vegetables. Cold beer is the traditional beverage consumed with yakitori.

Yakitori-ya are usually identified by red paper lanterns hanging outside. Like classic diners, they are frequented more for the food than the atmosphere. Depending on the style of the chef, sauces range from sweet to salty to spicy. Higher end restaurants might have exotic meats on the menu.

Western Dining

You’ve traveled halfway around the world, you’re cranky and tired, you need something comforting. Lo and behold, there it is: the Golden Arches. Yes, they do have McDonald’s in Tokyo (in our experience, it’s the cheapest orange juice in town). And Kentucky Fried Chicken. And a host of other popular chains.

Be warned, however, that even in the most familiar of settings, your experience may be uniquely Japanese. Filet o’Fish sandwiches for breakfast. Unusual pizza toppings. Coffee served in ceramic cups. Even in a country with a wide range of exciting foods, sometimes you need a little taste of home.


Unagi is eel, and can be had as sushi, grilled, or broiled. Unagi is considered by many Japanese to be health food. Grilled unagi is often consumed on the hottest days of the year for its ability to revitalize strength. Unagi is also served in sushi form.

Restaurants that specialize in unagi can be identified by the elongated Japanese “u” character which resembles an eel.


Tonkatsu is a breaded and fried pork cutlet, generally no more than two centimeters thick. It is served with a sauce reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce or a spicy mustard. Some restaurants fancy the dish up a bit by placing cheese or other ingredients (including, rumor has it, a chocolate bar) between slices of the meat before breading. Cabbage is the traditional side dish of tonkatsu, though it may also be included with a variety of other daily special ingredients.


Essentially, a teppanyaki restaurant is a Japanese steakhouse with American roots. While you don’t always get the Westernized showmanship of a Benihana’s, this type of restaurant does focus on preparation and presentation. Steaks are cooked on a hot grill and served immediately.


Tempura are foods that have been deep fried after being dipped in a batter. The result is light and delicate (and incredibly hot — be prepared). Good tempura is not greasy. Tempura is fried food that doesn’t leave you feeling like you need a long nap. Though generally consumed without additional seasonings, some prefer a light sauce on their tempura. The crispy coating will absorb sauces quickly, so dip quickly to avoid heavy flavors.

The key to good tempura (which, by the way, came to Japan via Portugal) is fresh ingredients prepared skillfully. If you’re feeling adventurous, order the teishoku (daily special), otherwise point to the appropriate plastic food display. Standard tempura foods include various meats and fish, root vegetables, eggplant, onion, squashes, and mushrooms.

Sushi and Sashimi

Sushi and its kissing cousin, sashimi, are the most well-known of Japanese foods. While many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of eating raw fish, this squeamishness disappears after a first encounter with meguro (tuna). Sashimi is just the seafood while sushi can have a variety of other ingredients, along with rice. Traditionally a finger food, sushi is consumed in a single bite.

Western avocado lovers will need to forget about dining on their beloved California rolls while in Tokyo. Unlike many Western foods, this particular type of sushi is considered inferior to Japanese sushi.


Sukiyaki is imilar to shabu-shabu, except the broth is made of soy sauce and sake. This noodle-based dish is popular in Japan and the United States. Traditionally, diners take what they want from the pot, and dip the food in raw egg before consuming (this step can be skipped, if you desire). As with other name-style meals, sukiyaki invites communal dining and a leisurely pace.


From the invigorating miso soup to the various broths, soups comprise a major component of the Japanese diets. Soups are served in small covered bowls. Rather than using spoons, diners drink the broth directly from the bowl and use chopsticks to eat solid foods.

Miso soup, a staple of the Japanese breakfast, generally has a salty flavor. The strength of the soup depends on the base ingredients. Foods such as tofu or vegetables are added to the miso soup for additional flavor. Pork and vegetables are also popular soup ingredients.


Shabu-shabu is familiar to Western diners, though it is part of the nabemono-style of cooking. As with other nabe meals, the shabu-shabu experience is characterized by a cooking pot on the table, with customers choosing their own ingedients and cooking them on the spot. Diners dip thinly slieced meats such as beef or chicken in a savory broth. Vegetables are also part of the shabu-shabu experience.

The thin slices of food cook quickly in the hot broth, which grows more flavorful as new ingredients are cooked. Sauces such as ponzu or sesame seed sauce are used for dipping, and leftover broth is often combined with rice to make a soup to finish the meal.