Japanese food is tasty and highly varied. It is a lot more than fish and rice, although those are important basic ingredients, joined by many forms of seaweed, vegetables often pickled in creative ways, and soybean products, such as tofu and miso.
Most people nowadays eat western-style breakfast, with coffee and tea, cereal and milk, yogurt and fruit, bread and pastries, butter and jam. Japanese traditional breakfast consists of rice, miso soup, fish, a raw egg (usually mixed into the hot rice), and various vegetables and pickles. It is much like the lunch menu known as teishoku which means “set course.”
In addition, Japanese have quite a variety of food in their daily lives. A popular dish are noodle soups, consisting of various kinds of noodles in a seaweed-based broth with tofu, meat, and/or vegetables. Udon are thick wheat noodles, soba are darke-colored buckwheat noodles, and ramen are Chinese-style egg and wheat noodles. Usually udon and soba are sold in the same shops and at temples, while ramen are sold in separate place. A variant of ramen is also reimen or cold noodles, which consists of a handful of noodles in a cold broth covered with vegetables, egg, ham, and seaweed. We may not be able to get the latter, though, since it is a summer dish and Japanese food is quite seasonal.
Sushi, of course, is an important part of the Japan experience, and we will one day go to a merry-go-round sushi shop, where small plates with pieces of many kinds of sushi are transported around on a conveyer belt. You pick what you like; most plates have the same standard price of around ¥140. You can also draw hot water for tea from push-down faucets placed at strategic intervals. Pay according to the number of plates in the end. Tea and water are free, as in all Japanese restaurants.
A specialty food with rice is the so-called domburi. It consists of a bowl of rice covered with eggs cooked in seaweed broth and accompanied by scallions plus various items of your choice: chicken, beef, vegetables. A nice variation on noodles is to have them fried as yakisoba (fried noodles), usually with various vegetables and your choice of meat. Shops specializing in fried noodles commonly also make a unique type of Japanese pancake called okonomi-yaki or “fry it as you like.” Flour, egg, cabbage, scallions, meat, and vegetables are combined and baked on a hot plate right in front of you, then covered with powdered seaweed and a special sauce, mayonnaise added to taste. It’s a kind of Japanese food that is quite popular, often also sold in small roadside or market stalls, and not known outside of Japan.
The same also holds true for oden, a winter food that consists of boiled eggs, potatoes, daikon, fish-paste (a chewy cakey thing made from fish), and other winter vegetables. Cut into large chunks and heated in a tasty broth, these are eaten with spicy Japanese mustard.
In addition, Japan has its own version of Chinese and Indian food. Especially potstickers or gyoza are very popular and can be had almost anywhere. The Japanese version of curry is called kari and consists of a thick pasty substance with meat and vegetables draped over a mound of rice with a bit of pickle on the side. It is, strangely enough, eaten with a spoon and is usually quite mild.
In addition, most meals come with pickles, a ubiquitous part of Japanese life. You will see pickle stores in many places and they usually offer little bits for tasting. I should add that if you come to really like any of these foods, you can obtain ready-made instant packages for practically all of them at an Asian food store in any U.S. city. Japanese home cooking is surprisingly easy and a great way to keep that Kyoto flavor alive.
The foods listed here are highly commonplace and the basic staple of Japanese life. They are found everywhere and are not too expensive, ranging in price from $5 to $10 (or more, if you pig out at the conveyor-belt sushi). You can easily get breakfast for $3-4 right around the corner from our hotel. If you want to go out for a more elaborate dinner, there are many restaurants nearby where you can get a set menu or a whole course of food, paying accordingly more. A really expensive, multi-course, several hour meal in a beautiful setting may be around $30 to $40.
Another popular way of eating in Japan is to go to small eateries that offer various snackies and order a few at a time—soy beans on the branch (edamame), chicken on a skewer (yakitori), deep-fried chicken (tori kara age), deep-fried tofu (agedashi tofu), rice with tea and spices (ochazuke), and many more. The price for these as well as for beer or sake is about $ 4 each, but you order quite a few in the course of an evening—or not, if you’re just trying a few things.
Most places nowadays have menus and computer tablets for ordering in English. If all fails, however, you can always get the waiter to come outside and point to the plastic model of the dish you want.
The Japanese have learned to bake from the French. Their pastries are varied, delightful, and delicious. In any bakery, you find many different kinds with prices clearly marked. You pick up a tray and pincers and select what you want, then pay at the cashier. The one trick is, though, that sometimes your donut or turnover—however sweet it may look—has a curry or sausage filling. Surprise, surprise! Also, a lot of baked goods as well as all traditional Japanese sweets (usually rice based) make use of red beans or azuki. They taste quite good, really.
As for money, the current exchange rate is US $1 = ¥120 ot 130. For your own practical purposes think of $1 as being a bit more than ¥100 (hyaku en); ¥1,000 (sen en) are today $12; and ¥10,000 (ichiman en) are $120. You can change at the airport after arrival, usually getting a better rate than over here.
Japan is very much a cash country. Few shops or restaurants take credit cards, although the bigger places and department stores do. It is, therefore, best to bring cash or use the local ATM—they have them everywhere and they work very well. There is no tipping in Japan and very little bargaining. Taxes are included in prices. What you see is what you pay.
The country is very safe, and people are much more likely to run after you with your lost item or wrong change than steal from you. Traveler’s checks tend to be a lot of bother—you need a passport to change them, there’s fees—but if they make you feel safer, by all means get them.
You will need a bit of money for breakfast and some for certain dinners, as well as for other odds and ends, like soft drinks or ice cream or little snacks, usually priced around $1. And, of course, for shopping.