There are many good reasons to travel in Japan, but food has to be one of the most compelling.
One of the highlights of Oku Japan’s tours is to taste real, home-made Japanese food. We recommend that you practise with chopsticks (O-hashi) before you go. Be prepared for the freshest of food. Fish, chicken, pork, rice, miso soup, tofu and vegetables are at the heart of many meals. It is not all raw fish, but sashimi will be offered, and really is worth trying. You will usually sit on cushions on the floor at low tables for meals at Japanese-style inn on tour – comfortable, loose clothing is recommended.
We encourage clients to sample the full range of food provided by the inns on our tours whenever possible. The inns are proud of their set menus, which usually consist of a multitude of carefully-balanced and painstakingly-produced dishes. If you are travelling with others, you can easily swap dishes between you at mealtimes so that each member of your party eats what they like best.
Inns are usually happy to provide meat-free meals if we request them at the time of booking. We can also request meals which are meat-free and without fish and seafood, though fish and seafood feature heavily in the standard Japanese diet. If requesting meals without fish and seafood, please tell us if you can still accept soups and sauces containing the traditional fish stock called dashi. It is hard for the inns to produce meals without dashi and choices for vegans are limited.
For those with a severe allergy to wheat gluten, eating in Japan can be problematic. Soy sauce and miso contain small traces of gluten, and these are key ingredients in many Japanese dishes.
Most inns will do their best to cater for special diets, but please submit requests to Oku Japan at the time of booking. It may not be possible to accommodate requests made afterwards. Please understand that some smaller inns may not have the facilities necessary to cook for those with special diets.
Here is a summary of common elements in Japanese cuisine.
Rice is not only the staple diet in Japan, it is the sacred food which is at the very heart of the Japanese identity. You will receive rice with every Japanese meal except when you get a simple bowl of noodles. Japanese rice is glutinous and sticky, making it easy to eat with chopsticks. Resist the urge to pour soy sauce over it; this is frowned on in Japan and also stops the rice sticking together and thus much harder to eat.
Rice is also made into onigiri - rice balls - with a small pickle or dried fish in the middle to add flavour. You can find them in any convenience store and they are great for taking on walks or train journeys.
Sushi and Sashimi
Probably Japan’s most famous food export, the word Sushi actually refers to the vinegared rice that accompanies the fish. Sliced raw fish on its own is called Sashimi.
Sushi chefs train for years to perfect their skills, and the preparation of Sushi is complicated. Above all it is important that the fish be extremely fresh. The origins of Sushi are hotly debated, but the vinegared rice was originally a way to preserve the fish. There are variants of Sushi around Japan, but the Nigiri style (the type best-known in the west - slices of raw fish on top of rice) is now found everywhere.
Species more or less guaranteed to feature in every restaurant are Maguro (tuna), Sake (salmon), Ika (squid), Tako (octopus) and Tamago (egg). More exotic options include Uni (sea urchin roe), Toro (fatty tuna belly - very expensive!) and Shirako (fish sperm). Most Japanese people eat sushi quite rarely, as it is relatively expensive compared to other restaurants. You can eat sushi with chopsticks or alternatively with your fingers.
Sansai - mountain vegetables - are found growing wild in rural areas. Though some are now cultivated, residents in country areas still collect wild Sansai. Common varieties are Mitsuba (wild parsley), Warabi (bracken), Fukinoto (giant butterbur), Kogomi (fern), Udo (wild asparagus). They are commonly blanched or served in miso soup. The best Sansai are served in smaller inns where they may have been collected that morning by your hosts.
Rather than heavy sauces and flavourings, Japanese cuisine relies more on the delicate flavours of the ingredients themselves. Amongst these flavours are plants such as Shiso - a member of the mint family - which has a flavour said to be neither sweet nor savoury. Shiso is often eaten with sushi, and added to salads.
Miso, a paste made with soya beans, is another staple of Japanese cuisine. Its most common use is in miso soup, which accompanies most meals. Like other Japanese ingredients, it varies greatly from region to region, from white to red to dark brown.
Pickles also play a large part in any Japanese meal. The most common is the famous Umeboshi, a pickled Japanese plum, often found in Onigiri rice balls. A Japanese meal will have at least one or two types of delicately-flavoured pickles. Even Japanese curry rice, a thick sauce that has little in common with Indian curry, is usually served with pickles.
Nabemono stewed dishes
Particularly in the cold winter months various stews (Nabe) are popular ways to warm up. Nabe (pronounced na-bay) refers to the pot used to cook the stew. Common types include:
- Chankonabe — a varied hotpot much favoured by sumo wrestlers
- Oden — fish soup simmered for days on end, often sold on the street and convenience stores in the winter
- Sukiyaki — a hotpot of beef, tofu, noodles and more
- Shabu-shabu — thinly-sliced beef dipped in a savoury broth and dipping sauces
There are many types of noodles in Japan, but the two most common are Udon, made from wheat, and Soba made from buckwheat.
Restaurants selling Soba and Ramen (Chinese-style noodles) are extremely popular and Ramen shops or stalls can be found everywhere. The secret of good Ramen is the soup stock, and famous Ramen shops receive television coverage and long lines of patient diners.