One of the nicer parts of living and teaching in Japan is the chance to try out Japanese food. The range of foods available is huge. Ranging from western foods like hamburgers to traditional foods like sushi to Chinese foods like gyoza and ramen. Despite this, many new to teaching in Japan believe the Japanese food scene to be mostly sushi or traditional foods served in traditional restaurants.
The reality is that American, Chinese, German, Italian and Korean influences are widespread.
American fast-food chains like McDonalds and KFC are practically as widespread as the English conversations schools you may be working for.
Many that are new to Japan believe they’ll lose weight because they won’t be able to find anything “good” to eat. There’s more good Japanese food than you can shake a stick at. Let’s run over some of the basics on what to expect for Japanese food.
A Traditional Breakfast Eaten Out
A traditional breakfast consists of a bowl or rice, some pickled vegetables and miso soup.
Again this is traditional. More and more you’ll see Japanese eating toast & yogurt for breakfast. In many coffee houses breakfast will be coffee or tea, a boiled egg, toast and a small salad. (Yup, salad is a breakfast food in Japan.)
With the proliferation of McDonalds you’ll see plenty of Japanese eating Egg Mc muffins and other Mc stuff. Typical breakfasts eaten out will be around 300 to 500 yen. As with housing etc. expect to pay a bit more in larger cities like Tokyo and Osaka.
A Typical Lunch Eaten Out
Despite the huge range of foods available, you’ll still find white rice to be the main staple of all 3 meals- especially lunch and dinner. Believe it or not, a typical lunch eaten out can be quite affordable.
Usually, lunch will be a simple rice dish, or noodle dish. With mom and pop style cafes dotting almost every corner - in addition to the larger chains, you won’t have to go far to find a relatively cheap and tasty lunch in the 500 to 1000 yen range. Noodle dishes like somen, soba, udon and ramen are big favorites of the Japanese.
A Typical Dinner Eaten Out
Although most think of sushi or tempura when someone mentions Japanese food, the truth is that there is a huge variety of foods typically eaten at dinner.
Again, although rice is the staple of the Japanese diet, you’ll find way more than sushi and white rice served for dinner. You'll find plenty of American dishes like hamburgers, pizza etc. to French, Italian and Korean dishes. All of course uniquely Japanized - (Pizza with mayonnaise and corn toppings. Yum Yum!)
Japanese Food and Eating Out - What to Expect for Prices
If you believe you can't afford to eat out on a typical teachers salary. This totally depends on the kinds of foods and places you eat at. It’s safe to say that if you develop a habit of eating sushi out and drinking beer and sake with your meals, you won’t be able to save a dime. (In fact you’ll probably be doing a little financing with your credit card. It’s mighty easy to drop $100 dollars without being stuffed in nicer restaurants.)
On the other hand, if you choose the simpler rice and noodle-based dishes served in family type restaurants, saving some money won’t be too difficult. Popular dishes like curry rice, ramen, donburi dishes and yakisoba are affordable even eaten out. These dishes are typically in the 750 to 1000 yen range. These types of meals aren’t so expensive but will rapidly get there when you drink beer or sake with your meals. Be prepared to spend about 500 yen for a 12 oz beer (that’s less than a pint folks!)
Saving Money on Food - Convenience Store Lunches - Obento
Those looking to save a little money can buy an obento or box lunch consisting of a small portion of meat, white rice or noodles and a vegetable. obentos can be bought at any convenience store - a great alternative to the greasy burger trap.
If your budget is really tight you can get a triangular shaped white rice cake stuffed with salmon, tuna or vegetables and wrapped in nori or seaweed for about a buck. It’s called onigiri. Perfect for a teacher on the go.
Saving Money on Japanese Food - Hit the Close
Another great way to save on food in Japan, (if your teaching schedule permits it), is to shop about 20 minutes before the grocery store closes. The Japanese are serious about maintaining quality standards in their foods so they often will mark piles of foods down by as much as 50% before the store closes to unload their merchandise.
The Next Step - Making Dishes at Home
Another sure-fire salary killer is trying to maintain the diet you’re used to eating in Japan. Case in point a typical 10-inch pizza. Expect to part with nearly $25 U.S. for a 10 inch pie. A large will run you nearly $50! Buying imported foods from import stores will tear a hole in a 100 dollar bill in no time.This is changing though as Dominoes Pizza has entered the market and has pushed pizza prices down considerably. A basic medium size pie can be got for 1,500 yen or so.
Our advice to you is to try out some simple Japanese dishes and develop a liking for them. (Believe me this isn’t hard to do.) After that, make them at home. Try asking your students for recipes. You’ll be surprised at how willing students are to help their teacher with them.
What if I Can't Read the Menu?
This isn’t as much of a problem as it might seem. Many, and we do mean many; restaurants will have clear pictures on their menus.
So if all else fails you can always point!
In addition to this, many restaurants will have large display cases like the one to the right with plastic Japanese foods - all with mouthwatering life like detail and prices clearly marked. These display cases are often at the entrance so you can size up the restaurant without even walking in.
What to Expect for Service
Fast. Friendly and professional are a few good ways to describe it. Considering that Japanese waiters and waitresses don’t work off of tips, it’s amazing the level of service you receive in your typical restaurant. Remember not to tip. Japan doesn’t have this custom so it’s hard to say how they’ll take it besides the usual look of confusion.
If you'll be eating Japanese food, you'll probably be eating with chopsticks. Get more info here. And that's just the first step. Make sure to check out our section on general etiquette to make a good first impression.