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Short Primer for Finding Restaurants in Japan On Your Own


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Having been in Japan for a little over one year now, I thought it might be useful to put together a little primer on the best way that I have learned to go about finding, learning about, getting into, and eating at great restaurants to eat in. Once you use this method, and practice it a little bit, I think you’ll find it quite easy (though perhaps a little time consuming).

Finding Restaurants

When I first came to Japan, I would simply go into any restaurant which was crowded and/or smelled good. While this seems obvious, and did work for a while, none of the truly great restaurants that I have been to so far were found this way. Specifically, it did not work particularly well for the following reasons: 1) just because something is crowded doesn’t make it a great restaurant (how many times have you passed by a crowded Pizza Hut?); 2) there are many restaurants in Japan, and many people who like to go out to eat – as a result, many restaurants will naturally be crowded; 3) the restaurants your most likely to see are those on the main streets, which undoubtedly require higher rent – as a result, these are more likely to be chain restaurants (which are never as good as the mom and pop shops); 4) most restaurants are not actually on the main avenues, but are located on the upper floors of non-descript buildings or in a narrow side streets – so your likely to never ever encounter them; 5) many restaurants in Japan do not have see through windows, but rather, have frosted glass – making entry very intimidating. In short, if you go this route, while you will undoubtedly have good food (almost all restaurants in Japan are good by U.S. standards), you will rarely have anything better than that.

After being in Japan for approximately 3 months I discovered a website called Tabelog. It changed everything for me, and I honestly don’t think I have had anything less than a very good meal since. For those of you who don't know, Tabelog is a Japanese website used by Japanese people to find restaurants (kind of like Yelp or Citysearch). This site allows users to see ratings of restaurants (which are determined by the users of the site), view pictures of the food (Japanese love food photography), view the exteriors of restaurants (which is enormously helpful in finding them).

Ratings on Tabelog appear to go from around 2.0, which is on the low end of the ratings scale, to 4.5, which is on the high end. If a restaurant has at least a 3.0, it will be good. If a restaurant has a 3.5 or above, it will be very good. If a restaurant has a 3.8 or above, it will likely be excellent. If a restaurant has a 4.0/4.1 or above, it will likely be incredibly good. By considering the score, price, and pictures I see in combination, I have eaten at a number of really excellent restaurants without spending an exorbitant amount (more than $100 a person) – side note – most of the best restaurants are not in the Michelin guide.

The one problem with the Tabelog website is that its in Japanese. The problem with this is that I do not read Japanese. The easy way around this problem is to view Tabelog through Google Translate. To do this, I suggest you simply type the word "tabelog" into the Google search browser and click on the translation of the first site that pops up from the search. Once you are on the translated version of the site, its pretty easy to navigate. You can search by location, style of cuisine, etc. I recommend first finding your location (or anticipated destination), and then narrowing the search by price, style of food, lunch/dinner, etc. It really is very, very easy. Then it’s a matter of going through the search results and seeing what looks good to you (this can be somewhat time consuming, but worth it). If you need more pointers on this, PM me.

Another great source for locating interesting restaurants is the magazine Meets Regional, which is a magazine largely devoted to food. One of the things I like about this magazine is that every month it either focuses on a different type of food (i.e., Udon, Yakitori, Soba, Oden, Sushi, Yaki Niku, etc.) or on a different theme (i.e., Great Kansai Restaurants, Great Lunch Spots, etc.). Like Tabelog, this magazine is also in Japanese. So, given that I do not read Japanese, I use this magazine as a picture book. If a picture of a dish looks particularly appealing (there are many food pictures in this magazine), then I make note of the phone number which accompanies the picture, and enter it into a Google search, along with the word “tabelog” and then see what pops up (usually a rating, more pictures, etc).

Once I find a restaurant through either of these methods, if I want to learn a little more about it, I will simply copy and paste the phone number of the restaurant into a Google Blog Search. If a restaurant is particularly highly rated, you can bet on the fact that there will be at least a handful of blog reviews. While all of these reviews will almost certainly be in Japanese, it really doesn’t matter – you can get a better sense for the type of food by looking at the pictures. Moreover, blogs will often times be the only place that have pictures of the exterior of a restaurant, which again, is essential to finding it if you don’t speak Japanese.

Making A Reservation

Once you pick the restaurant you want to go to, you will likely need to make a reservation. If you have a Japanese friend, this will be a pretty easy process. Alternatively, if you are unable to make a reservation, you are likely to stand a much better chance of getting in if you show up at the restaurant slightly before it opens, or slightly before the last order time (most restaurants have a last order time which is about 30 minutes prior to closing time). Finally, you can try to make the reservation yourself, and while this is not overly complicated, it does require some knowledge of Japanese (PM me if you need additional details).

Ordering At Restaurants

If you find your way to an interesting restaurant, based upon Tabelog or Meets Regional, you have likely discover that it does not have plastic food outside (as is typical of many restaurants in Japan) or a picture menu. The reason is that the best restaurants never do seem to have these things. To order, I suggest you simply be adventurous, name a price, and ask for the chef to serve you food. This is very easily done with some very basic Japanese, or at worst, could be done in English if you speak slowly or write it down (again, PM me for further detail).

Hope this little primer helps in your eating adventures in Japan!


p.s. If you go to Kobe or Osaka, and want a few recommendations, let me know.

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  • 4 months later...

Very helpful post. In Kyoto at the moment. Day-tripping to Osaka, Kyoto and Nara hopefully within my 5 days. Your best recs would be very much appreciated. If you need a guide to what I like...everything that's done well. If it has a meat in it, even better.

Sincere thanks in advance (hoping you reply while I'm still here :)

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  • 3 weeks later...

FYI - Meets Regional is a food magazine that I "think" is only available in the Kansai area. So sorry for the folks who live in the Tokyo/Yokohama area. However if you really want and live in Japan and can read Japanese, I know you can order back issues of Meets Regional (http://lmaga.jp/meets/). If you do live in the Kansai area you can pick up issues at the 1st of the month at your local konbini (i.e. Lawson, FamilyMart etc.)

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To order, I suggest you simply be adventurous, name a price, and ask for the chef to serve you food. This is very easily done with some very basic Japanese, or at worst, could be done in English if you speak slowly or write it down (again, PM me for further detail).

I know you said PM, but could you give us the basics of how that conversation would go down? I have on occasion tried to "omakase" my way in a restaurant and it can be difficult. I felt uncomfortable bringing up money in Japan and with my terrible Japanese.

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  • 4 weeks later...

eternal -

Usually when CornellRob and I are at a restaurant/izakaya when we first get seated the wait staff or chef will ask what would we like to drink (Nani o nomimasu ka?). After we get our drinks that is when the chef (we usually go to counter restaurants) will ask what we would like to eat. That is when we fumble with our broken Japanese and say the following phrases with LOTS of hand gestures. It's kind of like playing charades.

Chef: Nani o taberu shitai to omoimasu? (What would you like to eat?)

CornellRob: Sumimasen - tabe osusumewa (points to chef) go-cen yen (points to himself), go-cen yen (points to me). Nademo taberemas. Nama daijobu, sashimi daijobu, nademo daijobu. (Excuse me, your food recommendation ¥5000, ¥5000. We eat everything. Raw is okay, sashimi is okay, everything is okay.)

In this example I just used ¥5000 as an example but you can insert whatever price. It is important to let them know you eat everything so you won't wind up with funky western-Japanese dishes because they think since you're a foreigner that you won't eat the good interesting stuff. Sometime the chef will ask if the price we set is to include drinks too or only food. Sorry I have no idea how that is said in Japanese. But CornellRob will clarify that it is for food only.

CornellRob: Tabe only, tabe only (gesturing eating). Tabe go-cen yen (sticks his hand out to indicate the ¥5000 level) toe nomi (gesturing with his other hand going above the ¥5000 food price limit we set with the chef). (Eat/food only, eat/food only. Food ¥5000 and drink)

Usually they understand when you do that. So I hope that helps. Also we usually carry this very helpful book around with us sometimes called, "Japan (The Original Point And Speak Book)" that you can buy on Amazon. Also by the same author is a point and speak book dedicated to Japanese food. Usually when chefs see that book they really open up and that's when the attempt to banter with the chef begins.



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Oh and I forgot to mention that if there is something you really do not like, so say natto for example, we would say...

CornellRob: Sumimasen, natto nee-ga-te (gesturing dislike with the Japanese gesture for no by crossing your hands into an x). (Sorry, natto is not for me)

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