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Tips for those traveling to Japan


torakris
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I thought I would start this thread to help people who may be traveling to Japan, especially those who are interested in the best foods adventure they can get.

My biggest tip for eating well yet frugally is to eat your big meals at lunch. Lunch prices at many places are close to half the price of dinner and often of similar quality. In some places dinners are exactly the same just more expensive.....

In the case of kaiseki this is often a very good option with a couple other bonuses:

1 weekday lunches can be less crowded

2 the scenery can actually be seen, many kaiseki places have incredible scenery and though they are lit up by lights at night, I think it looks much better in the day

Save the cheap meals that you want to try like ramen, okonomiyaki, etc for dinner this is when these kinds of places get hopping and the prices don't change.

Another tip is to pay attention to when you want to come to Japan.

Most Japanese workers have 3 major holidays every year:

Golden Week from about April 29 to May 5

Obon around the second week of August

Oshogatsu from about December 29 to January 4

during these periods tourist areas will be very crowded and prices are raised considerably, the roads and trains are unbelievably crowded.

Also during the first couple days of January many stores and restaurants will be closed.

My favorite months here are May and October, the weather is very comfortable and it is just great to be outside. Rainy season runs from June into early July and some years are much worse than others.

any other tips?

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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I hesitate to say this, because it could have awful consequences :shock: but I've always had better sashimi and sushi in provincial towns than in Tokyo, and to some extent Osaka.

That doesn't mean that the dusty noodle shop opposite the station on some long-forgotten branch line will be serving the sushi you always dreamed of, but I have had better sushi for less money at good sushi restaurants in Takamatsu or Iwaki, for example, than in Tokyo.

Exceptions: You can have passably good sashimi in kaiseki or maku-no-uchi boxed lunch places in big towns. And if you can afford it, of course there are wonderful sushi places in Tokyo...but not in my budget range :cool: .

If you want to save money, find the nearest convenience store and buy breakfast (even the night before...) rather than eat at expensive hotel coffee shops. You'll certainly have an interesting time looking at the convenience store and at everybody else's purchases, in any case!

In warmer months, carry a small bottle of water or tea with you - or buy at convenience stores rather than vending machines. Tap water is safe, but if that's unpalatable, keep a big bottle of tea in your hotel room fridge for refilling. Vending machines in sightseeing spots are horribly expensive, and in hot weather, it adds up...

There is a pocket food guide with photos of common Japanese dishes and foodstuffs and the Japanese and English names, but I don't recall the name of it. Anybody know?

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I think if you are going to places that do not have much night life, then it might be a good idea to rent a house. We rented a very cheap house in Hokkaido and since we are not in the city, there was not much to do at night. We leave the house really early every morning and around 4-5, we would go grocery shopping. The house came with 2 stove, microwave, rice cooker, and a large fridge. We brought many seafood like scallop and tuna sashimi to enjoy. It was also fun drinking with my parents and enjoying some snacks. :wink: Driving in Japan is also quite fun with all the nice car, but be sure to bring someone that can read the map and navigation system. I am beginning to think that I don't like the urban area of Japan much, and would prefer to travel in the rural area.

When I was travelling in the city, I brought onigiri and sandwich from the convenience store and stock up on juices, snacks, and fruit from the supermarket for breakfast. Most of the expensive meal was eaten during lunch time since it was such a good deal.

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I like the idea of shopping for your breakfast the night before, but I'm not sure if the convenience store is the right place. A visit to a conbini (Japanese convenience store) is definitely a must for visitors, if only to marvel at the amazing selection and sheer, well, convenience of it all. And to stock up on drinks and such. But I've never been very impressed with the quality of the "fresh" prepared food (with some exceptions like nikuman and oden). If at all possible, it's better to shop at a depa-chika (department store basement), local bakery, or even the hotel's own bakery. Almost anything you buy at those places- pastries, bread, sandwhiches, onigiri, bento- will taste better (and have fewer preservatives) than from the conbini.

Virtually all hotel rooms come with an electric kettle and a small selection of tea and instant coffee. If you're a coffee drinker, skip the instant stuff and buy the little individual coffee filters- almost as fast as instant but it's real coffee. You can buy them at convenience stores and supermarkets. These have been a huge hit with visitors I've hosted.

Be wary of accepting recommendations. Many hotels don't have a true concierge, and the people at the information desk may not be well-informed or will tend to recommend only the touristy places. And there tends to be an assumption that non-Japanese don't like Japanese food. So recommendations from (Japanese) hosts and friends may not be so helpful.

Guidebooks recommendations can also be disappointing. So how can you find a good restaurant? Study up before you go. If you know what kind of food you want to try and what restaurants serve it, you'll probably be able to find a place by yourself. If you have a pocket guidebook that includes food vocabulary or food pictures, communication shouldn't be much of a problem. Eating in Japanand What's What in Japanese Restaurantsare usefull books both before your trip (for studying) and during (for referene and language help). (Are either of these the one you meant, Helen?)

My eGullet foodblog: Spring in Tokyo

My regular blog: Blue Lotus

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If you're looking for cheap lunch places, try the restaurant floors of department stores, or the Japanese fast-food shops (ramen, curry, etc.) inside the lobbies of office buildings. The food is not outstanding, but it's "authentic" and won't break the bank.

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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to get the best possible food you need to travel all over Japan :biggrin:

to save some money, (click on rail) check out this page for information on all the different railway passes available, under other rail passes there are a variety of local passes that good even for just one day

if you are moving around a lot, even in the same area, I recommend these, I use them all the time...

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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Some more tips about eating in restaurants.

There is no tipping in Japan! :biggrin:

a 5% consumption tax is added to everything purchased in this country included food, as of 4/1/2004 the price must reflect that 5%. So the price you see is the price you will pay, sometimes you will see 2 prices listed, the lower price is that without the consumption tax and the higher is with the tax included. This can make figuring out your bill pretty easy.

One thing to remember is that the more expensive the restaurant the more likely there will be a 10-15% service charge as well. This is often pointed out on the menu but just as often only in Japanese. Most medium range priced restaurants do not have service charges.

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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I don't know if I go with your advice about eating okonomiyaki and ramen in the evenings. Traveller sites give a lot of similar suggestions on eating at rock bottom prices in Japan. Buy all your food at Lawson's/eat at Yoshinoya/buy discounted sushi just before the supermarket closes etc...To me it seems a shame to suggest that kind of limitation in a country with such great food, and such atmospheric restaurants, cafes and bars. For those on a budget, there are in fact plenty of inexpensive options. But often it's worth paying extra, because you'll get something better. I sympathise with anyone on a tight budget; however, Japan isn't Thailand, and it is better to accept that prices are much as expected for any wealthy country.

Not that I have a problem with ramen or okonomiyaki, of course...

Suggestions for visitors to Japan who want to focus on food (nothing startling here, just common sense):

Prior research will pay off, and there are websites which give good information on food and restaurants in Japan. Tokyo Food Pages, Metropolis, etc.

Having a Japanese foodie friend to show you around will often help hugely; you stand more chance of being shown something interesting or unique that you'd never have found by yourself. So if you haven't got one, get one.

I know many people who say that food in the countryside is better than in Tokyo. Having spent over half my Japan time in the provinces, I feel the opposite. For sheer variety, you cannot beat Tokyo (And doesn't this apply to almost every capital/dominant city in every country? Offhand, I can't think of any exceptions). It's a great city for just diving into some place at random and being blown away by the quality of the food, whether it's cheap or expensive. Just from the food and drink perspective, Tokyo should be top of everyone's Japan itinerary.

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I also liked the sandwiches and onigiri at convenience stores for quick snacks, as well as the nikuman!

This site has some nice tips on manners when you are in Japan, the whole first section deals with food.

Definitely follow this one if staying at a family home:

In Japan the whole family uses the same bath water -- as a guest you will probably be given the priviledge of using the bath water first. Do NOT drain the water out after you have finished your bath!

I learned this the hard way...fortunately my friend's family just laughed at me a little - they weren't upset. :biggrin:

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I know many people who say that food in the countryside is better than in Tokyo. Having spent over half my Japan time in the provinces, I feel the opposite. For sheer variety, you cannot beat Tokyo (And doesn't this apply to almost every capital/dominant city in every country? Offhand, I can't think of any exceptions). It's a great city for just diving into some place at random and being blown away by the quality of the food, whether it's cheap or expensive. Just from the food and drink perspective, Tokyo should be top of everyone's Japan itinerary.

Your views concur with mine. Never had guts to say that...

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Hiroyuki and Ohba, in general I agree...but for sashimi, I think I'd have to spend 2-3 times as much to get the equivalent quality in Tokyo. (But maybe that's just the sweet taste of nostalgia!).

But as for diving in off the street, that's always a great idea in Japan. Unless you see roaches moving in in busloads, stepping into the first restaurant you see will rarely expose you to anything more than a little confusion and a meal that was "only" passable - but it could just as well be great, and in small places often the whole restaurant, staff and other diners, will join in to make sure you (and they) get the most out of your experience!

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I just finished reading an article called Twelve Restaurants in Tokyo in a 2002 issue of The Art of Eating. It contains a discussion of 12 different types of Tokyo restaurants - and the best examples of them that the author had found as of the date he wrote the article. I suspect the specific restaurant recommendations may be out of date (I assume that Tokyo is like any huge city - by the time you read about a place - it's ancient history) - but the article is excellent is terms of giving a general overview. It costs money ($10 for the back issue) - but I recommend it because it gives very specific information about the types of places that are there (I especially loved the discussion of food in depachikas).

I agree that it is silly to try doing a place like Tokyo totally "on the cheap" unless you're a student. And even the Let's Go series (Harvard Student Guides) doesn't recommend doing it that way. Better to save for a while - and try to experience at least a little of what a world class city has to offer.

By the way - one of the more interesting books I've read about Japan is - don't laugh - Dave Barry Does Japan. Dave Barry - for those of you who've never heard of him - is a very sophmoric comedy writer in the US. Usually real teenage boy humor (even though he's 50+). But his book about Japan is strangely informative and philosophical.

Anyway - we are continuing to learn and prepare ourselves for our trip. In case you haven't figured out - when we go to distant places - more than half the fun is learning about them before we get there :smile: . Robyn

Edited by robyn (log)
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We were just in Tokyo in January and had a great time.

My main tip for any traveler going over there is don't be afraid to jump in and try something, even if you don't know what it is. We were very intimidated when we first started walking around Tokyo, because there are a lot of places that don't have plastic food or picture menus to order from. As a result, the first few days we were there we ate more conservatively than I wanted to. Eventually we just said to heck with it and started ordering by pointing at what other people were eating. Whatever we got was always really, really good. We just needed to get over our initial fear and go for it.

I think having a travel guide can be useful when it comes to picking restaurants but we had our most memorable meals in hole-in-the-wall dives. We only ate at a couple places mentioned in our guidebook and those meals were actually lackluster compared to some others.

As far as eating your biggest meal at lunchtime - we tried to do that but sometimes it didn't work out. We didn't end up going anyplace really expensive, but we did have some meals that were pricey by our standards. What we really enjoyed was eating the food we saw Japanese people eating at lunchtime and dinnertime in the neighborhoods we were in. We ate at one tempura-bowl place, called TNT, several times and got addicted to the absolutely fresh, very delicious tempura from there. We ate in a yakitori-ya in the Ueno flea market and had a great meal. I think as long as any traveler to Japan likes seafood and is moderately adventurous, they can have a great time eating in the city.

And I do highly recommend a shopping trip to Kappabashi. :biggrin:

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Meal hours are fairly narrow and dinner is early compared to Europe. Since office workers eat between 12-1, it's best to get a seat before 11:45. Most restaurants will not take orders after 9.

In ryokan, give yourself time to take a liesurely bath before dinner, which is served at the latest around 7. Shower, scrub, and rinse thoroughly before getting into the communal bath, and don't forget to bring your towel. Tie the yukata with the left side on top. (Right side up is for corpses.)

There is a lot of tradition but very little privacy in the Japanese-style ryokan, with the maid coming in and out of the room to serve tea, dinner, make the beds, etc. They will wake you bright and early, sometimes with rousing recorded music. Try a traditional Japanese breakfast, which is not too different from lunch, but you can often request a Western-style breakfast in advance if you can't face the idea of fish for breakfast. The fried egg will be cooked firm and served cold. Or try an onsen-tamago, a kind of coddled egg.

Do not bring a lot of heavy luggage when traveling on a rail pass. There are a lot of stairs and very little accomodation for big suitcases. Make sure you can carry it all yourself, or learn to use the takyubin delivery service.

Having gone all the way to Japan, I don't believe this is the time to pinch pennies unless you absolutely have to. Food is part of the territory to discover. However, some amazing dishes are really cheap: yakitori, okonomiyaki, ramen, etc. Many of the best restaurants are specialists in a single dish (tempura, unagi, soba...) You decide what you feel like eating and then go find a restaurant that serves it. Don't expect a wide variety of menu items in such places.

I am writing an article about trying to penetrate high-end cuisine, which often does not come with plastic food or published menus. This is not easy, even with advanced language ability. A well-padded wallet is necessary, of course.

Another thing: Carry cash. Tons of it. This is safe. The post office has started to have cash machines that take international ATM cards, but ATMs for foreigners are still scarce. Try to bring yen rather than exchange it in Japan, since Japanese banks take forever to do a simple transaction.

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A couple very good points have been brought up.

If you really want to eat at a specific restaurant find out as much as you can about it. Japanese restaurants can have weird hours, many are closed one day a week, others are open only for dinner, many stop taking orders after 9:00 or 9:30.

To avoid the crowds, don't try to have lunch between 12 and 1 and try for an early dinner around 5 to 7.

Cash, cash, cash

Japan is still very much a cash using country, I use my credit card less than once a month. Though they are being more common many smaller restaurants still do not take cards and neither do many stores. I have never been concerned about carrying large amounts of cash in my wallet here.

Though 24 hour ATM machines are being more common they can still be hard to find in many areas, at the bank I use the ATM is only available from 9 to 9.....

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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Hell, I'm starting to feel like a real bickerer here, but regarding cash: yeah, you're less likely to get it stolen in Japan than most other countries, and you won't be able to fish out your card at every restaurant or bar, but carrying around wads of cash is NEVER safe.

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Cash, cash, cash

Japan is still very much a cash using country, I use my credit card less than once a month. Though they are being more common many smaller restaurants still do not take cards and neither do many stores. I have never been concerned about carrying large amounts of cash in my wallet here.

Though 24 hour ATM machines are being more common they can still be hard to find in many areas, at the bank I use the ATM is only available from 9 to 9.....

Yes, do get as much cash as you can from the Citi ATM at Narita, because most ATMs in Tokyo won't take your foreign card. The only one we've found that worked reliably was in the basement of one of the buildings in Roppongi Hills.

M
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torakris is correct - cash is the way to go. 100 million people cant be wrong! i have not used a cash card or credit card since i moved here.

here is my tip for a good meal out in tokyo. in roppongi hills there is a restaurant called xen. they have part of nobu's menu - so if you wanted to sample some nobu cuisine and arent particular about actually eating at nobu - go to xen. it is cheaper and the food tastes the same.

it is an interesting restaurant because it is three restaurants in one: bamboo bar, xen and olives. the place is huge!

if you do go there - you must try the black cod miso - i get shivers when i think about it! melt in your mouth buttery :wub:

rant coming up: i know that conbini food can save you money but would you eat at 7-11 at home? :sad: blech! i would hit the department store food floors before i settled for conbini. maybe once, hit a conbini for the novelty factor. just my two yen. :wink:

"Thy food shall be thy medicine" -Hippocrates

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I think the case against credit cards is being overstated. Some people may use theirs rarely. And for myself, when I was living in Japan, I never used them because I was unable to get one. But on my trips over there these days, I rely on them heavily, while being aware that not everywhere accepts them. Japan is still a cash society. But you still stand a good chance in mid and upper range restaurants of being able to use the card - I tend to spend around 3-5000 yen on an evening meal, and generally put it on the credit card whenever permitted (I am talking about Tokyo here; but I've also find that Niseko in Hokkaido is very card-friendly). If you lose your cash, however that may have happened - carelessness, theft or whatever, it's gone forever.

It is also possible to use machines to withdraw money, as long as you don't expect to be able to get it from every machine, and remember that they're not open 24 hours. The different classes of card and machine is an issue frequently discussed on travel websites with information on Japan, so I won't go into that here.

Good point whoever it was who said you wouldn't eat from 7-11 and its ilk at home. Couldn't agree more. It's not the way to see Japan (although I will add that the range and quality of food is far superior to the vile, unhygienic looking merchandise on offer in the tatty convenience stores here in Hong Kong). I really think if you're reduced to eating that cheaply, you've got the wrong budget or itinerary for properly enjoying what Japan has to offer.

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This topic seems perfectly timed for my trip to Japan, which is...now!!! I just arrive yesterdey with my BF, we are staying with my sister in Osaka.

I will try to use some of your suggestions, especially about eating Kaiseki for lunch instead of dinner, then i wont feel so guilty (and my BF can't enjoy meals that are too expensive). well, hopefully over these 10 days, i will accumulate some good foodie experinces to share with you all :biggrin:

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So far, our techniques has been.....wandering around whatever location we happen to be in when we get hungry, until we see something appealing. Not bad, but I need to spend some time looking up all the truely unmissable restaurants.

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I think the case against credit cards is being overstated. Some people may use theirs rarely. And for myself, when I was living in Japan, I never used them because I was unable to get one. But on my trips over there these days, I rely on them heavily, while being aware that not everywhere accepts them.

Agreed. I use my credit cards all the time in Japan--Costco, department stores, etc. I also have many of my monthly payments charged to my card (credit card points=presents). Even some of my small neighbourhood restaurants take credit cards.

During my first stay in Japan (93-95) I couldn't get a credit card, either. During my second stay (96-99) I managed to get an American Express card. However, I'm happy to report that it seems foreigners have a much easier time getting a bank-issued Visa/Mastercard! I still have Amex (great perks with that card), but for all those places that don't take it, I have a trusty SMBC Visa card.

Should one decide not to use a credit card or debit card in Japan, it should also be noted that some large banks have money changing services that are open on holidays and weekends. This likely applies only to large cities (I know for certain SMBC has offices open weekends/holidays in Kobe and Osaka) but it's worth noting for those times when you find yourself short on cash, and you just have to buy that tacky "kimono" for someone back home.

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