Mike's Japan by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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Food is becoming faster and increasingly Westernised in Japan. As a Japanese friend remarked: it’s what happens when everyone wants to go to work and no one wants to stay at home and do the cooking.
As a visitor, you will have little trouble finding a hamburger joint or a place that sells chicken and chips (French fries). At the same time, there is no shortage of good, old-fashioned, Japanese fast-food. The noodle bars and sushi trains are still doing a brisk trade and they are cheap.
Eating out is cheap in Japan compared with most developed countries. The problem for a non-Japanese speaker is to find what you want. Hamburger and chicken fry are easy because the signs are impossible to miss. Noodle bars and restaurants present a greater challenge.
The more interesting eating establishments aren’t obvious. If you want something more exciting than a place where office workers go at midday, look for paper lanterns. They usually indicate that the proprietors have gone out of their way to create a bit of atmosphere.
Let's suppose you have located a suitable place. If it’s a hamburger joint it will be like anywhere else. You merely go to the counter and point at a picture on the wall. If it’s a noodle bar, there’s so little choice it hardly matters. If it’s a beer hall, it’s easy. They have menus with pictures and prices in the straightforward (1,2,3 …) numerals that everyone can read.
Beer halls are my favourites. The staff dress like pirates. Many are students. There’s a lot of yelling when new customers arrive, gongs sound and raffle tickets are drawn from a jar (in the better establishments). You can order small amounts and take time eating while you down a few beers. The choice is so wide that even fussy palates can be satisfied.
Restaurants present the real challenge. You think that everything is straightforward but you are wrong. You have been fooled by the plastic displays in the window (see photo below). They show replicas of the dishes you can order and many are highly realistic. Then you realise that the names are in Japanese and there are no numbers beside them. I speak a primitive form of Japanese and can understand the odd written word yet I’m sometimes forced to take staff outside and point to a dish in the window.
The problem doesn’t end there. For some annoying reason, many restaurants feel obliged to give prices in an old fashioned script that you don’t see anywhere else except in Shinto temples and funeral parlours. Mercifully, it’s simpler than Roman numerals. Each character corresponds to a numeral normal people use. So if there are three of them you know the price is less that 1000 yen. It helps to remember that one horizontal stroke corresponds to 1, two strokes make 2 and three make 3. After that it gets more difficult. Take a look at the picture, above, to see what I mean.
When I’m in Tokyo, I often eat in the shopping area below Tokyo Station. There’s a vast expanse of streets down there and most are packed with restaurants. The main customers are office workers so I try to avoid the midday break. Ten years ago, most served Japanese meals. Now, I’m having difficulty finding a place that does not serve a Japanese version of Western food. If you want to eat Western (or something like it), Tokyo Station could be the place for you.