How to get food in Japan without knowing how to speak Japanese


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/03/23/how-to-get-food-in-japan-witho.html


#2

Good video and very helpful. Traveling in Japan is actually very easy for westerners. First time I went I was nervous but any anxiety disappeared within minutes of landing.

Everything is picture based and all you have to do is point to what you want. Servers are generally very patient with foreigners and the whole process couldn’t be simpler - easier than dining in the US actually.

A few things that were pointed out in the video: money is never exchanged directly between hands but via trays and bowls. This is a sign of respect. Tipping, of course, is not required and is actually frowned upon (it’s considered insulting).

The only hard part as a non-native speaker is dealing with dietary restrictions or food allergies since that requires a much higher level of conversation. Generally though, you had better be a fan of fish and rice. Don’t expect to find many beef options.

When in doubt - point to what you want. There is an entire industry devoted to making highly realistic fake food and you usually get exactly what you see.

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#3

This would have been super-helpful before my first trip over there in 2008 I think. Mostly food was super-easy, and most places seem to have English menus available, although you might have to ask for one. If you like Japanese food though, you must go to Japan!


#4

Another thing that’s important to understand is Japanese food is very big on umami flavor or savory - as opposed to sweet, salty, bitter or sour. This is true especially for breakfast which I think is the hardest part for most Americans. Breakfast can be an adventure if you’re used to the typical western diet.

You generally don’t find much in the way of hot spices or sweet sauces (like ketchup) for main dishes. Soy sauce is ubiquitous of course and you can still find deserts and candy all over.


#5

Why am I watching this? It’s just making me hungry and frustrated of not being able to eat in Japan right now.


#6

It’s 18 years since I’ve lived there, but this is great. When I first arrived I had some Japanese but it was so easy to just point to the highly realistic plastic food displays that were common then. I love those little eki-ben box lunches that you could get at the convenience stores, and I recall I really missed the food when I got back to Canada.


#7

Navigating the public transit schedules, even if you have some Japanese, though…


#8

I recall visiting a Japanese establishment some twelve years ago where there was a comparatively primitive machine with text-labelled plastic buttons near the entrance on which you could select your desired options and get a punched ticket that would serve as your order. I gleefully anticipated using it (and to heck with the consequences), but they insisted on giving me a menu with pictures.

Nowadays of course online ordering and touchscreen kiosks are increasingly commonplace even hereabouts, which is excellent, because some days “medium coffee, two milk, two sweeteners” just doesn’t seem to get across to the cashier.


#9

They were still common when I was there five years ago.


#10

I am reminded of a passage from Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon where protagonist Randy Waterhouse wanders the streets of Tokyo:

He wanders all day. At first it is just bleak and depressing and he thinks he’s going to give up very soon, but then he gets into the spirit of it, and learns how to eat: you approach gentlemen on streetcorners selling little fried-octopus balls and make neolithic grunting noises and proffer yen until you discover food in your hands and then you eat it.


#11

Thank you so much for sharing this video! I’m visiting Japan for the first time soon and am every kind of anxious about exactly this sort of thing. I have nightmares about being paralyzed with indecision and incomprehension in front of a ticket machine while a line of angry customers piles up behind me.


#12

Still super common; I just spent a year in Japan and my wife is still living there at the moment so I go back all the time.

If you haven’t seen how they’re made, the process is absolutely frickin’ amazing.


#13

If you’re using an automated kiosk, look for the little British or American flag button to switch the menu to English. Otherwise, you can stand there and look lost and undoubtedly a very kind businessman will offer to help (Don’t bother offering him any money - he won’t take it).

Japanese do not get angry in public…slightly annoyed maybe but never angry - especially to foreigners.


#14

I made the mistake of tying my shoelace by putting my foot on a public bench. This was at a little weekend english teaching gig with a school north of Tokyo. The fellow who worked in the park definitely let me have it in a stream of politely annoyed Japanese. The funny thing, it was not uncommon to have people hacking up and spitting on the sidewalk right beside you or urinating against the wall outside some drinking establishment and no one seemed bothered by it.

The line of customers behind me reminds me of the time I went on some bus tour outside of Tokyo and after several hours the trip was changed to a nearby park since the highway was pretty much a parking lot. We stopped for a long needed restroom break and the public washroom was a large hall with a wall of urinals for men on one side and closed toilets for women on the other.

Needless to say, when you have 50 people lining up behind you and you really need to go but somehow you get stage fright because you are in just one big open bathroom, it doesn’t make for a memorable trip.


#15

I wouldn’t have expected otherwise, they are awesome.


#16

Sushi boats for the win! They are cheap fast and easy.


#17

I will never forget in Japan at one point, I went into this cafe type place that had… like it was a wall with pictures of food, you pushed a button near a picture, put in $ and got a ticket. It was by the Akihabara train? Anyways, I put in a 10,000 yen note since thats all the atm gave me (~$100) and got no change

I panicked thinking it doesn’t give change and I would need to buy 100 bucks worth of soba.

This was my spending money for the whole weekend (grad student staying in a capsule hostel after a conference, extended layover, very tight budget)

This random guy turned around and saw my paniked look and comes over, hits the button, and pulls out the change and hands it to me, bows, and goes back to eating.

He actually seemed annoyed when I tried to thank him…


#18

One of my favorite hacks was the 7/11s all took American credit cards (even pre-chip and signature).

So I’d often grab breakfast at the 7/11.

The clerk near my capsule hostel thought I was weird for buying a bunch of onigiri each morning but hey, you don’t know me!


#19

I was so jetlagged in Okinawa I thought they were selling the plastic as souvenirs, and asked a clerk where the food court was. Luckily he’d spent some time in Hawaii and spoke English and explained they were models.

(Explains why they had plastic sushi models in a fridge LMFAO)


#21

My wife and I visited Japan in 1984. We were on a tour for 2 weeks, then on our own for 1 week. Our tour guide (Japanese) believed we should learn to do things for ourselves, so he offered minor suggestions on the first couple of days, and pretty much left us alone the rest of the time. We ate at a lot of I guess what you would call chain restaurants (although we didn’t know them, as such). Most had the plastic (fake) food samples or pictures out front. This was long before cell phones with cameras, or even digital cameras, so we would stand outside and figure out what we wanted, then go inside. When the waitress came to take our order, we politely asked her to accompany us back outside where we could point to what we wanted. We never had a problem using that method of ordering. (It helped that I am 6’7" tall. I was almost a celebrity wherever we went. And the waitresses really liked me.)

By the third week, when we were off tour, we had pretty much mastered how to order food. Went into a local noodle place on one of the small islands and apparently thrilled the owner (chef) and his wife with our ability to order. We had a great time in that shop, trying different types of noodle dishes that the chef seemed to be happy to share with us.

There were some items that I did not like. Fish cakes are usually ‘mushed up’ fish (I think; I was expecting something like a piece of fried cod). And if it looks like chocolate, it’s probably some kind of bean. Let the buyer beware.