Monday, July 20, 2009

Fun in Japan: set meals

This month I am spending time in Tokyo to speak at RubyKaigi. I also will be
visiting Fukuoka briefly for another conference. It is great being in Japan.
One great aspect of visiting Japan is trying the large variety of food here.
Besides really common (read that as US common) types like Soba, Ramen, Sushi,
Tempura, Shabu-Shabu or Yakitori you can also have other common foodstuffs
in Japan like Okinomiyaki, Chankonabe, and many others. In fact, each time
I visit I am introduced to new styles of food (Chankonabe and Oyakudon so far
this trip).

If you are adventurous you can try exotic dishes like Fugu (Pufferfish), to
somewhat stranger dishes like Horse Shashimi (bland). Or if you are very
strange you can have Gotemono (Japanese virility food!). But this entry is
about a meta-aspect of eating in Japan: set meals.

In the US, we have some restaurants that have multiple courses, but in Japan it
seems much more common. All restaurants here which specialize in a single
type of food seems to have a set meal. For example, ff you have had
Unagi/Anago at a US restaurant it is generally just an entree. If you have
an Unagi set meal you get something like the following:

1. Eel spines (salty and crunchy)

2. Eel fins and livers on a stick! (fins are decent -- livers not as decent)

3. Eel omelet

4. Eel fillet

5. Eel salad (with fresh water eel)

6. Eel rice bowl with miso soup

Cool huh?

The biggest problems with ordering set meals is understanding the menu.
Frequently these menus are written in Kanji and generally in an artistic form
of Kanji, which can render even easy to read Kanji unintelligible (well to me
anyways). If you are with a Japanese companion this obviously works best
because they can: read the menu, tell you how to eat each dish, also give
nice facts about the food (e.g. "Those are guts"), and just generally be fun
to hang out with.

If you cannot find someone to take you to a restaurant, then just try one and
be adventurous. Quite a large number of people can speak English in Japan.
They can be shy about using English, but odds are you can find a restaurant
where between a little common ground with English and a Japanese-English
dictionary you can probably get in on the set meal action.


  1. That looks wonderful! Do they have pictures on the menu or on the table? If I can't read the menu I can just point? :)

  2. There are quite a few restaurants with picture menus and also surreal plastic display versions of their food.

    At times when we arrive at a restaurant we automatically get the english menu. I think areas that are more heavily populated seem to be more gaijin friendly. Less populated areas are tougher to figure out the menu, but a little cooler I think.

    As we told another friend... It is worth trying to pick up katakana if you come to Japan. Katakana is frequently used to phonetically spell out foreign words. So in many cases you can decipher a katakana word and go: "Oh it is a danish"!

  3. Superdelicious...I wish I were having a couple of those set meals right now. Why don't any American Japanese places do this?