I lived in Japan for 3 months, and although I did some research about Japanese food before I arrived, I was still quite surprised about some of the different foods and food trends that I encountered. This list describes the most surprising foods finds I came across during my trip.
1. Spam is Popular
I always associated Spam with wartime Britain, so I was very surprised to learn that it is quite popular in Japan. I was very surprised to learn that Spam sushi is a thing! This is especially popular in Okinawa, which is an island south of Japan which became the main US military base in Japan after world war two. It is reported that US soldiers used to give Spam to locals when they were first posted there after the war, and this still seems popular in Japan today. I wrote a full blog post about the Okinawan diet if you would like to read more about this.
2. KitKats Come in a Hundreds of Flavours
KitKats are said to be one of the most popular types of chocolate in Japan. This may be related to good marketing, as the hundreds of different regional and seasonal flavours work well with the Japanese tradition of ‘omiyage’ which involves buying regional souvenirs from trips for family and colleagues, and also the culture of collectibles. Some of the more unusual KitKat flavours include: baked potato, cough drop, miso, soy sauce, sake, wasabi, vegetable juice, pumpkin, purple sweet potato and green bean.
3. Animal Themed Food
Cute animal themed food is very popular, these can be found in many different shops, cafes and restaurants. The picture above shows: a polar bear themed chicken curry with rice (which I saw at a zoo restaurant), an Easter themed chick pastry, a Hello Kitty themed matcha ice cream, a bear themed cup cake and cat themed donuts!
4. Sushi is Not an Everyday Food
I assumed that sushi was really commonly eaten by people on a daily basis in Japan, but it is ususally seen as a food to eat on special occasions. You can buy ready made sushi in convenience shops (similar to the UK & Ireland) and there are conveyor-belt sushi restaurants, but it seems that most people go to specialist sushi restaurants or market stalls to get sushi. Rice balls (called onigiri) are more commonly eaten as a quick snack than sushi – these are usually a ball or triangle of rice covered in seaweed with something in the middle (grilled salmon and tuna mayo are my favourites, you can also get cod roe, kelp, fermented fish etc).
5. So Much Meat!
As a vegetarian living in Japan, this was the surprising food find which effected me the most. I did know before visiting Japan that it can be difficult to find vegetarian food, but this turned out to be far more difficult that I had anticipated. Meat is really celebrated, especially pork and beef. It was also interesting to see that meat was treated like a condiment, added for extra flavour and presentation even if it wasn’t mentioned on the menu. Vegetarian food like tofu was popular, but this was still usually mixed in with meat. I’ve written a survival guide for vegetarians and vegans in Japan here.
6. Strange Seafood
I was expecting to come across seafood which would seem strange to a Western palette. But I still felt surprised when I saw things like: baby octopus on a stick, sea urchins, dried squid and puffer fish.
7. Dairy is Popular
I didn’t previously associate dairy with Japan, but I found that it was commonly included in both traditional and modern Japanese meals. Especially yoghurt, but also cheese and ice cream.
8. Kombucha Confusion
In the West, kombucha is fermented tea drink. But in Japan this is a drink made from a type of seaweed called kombu kelp. The fermented type of kombucha is called ‘fungus tea’ or ‘mushroom tea’ in Japan (kōcha kinoko). It is thought that the reason for this name confusion is that the thick gelatin layer in the fermented version looked like seaweed so incorrectly became known as ‘kombucha’.
9. Popularity of European Food
European culture in general seems to be celebrated in Japan. In terms of food, French and Italian food seem to be the most popular European options which are sold in shops, cafes and restaurants.
10. Different Portion Sizes Often Cost the Same
It was a bit of a culture shock to realise that in Japan it often costs no extra to get a bigger portion compared to a smaller one. A local explained to me that this is most likely down to the tradition of hospitality, especially when it comes to a staple food like rice, so if you are very hungry you can get a bigger portion for no extra cost. Coming from an Irish culture I feel that few people would opt for a smaller portion if it costs the same as a larger one, especially as I’ve seen this type of pricing for beer as well, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in Japan.
11. Sweets and Desserts are Really Popular
Before coming to Japan, I didn’t associated sweets with Japanese cuisine. But both traditional and modern sweets and desserts are very popular, and like other types of food in Japan there are lots of sweets that are specific to certain seasons and regions. I have a separate post and video which is all about Japanese sweets and desserts if you are interested in this.
12. Sugary drinks are common
Because Japan has a reputation for being very healthy, I was surprised to see how common sugary drinks were consumed. This included: fizzy drinks, sugary coffee drinks and milkshakes. These drinks were often sold in vending machines, which were everywhere even in remote places.
13. We Struggled to Find Fruit and Vegetables
Again because Japanese food is thought of as being really healthy, I wasn’t expecting it to be as difficult as it was to find a good variety of fruit and vegetables. Traditional Japanese meals often included some pickled vegetables, and dishes like ramen often contained some vegetables, but in very small amounts. When eating out we usually had to hunt down a vegetarian restaurant if we wanted to have a decent amount of vegetables. We found one good fruit and vegetable shop during our trip, and some of the bigger supermarkets had a better selection, but in general this was quite limited compared to the availability in the UK and Ireland. However, this might have been related to the locations we were staying in, or perhaps we weren’t aware of a local trick for finding fruit and vegetables!
14. Food is Often Very Salty
Many common Japanese food are very salty, such as: soy sauce, miso, pickled food and meat such as pork.
15. Convenience Food and Eating Out is Common
From my experience, it seemed common to eat out and even more common to rely on convenience shops, which added to the saltiness of food. This may be related to time constraints as a result of the intense Japanese work culture, or the lack of space and cooking facilities in many urban homes. I know I was grateful for the affordable convenience food that was available, especially when we lived in a shoebox in Tokyo which only had one hob! However, a downside of this was the huge amount of plastic which is used, which might be related to the culture of presentation and ceremony in Japan. For example, I once bought a packet of two biscuits and it turned out that each biscuit was individually wrapped and also had outer packaging, luckily I declined the plastic bag which was also offered! Individual bananas are also wrapped in plastic which was really pointless.
Although there are a lot of healthy foods associated with the traditional Japanese diet, a lot of the things that surprised me about the food in Japan was how difficult I found it to eat a balanced and varied diet. For example, I definitely ended up eating less fruit, vegetables and wholegrains; and more salt and sugar compared to when I was living in the UK and Ireland. Of course this is just my impression from living in mainly urban areas in Japan for 3 months, so this could well be different for locals and those living in different parts of Japan.
If you are interesting in finding out more about food in Japan then check out: