Types of Restaurants
Find out more about the many types of restaurants you will find in Japan. From luxury to budget we run you through the various places you can eat in Japan.
Ryotei are high-class, traditional restaurants that often serve Japanese haute cuisine such as kaiseki ryori (traditional multi-course Japanese cuisine), and feature entertainment by geisha.
Traditionally, they only accepted new customers by referral from an existing customer, but increasingly that is no longer the case. Expect an ultra refined, traditional ambience and stellar “omotenashi” (Japanese hospitality) and customer service in addition to faultlessly executed Japanese cuisine.
Dinner cruises are a wonderful way to enjoy beautiful Japanese scenery at the same time as traditional Japanese cuisine and dinner entertainment. Cruise options range from dinner cruises on traditional Japanese houseboats known as “yakatabune” to thoroughly up-to-date and elegant modern cruise liners.
Yakatabune cruises offer the intimate and authentic dining experience of a traditional Japanese meal of sashimi and tempura eaten at tatami mat seating on a small Edo period-style boat. Harumiya accept reservations in English, with guiding and MC once onboard also in English.
Symphony Cruises and Vingt et Un offer French cuisine and cocktails on graceful and modern luxury liners in Tokyo Bay while Concerto offers a similar setup in Kobe but with Cantonese food and classical and jazz music.
Many restaurants in Japan specialize in just one type of Japanese food. In Japanese, the suffix *-ya* means “shop” or “store”, and can be appended to different food names to create the word for a restaurant specializing in that type of food. So for example, “sushi-ya” is a restaurant specializing in sushi.
Other commonly encountered specialty restaurants include tempura-ya, tonkatsu-ya (breaded pork cutlets, yakitori-ya (charcoal-grilled chicken skewers), gyudon-ya (ricebowls topped with beef), and ramen-ya, soba-ya, and udon-ya (specializing in those types of noodles, respectively).
These specialty restaurants are worth seeking out if you specifically want to try a particular dish or type of food. If you go to a specialty restaurant in Japan, you can be sure of one thing - that they’ll undoubtedly do at least their signature dish very well.
Izakaya (Japanese Pubs)
Izakaya are Japan’s answer to the British gastro pub - and what an answer it is. Izakaya are casual drinking and dining establishments that pride themselves on offering a broad range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages as well as a wide variety of appetizers to perfectly complement the drinks.
The biggest difference between British and Japanese pub dining is that groups of diners tend to share all the dishes rather than order one dish all to themselves. Izakaya food is typically finger food and appetizers, small dishes for sharing such as yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), salads, kara-age (fried chicken), gyoza (dumplings), and pizza.
Some well-known izakaya chains with English signs include Nijyumaru, Doma-doma, Torikizoku, Hanbey, Tsubohachi, and Shirokiya, so if you find yourself in one of these you’ll know you’re onto a winner. However, undoubtedly the most familiar izakaya for many non-Japanese people will be Gonpachi, whose dark wood interior keen movie buffs will recognise as the setting for the Crazy 88s’ scene in Quentin Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill.
A word of warning: since izakaya are drinking establishments, they can often be both quite noisy and smoky. If you are sensitive to either of these, it is a good idea to check at the door regarding smoking arrangements, or choose a more upmarket establishment for a quieter, more genteel dining experience.
Depa-chika (Department Store Basement)
Japanese department stores hold a secret treasure in their basements: foodie paradise in the form of “depa-chika”, a subterranean food floor dedicated to the sale of pre-made foods and drinks (“depa” is short for “department”, while “chika” means basement).
“Depa-chika” are great places to try many kinds of food for free, since the delicatessen-style counters often provide free samples. They are also great places to pick up something for lunch or dinner, as they are full of row upon row of appetizing goodies, including sozai (side dishes) and salads sold by weight, boxed lunches, sweets, desserts, and yes, those luxury melons that everybody is talking about.
Some top picks for places to experience “depa-chika” for yourself include Mitsukoshi Ginza, Daimaru Tokyo, Isetan Shinjuku, and Tobu and Seibu Ikebukuro department stores.
Family restaurants, often catchily abbreviated to “fami-resu” in Japanese, are casual dining restaurants that offer a wide range of “western” and Japanese dishes at very reasonable prices. They are often an attractive option for foreign tourists as the menus are often bilingual and illustrated with large colour photographs of each dish.
Despite the name, family restaurants actually cater to people of all ages, but families with children in particular. In this respect, they are quite similar to chains in the UK such as Harvester, Beefeater, Little Chef, and Pizza Hut.
The menu at most family restaurants is a mixture of “western” dishes such as pasta, pizza, and hamburgers and Japanese dishes such as noodles, teishoku (set meals) and donburi (ricebowls). Some family restaurants also specialize in a particular type of food, whether Italian, Chinese or steak. Many family restaurants offer “drink bar” - self-service, all-you-can-drink beverages (usually only non-alcoholic).
Many, if not most, family restaurants belong to a handful of well-known nationwide chains such as Gusto, Saizeria (Italian), Denny’s, Royal Host, Bamiyan (Chinese), Big Boy, and Bikkuri Donkey.
Kaiten-zushi (Conveyor Belt Sushi)
Trying a conveyor belt sushi restaurant is probably high up on the list of many travellers to Japan, due to their near-mythical status as a uniquely Japanese culinary experience. The good news is that in Japan, a trip to a kaiten-zushi-ya does not have to break the bank, as they are usually considerably less pricey than traditional specialist sushi restaurants.
Once shown to your seat, you are free to pick as many or as few dishes from the central conveyor belt as your appetite dictates - just remember the cardinal rule of kaiten-zushi: once you’ve taken it you shouldn’t put it back, so if you’re not entirely sure then let it pass, and don’t worry - it’s bound to come around again in a few minutes.
The sushi is priced per plate, with different coloured plates corresponding to different price tiers (usually 100-500 Yen; more for seasonal or luxury items). At the end of the meal, the waiting staff count the plates to determine the bill amount owed.
If you can’t see an item on the menu that you want to try circulating in front of you on the conveyor belt, or you prefer your sushi without wasabi in, then you can usually also order it freshly made from the chef (hint: this is how the pros guarantee that all their dishes are fresh).
Jihanki Shokudo (Vending Machine Restaurants)
Less well-known, but a similarly unique and authentic experience to eating at a kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt) sushi restaurant, is having a meal at a vending machine restaurant. These fast-food canteens typically specialize in cheap, filling dishes including noodles and donburi (rice bowls) such as gyudon (rice bowl topped with beef) and tendon (rice bowl topped with tempura).
The name comes from the way that the food is ordered. At the entrance, diners purchase a meal ticket from a vending machine and hand it to the waiting staff, or sometimes directly to the cook to place their order (in Japanese, “jihanki” is an abbreviated word for “vending machine” and “shokudo” means “canteen”).
Since the business model relies on a quick turnaround of customers to maximize profits, canteens may not be the ideal place for a leisurely sit-down meal, but they do provide a great option for busy tourists who want to refuel and get back to the main agenda of sightseeing.
Kissaten (Coffee Shops)
Cafes and coffee shops are a great place to grab a coffee, a cold drink, or a bite to eat while giving your weary feet a well-deserved respite from all the walking and tourist activities you’re bound to do while on holiday.
While Japan has more than its fair share of outlets of a certain American coffee company with an instantly recognisable green mermaid logo, there are also plenty of local one-off coffee shops and nationwide domestic chains for those who want to try their morning coffee the way the locals do.
The following Japanese coffee shops all have shop names written in English letters so are relatively easy to spot: Doutor, Tully’s Coffee, Excelsior Cafe, Pronto, Cafe de Crie, Beck’s Coffee Shop, Kohikan, Cafe Veloce, and Moriva Coffee.
Yatai (Outdoor Food Stalls)
If you’re really into your hipster food trucks, then you’ll surely want to try a nibble at the Japanese equivalent: “yatai” are mobile, open-air food stalls which are often erected temporarily for festivals, but sometimes operate all year round, particularly in locales such as station environs that are known for their night-life.
Given the obvious restrictions that cooking outside in a very basic kitchen entails, yatai food tends to be simple, hearty and to the point - good honest grub (or junkfood, depending on your point of view!). Common menu items include ramen, yakitori (chargrilled chicken skewers), kara-age (fried chicken), yakisoba (fried noodles), and takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls), while for those with a sweet tooth, there are candy floss and taiyaki (grilled fish-shaped cakes similar to waffles).
While most yatai are temporary or seasonal, the stalls in Fukuoka city in Kyushu are open all year round, and provide an atmospheric outdoor dining experience, especially in balmier months. Fukuoka’s permanent population of 150 stalls is scattered throughout the city, but especially concentrated on the southern end of Nakasu Island.
Yatai usually do not have seating; customers purchase what they want to eat and find somewhere nearby to perch and eat it, or eat while walking - a habit that is not usually encouraged in Japan, but yatai are an exception. Fukuoka’s yatai are distinctive in that they have simple roofs and walls made of plastic sheeting, and space for a handful of customers to sit down inside.