Food and family travel in Japan
When you start travelling as a family, food can quickly go from being one of the holiday’s biggest joys to one of its biggest stresses. Will eating out break the bank? Will fussy eaters go hungry? Will you even be able to make sense of the menu?
Let us assure you, eating in Japan is diverse and fun. Armed with the right information it's the highlight of any trip - especially a family one.
What are the options?
When planning a holiday we imagine those special meals that end a fantastic day out. But what about the emergency meltdown snacks? The "everywhere seems to be full" moments? The "which of these doors is even a restaurant" panics?
Fortunately, Japan always has something. And here's our lowdown to that mix 'n' match of food outlets that will likely make up your family trip.
One thing to be aware of - just like at home rural areas will have much ore limited options. We can help you plan around this if you have any qualms about food options.
7/11 has been elevated to a lofty high in Japan that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world. The Japanese convenience store, or konbini, has been many a parent’s saviour in their hour of need.
It's a freshly made meal, a microwave and seating areas for when you want to eat cheap/ fast but still exceptionally (and surprisingly) well.
Good for: saving money, emergency food intake, picnic stocks, train snacks, baffling array of sweet treats (and almost any emergency item you could need from sunscreen to safety pins)
One of the most family-friendly foods in Japan, ramen is delicious, ubiquitous, cheap, and familiar enough to be palatable even to fairly picky eaters. It’s said that there are more than 20,000 ramen bars in Tokyo alone, and you’ll also find them in pretty every town and village up and down the country. It’s a fantastic fall-back meal option for families. Don’t forget, slurping isn’t just OK — it’s good manners!
Good for: speed, the interest of open kitchens and an authentic experience.
What could be more Japan that sushi on a conveyor belt? You can spend a pretty penny on the very best, but if you don’t want to break the bank (and you want a cool, only-in-Japan experience to boot), a conveyor-belt sushi joint (kaitenzushi) is the way to go.
Some will automatically count your dishes and dispense a toy to your table when you reach a certain level; others feature toy trains driving the sushi around the track. Many offer plates for as little as 100 yen a pop. It’s super good fun, and it’s not all raw fish — but all the same, this is probably one for the more adventurous eaters.
Food is a national obsession in Japan and they love to eat out, especially as familaies. So, enter the "family restaurant", or famiresu, which is a whole category of dining experience in Japan.
Famiresu offer Japanese, Western and sometimes Chinese food options at outrageously low prices. Look for chains like Gusto, Saizeriya, Denny’s and Royal Host, usually found around train stations and shopping arcades in urban centres. The all-you-can-drink soda is always a hit, and many are even open 24 hours a day, which might come in handy if you’re suffering with jetlag. You never know.
Fast food chains
Japan has all the usual American fast food outlets, but it also has an excellent fast food industry of its own. Mos Burger is a great alternative to McDonalds, while chains like Sukiya, Hotto Motto and Yoshinoya all sell both Japanese and Western-style fast food at very reasonable prices.
The undisputed king of Japanese fast food is a little chain called Curry House Coco Ichibanya (Cocoichi for short). A beloved institution since 1978, Cocoichi boasts a kids’ menu, veggie options, adjustable portion sizes and different spice levels, making it one of our favourite places to eat — with children or without.
Japan is full of independent, family-run restaurants, which vary widely in size, price, style and family-friendliness. In more rural areas, most restaurants will be independent, while in cities you’ll find a good mix of independents and chains. Don’t be intimidated by them, as these can often be the most memorable dining experiences in Japan.
Most independent restaurants in Japan tend to focus on one particular type of food, usually Japanese-style. Sometimes this can be a challenge for kids, but there are actually quite a lot of traditional Japanese foods that are more accessible. Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) often go down well and are particularly fun, as you get to cook your own on a hotplate in the middle of your table.
Everywhere we’ve mentioned so far has been pretty cheap and cheerful, but if your children are mature and you have money to spend, Japan has you covered.
At the classier end of the spectrum you’ll find everything from sushi restaurants to steakhouses, traditional kaiseki cuisine and tapas. Hotels often contain swanky bars and contemporary grills (often with fabulous views), while in the city you’re never far from a top-quality meal (did you know that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than anywhere else in the world?)
Keep in mind that some restaurants have waiting lists weeks or even months long, so it’s a good idea to make reservations in advance. If you're travelling independently, you can try emailing or messaging restaurants on social media, or get help from your hotel reception or concierge desk. If you travel with us, we can do it for you – just be sure to turn up, as breaking a booking is a big no-no in Japan!
Often described as a mix between a pub and a tapas bar, for many people an izakaya visit is an unmissable Japan experience.
Izakaya run the gamut from super-cheap to fairly high-end (though always casual), and serve a range of Japanese and Western-style dishes designed for sharing. They can be a great family option, as it’s customary to keep ordering dishes throughout the meal – meaning you can try things and see what goes down well. Many izakaya also offer all-you-can-eat (tabehodai) and all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) packages which will allow you to order as much as you like within a set time, for a set price.
Much like pubs, not all izakaya are family-friendly (some allow smoking inside, for instance), so it’s a good idea to do your research if this is an experience you’d like to have. If you travel with us, we’ll be happy to recommend somewhere appropriate.
Japan isn’t as big on street food as many other Asian countries, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Most shopping arcades will have a few hole-in-the wall joints selling things like skewered meats and taiyaki (sweet, fish-shaped cakes). If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan during a festival, meanwhile, the streets will be filled with yatai (makeshift food stalls) selling seasonal treats.
Some places are famous for street food all year round – such as Fukuoka with its outdoor market stalls on the riverfront, or Osaka with its takoyaki octopus balls and kushikatsu skewers. Wherever you are, keep an eye out for a kiosk, yatai or hole-in-the-wall and you’re never far from a snacking adventure.
Let’s not forget one of Japan’s specialities: vending machines. Ubiquitous and much more exciting than their lacklustre Western counterparts, they sell all sorts of unexpected snacks and drinks. Once, we even found one selling Champagne.
Is eating out expensive?
Not as much as you might think. While you can spend a lot on food in Japan if you want to, there’s also an amazing variety of cheap and delicious food on offer. The Japanese don’t put up with poor quality food as a rule, so you can expect even the cheapest convenience stores, ramen bars and family restaurants to be tip-top.
Will there be anything my kids can eat?
Everyone’s kids are different (we know we don’t need to tell you that). But the chances are, whether they’re adventurous or uber-picky, your children will find something they love to eat in Japan.
Western food is widely available in cities, particularly Italian, French and American. Even when it isn’t, there are lots of Japanese-style foods that appeal to Western kids. Ramen noodles, okonomiyaki pancakes, yakitori grilled skewers, donburi rice bowls and Japanese-style curries are some that have been a hit with our kids.
If you’re really stuck, no matter where you are, you’ll always be able to cobble together a picnic from a konbini (convenience store).
We have a vegan / coeliac / allergy sufferer in the family. Will they be OK?
Yes! (With a little forward planning). Japan is fairly new to dietary requirements, but it’s getting better all the time. Vegan, coeliac or allergy sufferer: food can still absolutely be a highlight of your holiday.
One big thing to note is that, because dietary requirements are rare in Japan, it’s not enough just to say that you’re vegan or gluten-free. You need to be specific about what you can and can’t eat, and if you have an allergy you’ll need to explain what precautions the chef needs to take. Even foods advertised as vegetarian can contain fish stock (dashi), so it’s a good idea to double-check before you order.
When we have clients with dietary requirements, there are several things we always do to take the stress out of eating in Japan. First, we explain their needs in advance to any Japanese-style inns or experiences where meals are included. Booking it yourself, turning up on the day and then telling them you can’t eat this or that will put them in a pickle. Of course, you can book somewhere yourself and email ahead – but trust us, it’s not a smooth process! We also know which inns and experiences are able to modify their meals to suit various requirements, so we can hand-pick the right accommodation and activities for each family.
For families who want to dine out independently, we can make reservations in advance for high-end restaurants. For everything else, we provide destination guides packed with recommendations. We also arm all our clients with a Japanese-English cheat sheet outlining their dietary requirements so restaurant staff can understand their needs at a glance.
If you’re still concerned, travelling on a Small Group Tour is a great way to ensure that you always have someone to help with dietary requirements, read menus, book restaurants and make recommendations. We often have families join our tours, and they always have a wonderful time.
How will we find good restaurants?
If you travel with us, we’ll provide you with destination guides packed full of first-hand recommendations from our staff. They’re an invaluable source of information on what’s good to eat in every corner of the country.
That said, don’t be afraid just to walk into somewhere that looks popular and smells delicious. It’s very rare to come across a restaurant in Japan where the food isn’t excellent. In well-trodden destinations, even the smallest restaurants are likely to have some form of English menu, and will often display a sign outside to that effect.
If you’re staying at a hotel with a concierge desk, they can make reservations and recommendations for you – and can sometimes even snag a table at a famous restaurant even when it’s “full”!
How do we order if we can't read the menu?
Thanks to the prevalence of picture menus and plastic food displays, you’ll rarely be at a loss, even if you can’t read the menu. (Incidentally, don’t be put off by places with plastic food – this were a well-established custom well before the tourist boom, and it doesn't mean you’re at a “tourist” restaurant).
Occasionally, you might find yourself in a restaurant where you really have no idea what’s going on. In that case, you can always fall back on “omakase” (chef’s special) or “osusume” (what do you recommend) – using the cheat sheet we’ve provided to ensure what you’ve ordered doesn’t contain anything you can’t eat.
Independent travellers have no need to worry about getting by in Japan – but if you’d rather leave the ordering to someone else, joining one of our group tours is a great way to have your own personal concierge (your tour leader) for every day of your trip. Even our self-guided adventures have the benefit of our customer experience team at the end of the phone every step of the way. Want a reservation for grilled eel in Kyoto? Done. Want to try Kobe beef? You only need to ask.
Are you ready to start planning your family adventure? Get in touch with one of our expert travel consultants and get started today.