If you ask a visitor or indeed a foreign resident who has settled in Japan to rhyme off their top 5 or top 10 things they love about Japan then, almost certainly, food will factor into the equation at some point.
Japanese food is as delicious as it is diverse. Whether it’s freshly sliced sashimi, some flame-grilled “yakiniku” or even some delicious, matcha-infused dessert, there really is something for everyone here, whatever your tastes and however delicate your palette may be.
But, then again, sometimes we just want a taste of home. Sometimes we miss the simplicity and quick and easy solutions to our hunger that restaurants back in our countries of origin could provide for us.
Thankfully, it seems that with each passing year, more and more of the restaurants familiar to us back in the UK and the US are opening up shops in Japan: boldly going into food’s final frontier, as it were.
However, if you ever tried Japanese food in the UK or US, and then again here in Japan, you would of course notice a number of significant differences. The taste, the smell, the texture, even the aesthetic appearance of the food can be radically different.
In the same way that “Japanese” restaurants in the UK and US have to “westernize” their food to suit the local palette, the same applies to American and European restaurant chains in Japan too.
Let’s look at a few of the more popular examples:
1) Pizza Hut
One of the most immediately apparent differences with Pizza Hut in Japan compared to elsewhere is the price!
Even before Britain's 'Brexit' from the European Union, the prices for pizza in Japan compared to my native Scotland were absolutely ridiculous by comparison.
For example, a simple margherita (cheese and tomato) pizza in Scotland would typically cost about 8 or 9 pounds for a medium and probably about 12 pounds for a large.
12 British pounds is, roughly speaking, around 1800 yen. And yet a large margherita in a Japanese Pizza Hut retails for around 2,700 yen. This is about 60% more.
The pizzas themselves are quite different too. Toppings such as seaweed, octopus and squid, almost unheard of in the UK are commonplace on Pizza Hut pizzas here in Japan, and frankly the pizzas are better for it!
Mayonnaise seems to be very popular on Japanese pizzas too. They seem to find ways to work mayonnaise in to just about every kind of pizza they have. Again, this personally is something I quite like but it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste.
2) Outback Steakhouse
Now, this is a really good one for the homesick foreigner in Japan, or indeed for anyone who just appreciates a good steak. I’ve had steaks from Outback in a number of different countries down the years and there has always been a consistency in quality, variety and preparation. The steak I enjoyed in the west is almost indistinguishable for that I can enjoy here, with the notable exception that, if anything, the steaks here in Japan are even more succulent, even more nourishing and even more filling than their European and American counterparts.
Still, I guess the same could be said of the “Wagyu Beef” I used to buy in Hong Kong, which had “product of New Zealand”, printed in very small, almost unnoticeable, text at the bottom of the packaging.
Nevertheless, Outback gets the thumbs up from this foreigner in Japan, that’s for sure!
3) T.G.I. Fridays
I have to admit, of all the western restaurant chains in Japan, Fridays is my personal favourite. Being the globally recognized brand that it is, Fridays has a presence at a number of the world’s top airports and hotel resorts.
There are also two of them right here in Osaka.
Over the years I have eaten in TGI Fridays in London, Dubai, Hong Kong, Glasgow, Tokyo and Osaka. In each restaurant, I have ordered my two favourite dishes, the mixed starters platter and the “Jack Daniels” flavoured ribs. No matter where I go, I am delighted to say that the food at TGI Fridays always tastes exactly the same!
This may sound narrow-minded, some “foodies” may even consider it a form of heresy, but I love the fact that, wherever I go in the world, TGI Fridays has a reassuring familiarity to it. Yes I know it’s all processed food. Yes, I know most of the dishes are bought in frozen and prepared off-site. And yes, I can almost hear my ventricles slamming shut as I chow down on the calorific combo and follow it up with the honey soaked rack of ribs. But I don’t care, this is what American food is all about and I love it!
Ok, first off, a disclaimer: I hardly ever eat at McDonalds! That being said, the chain has a lot of fans in Japan, but the menu is radically different.
Now, I haven’t eaten in a McDonalds for almost 20 years, so any information I give here is second hand and given to me through friends.
McDonalds in Japan runs counter to the approach of the likes of Pizza Hut. McDs here is cheaper, generally speaking than in other countries. Their 100 yen menu has all the old favourites such as hamburgers, fries and so on.
However, McDs in Japan doesn’t offer as extensive a salad selection as one may be used to in the UK or the US. To compensate though, they offer some truly unique burger sets.
How about a Teriyaki Mac?
The Teriyaki Mac is a Japanese take on the classic “Big Mac” with a chicken burger coated in a sweet, teriyaki sauce.
Alternatively, why not try the “Ebi Fillet” Burger?
This is a burger patty made of mashed prawns, coated in breadcrumbs and has a texture somewhat similar to the more familiar “Fillet o’Fish” but with its own distinct taste.
As I said, it’s really not my thing at all, but if you’re a burger fan, and you’re in Japan, it may well be worth checking out, for curiosity’s sake if nothing else.
Of course, on your visit to Japan you will probably want to immerse yourself in the local food culture first and foremost. But should you ever reach the point where all the fancy flavours get a bit too much for you and you long for a taste of home, even in Japan, it’s never too far away.