Conveyer Belt Sushi (回転寿司 Kaiten Zushi)
Sushi travels around the restaurant on a conveyer belt. This is a great way to eat sushi because you know what you’re getting. There will usually be color-coded plates, each color representing a different price of sushi. Average prices range from ¥100 to ¥600 per plate. Expect to pay ¥1,000-2,500 per person.
Sushi Bars (寿司屋)
Somewhat more pricey than Kaiten Zushi, but the sushi is usually higher quality. You can order sushi by the plate (usually two pieces per order) or buy a sampler set (盛り合わせ Mori-awase). Average prices range from ¥300 to ¥800 per plate. Expect to pay ¥2,000 + per person.
Yakiniku literally means “grilled meat.” which you almost always cook yourself on a grill in the middle of your table. In addition to various cuts of beef, they usually have chicken, fish, vegetables available as well. And no night at yakiniku is complete without a nice cold 生ビール (draft beer). It can be a bit pricey. Expect to pay between ¥2,000 and ¥4,000 per person. Most places have all you can eat/drink options available though, which can make it cheap to fill up on a lot of meat.
Okonomiyaki is often described as a Japanese pancake, but don’t be fooled, it is nothing of the sort. What it is, in reality, is a surprisingly delicious patty made of cabbage, batter, and either seafood or pork, covered with sweet brown sauce (somewhat similar to K1 steak sauce), mayonnaise, fish flakes and ground up sea-weed. Trust me, it’s good. Okonomiyaki is often cooked at your table on a small skillet inset into the table top. They also cook yakisoba, teppanyaki and takoyaki in this way and you can usually order these other choices anywhere they serve okonomiyaki. You can find okonomiyaki shops all over the place in Kansai.
Teppanyaki literally means “iron skillet grill”, and as you can guess, involves grilling various meats on an iron skillet. Like okonomiyaki, teppanyaki joints are quite prevalent in Kansai.
Takoyaki literally means “octopus grill.” They are little round balls of dough filled with octopus, and are considered one of Osaka/Kansai’s representative foods. In addition to takoyaki restaurants, you can usually find takoyaki stands all over the place in the summer months, especially at festivals.
Family Restaurants (ファミリーレストラン)
Say ‘Dennys’ and for some there will be no need to explain. Large, sometimes giant restaurants with padded seats featuring predominantly steak and burger based menus. These restaurants are often open 24-hours.
- Gusto: Affordable, tasty food and an all you can drink soft drink & coffee bar. Also do deliveries.
- Royal Host: A bit pricey but they have a good drink bar with soft drinks, coffee, espresso, etc. Try their delicious Italian course meal (イタリア定食 Itaria tei-shoku)
- Saizeriya: Mediocre, watered-down Italian food, but very cheap. Expect it to be filled with Junior High and High school girls on weekends (ie. noisy). Everyone orders the doria.
- Volks: Despite specializing in steaks, good for vegetarians due to its all-you-can-eat salad bar
- Bikkuri Donkey: Giant menu (size rather than selection) and interesting decor. Specialises in “Hamburg Steak”. Actually pretty delicious.
- Tomato & Onion: Common chain in Tajiima and Northern Hyogo.
- Sizzler: In Kobe’s Harbourland and elsewhere. Good for those who are hungry for Western style food and the salad bar will please vegetarians.
- Also watch out for Joyful, Big Boy and many others!
Izakaya are Japanese-style pubs good for group outings. They offer drinks and a wide variety of Japanese and global dishes. There are traditional types (occasionally a little challenging in the menu-reading department) and several chains, all of which have pictorial menus; these include:
- Shirokiya (白木屋)：To spot this one, look for a little fat Italian looking guy standing next to a (Japanese) sign ? normally red and white. Drinks are (quite) cheap, as is food; also it stays open long into the night (5 am a lot of the time). A Shirokiya is a happy addition to any town.
- Watami: Lots of meat, fish, and vegetable dishes and a wide selection of girly cocktails
- Murasaki (村さ来)：A little more up-market than Shirokiya but basically the same thing (opening times a little more conservative however). Highball is dangerous.
- Robinson-Crusoe: Two of these in Sannomiya. Food can be less than filling, but it is a good place for drinking. Order one bottle (gin, vodka etc) and all you can drink mixers for ¥800/person.
Gyudon Shops (牛丼)
A knowledge of eating chains means that you can find a basic place to eat almost anywhere you go. Dining on your own isn’t against etiquette in Japan – provided that you do it in the right place. One of the best places for this is what you might call gyudon (meat over rice) shops. The cheap and filling beef bowl is the basic dish on their menu, however there are reasonably priced and delicious alternatives. There are three main chains:
- Yoshinoya (吉野家): Most famous of the genre; considered by Japanese to be the superior choice. However, it’s marginally more expensive, and has a limited menu. Look for black writing on an orange sign (the name is usually in Japanese and English).
- Matsu-ya (松屋): Good for the beginner, as it uses a ticket machine rather than direct ordering (hint: first button is about eat-in or take-out). The menu is broader than Yoshinoya’s, with bowls of salad for 100 yen. No English sign – look for blue writing on a yellow sign.
- Suki-ya (すき屋): Basic gyudon restaurant, very cheap. Pictorial menu ordering system makes it easy. Better quality than Matsuya and a larger selection. Look for yellow writing on a red sign.
Dining options abound in Japan, and the efficiency of fast food shops holds particular appeal for on-the-go salarymen and the domestically un-inclined. McDonald’s and KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) are the favored Western imports, and Subway has begun making appearances in major cities (there is one in Kobe in the “Umie” shopping center). In addition to Western fast food chains, there are 3 Asian fast food joints you may want to check out:
- Mos Burger: Apparently it means Mountain Ocean Sky burger, and as such it’s a little pricier than elsewhere and has smaller portions. However, the quality is good, and everything is served in cute little baskets, suggesting pretensions beyond a burger-chain. Vegetarians can order surprisingly tasty rice-burgers.
- Lotteria: A Korean food chain. Prices are inexpensive and there are some vegetarian meal choices.
- First-Kitchen: Highly-spoken of chain, with decor similar to Lotteria’s. Shortened name fa-kin sometimes raises a smile.
- Mr. Donut: Popular chain found all over the place selling what you’d expect along with Chinese noodles and dumplings. The best part is that you get unlimited coffee refills (￥250 for American coffee). To get your refill, say O-kawari Onegaishimasu or if all else fails just gesture at your cup.
- Doutor: A more up-market type of chain. The walls are beige and background music in understated and classical. Good sandwiches and reasonably priced coffee. Branches are dotted around Sannomiya and elsewhere.
- Starbucks: A haven in Japan for the dedicated consumer of caffeinated liquids, poppyseed cake, and anybody that appreciates a real non-smoking section. There are several branches in Kobe: (1) across from Tokyu Hands, (2) just south of Motomachi Station, (3) in the basement of the Kokusai Kaikan, and (4) in the Kitano Foreigner Residence area.
You’ll find a Starbucks in the Forus Department Store in Himeji and there’s one at JR Akashi Station and Hanshin Nishonimya Station.
The Japanese Vegetarian Society (JPVS) provides information on vegetarians in Japan and JPVS events, such as lectures and cooking classes. This site is a great resource for information links, recipes, and restaurants. It is in English and Japanese.