All you need to know about Japanese cuisine and eating on a budget in Japan.

Japanese Cuisine

I. Japanese Cuisine: 3 New Perspectives

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Japanese cuisine” (Nihon-shoku, 日本食), Sushi (寿司), sashimi (刺身), tempura (天ぷら), or maybe udon (うどん)? Due to their increasing popularity around the world, many people are growing accustomed to these dishes, and they are known to be common dishes which can be savored even outside of Japan. I’m sure you’ll agree that these dishes best represent Japanese gastronomy, and I don’t think they need much of an explanation, so instead, I will introduce you to the wonders of Japanese culinary arts from three new and unique perspectives.

II. The Oh-So-Famous Japanese Cuisine

Recently, Japanese food has been receiving very high praise overseas. In December 2013, “Washoku (和食, traditional Japanese cuisine)” was registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO, which shows the importance of Japanese gastronomy not only as a type of ethnic food, but also as a part of the culture that helped develop society.

The Japanese government emphasized four main aspects for the additional registration as a Cultural Heritage.
1) Its diversity and the freshness of the ingredients
2) Its nutritious and well-balanced quality, which supports a healthy diet
3) Its way of expressing the beauty of nature the and changing of seasons
4) Its intimate relation with traditional annual events

Other culinary cultures have also been selected as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO: the Gastronomy Art of France, Mediterranean Cuisine, Traditional dishes of Mexico, and the Traditional kashkak of Turkey. This makes “Washoku” the fifth UNESCO-designated Intangible Cultural Heritage. The similarity among them is that each of these countries and regions have a rich cultural background intertwined with its food culture; all that is eaten is a reflection of their heritage and land.

Yet, in addition to its cultural value, the delicious taste of Japanese cuisine is another undeniable factor. According to the “Michelin Guide 2014” – a guide book published by the French company Michelin which ranks various world renowned restaurants – Tokyo boasts the most number of 3-star rated restaurants: currently on top of the culinary world, it even exceeds cities such gastronomic capitals as New York and Paris.

In April 2014, when USA President Barack Obama visited Japan, he had an informal and intimate dinner with Prime Minister Shinzō Abe at “Sukiyabashi-Jiro Ginza” (すきやばし次郎 銀座); one of the many 3-star rated restaurants in Tokyo.

According to press reports, Obama requested for this particular restaurant himself, which emphasizes the fact that people’s interests in Japanese food is soaring worldwide. As the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics 2020 approaches, it is predicted that its popularity will increase even further.

III. Eating on a Budget

However, Japan’s gastronomic culture goes beyond the restaurants and dishes introduced in the “Michelin Guides”. Recently, the concept of “B-class gourmet” (B級グルメ) is establishing a unique culture all over the country: As opposed to haute cuisine – or “A-class gourmet” – which is served in fancy restaurants located in central Japanese cities, B-class gourmet differ depending on the area and are known to be reasonably cheap.

“Curry rice” (カレー) and “ramen” (ラーメン) are the best examples of famous Japanese B-class gourmet cuisine. Both of these dishes are very popular, but were first introduced during the Meiji era (1868-1912). At the time, Japan had lifted the embargo after long years of autarky (鎖国, Sakoku) , thus allowing the introduction of new food and cultures from overseas. Curry and ramen were among them, with curry being introduced by England through their colonization of India, and the spread of ramen emerged from Chinatowns.

Both Curry rice and Ramen only have a 100 year old history in Japan. However, ramen already exists in a wide array of variations: shio (塩, salt), misō (味噌), shōyu (醤油, soy sauce), tonkotsu (豚骨, pork bone broth) are the four basic types of soups, and they branch out to a multitude of other sub-categories.

Depending on the person, some may prefer one type over another, and furthermore, there certain people only eat such type of ramen from their preferred restaurant. Therefore, searching for the perfect ramen or curry which best satisfies your tastes and your go-to restaurant is another exciting aspect of Japanese cuisine; and this doesn’t only to ramen and curry,; it is the same with any of the other styles of B-class gourmet.

IV. B-Class Gourmet at School Canteens

For students who are constantly on a budget, B-class gourmet can be a life-saver because they are an inexpensive and delicious dining option. B-class gourmet can be found in the gaku-shoku (学食).

Gaku-shoku is short for “gakusei-shokudō” (university cafeteria) and refers to school canteens, where lunch menus are more reasonable than in normal restaurant (or “shokudō”, casual dining halls that are independently owned and feature authentic Japanese style food) and set at a price below 500 yen.

Menus may differ among universities, but they generally include B-class gourmet dishes such as curry, ramen, gyū-don, buta-don, oyako-don, omu-rice, and Salisbury steaks are staple dishes, in addition to which there are “Today’s Specials”.

The school canteen is not only a place to dine. At a gaku-shoku, you can meet up with classmates and make new friends; and sometimes, it is also used as a meeting area for after school parties, clubs and extracurricular activities.

Furthermore, it is usually open to everyone! So, to make the most out of all these canteens, it may be exciting to visit those of several universities. Waseda University’s Canteen of Japanese Universities Research Club creates a list of the most delicious ones all over Japan, and students involved in the association will walk around several universities to discover the canteen which serves the best lunch. It may be fun to check out several of their recommends and taste them yourself.

Conclusion: Exploring Japanese Food as a Study Abroad Student

We have taken an in-depth look at Japanese cuisine from 3 new perspectives. What are your thoughts? Of course, there are many dishes left to cover, but as a study abroad student, we am sure you will be able to discover your own, ideal Japanese cuisine.

As mentioned earlier, school cafeterias are open to the public so if you have a chance, you might want to make a visit to your school of choice to eat the lunch there. If you apply in advance, you may be able to take a guided campus tour and eat at the gaku-shoku. It may even become a great opportunity to explore and discover your own favorite Japanese cuisine.

Glossary

Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH): “Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) is promoted by UNESCO as a counterpart to the World Heritage, focusing mainly on intangible aspects of culture including traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants.” (Reference: UNESCO)

Michelin Guide: Michelin Guide is a series of guide books published annually by the French company Michelin, which awards Michelin stars for excellence to a select few establishments.

カレー (Kare): Curry Rice (Japanese-style curry) is made by serving curry sauce on top of or next to cooked rice. The curry sauce is made by frying together curry powder, flour, and oil, along with other ingredients, to make roux (also written “rue”); the roux is then added to stewed meat and vegetables, and simmered until it reaches the desired thickness.

ラーメン (Ramen): Ramen is an inexpensive noodle soup dish which can be found almost anywhere in Japan. There are many variations of ramen, depending on the region and chef.

Meiji Era (1868-1912): This period represents the change of Japan’s social structure, internal politics, economy, military, and foreign relations. During this era, the Japanese society moved from being an isolated feudal one to its modern form.

鎖国 (Sakoku): National isolation was the foreign relations policy of Japan. No foreigners could enter the country, and it was forbidden to Japanese nationals to leave on penalty of death. This policy was enacted by the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1639 to 1854.

開国 (>i>Kaikoku): Open-door-policy

牛丼 (Gyū-don), 豚丼 (Buta-don), 親子丼 (Oyako-don), オムライス (Omu-rice), ハンバーグ (Hamburg, or Salisbury steak): Examples of inexpensive dining options popular among students, and ideally suited to travelers on a budget.

牛丼: “Gyū-don (beef bowl) is a popular dish consisting of beef and onion served over a bowl of rice. The meat and onion are cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin, sugar and sake giving the dish a sweet, salty flavor.” (Reference: Japan Guide)

豚丼: Buta-don (pork bowl) is a bowl of rice topped with pork simmered in a mildly sweet sauce.

親子丼: Oyako-don (chicken and egg bowl) is a bowl of rice topped with simmered chicken and egg.

オムライス: Omu-rice is an omelet made with fried rice and usually topped with ketchup or demi-glace sauce.

ハンバーグ: Salisbury steak, called “hamburg” in Japan, is a popular dish made from ground meat, chopped onion, egg and breadcrumbs.

学食ランキング (Gakushoku Ranking): Best Canteen Ranking, created by a group of students mainly from Waseda University.

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