The cuisine of Japan is based on white rice, seafood, and seasonal vegetables. The country's history, with cultural isolation until the 19th century (see pre-modern Japan), and rapid modernization and globalization, is visible in the cuisine, which has a sharp divide between traditional and modern dishes.
- Seafood contains more or less exotic species, such as fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.
- Rice is ubiquitous, usually cooked, served and eaten plain, at the side of the meal.
- Bread and baked treats were largely absent before modern times, though Western-style pastries are now ubiquitous.
- Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with many meals, but also tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu).
Cooking and serving
In contrast to many Western and Asian cuisines, boiling is not a dominant cooking method, except for rice and noodles. Many foodstuffs, including vegetables and seafood, are usually pickled.
Food is usually cut in the kitchen, and served in small pieces, suitable for chopsticks.
Of all Japanese dishes, sushi might be most successful overseas. In contrast to common belief, the word sushi does not describe fish, but the rice, which is the only mandatory ingredient.
- Green and black tea is the traditional non-alcoholic drink.
- Coffee, usually black and sweet, has been popularized in modern times. Vending machines for hot coffee, served in aluminum cans, are a Japanese specialty.
- Sake is a fermented rice beverage, with a status comparable to that of wine elsewhere.
- Shōchū (焼酎) is a distilled beverage, originated in Kyūshū.
- Though Japanese production of beer, wine and whiskey has a short history, their quality rivals Western competitors.
Candy sells well in Japan, because it is a convenient hostess gift in the omiyage tradition. You can buy presentation-style boxes of candy in many stores, train stations, and even from street vendors. Familiar brands of candy in flavors sold only in Asia, such as green tea KitKat candy bars, may be popular gifts upon your return. Konpeito are knobby hard sugar candies with cultural importance that travel well and traditionally are unflavored – a perfect gift for picky eaters back home. However, if you are traveling to Japan to visit colleagues or friends, you will be expected to bring a beautifully wrapped gift that is from your home country, rather than something they could buy locally.
Hardly any foodstuff is taboo in Japan, and some of the more exotic ingredients can make foreigners disgusted, or cause ethical controversy.
Table manners tend to be rather formal, though, especially when it comes to traditional dishes such as rice, tea and sake.