Food is king in Japan. You’d be hard pressed to walk down a city street without seeing a restaurant, shop or vending machine offering all sorts of weird and wonderful food. It’s tasty, convenient and absolute paradise for food lovers.
Walking into a Japanese department store basement is like walking into a David Jones Foodhall on steroids. There are literally food stalls as far as the eye can see, selling cakes, fresh fruit and vegetables, ready-to-eat food, snack food on sticks, carefully packaged gift boxes of food – it seriously just goes on and on. The first time I saw one of these was in the tunnels of Sapporo station and I was gobsmacked by the amount of food on offer (which turned out to be nothing compared to the huge department stores of Tokyo!)
I was keen to see the super expensive fresh fruit that I’d heard about in Japan, and yes, you can definitely buy 15 strawberries for 6680 yen (about $63AUD, or $4 a strawberry!)
We also saw beautifully presented boxes of cherries at a cool 6480 yen per box (~$60AUD)… right next to the almost-tennis-ball-sized strawberries which were 1620 yen for two (~$15AUD).
Aside from the exquisitely packaged but expensive fruit, there was also other fresh food to be purchased. The meat section had prepackaged cuts of beef, pork and chicken, including the most incredibly marbled cuts of wagyu! The fish section offered lots of fresh fish and seafood to be taken home for cooking, including many types that I hadn’t seen before.
I was particularly surprised to see thinly sliced fugu sashimi available for purchase at department stores. Fugu isn’t something I would eat anywhere except for a specialised fugu restaurant where I knew the chef was qualified and had knowledge on how to prepare it properly without poisoning me! I wasn’t game enough to try it in a department store, but if you want to try fugu without going to a restaurant, just head to your local department store fish section.
The fish section also boasts a large selection of ready to eat boxes of sashimi and sushi. I found the sashimi to be a little on the expensive side by Japanese standards, but compared to Australia it’s very reasonably priced for quite a lot of variety.
There’s also plenty of other ready-to-eat food, including fish cakes, mochi balls or dango, yakitori, fried chicken, dumplings – you name it, they probably have it. Some stores also had huge bowls of fresh salad, pasta dishes and even Western-style cooked meat and fish. Everything is able to be neatly packaged up, including eating utensils, so you can take it back to your desk or sit in a nice park and enjoy your food.
Some food comes conveniently pre-packaged, and is perfectly designed for eating on the go. We took advantage of this when we travelled to other cities, and would always pick up a few onigiri (rice balls) for short train rides out of town. We tried a few different flavours while we were in Japan, but my favourites were tuna mayo and ebi mayo.
For long shinkansen trips, we bought obento boxes which were neatly compartmentalised with little bits and pieces of food to accompany rice. Even though these were cold, the quality of the food didn’t suffer and I was surprised to find the deep fried items, like the fried chicken and fishballs to hold up really well.
There was a lot of variety to be had in each box and part of the fun was trying all the little compartments to see what was in each one. They were also very reasonably priced too, coming in at around 600-800 yen per box.
The department store food section that really had my jaw dropping was the cakes and sweets. So many cakes, pastries, chocolates and desserts all in one place! I think it was so overwhelming that I forgot to take photos, because upon looking through my photos when we got back, I regretted not taking more.
But seriously, it’s like heaven. There are perfect individual slices of cake, meticulously arranged fruit on top of pastries, and sky high chiffon cakes.
If you’re lucky, you might even be able to get a few free samples – we found that department stores in Sapporo and Osaka were much more generous with the samples than in Tokyo.
But instead of subsisting on samples, it’s always better to just go ahead and purchase the real thing. While I was tempted to buy a whole cake, we settled with buying individual slices (portion control, guys). I found a Le Tao outlet in Sapporo Daimaru and went back for my beloved double fromage cheesecake, while Sir D had a strawberry tart. What I really loved about it was that it was lovingly packaged in a cake box, carefully placed inside a plastic bag and came complete with forks and a gel cooling pack to keep your cakes fresh for the trip home! They survived the trip back to our hotel very well, and we had a mini dessert party in our room that night.
We also had other, less classy dessert parties in our hotel room after dinner, which inevitably involved some goodies picked up from the local Family Mart or Lawson konbini. Let me just say that konbini (or convenience stores) in Japan are NOTHING like Australia. I wouldn’t even consider getting food from a 7-11 here in Sydney unless I was really desperate, but 7-11s in Japan actually have good food. I’m talking katsu-sando, onigiri, and fried chicken! And they also have a pretty decent selection of desserts like mochi, ice creams, puddings and cakes.
Some Japanese konbini also sell alcohol which surprised me at first – and here I was thinking that those giant bottles of clear liquid at the top were bottles of water! Nope, that’s sake, and there’s a whole lot of other alcoholic drinks you can pick up from the refrigerated section.
Sir D introduced me to the gloriously sweet chu-hi, which is a mix of shochu and flavoured soda. This stuff is like the lolly drinks of your youth but the fruity flavours make it even more fun to drink. I don’t think you can get these here in Australia, so if you’re ever in Japan, do yourself a favour and pick up a peach chu-hi!
We would regularly pick up a range of Japanese desserts (and sometimes a can of chu-hi or whisky haibooru) to take back to the hotel for a sweet treat to end the day, and invariably end up with a sugar high and/or food coma from all the food. Food in Japan is just amazing and I can’t wait to go back!