Several years ago, my dad's job relocated my family to Japan, and I was not pumped. It's common to move cities, states even, but not to a country overseas. I attended an International English-speaking school. Over these five years, my life was forever impacted by the vibrant culture, people, and traditions of Japan, especially their food.

When my family returned to the United States, I was shocked by the different consumption patterns and ways of eating. It was no longer normal to consume raw fish, and I realized that people ate for much different reasons in the U.S. than in Japan. There was less focus on vibrant dishes, fresh fish, chopsticks, and accessible vegetables. I found myself in the school cafeteria with a choice of pizza or fried chicken strips. Every family holiday now involved meat, cheese, and processed foods. I was in "culture shock" to my own culture. 

Here's how living in Japan for five years changed my perspective on food.

My Lunch Box

In the U.S., it's common to have a ham sandwich and juice box for lunch, but I would have spicy curry or bring my own bento box to school. Bento boxes are plastic containers with a matching set of chopsticks and usually a cute design on the outside. In each compartment, you could find rice, salmon, chicken, tofu, vegetables, seaweed, or cooked egg. Bento boxes are a staple to Japanese cuisine and culture.

Several years later, I still create my own version of a bento box and love the flavor of fish, spicy curry, and green tea. But the food culture in Japan is not just fish and rice… their cuisine differs from the U.S. in three major ways: numerous fish markets allow for easy access to fresh ingredients, presentation when preparing a meal is key, and time is a huge factor in creating each recipe.

seafood, fish, shellfish, salted fish, Japanese, Market, wet market, Japan, Travel, International, Tokyo
Dea Uy

Fresh Fish Markets

You can’t visit Japan without smelling fish. The fish markets are outdoors, with the fish right in front of you! It’s kind of like visiting Pike Place Market in Seattle. If you’re looking for a healthy snack while walking around the city, plenty of vendors are set up offering items like roasted chestnuts, baked potatoes or cooked octopus. You wouldn’t find that walking the streets of Atlanta!

Food That Looks Good

If you’ve ever had Japanese udon soup or sashimi, you know the dishes come with many components. Udon is a popular soup dish in Japan. It comes with wheat noodles in broth and many toppings. You can get tempura shrimp on top, fried tofu, green onions, hard boiled egg, and even something called a “fish cake.” A fish cake is the pink and white circular topping, made from ground up fish and steamed to cook.

Taking Your Time in the Kitchen

In order to make these intricate meals, it takes time. In Japan, it’s very common to take the train or walk to most places. Like other big cities, it’s easy to get places without a car. Grocery shopping is a little harder. Some people use carts to carry their food from the market or their local store. It's also common to have a  smaller home. Most people live in apartments with small fridges and little storage space. This is very different than an American home where many people have an extra fridge in their garage.

French Fries from a Vending Machine

When we think of time-saving foods, we usually think of microwave meals or McDonald’s. One of the coolest things I remember from Japan was their vending machines. You can get anything - coffee, ice cream cones, soda, soup, french fries, and more. If you’ve ever seen a Sprinkles Cupcake ATM in the United States, you can tell their trend of diverse vending machines is spreading.

Japanese dishes are typically small and delicate, like this plate of sushi below. There’s nori, a layer of rice, raw fish, and thinly sliced vegetables. Instead of a large plate with food piled high, you get a small serving, to be enjoyed slowly.

sushi, tuna, sashimi, salmon, rice, seafood, wasabi, fish, nigiri
Dylan Stilin

Thankfully, I don't have to travel across the world to get real Japanese dishes and ingredients. Stores like H-Mart and Mitsuwa can usually be found in big cities and offer prefect udon soup, steaming hot ramen, and packaged snacks, sauces, and vegetables that you would find in Asia. Click here to find a Mitsuwa or H-Mart near you!