What to Eat
Compared to other nations, Japan's cooking uses almost no spices. Instead, the emphasis is on the pure, clean flavors of its indigenous ingredients: fish, seaweed, vegetables, rice and soybeans. With very little land, agriculture and livestock are limited, although Japan is famous for its fattened delicacy, Kobe beef. Raw fish is masterfully prepared as sashimi or as sushi, where it is served with rice. In fact rice is served at all meals, as is typical of many Asian cultures, but in Japan the word for rice and meal is the same: gohan.
A meal in Japan is not a meal unless it balances three facets: the artistic presentation of the food, including its garnishes and its layout; the selection of the plate or serving piece; and the taste of the food itself. A diner is meant to appreciate the harmony of all three.
Japanese meals are designed with beauty in mind, but also with simplicity and modesty. The diner should absorb and appreciate this Zen-approach with each meal (racing though a meal is not advised). Evening is the main meal, starting with an appetizer and small cups of sake, fermented rice wine usually served warm. The meal itself is served on a low table (you will be asked to remove your shoes, please) and guests sit on cushions on a floor covered with tatami mats.
The meal itself usually consists of a simmered dish, a salad, a fried, steamed or broiled dish, rice and soup. The dishes are simply prepared, but the combination of flavors, textures, and foods creates the elegance and variety that so typifies the Japanese style. (Remember that, because of Buddhism, meals feature the five flavors and colors, of sweet, spicy, salty, bitter and sour; and yellow, black, white, green, and red. ) The courses are served simultaneously and eaten at random, with no particular order. Rice with pickles and green tea signify the conclusion of the meal.
Noodles are a typical lunch, and noodle shops abound. Udon are wheat noodles frequently served in soups, while the soba or buckwheat noodles are commonly served as salads, although these are not hard and fast delineations.
Vegetables are rarely served raw, but usually with vinegar, pickled or preserved, simmered or deep fried, as with tempura. Root vegetable grow well, so carrots, burdock root, daikon radish are commonly served. As with these firm vegetables, cucumbers play a large role as garnishes, being cut into fans, petals or other fanciful creations. Some of the most impressive are the 'fishermen's nets' made out of a single strip of white daikon radish and seen commonly in sushi bars.
Unlike China, Italy, France and other countries, Japan places little emphasis on regional variation. Perhaps it is because there are not as much geographical differences within its boundaries. Still, certain areas have their own unique culinary dishes, but by and large, the country focuses on the same overall style of eating.
While today's celebrity chefs in the US expound on the seasonality of foods, as if they should receive special recognition for such promotions, the Japanese have long integrated this practice within their philosophy as well as culinary pursuits. Expect to be offered certain treats peculiar only to that time of year. May, for example, brings the sincha or new tea harvest. If you are traveling to Japan in winter, mandarin oranges symbolize the sun and are presented as gifts of the New Year. Spring features cherry-blossom rice. September recognizes the moon, and simmering white dishes -- abalone, cucumbers, and bamboo shoots -- are served and appreciated.