Support our mission

My wife, my three children and I recently moved to Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, to work as teachers. As this is our first time living outside of the United States, we were curious and anxious about many things, but one of the biggest question marks was the changes we’d have to make in dining habits and cuisine.

Eating out in Japan was something we were looking forward to after spending many a night salivating in front of the TV while watching “Iron Chef.” We were seduced by the sizzling woks and fancy ingredients on the show and figured six-course meals featuring a host of exotic creations would be the standard for dining once we arrived in Japan.

The reality, however, hasn’t been quite as grand as “Iron Chef” host Chairman Kaga led us to believe. Nothing more exotic than fish and rice are the cornerstones of many Japanese dishes, and while some restaurants add interesting twists, many tend to keep it simple. Very simple.

Much of the food we’ve experienced in Japan is less seasoned than our American palates prefer. Soon after our arrival here, my wife and I would exchange glances after our first bite of a much-anticipated meal as if to say, “That’s it?” We were expecting multiple flavor explosions going off in our mouths and instead got plain white rice and cold fish.

After a few occasions, however, we noticed we were starting to appreciate the true, pure flavor of foods, a lesson well worth learning.

Another adjustment we had to make in our transition to Japanese dining was learning patience. Wait staff here are friendly and accommodating, but they’re not in a hurry. I’m a guy who used to work at a well-known “neighborhood grill” where new servers are trained extensively for how to get a party in and out in less than thirty minutes. And my family and I are coming from a climate of immediate gratification in America. So the slow pace came as quite a shock, but it’s nothing you can’t get used to.

Just know that if you are starving, your best bet is to make yourself a sandwich at home. But if you plan ahead and head out for a meal before the hunger pangs start, the 30-minute wait before food or drinks arrive won’t seem nearly as life-threatening.

When your food does come, it won’t arrive all at once. Instead of bringing everyone’s meals at the same time, the server brings out each meal whenever it is finished cooking. So it’s not unusual for you to be finishing your main entrée before your spouse gets his or her food. It is a haphazard serving style to be sure, but if everyone is armed with chopsticks at the ready, the whole table can sample all the dishes, allowing your tasting experiences to multiply exponentially with each night out.

One of the most common warnings you’re likely to receive from those who have been in Japan a while is about the expense of dining out. Those old-timers aren’t lying: A recent dinner for our family of five, sans alcohol, came to $145, and this is with two of them eating from the kids menu. But don’t despair. Just like in the States, there are alternatives to pricey restaurant dining — if you know where to look for them.

In Yokosuka, for example, we found a jewel of culinary simplicity on a dirty pathway off the main road. It was an amazing little stand selling yakitori — several varieties of marinated meat on a stick. These heavenly appetizers are available for only 60 yen a stick, and the five of us have wolfed down 30 in one visit, all for less than 20 bucks.

Dining out is a big part of the fun of being in a new place. It gives you the chance to mingle with the locals, test your nascent language skills and broaden your horizons. Let’s face it, if all you could tell the folks back home is that you ate a McTeriyaki at the base McDonald’s, it doesn’t take an Iron Chef to figure out that you squandered a golden opportunity.

Getting help

Most bases offer free guides to help newbies negotiate the tricky trials of dining in Japan. The guides include a list of basic dining-related words in English and Japanese, describe some of the more common meals you’re likely to find and keep you from making social flubs by outlining chopstick and other dining protocol. Who knew that plunking your chopsticks into your bowl of rice could be so offensive?

The guides typically are available where newcomer information is distributed. Good places to check are your base tour office or family support center.


stars and stripes videos

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up