You’ve got your plane ticket, your hotels are booked and your bags packed. Your itinerary is full to bursting and you’ve prepared just the right book or CD to keep you from bouncing off the walls on the flight. What could go wrong? If you haven’t studied Japanese characters before and are traveling without a kanji-enabled buddy, you may want to ask yourself what you intend to eat.
If you love seafood, any kind of meat and are generally at peace with putting things in your mouth you can’t identify on sight, you’ll be fine. For those of us with picky pallets, a cheat sheet will make your forays into Japanese food much less terrifying. While it is generally true that Japanese restaurants have menus with big pictures of their dishes from which you can squint your way to a decision of whether or not the pictured meat is pork or beef, there are plenty that do not. Noodle shops, for example, often have a handy machine by the door with buttons labeled by price that you use to pick your broth, your noodle and your accoutrements.
Outside of memorizing typical Japanese dishes and their contents, the quick and dirty way of making sure you don’t accidentally affront your taste buds is to note down keywords. Make a list of the things you absolutely do not want to eat. ‘Beef’, for example, or ‘seafood’, ‘spicy/hot’, etc. Write down the characters for those words and keep that list handy when you’re waltzing in to dinner or frantically searching through the nearest Lawson’s. In my first Japan adventures, my knowledge of the character for ‘sea’ saved me from grievous edible errors.
Some of the standard offenders are listed below. Good luck and happy eating!
海 – sea : if you don’t like seafood, don’t choose anything whose name contains this kanji
辛い – spicy hot
鳥 – bird/chicken
牛 – cow/beef
魚 – fish
甘い – sweet : if you’re looking for a curry that isn’t spicy, it will often be labeled as sweet
Here are some helpful words concerning noodles and broth-bases. Give them all a try to see which suits you best!
味噌 - みそ – miso
醤油 - しょうゆ – soy
うどん – udon – white, fat noodle
そば - soba – often brown, skinny noodle
ラーメン – ramen : typically comes with sliced pork, seaweed, green onions and kamaboko (white and pink thin slice made from fish paste – but don’t fear, it’s tasteless