Even if you don't know what is in your bowl in Japan, eat it, writes Linda Thompson.

Salty ovaries. Dumplings filled with hot soup. Tiny red octopus. Spicy burdock. Melon bread. Lotus root. Eat it all first, ask what it is later.

This country of crazy contrasts is the place to put your misgivings aside, walk away from McDonald's and Starbucks and plunge into eating everything. It's all delicious, beautifully presented and fresh.

Even a bento box bought at the train station – a lunch or dinner box of tiny food portions – is a thing of beauty. Generally, you'll find rice or noodles, fish or meat, with pickled and cooked vegetables in a portioned box, anything from cardboard to perfect lacquer.


The usual selection is a white food – rice or noodles, yellow such as omelette, a red food like shrimp, pickled plum, a green food such as salad or cooked beans, and a black food such as fish or a nori-wrapped rice ball. That's how you make a lunch.

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The Japanese present food with an attention to detail not seen anywhere else in the world. Foodies know the drill, but if you're new to all this, what should you try?

Order a set in any restaurant and there's bound to be some new tastes in delicious little lidded bowls of surprise. Be glad you're not the dishwasher.

Miso and green tea come with most sets. Miso is made from fermenting soybeans with salt and koji fungus along with rice, or seaweed. Mixed with dashi – an infusion of foods rich in umami, the fifth flavour, like bonito, seaweed and shiitake mushrooms – it makes a delicious broth and it's high in protein, vitamins and minerals.

The rest of the set will include rice of course, sometimes flavoured, salad, noodles, meats, prawn, tofu, eel, tuna, vegetables, grated radish, sashimi sauces and condiments, all looking like artwork.

For foreigners, it's actually easy. Versions of what's going on your plate are outside most restaurants in lifelike plastic or photos. If it looks good, it probably is.

Try okonomiyaki, a type of pancake made with a batter of flour, grated yam, water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage. Then there'll be green onion, meat, octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, cheese – a sort of Japanese pizza. There could be bonito flakes on the top, slightly disconcerting as they move with the heat.

Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancake, is a must try.
Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pancake, is a must try.

Yes, you can get actual pizza in Japan, but it might have some unusual toppings. Like eel, squid, mayonnaise, eggs, potatoes, nori, corn, shimaji (tiny mushrooms), karasumi (those salty fish ovaries). In fact anything.

You can't go past ramen, a nice cheap staple of noodles in a bowl of flavoured broth and topped with sliced pork or chicken and a few veges, nori, spring onions.

In Yokohama, there's an entire museum/amusement park dedicated to ramen. It's tremendous fun, like a Las Vegas dive complete with fake sky set up to look like late 1950s Japan, when instant ramen was invented. It's all dark alleys, scruffy buildings and neon.

If you want to try all the varieties, stick to mini dishes – but a warning. They're enormous.

And then there's top-class Hida beef, from black-haired Japanese cows in the Takayama region, about 300km from Tokyo. It's marbled with fine fat and melts in the mouth once it's grilled briefly, probably on your own personal grill at your table.

Street food is everywhere and the stalls are clean and fresh. Start with hot xiao long bao, soup dumplings. Don't burn yourself. Try bananas coated in chocolate, yakitori (kebabs), whole tiny fish on sticks, taiyaki – fish-shaped fried sweet things filled with custard.

Japanese street food in Tokyo
Japanese street food in Tokyo

Then there's tea. If you want black tea, bring your own. It's all green tea here.

Visit a tea plantation at Shizuoka, about 140km from Tokyo. Learn about how green tea – where the first fresh tips of the tea bush picked exactly 88 days after the first day of spring – is made and processed.

Taste the various kinds, from matcha, a thicker version containing more of what are believed to be cancer-fighting properties, or roasted, a smoky variety, as well as traditional green tea.

Apparently green tea has "antifattenation" effects too. You'll need that.

And they use it in everything – icecream, chocolate, savoury sauces, sweet sauces.

Watch a tea ceremony where silent women in graceful kimono brush the green tea powder into hot water – but not too hot. No more than 80C, otherwise it gets bitter because it has more caffeine. It's all about harmony. Two tiny sweet cakes are served first, usually decorated. Eat these first to counteract the bitter tea.

Bow to the tea master, turn your bowl clockwise to drink from the far side and drink in three or four sips. Wipe the bowl rim, then consider the service from the tea master. Bow again to show respect.

You'll get an opportunity to have a go to master the back and forth motion of the bamboo brush.

Japanese sweets.
Japanese sweets.

Bakeries are everywhere and always serving little miracles in carbohydrate. Melon bread, melon bread with chocolate, red bean paste in bread, just bread, pastries, croissants, bread filled with curry, bread filled with custard.

Every highway truck stop has its own astounding bakery with an enormous variety of deliciousness.

And at a truck stop, don't look for a pie and a sausage roll. Try a whole fish, chicken, noodles, croquettes, soups, pickles instead. And the creamiest soft serve ice cream you'll ever taste.

The Japanese combine flavours with abandon. How about sweet potato soft serve. Yeah nah.

Yes you'll need to use chopsticks as you won't find many knives and forks. Yes you'll have to eat things you won't recognise and yes you'll learn some new flavours, like umami, a savoury taste to complement sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

But you'll eat well, it's all healthy and fresh, and it's not going to add much to the scales. And have you ever seen many fat Japanese (sumo wrestlers don't count).

Just dig in.


We are giving away return Economy Class tickets for two to Narita, Tokyo, flying Air New Zealand and a Japan National Tourism Organisation voucher valued at NZ$2500. To enter, go to nzherald.co.nz/win.