Ever since I was a kid I loved watching the food network channel. The idea that you could cook as an expression of your cultural background was amazing to me. I saw food as an art form that would connect people together. Everywhere in the world food is consumed in different shapes, colours, and sizes. In this blog post, I will challenge myself to critically reflect on the differences between Canadian and Japanese food cultures.

Drawing inspiration from my recent critical reflection assignment, I wanted to find out just how different the idea of food is here based on my observations from the last 60 days. The goal is not to find out which is better or worse but simply to observe how I have interacted with food in Japan.

Here are three topics I have identified to explore further:

The way restaurant dining happens.

This section will cover the way you can order, the seating arrangement, dining alone verse dining in groups, and the overall environment. Now before I begin, I want to say that not all restaurants in Japan are the same, and I will do my best to make general statements about the way I see food given my limited time of only 60 days or so. With that said let’s get into it!

Japan has unique dining norms with about a 50/50 split between solo diners and group diners. It is not uncommon to see people eating alone using headphones, watching videos, or playing video games while eating. Japanese people are very fast, and dare I say efficient at dining by ordering, eating, and paying quickly. I’ve noticed that this isn’t by coincidence but more by design.

There are three main ways to order food at a restaurant including vending machine ticketing, self-serve/I-pad, and traditional server dining. Since this is still the most common, I’ll go in-depth with the traditional or classic method with a server. Upon entering you hand signal how many people are in your party, or you write your name and party size down on a list. Next, you are seated at your table that has pre-set cutlery and menus (50% have English menus, 50% only Japanese). Instead of waiting for your server to greet your table, you politely (sometimes assertively) call out “Excuse me” or “すみません” and place your order. Almost all food tends to arrive within 5-10 minutes and I’ve noticed people usually finish their meals within 10-20 minutes. Most meals are placed on a tray with a wet wipe/tissue, chopsticks, water/tea, and the total bill.

Once you’ve finished you gather your dishes on the tray and walk to the front counter with your receipt to pay without your server. Prices vary from place to place but expect to pay around CAD $8-15 per lunch set and CAD $15-30 per dinner set per person. When paying you’ll notice there isn’t an option to tip as they are not accepted and can be considered impolite. About 65-75% of restaurants accept Visa with the remaining being cash or Japanese e-payments like pay-pay only. Lastly, you show your gratitude by slightly nodding your head to the person who took your payment and will likely be shouted with a reply of “thank you” or “ありがとうございました” by several of the staff.

Without getting too deep into it I’ll briefly describe how this is different from Vancouver/Victoria while likely making some bold assumptions. When you arrive at a restaurant you wait for a host/server to greet you and they walk you to your table as you wait for your cutlery, menus, and water. After 3-5 minutes your server comes back to ask if you’ve decided what you want and you place your order. Food takes on average 15-30 minutes and comes with a fork, knife, and paper napkin. People take their time eating which lasts about 20-35 minutes and then begin the payment process. When you’ve finished your meal your sever collects your plates, brings the bill with a card machine and starts a couple minutes of small talk. Lunch sets cost around CAD $20-30 and dinner sets cost around CAD $25-35 per person. You are expected to tip 15-25% of the total price of the meal and can use Visa at almost all places unless otherwise specified.

Freshness, ingredient quality, and how full you feel after eating.

This is a really interesting topic to me as it’s one of the things I have been most observant of while living in Japan. As you can tell, food is pretty important to me, and I would say eating is one of my favourite things to do. In Canada, over the past few years, I’ve noticed buying local, fresh ingredients to be a growing trend amongst young consumers. During the past 2 years, I went to farmers’ markets for the first time in my life in search of fresher, local, and higher-quality ingredients. When arriving in Japan my habits around buying food changed from the ingredients I was buying, to the way I was buying them, and the way the food would make me feel.

Let’s talk about the places where I buy food in Japan. There are three main ways I shop for food; convenience stores, cafeterias, and grocery stores. Firstly, let’s talk about convenience stores or “combini’s”. I would say at least twice a day I visit a convenience store, the three most popular brands are FamilyMart, 7Eleven, and Lawson. They provide cheap, variety abundant, ready-to-go meals like sandwiches, pastries, bottled drinks, desserts, and bento boxes. They provide a very fresh stock of to-go meals being replenished daily. It might be the only time in my life I have full trust in the fried meats under the heat lamp. Ingredient quality on the other hand suffers as most foods are not very nutritious being made of white bread or rice, and other processed ingredients. Because of this, the foods usually lack fibre and do not feel very filling. Not to say that this food isn’t satisfying, delicious, addicting, or yummy but they almost always leave me wanting to eat again in the hours that follow. On a slightly separate but also important note, almost all convenience store food products are packaged in single-use plastics. Recently across Vancouver and Victoria, there has been a plastic bag ban which is not the case in Kobe. You do however have to pay a small fee of 5 yen which incentives people to bring their own bags.

Cafeterias are another common way I find myself eating throughout the workweek. Mostly because they are option-abundant, quick, and inexpensive. These places are usually located near office buildings as it is a common lunch spots for office people. I made a 45-second Short on my YouTube channel about the whole process of eating at this place which you can watch below or click here.

I find these to be more filling as they come with large portions of noodles or rice for a low cost. They are stocked new every day making them fresh and a popular meal in Kobe. I find the ingredient quality to be better than convenience stores having stir-fry options, soups, fish, meat, and more vegetables.

The third most common method of buying food for me so far in Japan is from grocery stores. These are usually tucked away in the bottom floors of department stores or shopping malls making them appear less obvious. Here you can find a variety of products mostly from Japanese brands but some internationally recognizable favourites like Heinz Ketchup and Franks Red Hot Sauce. Here was some ingredients I bought for a stir-fry from my local grocery store.

Things like carrots, onions, mushrooms, bean sprouts, noodles chicken and rice are all available throughout the grocery store. Fruits, veggies, meat, and seafood are the most expensive items in the store in my experience. As a rule of thumb, Japanese brands and items tend to be cheaper than international brands and goods. I find the freshness, quality of ingredients, and feeling of being full rank highest at this method of getting food. It is however the most time-consuming method and sometimes inconvenient to take on public transport after buying.

The price for Japanese groceries like the items above is about 30% less expensive than in Canada. A usual weekly grocery hall could land me between CAD $60-90 in Victoria whereas the same items here cost around CAD $40-60. This might not seem like much right off the bat but the weekly cost of groceries is something I have to constantly pay attention to and watch when I’m back in Victoria. As a part-time working student, I don’t have a large budget to freely buy all ingredients whereas here I feel more options are available given my budget.

The idea of sweetness, and its effects on my brain.

Deserts are great. They are satisfying and always leave a smile on our faces. Just take a look at any Instagram account of an ice cream shop, you’re guaranteed to see happy customers. However, in Japan, I’ve noticed some differences in the way these sweet treats taste. Most notable is the lower level of sugar in most deserts. The preferences for deserts usually come from the natural sweetness of fruits, or from flavours like custard, matcha, or red bean. It’s not uncommon to see coffee or teas served black with no cream or sweeteners as seen in these photos. This component of food has taken me some time to get used to as having sugar throughout my day is a usual part of my routine in Canada. I notice this the most in my morning coffee in the office. If you are like me you were raised on “double-doubles” from Tim Hortons in Canada, and crave the taste of a sugary creaminess in your average cup of coffee. When I get to the office and pour my morning coffee I feel like a mad scientist. I have to add 4 tiny packets of sugar, 2 sacks of powdered milk, and one tiny container of cream just to brew my favourite caffeinated concoction.

Sugar signals to my brain that I am happy, energized, and can feel rewarded for my hard work. It tells my body to indulge and enjoy this treat because of the efforts I’ve put in that day. Sometimes it can even turn my entire mood around if I am having a bad day or feeling sad. Sugar is a routine part of my life and a habit I’ve lived my whole life. So, what happens when all the deserts around you start to lack that addicting sweetness? You crave it. Sometimes I notice without even feeling hungry I lean towards buying an ice cream or treat at the convince store to boost my energy levels. Well, to be honest, that is an under-exaggeration. After every single lunch and dinner, I buy an ice cream or a cold dessert. This is the result of the lower levels of sugar in my meals, and the intense heat that makes my body require cold deserts throughout the day. The weird thing about this is if I had the same amount of treats I do now in Canada, I would have achene breakouts, weight gain, and sugar rushes. However here, I feel none of those things. My energy levels stay fairly stable throughout the day and in combination with going to the gym to workout my fitness level stays at a comfortable level. In

This concludes my third blog post in Kobe, Japan which discussed the differences in food culture from three topics which included:

  • The way restaurant dining happens.
  • Freshness, ingredient quality, and how full you feel after eating.
  • The idea of sweetness, and its effects on my brain.

If you enjoyed reading or have any questions feel free to follow YouTube, Instagram, or view my last blog post. Thank you and see you next time!