One of the things we were most looking forward to when visiting Japan was sampling all the amazing food. Years ago I had a layover in Tokyo and remember tasting the freshest and tastiest sushi of my life at an airport restaurant. I figured if the food was that good at the airport, we were in for some great meals in Japan.
Not only did we find delicious, tasty and affordable food in Tokyo and Kyoto, but we found the dining experiences to be very unique. From ordering soup from a vending machine to having your sushi delivered electronically to your table, eating was an attraction in itself for our kids.
We aren’t fine dining kind of people and although Japan has its fair share of Michelin restaurants, you won’t find us eating at one. In fact, I have never eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant in my life and I have had many fine meals all over the world. Complicating matters, the adults in our family are vegetarian and Japan can be a challenging place for vegetarians. Luckily, we eat fish, which opened up more options.
Here are 7 food experiences you should make sure you experience when traveling to Japan with kids. Best of all, these are all very affordable options for families, even if traveling on a budget like we were.
1. Conveyor Sushi
While you are in Japan, you are going to eat sushi and we are not talking the California roll variety; you will be eating thick slabs of fresh fish over some rice. There are lots of conveyor style restaurants around where a belt goes around the restaurant with plates of varying prices and you help yourself to what you want. This in itself is super fun for kids as it is like a buffet, but better. We ate at a few of these restaurants in our first few days in Japan and of course they were a huge hit with the kids. The fish was as fresh as I remembered from the airport years ago and we always managed to stack up lots of empty plates.
Those were just the warm up to our dining experience at Genki Sushi in Shibuyu (Tokyo). Here we ordered our sushi off ipads and the plates were delivered directly to our seats via a conveyor belt. The kids were super impressed! Sure, it might be touristy and maybe the sushi isn’t a 10/10, but we loved the futuristic food delivery. It felt a little bit Jetsons-like to us and was definitely one of our food highlights of Japan. Be prepared to wait for a seat as this is a very popular place. Most plates are 100Y, so this is a great budget option for families.
2. Order Ramen from a Vending Machine
Ramen seems to be all the rage these days and I have to admit up until the last year, the only ramen I was familiar with is the hot-water filled cups we ate in Uni. Kids love noodles and therefore ramen is a great choice for kids in Japan.
We stumbled upon Ichiran in Roppongi (Tokyo) by accident and later found out that it is quite famous for its ramen. Luckily this chain has an outlet in most neighborhoods in Tokyo so there is no excuse for not visiting. You first order your ramen and pay through a vending machine, which is a novelty in itself. Then you wait for a seat to become available.
Ichiran can be tricky for families because each person sits in their own individual booth with walls diving the patrons. You will probably have to wait awhile to get 4-5 seats side-by-side, so this works better for older kids (ours were 6-10). Once you get your seat, you can customize your order on a piece of paper (extra noodles, egg, spice level, etc). Ichiran makes tonkotsu (pork broth) style ramen with no option for vegetarians. We were able to order our ramen without meat, but the broth was meat-based.
The kids loved their individual booths where they could fill their own water cup and slurp up their noodles. The ramen was really good and it was a super fun dining experience, from the vending machine to the individual stalls. Bowls are from 790Y.
3. Grill Your Own Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake with a variety of ingredients that you cook at your table on a large grill. This is another really fun activity for kids as they can stir up the ingredients, help pour them onto the grill and decorate the pancake with sauce when they are cooked. The pancakes are quite delicious and filling and make a great dining activity for kids. The grill does get really hot on the table, so you would have to be careful with young children.
We tried okonomiyaki at Sakurai Tei restaurant in Harajuku, where they had English menus. Pancake prices started at 1000Y and we were able to order 3 for our whole family. We tried the classic okonomiyaki and one of the more interesting veggie ones, as well as one monjayaki (similar to okonomiyaki but with different ingredients and a different cooking method). They even have some all-you-can-eat options if you really want to fill up. The restaurant is a bit hard to find, located between two small streets, next to a gallery.
4. Test out Kaiseki at a Japanese Inn
One of the highlights of our trip to Japan was staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, in Kyoto. Part of what makes staying in a ryokan so interesting is that usually your breakfast and dinner is included and you will be served kaiseki meals in your room. At the ryokan we stayed at, we were served our meals at a Japanese style table sitting on the ground.
Kaiseki meals are elaborately prepared, seasonal meals consisting of many small dishes. We didn’t know what we were eating half the time, but it was definitely a fun and interesting experience. Luckily the meals for the children were a bit more Westernized and a good blend of food they recognized and new foods. While staying in a ryokan is not cheap, the inclusion of meals does make the price more affordable.
5. Grab a Bento Box from a Convenience Store
The first few mornings in Kyoto we were waking up at 4am with jetleg and of course the kids were hungry. There certainly wasn’t anything open at that hour, but luckily we were able to grab Bento box packaged meals at the convenience stores like 7-11 and Lawson’s.
We would spend a ridiculous amount of time deciphering what was in each bento box and it was hard to find vegetarian ones, but this was a fun and really inexpensive way to eat. I particularly liked the onigiri rice triangles.
6. Sample all things Matcha
It won’t take you long in Japan to discover that matcha is beloved here. This finely ground green tea powder is important for tea ceremonies, but recent times have seen its use expanded as a dye and flavour enhancer for everything from noodles to chocolate.
Since we were visiting in the heat of the summer, we regularly indulged in matcha soft serve ice creams served in a flowery cone. The kids didn’t mind the matcha flavour, but definitely preferred the fruit flavours. We had lots of other opportunities to sample matcha flavoured products from the famous matcha Kit-Kat bars to traditional cakes and sweets. The kids even got the hang of mixing up their own cups of matcha hot tea.
7. Eat Classic Udon and Tempura
The last dining experience with kids isn’t quite as exciting as some that we have already mentioned. However, some of our best meals in Japan were at simple restaurants serving udon soup and tempura. Kids love these worm-like noodles which they can slurp up and you combine that with deep fried tempura and you have a kid winner. Since these were often traditional restaurants, it was a great cultural opportunity for the kids to experience. A bowl of udon usually cost 500-800Y and younger kids could definitely share.
The food was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Japan. Not only was the food delicious, healthy and interesting, these unique dining experiences were huge hits with our kids.
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