Sunday 11th July 2021 is Japan Centre’s official 45th birthday! In 1976 Tak Tokumine launched Japan Centre in London’s Piccadilly, to create a ‘home away from home’.
Fast forward to 2021 and Japan Centre Group now includes a flagship store in Leicester Square with its very own Mochi Bar, a branch in Westfield Stratford City and our latest offering – Ichiba Japanese food hall. You can also enjoy warming ramen and other tasty Japanese food at our sister restaurants Shoryu Ramen and downtown ramen joint Heddon Yokocho.
To celebrate 45 years of Japan Centre, here are 45 fun food facts which we hope will give you an insight into Japan’s unique cuisine and food culture. Enjoy!
- Many of the traditional foods eaten on Japan’s celebration days or national holidays have a symbolic meaning. For example – kashiwa mochi eaten on Children’s Day is wrapped in an oak leaf, symbolising the wish for children to grow up strong and healthy.
- New Year is a great excuse to eat lots of mochi! At the mochitsuki ceremony, the rice is steamed overnight and then pounded into a paste before being separated into individual treats and served to the community.
- Kaiseki ryori is an elaborate multi-course meal, often served at ryokan (traditional Japanese inn style lodgings). Each course is thoughtfully prepared using seasonal produce and contains starters, main dishes, shokuji (rice, miso soup, pickles) followed by dessert.
- Slurping your noodles is considered polite behaviour in ramen restaurants and it’s a compliment to the chef that you’re finding them so delicious. So slurp away!
- If you’ve ever dreamed of concocting your very own pot noodle, then head to the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama where you can mix up your own recipe, and even design the cup!
- Sumo wrestlers eat large quantities of protein-rich stew called chankonabe, to gain or maintain their weight. These stews contain ingredients like meat, veggies and tofu. Calorific but also highly nutritious.
- Chopstick etiquette is something to be mindful of when eating out in Japan. It’s considered impolite to use your chopsticks to stab your food or pass food to another person for example. Want to find out more? Read this helpful guide.
- It’s also customary to wash your hands before a meal using a wet towel called an oshibori. Just your hands though! It’s considered impolite to wash your face for example.
- Head to the Owakudani valley in the hot spring town of Hakone and sample a black egg while you take in views of Mount Fuji. These chicken’s eggs have been cooked in sulphurous steam, and legend has it that each one will add seven years to your life!
- Japan has over 5 million vending machines which can be found everywhere from train stations to street corners – a convenient way to grab a hot or cold drink while you’re on the move.
- Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is the world’s largest wholesale fish market. An experience not to be missed if you don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn to visit.
- Ekiben (eki meaning train) is a special type of boxed bento meal sold at stations for passengers to eat during their train journey. They usually contain small portions of rice, pickles, vegetables, meat or fish and sometimes a dessert too.
- Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido is renowned for its high quality seafood. The fish which swim in the icy cold seawater around Hokkaido produce more body fat which is said to enhance their flavour. Sea urchin and crabs are other tasty Hokkaido delicacies.
- Kobe beef (a variety of wagyu beef specific to Kobe) is the most expensive beef per pound in the world and is loved for its melt-in-the-mouth texture and rich flavour.
- Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world. As of 2020 there were 226 in total!
- Cat cafes are popping up around the UK, but in Tokyo it’s possible to take your tea with a much larger variety of animals, from sheep and rabbits to capybara and hedgehogs!
- And while we’re on the subject of unusual eateries… themed restaurants (minus the animals) are also extremely popular. Sit next to a Moomin, dance with Pikachu or tuck into a pancake resembling Hello Kitty’s face. It’s all possible in Japan.
- If you want to channel your inner Bill Murray or Scarlett Johannsen then why not head to the Park Hyatt hotel and order a whisky or a vodka tonic in the iconic New York Bar. Located on the 52nd floor, you can enjoy your drinks with stunning views over Tokyo.
- Tofu is not just for savoury dishes! This versatile ingredient can also be used in delicious Japanese desserts, from cheesecake to ice cream.
- Thanks to a KFC marketing campaign during the 70s, tucking into a Bargain Bucket during the festive season is now a Japanese Christmas tradition! Finger lickin’ good!
- Fancy a ‘cook your own’ dining experience where you boil slices of meat and veggies in a hotpot? Shabu-shabu is named after the ‘swish swish’ sound that the water makes as it cooks your food.
- Restaurants often present realistic looking replica food in their window displays. If you’re in Tokyo and want to see row after row of shops selling fake food, then head to Kappabashi Street near Asakusa, aka ‘Kitchen Town’.
- There are two types of Japonica rice grown in Japan, both with a short, round grain giving it a glutinous texture and making it easy to pick up with chopsticks. Uruchimai (ordinary rice) is used in sushi and sake, whilst mochigome is used for chewy desserts like mochi.
- Soy sauce is one of Japan’s most popular condiments but actually has roots in ancient Chinese culture, dating back over 3000 years!
- Ever wondered why wasabi is so spicy? It contains an organic chemical compound called allyl isothiocyanate, also found in the mustard plant.
- There are a number of Toji guilds across Japan, all of which have their own unique sake brewing traditions. Each sake brewery has a Toji – a master brewer who has spent years honing their sake brewing skills.
- Sake can be enjoyed either hot or cold, but the higher quality sake is usually drunk cold to preserve its delicate flavours and aromas.
- Key ingredients for your sushi meal include sushi rice, nori seaweed, sliced seafood, wasabi paste, sushi ginger, and soy sauce. Want to learn more? Read our guide here.
- The very first conveyor belt sushi restaurant was set up in Osaka in 1958 by Yoshiaki Shiraishi. It’s said that the idea came to him when he saw beer bottles being transported along a conveyor belt at a brewery.
- The most poisonous parts of the famous fugu (puffer fish) have to be carefully removed by a specially trained chef before serving. Definitely not a dish to try and prepare at home!
- Miso colour is a good indication of the depth and strength of flavour. White miso is the mildest, yellow is slightly richer, and red has the deepest flavor of them all, having been fermented for the longest.
- Natto is a slightly slimy and pungent smelling dish made from fermented soybeans. Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no denying that natto is a superfood packed full of nutrients.
- The UK has a small range of KitKat flavours, but in Japan there are hundreds, with everything from cappuccino to cough drop! If you visit Tokyo, why not visit a KitKat Chocolatory and live out your wildest KitKat dreams.
- Kakigori is a refreshing snack often enjoyed at summer festivals. This shaved ice snack is drizzled with syrup and sometimes topped with fruit. Perfect for cooling you down in the summer heat.
- 11th November is ‘Pocky Day’ and manufacturers Glico generate as much hype as they can every year to promote their famous biscuit snack. Why 11th November? 11-11 looks like Pocky sticks lined up in a row!
- Melon pan is a sweet and squishy bread bun, which gets its name from the pattern on the top, which resembles a melon’s skin. No actual melon in these buns though!
- Sencha is far the most commonly consumed type of green tea in Japanese households, and accounts for around 80% of all the tea produced in Japan.
- Ever wondered why matcha is such a vivid shade of green? Matcha is made from tea leaves which have been grown in the shade, increasing their chlorophyll content. More chlorophyll = greener tea!
- During tea ceremonies, intricate confectionery (wagashi) are served alongside the matcha, to offset its bitterness. The wagashi ingredients and designs are chosen to complement the occasion or season.
- Toasted puffs of rice mixed in with roasted tea leaves give genmaicha a smokey flavour, earning it the nickname ‘popcorn tea’.
- Square watermelons are a popular food trend in Japan. The watermelons are grown inside glass boxes whilst on the vine, making them not only pretty to look at, but also easy to stack and move around!
- Yuzu is the most popular citrus fruit in Japan and tastes like a fusion between a lemon, orange and grapefruit. Yuzu keeps its zingy flavour when cooked at high heats and is used for sweet and savoury dishes, from jams and marinades to teas and desserts.
- Dekopon is another popular citrus in Japan. Nicknamed the ‘sumo citrus’ due to its nobbly top resembling a sumo wrestlers bun, this orange fruit is grown during the winter months from December to February.
- Red bean paste made from azuki beans is a subtly sweet filling that is popular in all sorts of Japanese desserts including dorayaki pancakes and mochi. As well as tasting deliciou, azuki beans are a great source of protein and fibre.
- And finally… if you sit down to eat in a Japanese household, you may hear the phrase ‘‘itadakimasu’ spoken, which in this setting is a way of saying thank you for the food, or ‘bon appetit’ before you enjoy your meal.
Let us know some of your favourite Japanese ingredients or meals below. We’d love to hear from you!
Words by Emily Lovell
Ekiben: Stivoberlin: https://flic.kr/p/bHCNhe
Kakigori: City Foodsters: https://flic.kr/p/va6aj3
Chankonabe: Lara604: https://flic.kr/p/eeGsmq
Tea ceremony: Mrhayata: https://flic.kr/p/64kaBj