Japanese food and drink explained

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Sushi explained

Japanese table manners explained

Questions and answers on this page

Why do people rarely eat koi?

In Turkey there is also a taboo about eating koi and a story of people going blind eating them. My entirely unscientific personal explanation is that koi tend to live in slow moving and shallow waters that are often far from clean, making them not the healthiest thing to eat, in the same way that pork was not a good choice in Arabia. Alternatively, it could just be because it doesn’t taste very nice, as some people have told me.

Why do Japanese tea cups not have handles?

You are supposed to appreciate the tea with all your senses by feeling the heat and the texture of the pottery. Also, Japanese tea isn’t made with boiling water, so there’s no danger of burning yourself on the cup even without a handle.

Why is sake sometimes spelt with an accent on the E?

It’s to remind you to pronounce it, and not like the English word “sake” in “for the sake of the children”. The alternative explanation that it is to show the difference between “sake” for the alcohol “nihonshu” and “sake” for salmon (also “shake”) is complete nonsense, because the accent was used by English speakers speaking in English to other English people about a Japanese drink (rather than people learning Japanese), and if they meant the fish they simply said and wrote “salmon”!

Why are beer TV commercials usually set at night but happoshu ads set during the day?

I hadn’t noticed this one until I read it in the Japan Times, but it does seem to be true. Are happoshu drinkers all daytime drinkers??

Why the pub in Narita town called the Barge Inn?

Not the most common British pub name, and no canals near by at all, so this one kept me wondering for a while. Turns out it’s supposed to be the Japanese pronunciation of “Virgin”, the airline whose pilots’ drinking place it was set up as.

Why do tiny akachochin bars need a karaoke machine- surely everyone could hear you sing anyway?

Echo function needed even more at such close quarters?

Why is it so normal to have both beer and other drinks like sake in one night of drinking?

Beer is the only drink considered informal enough to break the ice, perhaps because you can swig it, but can make you bloated if you are eating too (which is usual).

Why do the Japanese eat soba when they move house (hikoshi soba)?

The practical reason is that it is quick and easy to prepare. In the New Year, the long soba noodles stand for long life, but I can’t see the connection between that and moving house. There must be some kind of superstitious reason, giving how common foods for luck are in Japanese and having a special name and all…

Why are the Koreans the only ones to switch to metal chopsticks?

Don’t know – lack of trees in Korea? In Japan, metal chopsticks are used to break the skull after cremation, which might put them off using them for food, but doubt that is the reason.

How can the Japanese eat chicken sashimi? Isn’t raw chicken incredibly risky?

There have been more scandals about food poisoning from raw beef in Japan recently, so maybe what I was told in England just wasn’t true??????

Why do the Japanese eat more raw horse meat than cooked horse meat?

It’s supposed to be an aphrodisiac, so maybe it doesn’t work so well if you cook it.

Why do some beers disappear so soon after they are launched?

With so many mountains, why are there no world-famous Japanese mineral waters? 

Why is happoshu cheaper than beer?

Lower tax due to a lower malt content

Why does happoshu leave a bad taste in your mouth?

I hear it’s made from peas, though I’m sure that can’t be all versions.

Why do the Japanese eat nankotsu (chicken tendons)?

As with yakitori in general, it became popular after WWII when eating every part you can was very important and for some reason stuck. It also ties in with a variety of textures -including chewy and rubbery like konnyaku and slimy like natto – being an important part of a Japanese meal.

How can six beers sold together cost exactly the same as six single bottles?

If they come in a nice box, they are likely to be used as presents and so a discount would almost take away the point.

Why can I never get drunk on happy hour cocktails?

As there are no standard spirit sizes in Japan, staff in izakayas etc and taught to put less alcohol in happy hour drinks to keep the profit margins up. Should you manage to get drunk anyway, they are also taught to do the same thing to stop you getting more so. (Can’t remember where I got this one from).

Why does Darjeeling tea in Japan have a bitter taste and green leaves in it?

I’m guessing the Japanese version is more authentic. Still prefer British Darjeeling though…

Why are pot noodles and retoruto curry (boil in a bag curry) so popular in Japan?

A lack of freezer space and ovens for frozen TV dinners, plus the multilayered distribution system means wholesalers want to avoid investing in the equipment necessary for frozen food

Why is shojin ryori (traditional Japanese vegetarian food) not more popular, especially with the recent boom in vegetarian and organic food?

Most people only eat shojin ryori at a funeral, so perhaps like Buddhist chanting that has made it less than attractive for other times. It is also bloody expensive.

Why are Japanese bagels so light and soft?

In Japan, like most imported foods it’s food for ladies.

Why do women rather than men tend to go for foreign food like pasta and bagels?

Why do women rarely eat in gyudon (beef on rice) restaurants?

Why is there so much Brazilian music in cafes like Excelsior?

How did chou cream become the Japanese national cake?

Why would they play jazz in most posh restaurants, including Chinese ones?

Why does my local chain gyudon play BGM one day and death metal the next?

Its just noise that nobody notices. My father-in-law leaves the car radio untuned for half an hour without noticing. Group oriented countries like Spain tend to like background noise.

Why are the names Matsuya and Yoshinoya both shared by posh department stores and cheap beef on a bowl gyudon chains?

No connection, just based on very common words/ names.

Why do the Japanese ask “Can you eat sushi” instead of “Do you like”?

It’s a direct translation from Japanese (“… tabemasu ka?”)

Why do I need to drink two pints of water after eating ramen?

Salt and ajinomoto (MSG).

How can Japanese food be healthy when it is so salty and have few raw vegetables?

For people working in the fields the salt in soy sauce and miso soup was not a problem. It is predicted that the next generation will live shorter lives

Why is the fattiest part of tuna (toro) the most expensive?

Apparently it used to be thrown away, but somewhere along the way people got a taste for the way it melts in your mouth- perhaps as they got more used to eating meat.

How did someone first discover you can eat the (highly poisonous) fugu puffer fish?

Why don’t the Japanese have a successful export soft drinks industry?

Actually they do in Asia, so maybe it’s the names (Pocari Sweat etc) that are putting people off. They also wouldn’t have much luck trying to make profits with a vending machine business model in the UK.

Why “bottle keep” in bars?

Groups like to have a whole bottle so they can serve each other whiskey in the same way as sake or beer

Why are sake cups so small?

To give your drinking partners (or geisha) plenty of opportunities to replenish it

Of all the Western alcoholic drinks introduced into Meiji Japan why was it whisky and beer that became most popular

Just like sake, and unlike wine, the quality of the water is the most important thing.

Why do cafes let people get away with giving English lessons, sleeping etc?

Why the present boom of French tea and French tea shops in Japan? What the hell do the French know about a decent cuppa??

Tea is sophisticated plus French things are sophisticated equals tea must be French. Also the weak bland taste suits the ladies who lunch, much as watery Earl Grey is standard for the English upper classes

Why are you supposed to take food from a common plate with the reverse part of your chopsticks?

To save leaving some of your saliva on the plate. Please note, however, that this is much rarer than etiquette books would suggest, perhaps because of the opposite danger of getting food all over your hands when you put them back round the right way…

Why are you supposed to break your waribari disposable chopsticks with the chopsticks vertical and your elbows out?

To make sure you get two equal chopsticks split exactly down the middle. Although this makes it into some etiquette books, the only people I know who do it are complete otaku.

Why is a chain coffee shops named Doutor (”doctor”)?

Apparently it’s named after a street in Lisbon, although that still doesn’t work as an explanation for me…

Why did they name MOS hamburgers after a green, sometimes slimy garden pest?

Although a traditional Japanese garden shows that there is a more positive picture of moss, in fact MOS stands for Mountain Ocean Sky. That explanation just leads onto another question for me, though…

Why are Japanese apples so huge?

They are made to share?? The fact that Fuji apples in the UK are normal Granny Smith size would suggest that it is deliberate for some reason.

Why does no one worry about MSG (monosodium glutenate, a food flavour enhancer named in Japan after the the company that first extracted it from seaweed- Ajinomoto)?

A lot of experts in the West still don’t believe that MSG allergies exist. It is possible that the anti-msg hysteria in the West was made worse or even caused by negative feelings towards Chinese food and/or Chinese people. Alternatively, the fact that the Japanese are behind the Americans in the increase in food allergies could be due to childhood not being entirely antiseptic yet.

Why do the Japanese avoid drinking out of bottles?

In a very informal, all male setting Japanese men sometimes drink directly out of the (usually very large) sake (rice wine) bottle. As that is the setting it is associated with, a child seeing their English teacher swigging from a “PET bottle” (plastic, not domesticated) they can be a little shocked. Would be something like a school teacher in England downing a pint of water in the classroom.

Why are the Japanese so obsessed with food?

As in Italy, virtually every TV programme has some food or another on it. It’s a safe topic of conversation and was a socially acceptable way of being indulgent when how you dressed and what your house looked like was strictly controlled.

How do Japanese girls eat a mainly western diet and stack up the donuts and yet mostly stay slim?

Their diet in their first few years of life until they discover creamy pasta and McDonald’s? Genetics? Bulimia? I’m guessing the last of those, but if so it’s a well hidden secret.

Why are ramen noodle places so popular in Japan?

Ramen has the two main junk food nutritional groups in full: salt and fat. It is therefore the perfect food for people who would have a doner kebab in the UK. The main reason there are so many restaurants, though, is simply that the ingredients are cheap but people will pay a fair amount of money for it and therefore it is good business- just like coffee shops.

Why do the Japanese slurp their noodles?

It is said to make them taste better. By bringing lots of air in with the noodles you can eat them hotter and so improve the flavour. If done properly, it can also help prevent ‘noodle whiplash’ and keep your shirt and tie clean. Please note that slurping rice (like in China), soup or spaghetti does happen, but is generally considered bad form and typical of dirty old salarymen “oyaji”.

Why are some foreign food in Japan so bland (Italian, Mexican) and others more authentic and spicy (Korean, Thai)?

This is connected to when that type of food became popular. The more recently it was introduced or became trendy, the more Japanese people were used to foreign tastes and didn’t need to have the taste changed so much. Having travelled to the country and tried the original could also be a factor.

Why does Japanese “curry rice” taste exactly like British 1970’s tinned curry before real Indian curry became popular?

Curry was introduced to Japan by the British in the Meiji period, when it was adopted by the new Japanese conscript army as a cheap and easy food to feed the soldiers with, where all conscription age males ate it and from where it spread over the country.

How did the mainly vegetarian Buddhist Japanese become such big meat eaters, internationally famous for meat dishes like Kobe beef and sukiyaki?

Although the Meiji era government did promote meat eating as a way of making the Japanese big and strong enough to compete with the West, the real reason it became popular is that it was, and is, a way of showing you have money, especially when entertaining. As hospitality is very important in Japan, people could no longer serve just vegetables to a guest without seeming stingy. In the same way, there are people and families who eat mainly fish, miso and vegetables at home and save meat for eating out and big occasions. Turkey is the same- as people eat lentils and beans at home they want to eat meat when they go out and so this ‘luxury’ food (kebabs in their case) has become what the country is famous for.

Why is Asian bread so sweet?

Improved answer now here.

Why do the Japanese not eat lamb?

Hokkaido is perfect land for sheep, and it has been tried, but it has just never really taken off. For one thing, it smells quite strong to people who are not used to it. Also, selling it cheap (as it is) could actually have done it harm as it was never sold as a luxury.

Why do the Japanese not eat rabbit?

Could be seen as a food for poor people, like pigeon in the UK? Alternatively, the punishments for poaching could have been so high that common people never got a taste for it? I’m a great fan myself…

How can there be smoking and non smoking sections in a cafe divided only by a rope?

In Asian countries symbolism and making an effort often count more than the practical effects of a rule or how it is enforced. And anyway, people can get used to anything – it’s only when you get used to living smoke free that you notice when it isn’t, and most countries happily put up with secondary smoke for centuries before it became a problem.

How can smoking be banned outside on the street in some areas of Tokyo but not inside restaurants?

In Japan, the emphasis seems to be on not annoying people with your smoke rather than the health problems of secondary smoking. The reason why some posters are aimed specifically at people walking and smoking, for example, is that you could hit someone and burn their hands. The fact that less attention is given to the fact that you could actually help kill someone with your smoke is likely to have a lot to do with the fact that the government owns the biggest tobacco company (no mention at all of health in the former Tobacco and Salt Museum in Shibuya) and that they want the public to have as many ways as they like for letting off steam and forgetting that the ruling classes are screwing them.

Why do the Japanese use curry roux (including flour, stirred into water to make the curry sauce) instead of curry powder?

That is how the British made it when they brought curry to Japan in 19th century Meiji era Japan. Adding the curry sauce to leftovers like cooked meat was also typical in Britain at the time.

Why do the Japanese drink that horribe happoshu fake beer stuff?

Part of the tax on beer is on the malt used, so happoshu was designed as a low malt (and therefore low taste) cheap alternative.

Why does nomihodai drink all you like beer give you such a terrible hangover?

Sometimes it’s not beer at all but happoshu low malt beer-alternative- the tell tale sign is an awful aftertaste. Seeing how cheap some of the chain izakaya are, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were doing old British pub tricks like “recycling” beer from the bottom of other people’s glasses as well. If you don’t want a hangover, only drink bottled beer.

What does the “dry” part of “Asahi Super Dry” mean?

Asahi developed a process to break down the complex sugars into simple sugars and alcohol, therefore giving a clean (or perhaps dull, depending on your tastes) crisp beer. Good with food, almost tasteless without.

How do the Hokkaido souvenirs “Shiroi Koibito” (white lover/ boyfriend/ girlfriend) biscuits get their bizarre name?


Why do Japanese men go red in the face when they drink?

Me too! The most common explanation is that it’s due to some Asian people lacking an enzyme that breaks alcohol down, but my personal theory is it is high blood pressure brought on by too many salty ramen dinners.

Why does the Asahi building in Asakusa, Tokyo have what seems to a golden turd on its roof?

Apparently it’s supposed to be a flame that also looks like the foam on a beer. Pete Brown in the beer book “Three Sheets to the Wind” says it is the result of the Asahi executives being too shy to tell Phillip Starck to get a grip, which makes sense.

Why is on the train eki-ben sushi served in bamboo food holders rather than wood?

The natural chemicals in bamboo and bamboo leaves help preserve food.

Why have their been so many scandals of out of date and mislabelled food in Japan recently?

Why do the Japanese not worry about mercury etc. in fish, shellfish and seaweed?

I’m really puzzled on this one. Japanese people in England have problems getting all the seaweed they want for cooking because it is banned, quite sensibly, due to high levels of dodgy chemicals from polluted seas in Japan and the UK. And the International Tribune has a story of tuna sushi in New York that should have a health warning on it. Maybe they just don’t want to believe it about something they don’t want to live without- a bit like Scottish people and cholesterol, and everyone and smoking.

Click here to see the IHT story.


  1. sophie said,

    June 29, 2008 at 12:26 am

    i am doing a project on japan i think it is a great country and i need to find some of there troditional foods and drinks so maybe you could help me.
    thanks sophie

  2. Tom said,

    June 30, 2008 at 6:47 am

    They eat koi in Kyoto! I’ve seen koi sashimi there.

  3. crella said,

    June 30, 2008 at 7:58 am

    No smoking in the street- a little girl got a lit cigarette in the eye and was blinded about four years ago, and that’s when this kind of regulation started popping up.

    Red faced drinkers–there are two main enzymes that break down alcohol, one that is already circulating in the bloodstream (1), and another that is excreted when alcohol gets into the system (2). So, if you have 1 but not 2, you can drink for a while but can get really drunk because 2 doesn’t kick in as you continue. If you have 2 but not 1, you get red at first and then you’re okay after a while, and can continue drinking once your system starts to produce (excrete?) enzyme 2. If you have neither God help you, and many Japanese do not. There are a total of four enzymes for alcohol. I heard this 1-2 explanation 20+ years ago, and it makes sense when you see how some people react to alcohol. 3 and 4 were discovered later, and I do not know how big a role they play. At that time it was known that people without either 1 or 2 cannot drink , so it would seem that they don’t help much.

    I had no idea at all that the British introduced curry in the Meiji era. I had long puzzled over beef curry, it’s certainly not Indian! Now I know!

  4. alexcase said,

    July 5, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Thanks Tom and Crella. The little girl and cigarette thing puts a whole new shine on my generalised cultural differences explanation…

    I guess for koi the question is then, why don’t they eat it more often? There is certainly no lack of koi….

  5. Wingless said,

    August 14, 2010 at 7:00 am

    What is the significance of peeling an apple by somebody’s sick bed? I see this in a lot of anime and it’s too regular of an occurrence not to have some kind of significance or cultural meaning. Right..?

  6. Anabellers said,

    January 8, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    Why does Japanese drink beer with there food?

  7. crella said,

    January 14, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    It was in Saitama, a four-year-old. Now that MIL uses a wheelchair for outings, I’m grateful for this, she’s just elbow-bag-cigarette height in the chair….I can easily imagine being burned by someone walking with a cigarette.

    When I answered about the red-faced drinkers question I forgot to mention that DH has NO enzymes for alcohol. He was tested after he almost died, when forced to drink at an initiation for his club in uni. He took a taxi to his parent’s house because he was afraid he was dying. He threw it all up, but he was quite sick.

    The lack of tolerance for alcohol can be so severe that people’s skin will puff up when you swab them with alcohol to give them an injection. I worked for a while in an orthopedic clinic and had two patients whose skin turned angry red and swelled up when swabbed. We had to switch to another disinfectant for them.

  8. crella said,

    January 14, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Sorry, that was a bit garbled…I went to answer the phone….DH took a taxi to his parents’ house and collapsed, and was unconscious for quite a while. They took him to the hospital because his breathing slowed, classic alcohol poisoning. He threw up a few times on the way to their house, it’s probably what saved him.

  9. Tony said,

    February 5, 2011 at 1:15 am

    In Hokkaido, a LOT of people eat lamb. “Jingisukan” or ” Genghis Khan” is an extremely popular grilled lamb dish in Hokkaido.

    Also, getting red in the face from drinking alcohol is because it’s a vasodilator. Full stop. No talk about enzymes or anything else is necessary or warranted. Non-japanese people get red faced when they drink sometimes, too. This is the same thing that makes you feel warm when you’re drinking.

    If Japanese people REALLY had a shortage of the enzyme that break down alchohol (alcohol dehydrogenase) they would likely be very resistant to hangovers, which anyone who has lived in Japan can tell you is not true.

  10. miyuki mcmullen said,

    January 29, 2012 at 3:40 am

    Re: New Years, we eat Oden,(fish cakes, konnyaku, and kombu), different sushi, and do not cut anything with a knife or scissors, as it will cut short life.

  11. crella said,

    January 30, 2012 at 12:52 am

    Tony, I don’t follow your logic. If someone had no alcohol dehydrogenase and couldn’t process alcohol, how would that make them resistant to hangovers?

    This has all been proven by genetic research, and can be established by s simple blood test. I didn’t pull it out of thin air.

  12. crella said,

    January 30, 2012 at 1:04 am

    “Four different populations of China were studied regarding aldehyde dehydrogenase isozyme variation and incidence of alcohol sensitivity. While Korean and Mongolian minorities in the north showed an isozyme I deficiency with a frequency of about 25 and 30%, 45–50% of Zhuang and Han were deficient, respectively. Adverse reactions after alcohol drinking were mainly reported by those subjects who showed the lack of aldehyde dehydrogenase isozyme I.”


    One research report about it, done in China.

  13. Tony Foreman said,

    January 30, 2012 at 1:42 am

    Please disregard the last statement of my previous comment! Haha, I didn’t look it up, and made a bad assumption. I figured aldehydes were cleared from the blood by a different enzyme than alcohols, and I was wrong!

    Haha, my original point still stands, though. Alcohol is a vasodilator :) I know a lot of people who get red in the face when they drink.

  14. crella said,

    January 31, 2012 at 10:38 pm


    DH can’t even drink a 1/2 glass of beer without becoming sick and his parents can’t drink either. Interestingly, our son can drink…who did he get it from ? (whistles nonchalantly)

  15. k said,

    May 24, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    it’s funny cos 90% wrong answers lol

  16. no said,

    May 25, 2014 at 1:55 am

    Too many bullshit, from japan.

  17. alexcase said,

    May 25, 2014 at 5:14 am

    Seems someone has translated this here. http://sow.blog.jp/archives/1003379468.html

    Haven’t had time to read all the answers, but there seems to be at least as much bs there as there is here…

    Seems people most object to me asking why people don’t eat koi, because some people do. So, why do MOST people rarely or never eat koi, seeing as they are incredibly common fish?

    Also, the accent on “sake” for rice wine being to show the pron is different from “sake” for salmon is just nonsense, because the former is and was mainly used in communication between English speakers who clearly used the word “salmon” for the latter.

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