Japan is an island nation in Asia with a rich history and culture. One of the amazing things you can do in Japan is sampling Japanese cuisine. Some of its key components are seafood, noodles, and Japanese curry, which also happens to be a national dish. When it comes to ordering food though, the language on the menu can be challenging for foreigners, especially outside the big cities.
Are menus in Japan in English? There are English menus in big cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka. In these cities, there are Western-themed and Japanese style restaurants with English menus. In smaller cities, most menus are in Japanese, but it is still possible to order food with the help of pictures, food models, and language translation apps.
In this post, I have explained why some menus in Japan are in English while others are not. I have also gone into great detail about how you can order food in Japan, with or without a menu in English. Would you like to find out some of the interesting or even weird foods that you can sample in Japan? Then let’s get started.
Beware: This post has plenty of Japanese words.
Are Menus in Japan in English?
Like I mentioned above you can get menus in English in some restaurants in big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama, and Osaka. Why only in the big cities? Because they are popular with foreign tourists and have therefore tailored their services to suit their clients. As you go deeper into the countryside, you encounter lots of family-owned restaurants. Finding menus in English in family-owned restaurants is rare.
Nevertheless, this is not enough reason to limit your visits or meal times to the big cities. The reason being, you can get some of the most delicious foods without uttering a single Japanese word. For starters, most of the restaurants have picture menus for the dishes they serve – you can literally go with the picture that appeals to you the most!
Pictures aside, some restaurants provide plastic or wax models of what’s in their menu. Some even go further and display this in their windows, so you can see it from the outside.
These “food models” are displayed on windows, and is most of the time accompanied by food prices. This is especially common in places with several restaurants next to each other.
What if there are no pictures or “food models” to help you order your food?
Sampling and discovering different dishes in Japanese restaurants will add some thrill to your culinary adventure. There’s a popular saying that there’s no bad food in Japan. And, there’s no problem with pointing at what other people are eating to ease the communication between you and your waiter.
On the other hand, having a grasp of a few relevant Japanese words can go a long way into ensuring that you take advantage of everything that the Restaurants in Japan have to offer. More details on this below!
How to Order Food in Japan
If you don’t speak Japanese, ordering food in a restaurant or from a street cart can be challenging. To begin with, you need to know basic Japanese words from exchanging greetings to actually ordering something to eat. What about asking for an English menu?
With a little practice, you could be speaking ‘basic’ Japanese in no time. Here are some of the phrases that can help you get by, especially when visiting restaurants in smaller Japanese cities.
Basic Restaurant Phrases
Resutoran – Restaurant
Menyuu – menu
Ueitā – waiter
Ueitoresu – waitress
Go-chūmon wa – what do you want?
Shokuji – (Shoh-koo-jee) meals
Chōshoku –(chohh-shoh-koo) breakfast
Chūshoku – (chooo-shoh-koo) lunch
Yūshoku – (yooo-shoh-koo) dinner
O-kanjō onegaishimasu – Check please
Ordering Food and Drinks
In English, you order food by saying “may I have or I would like” followed by the food item. In Japan, the words are in reverse; you start with the item followed by “o onegaishimasu”. For example, to order meat – niku (nee-koo), you should tell the waiter; “niku o onegaishimasu” which means “I would like to have meat, please”.
Here are more common menu items in Japanese:
Mizu (mee-zoo) water
Toriniku – (toh-ree-nee-koo) chicken
Sakana – (sah-kah-nah) fish
Butaniku – (boo-tah-nee-koo) pork
Gyūniku – (gyooo-nee-koo) beef
Sakana – (sah-kah-nah) fish
Tamago – (tah-mah-goh) eggs
Sarada – (sah-rah-dah) salad
Yasai – (yah-sah-ee) vegetables
Dezāto – (deh-zahh-toh) dessert
Gohan – (goh-hahn) cooked rice
Sūpu – (sooo-poo) soup
Kōhī – (kohh-heee) coffee
Jūsu – (jooo-soo) juiceWain- (wah-een) wine
Using an App to Translate Japanese Menus to English
So, are menus in Japan in English? Maybe not all, but things might just get easier with apps. We are living in a digital world and honestly, apps have made our lives better in numerous ways. They come in handy when we want to store files, stream our favorite music, edit images, scan documents, note down a few ideas, etc.
Then we have the language translation apps and even more specifically, apps that can translate menus. In the case of Japanese menus, these apps can:
- Recognize and highlight Japanese text in a menu
- Translate Japanese text into English (typed or handwritten)
- Translate images
- Recognize and translate spoken words/sentence
Examples of apps that you can use to translate menus are Google Translate, Word Lens, Naver Papago, and iTranslate. Notably, these apps are not 100% accurate. In fact, they sometimes give some weird translations but mostly, they at least give an idea of what is on the menu.
Also, you may not get one app that will do all the above perfectly but you can base your choice on personal preference. For example, if you prefer speaking into your phone rather than typing, Google Translate is your best bet while Photo Translator does better with image translation. You may even prefer having more than one app for different functions.
Besides translating menus, the apps can also help with other things such as learning Japanese, finding your way around Japan, translating websites, and translating conversations.
Weird Dishes on the Menu in Japan
Did you know that in Japan you can eat alone in a restaurant cubicle, or be served by a ninja waiter? Yes, some of the most interesting facts about Japan are food-related.
Mostly, when people talk of Japanese cuisine, what comes to mind is rice and fish. While fish and rice is the common meal, your trip to Japan should include trying some of the island’s unique foods.
Japanese meals are served in beautiful combinations of seafood, local herbs, meat, rice, and noodles among others. That said, there are weird dishes in this Asian country that require a strong stomach.
Do not be deceived by the exotic-sounding name, nama tamago means ‘raw eggs’. Slimy as they are, raw eggs are a common sight in Japanese eateries. The uncooked egg is served in its shell with rice (uruchimai). Just break it on top of the boiled rice. You can also use the raw egg to dip hot dishes in.
How do you feel about eating horse meat? Known as basashi, the dish is a common menu item in Japan. The dish is also known as sakura niku, a name from the old times meaning ‘cherry blossom meat’. Its served cooked with soy sauce and garlic to bring out the flavor. It is usually served with natto, a sticky fermented soybeans dish.
Fun fact: Horsemeat has not always been legal in Japan. During the Edo period (1603-1867), the Japanese government had prohibited the eating of meat. Since people could not openly eat horse meat, it was sold in secrecy. To fool the authorities, the term sakura niku started being used as a secret code for horse meat. Here are other foods that start with B.
After tuna, squid (ika) is the second most common type of sashimi (raw fish or meat) in Japan. The dish is not only served raw but it’s prepared when still alive! That’s right, the squid will still be moving in your plate by the time you take the first bite. Typically, the dish is served with soy sauce, wasabi (horseradish), and grated ginger.
Now, this next dish is as weird as its expensive. How strong is your appetite? Shirako means ‘white children’ and is used to refer to the sperm sack of a fish. To make it even weirder, some people like it raw. Usually, shirako is served as a topping for other foods. It doesn’t have much of a flavor and is creamy.
You have probably heard of fugu, one of Japan’s favorite dishes and among the most dangerous foods in the world. This is a pufferfish that is served raw but unlike other types of sashimi, eating fugu can make you sick or even kill you.
In Japan though, fugu chefs first learn how to prepare the dish as apprentices for three years. Also, they have to pass various exams before they can be allowed to serve customers. As reported by BBC, a third of the students fail. So, before you order the dish, make sure that your chef is licensed.
Check out other foods that start with F.
When you head out to Japan, be prepared to sample a variety of local dishes that range from delicious to utterly weird. Are menus in Japan in English? Not all of them. However, as you have seen from the above, there are different ways to ensure that you have access to everything on the menu in restaurants in Japan.