A year ago an ask appeared in my inbox on tumblr about eating healthy in Japan. I answered, but I thought I’d expound on it and maybe break down some myths people have about living in Japan and eating without having been there.
Just a little disclaimer before I start. I’m going to talk about healthy eating in the slow carb/ low carb, calorie counting, maximizing vegetable intake diversity of foods way. There’s a ton of ways to eat healthy and be healthy (keto, paleo, vegetarian) and I refuse to discount those. People’s bodies are all different and respond to nutrition differently, I don’t believe there’s one right way to eat. However this is mostly about ways to optimize your Japanese food experience towards a healthier side focusing on vegetables and decreasing sugar using the above method but there should be options for a lot of eating plans here. And if you don’t want to eat healthy, fine with me I’ve got a big sakura sweets post coming up for you.
For you vegetarians this isn’t specifically for you but you may find some help here, but I also talk about vegetarian in Japan in this post.
In this article I’m going to suggest some traditional Japanese food places that can be made healthy, some cheats to make healthy eating easier, some ways to navigate Japanese food to make it healthier, and some budget tips. Just like overseas the unhealthy option is often cheaper, but you can eat healthy in Japan for $30 a day.
I’ve aimed this guide more at tourists and tried to suggest chains or types of food because I think if you have to travel 60 minutes to this one restaurant then your time is being wasted. Of course if you live in Japan you can find more specific options that related to where you live.
Myth: Eating in Japan is Healthy because the traditional diet is healthy
Every once in a while it pops up that the Japanese diet is so healthy or Japanese people are so thin (they’re getting bigger just like the rest of the world). Well the traditional Japanese diet is very healthy and that is definitely true. Lots of boiled items, lightly pickled vegetables, reliance on what was a healthy option of fish, rice as carbs for hard days at work, and a soup with a meal.
But Western food and Japanese variations on Western food are often more popular (tonkatsu, doria, omurice). Or Japanese traditional food can be problematic (beef bowls, ramen, curry). There’s not a sushi restaurant on every corner. More likely a McDonalds, bakery, or beef bowl chain around the corner. I cannot stress this point enough.
Sometimes people will ask what I ate when I lived in Japan and I’m like “food.” Duh. But the real answer is everything. Japan loves its bakeries, Italian food, doner kabobs, donut chains, and Indian food. Japan has the most Michelin starred restaurants of any country and many of them are French and Italian. Sometimes its harder finding a Japanese food restaurant than a non-Japanese food one.
Eat at small cafes for lunch.
On side streets near big streets you’ll often see placards or signboards of cafes offering their lunch selection.
On my recent trip to Osaka I wandered off a side-street near Shinsaibashi and found a cafe with a healthy plate set. 650 ($6.60) yen in total with drink included. I could’ve done without the fry on the chicken, but healthy by Japanese standards. Small cafes especially near shopping areas know women are more health conscious lately and more of these “healthy plate” options are popping up.
When traveling by shinkansen or longer regular train ride always buy a bento in the shopping area not inside the train.
Even checking outside the station offers healthier options.
Just take a look at the difference for yourself:
Bento from my favorite bento place in Shinagawa station, Atre. Before you enter the shinkansen gates. Check the variety of meats and vegetables. This bento was 700yen and has a variety of meats and a vegetables.
In a rush I bought this bento on a shinkansen. Ugh look at all that fried and empty carbs. Barely a vegetable in sight. I think it was 800 yen, more expensive and not worth it. Prices tend to go up within Shinkansen gates.
If you have time, shop around, chances are you can find a really healthy bento for your journey. Inside the Shinkansen gates however, in my experience the food tends to get less healthy.
If you’re with friends, steer them towards restaurants with options, and here are those places.
On one side your non-diet friend/boyfriend respects you, and hopefully supports your healthy eating. On the other side you making faces at every place suggested or complaining how this is going to make you fat or there’s nothing for you is just not going to make anyone happy. No one likes a whiner. So be proactive! Also if you’re like me and travel with someone who has a bottomless pit for a stomach these places will help satisfy them and you.
Also most restaurants in Japan do not accept substitutions or removal. Dressing on the side? Good luck. Fancier restaurants and smaller mom-and-pop places are usually better at it.
Ootoya (大戸屋 site) is a big restaurant chain focused traditional Japanese meals for a reasonable price. They’re all over Tokyo (plus) and have lots of healthy (plus) and not-so-healthy options for your companion.
Lots of big pictures so easy to deal with if you don’t know Japanese. Every meal has the total calorie count on it, too.
Bonus! They offer a healthy mixed rice as an option to any meal. Getting away from white rice has been a really difficult change in Japan so that a chain has adopted it has been big.
My meal! Lots of protein, on a bed of veggies, miso soup and healthy rice.
2) Nabezo and Sukiyaki or Shabushabu
Nabezo (鍋ぞう jp site english site) is another chain restaurant of hot pot either sukiyaki or shabushabu. It’s an all you can eat restaurant so if you’re traveling with someone who has a giant appetite it’s a good idea.
Recently they’ve really worked hard on updating their vegetable bar and tried to Japan-source all their vegetables of pumpkin, leeks, and much more. Less meat, more veggies, and stay away from their rice and you will eat a very veggie-rich healthy meal. You can really get your moneys worth on the veggie side.
Yakitori places (焼き鳥, やきとり chicken and veggies on skewers) are known for being places for a lot of guys with beer swilling and meat eating. But since Yakitori is just meat and often only chicken you’re eating pure lean protein. They’re mostly bars and you’ll see a sign that says yakitori (やきとり) often around train stations. There’s also variations with leeks and veggies. Not the most veggie rich, but definitely a place you can fill up.
4. You have choices at an izakaya!
Surrounded by all the empty calories of alcohol that can really be a diet killer, izakayas with friends are always fun alcohol or not. And there’s options for you in what seems like the unhealthiest setting. Of course the more expensive ones will have better menus, that’s a given but basic izakayas can still be okay.
I like Shirokiya (白木屋 site) so I’m going to show you some good options from their menu.
Some sashimi, some asparagus and pork, a ceasar salad, some rolled egg tamago. Your izakaya outing doesn’t have to be just fried food.
A lot of people still drink on a diet. A great resource is getdrunknotfat.com stay out of the sugar drinks and get your sippy on.
5. Family Restaurants like Saizeriya and Denny’s are your friends
A big trend of Japanese family restaurants are offering lots of varieties of food with very healthy options (Denny’s JP with calorie counts and locations, Saizeriya JP with locations ). Brown rice, calorie counts listed on the menu, big salads etc… It’s a great cheap way to make everyone happy.
Just look at this Denny’s seasonal course. Delicious! And option for 600 calories, will fit in any calorie budget.
6. Bonus! Be even more proactive, make a customized master list!
This is what I do when I’m traveling is make a master list. I did this for Istanbul last year and man I ate soooo good!
Use my list, use tokyoeats.com, use timeouttokyo etc… google “Osaka Healthy Eating” etc.. and combine all the places you’d like to go with their nearby train stations. Think about where you’ll be staying train station wise, then give yourself lots of dinner options before you even get on the plane. Print it out or just make a big photo file on your iphone.
The best way to do it is by location so:
restaurant 1 -4
restaurant 1- 5
restaurant 1 – 3
That way say if you’re in Akihabara you’ll have an Akihabara place ready with location so you can find and eat there. Do not travel to eat, travel to have fun, there’s always a delicious place nearby in Tokyo. Wasting your time in transit is just not worth it. And wandering around on travel sore feet and an empty belly is just the right mixture to get in a fight or be unhappy (trust your girl Mitsu on this one). Often times this leads to giving up on finding something good and settling on something crap and unhealthy.
Grocery stores are your friend for price and healthiness, but not convenient.
Chances are you will be at a hotel instead of a place with a cooking option, but there’s lots of precooked meals in grocery stores or raw vegetables and fruits to enjoy. You can ask your hotel where the closest one is. The basements of large department stores also have a small grocery store usually.
While the sushi is a bit full of white rice, the sashimi option is a wonderful fresh choice. And only 690 yen ($7.00)
Cheap raw veggies and fruits like cucumbers, carrots, apples and mikans are my healthy snack option in Japan. All four are usually very inexpensive especially in season.
Thrift note: After 7pm grocery stores start marking down their prepaid meals so you can often find cheaper options the later you wait.
When in doubt go to a department store.
This is my when in doubt answer for anything really tourist related. In any big city in Japan.
1. Do you need to pee? Nice, clean bathrooms that are free await you in any department store.
2. Do you need directions and maybe English? The fancier ones may help you.
3. Do you need to eat and are nervous about options? Upstairs of department stores have several options.
4. Is it hot and you want to cool off? Department stores have the best AC
5. Need wifi? More and more department stores are offering an hour of free wifi
6. Need groceries? Basement of department stores are often grocery stores.
Lots of restaurant variety and plastic versions of the meals outside so you can judge healthiness without going inside. Although these restaurants tend to vary in price and many can be above 1000 yen or $10 a meal, there are decently priced restaurants in even the fanciest of stores. There’s usually 6-15 restaurants so you have a lot of options in a small space. Many department store restaurants offer wonderful views at night of the city depending on location. Kyoto train station Takashimaya is a good example (bonus they have a great grocery store in the basement) and their Nagoya train station Takashimaya is wonderful as well.
ACW – Always Carry Water & Snacks
Are you hungry or just thirsty? Are you getting enough drinks when moving around so much being a tourist? Always refill a water bottle before you leave for the day (free) and carry it around with you.
A dried fruit or nut pack is always a smart idea so you won’t make a quick choice for food instead of a healthy choice.
Bonus Health – Pack a meal and snacks onto your plane
Traveling long flights can get you fat. Okay that sounded like clickbait. Actually the bacteria in your belly linked to obesity grows after a long-haul flight. And if you’re flying coach (smart you) you’re served terribly unhealthy items. It seems even when I pick the vegetarian or vegan options the outcome is the same. So your belly is full of bad bacteria and you’re shoveling in over-salted caloric paste in. It’s a horrible combination!
I started to wonder was the reason I felt like crap getting off a long-haul flight was the hours or the food or both? You can at least combat the food!
Instead airports and airlines allow you to tote food in a plastic container. I finally gave in and started doing this and my body thanked me for it. My favorite carry on meal is chopped chicken breast and roasted brussel sprouts. Tastes good at room temperature and after cooking no need for a sauce or seasoning. I also carry on nut packs and dried fruit.
If you’ve been restricting the types of food you eat before you travel your body will be in for a shock when you stop. Also your body has leveled out to the food you eat in your own country, foreign bacteria and food can upset your belly. Be sure to have some snacks from home just in case this becomes a big issue.
I’m planning a fabulous on flight post, and this is a sneak preview.
Calorie Counting and Steps
If you’re a calorie counter check out eiyokeisan. MyFitnessPal isn’t great at listing Japanese traditional foods, but eiyokeisan has some good listings of traditional Japanese food and their calorie counts. Brit chain Yo Sushi! has a pdf booklet of nutritional counts of all their food to use as a check on things like gyoza and tempura.
As a tourist you are walking miles and miles, so your body needs more calories, don’t forget adjust for that and to love it. You can burn 400-700 calories a day just simply walking around all day. For those cheap you can download “Moves” app on your phone and it will count steps and calories burnt. It burns battery life, but it’s free! You can set it to be a little less accurate but to burn less battery as well.
Extra travel tips: Beyond healthy eating in Japan you can also do some hotel yoga there’s a lot of posts online about it and the Yoga app for iPad is great, it really helps with jetlag if you wake up too early. Other bodyweight exercises are also easy to do in a hotel.
If you’re feeling vegetable depleted and need a cool meal: Yasaiyamei
Yasaiyamei (やさい家めい site ) is on the third floor of the Omotesando Hills shopping center near Tokyu Plaza and La Foret. It’s pricey but definitely one of the best vegetable experiences I’ve had. They’re known for their lunch sets and lunch can get quite packed (tokyoeats review here), but their dinner was quiet and excellent.
I ordered their winter course which came with three courses along with a vegetable juice, tea and dessert for 3690 yen. Around 33$. Pricey but definitely worth it!
This tower of power was all edible vegetables you put into their creamy garlic dip.
Main course was a just a wonderful mix of items like a traditional meal but only vegetables. The bottom right was “aloe sashimi” and so interesting!
It’s a bit on the pricey side but if your body is feeling worn down and need some vitamins it’s a nice quiet stop at dinner.
A simple final word, have fun. Enjoy a treat every once in a while even on your diet. Tasting freshly made mochi is amazing. A Harajuku crepe is a tourist momento (just ask for light on the whipped cream). QPot Cafe is spectacular. Ramen overseas doesn’t compare. And oddly enough I still believe after visiting many parts of Europe, Japanese bread making is the best.
You’d be amazed how much memory is associated with taste and remembering delicious (sometimes unhealthy) food can often take us back to a place. And as the saying goes one bad meal didn’t make you unhealthy.