Breakfast in Japan: An Unofficial Guide
Step 1: Go to Denny’s
I went to Japan and ate and ate and ate. One of those three ates was generally what I consider to be breakfast. We got to Tokyo late, but didn’t waste any time pounding conveyor-belt sushi and getting ripped on highballs made with Japanese whiskey. While the highball isn’t really a trendy thing in the US, it’s ubiquitous at bars in Tokyo. So that isn’t Japanese breakfast at all, but you have to consider what we drank for dinner to see the impetus for breakfast.
When you spend as much time in Suntory time as we did every night, you are gonna wake up a little bit later than usual and quickly look to take corrective actions. These came in two forms, both conveniently vended from a machine in the back alley of our Airbnb.
Behold, my coffee of choice in Japan. There was something about having a hot can of Tommy Lee Jones that really got me going.
Boss is one of many brands of coffee you can get from vending machines in Tokyo. I chose it entirely because of its marketing. One of my favorite video game characters swears by a brand called Ebony, and there are plenty others. Oddly, they are made by what we consider to be alcoholic beverage brands here in the US. Suntory makes Boss, Kirin makes one called Fire, and I think Asahi makes coffee, too. Now that I think about it, perhaps there is some relationship to the fact that the more Suntory whiskey I drank the night before, the more Suntory coffee I had the next day. My gal went for Ito En’s Oi Ocha, which is pretty common both here and in Japan.
What made me most happy about this was that both products could be purchased hot or cold from the same machine, and I never had to interact with anyone to get my jolt. It’s really a great way to start your morning.
Speaking of not interacting with anyone, our first breakfast was at Ichiran, a ramen joint which just opened its first American outpost in Brooklyn. Here, you pre-purchase your ramen via a ticket machine, sit in a little cubby, fill out an order sheet to customize your ramen, and press a button to alert the servers that you are ready. This can all be done without saying a word to anyone, and you’re encouraged to do so. The idea is that it lets you concentrate on the enjoyment and satisfaction of your bowl of ramen, and let me tell you, it was quite effective.
Even the water is dispensed from a little spigot so you don’t have to ask for more. Now I’m sure some of you are all kinds of smh right now because ramen is not a traditional breakfast food, but I am here to change your mind. The starchy noodles, slightly smoky, porky broth, and secret spicy sauce (that’s what they call it, really) is basically just a breakfast burrito in a bowl. It certainly helped with our hangovers as much as a breakfast burrito would, and upon further research I found out that some Ichiran locations stay open 24 hours because people eat ramen for breakfast all the time.
Another “that ain’t breakfast” breakfast item I had was sushi. Here’s the deal—you gotta get up at the crack if you want to see Tsukiji Market in all of its glory, and you are gonna get hungry. I’m sure I could have found a bowl of cereal or something, but when you are staring at gems like these, you can’t resist.
This one-man sushi band delivered a killer setlist, but the three pieces here were the standouts. The coolest part about all of this is that it wasn’t even 9 a.m. and the sushi counter was outside. You just stroll up, stand there, say how hungry you are, devour, and go about your day. It was kinda brisk so we had some hot sake as well. That was a really great breakfast, possibly the best in my life.
When you are a tourist, sometimes you have to get somewhere in order to do the touring. We wanted to hang out in hot springs and see snow monkeys so one morning we hopped on a Shinkansen bound for Nagano. On the train platforms there are tons of vending machines and people selling ekibens, which are bento boxes to be eaten on the train. In my case, it was literally a train:
loaded with plum rice balls, pickles, and a little cake. I’m sure you are scratching your head about this one, but it was actually kind of a perfect little breakfast. The acidity of the pickles had me salivating and awake, while the rice balls provided some fuel. The little cake was just adorable, especially when using that crazy fork. It also came with a teeny little soy sauce bottle which is just a little out of view, next to the pickles in the pic above.
Once we got to Nagano, we transferred to a local train headed to Yamanouchi, an onsen (hot springs) town near the snow monkey park. We stayed at a ryokan, which is a super-traditional inn. They give you special shoes to wear, yukata, and set you up for 24 hours of relaxation.
We slept like hinoki logs on the floor and made some tea before heading downstairs to one of the most beautiful breakfasts I’ve ever had. Take it all in, including the complimentary toe-socks:
Rice! Pickles! Salad! Tea! Miso soup! The local apple juice was mind-altering. I will not drink normal apple juice again. And the star of the show, the onsen tamago:
Onsen tamago is an egg that’s been cooked at around 145 degrees in the hot spring water. It’s the Tesla of eggs, and that little speck of yuzu jam sent me over the moon. Outside of the inn, they sell extra onsen tamago for you to take with you. The coolest part is that this is done on the honor system: You fish them out of the hot springs yourself.
The next breakfast we had was in Osaka, where whole streets are nothing but restaurants, sometimes multiple floors of restaurants, with carts outside selling food and tourists lined up for some sort of specialty. One of these specialties is okonomiyaki, which we indeed had for breakfast, and I think truly qualifies as breakfast because it is a savory variation of the pancake. Ours was loaded with potato, mochi cakes, and cheese. Look at that pool of mayo and sauce… you almost can’t look away. It’s like the Eye of Sauron, cooked at your table, right in front of you. Maybe America is too litigious or careless to have screaming hot griddles on the table, but let me tell you, it’s breakfast 3.0
A lesser-known character from the Hello Kitty universe world is Gudetama, the lazy egg. Here he or she is on a cup of chai.
This place was adorable, and all the food came decorated like Gudetama. I had meat mountain, and my gal had a creamy udon soup with cod roe. KAWAIII!
Considerably less adorable, bordering on alien, was a giant omelet over rice in a gooey sauce called tenshin-don. Eating it was like being wrapped in an egg and crab onesie. It was considerably thicker and fluffier than any omelet I’ve ever had, and there was something very comforting about the warm rice underneath. This place also made killer dumplings and ramen. I think it was in the basement of a mall called Sunshine City.
Sometimes as a tourist you wander aimlessly. We were in what seemed like a residential neighborhood when we came upon this little joint. They sell three things. Hard boiled eggs, poached egg with noodles, and something else, maybe mayonnaise.
I figured that if they can run an operation selling only eggs, it had to be one lit egg.
It was. Seriously this was like an egg got a PhD in how to taste good and look awesome. The white was soft and tender, not rubbery. It was easy to peel, and that yolk: Those hens must have been eating carrots or something because I’ve never seen a yolk that was clearly red-orange. The flavor wasn’t sulphury or funky. It had a creamy yet mineral flavor, like what I would imagine clay would taste like if clay were delicious. I would pay $15 for another one of those eggs. I think they were about a buck, and we ate a lot of them. It was kinda wild, just sitting on a bench with a bunch of other people just peeling eggs and snackin’.
The last place we had breakfast is probably the last place you might think to have breakfast in Japan, and that is Denny’s. Denny’s in Japan is great. It’s clean and elegant, like an airport VIP lounge. The food rules. My wife wanted to try a special kind of Japanese pancake. You will notice that they are way thicc. This is allegedly because some home cooks make pancakes in their rice cookers, making more of a cake than the floppy flat discs we know.
I had another rice omelet variant, this time with brown gravy, that’s called omurice. It was hearty, but not a gut bomb either. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you go to Japan, you have to go to Denny’s.
One word of caution: If you eat all day and drink all night like I did, you will eventually be confronted with the fact that Japan has gotten into your system, and you will never be the same again, and neither will your definition of breakfast. I fell into a gastronomic depression upon coming back to the States, that is, until I found a hot can of Boss coffee at my local Japanese market. Sadly, though, Tommy Lee Jones was nowhere to be found.
Here is a stroller full of cats. Do not eat them for breakfast.