STORY Indulge yourself at all-you-can-eat (tabehoudai) restaurants by JNTO Gourmet on 21 September 2018
Whether you like unique hotpots, sizzling yakiniku or freshly-caught seafood, Japan has no shortage of amazing food to sample. If you’re on a limited budget or time, then you should try a tabehoudai restaurant – these all-you-can-eat dining options can be found all over Japan, offering all kinds of Japanese food. Generally, these options are all based on time limits (usually 1-2 hours), and most restaurants also have all-you-can-drink options which include Japanese sake, beer, and other beverages.
The concept of all-you-can-eat is sometimes referred to as “Viking”, inspired by the Swedish smorgasbord buffet.
Omi Beef and Matsutake mushrooms
One of Japan’s “Top Three Wagyu”, Omi beef dates back 400 years, once served to the samurai who unified Japan during an era when consumption of meat was forbidden. Omi beef today is raised on a small-volume production – only 6,000 black cattles are certified annually – in the pristine environment around Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, producing a well-marbled meat with tender fat and a mellow aroma. Among wagyu, the oleic acid-rich Omi beef has a low-melting temperature, producing a pleasant aroma when lightly broiled and salted.
After a day of exploring beautiful Lake Biwa, or the area’s ninja culture, why not savour scrumptious all-you-can-eat Omi beef at Mawari? Enjoy yakiniku (thinly-sliced meat sizzled on a grate) with various cuts – including short rib, skirt, and even offal – of this fine-grained meat together with various vegetables, alongside a selection of noodles, rice, and dessert. There are two options for all-you-can-eat Omi beef (one includes specially selected cuts of meat), and you can also add an all-you-can-drink option with your meal, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Price: 3,500 yen - 7,000 yen (all-you-can-eat with Omi beef)
Duration: 90 minutes
All-you-can-drink: 400 yen (non-alcohol); 980 yen (alcohol)
Address: Mawari, Omihachiman, Shiga Prefecture
Hours: 5pam - 11pm (weekdays)/ 5pm-12am (Friday, Saturday and Public Holiday)
Seafood: crabs and oysters
There are many types of crabs available in Japan, but when winter rolls in, one sought-after delicacy is zuwaigani snow crab – partially because harvesting this species is permitted only in winter (November to March). Zuwaigani has a concentrated ‘umami’ flavour with a distinctly sweet flavour, and tastes exceptional when freshly boiled. Male crabs (kanou-gani) are bigger, while smaller female crabs (kobako) contain roe and are more favoured by locals, who also consider crab brains a delicacy.
Zuwaigani is characterised by its long, thin legs and lives primarily on the Sea of Japan coast – and particularly famous in Ishikawa and Fukui prefectures. If you’re in Kanazawa (Ishikawa Prefecture), head to Benkichi which is famous for its freshly-boiled and grilled all-you-can-eat zuwaigani which you can dip in sanbaizu sauce (a mixture of vinegar, soy, and sugar). End the meal with crab porridge.
Price: 5,500 yen (boiled course) - 6,800 yen (boiled + grilled course); minimum 2 diners
Duration: 2 hours
All-you-can-drink: 1,890 yen (alcohol)
Address: Benkichi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture
Hours: 11am - 2pm; 5pm - 10pm
If you’re an oyster fan, head to Hiroshima – the biggest producer of oysters in Japan – between November and February when oysters are in season. It’s hard not to find an oyster hut or a oyster-harvesting bamboo raft floating along the stretch of Hiroshima’s coastline. The bay has a perfect concentration of salt water, so the oysters are juicy and creamy.
Shimada Shuisan is a beachfront oyster shack where you can self-grill oysters (gloves provided) which are freshly unloaded from the sea by local fishermen. The oysters become sweeter and more aromatic when grilled in the shell. The all-you-can-eat menu also includes oyster rice and miso soup.
You can also order meals like deep-fried breaded oysters (1,000 yen for 1kg) or an oyster course (2,000 yen for 1kg of grilled oysters, oyster rice, and soup). While you dine, enjoy views of Miyajima island which is famous for Itsukushima Shrine and its red torii gate that ‘floats’ in the bay.
Price: 2,300 yen (adults); 1,000 yen (children 4-12 years old); charcoal fee 400 yen per table
Duration: 60 minutes
Address: Shimada Oyster Hut, Miyajimaguchi, Hiroshima Prefecture
Hours: Sun-Thur 10am - 7pm; Fri & Sat 10am - 8pm; Wed 10am - 4pm
Genghis Khan (lamb barbecue)
If you’re heading to Hokkaido, you should try a local soul food not commonly found elsewhere: Genghis Khan. Created in Hokkaido in the early 1900s, this is basically a yakiniku dish (or Mongolian bbq) where you cook slices of lamb and mutton – along with vegetables like bean sprouts and onions – over a dome-shaped grill, which has ridges that drain off the excess fat and marinade.
The meat is served either marinated or unseasoned – this lets you enjoy the true flavour of the meat – which you dip in sauce after cooking. The meat is always cooked atop the vegetables so that they absorb the flavour. When cooking unseasoned meat, melt lard on the grill to ensure the food doesn’t burn.
Head to Hokkaido Beer Garden for an all-you-can-eat Genghis Khan meal, including both marinated and unseasoned so you can enjoy its natural flavour, as well as pork and chicken. End your meal by cooking udon or ramen noodles in the leftover juices. The ideal accompaniment to the meal would be a freeflow of Limited Edition Sapporo Classic Beer which is part of the meal.
Price: 3,500 yen (adult); 1,250 yen (children 7-12 years old)
Duration: 100 minutes
All-you-can-drink: beer/highball/soft drinks included (add 500 yen for more drink options)
Address: Hokkaido Beer Garden, Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture
Hours: 5pm - 12am
Kyoto obanzai (vegetarian)
For vegetarians – or those feeling the need to detox – Kyoto is a great place to try their local obanzai cuisine. Obanzai refers to home-cooked food made with seasonal Kyoyasai (heirloom vegetables from Kyoto), consisting of multiple small dishes that are usually simple to prepare. Dishes are normally passed down generations, making obanzai the soul food of Kyoto.
Miyakoyasai Kamo is a chain of 3 tabehoudai restaurants serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, featuring various seasonal organic produce, including kamonasu (a Kyoto version of eggplant), pumpkin, radish, and more, sourced from nearby farms. The restaurant operates a buffet counter where you can help yourself to refills. Miso soup is served with each meal in addition to dessert.
Price: 500 yen (breakfast); 890 yen/950 yen (lunch weekday/weekend); 1,370 yen/1,500 (dinner weekday/weekend)
Duration: lunch 60 minutes / dinner 80 minutes
All-you-can-drink: 450 yen (non-alcohol) / 1,200 yen (alcohol)
Address: Miyakoyasai Kamo, Kawaramachi, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture
Hours: 8am - 10pm
Things to note
There are some things to keep in mind while going crazy about food in Japan, and it mostly has to do avoiding wasteful habits:
- Try not to pile your plate full of food. It’s not a polite thing to do since you can easily refill, so keep it reasonable.
- Finish what you have before getting more. This is to avoid wasting food, and most places have this basic rule.
- Adhere to good etiquette. If unsure of what or how to order, observe others in your presence.
All across Japan, there are plenty of tabehoudai options for classic dishes like sushi, okonomiyaki, and a variety of hotpot dishes. So whenever you feel extra hungry, or simply want to try a wide range of dishes, a tabehoudai option is definitely a great way to eat your way through Japan!