Start Your Day The Japanese Way! A Guide to Japanese Breakfasts, Traditional and Modern
Japanese cuisine has naturally become famous throughout the world: words like miso, tofu, and umami have long since become common in the English language, and plenty of visitors to Japan feel they must try "authentic" sushi and ramen during their trip. But what about in the morning? Anime and other media have implanted the notion that Japanese people have a full meal for breakfast, with rice, soup, and the works—but is this really the case? The short answer is "It depends"! This article explores all the various ways that the Japanese start off their days and gives you tips on how to eat a healthy traditional Japanese-style breakfast at home as well, including links to recipes!
Jun 18 2020 (Jul 07 2020)
Any Japanese Breakfast Should Include These Foods!
Breakfast Staples: Rice, an Egg, and Soup
Japanese breakfasts come in many shapes and sizes. Many Japanese balk at the idea of preparing and consuming a full meal before work everyday and have a much lighter meal instead, stripped down to the bare essentials: rice, topped with an egg or natto, and perhaps a miso soup.
Tamago kake gohan (egg on rice)
"Japanese Breakfast" is a very broad category that could include any number of dishes and items—as will be explored—but an absolutely crucial starting-off point is a bowl of rice, the country's staple food. For some Japanese, breakfast might simply consist of a rice bowl with a raw egg cracked right on top (for some protein and texture) and a small amount of soy sauce for a salty kick. This is referred to as "tamago kake gohan", or egg on rice.
The raw egg is sure to raise eyebrows; they have historically been avoided in the West due to the possibility of salmonella poisoning. Japan, though, has always maintained extremely rigorous safety checks for eggs (like in this video), because so many were expected to be eaten raw. In the West as well, recent advances in food safety have led to the American USDA and British NHS to declare some raw eggs safe to eat if they were processed properly. This means you can now get a certified egg and try tamago kake gohan at home!
Natto (fermented soybeans)
Another popular and effort-free option is to top the rice with natto, or fermented soybeans. Because of the unfamiliar smell and gooey texture, this option may be for the more daring and open-minded. (Though you did specifically look up how to eat a Japanese breakfast, so you're likely up for it!) You do get used to natto with time, and it is absolutely worth it: it possesses Vitamin K, soy protein, and dietary fiber in abundance, and if you live in a city with an Asian grocery or health food store, it is readily available, pre-packaged and frozen, so that you can keep it stocked and quickly defrost one every morning.
We have a whole article about how best to enjoy natto!
And lastly, there is miso soup, a mildly salty and savory soup that the Japanese viscerally associate with hearty, homemade cooking. It's said to have gained popularity among the warrior class, as it was easy to prepare and helped prevent heatstroke; it became common nationwide in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Though it's not meant to taste complicated, preparing it from scratch might take some time and requires some ingredients uncommon outside of Japan: first is the all-important dashi (broth), which derives its flavor from kombu (seaweed) and bonito flakes, while other ingredients include miso paste, tofu, sliced seaweed, and green onions.
Nowadays, of course, it's not necessary to prepare it from scratch: dashi is available in packets, and indeed, there is ready-made miso soup for those who'd rather skip the cooking altogether. All of these items very much constitute the hassle-free option of Japanese breakfasts, that can be prepared at a moment's notice, even for those without any cooking skill.
For a detailed look at miso soup, including a recipe from scratch and ingredient ideas, check out this article!
Fuller, Traditional Breakfasts
But again, those are just the basics. If you watch classic Japanese TV shows like Chibi Maruko-chan or Sazae-san (family programs with origins in the 1960s and 1970s), you'll notice that they show Japanese breakfast to be much more than rice and soup. Indeed, the truly traditional Japanese breakfast, eaten together at the kitchen table, isn't too far off from lunch and dinner, and features proteins like meat or fish as well as a salad.
The operating principle here is "ichiju sansai" ("one soup and three sides") which also applies for Japanese lunch and dinner. Variety is the point, as anyone who's had a bento lunchbox can attest: variety in ingredients, variety in seasoning, and variety in texture. (It was even the government's recommendation to eat 30 distinct foods per day, in the belief that the foods' nutritional profiles would naturally balance out, although the advice was scrapped—in 2000!—due to not enough scientific evidence.)
The breakfast in this photo seems to break the "three sides" rule as it features five dishes, but it is a helpful guide to the types of possible dishes.
The classic, quintessential protein dish (which counts as one of the three "sides", by the way, as it accompanies the rice) is a grilled salmon, seasoned only with salt and perhaps cooking sake. Vegetable dishes can be stewed or served in a fresh salad: in the case of the photo here, there appears to be an asparagus dish at the top left, as well as some stewed hijiki (a black sea-vegetable) and soybeans to its right. Natto (middle left of the photo) can count as a side, while tofu is another way of ticking off the "soy" box. A popular egg dish is the simple "tamagoyaki" (top right), a sort of egg roll or very simple omelette that is often seasoned only with salt.
With the exception of tamagoyaki, preparing this sort of Japanese breakfast seems dauntingly time-consuming, but it's common to simply use leftovers from the previous day's dinner. If you do decide to take this up, you'll find this form of traditional Japanese breakfast is well-balanced and well-portioned, tasty without being too sugary or greasy!
As for tamagoyaki, our Thai team made a simple video demonstration of how to make it! The ingredients are, in order of appearance, 3 eggs, 1 teaspoon mild soy sauce, 1 teaspoon sugar, and a pinch of salt.
Modern Options for the Younger Generations
To be sure, the above describes the most "quintessential, traditional Japanese breakfast"—which is not necessarily the breakfast that most Japanese people have in the current day. Nowadays, the Japanese are significantly more likely to have bread-based breakfasts: one poll found 57 percent of Japanese between their 20s and 50s regularly opting for bread, compared to 32 percent choosing rice. (Interestingly, the youngest group is most likely to prefer rice.)
Like in other countries, it's become common to imagine breakfast as being a separate affair than lunch or dinner—an occasion to add variety to an otherwise rice-based diet. For similar reasons, there are also Japanese who have cereal as their morning carb, while others choose a snack bread or pastry. All the major convenience-store chains offer a wide range of very imaginative stuffed breads and pastries, and there are many specialized bakeries by stations as well. It's common to bring one to work and eat it at your desk.
One city where the bread culture is particularly lively is Kyoto, which hosts a large number of independent, creative bakeries. Read about 10 such bakeries here!
Where to Eat Japanese Breakfasts
The above might work for those looking to shake up their breakfast routine at home, but if you're a short-term visitor to Japan, with a long list of places to get to and no time to waste, you might prefer grabbing breakfast on the go. Fortunately for you, millions of Japanese do the same, with the result that plenty of restaurants and cafes offer delicious and affordable "morning sets".
Proper Sit-Down Restaurants
In all corners of Japan, you can find chain restaurants specializing in set-meals and "donburi" (rice bowls with a usually meat-based topping). For those without the time, skill, or apartment space to cook for themselves, these chains (of which Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya are the most widespread and famous) offer a filling and inexpensive option. These chains, many of whose locations are open 24 hours a day, offer breakfast combos as well. Many offer the staple breakfast outlined above, with rice, soup, a raw egg, and a natto option for less than 400 yen! There are also slightly more luxurious options featuring grilled salmon, mackerel, or beef. Why not use this as your low-cost, one-off introduction to natto?
Many more options exist beyond beef bowls, too: it's a common habit to enjoy breakfast at burger restaurants (like Lotteria, which offers unique Japanese creations), as well as at standing ramen and soba (noodle) counters, of which there are many near train stations. As odd as it may seem to recommend that travelers try out fast food, you can enjoy menu items that are genuinely unique to Japan, and it's certainly closer to how many Japanese eat day-to-day than higher-class restaurants.
One last option to mention is that ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) tend to offer classic Japanese-style breakfasts as well. (You'll naturally need to look up beforehand whether breakfast is offered and if vegetarian/vegan diets are accommodated.) The 8 well-known ryokan breakfasts we've gathered in this article run the gamut from bread-based to luxurious traditional options.
For Japanese Spins on Pastries and Sandwiches
Another distinct breakfast flavor you can't miss while in Japan are the morning sandwich or pastry sets that are a staple in cafes. And you can find one nearby wherever you are in the country: Doutor, Komeda Coffee, Tully's, and St. Marc are cafes with locations in almost every prefecture, and all offer special breakfast sets. Doutor's and Tully's offer savory sandwich sets, while Tully's also has sweet options as well as salads. St. Marc's, which throughout the day is a patisserie as much as it is a cafe, offers a savory pastry of the day to pair with a drink for a low price.
Komeda Coffee, meanwhile, offers the Nagoya-style cafe breakfast, where a coffee is paired, for a very low price, with an egg and some toast with a sweet red-bean paste. Local cafes within the city of Nagoya offer extra items of top (and many offer the food for free), but chains like Komeda and Hoshino Coffee allow people throughout the country to get a taste of this tradition. In all cases, these cafe breakfast sets are savory but without the heft of a full meal, and many of the sandwich options are well-rounded nutritionally as well, applying Western ingredients to Japanese breakfast principles. (Beware, however, that not all cafes are smoking-free, although the situation is slowly improving.)
For deeper dives into these topics, check out:
15 Chain Restaurants and Coffee Shops to Enjoy Japan's Morning Set
Try Japanese Breakfasts at These Restaurants!
What do you think? For those who are tired of their daily routine and want to try out something new, a Japanese breakfast is a filling and healthy alternative that you can easily get into at home! If you're short on time, you can stick with the simple rice, egg, and soup for a healthy mini-version, or you can tack on leftovers from the previous day. Feel free to mix and match Japanese and Western ingredients as you wish—there's nothing more Japanese than innovating with food!
This article specifically discussed nationwide chain restaurants, as they are options that will be available wherever you are in Japan. If you happen to be in one of the following places, though, we've compiled lists of special independent eateries serving amazing breakfasts. Check them out!
- 7 Popular Places in Tokyo to Start Your Morning in Style
- 8 Ways to kick off your day with Japanese style breakfast around Shibuya
- 8 Places in Shinjuku to Feast on a Breakfast of Champions
- 7 Delicious Breakfast Places in Ueno to Start Off Your Day
Outside of Tokyo:
- Nagoya's Classic Breakfast! 10 Delicious Morning Sets to Start the Day Off Right
- Start With Breakfast When Exploring Osaka! 7 Restaurants in Osaka That Open Early
- The Best Hotel and Ryokan Breakfasts in Japan
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.