There is No Japanese Breakfast

Japan has no breakfast. That’s a natural fact. So a lot of mornings, I find myself munching down cold rice balls in the park, simply because there’s nowhere else to sit in this bloody country. It really speaks volumes about a place when it’s specifically designed not to provide seats at bus stops or even a low wall where you could just rest for a moment. But nope; throughout Japan, there’s a lack of horizontal surfaces. This keeps salarymen, housewives, and children in school uniforms shuffling forward, wandering the streets like an army of exhausted zombies. Well, wheels of progress and all.

So a “park” may be your last and only option, although most are no more than plots of sand and weeds with a play slide and some tetanus-inducing monkey bars. I’m lucky the one near my tiny apartment has an ancient wooden bench, so I don’t have to sit on the swing set. Occasionally stray kittens come around, and I toss them bits of salmon or mackerel. Who says it’s hard to make friends in Japan?

Japanese Breakfast at Work

Of course, I tried to eat at my desk, until the manager yelled at me for spending thirty seconds quietly scarfing down a handful of gruel, after which I took to stopping briefly at McDonald’s near the station, until the branch closed. I would’ve thought my Egg McMuffin consumption alone kept them in business, but apparently not. Please come back. I promise to order more hash browns.

Japanese Breakfast at Home

Now, you might say, Ken, why don’t you just eat at home? And that would seem a reasonable question, until you consider the appointed Japanese lunch moment isn’t until 12:40, and I have to leave my space capsule of an apartment at six-fifty to make it to stupid work. Me go almost six hours with no food? What am I, a camel? Of course, I tried intermittent fasting, and that was great when my job involved pretending to write curricula while surfing Amazon all day, but lately I’m back in the schools doing songs and dances with the kids, which is what passes for teaching English in Japan. So unless you want to see the world’s slowest rendition of Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes, you’d be wise to provide me with a minimum of rice, tuna salad, pickled cucumber, and seaweed. Plus maybe a hot can of corn soup. Is that too much to ask? I think not.

Sadly, Japanese breakfast just isn’t a thing. I was informed of this on my first trip to Kyoto, sixteen years ago. I was staying in a flophouse, which Japanese folks call a minshuku, because it sounds more exotic. There was an old frog running the place, squatting on the tatami floor in a lime-green track suit writing postcards, so I asked her where I could get some breakfast.

“Don’t waste your money,” she croaked, “just grab a rice ball at the convenience store.”

“I was thinking more like a scenic café where I could sit outside, read a book, and enjoy some brunch,” I ventured.

“We Japanese don’t do that,” she replied. “It’s not California, you know.”

And they say Japan’s an advanced nation. Anyhow, say hi to your amphibian relatives for me.

Searching for Japanese Breakfast

But here’s the weird thing about my brain—even though it knows proper Japanese breakfast doesn’t exist, it still sends me out every morning full of hope, thinking Maybe there’s a wonderful buffet right around the corner, full of cheese-eggs, bacon, and crispy waffles, and you’ve just missed it. Then I remember, Yeah no, I walk that way every day and there’s nothing but a soup kitchen for the homeless. But my brain’s like, Dude, gotta stay positive. Maybe they upgraded overnight and now it’s an iHop. Now go out and hunt for brunch. If I were a caveman, I’d be dead for sure.

Finding Japanese Breakfast

And it was during one such weekend constitutional that I was stopped by a family of four, who appeared to be tourists.

“Excuse me,” said the father, “but do you speak English?”

Now, can I just take a moment to say what an incredibly polite way that is to approach someone you don’t know in a foreign country? Because it is. And conversely to note that absolutely no Japanese person has ever considered using such a phrase, despite the fact the vast majority of “foreigners” here don’t have English as a first language. But I digress.

“Sure,” I said. “How can I help?”

“Do you know where we can find some breakfast?” he asked, with a note of desperation. “We’ve looked everywhere.”

“Yeah, your best bet’s really some 7-Eleven rice balls, cans of corn soup, and a bench amidst the sand and weeds.”

is what I wanted to say. But because I’m Japanese and we have to appear polite and all, I laid out some options:

  1. Find a “family restaurant,” like Denny’s or Joyfull. There you can get a breakfast that looks suspiciously like lunch and dinner, basically rice, grilled fish, and miso soup.
  2. Look for a hotel with a buffet, such as the Hilton. Sometimes you can obtain an incredibly overpriced meal there.
  3. Locate a McDonald’s, Starbucks, or some or some other overseas chain attempting to bring civilization to Japan. Local fast-food places imitating overseas chains also work.
  4. Head to a sightseeing area, where if you’re lucky, you might find a shop offering breakfast targeted at foreign tourists.
  5. Hold out till eleven, when restaurants open for lunch.

The Other Meals of the Day

Now, Japan’s pretty great at night. We’ve got dinner dialed in tight. Lunch? Yeah sure, quick and solid. But breakfast? Brunch? Forget about it. And I’m not gonna lie: I love brunch. it’s the best meal of the day, second only to dinner. And maybe lunch, or possibly breakfast. But look, I get it. Monday through Friday, we gotta get to work and be yelled at, then yell at somebody else. We’re busy, in other words. But the weekend? Come on, God bestowed brunch of mankind as a symbol of His infinite compassion, replete with scrambled eggs, salsa, and home fries. Plus a mimosa with a tiny umbrella. That’s all in the Old Testament; just gotta read into the Aramaic a bit. After all, what kind of heathens don’t eat brunch?

The Japanese kind, apparently. So I called this girl named Nana on Sunday Morning and asked her about getting some. Breakfast, that is.

“We Japanese prefer to eat at home,” said Nana on Sunday Morning.

“So I’ve heard,” I said. “Your special people.” Although it didn’t sound so snide, since I mumbled it under my breath.

“You know I only need toast and coffee,” she said.

“Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with the concept,” I suggested. “It’s brunch, like if breakfast and lunch got together and had a child. Picture a terrace overlooking the ocean, sunlight on the water, a gleaming porcelain saucer of eggs Benedict, with an English muffin and thick slice of ham gently floating in a sea of Hollandaise sauce, aside buttery cubes of potatoes, bagels with lox and capers, seasonal strawberries in cream, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice . . .”

“Oh, that would disrupt my meals for the day.”

“Woman, have you no romance?”

“I don’t eat much.”

“You don’t wha?—Eat muu—the fuck!—remember last week, the barbecue restaurant? You were like a lioness tearing into an antelope! For three hours I thought I was in the Serengeti.”

“But if we go out for breakfast, I have to put on make-up.”

Dinner in Japan, After All

Well, that killed that, since apparently the only thing worse than missing the day’s most important meal is seeing a Japanese woman as she actually appears. Whatever. I gave up and we made a date for the following night.

Then the next day, when evening rolled around, I bought a cheap can of lemon chu-hi at 7-Eleven and went to the swing set outside her apartment, amidst more sand and weeds, to wait for the conclusion of the make-upping ritual, since there was nowhere else to sit. It was fine weather, with the sunset warming the autumn leaves. I love fall in Japan. So romantic.

And on my can of lemon-flavored booze, the Asahi beverage company had emblazoned an encouraging Japanese message: “Your weekend reward!” That made me happy, because I deserved a weekend reward, especially since it was Monday. Heh, weekends used to be brunch with tablecloths and waiters carrying trays full of champagne and orange juice, and now it’s come down to chu-hi with stray cats in the park. Well, you had one citrusy cocktail, you pretty much had them all, is what I always say. To the cats. And who needs spinach-and-mushroom omelettes with a side of sausage patties anyway? Gotta keep the ol’ cholesterol in check. No wonder Japanese folks live so long. Although life without brunch, eh, you gotta wonder if it’s worth it.

46 Replies to “There is No Japanese Breakfast”

  1. Ha! More or less accurate. I’ve been lucky enough to live in Okayama where there are a few breakfast / brunch places, if you don’t mind shelling out a ton of yen for the smallest, yet most beautiful, plate of pancakes you’ll ever see.

    Though I’ve found that if you drop into some of those super old cafes, the ones filled with elderly neighbors that smoke up a storm, you can get a surprisingly decent breakfast sandwich. If you don’t mind leaving the place smelling like a smokestack, lol.

    I’ve been here 7 years and have almost convinced myself that I don’t miss a good brunch mimosa, but then you come along and dredge back all those good memories! Have you no shame!

    Another good one Ken. Can’t wait for the next post.

    1. No, I have no shame. I assume that wasn’t a rhetorical question.

      Yes, it’s possible to get calories in Japan before 11 a.m., but the number of places serving anything remotely resembling a proper breakfast is woefully small.

      I’ve tried those neighborhood cafes where you get a cup of nasty coffee, the Japanese version of a Club sandwich, and the equivalent of two packs of Marlboro while being stared at by septuagenarians. Pretty sure that’s what drove me out to the parks.

  2. I think I know what your problem is, you have a job. Check out what soup is being served in that soup line you walk by as it might be worth hangin’ with the homeless. Hey, they might serve natto along with the soup. That’s a game changer right there & should seal the deal. A roof over your head (& all the bills that go with it) is over rated.
    Seriously, I suppose you could just buy some items at the nearest convenience store & eat as you’re walking along to work. Good luck finding a trash can for all the mindless plastic your breakfast will be wrapped up in however.
    Hmmm…have you written a story on the lack of trash/rubbish bins? If not, it might make a good topic & fun read.
    Jay

    1. That must be why I’ve lately been watching YouTube videos of people who live in tents. No pesky work, lots of fresh air, hot soup on occasion. You’re right—might be a step up.

      The whole trash thing here has gotten worse with the coronavirus, as convenience stores have removed their outdoor trash bins, and even some of the ones in the stores. So now I’m constantly walking around with rice ball wrappers and empty cans of soup in my pockets. That is not a good feeling.

  3. Geez Ken, I thinkI will just go and slash my wrists.
    No breakfast and no brunch? How can a country with a population of 126,356,868 survive? Seems to be impossible!

    I noticed something when I read this article that I actually liked the crone in Kyoto who said “We Japanese don’t do that,” she replied. “It’s not California, you know.” Seems she was a particulary enlightend soul, but you choose to ignore her and persist in your folly!
    10 out of 10 for persistence Ken, and another good story.

  4. How about “morning service” in a kissaten. You can have coffee, a hard boiled egg and a half piece of really thick toast! My fondest memory is when my oldest son cracked his egg on the head of my younger son and then proceeded to eat as if that was perfectly normal…

    My description of the first Japanese breakfast I ever saw back in college was “salad and lunch meat, eaten with chopsticks”.

  5. When my Japanese friend visited me in the UK I took her to a breakfast cafe and we had a proper Full English. Bacon and soss fighting the eggs and beans to stay on the plate, side of toast, non-stop builder’s tea. She was amazed, and the rest of the week insisted we have the same breakfast.
    When I visited her in Japan, breakfast was mildly warmed toast, and an option of that sliced laminated dairy product that I refuse to call cheese. How can you get to First Elevensies without filling up on breakfast?
    I should have offered to cook for her (cook? but…. you’re male!) just to get a decent brekky. 🙂

    1. I wonder if untoasted toast could actually be called a “Japanese thing”? I knew a gal who’d put two slices of bread in the toaster, then take them out before they started to brown. Said she was worried about cancer. Now, that’s probably valid, but jeez, either toast or do not. There is no warm. Given all the dangers in the universe, I think I’ll take my chances with toast.

      Not even gonna get started on what passes for cheese here.

  6. Totally agree…When I travel my favorite meal of the day to search out is breakfast. My theory is that most people just want the familiar for breakfast, so it’s likely to be the least “discovered” meal of the day. This has born out in most of my travels, except for my time living here in Japan.

    I like a hearty breakfast involving meat and eggs, no carbs please, and it’s practically impossible to find in restaurant form in the morning. I’ve spent the night in Tokyo and wandered the streets in the morning looking for somewhere pleasant and ended up at a 7-11 buying packages of sandwich meat and soy-sauce eggs instead. Back when I was a carb guzzler I didn’t mind the Denny’s Japanese breakfast (salty salmon, miso soup, bowl of rice), or a hearty gyudon at Sukiya, but those are no longer options for this carnivore.

    1. Yep, wandering the streets looking for breakfast rings a bell. Like, well, yesterday. After an hour of searching it was finally 11:00 and I could get some lunch. What a country.

      I’ve always thought Japan started particularly late. Take, for example, the coffee shop near my house that opens at 10:00. Their main product is coffee and I’m like, Ten? What am I supposed to do for the first four hours of the day?

  7. The title is a bit misleading. Japan has Japanese breakfast for days. It just happens to be made up of things western folk would consider suitable for lunch and dinner…aka, fish, soup, and rice.

    Just adapt to slimy beans and raw egg over a bowl of rice like the rest of the salarymen in a rush. Or start your own brunch business? You could be the hero Japan deserves.

    1. My favorite breakfast is rice, fish, miso soup, natto, and tamago-yaki. But where to find it? You can search for days.

      The best bet is probably to pick random houses and just start knocking on doors looking hungry.

  8. Most bakeries serve a breakfast set. True it isn’t huge, but you can often get sausage or bacon, bread or a pastry and coffee or tea.

    If you’re ever at Yotsuya station go to Cafe Paul for various nice and inexpensive breakfasts. In the Atre building first floor.

    Totally off topic, but I was curious: when you speak Japanese is it men’s version or women’s? I’ve known a few Americans who were taught by women and live and work in Japan. They usually get no respect in the business world because they sound effeminate.

    Any thoughts on this?

    Enjoy your writing and read your book.

    1. Thanks for the brekkie recs.

      As for sounding effeminate, it’s a great question, and deserving of a thorough answer. Let me write a post about it, and I’ll put it up in a couple weeks.

      Cheers for that,

      Ken

      Oh, and thanks for buying the book! I really appreciate it.

    2. Oh wow…I was actually going to recommend Café Paul too, but thought it might be a little too lowkey. Getting brunch there was a Sunday morning tradition and my wife and I still try to get out there whenever we’re back in Tokyo.

      Ken will probably have a much better and well written response, but my two cents on the talking feminine (and I was told the same about my Japanese initially) is that while you may pick up a few word choices that are more feminine from a female Japanese teacher (e.g. “desu wa, kashira”), I think the main thing is that we are initially taught to conjugate most verbs with -masu and end our sentences with -desu…proper, more or less inoffensive Japanese, and yes, used by Japanese women. Just read some action manga, stop conjugating verbs with -masu, use more “Ore” and “Omae”, and that’ll man you right up.

      1. Thanks for that recommendation. That does sound intriguing, compounded by the fact that the restaurant has intentionally chosen an un-Japanese name.

        Okay, so there’s this Cafe Paul and…

        I mean, not that that’s not great, but my point is this: At 6 p.m., there are at least three hundred restaurants within an easy walk of my apartment. That’s no exaggeration—there’s literally a shit-ton. It’s a technical term; look it up. But at 9 a.m., maaaybeee five places, or ten if I really look hard. And even most of those would fail to meet the agreed-upon international standards of a proper brunch as set by the U.N.

        Or put another way: How many people live in Tokyo? And how many are in Cafe Paul on a given morning?

        I still maintain that breakfast in Japan is not a thing (outside of the house, for 98% of the people, 98% of the time).

        1. Oh no, I agree that it’s more the exception than the rule…I was just surprised someone else liked to frequent this random café at Yotsuya…

          1. Heh, both of you finding the one, same, breakfast spot among the millions of restaurants in Tokyo. What are the odds? It’s almost as though there were so few places open…nah, probably just a miracle.

  9. This is way off topic Ken but relevent to your onging “re-education” campagn on Western myths of Japan. This one is Bushido, which more than anything else has established an inaccurate vision of Japan.
    Bushido: The Soul of Japan
    “From Hollywood blockbusters to Japanese TV dramas, the samurai has been portrayed over the years as a model of both physical excellence and moral rectitude, for whom honour and loyalty are more valuable than life. This image of the samurai, though not historically accurate, is widely entrenched in the popular imagination, due in no small part to a slim volume written in English at the turn of the 20th Century by Inazō Nitobe.”
    At the BBC website:
    https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20201020-bushido-the-book-that-changed-japans-image

    1. That’s a very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

      A lot of countries have these myths. Japan has the samurai, England the Knights of the Round Table, even America its cowboys. The reality is that we all desperately want life to be grander and more meaningful than it is, and the further something is from our own banal daily existence, the easier it is to glorify.

      Japan’s no upstanding, noble nation, and I doubt it ever was. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good place. It is, and so are a lot of other countries. But let’s not get carried away. Most of what’s been written about Japan is no more than teenage fantasy.

  10. I don’t want to write a long essay about this topic here, but the “right level” of speech is a constant topic in the back of my mind when speaking with Japanese.

    It starts with very simple things like do I use ore, boku, watashi? (Generally none of the above is the best option of course. Lately I use watashi if I have to.)
    My wife hates when I use “ore”, but I don’t like it either, so that’s fine.

    Talking to male co-workers it depends on whom I talk to and sometimes even how I judge the mood of my partner. For example if the big boss is in a very bad mood I try to use as formal Japanese as I can muster. Other times I use “between men” Japanese when he is relaxed.

    It is a fascinating topic, no doubt.

    1. Thus was supposed to be a reply to Jonathan.
      I believe it changed because I had re-enter the captcha code.
      This friggin’ comment system just doesn’t work as it should.

    2. I feel ya. I used to be concerned about the same sort of things. But just to give a brief preview of what I intend to write in my next post:

      Ore, boku, watashi, atashi, watakushi, wareware, [your name]は—Such minutia is not what you should be worried about.

      1. Yeah, I’m the same…I actually avoid using the personal pronouns, and don’t think I’ve ever used ‘ore’ unless I was trying to be sarcastic or funny…

        Now, my son uses it all the time…and I realize I need to limit his manga reading…

        1. Well, I’m right there with your son. Personally, I use it whenever appropriate. Although to be honest, the personal pronoun is generally omitted in normal speech, and only used when necessary to clarify the topic of the sentence. So it comes out like, “Going to the store. Want anything?”

          To say, “I’m going to the store. Do you want anything?” sounds unnatural, as though you’re translating from the English.

          That being said, it hardly matters. When speaking Japanese, there are a lot of bigger things to be worried about.

          1. 店に行って来る。 何か欲しい?  Hmmm…now that you mention it, it does kinda surprise me that the subject changes without any clarification in normal speech…yeah, looking forward to this upcoming article. It’s been a while since you’ve done one on the language.

            1. I did a bit of translation work back in Japan and still do from time to time at work.

              The question: “What (who) is the subject of the sentence?” … is a very common one. Over time I have come to fancy myself to be able to usually deduct the correct subject, but there are still cases where I prefer to ask.
              I’m sure some of the readers in this blog know what I am talking about.

            2. “now that you mention it, it does kinda surprise me that the subject changes without any clarification in normal speech.”

              It’s interesting [to me], although the same thing is done in English [by native speakers] without a second thought. Even without an obvious subject [in a sentence], the meaning [of that sentence] is usually clear [to us.] Although granted, [speakers] using more subjects and objects usually makes things clearer [for everyone].

              1. Heh nice…oh and I finally got your book. I figured using Amazon credits right before they expire was the BEST way to get your book!

                1. Wow, thanks much for buying the book. I really appreciate it. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Actually, that probably wouldn’t be very hard, but I like to set a low bar.

                  1. Yeah, really liking it, as someone who’s read all your articles (oh jeezus what have I done with my life…) I do appreciate those early articles and I do like the ones you’ve added that weren’t in your earlier writings. You really do a good job writing about Japan…and really just about anyone who’s lived abroad through the honeymoom period and beyond.

  11. What’s this? Bacon, ham, sausages? I thought you were a (slightly fishy) vegetarian, Ken?
    Or has your quest for a breakfast place taken on overtones of a shimmering mirage of an oasis in the desert, with your subconscious projecting various meat products instead of your regular watering hole? (with the fish and the plants and whatnot)

    1. Thanks for noticing. Yeah, I still am. But it would be a pretty strange and incomprehensible description of brunch if I described only what I like–ochazuke, grilled mackerel, grated daikon, miso soup, pickled vegetables, natto, seaweed, salad, bonito flakes, konnyaku, omelette, umeboshi…

      Now if I could just find that outside of a hotel buffet…

      1. Get married. Your mother in law will be happy to oblige, all the more so if there is progeny in the offing.

        Or stay at a ryokan. Cafe Paul, which is an off shoot of the one in Paris is worth a detour, but no natto there.

  12. I know how you feel Ken Seerol.
    Before I moved to north Japan (in a place where they actually are no western type breakfast restaurants that I know of) I visited a Dennys in Kawasaki City and they did not seem to have the same breakfast menu I recalled having in the states at all. ジョナサン Coffee and Restaurant had a western-style breakfast I believe. Have heard of Marumatsu(http://www.re-marumatu.co.jp/marumatsu/menu.html) I believe they have morning meals or maybe breakfast of a Japanese style.

    1. Thanks. I gotta say, I’m impressed it opens at 7 a.m. If I’m ever at the tip of Honshu, I’ll be sure to drop in.

      I love the fact that, in a nation with millions of restaurants open in the evening, we’re able to list the breakfast spots here one by one.

  13. Ken,

    Have the COVID-19 rules regarding resident foreigners and entry into Japan soured your intentions on living here for the long-term?

    1. Not at all. In the midst of this pandemic, I’m in no hurry to leave Japan.

      We have to be careful not to confuse the rules around the pandemic with the pandemic. Changing the rules doesn’t make COVID go away.

  14. my first trip to japan in 2011 for work, we stayed in the meitetsu inn that’s attached to the train station in kariya (same hotel that changes from AC to heater on a schedule. i.e. on October 20whatever….it’s heater time. no ac. only heater. regardless of the fact that it’s still 80 degrees out and 9billion percent humidity). they had a breakfast buffet. continental style…..replete with tiny boxes of cereal, cups of yogurt (yakkult?), and….every single morning….a cauldron of minestrone soup.

    1. Yeah, that’s right. If you stay in hotels you can come away with the impression that Japan has breakfast. I’ve had some great hotel breakfasts. But venturing beyond the doors of the inn at 8 am…it’s a wilderness out there.

  15. Hi,

    Thanks for the insightful post. As a Asian Canadian working in the US without any plans to move to Japan, I don’t know how I stumbled on your blog!

    Just out of curiosity, what type of job did you do back in the US? I used to work for a wall street firm in investment banking and thought the idea of working in Asia could be pretty cool in my 20s (HK, Tokyo, Singapore). After reading your articles on work and life in Japan, I think that would have been a terrible idea to consider Tokyo given how much your average person works.

    1. Yeah, career-wise, Japan is a disaster. In the U.S., I held high positions in a series of major corporations. I took business trips to luxury locations, eating sushi dinners and being chaufered about in limos and private planes. Which is another way of saying I got paid a lot of money to move a mouse a few millimeters each day. Now I sit in a freezing school covered in chalk dust. Well, it’s got its charms. Hey, you want a life of adventure—you got it. Careful what you wish for.

      Anyone thinking of moving to Japan would be wise to ask, What does my private office look like? Does it have window with a view? Will I have a secretary? A sofa I can nap on? Heh, just kidding—there’s an almost one-hundred percent chance you’ll be crowded in a room with two dozen Japanese folks—even despite the coronavirus—sitting within arms-reach of several co-workers. If you’re lucky, you won’t have to share a PC, desk, and chair with too many people. The stress of being constantly scrutinized is enormous. And if you work out the ratio of income-to-effort, most of the time you’d have been better off stocking shelves at the Walmart in Saint Louis.

      Now, there are a few good jobs in Japan. I’ve had a couple, although holding onto them is another matter entirely. Japan’s not big on stability and employee retention. Okay, actually it sucks in those areas. But the irony is that even if you manage to secure a decent position, it’s likely to be the least Japanese workplace imaginable. In other words, what makes the job good is precisely because the company’s not very “Japanese.” So you end up spending most of your time in Japan not in Japan, but in a foreign environment.

      So come to Japan for a holiday or a lark and you’ll love it. But don’t come to work. That way madness lies. Shakespeare said that, after visiting Osaka, or such is my understanding.

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