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Japanese BBQ: Yes, we can (grill that)!

Food is awesome. Food is great. Food is fun. Anyone who says any differently is probably someone I can’t associate myself with. We need food to survive. We eat it every day (hopefully), and we’ve all had good and bad experiences with it. Everyone has their own preferences regarding tastes, cuisines, and cooking techniques. Most techniques are apparent throughout the world, and good old BBQ is one of them. Japanese BBQ is a little different from what Americans might think of as grill-cookin’; Japanese barbeque is very meat-on-a-stick friendly, and the Japanese will grill things you couldn’t even imagine before wolfing them down (in some cases, raw is cool too). As a result, there’s not much grey area in terms of preference for some Japanese foods: either you like them, or you hate them.

Seafood for Grilling at a Japanese BBQ

Much to the chagrin of some tourists, a lot of Japanese food is seafood. Japan is, after all, an island, which means that much of its resources come from the ocean. Fish you never knew existed can be eaten here, crustaceans of massive size captured and cooked, and even shellfish are regularly harvested from shores and reefs to be added to bowls of ramen and grills. In the foreground of the above photo are sazae, a mollusk commonly eaten as somewhat of a delicacy here in Japan. In this photo, the mollusks were still alive; they occasionally squirted water out, and recoiled when shop staff added ice to their container. In the background are large prawns already speared on sticks. The photo comes from a recent matsuri, or festival, here in Shinjuku. All of these foods (and more) were prepared for grilling on a barbeque like structure in clear view of all pedestrians walking by. Not pictured are various clams, chicken meatballs, pork, and a variety of vegetables including green peppers and onions. All of these foods are encompassed under the same word(s): yakitori (literally, grilled chicken), and kushiyaki (skewer grilled). These phrases can, mostly, be used interchangeably, but they both refer to the same thing: food on a stick.

Japanese BBQ can be spotted at festivals like these, but there’s also more personalized barbeque settings you can find. The popular yakiniku (literally, grilled meat) is essentially the Japanese version of a barbeque party; however, it’s in restaurant form. Yakiniku restaurants are everywhere in Tokyo. Inside the restaurant are usually several large booths, and in the center of the table there’s a hole. When you sit down with your party, one of the staff will bring over a portable grill already lit with hot coals and place it in the hole; voila, your own personal barbeque. From there, it’s up to you to choose your choices of meats/veggies/tofus from the menu. You cook everything yourself, so be confident in your preparation skills. Prices for these places range from reasonably cheap to pretty expensive.

Americans like myself likely feel a certain sort of nostalgia for homestyle BBQ. Maybe we all have fun memories of Dad cooking hamburgers on the grill in the backyard in summer. Small, home grills are available at some stores in Japan, but be careful where you use them. I’ve heard tales of a hamburger-grilling, unsuspecting foreigner getting the fire department called on him for using his own grill on his own balcony. Sounds like a terrible thing for neighbors to do, right?

As readers (hopefully) know, Japan has a long history. This is a country that’s been around for a while. There are a lot of people here, too. As a result, cities get crowded. Buildings are very close together, and people have to expand up rather than out if they want to find new living/working spaces. This means that fires have the potential to be extremely, extremely destructive forces. A fire from one building can move easily to another in a very short period of time. While some may argue that modern architecture and technologies can help prevent these disastrous situations, the threat still exists. As a result, home BBQ in Japan may be frowned upon.

But fear not! There are other options for you, BBQ enthusiasts! Some public places, like parks and campgrounds, have facilities just for you.

Grilling fish on a campfire, Japan

This image was taken this summer at a campground on a little island several hours to the south of Tokyo. These fish were caught, cleaned, prepared, and cooked within a matter of hours. If you’re the type who wants to build your own fire and prep your own food just the way you like it, seek out a public use place. These areas are typically far away from any buildings, and are first-come, first-served.

Keep in mind that wherever you go, there are a lot of options available for your grilling pleasure. Everything from chicken to sea urchins to cow tongue can be cooked up. Give it a shot! Trying new foods is a fun and exciting cultural experience. I’ve tried some things I would never have imagined to like that are now favorites. Conversely, I have a whole new repertoire of foods I will pass on every time. Do you have any experience in the magical world of Japanese BBQ? Horror stories? Success stories? Must-try foods? Make sure to share, so I can taste them myself!.

Go forth, and eat. If you can find it, the Japanese will grill it.

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