The smell of teen spirit

In Japan, it being a country of immaculate cuisine, it is a little surprising how bad a workplace can smell. Like their western counterparts the Japanese developers aren’t particularly poster boys for healthy living. Though most centrally located offices will be surrounded by many restaurants and cafes, which is one of the more impressive aspects of Tokyo in general, lunch is more often than not eaten at the desk and purchased from local convenience store.

I guess one good point about these lunchboxes is that they’re cheap. Most restaurant lunchtime menus cost from 700 to 1000 yen (approx. 6 USD, 5 Euro). This does get you a nice, decent meal but a lunchbox usually costs less than half of that. Imagine a styrofoam base with a clear plastic cover with inside it a bed of rice and any number of side dishes; tonkatsu, fish, pickles, etc. If you work close enough you can have the convenience store clerk bung it in one of their many microwaves or you can simply heat it up at the office; it seems most companies have one as standard equipment.

If you’re really on a budget or hate your body you can also feast on Pot Noodle, what the Japanese erroneously call Cup Noodle, which could cause some confusion. Each office also has a hot water heater, an electric kettle that keeps a large reservoir of water hot for as long as it’s switched on. Now, I say hot, but it usually swings between 90 and 95 degrees centigrade, which is no good for tea.

If you’re terribly unlucky there may also be a fast food outlet nearby; a Mos Burger, First Kitchen or MacDonald’s which is called “MacDonald Hamburger” in Japan and has a vast array of crazy Japanese versions of western meals, equally inedible, as well as your usual selection of cardboard hamburgers and reconstituted potato shapes deep-fried in week old fat.

As you can imagine, apart from the restaurant menus, all of the above is usually consumed with great relish and enormous gusto at the desk of the offending colleague. What this usually means is that by 2 o’clock the office smells like a fishy explosion in a sweat factory, mixed with bovine waste products, a hint of fatty lard globules and, on occasion, strangely, very sour milk. It makes the first part of the afternoon a somewhat nauseating experience. If your colleagues are really into the developer lifestyle they may even come in in the mornings with their little brown paper bag of MacDonald’s containing God knows what kind of breakfast menu selection they feel is appropriate for that time of the day.

Sandwiches though are another matter. Japan does a great job imitating these staples of British food, but somehow falls short. Crusts are cut off, the only bread available is chemical white and the amount of fillings is usually sad to behold. A ham sandwich usually contains one or two slices with maybe a sprinkling of salad. And probably mayonnaise. 90% of sandwiches contain mayonnaise. And the choice of ingredients too is somewhat odd. If you still fancy a sandwich just go to the convenience store and try to buy one. The sad sight of a little plastic triangle with what can only be described as a wedge of lost Hope is enough to put anyone off. And while you’re at it, steer clear of the oden too. That stuff has been broiled in lukewarm water for days.
Luckily there are some excellent bread shops in Japan; if you ignore the strange curry/sausage type affairs, places like Anderson and Paul’s offer some really nice breads, yet no one has yet had the brilliant idea of opening a few tubs of ingredients and creating massive sandwiches on the spot for a 100% mark-up.

There are no pub lunches in Japan. Though izakayas revolve as much around food as they do around drink, they only open in the evenings and no Japanese person drinks alcohol for lunch! If you’re in dire need of some hair of the dog you’re stumped, I’m afraid. It sometimes makes going for a curry for lunch a bittersweet experience.

Japanese food is great, really great and delicious and healthy. Developers, as can be expected, have their own idea of what makes a nutritious meal. As a foreigner in Japan I really recommend going out for lunch; it not only allows you to get away from your screen for a while, but it also saves you from the smells and accompanying nausea and as a bonus means you’ll be eating good, healthy food with a far greater probability. No, going out for a nice lunch set menu at a local restaurant is by far the best deal.


  1. amazing post. keep it up!

  2. Do you tip for the lunchtime meals? Eating at a restaurant (not a junk food place) for lunch here in the states is deceptively cheap, but when you whack on the 15-20% you've usually blown the best part of $10.

  3. To be honest, the food is what I'm looking forward to the most while visiting. Vancouver has some wonderful sushi but I've heard so much good stuff about all food in Japan. I've been told to try the convenience store food atleast once. Also need to get some good Ramen. Any restaurants you recommend?

  4. Too many restaurants everywhere; hard to recommend any. Ramen really is the "fast food" of Japan, and sometimes it can be a little rough, but you can still get good ramen here and there.

    There is NO TIPPING in Japan, ever. Nowhere. For nothing. And that is odd because the level of service here is actually of a quality that you'd want to tip. But you don't. It's great.

  5. Visiting my brother a couple of years back, I basically lived off ramen and riceballs for 10 days. The quality, yes, was extremely variable, but it was entirely possible (in Ikebukuro, at least) to get a decent heart bowl of noodles and miso soup for 500 yen or so.

    Considering the conventional wisdom that, by western standards, Japan is expensive, I found food surprisingly cheap, so long as you didn't want to eat Sushi and Teppan-yaki every day. Okonomiyaki can be a decent way of getting a (very) filling meal for not-extortionate amounts of money, too.

    I lost half a stone whilst I was there, mind, so take that as you will.

  6. But you were on holiday, right? Probably did a lot of walking? I find that every time I go abroad, even when eating fatty foreign foods, I lose weight; probably because I have to trail my wife every day and carry all her shopping.

    Food generally isn't that expensive, no. There are some places that are, or can be, like tsukiyaki, shabu shabu, teppanyaki and some yakinikku (Korean bbq).
    As for ramen, I've had some excellent ones here and there but the one near my office, for example, isn't particularly nice; too fatty and goes straight through you.