I’ve written about it, talked about it, documented it on film and have tried coming to terms with it; I am truly a very picky eater. When at home, in the safe confines of my kitchen fully stocked with Matt-appropriate food, it obviously isn’t a problem. But when I venture out into the world, as I often do, it can at times be embarrassing and at other times a major hindrance. No one destination frightened me more though than Japan.
How am I a picky eater? Well, the first thing that tends to thoroughly confuse people is my total and complete aversion to fish and seafood of any kind and in every form. I have tried watery delights from around the world, and I haven’t liked anything so far. I hate the smell, taste, texture – everything really about fish and seafood. Even after talking about it at great length though people still 1) can’t believe it and 2) try to convert me. “Well, you obviously have never had…” Yes, actually I have and I hated it. Sorry world, but I hate seafood and nothing is ever going to change that. I’m not alone either; after writing my original post many stepped up to admit their fishy deficiencies. I would love to enjoy seafood, everyone looks so happy when consuming it, but it’s just not for me. Sadly, seafood is a major menu item around the world however and it has caused some issues for me in the past.
Although it’s been tricky at times explaining my hatred of seafood (I now lie and just say I’m allergic, it’s easier) there is almost always an alternative I can eat and enjoy. Even in places where I didn’t think I would have a lot of options, I did in fact have many. No destination scared me more than Japan though and it’s not just because of my anti-fish ways, but also because of the other ways in which I’m a picky eater.
Blaming my parents for not exposing me to more foods at a younger age would be an easy cop-out and one that I’m not sure is entirely accurate. I was a difficult child to feed (shocking I know) and I seemed to have had an aversion even fear regarding certain foods from birth. Even though I’ve made great strides since then, as I float through my late-30s I still find myself cringing at certain foods, namely vegetables.
I eat some vegetables; I’m not a complete Neanderthal. I enjoy salads, with cheese and croutons, and certain vegetables that one would call basic. Corn, carrots, green beans and so on. I am not the guy though who will eat zucchini, asparagus or any of what I call ‘adventurous’ vegetables. Now that you understand the facts behind my strange foodie ways, maybe you can start to understand my hesitation about visiting Japan.
I’ve always wanted to visit Japan and when I had the chance to spend three days there on the way to Thailand, I jumped at the opportunity even though I knew the time would be short. I would say though that my knowledge of Japanese culture, namely its food culture, was built on a finely constructed pyramid of stereotypes and old episodes of the original Iron Chef. Images of being forced to consume raw fish and natto filled my head as I disembarked the ANA plane in Tokyo.
I was gently ushered through my original foray into Japanese food by my hotel, the Ritz Carlton, that offered up foods that seemed more like a warm hug than a violent plunge into the unchartered waters of Edo-inspired dishes. My first real attempt at eating Japanese food came the next day, when my partner and I wandered around town sightseeing and looking for a decent place to eat lunch.
Over stories of noshing on seaweed and puffer fish, what gets lost in the Japanese food shuffle is the fact that they do in fact eat meat; a lot of it. While Japanese cuisine may have a definite bias towards seafood and weird vegetables (I firmly believe all Japanese dishes are based on dares), they also have a strong tradition of chicken and even beef dishes. This comforted me as I strolled the alleyways looking for lunch, but the real problem with eating in Tokyo quickly emerged and it was something I hadn’t adequately considered – the language barrier.
The Japanese language is daunting for most Westerners. Everything, from the sounds to the characters used is completely and utterly foreign. I may not speak Italian, but when confronted with a menu in Rome I can generally figure out what I want. Even in Croatia it really wasn’t an issue. But I had no point of reference in Japan and was at first completely and utterly lost; until I found the restaurant display windows.
Fake food production in Japan isn’t just big business, it’s even been elevated to an art form. Restaurants hire artisans who painstakingly reconstruct samples of the menu items to display in their shop windows. I suppose the idea is to entice would-be customers with a representation of their offerings, but it has an added benefit to tourists who have no idea what they’re doing, like me. I spent almost thirty minutes walking from window to window, trying to figure out what the ingredients were supposed to represent. A brown lump was meat of some sort, while the seafood and vegetables were easy to spot.
Once I was confident in my choice and fairly certain I wasn’t about to eat something I would consider disgusting, I took a picture of it and entered the restaurant eager to show the waitress my choice. I was the only tourist in the place, which is a great sign but also led to a little confusion. After a few minutes of sharing photos, pointing, clucking like a chicken and finally using hand gestures the waitress left with what I thought and hoped was a reasonable idea of what we wanted.
I experienced one of my proudest travel moments when the food arrived and after that first, tenuous bite I was able to confirm to my partner that we had done it! We ordered the chicken! It may seem like a small victory, but for me it was huge. The delicious plate of tonkatsu affirmed in that instant that not only could I enjoy my culinary time in Japan, but I could manage it all on my own. It may have been a little more time consuming than ordering entrecote in Paris, but the meal tasted all the sweeter for that simple victory.
After my brief foray in Japan I have been a lot less fearful of entering countries that I think may prove problematic for me, and so far I haven’t had any problems. Avoiding fish in Sweden was easy thanks to their meat eating traditions and even on an island in Croatia I successfully navigated away from the yucky, yucky seafood.
Not everyone will be able to relate to my picky eating ways, but I’m sure you can all relate to conquering travel food fears and maybe now you’ll be willing to visit a new place you may not have considered before like I did.
Have you been somewhere that surprised you with their food?
43 thoughts on “Short Story of a Picky Eater in Japan”
I can entirely relate to your picky eating woes, especially when it comes to seafood/fish. I go into most countries armed with the basic phrase of: “I am allergic” in the local language just so I can hopefully not offend anyone if offered. I am encouraged by your experience in Japan! I am freaked out by ever visiting either Japan or China for that very reason. However, I am lucky that Pete doesn’t mind being my blind taste-tester. :)
Yay I’m not alone! Japan turned out to be fine but China does scare me. A lot. Not only for the ‘yucky’ food, but because I get the impression that it’s not easy to identify what the meats really are.
I’m a little late to this conversation, but want to chime in anyway. So, I absolutely HATE seafood. Like you, I’ve tried enough of it to know that I’ll never enjoy it. Anyway, I spent two weeks in China with my girlfriend (she’s originally from Beijing, and her family still lives there…so convenient!) and had NO problems with food there despite being a super picky eater! Actually, the food there was amazing! The food differs in style from region to region, but it was all good. We were in Beijing, Shijiazhuang, Pingyao (amazing city!!!!) and Xi’an. All of the menus (that I can recall) had plenty of pictures to help make choosing easier. My fav was a beef and potato dish that I had in Pingyao…I still crave that dish, but unfortunately, it’s a 14 hr plane ride, and a 6 hr train trip to get it. Take it from this picky eater…don’t let food keep you from going to China!
I can far too much relate to Your pickiness.. .I used to look at my dinnerplate for hours in 70s when i was kid. Mostly i picked them into my pockets and left in toilet. Smetimes through them behind the table….until we got the mice problematic attack… Later I confirmed. To reality. To eat both meat and fish. Maybe I was a yogi in last life? i wonder….
Since I had my troubles – I was supposed to be a kind mom. So it is my through my only kiddo – my son I can relate to Your habits even more – my son born in 90s really has about the same variety than Yours. Maybe worse but he is still 20.. Now so even he is supposedly grown-up as You- There is a word for it too- selective eating disorder. Thats his diagnosis. Ask Your doctor:-) and his diet is still no fish, no veggies and no to certain fruits :-) only bear,no drinks or wine…. But anyway he survived and grew up and will have his own kids…I hope and have no other
Indicators. i also do wonder what they will eat.
But I have to tell You he has been in States, most of Europe, few places in Asia and in Egypt and somehow survived. To my own disappointment- maybe I had not to acclime to fish and meat….
Love Your some 40sh fan
Thank you so much and thanks for the story!
I have actually read that picky eaters are picky because they have more taste buds on there tongues.
Congratulations on your victory though, I spent a couple of months in China and ordering was always a mission. I had one fast food place even try to give me a giant chicken that they had displayed behind the counter. I would of accepted but i didn’t want to leave the poor chicken alone when my trip was over =P
You know, I bet you’re right about the taste buds. That’s also why I can’t eat spicy food.
Oh my gosh! It’s like this post was written about me. I too am a very picky eater and I tend to base my travel destinations around whether or not there will be something I will eat there. Hence, why I’ve never been to Asia- I think seafood is disgusting! I worry about what I will eat in Germany this fall because I also don’t like sausages (I am a chicken a pasta type of girl).
You’ll be fine in Germany, plenty of choices there and from experience you’d also do well in Thailand, so place that one on your list!
I can’t stand seafood and vegetables too! Just like you, I travel a lot and being picky when it comes to food, becomes a problem sometimes. I’ve read a saying that the soul of a city is its food. So yeah.. I guess I’m missing a lot. Great post! Visit the Philippines too when you get the chance!
Really? No food concerns in the Philippines?
Glad to hear you found something you enjoyed in Japan! BTW, the “ton” in “tonkatsu” means you had pork, not chicken. Not sure if pork was one of the things you didn’t like to eat before, but if you liked it then I guess you can cross one thing off your list :)
ack you’re right! Sorry, I always forget that
Matt, it is great to hear that you successfully found some food you could eat and enjoy! I love Japanese food and while I have not yet made it to Japan itself I can appreciate that it is sometimes difficult to choose a meal, particularly if the menus are in another language.
On previous trips to Europe I have reached the point of just ordering almost at random off the menu because it got to hard to ask what the dishes were as they were all in other languages, I am happy to say that I never got a bad meal, and even if I had it would have been a memorable experience anyway!
I’m a picky eater too! I do not eat beef and refuse to try raw fish. :/ Pretty sure my companion was disappointed on our trip to Japan as I couldn’t eat at the sushi places he wanted to go to. But I do like seafood, so tempura was ok. And the katsudon and curry rice stuff. And of course, taking photos of the displays and showing them when we order :) I love Japan, can’t wait to go back.
It reminds me one incident of my in France.When i was in Paris i ordered some random food and surprisingly it was really delicious.Name of that dish is Cassoulet and now i have became fan of this dish.
Funny how that happens and really highlights the need to be willing to try and do new things when you travel.
I’m planning a trip to the Philippines and Japan and because of my food issues (same as yours) I am looking into a cruise instead of a land based visit (for Japan). The idea being that even if I have to skip lunch, I can run back to the ship and find something on the menu that I understand and like. We just came back from Europe (London and Paris) and believe it or not, while London was great and easy to deal with, I had a hard time eating in Paris (we found a local italian place near our hotel that allowed me to survive) lol. For the Philippines, I was thinking of bringing protein shakes just in case lol… My poor wife who eats anything is having it tough with me.
What did you have a hard time with in Paris? And Japan was ok, not super easy but as you can see I managed. Good luck and please feel free to email me with any questions!
I can certainly relate! I am also not a lover of any fish or seafood, even having tried it many times at the urging of friends and family. On top of this I’m also allergic to nuts, which can be very challenging when traveling through Asia – my husband is now my official taste tester! The most difficult experience I’ve had was on an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, little did I know but almost every meal that they served was seafood or fish of some description! Needless to say, when the odd non-fishy dish came out, I ate as much as I could without seeming rude!
Hello Matt, I can totally relate to you. I love Japan culture and language ( I am studying it so that I can go there without getting lost) but my greatest fear is about their food. I am very picky towards what I put in my mouth. I hate cold and raw food and sweet at the same time, as long as it is cooked and salty, I usually don’t complain. I don’t like vegetable either, but I ventured into broccoli a few months ago (as long it is cooked) and mixed with other stuff. I don’t mind fish, but as long as the meat is cooked or fried and I don’t taste that fish like taste. Is it easy to find dishes like those that you like?
Hey there! Although studying Japanese is a great asset to be able to navigate while you are there, Japan is a very English speaker-friendly country to travel to. All of the major tourist areas and a lot of what is not is labeled in English, along with major roads, transportation stops, etc. Also, in Japan good (quality) food is an important part of the culture, so it’s a shame that you won’t be able to explore that fully when you get there, but I am sure that you will be able to find plenty that you enjoy and can eat! Most shops have labels and cases with food displays that will be able to give you an indication of what they have, especially if you can read basic katakana and hiragana. Good luck on your studies and have a good time!
I am going next year and I already have anxiety. I am soooo picky. I hate seafood! I don’t eat any veggies not even salad and the only fruits I eat are apples, mangos and pineapples. I could live off chicken fingers, burgers, fries and pizza. I know, it’s horrible! I am so nervous I won’t eat anything out there. I am going to fill a suitcase with oreos.
I have many of those same issues and was fine. As I wrote, they eat plenty of meat. Of note is tonkatsu or chicken katsu, just breaded meat and so good
Oh, this is so me–and we’re heading to Japan in a week and a half. I spent a few days in Hong Kong and I had serious food anxiety. I agree that trying new things can surprise you, but they can also be ruinous to your day. We ended up at a pizza place for a couple of different meals. Like some other people here I have an adventurous-eating husband, so sometimes that helps but it can also make you feel guilty about freaking out as well. On top of all that, I am one of those unfortunate souls that gets “hangry”so while I can’t find something to eat I get increasingly frustrated and it can get out of control. It’s good to have a partner who will silently hand me a granola bar without comment. Thanks for the reassurance that I won’t starve in Japan!
I know this is an old article, but, I am seriously a picky eater and completely understand your aversion towards seafood. I am moving to Japan and I was honestly terrified I wouldn’t find anything that I could eat. So, thank you for easing my mind with this!
I don’t really consider myself to be too picky about eating. I grew up with a mother who hated seafood, so I had little exposure to it. But in my 30s I started experimenting with sushi and found that I enjoy some of the more simple varieties (tuna and yellow-tail). I’ve never been much for cooked fish (although I have enjoyed some salmon), and I really don’t enjoy shellfish and don’t want to eat them (including clams and snails). I’ll happily eat any fruit, and the only vegetable I refuse to eat is the beet. I don’t get too adventurous with meats, avoiding tendons, entrails, brains, tripe and sweetmeats, although I have sampled some. I’ve even knowingly eaten congealed blood in a soup while in Laos.
The thing is, my wife is Japanese and she absolutely does not understand my disinterest in most sushi, and aversion to cooked fish and shellfish. It’s gotten to the point where it’s created a huge problem for our relationship, and she now tries to convince me that I have a full fledged eating disorder…Because I don’t enjoy seafood, actively avoid shellfish, and shy away from less-common parts of mammals.
I’ve spent a good deal of time in Japan, and I’ve tried most of the offerings, even the “living squid” that is still moving around after being sliced up for consumption. I find the flavor of the fermented, pickled vegetables to be a bit more pungent than I like, but I’ll eat them to show proper appreciation. If it’s not required, I won’t finish the little dishes, however.
I appreciate your post because I can identify with it, but it does remind me that I don’t have some sort of eating disorder. I will eat almost anything, I just won’t necessarily enjoy it.
I am actually a Japanese studies major, and I fully plan on living in japan for an extended time. But I avoid seafood like the plague. Its nice to see that I am not alone in my problem.
Oh my!, I am not alone.. my daughter just came back from japan, and cannot understand why myself and son are so picky, the packet treats she brought ( dried fish jerky sort of stuff) smelled and tasted disgusting ( yes i tried a tiny bit. I also cant stand curry, and have to hold my breath walking past curry houses. I am happy to try most sweet things though, so live off packets of biscuits after declaring that i am not hungry ! thankyou for making me feel i am not abnormal, reading your post was like reading my own words.
What a sweet story and no, there are many of us! :)
Oh my word, Thanks for writing this as i thought i was the only one (well apart from children), everyone i know can eat pretty much anything, and i’m the one worrying about what resteraunts we go to in case i can’t find food i will (or am able) to eat…
I would love to go to Japan (i’m still an anime fan at 49 years old) and just to soak up the culture but allways scared that i will starve to death (ok slight exageration, but you know what i mean)…
I can cope with a deep fried fish from Chip shop, but only if it dosen’t taste fishy (don’t ask), but apart from that i don’t touch fish, i’m not a fan of cooked vegitables, but i can cope with some raw ones, i’m fine with meat but only if the fat is cut off (but no offal, heart, lungs, liver, tripe that stuff… well you know what i mean) and deff no spicy food, i can barely eat salt and vinigar crisps, i find them to be to hot in my mouth…
I’m just happy knowing that i am not alone, and other people go through the same every day, makes me feel better…
Great article. Hate fish and any seafood, am completely fascinated with Japan — and for good measure have Celiac so cannot tolerate Wheat/Barley/Rye. Which regrettably means Soy Sauce is a problem (99% of the time – as they put wheat in it). Some of my favorite places are famous for their seafood. I still will go sometime. I really want to visit Japan. Thanks.
Hi Matt, I totally relate to this! My family is Caribbean and eats a large sum of seafood but I’ve highly detested it from a baby. I’m in my early 20’s now and still can’t even be around seafood, the smell alone makes me nauseous. Recently I went to Japan for study abroad, and while I may have not had such a big language barrier as you, since I study Japanese as my minor, I still had trouble eating something’s I Japan. I’m also a picky eater but sucked it up while I was there (for the most part), but I also told every restaurant I went to that I had an allergy to seafood (not actually sure if I do). While I did enjoy many foods in Japan, one of which was Tonkatsu (and curry!), I wonder if I could ever manage to live there despite my “bad habit” towards food. I felt bad whenever I was offered food I didn’t like saying I wasnt hungry (though I was), hoping my stomach wouldn’t growl infront of them! Honestly the conbini (convenient stores) we’re super helpful because I could easily pick up a quick eat if I was hungry….I really liked reading your story and many others here because I felt like I was the only one who is so picky towards food! It’s great to know I’m not the only one!
Thanks so much for sharing! I swear, the first paragraphs of this article could have been written by me! We have the same food aversions and background! I now feel much more confident about my planned trip to Japan.
i remembered when my british uncle toured here.. and we bought expensive celebratory food that we only eat in december.. and he said ‘yuck’. man… that felt like a big fuck you on your faces..
but i guess that’s just how foreigners speak. in here we put ourselves in the shoes of the other person. too bad the old folks don’t have the open mindedness as the younger ones, and will instantly think of it as a grave insult and probably things like… get the fuck off her you tactless mofo
Awesome, more folks like me found I had. Like many folks in here(including Matt) I am also pretty picky when it comes to food. Big no-no’s for me is seafood(can eat fish fillet and well cooked shrimp, but that is it), very picky with vegetables and picky with certain meats. I too was worried about food when going to Japan since people around me kept saying to me that Japan is best known for their seafood. But I had gone twice and let me tell ya, you can enjoy Japan even if you are a picky eater.
First of all, Japan has huge variety of meats, from chicken, pork to beef and they can make some amazing dishes with them meats. Tonkotsu Ramen is among my favorite dishes. Also beef bowls from restaurants like Sukiya or Yoshinoya are amazing and super inexpensive. Japanese BBQ here is the best, completely recommend that.
And if you are not sure about any of those, there’s always well known major chain restaurants you fall back to. McDonald’s, Burger King, Denny’s, KFC(fried chicken), etc. There is also family restaurant chains that offer a variety of non-seafood, easy on the veggies to no veggies dishes. Also, desserts over there are the best you will ever have.
So you can still enjoy Japan, seeing the historical sites, going to arcades or going shopping, to whatever you want. But eat the foods you can enjoy.
(Let me note this though, bigger cities, more choices in food I had been to Tokyo, Osaka, Nara and Kyoto and all offered good food)
Finally, I feel normal. (after reading your short story)
I’m on my way to Bangkok today. I have been traveling there for many years and I must admit I love Thailand.
However, I’m also going to Japan and happen to despise fish, seafood, seaweed, sushi, etc. (Its the only country in Asia I have not been to, needless to say, I am excited but somewhat apprehensive)
Your story gave me hope ! (and made me laugh)
Thank you for this. Thank you for treating it as just a facet of who you are and not a personal failing.
I, too, am a picky eater. I also cannot stand fish, nor most vegetables. Some people just don’t get that not everything tastes the same to everybody. The first time I felt justified was when my class tasted PKC strips in high school. It was horrendous to me, but for some kids, it was just a little bad, and some kids tasted nothing. The teacher said that if we could taste it strongly, we probably wouldn’t like things such as coffee, chocolate, grapefruit, mustard, tonic water, etc. Although I already believed there was a biological basis, from then on, I knew it. In the early 2000’s, I took a test counting my tastebud papillae, and was found to be a “supertaster”, along with about 25% of my fellow Americans (50% fall into the “taster” category, and 25% are “non-tasters”.). Of course being a supertaster doe not correlate 100% with being able to taste PKC, and there are undoubtedly other chemical compounds that I lack the ability to taste, but which others do taste.
Anyway, long story short, if I don’t like certain things, it’s not because I haven’t developed an adult palate. I just have different sensitivities.
I’m glad you enjoyed your exposure to Japanese cuisine. Spain can be hard if you go to the wrong tapas bar—so much seafood, but grosser, fishier kinds, like anchovies, sardines, and baby eels.
So glad I read this article. My husband and I are hoping to go to Japan next year, but I am terrified of the food! I love to eat, but loathe fish and am picky. I’ve already assumed I won’t eat for a week and a half lol. I’ve never had an issue with traveling so far despite my pickiness and peanut allergy.
Hey! Just came across your post!
So I applied for a university media/journalism trip to Tokyo and got offered a place. When I was accepted I was like “holy sh*t, I’m going to Tokyo!” but because I too am a picky eater, I’m now like “holy sh*t, I’m going to Tokyo” and the excitement has been replaced by fear and terror.
I’m going for a week in February 2019, and even looking at the inflight meal options on the Japanese airlines – both ANA and JAL – well, my anxiety is going through the roof – especially as it’s a 12 hour flight from London!
When I’m at home, the only things I’ll eat are Italian (as the “foreign foods” so to speak), as well as chicken, gammon/bacon/sausage (that kind of pork), cod (battered crispy or battered like a chip shop), and try to stay away from fast food but McDonalds or KFC at a pinch. I can’t really stand fish in any guise, but I can handle small amounts of cod so long as it’s battered – think Young’s brand in the UK.
Am I going to struggle as much as I fear I will? Should I pack my hold luggage with assorted Ritz crackers, crisps and chocolate? Or am I likely to be okay? Because right now I’m freaking out like mad! I don’t want to stick with fast food for an entire week – I’ve seen Supersize Me and it put me right off that daily lifestyle – but I also want to at least try things a) that I’ll like, eat, won’t get sick from (another mahooosive fear of mine, especially when travelling on my own in places I don’t know) but also b) that have a Japanese spin on so I can at least say I’ve tried the native food.
Other than that, I really enjoyed reading this!
Heh that’s kind of funny, I’m a picky eater as well, but I eat pretty much any type of seafood (except oysters) but I absolutely despise vegetables, I can’t even eat something as simple as a tomato or onion without gagging and you can completely forget about me eating a salad. I think I can count on 2 hands the amount of vegetables I like, and most of them are different variations of beans lol. But the onion thing in particular is a big hassle because it seems like they are on nearly everything and I’m not someone who will just pick it off either, if it’s touched my food then I won’t eat it – many a fast food orders have been thrown away because of this. Japan is on my list of places I want to travel to sometime in my life, but quite frankly I don’t know what I would eat, it certainly would be boring to just eat chicken or beef like I do every day in the USA!
My wife is a Filipino and even though we met here in the US, I will eventually, and hesitantly, have to travel to the Philippines to see her hometown and meet her family. I’m freaking out about the food and I’m convinced that I’ll end up dying of starvation while I’m there (for over a month) and we haven’t even bought our plane tickets yet!
Have you been to the Philippines? What did you find for picky eaters? I’m even worried about the ketchup – since it’s the only way I’ll eat most food (including hamburgers and fries). I don’t eat chicken unless I prepare it myself ( too many trips to the hospital with food poisoning from poorly prepared chicken). I don’t eat “weird vegetables” either (including tomatoes), and I don’t much care for pork. I don’t have a problem eating McDonald’s for every meal but I’m concerned that the seasoning will be different from the “Texas flavored” McDonald’s I have grown up with. So what am I gonna do? Any tips? Any advice? Any experience? Any way you, or one of your readers, and pass along some good news about the food options in the Philippines so I can be at ease about traveling there?
Of all the treats an American might have to face (ISIS comes to mind first), I’m only worried about the food! Kinda dumb I know, but these are my fears and it’s almost debilitating.
(btw: I can taste it if hamburger was cooked on the same grill as seafood – I can’t even be around the nasty watery foods and will most likely cause a huge scene if I so much as smell something that resembles fish – especially if I’m super hungry or my blood sugar is low).
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