If you’d love to go to Japan, but you’re the kind of person who goes out for sushi and ends up with a pile of plates that kind of vaguely resembles a Japanese-style Leaning Tower of Pisa, do not despair. Japan will not starve you. In fact, if you haven’t managed to gain about five kilos from your two week Japanese vacation, it’s entirely possible you’re doing Japan wrong.
You see, Japan has this thing called ‘tabehōdai’. Basically, it translates to ‘all you can eat’. And when they say “all you can eat”, they’re really not kidding. You are quite literally encouraged to eat until it’s painful. This is in sharp contrast with Japanese people’s usual approach to food. There’s a term in Japanese, ‘hara-hachibu’, referring to the idea that to eat too much is unhealthy. It means ‘80% full’, and this point – where you could probably eat more food, but you’re not really hungry anymore either – is considered the ideal point at which to stop eating. This way of thinking is one reason why a typical Japanese serving would be considered on the small side by Australian standards.
However, with affluence comes decadence. All-you-can-eat styles of eating achieved popularity in Japan in the boom years of the second half of the 20th century, and the country has never looked back. While there are still plenty of restaurants that stick to traditional serving sizes, places which encourage you to eat to bursting are in no short supply. Such restaurants use a few different systems. These include ‘tabehōdai’, as well as ‘viking’ (it’s not what you think) and ‘okawari-jiyū’, and each system has clear differences.
Tabehōdai is perhaps most common at places like Korean BBQ (yakiniku) restaurants and izakaya (pretty much the Japanese version of a pub). Basically, it involves ordering an unlimited number of items from a menu, for a set price – typically around ¥3,000-¥4,000 (approx. $35-$45 AUD), although it can get pricier. Many establishments have levels on their tabehōdai menus, so for instance, paying ¥4,800 would allow you to order from a wider range of items than paying ¥3,800, and it’s up to you to decide how badly you want to be able to order those slices of succulent marbled beef, for instance, rather than the regular beef that’s on the cheaper menu.
With this system, the food will be prepared on demand and brought out to your table – nothing is left waiting around to go lukewarm or stale. Tabehōdai usually comes with several conditions. You can’t take leftovers home. Beyond that, rules can differ slightly depending on the policies of the restaurant. Common rules include time limits (for orders and/or seating), bans on leaving leftovers, and often, a minimum number of people in the group.
A natural offshoot of tabehōdai is ‘nomihōdai’ – all you can drink. All-you-can-drink is usually purchased as an optional add-on to a meal, and ranges from unlimited refills on soft-drink and juice, to something which tends to blow Australians’ minds: FREE BEERS FOREVER! (or more accurately, 20 bucks or so for as many beers, house wines, and basic cocktails as you can handle in typically about 90 minutes). Yes, you guessed it – Japan doesn’t have any real equivalent to our Responsible Service of Alcohol laws. You can still land in trouble for getting off your face and becoming a public nuisance though, and keep in mind that the minimum drinking age in Japan is 20.
No, Japan has not been invaded by blood-thirsty Scandinavians in horned helmets. ‘Viking’ is just what the Japanese call buffets – apparently because the concept was introduced from Scandinavia, and ‘smorgasbord’ was too complicated a word for Japanese people to pronounce. ‘Viking’ buffets are pretty popular in Japan. Just about every large hotel chain will offer ‘breakfast viking’, and there are no small number of chain restaurants specialising in this kind of all-you-can-eat. Of particular note is Sweets Paradise, a Japan-wide chain which specialises in ‘dessert viking’, for those with a hardcore sweet tooth. For the faint-of-heart, they also provide a small range of pastas, salads and soups.
Some restaurants, like hot-pot chain Nabezo, operate a hybrid system taking elements from both tabehōdai and viking.
Okawari-jiyū is similar to tabehōdai, except that it is typically limited to just one item. It essentially means ‘as many helpings as you like’, and it most commonly appears as unlimited helpings of steamed rice in cafeteria-style establishments. This is the cheapest all-you-can-eat option, for those who care more about a full belly than variety. When it applies to rice, the cost is typically included in the price of the meal itself. When involving things other than rice, you’ll usually pay only for the first serving of that item, and it will always apply to something most people would not consider to be a meal in of itself and which is cheap for the restaurant to provide – crunchy pieces of raw cabbage for snacking on while you drink, for example, or unlimited gyoza dumplings (typically considered a side-dish). A word of warning, though: It may seem like a great idea to save money by paying five bucks and eating 30 plates of gyoza at that one restaurant you found that lets you do that, but chances are you’ll never want to look at another gyoza again after around about the eighth serving.
All-you-can-eat also shows up as a form of promotional event used by restaurants in Japan. For instance, KFC Japan has been known to run limited-time events offering all-you-can-eat fried chicken. Again, this is probably not something for the faint of heart.
Although technically not all-you-can-eat, a similar phenomenon in Japan which is worth noting is the concept of oversized meals. And when we say “oversized”, we mean “really excessively huge”. Such oversized servings are often described as ‘yama-mori’ – ‘serving size: mountain’ – due to the way the food is heaped onto the plate. When this gets really extreme, the description of the dish resorts to kilogram measurements (a three kilo bowl of ramen or curry, for instance) or centimetre measurements (a 60cm parfait or the like). In case it wasn’t clear, that’s so large it’s actually kind of crazy. Restaurants may specialise in these oversized servings in order to attract attention, or offer an oversized dish as a ‘challenge’ customers may attempt. In these challenges, customers would usually win a prize and get the meal for free if the whole meal is finished within a time limit, and pay through the nose if they fail.
Despite how crazy it is, or perhaps because of it, the attention-seeking method of oversized meals definitely works. Japanese television producers love to run shows featuring rows of minor celebrities going “Mmm! It’s so tasty!” about various food items, with lots of close-ups of the food – all the more so if there’s something unique or unusual about the dish being featured. And you have to admit, oversizing the meal is one of the easiest ways to try to make something stand out. Also, these oversized food items are perfect fodder for the practice of competitive eating. Apparently, watching someone stuff their face is great entertainment in Japan, and competitive eaters can become minor celebrities in their own right. These competitive eaters are not always like you’d expect, either – one of the most popular competitive eaters in the mid- to late-2000s was a cutesy, petite young woman in her early 20s known as Gal Sone.
Oversized meal items also often appear in limited-time promotions, particularly when it comes to fast food. Japanese fast food chain Lotteria occasionally offers a ‘tower burger’ featuring an unreasonable number of beef or prawn patties, and in 2008 MacDonald’s Japan famously added the Mega Mac (twice the size of a Big Mac) to its regular menu after overwhelming enthusiasm in response to the burger’s limited-time run – in Japan, limited-time items almost never make it onto a regular menu. Unfortunately, its popularity has since wound down, so it’s not there anymore, but it still cycles around now and then, back to being a limited-time offer.