Great Food But Portions, Not So Much

The food is great in Tokyo.   By that I mean the taste, not the portions.

Compared to America–where they feed you like a horse–the portions at Japanese restaurants are ridiculously small. It’s pretty much assured that whatever dishes the restaurant trots out as a full-course meal is insufficient to satisfy your hunger. That’s why I order extra from the get-go or warn the waitress that there’s going to be more–much more–before I finish for the night.

I know I’m a big eater, but I always thought that because the dishes in Japan are so small, most people would have needed seconds (and thirds).

Apparently not.

One of the favorite stories from my past family vacation involves saving more than $100 on food in one day.  For lunch, we stopped at a casual soba place where I finished my plate and remainder of my family’s before realizing I was going to die of starvation before dinner if I didn’t order more.  I put in the order for the additional dish while the restaurant was packed.  In the chaos of the moment, the restaurant forgot to charge us for my seconds.

The same thing happened at dinner later in the day at the hotel where we were staying, which served a sukiyaki-type food.   We were halfway through the first plate of meat and vegetables when we ordered another because we realized one wasn’t going to be nearly enough.  The hotel remembered to charge for the alcohol, which everyone orders, but they forgot to charge for the seconds–again.  It was quite a day.

It’s pretty clear that many places forget to charge because most people don’t order “more.”   Based on personal experience, eateries are more likely to forget to charge for your seconds (don’t order a third) if it’s ordered in the middle of a meal rather than at the get-go. If you find yourself unable to afford the food to sustain yourself in Tokyo, I suggest you order the standard course and right as they’re bringing out the final dish, order one more. You probably have a not-so-bad 10% chance that they’ll forget the extra in the commotion of it all.

In a county full of false modesty, menu is one place where the Japanese decided to be neither false nor modest. Everything is quite literal. You ask for ketchup at Burger King and they give you one packet. If the menu says small “bites” of an appetizer, you would’ve swallowed them before having tasted them. If a course comes with a “sip” of wine, they’ll bring it in half a shot glass.

I once had breakfast at the Sheraton in Tokyo where I ordered the continental breakfast because the menu said it comes with sausage, bacon, two eggs, toast, potato, tomato, and orange juice. What I got was a piece of small sausage, a piece of thin bacon, two small eggs, a toast cut in half, half of a miniature potato, half a cherry tomato and, of course, an orange juice in a shot glass.

I think it’s important that these places where Westerners frequent contain a warning about how absurd their menus are.  My dad told me this story of an American who ordered a breakfast similar to mine. Finding that the orange juice that came with the course was just enough to make him want more, he kept on ordering refills.  It wasn’t until the bill came that he realized refills weren’t free.  He had blown the entire day’s food budget on orange juice.

This is an important lesson:  no food is really ever free in Japan, even when they give all signs that it is.  If you order soda at McDonald’s, for example, they give you a cup to fill it yourself  at a soda machine that’s out in the open.  By American standards–and common sense–this signals free refills.

It does not.

My first time at McDonald’s I made the mistake of ordering a “medium” soda whose size would have been fitting only if it had come with a toy.  I accepted the open invitation for seconds, then for thirds, at which point the colleagues I was with kindly warned me, quietly in English, that refills were not free and I was, in essence, an attorney committing theft.

I’ve pretty much resigned to the fact that my Engel coefficient is well above the Japanese national average and has, even on a personal level, skyrocketed since my time in New York.  Whenever I think about that–and I try not to–I remember how in New York, I didn’t particularly look forward to the daily meals unless it was a special occasion with good company at a nice locale.  That was a terrible shame since you only live twice and hence the number of meals you have in your lifetimes is limited.  I want to enjoy each meal as if it’s the last, and there’s really no price you can put on that.


10 Responses to “Great Food But Portions, Not So Much”

  1. 1 Ryan Brown November 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

    So in other words I should go to Tokyo in order to control my portions better? Maybe the US should follow that example, as a good meal at Macaroni Grill could set you back 2000+ calories!

    • 2 joesas December 2, 2011 at 11:36 pm

      There are better reasons to come to Tokyo! I do think American portions area little too big.

      Thanks for commenting (and sorry the system thought you were a spam)!

  2. 3 Chris Ratto December 3, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    I think this is why Jesus had the last super. He found ” breaking bread” was a special way to visit with different people. I think we live more than once since our energy does not die, but enjoy the food you can eat now anyway!

    • 4 joesas December 4, 2011 at 12:31 am


      I certainly agree a meal is a very special thing–that’s what I live for.

      I also agree you live more than once because you only live twice.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • 5 chris ratto December 4, 2011 at 7:41 am

        what do you mean by twice ??

        i know i had a past life, even though as catholics we are not supposed to believe that. when i go to certain towns and places i feel like i have been there before. the early church believed in reincarnation. because it was more easter philosophy like. which i like, i believe in jesus and miracles but not eternal damnation. seems too harsh for a few bad choices.

        still hoping to visit nyc one day!!!

        P.S. I am becoming a freelance photographer / photojournalist.

        • 6 joesas December 6, 2011 at 9:16 am

          Sigh, Chris. You need to start watching more Bond. That reference was a gimme.

          I don’t know whether there was a prior life and I’m not sure I want to know, but there’s one certainty and that’s enough for me.

          U know I’m not in NYC anymore, right??? LOL.

          I thought you were in radio now?

  3. 7 chris ratto December 4, 2011 at 7:46 am

    I think all Americans should visit Japan so they can lose weight it gives our country a bad image that we are fat and “lazy” said Obama. I have lost about fifteen pounds in 4 months give or take a few.

    • 8 joesas December 6, 2011 at 9:14 am

      Excellent news, Chris. Working out, running, eating less? ALl of the above?

      Hope all is well.


  4. 9 John E. December 20, 2011 at 6:30 am

    Moving to Japan made me lose weight. Oh wait, just kidding. I gained a bit of weight. Damn you Aomori and your delicious, delicious food. With that said, Joe, check your FB! Let’s hang out if we can. Yoroshigo!

    • 10 joesas December 21, 2011 at 9:06 am


      Thanks for commenting! If food is great here, I bet it’s amazing up in Aomori. Let’s definitely get together and talk about food and other things…

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