The New Tabehoudai Culture
Every foreign resident of Osaka knows Temmabashi Station. It’s the home of the Japan Ministry of Immigration, a concrete box with an interior subtlely decorated in various shades of nicotine. Until the mid-90s, one of the consolations of the obligatory three-hour wait for a one-year visa stamp (as it once was, for everyone) was the lunchtime visit to nearby Country Life. Run by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, it was Temmabashi’s – and as near as I can find out, Osaka’s – only vegetarian buffet. For 700 yen, it was then a unique dining experience: not only could you choose from a selection of delicious healthy foods, but you could also enjoy the most alien of things: a free second (or third) helping. How times have changed in ten years!
Until about 20 years ago, there was virtually no tradition, outside of international hotels, of buffet-style dining in Japan.In the traditional Japanese aesthetic, quality and presentation of food are more prized than the quantity. You’ve read all the stories, from Genji to Lonely Planet, about intricate, multi-course Kyoto kaiseki meals: the traditional inns, the exquisite presentation of the dishes by kimono-clad staff, the understated beauty of the dainty laquerware serving bowls, and the views of the moon and trees on the river below. What all the books (Genji included) fail to mention is the double cheeseburger you buy on the way home because you’re still bloody starving.
In fairness, it’s easy to forget while walking past the Chanel stores and dodging the Louis Vuitton bags, that for much of Japan’s long history, most people were far from rich, and part (but not all) of the famous frugal, minimalist Japanese aesthetic was just people making a virtue of necessity. In the 1980’s though, for the first time, Japan was awash with money, and one of the traditions effected by these unfamiliar boom years was dining out.
Meat and Greet
Not only did this newly expense-accounted generation want the best of everything (or at least the most expensive), near the end of the Boom, they began to expect more of it. Two new words were coined: tabehoudai (食べ放題, all-you-can-eat) and nomihoudai (飲み放題, all-you-can-drink). For a set price (the still-standard 3500 yen for 90 minutes, about 1000 yen less for women and non-drinkers), these shops mostly catered to the guys-after-work crowd ﾐ usually yakiniku (Korean grilled beef), or shabu-shabu (boiled beef and pork strips dipped in various sauces).
Then, in the early 90s, the Bubble burst. The expense accounts evaporated, and suddenly there were far fewer bums on seats. The long-suffering salaryman now wanted value for money, especially now that it was his money, not the company’s. A lot of restaurants stayed afloat by continuing to offer tabe/nomihoudai and extended their all-you-can-eat hours (originally the option ended after Happy Hour), while many others closed their doors. Entrepreneurs took note of this and also noted that patrons of hotel restaurant buffets would happily queue up, Western-style, to choose the morsels they wanted. The age of Self-Service – an insulting, army-mess concept to an earlier generation – had dawned. Here, for your benefit, are some of their innovations.
O-Souzai – Like Mom Used to Make
The new tabehoudai tradition has most notably made peace with the old at Solviva, a chain of organic buffet restaurants, with many locations around Osaka and the rest of Kansai . The food has been described as o-souzai（お惣菜), traditional Japanese home cooking, but the restaurants are generally in trendy, upscale areas (e.g., Chayamachi in Umeda, or Minamihorie, near Shinsaibashi). If this is what it takes to get yuppies to eat their greens, so be it – we’re all winners. The dinner buffet costs 1800 yen for 90 minutes, which in Osaka is a steal.
Ethnic Viking (!)
Newcomers to Japan might be wondering why Scandanavian food is so popular here. The bad news is that it isn’t: Viking （バイキング） is just a Japanese word-association of the Swedish word smorgasbord, which doesn’t sound very tasty in katakana. The good news is that the word often leads you to a lot of other good food. Many Indian and Thai restaurants in Osaka and Kobe offer tabehoudai lunches and dinners on the weekend. The most intriguing of them all is Kusum Honba, in Kobe. Found in a residential area , you essentially go to an Indian family’s apartment, give them 1800 yen and in return, they will bring you out delicious homemade Indian food until you beg them to stop. Devotees swear that the pakoras alone are worth the trip. (for more information, see the September 2004 issue of Kansai Scene, or go to <http://www.kansaiscene.com/2004_09/html/food.shtml> )
Another oasis for calorie collectors is the Cake Viking (visions of Eric the Red rampaging at a kids’ birthday party) .These events, usually held in the afternoon in trendy dessert shops (some hotels advertise them as Afternoon Tea – as if anybody went to them for the tea!) are popular among hordes of – it must be said – women, who congregate here and methodically cancel out a week’s dieting.
July, just after the Rainy Season, is the beginning of beer garden season. If your image of beer gardens is oompah bands and stout men in lederhosen, you might be disappointed, but the Japanese beer garden is one of the best ways to let off steam with your mates on those hot summer evenings. Osaka, Kobe, Nara and Kyoto are full of them: located on the roofs of major department stores and some hotels, you can catch what few summer breezes there are while watching the city lights below. Beer gardens are buffet style, and feature a variety of food selections (heavy on the Chinese and pasta and yakiniku, deep-fried chicken, perfunctory salad). They are not, to say the least, recommended for those on either low-carb or low-fat diets. You buy a beer ticket at the door (average price 3500 yen), which you exchange for a beer mug (or a plastic cup for non-alcoholic drinks), and jump in line. Hold onto your mug – you have to present it for refills. Beer gardens are great for affordable get-togethers, although for large groups, it might be wise to make a reservation. That way, you get to sit under the canopied seats on rainy days. The most famous in Osaka are on the roof of the Shin-Hankyu Hotel and Hanshin Department Store, both in Umeda. Hanshin’s features a large screen where Tigers fans can (voluably) cheer on the home team. On home game days, Giants fans would be wise to do their drinking at the Shin-Hankyu.
A Lot For A Lot
While great values abound, it’s still nice, every now and then, to shell out a bit extra for quality food (but lots of it). This is the time to attend a Sunday buffet at a hotel. These range in price from The Hilton’s Sunday brunch (2600 yen, drinks charged separately) to the legendary Trader Vic’s champagne brunch at the Hotel New Otani (JR Osakajokoen Station, 4800 yen). It’s important to book ahead for the champagne brunch, and ( I’m speaking from experience here) take your time with the champers. The waiters have a tendency to refill any half-empty glass, and you soon forget how many half-empty glasses you’ve downed. The most lavish hotel buffet in my experience is the Ritz-Carleton’s weekend brunch. The choice is amazing, and the food is delicious, but the best time to go there is when you’re not the one who’s paying.
This article originally appeared in Kansai Scene number 74, July 2006.
Stepping up to the plate again …
Here are a few more examples of tabehoudai/Viking/buffet dining. The usual time limit at Japanese and Korean restaurants is 90 minutes, unless otherwise stated.
Umeda, Oriental Hotel, 2F
(below The Hub)
Shabushabu tabehoudai. Best deal is the ¥2,180 beef set, which includes vegetables. With nomihoudai, ¥3,380. Tel: 06-6647-8111
Himalaya Indian Restaurant
Umeda, Dai-2 Bulidling B1
Dinner time: All-you-can eat & drink for ¥2,950 for two hours. A complete menu including great variety of starters, curries, naans, tandoories and dessert. A stylish deco and friendly bilingual staff are pluses. Beware: A penalty of ¥1,000 for any leftover food or drink. Open daily, 5pm~10pm.
World Wide Buffet
Umeda, Umeda 2-chome
All-you-can-eat — everything from Mexican to Chinese to pizza. ¥3,200 per person, with a two-hour time limit. No smoking. Open 11am-4pm, 5pm-10pm (LO) daily.
Hong Kong Chonron
Umeda, Yodobashi Camera 14F
Namba, Namba Parks Bldg 6F.
Hong Kong style Chinese Buffet (lunch: ¥1,480, dinner and holidays: ¥1,980). Hot and fresh momos are served in trollies. Soft drinks and herb teas are included. Plus ¥1,000 for all-you-can drink alcohol. A great place for parties and gatherings.
Checkers, Hilton Osaka 2F
Umeda, Opp. JR Osaka Stn.
A great range of authentic International
cuisines (based on a monthly theme) are served. Weekday lunch for ¥2,550, and dinner for ¥3,700 (¥3,000 after 8pm), weekend lunch for ¥2,900, and dinner for ¥4,050 (¥3,350 after 8pm). Look out for Vietnam Fair during Jul 21-30, and Philippine Fair during Aug 4-7.
Aruna Indian Restaurant
Umeda, EST – backside of HEP
One of the best recommendations of the town: all-you-can eat & drink for ¥4,000 (two hours during dinner time). A wide range of curries,naan, tandoories, and drinks. Additional ¥500 for Indian beer and cocktails.
Osaka, WTC 51F
Worldwide buffet style menu. Delici-ous range of salads, meat dishes, vegetarian stuff, desserts and so on in a luxurious and stylish ambiance. A dramatic view from the 51st floor adds an extra topping. Open daily for lunch (¥1,800~) and dinner (¥ 2,400~) varies on weekdays and weekends.
Osaka, Universal Studios
A healthy Japanese buffet is the unusual concept here — all you can eat of seasonal hors appetizers and side dishes, salads and original desserts, plus rice and miso soup. ¥1,800 before 5pm, ¥2,500 after. Do-
At ¥1,575 for men and ¥1,260 for women, and no time limit, this is the Promised Land for sushi fans. It’s kaiten style, meaning you choose your dishes from a conveyer belt which snakes its way around the large shop.
Tennoji, Shinjugochisou Bldg, (also in Namba and Umeda)
Kushikatsu, once considered the poor man’s tempura, is surprisingly tasty and fun to make at your own table. Salad and dessert buffet included. (weekend lunch Viking , ¥1,200 for 60 minutes, limitless soft drinks for ¥200 more; tabehoudai ¥2,625 for 90 minutes, with nomihoudai ¥525 up).
Savannah Bar & Grill
Periodically offers a ‘Gospel Brunch’ on weekends. The price of admission
(¥1,500-¥2,000) includes a full American breakfast buffet and some great gospel singers from all around.
Krungtep Thai Restaurant
Shinsaibashi, Dotombori Street
Thai lunch buffet lunch (11am-3pm, everyday ¥980). A great deal of variety (changing everday) in menu, including desserts. If that’s not enough, one can enjoy all-you-can eat Thai desserts after 3pm for ¥1,200.
Mithila Indian Restaurant
Shinsaibashi, Dotombori Street
(just above Krungtep)
Indian buffet lunch (11am-3pm, everyday ¥980). Includes good number of curries, tandoori dishes and naans, plus basic Indian drinks.
Kyoto, Sakizo Plaza Bldg 5F
All-you-can-eat deep fried skewered cuisine restaurant — a choice from pork, beef, seafood and vegetables; enjoy cooking each skewer in your own personal deep fry pot. ¥2,625 for 90 min. Additional ¥1,000 for all-you-can-drink. Daily: 16:00-23:00.
The Grill, Hyatt Regency Kyoto
For those who loves Sunday brunch — The Brunch (11.30am~14:30) is been offered with a range of buffet appetizers and desserts along with fresh fruits in a state-of-art atmosphere.
While the main course gets served from the kitchen. ¥3,095.
IndoMura Indian Restaurant
Kobe, Rokko Island
All-you-can eat & drink during dinner hours (5pm~9pm) for ¥3,500 (within two hours). A wide choice: 11 types of curries and 10 types of drinks. Worth making a trip to the island!
Churrasco-style Brazilian grilled meats (beef, pork, chicken) are served here, and the waiters will keep bringing you meat until you tell them to stop; all-you-can-eat deals cost around ¥2000 per person. The Brazilian music and staff add to the atmosphere. Open throughout the day.
Kusum Homba Kaiteryori
A complete solution for vegetarians. A home-made delicacy for Indian food lovers. Hot chapatis are served in homely atmosphere along with all-you-can-eat lunch for ¥980, and dinner for ¥1,200. Close on Monday.
Kobe, Near JR Motomachi Stn
Besides being just a great place to wander around and sample street food, Chinatown has many restaurants offering good, cheap Chinese buffet dinners from ¥1,500. Finding them is half the fun, but you won’t be the only one looking – first come, first served!
Volks, Friendly, Saizeriya, etc.
Finally, many Family Restaurants, most notably VOLKS, feature a fairly good salad bar, and, unlike 10 years ago, no longer feature a manager hovering about, making sure you don’t come back too often.