What Is A Typical Japanese Breakfast? Hint: It’s Not Japanese Pancakes

by Emi Noguchi

What Is A Typical Japanese Breakfast? Hint: It's Not Japanese Pancakes

Though readers may be familiar with the photogenic Japanese pancakes of internet fame, these confections are more tea-time sweet than the breakfast flapjack. As with all meals, Japanese breakfast food is entirely dependent on context: the region and season are two determinants of preferred ingredients, but prep time, traditional vs. contemporary, and, of course, individual taste are also important. Today we'll dive into just a few examples of Japanese breakfast a vacationer might try. First, a note on a guiding principle behind Japanese meal composition: ichiju sansai , or one soup, three dishes.

What Is A Typical Japanese Breakfast? Hint: It’s Not Japanese Pancakes

Ichiju sansai is ideally composed of miso soup, a "main" (generally meat or grilled fish such as salmon), two side dishes, steamed rice, and Japanese pickles, all served with tea. The vegetables and sea products change with the seasons, but the basic premise is one of flavor and nutritional balance. Vegetables, pickles, and seaweed salads bring vital nutrients and fiber to breakfast, while a proteinaceous main dish like fish gives the body fuel, miso soup hydrates, and rice provides long-lasting energy. If this all seems a bit much to cook before a day of school or work, keep in mind that these are guiding principles for a healthy meal. Surely a dish of Japanese pancakes or Instagrammable toast has been eaten in place of a full meal here or there, but again: not likely for breakfast. So you may be wondering, what do Japanese people eat for breakfast?


Coffee and Onigiri

With all the attention paid to the relaxing rituals of preparing green tea, the rich and varied culture of coffee in Japan is almost criminally underreported! Let's begin with a convenient breakfast: onigiri and perhaps some coffee. This breakfast in Japan may be reserved for the high school student who woke up late or the grandmother on her way to tend the small but prolific family farm before the summer heat kicks in (too specific?). That said, convenience stores have extremely fresh, fairly nutritious, and tasty meals that put many a foreign 7-11 to shame. The early-morning shopper can pick up a tuna salad onigiri or other rice ball packaged meticulously so the papery seaweed is kept crisp and separate from moist white rice or brown rice until opened. Onigiri can be eaten at lunch or as a snack (they are a famous staple in the lunchtime bento), but they make for a clean and simple start to the day. Add in the equivalent of a $1 USD coffee of surprisingly high quality or a milk tea from the refrigerated section, and you have on your hands a Japanese breakfast fit to be eaten, well, with your hands.


Washoku: UNESCO Heritage You Can Eat

The term for a traditional Japanese breakfast is "wachoushoku," a set meal travelers might encounter while visiting a hot spring or Buddhist monastery. These elaborate breakfasts are a type of washoku , traditional Japanese cuisine registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. In addition to balance, wachoushoku emphasizes using fresh ingredients of the season, which promotes health and longevity! This elaborate, beautifully-served Japanese breakfast contains many dishes, but due to attention to nutrition, good wachoushoku is filling but never heavy.


Natto: A Japanese Controversy

Once upon a time, a fun "man-on-the-street" interview-style television survey asked foreigners and locals to try neba-neba foods of increasing sliminess. (Though not central to the topic at hand, "neba-neba" is just one of many onomatopoeic adjectives for textures, many of which are reserved for Japanese foods!) Natto, or stringy, fermented soybean, is a famously acquired taste: so much so that a foreigner or Osakan will be asked over and over, mischievously, "So what do you think of natto?"

While the dish is not as popular in the Kansai region as it is in Tokyo, this extremely healthy dish (plus rice) makes for a Japanese breakfast unto itself! Popular toppings for these fermented soybeans include karashi , a zingy mustard made with horseradish, soy sauce, and negi green onion, a longer and sturdier variation on the scallion. Natto can often be found in styrofoam containers in an effort to avoid extra yeast activity via careful climate-control. If the brave reader chances upon an opportunity to try this breakfast in Japan, we hope they remember to stir, stir, stir to acquire the "stringiness" just right!

One Soup, Three Dishes

We've now come full-circle to ichiju-sansai, an organizing principle which really does describe traditional-style Japanese breakfast. A simpler form will include some combination of miso soup, rice, fish, and simmered or steamed vegetable. This style of breakfast in Japan might include leftovers from dinner the night before, much friendlier on a working mother than more literal interpretations of the phrase.

So concludes this brief and woefully incomplete sampling from the great Japanese breakfast menu. May the curious reader travel further down the rabbit hole for recipes and get creative with their dishware. A multi-plated breakfast in Japan could well be imitated or even hybridized in a kitchen near you!

A Simple Japanese Breakfast Recipe

If you're looking to make your own Japanese breakfast, Bokksu Boutique has you covered. The Miso Soup Omotenashi Selection contains four flavors of healthy miso soup in an incredibly giftable package. You can also try a comforting meal made with Japanese mushrooms with our Kinako Mushroom Miso Soup. You'll want to wash down that soup with some steamed rice, so add your favorite grains to our Mashikoyaki Donabe Rice Cooker. Then, top your rice with some grilled fish, add a side of pickles, and you're ready to enjoy your ichiju sansai!

Take a look at some of our favorite traditional Japanese breakfast foods!

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.