Your Guide to Japan's Mall Food Courts (aka Safety Nets for Hungry Travelers!)

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Let's say you're traveling and you want to get a good, quick meal.  You want something cheap, easy, and familiar, but you don't necessarily feel like eating bento from the convenience store or wolfing down another beef bowl from Yoshinoya.  Where should you go?
You can always stop by a mall food court.  These are lifesavers, especially if you're traveling during the holidays and the mom and pop shops that you would typically visit are closed down.  The malls will still be running, as well as their restaurants and food courts.  So please allow me to take you on a walk around an Aeon Mall food court in Japan.  Aeon Mall is one of the largest mall chains in Japan, and their malls generally have the same stores and layout in each of their locations across the country, including their food courts, which make them a safe bet when trying to shop or find some food in a new place.  Some of the names of the food joints differ from prefecture to prefecture, but the food options at every Aeon are basically the same.  Before we dive into the specifics of the choices, please allow me to offer some basic Japanese food court guidelines (some of these are universal across all Japanese food courts):
 1) Restaurants at newer food courts each have their own registers at their respective counters.  Older food courts may have you use ticket machines near the entrance.  Just do a quick check to see what the rest of the crowd is doing and you'll be fine.
 2) You can set your stuff down at a table and go order your food.  This is something you could never do in most places in the states anymore, unless you wanted something pilfered.  It's still best to have someone sitting there with your items, but if you need to snag a seat, you will be safe to set down a jacket, hat, or even a bag while you grab your food--just try to be quick so as not to be rude.
3) Return your trays to the restaurant from which you purchased it.  Each restaurant has its own trays and cups, even if they look suspiciously like all the others.  Even if trays and cups seem uniform, they will typically have a piece of tape with letters corresponding to the responsible food shop.  As long as you take the items back to the "Return" counter from the place you ordered, you'll be fine.
4) Water is typically self serve in a communal area.  If all you want is water, food courts will usually have a communal water and sink area that provides drinking water and perhaps a place to rinse your hands after a meal.
Now that that's out of the way, it's time to talk the most important part: food options!  Here we go...

 The Old American standards

KFC and McDonald's.  Not much to explain here except to say that Japanese versions of each are better than their American counterparts back stateside.  KFC is best during Christmas season and McDonald's always offers a fun group of limited edition options.

 The "Hawaiian" Option

 Hawaiian Pancake Factory.  In case you were unaware, "Hawaiian" food in Japan now means pancakes with fruit toppings.  The concept was brought to Japan when a restauranteur visited one of the fantastic pancake restaurants in Oahu (there are a lot of good options) decided it would sell in Japan.  And sell it did.  Now there are a lot of Hawaiian cafes and restaurants that all offer pancakes, but none as unabashedly so as the "Hawaiian Pancake Factory."  If you're in the mood for a pancake with a mountain of fruit and whipped cream, this is a perfect option for you.  I recommend sticking with this as a dessert, however, since there is nothing in any of the meal options that could keep an earnest traveler going.  Still, they are a delightful treat for AFTER a more nutrient rich meal.

 The Street Food option

 Gindaco's model is simple: take a beloved street food and offer it full time at food courts.  Gindaco specializes in takoyaki (battered octopus balls with assorted toppings) in and its variants.  These make for a delicious meal that actually has a lot more staying power than you may imagine.

 The MEAT option

Pepper Lunch is my personal favorite for food court options.  Side vegetables and rice are standard--all you do is pick the type of meat you want.  The food comes out about 50% cooked on a sizzling hot stone plate.  Then it's your job to let it cook to whatever rareness you'd prefer.  This lets you have meat cooked just the way you want it and nice and warm as you eat, but it also makes this a less than ideal option for travelers with young members in the party.  

The Soba/Udon Options

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Most food courts will offer both soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon (flour noodles) restaurants separately, but sometimes they'll be combined.  In any case, these are cheap and easy options, and when all else fails, these are usually safe bets for even the pickiest eaters.

The Italian Option

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Mmm...Japanese pasta.  I say "Japanese Pasta" because there is a distinct texture to the noodles and flavor to the spaghetti sauce.  The reason the tomato sauce tastes a bit different is because they typically use a bit of soy or miso in the sauce to give it a dash of umami flavor.  Don't worry, it still tastes like tomato sauce, but it will just taste slightly different from what you may be used to.  Most pasta options at Mall food courts also offer some time of pizza (usually the basic margherita), which is always a safe bet!  In any case, food court Japanese pasta is quick, surprisingly satisfying, and especially easy for the not-so-adventurous eaters in your travel party.

The Bibimbap Option

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Like the Italian option, the Korean food court option will not taste like what you're used to if you're a Korean food connoisseur.  Still, the Bibimbap is a safe option for folks who like stone-bowl Asian cuisine.
So there you have it--the standard fare for most Mall Food Courts in Japan.  They have rescued me and my family on our travels more than a few times when nothing else is open (or when we can't settle on a single food choice for all of us), and I hope they can be the same safety net for you all on your own Japan adventures!

Mike B