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):
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.
The Old American standards
The "Hawaiian" Option
The Street Food option
The MEAT option
The Soba/Udon Options
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
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
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!