Japanese pizza: Where to find the good stuff

If you haven't eaten corn pizza in Japan, can you really say you've experienced Japan?

If you like pizza, you will probably be pretty disappointed with what Japan has to offer. Pizza in Japan is just like sushi everywhere else: Stale, bland and completely contrary to the food’s culinary origins.

What makes pizza in Japan bad

It all boils down to one fact: People in Japan are confused. Confused about what pizza is supposed to be. And it’s hard to blame them. Is pizza that sloppy oily cheezy junk you find in New York? Is it the thin crunchy thing with the unpronounceable Italian name? Does it have pineapple on it?

The problem is compounded by the fact that most of Japan doesn’t think of the rest of the world as a collection of different countries with different cultures, but rather as one big country that isn’t Japan. This does nothing to alleviate the pizza confusion.

Here are a few of the biggest turnoffs:

1. The toppings

Pizza in Japan offers some... interesting topping choices.
Pizza in Japan offers some… interesting topping choices.

Corn. Kewpie. Broccoli. Is this what you are thinking of when those pizza cravings hit you? If so, I have some news for you. You might be Japanese.

Yep, that's seaweed. And mochi (rice cake). Oh, and corn, for good measure.
Yep, that’s seaweed. And mochi (rice cake). Oh, and corn, for good measure.

I’m not just talking about crazy Japanese pizza brands. Pizza Hut and Domino’s have quite a significant presence too – and they are all trying to reinvent themselves with every opportunity.

2. The size

Do you like being full? Maybe you should eat something else.

This is a Domino's medium pizza in Japan. For 2~3 people.
This is a Domino’s medium pizza in Japan. For 2~3 people.

While the big pizza delivery chains will offer reasonable sizes (meant for entire families, of course) you aren’t going to find anything bigger than an American “small” in regular restaurants or supermarkets. In fact, many of the frozen pizzas in the supermarkets would probably be labeled “mini” in any other country.

Don't be fooled by the packaging of frozen pizzas in Japan.
Don’t be fooled by the packaging of frozen pizzas in Japan.

If you are after size, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to either make your own or leave the country. Or be ready to pay a small fortune. Which brings me to my next point.

3. The price

Pizza in Japan is expensive. Unreasonably so. For something that requires no culinary skills to make (Iron Chef PIZZA) and hardly any ingredients (Step 1. Sprinkle some stuff on dough. Step 2. Cook.) any other country would have a very hard time justifying the prices they charge.

But it’s Japan. And pizza is an “exotic, foreign cuisine.” It’s novelty you’re paying for here, and with the crazy toppings they come up with, novelty is what you’re going to get.

A reasonably sized Domino’s pizza will cost you around 3,000~4,000 yen – this is for a “large” (33cm), which doesn’t seem so large after you’ve eaten it all in one go. This is, however, before you dive into the wonderful world of coupons and deals, which can usually bring the price down to about half if you play your cards (coupons) right.

*Plus tax. Pizza tax.
*Plus tax. Pizza tax.

Italian restaurants vary, but 1,500 yen is a good ballpark figure for a freshly cooked tiny little sliver of a crust that you could mistake for an appetizer. They also aren’t particularly tasty.

Frozen pizzas are cheap at around 300~400 yen, but they also aren’t much bigger than your face, so you should probably buy a couple.

If you’re going for something more New York, get ready to pay 700 yen or so for a single (New York sized) slice, if you can find somewhere that actually makes New York style pizza. Speaking of which…

Yeah that’s great but… where do I find good pizza in Japan?

I can’t promise anything, and you might hate everything I suggest. All I can give you are options. You can never know if you don’t try, right?

1. Domino’s, Pizza Hut or Pizza-La

As you can probably guess, Pizza-La is the only local player among the junky pizza giants in Japan. While Domino’s and Pizza Hut might sound familiar, they won’t taste familiar when you shove them in your mouth. But who knows, you might love corn and tuna mixed with Japanese mayonnaise and strange bread.

2. Italian restaurants

I haven’t been to Italy, but Italian restaurants in Japan seem to have settled on a single style that makes them completely indistinguishable from one another. They are fine, but don’t expect to have a pizza epiphany.

3. Family restaurants

Gusto and Saizeriya are two examples. Cheap, junky but reasonably okay. You can order everything from Tiramisu to escargot, and no matter how much you eat your bill probably won’t exceed 3,000 yen. The pizzas here are small and there isn’t much range, but their good if you need a quick fix of pizza along with some other junk.

4. Fancy “New York Pizza” joints

This one immediately comes to mind: “Pizza Slice” in Shibuya / Harajuku. While I’m no New Yorker, they do harp on about how authentic their pizza tastes, and the place is always packed with creepy white dudes, so I guess they’re on to something. They need imagination coaching for that name though.

Not New York, but Devil’s Craft tries to combine craft beer with Chicago style pizza, so I guess that’s similar. I wasn’t sold on the concept, but the Americans I was with seemed happy, so maybe it’s a Chicago thing.

5. Make your own

Great idea! Except, you don’t have an oven. You probably won’t have an oven. Even if you build your own house, you’re only allowed a certain size of oven. Why? Rules. Because it’s the law. You aren’t an oven offender are you?

If you’re like me, and can’t live without some sort of baking equipment, you might have a fancy convection oven / microwave thing, with which you can try your hand at cooking your own pizza. You can buy pizza bases at supermarkets, although they are pretty tiny so you might want two. Although that might be just right, because your oven is probably also pretty tiny.

If I’m lazy, I will often buy a frozen margarita pizza and load a whole lot of extra ham and basil and cheese on it (avocado is good too… oh no I think the weird topping culture might be getting to me) until it looks homemade. This is a great way to get fat.

6. Tabelog

Okay, I might be getting a bit lazy here, but it’s seriously the most efficient way to find a good place to eat. Keep in mind, though, it’s catered to Japanese taste buds, which may or may not agree with your own. Here’s a list of 1,200 pizza restaurants in Tokyo to get you started.

Wrapping up

Japanese food is delicious, but no sane individual can stave off pizza cravings forever. Unfortunately, over here you probably aren’t going to get that delicious pizza rush you get back home when you bite down on a meaty slice. You’re going to have to wait until you get home for that. But then again, go home and you aren’t going to be able to fill your face with delicious authentic Japanese sushi. You can’t have everything.