Budapest has an estimated Japanese community of 1,000 people, which mainly comprises Japanese senior managers and their families. They predominantly work at one of the 156 Japanese-owned companies with Hungarian operations (Suzuki, Denso, and Bridgestone are the biggest ones). Most of these people are sent to Hungary for specific projects and return to Japan within three to five years. One of the motivations to go back is to remain covered under the Japanese social security system, which is normally capped at five years of foreign employment.
But not all Japanese people are here for business. Some are classical-music students at the Liszt Academy, ballet dancers at the Hungarian State Opera House, medical students at Semmelweis University, or professional fencers training here.
The majority of Japanese people live in Budapest's Districts 2 and 12, the most exclusive neighborhoods of the city. Part of the reason for this is to be near The Budapest Japanese School (2005), which provides elementary and middle school education under the Japanese curriculum. Currently approximately 80 Japanese students are enrolled.
What To Eat, Where To Eat?
As in many European cities, the local population in Budapest mainly connects with sushi and matcha when it comes to Japanese food and drinks. As a result, few restaurants specialize in everyday Japanese dishes like donburi, tempura, curry, karaage, and tonkatsu, because these aren't familiar to people. There are currently three restaurants in Budapest that do (Komachi, Biwako, and DON DOKO DON), and, accordingly, most of the patrons at these places are Japanese and other Asian expatriates.
Budapest's sushi and sashimi restaurants aren’t setting the world on fire, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone: fish consumption in Hungary is the lowest in the EU, and Hungary being a landlocked country makes procuring fresh ingredients a challenge, transporting them expensive. Nevertheless, a handful of sushi restaurants are run or overseen by Japanese chefs and this usually shows through in the raw seafood dishes.
Two of the best casual sushi places are Okuyama No Sushi and Ennmann. Both of these restaurant are below ground and bare-bones, so I wouldn't go here for an anniversary dinner, but the food won't disappoint. For an upscale, sushi-centered Japanese meal, there are several options. If you're looking to go all out, there's a Nobu in Budapest. Fuji and Sushi Sei are still fancy, but slightly less expensive restaurants on the Buda side of the city.
Besides sushi, ramens have also entered the mainstream in Budapest. According to several Japanese nationals living in Budapest, for real, Japanese-style ramen, one still needs to head to Western Europe, but barring that, Komachi is the best option locally. They make the noodles in-house, and the ramen seasonings include the classic salt (shio), soy sauce (shoyu), and miso (fermented soybean paste) flavors. (The meticulous attention to detail and complexity that can go into making this seemingly simple noodle soup is amusingly portrayed in the 1985 Japanese movie, Tampopo.)
Here, you can see the full list of best Japanese restaurants in Budapest.
Good To Know
For those looking to cook Japanese food at home, TokyoPlaza is a good place to start. It’s a Japanese/Korean grocery store inside the Rózsadomb Center shopping mall where a relatively broad selection of Japanese ingredients like rice, tofu, dashi powder, soy sauce, miso spread, seaweed, and noodles are available.
For Japan-related news and events in Budapest, The Japan Foundation is an excellent resource. With 28 magazine subscriptions and over 10,000 books (half of them in Japanese, the remaining in English and Hungarian), it’s a great forum to learn about Japanese culture and meet local Japanese people. They also offer language courses.