Budapest’s estimated one thousand member Japanese community 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). Most of them are sent to Hungary for specific projects and return to Japan within three to five years. Another motivation to go back is to remain covered under the Japanese social security system, which is normally capped at five years of foreign employment.
While most Japanese people are here for business, some others are classical-music students studying at the Liszt Academy, ballet dancers working for the Hungarian State Opera House, medical students at Semmelweis University, or professional fencers training in Budapest.
The majority of Japanese people in Budapest live in Districts 2 and 12, the most exclusive areas of the city. Part of the reason 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?
Japanese foods and drinks that most Hungarians connect with, sushi and matcha, are not part of everyday Japanese meals. On the other hand, common Japanese fare like donburi, tempura, curry, karaage, and tonkatsu, are not familiar to most Hungarians. This is why only two restaurants (Komachi and Biwako) are dedicated exclusively to serving these everyday Japanese dishes in Budapest. Accordingly, the majority of patrons here are usually Japanese and other Asian expatriates.
Most of the twenty or so Japanese restaurants in Budapest focus on sushi and sashimi instead. These places aren’t exactly setting the local food scene 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 and logistics expensive. Nevertheless, a handful of them are run by Japanese sushi masters (e.g. Sushi Ocean and Okuyama No Sushi) who can offer excellent meals as long as one’s expectations are scaled to the circumstances. Some even serve traditional counter omakese menus, where chefs are given the creative freedom to decide the menu and show off their sushi-making skills. See the full list of the best Japanese restaurants in Budapest.
Perhaps it’s the ramen that has most successfully entered the public consciousness in Budapest. But according to several Japanese nationals living in Budapest, to taste real, Japanese-style ramen, one still needs to head to Western Europe. 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) flavorings. (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.)
An unexpected gem is Marumoto Japanese Tearoom in Budapest. Started by a Japanese couple in 2012, they serve an array of imported Japanese tea ranging from basic hojicha and sencha to high-end shaded tea varieties like gyokuro and matcha. The teas can be complemented with traditional Japanese sweets. The founders of Marumoto have since returned to Japan, but a well-trained and kind Hungarian staff now run the place professionally.
The quaint atmosphere is the biggest draw of Shimaya Coffee Roastery. Yoshihiro Nakazawa, a certified coffee roaster from Tokyo, sells medium-roast Arabica coffee beans and hand pour-over coffee to go. The snug space on this Budapest downtown backstreet feels like having been transported to a new-wave Tokyo coffee shop.
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 outstanding resource. With 28 magazine subscriptions and over ten thousand 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. Language courses are also offered.