Some Japanese sandwiches are terrible. Others are OK or even very good. However, these Japanese sandwiches are world-class.
Miso katsu sando with chopped cabbage served on toasted bread. Photo: Brian Ashcraft
Go into your typical Japanese supermarket, and there simply isn't a wide variety of bread, sliced cheese, meats and condiments. Department stores and fancy groceries are bound to have more variety, but your typical Japanese supermarket doesn't offer much in the way of what you need to make classic cutting board style sandwiches.
Sandwiches have a hundred-plus-year history in Japan. In 1899 (Meiji 32), Japanese food company Ofuna-ken began selling a sandwich bento box at Odawara Station in Kanagawa. The establishment's founder had apparently heard about sandwiches via politician Kuroda Kiyotaka, who had travelled to the US and Europe. The result was Ofuna-ken Sandwich, Japan's first "eki-ben sandoicchi" (駅弁サンドイッチ) or "sandwich box lunch that's sold at train stations". This wasn't the first sando made in Japan. Since the Americans forced open the country in the 1850s, Western-style restaurants, bars and hotels started sprouting up in Yokohama, Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe. These establishments, however, were aimed at foreigners.
Japan's first boxed sandwich. Image: Ofuna-ken
What makes Ofuna-ken sando so important is that it was sold to the Japanese masses. The first year it was on sale, imported ham had to be used, but by the second year on sale, Japanese boneless ham was filling the slices of bread. This eki-ben slicing style is still prevalent today, even among sandwich makers who aren't located on train platforms. Ham with cheese, cucumber slices and all, has become the default Japanese sandwich. This, along with the egg sandwich, is what is typically sold in convenience stores and often made at home in Japan.
Katsu sando with sliced onions, tomato and lettuce. Note how the sando comes cut into bite-sized portions. Photo: Brian Ashcraft
I'm not a fan of Japan's ham and cheese sandwiches with cucumbers. That's OK because there are several types of Japanese sandwiches that I adore - most notably, the katsu sandwich. Tokyo restaurant Isen Honten claims credit for creating it in 1935. While Japan's egg sandwich game is good, the creation of the katsu sandwich (かつサンド or katsu sando in Japanese), which is fried pork cutlet on bread, changed everything.
Other restaurants around Japan starting coming up with their own spin on the katsu sando. Nagoya, where a string of terrific cafes popped up in the years and decades after World War II, created the miso katsu sando. Fitting, because Nagoya is famous for miso, and the combination is a little bit of heaven between sliced bread. Restaurants have long moved beyond fried pork, discovering that fried prawn sandwiches were welcomed additions.
Konparu's classic fried shrimp sando. Image: Konparu
Besides miso katsu sando, famed Nagoya coffee shop Konparu, founded in 1947, serves up fried-prawn sandwiches with egg and chopped cabbage. It's one of the more arresting-looking Japanese sandwiches, but if you like seafood, also one of the best.
The katsu sando has long been a simple, inexpensive cafe food that reminds Japanese people of the Showa Era. In recent years, the classic katsu sando has been given a meaty, gourmet updating, as seen with these wagyu katsu sando from Tokyo steakhouse Shima.
Or these Kobegyu (Kobe beef) steak sandwiches served up at the Hotel La Suite Kobe Harborland. They're all evolutions of the original pork katsu sando and look heavenly.
Who needs a smorgasbord of cold cuts and cheese when you have these?