I'm not a good on-the-spot decision maker when faced with an overabundance of choice. (Neither are most people, but I find I'm worse than most.)
Unfortunately, Korea and Japan are both shining examples of an overabundance of choice. Restaurants are stacked five high, covered in undecipherable characters, but adorned with either laminated, multi-page, illustrated menus, or with cabinets of sculpted clay or plastic food models.
It's not that I don't know what the places serve. It's that I'm suddenly faced with 500 different dishes and forced to stop and spend minutes rolling the prospect of each one around in my mouth.
And this leads to me choosing... nothing.
I get so hungry after hours of this that I have to buy something quick to sate my hunger until a decision can be made - and this, unexpectedly, is where Japan excels.
You can eat like a king at a 7-11: their shelves of onigiri, stuffed with salmon roe, or salmon, or green onions, or cod roe, or pickled plums, are all impeccably formed and cost under $1.50. As my bus from Tokyo to Osaka made rest stops at the Japanese equivalent of Kum-n-Go's, I triumphantly sat back down in my seat with handfuls of them, ready to unwrap as we wound through misty mountains.
You can stop by the shabbiest-looking kaitenzushi place in the most abandoned-looking alley, where the chefs'irasshaimase's sound muted and the fish looks like it's been traveling around on its conveyor belt for hours, and it'll still beat out most American restaurants' sushi. So, by the way, will supermarket sushi, its ridiculously low price tag ($4 for 8 pieces of hamachi, for example) belying how absolutely fresh it is.
The chain Choco-Cro, a kind of Panera bread-like nothing of a place with pastries limply lined up in front of the coffee counter, has excellent, flaky croissants topped with perfectly boiled potatoes, crispy bacon, and mild cheese that taste like they just emerged from the oven and wouldn't be out of place at a high-end French bakery.
Even drink vending machines, so omnipresent in Tokyo that we joked about the furthest distance from any point in the city to a drink machine being best measured in inches, have a dazzling array of legitimately delicious and intriguing drinks. One, purportedly containing catnip, passionflower leaf, blueberry leaf, lemon verbena, and lemongrass, had such a relaxing effect that I nearly fell asleep in the Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens and was feasted on by mosquitoes who wanted a taste as well.
(The 'kult' is part of the yogurt company "Yakult" - it's not referring to a beverage cult.)
I feel fortunate every time I luck into one of these meals after freezing up at crucial moments, but also guilty, like I shouldn't keep being rewarded for my indecision. But Japan seems to place a high value on food quality regardless of the prestige of the food involved, and treats it all with equal care. While Japanese food has never quite synced up with my tastebuds the way, for example, southeast Asian flavors do, I respect the hell out of this attitude, and will feel extra sad to see boiled "hot dogs" rotating plastically on "spits" in the American 7-11's, and mere Cokes and Sprites in American vending machines, when I return.