Do you know the Japanese word tebura (手ぶら, てぶら)? It means empty-handed.
When you’re visiting someone, it is said to be polite to bring a gift to show your appreciation for the invite and the omotenashi (おもてなし), the hospitality you’ll be receiving. When you don’t have something because of a sudden visit, it is customary to say “sorry for coming empty-handed.”
However, this is simply one way the word is used in Japan, and can have very different meanings outside of gift-giving.
In this article, we’ll explain more about the meaning and culture of tebura, how the word is used in the service industry, particularly in relation to food and Japanese BBQ, and why tebura service is so popular.
Tebura in the service industry
Although the image of tebura isn’t so positive when you’re visiting someone (coming empty-handed may not be the ideal way a visitor wants to greet their host, despite gift-giving not being obligatory), in the service industry it changes to a positive connotation similar to “handy” or “useful”.
In this sense of the word, tebura represents a (usually paid) service where you can come empty-handed as a matter of course, and is promoted for its convenience to customers.
For example, in the travel industry, there are tebura services where they’ll deliver your luggage from home to the airport and from the airport to the hotel so you don’t have to feel the stress of wandering around with your luggage and all the other things you need in your hands during rush hour. Or tebura camping, where you can just show up to the campgrounds and all the equipment you require is provided.
This kind of service also extends to the food industry, particularly in relation to BBQs held outside of dedicated grilling restaurants – think having a BBQ at the park or the beach, or other outdoor space.
Usually to have a get-together like this, you’d need to organize a great many things, from equipment and food and drinks, to cleaning supplies. That’s where the tebura BBQ service comes in!
What is Tebura BBQ?
Tebura BBQ services typically operate in the summer. And while BBQ rental itself is not particularly unique and in some countries there are BBQs freely available for communal use in public spaces, what makes the Japanese tebura BBQ service different is that it also includes the food and often drinks too!
Yep, you simply make a reservation for the day, time and number of people, and on arrival you’ll be greeted with perfectly portioned servings of BBQ offerings, allowing you to truly turn up and have the hassle of food planning taken out of the equation.
There are several types of tebura BBQ services. One type that has been around for a decade or so includes all the rental equipment, food, as well as trash bags to dispose of your waste. This service is usually located in a park that has a large enough area to isolate the smell and the smoke (more on that later), and the fee is around ¥3,000 per person (about US$30).
At camping spots, you are often asked to turn on the fire yourself and return the grill cleaned, but at some tebura BBQ places, pre-heated charcoal is provided so you can save time starting the fire, and clean-up is included as part of the service.
The Tebura BBQ menu and system
So, what kinds of menu items can you eat at tebura BBQ places? Japanese people like to have a lot of variety on the table when eating. It is an engrained part of Japanese culture to enjoy food by sight, so you’ll see many kinds of foods and colors in Japanese cuisine.
Different parts of meats are served, and it is not so special to have beef, pork and chicken at the same time. There is also seafood like shrimps, scallops, squid and Hamaguri clams. Vegetables are always required especially for people who care about their nutrition. Zucchini, bell pepper, spicy green pepper, eggplant, pumpkin, onion, shiitake mushrooms, eryngii mushrooms, corn, and carrots are often seen on the menu.
The food (including equipment/service) is usually around 2,500 to 5,000 yen (US$25-50) per person and all-you-can-drink services including alcohol are also about 2,500 to 5,000 yen (90 mins – 180 mins).
The minimum number of people is usually four, but there are places that allow you to make a reservation for two.
Why are Tebura BBQ services so popular?
Having everything provided on site is obviously a very convenient way to enjoy a BBQ, however, there are some specific reasons why tebura BBQ services have become so popular in Japan.
One major reason is that having a BBQ at home can be challenging and many people don’t have their own BBQ grills. The average area of an apartment for a single person in Tokyo is approximately 25㎡, which is about the size of 7-8 tatami mats. In that small space, you must fit everything you need; the bed is usually placed in the living room, the kitchen with a single stove is mostly located in the hallway and the fridge is usually the size of a mini bar in western hotels. This makes it extremely difficult to accommodate guests and to prepare and store ingredients.
Another problem is laundry. In some countries, people don’t put their laundry outside, but most Japanese hang their laundry outside to dry. Japanese houses are very close to the neighbors so you have to be very cautious not to disturb them with the smell. In fact, many apartments prohibit the use of BBQs in the tenancy agreement or building rules for this reason. Tebura BBQ places are therefore usually set up in large, open-air spaces away from residential buildings.
Who uses Tebura BBQ services?
People who live in small apartments and living spaces aside, the tebura service has also become increasingly popular with people who simply want to spend quality time with their friends and family. The average worker in Japan only uses 50% of their paid leave, taking ten days of the typical twenty days given per year.
Using time-saving services such as these, allows for more enjoyment of limited vacation time. The tebura BBQ service has evolved from this need, making it a more convenient recreational activity for customers.
The convenience evolution wasn’t just about the service, the places where you can enjoy tebura BBQ has also changed over the years. BBQ used to be thought of as outdoor recreation – something special you’d do once in a while – but it has now become a more ordinary activity that can be accessed in a variety of settings.
For example, in summer, Japanese people like to go to beer gardens on the rooftops of department stores after work with their colleagues. Before it was just a random food menu mostly the same as an izakaya (居酒屋), but the tebura BBQ has become one of the most popular services with beer, especially on Fridays.
Ones by the beach and resort hotels are very popular with families. When you travel with kids, parents carry a huge bag full of kids’ stuff, particularly when they’re toddlers. Adding the equipment, the ingredients and the time getting ready for the BBQ, and it quickly becomes a monumental task. You can’t call that a relaxing day! But the tebura BBQ service can provide opportunities for those who need that luxury time.
Tebura started as a handy service for people who don’t own their own BBQ grill, but nowadays, people are wishing to spend a fulfilling time focusing more on the relationship with their family and friends.
Benefits of Tebura BBQ
Time-saving and convenience are obviously big factors, but it also means being able to enjoy a wide-variety of foods for a very economical price. As mentioned, visual variety is a huge part of Japanese culinary culture and tebura BBQ places make this possible for the average customer.
If you were to go to the supermarket and buy as much variety as you receive at a tebura BBQ place, it would be quite expensive and likely wasteful since many of the items you’d only want a few pieces of each rather than a whole bag or package.
Tebura BBQ places buy in bulk and can separate the produce out across groups, and even pre-cut the vegetables into precise portions so that everything is in moderation and nothing goes to waste.
The service sounds good enough, but nowadays social media matters to a lot of people and the tebura BBQ places have been changing the presentation of their facilities to keep up with these trends.
For instance, the word glamping (グランピング) became very popular just before the pandemic. Glamping is a compound word for ‘glamorous’ and ‘camping’, which is basically camping but staying at a place with hotel-level facilities. Instead of using a tent and sleeping bags, there’s a nice cottage or a fancy dome with a comfortable bed and a beautiful bathroom. Meals are served around dinner time just like a hotel. Everything is photogenic so some people go there specifically to take photos for their social media.
Even in the usual tebura BBQ places, you can see the changes. The chairs are changing to couches, air-conditioning is often provided, and sometimes swings or a photo spot are set up for people to take photos.
Whether it’s about saving time, enjoying amazing food or the location, this service is an interesting way for travelers to experience Japanese food culture.
Have you had an outdoor Japanese-style BBQ before? Would you like to try tebura service?
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Saki Inoue is a businesswoman and creative who spent four of her formative years at an international school in Germany.
Now based in her home country of Japan, Saki currently works for a real estate company by day and is a freelance worker and pre-release advisor for Adobe Japan by night. She is an expert on social media, casual dining and food trends.