I looove Japanese food. How could anyone not love it!? I was incredibly lucky with my initiation into this amazing cuisine. I first moved to Japan as a volunteer assistant language teacher when I was 19. For six months, I lived with three amaaazing host families. For the first two months I managed to try something completely new every day! Since then, I lived in Japan for a further 3 years, but I am still finding plenty of new, interesting things to try!
My lovely boss here in Canada is going to live in Japan for a month next year, so I started this post mainly for her, so she can find plenty of delicious things to eat. But Hopefully it’ll be useful for other people planning their Japan adventures too!
The obvious choices:
Sushi is the most obvious Japanese food. If you go to Japan, you HAVE to try some sushi!
If you are not sure what to choose, head to a kaiten sushi place (with conveyor belts) They are normally pretty cheap, and you’ll be able to see the sushi come around on the conveyor belt. If you head to a sushi restaurant, then the best seats are at the bar watching the chefs.
Chirashizushi – This is where the fish is arranged beautifully on top of the rice
Temaki sushi – If you have sushi at someones house, you’ll probably be making temaki sushi. They are the triangle-shaped sushi rolls that you make by hand.
Maki sushi – sushi rolls. There are actually a bigger variety of maki sushi in Canada, but you can still find some tasty maki sushi in Japan.
Nigiri sushi – This is the main type of sushi. The fish is placed above the rice.
Gunkan – This is the sushi that is held together by nori (often with things like salmon roe, or negitoro tuna.)
Japanese bars are probably one of the best places to try food. Most of the chains have menus with pictures. So even if you don’t speak much Japanese, you can order by pointing! Izakaya are brilliant for large groups. You can often hire out large tables if you have lots of friends eating and drinking together. However they work well for teeny groups as well.
I’ve added a few photos of the basics that you can order anywhere:
Karaage, fried chicken. Edamame, soy beans. Nasudengaku, aubergine grilled to perfection and covered with miso paste. Kinpira gobo, this is carrots and burdock root, that have been simmered with sugar and soy sauce. Sashimi, raw fish. Buta kakuni, pork simmered in soy sauce and dashi until it become melt-in-the-mouth soft and tender.
The photo below is a pretty posh version, but there are so many amazing types of bento boxes. You can get good (and super cheap) bentos from any convenience store. My favourite bentos are the eki-ben that you can buy at stations. Top tip: If you ever plan to take the shinkansen (bullet train), wait to buy your lunch once you have been through the shinkansen gates, the best bentos are for sale just before you board the train.
Onigiri and nikuman:
When you are a bit peckish, but couldn’t eat a whole bento-box, pop into a convenience store and look at the onigiri (rice ball) selection. These are cheap, super tasty snacks that are perfect for hiking, or just when you need to fill a small hole. The cheapest options are tuna and mayo (look out for “sea-chicken” written in katakana), seaweed, or umeboshi (pickled plum). Follow the unwrapping instructions carefully as it’s easy to lose some of that tasty nori as you unwrap it! Nikuman are only available in convenience stores in winter, but they are a similar price and size to onigiri. It is basically a steamed pork bun. They are hot and sooo tasty. You can often find pizza-man (a steamed bun filled with tomato sauce and cheese) or curry-man steamed buns filled with curry. They are all so good!
If you splash out on accommodation, it is worth staying in a ryokan for a night. This is the best way to try a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner known as kaiseki ryori. The food they serve you will be traditional and will be loads of small dishes of a variety of things. Kaiseki is basically Japan’s version of haute cuisine, so it can be pricey. Still, it can be amazing, so give it a try if you can! This is probably the best way to try traditional Japanese food.
There are so many amazing noodle options available! Japanese food involves a lot of noodles! The varieties and flavours available will be different as you travel around the country.
Nowadays you can buy decent ramen all over the world, so you probably already have a favourite type. Each region of Japan has it’s own ramen specialities. In Hokkaido they have miso ramen with sweetcorn and butter. Kyushu has quite a few varieties of the rich, creamy tonkotsu ramen. My personal favourite is shoyu ramen, as it’s quite light but really delicious. The black-looking bowl below was tonkotsu with roasted garlic oil. It looks sort of scary but tasted fantastic. If you get some, order some gyoza (fried dumplings) to go with them.
Udon are the big fat white noodles. These are best in the Kansai region or on Shikoku island. My favourite udon accompaniment is tempura. I also love kitsune udon which is served with a large slab of fried tofu. The photo below has the tofu chopped up, but I like it best when it is like a giant blanket covering my noodles. I love udon. Their squishy consistency put me off at first, but now I am a little addicted.
These are buckwheat noodles. The best soba are from Niigata, but you can get pretty good soba all over Japan. You can have soba served hot with soup, but the best way to try them is served zarusoba style. They are served cold, then you dunk them into a soup before eating them.
Somen are the really thin noodles. They are served in a similar way to soba. The most fun way to try somen is called nagashi somen. As soon as the noodles are ready, the chef sends them down a water-filled bamboo shoot. You have to attempt to catch the noodles with your chopsticks as they zoom past. This are quite a light dish, so perfect in the summer.
Yakisoba is fried ramen-type noodles (not actually soba!) It normally involves bacon, cabbage and tones of that tasty soy-based sweet sauce. You can find this at matsuri, at street stalls, in Izakaya…all over the place really. It is a tasty, speedy thing to munch! I couldn’t find a photo with yakisoba in the foreground, but you can see it in the background below.
Okonomiyaki is a bit like a pancake filled up with cabbage then covered in sauce and mayonnaise. It doesn’t sound that impressive, but it one of the favourites of nearly every visitor that I have shown around Japan!! There are two main types of okonomiyaki, the main style that you can find in Osaka. Then, in Hiroshima they have a slightly different style that piles up loads of cabbage.
Nabe or Sukiyaki:
This is the main thing that sumos eat! Nabe is a tasty soup, that you serve in the centre of the table, then add plenty of vegetables, meat or dumplings. As things cook, you serve them, and then keep adding more to the original soup. Once you’ve finished all the meat and vegetables you can add noodles into the soup stock to soak up all the flavour. I used to basically live off nabe in the wintertime. It is so, so good!
With sukiyaki, you dip the cooked meat and veggies into raw egg before you eat them.
This is a posher version of nabe, where the soup is much hotter. The meat is sliced very thinly, and then you wave it in the hot water for a few seconds to cook it. There are normally a couple of different sauces to dip your cooked food into before you eat it. I always love the sesame dip best.
Yakitori and kushikatsu:
Yakitori is basically meat on sticks that has been grilled on charcoal. This is often best served from small stalls called yatai. There are loads of delicious options to choose from, but it is not very good for vegetarians(!) Kushikatsu is also served on sticks, but the food is mostly fried, rather than grilled. Kushikatsu is way better for vegetarians as they have loads of really tasty vegetable options.
Yakiniku is Korean barbecue. Normally you cook everything yourself on a grill in the centre of the table. Quite often you can find all you can eat versions of this, so get ready to be incredibly full. It goes really well with dolsot bibimbap, rice and vegetables served in a hot stone. If you have vegetarian friends they can still get involved. You can get a grill for veggies, then they’ll be able to eat the bibimbap, and all the amazing Korean pickles.
Donburi are bowls of rice topped with all sorts of delicious things. One popular option is oyako-don (mother and child don) which involves chicken katsu with egg poured over it. Another very popular option is gyu-don which is basically beef served on top of rice. There are plenty of fish related donburis like chirashi sushi as well.
Japanese curry has already taken over the world. It is not particularly spicy, so I often think of it as more like a stew than a curry. It is warming and delicious. The thing I love best about Japanese curry is that it is so easy to make. My husband LOVES katsu curry so much that it is the best way to lure him home if he is working too hard on a film!
This is one of my favourite snacks! They are pieces of octopus in the centre of balls made of batter. The balls are cooked quite quickly in special ball-shaped pans so (when they are done well) they are crunchy on the outside and smooshy in the centre. Just be careful. When they are fresh, they are light tasty little balls of lava. Be careful not to burn your mouth!
Tempura and Katsu:
Tempura is one of the dishes that most people know before they visit Japan! It is basically vegetables (or often giant prawns) fried quickly in a very light batter. Unfortunately sometimes outside of Japan, this is a bit too oily, so you might not have the best impression of tempura. When it is made super-hot, and dipped in a good dashi stock, you will love it! The photo on the left is kakiage tempura with is like a tempura cake made of shredded veggies. Katsu is also fried, but this is food (often pork) that is covered in panko breadcrumbs. You’ve probably had katsu served with curry before. Katsu is normally served with cabbage salad with sesame salad dressing that I could live off. It is so tasty!
I didn’t find a non-plastic photo, but another sort-of western dish is Omu-rice. It is a thin omelette, stuffed with rice. I like it best when it is tomato flavour and decorated with ketchup!
This is the perfect dish for the end of a meal. You take rice, add your favourite toppings, and then pour green tea over the rice. We used to make a simple version of this when we were camping / climbing mountains. This dish is also served in Kyoto as a polite way to ask you to leave. Once you’ve finished your ochanosuke, you should excuse yourself and head home.
Japanese versions of other food:
You can (of course) buy normal western hamburgers in Japan. They have cheap burger chains like MacDonald’s as well as Japanese chains like MOS burger and Freshness burger. However you’ll also find Japanese versions of burgers. They are normally very soft, so you can easily eat them with chopsticks.
Japan has loads of fantastic Italian food. It is one of the easiest foreign foods to find. You can always find a pretty decent pizza or carbonara. They seem to serve spaghetti more than any other kind of pasta and *mostly* it is similar to the flavours you can find in Italian restaurants around the world.
However, you can also find some Japanese style flavours, which you rarely see outside of Japan. My favourite version of this is creamy mentaiko (cod roe) pasta. It is often served with a sprinkle of nori seaweed. It may not sound that delicious but if you can, do give this a try! The flavours in the photos below are pickled plum & shiso, tarako (pollock roe), and mentaiko (cod roe).
Japanese Bread – Pan
I nearly forgot to include this! Japan has some incredibly interesting bread! The main bread that people eat for breakfast is called shokupan. This is sweet, fluffy and sliced incredibly thickly, about 3x the thickness of sliced bread in the UK. It can be hard to find decent brown or dark rye-styles breads in Japan. However, bakeries also sell a whole range of small meals-in-bread type snacks. You take a tray and tongs, and fill it up with the craziest breads you can find, in all different shapes and sizes! I love bread covered in mentaiko-paste, or bread with wieners hiding inside. There are often options for bread covered in sweetcorn and mayo, or pizza bread, or topped with tuna. There is also yummy bread filled with red beans, or chestnuts, or walnuts. Any crazy combination you can think of, Japanese bakers will have made it. They are incredibly delicious and VERY fattening.
If you are a fan of anime or manga, you’ll have probably seen some of the most famous Japanese bread snacks: Melon-pan which is just sweet bread shaped like a melon. Curry-pan which is a bit like a savoury doughnut, filled with curry. And an-pan, which is bread filled with red bean paste, often in fun shapes like totoro, or an-pan-man (who is a character whose head is made of an an-pan. I swear I’m not making this up!)
You might not expect it, but you can find some very tasty sarnies in Japan. Most bakeries will have sandwich options like katsu-sando or tuna-sando. Convenience stores also have pretty good selections, but they are normally filled to the brim in the edges where you can see, and then empty in the corners! There are also slightly less guessable options like the double-carb, yakisoba bread, and strawberry and cream sandwiches.
One of the best things about Japanese food, is that wherever you travel, there will be regional specialities for you to try. Many of the things I have already mentioned also count as regional specialities, but they have become so famous that you can find them all over Japan. There are so, so many more things I can add to this list, so for now I just listed a few of the most famous.
Fugu is the name for the legendary puffer fish. If the chef is inexperienced, and doesn’t remove the poison properly, then this fish could kill you. However, this is Japan – they’d never let an untrained chef near a puffer fish! It took me years to try Fugu! BUT, when I finally tried it, I loved it. The taste and texture is not like any other fish I’ve tasted and I love the ponzu dressings they serve it with. We tried it in a set menu, with fugu served as sashimi, as sushi, as karaage (which was soooo good!) and finished with fugu nabe. The place I tried it is a chain, so if you’re not sure where to go, try it here (this links to my yelp review).
Unagi is my favourite dish in Japan. It is freshwater eel, that has been steamed and then broiled to perfection and covered in a sweet, soy-based sauce. Even if you are not normally a fan of fish, please give this dish a try in Japan as it is so delicious! The texture is sort of melt-in-your-mouth perfect, and a little more meaty than most other fish. Hamamatsu in Shizuoka prefecture is famous for unagi, but you can get some fantastic examples in Kyoto and Nara too. I’ve also had a stunning version of this dish down near Kagoshima in Kyushu.
Crab is an expensive thing to eat in Japan, but you won’t regret shelling out (ehem) for a meal! It’s pretty easy to find crab restaurants! You can see why from the photo below! They normally have a giant crab crawling up the walls or on the roof! Crab is normally served as a set menu, so you can try crab cooked in a huge variety of ways, from sashimi, to nabe with a whole range of tasty dishes in between. Hokkaido is famous for their crab.
No post about Japanese food can be complete without information about desserts! I will probably have to re-write this as a whole separate post as I seem to have hundreds of photos of desserts in Japan! This is a country that takes pudding very seriously! They have truly gorgeous fruit and perfect creme brules as well as specialist all you can eat dessert venues! Please note that I could add plenty more to this section. For now I’ll just add a few.
Kakigori is shaved ice, served with a tasty topping. This can often look quite scary (the green colour of the melon flavour is soo bright!) The very best versions use natural fruit as the topping. The photos below are with mango on the left and lemon and honey on the right. If you visit Japan in summer, sometimes it gets very hot and humid. Kakigori is the perfect thing to order to help cool you down.
I LOVE taiyaki!! These are fish-shaped pancake-like treats, that are normally filled with azuki, sweet red bean paste. You can sometimes find these filled with custard (matcha flavoured, or even chocolate!) But the red bean flavour is always the best. You normally buy these from street stalls. Be cheeky and ask for a hot one!
Waffles, Azuki and maccha ice cream:
I found a photo that shows the main elements of several traditional Japanese desserts. The green ice-cream is matcha flavour, which goes really well with the azuki (the red beans) and sweet potato. You can often find all those elements in ice cream sundaes, this dish just happened to come with waffles.
I mentioned above that Japan even has all you can eat cake buffets. Well, the standard of cakes and pastries in Japan, is just so, so good! Whenever you travel in Japan, it is worth stopping for a tea (or coffee) and a cake. They look perfect and normally taste even better than they look. While I was working in Japan, I’d sometimes visit schools, and I often found that the dream job for young Japanese women is to be a pastry chef. There must be a lot of competition, because those who do learn to make cakes take it very seriously!
Wagashi is the name for traditional Japanese sweets that you eat as part of the tea ceremony. There are thousands of different types and they change with the seasons. Matcha that is served in a traditional tea ceremony is pretty bitter. You are supposed to eat the sweet first to sweeten your taste buds and prepare your mouth for the maccha. I love the beautiful wagashi sweets.
As well as tasting Japanese food in restaurants, also take a look in convenience stores and snack shops because the range of interesting snacks is really fun to see (and to try!) Even packaged goods are seasonal in Japan, so often the most interesting flavours will only be around for a month or two. KitKats also have regional variations, so you can taste different flavours as you travel around Japan. The three flavours in the photo here are Wasabi, strawberry cheesecake and blueberry cheesecake. Matcha oreos are tasty too!
I hope that’ll give some of you an idea about the many foods you can try in Japan! How many of these dishes have you eaten? Which things would you like to try most!?
I keep thinking of more things to add, so I may need to come back and update this post!