What Foods Should You Try When in Japan? Here Are 9 Great Ideas
Japan's culture of food is vibrant and strong. Experience it to its fullest by trying these 9 classic Japanese dishes on your next trip.
Food is one of the most important parts of Japanese culture. This is a society that takes its food very seriously, and just like every other aspect of this vibrant country, food in Japan is a perfect blending of traditional customs and progressive new ideas. Japanese citizens celebrate major life events and holidays with specific and elaborate foods, and food is one of the most popular gifts to give in Japan. Many visitors come to Japan specifically to take food tours! When traveling to Japan, how can you know which foods are the ones you should be sure to try? Check out this list to learn about the culture of food in Japan and to discover the top foods you have to sample on your next trip.
Japanese food culture
Japan has been cultivating rice for centuries, and its importance in the diet of the Japanese people has been solidified since the early 1600s. Other popular staples of Japanese cuisine have been around for nearly as long, including soy sauce, tofu, miso paste, and the popular stir-fry method of cooking in which many dishes are prepared. Early tea ceremonies led Japanese food culture down a road toward the elaborate and artisanal, and still today, presentation plays a major role in most Japanese meals.
Today, too, most meals rely on some type of rice or noodle, as well as fish and vegetables. Other proteins, like tofu, beef, and pork, are used as well, but are not as common as the ubiquitous fish and shellfish. People tend to eat at home more often than going out, but when they do leave the house to grab a bite, they usually belly up to sushi bars or purchase something from a street vendor. In the major cities, like Tokyo and (to a lesser extent) Kyoto, food has become something of a tourist attraction, and bizarre items with rare ingredients draw in crowds from across the globe.
When it comes down to basics, however, there are a few types of foods any visitor to Japan must try in order to get the full Japanese dining experience. Read on to learn all about them.
Sushi and sashimi
There is a noticeable difference between Japanese sushi and the type that can be found in American restaurants, so even if you’re a Western sushi connoisseur, don’t neglect to try it in its home nation. Although American sushi rolls are definitely inspired by traditional Japanese food, they are usually much more elaborate than the vast majority of Japanese sushi rolls. In the United States, a sushi restaurant is likely to serve several different specialty rolls with tons of different ingredients. These types of sushi are almost always made with the ingredients and nori (seaweed paper) on the inside, and the traditional sticky white rice on the outside of the roll. This is a very Western method of preparation. In Japan, the nori paper would most likely be found on the outside of the sushi roll, and the roll would not be piled high with toppings.
Avocado as a sushi ingredient is also a Western construct, and traditional Japanese sushi rolls are not likely to ever feature this tasty ingredient. California sushi chefs first introduced avocado into their rolls in the 1960s, when tuna was expensive and its texture could be mimicked by adding chunks of avocado meat. Cream cheese is another sushi ingredient that is only found in American variations on the classic roll. Real Japanese sushi rolls do not have cream cheese filling!
Sashimi is more common than sushi by far in Japan. Sashimi refers to a small ball or chunk of sticky white rice topped with a delicious (and oftentimes beautiful) slice of incredibly fresh fish. Other ingredients may be present, such as nori or wasabi, but they will only be there to enhance the flavor of the fish, and not to overpower it. Sashimi found in Japan is much fresher than that found pretty much anywhere else. Do yourself a favor and try sashimi along with your authentic Japanese sushi experience.
Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo for the freshest sushi and sashimi in the world. From the moment the market opens in the morning, fresh daily catches are available for purchase whole, and several vendors within the market make their own sashimi and sushi from old family recipes. You can’t go wrong with any sushi you find within the hundreds of fish market stalls.
The Tsukiji Fish Market is open for customers from around 9:00am to around 5:00pm daily.
Bento is not a specific food, but the term instead refers to a fun way of enjoying a meal. Most commonly served for lunch to working men or children at school, bento has received quite a fan following among young adults in Japan and the rest of the world as well. Bento is a single serving of food portioned out perfectly to balance the few, usually simple, ingredients. Most commonly, it is served in a bento box, which is a container with differently-sized sections for easy packaging and storage. These boxes may be made of plastic for school children, or of metal or lacquered wood for adults who take bento with them to work. Bento boxes are sometimes very elaborate and expensive.
Bento preparation usually begins with a starch, such as rice or noodles. Every so often the starch may be made up of potatoes, but this is very rare. The starch is paired with a protein, usually a stir-fried type of meat or seafood, or pieces of tempura-cooked chicken or shrimp. Vegetables make up the majority of the rest of the bento, with a couple of pieces of simple sushi or sashimi filling in any remaining gaps. There is plenty of room for alterations within a single bento, and what one housewife prepares for her husband and children for lunch will probably differ greatly from what you might be able to purchase from a convenience store.
Recently, a trend of elaborately decorated bento has been sweeping the Japanese nation. These lunches, usually packed in cute and colorful plastic boxes, are called “kyaraben,” which is short for “character bento.” They include foods that are decorated to look like cute animals, characters from Japanese anime or video games, flowers, or buildings. There are several contests held in Japan to honor the best and most intricate kyaraben designs.
If you want to try making your own bento, you can pick up a simple plastic bento box at a 100-yen store, which is similar to a Western $1 store. For the equivalent of just a few dollars, you can find the perfect bento to start practicing your lunch box design. These stores usually have a section devoted to bento bags as well, so you can pack your box and then carry it in a small bag easily.
Check out Daiso, one of the most popular 100-yen stores, to find the perfect starter bento box for your needs.
Ramen topped with a poached egg and served with cooked greens in Tenri, Japan.
Real Japanese ramen is nothing like the packs of hardened noodles that can be found in Western grocery stores! Those packets of cheap noodles with a tiny bag of seasoning may be great for eating on a budget, but nothing beats true ramen for Japanese comfort food. Authentic Japanese ramen begins with curly noodles that are not altogether unlike the dried variety on American shelves. They are much thicker, however, and are made from wheat and salt water. The salt water is what makes ramen so unique and gives it the saffron-yellow color it is known for. This special ingredient also helps keep the noodles from soaking up too much water, and keeps them springy in soup.
Ramen noodles are the foundation for the entire ramen dish, which is a type of comforting, heartwarming soup that has been a part of Japanese food culture for centuries. The soup base is usually made from chicken stock, but may be made of vegetable or beef stock instead. It is combined with the cooked noodles as well as a multitude of other ingredients that may include straw mushrooms, cooked kelp, fish flakes, sardines, onion, or radish.
There are several different types of ramen soup popular in Japan, and your choice depends entirely on what you like to eat. Salt ramen, called shio, is the most traditional way of serving this classic dish. It is made with a clear, heavily salted broth and most commonly served with chicken and vegetables. This version of ramen is often topped with a slice of processed fish meat in the shape of a flower with a pink spiral in the middle. This garnish is called a narutomaki, and many people would argue that ramen isn’t authentic without it. Another popular version of ramen is shoyu, or soy sauce, soup. It is made with beef stock seasoned with lots of soy sauce to give it flavor and a brown color. Commonly, shoyu ramen features boiled or poached eggs, seaweed, fish cakes, and black pepper.
Stop by Saikoro, a restaurant in Tokyo, to try what many believe to be the best ramen in Japan. The owner of this iconic Japanese eatery helped popularize ramen for the modern-day customer, and played a pivotal role in marketing the dish to tourists as well. The shop is chic and classy, and the thick ramen noodles served here are the best around. Try the version topped with pork belly for the most delicious ramen experience you could have.
Saikoro is open weekdays from 11:00am to 2:00pm, and on Sundays from 11:00am to 11:00pm.
Unlike many of the items on this list, there really isn’t a Western version of takoyaki. This dish is unique to Japanese cuisine, and is most commonly found being served from street vendors and walk-up counter service restaurants in shopping arcades, train stations, and bustling city streets. In fact, the food was invented on the streets of Osaka, where a vendor experimented to find a handheld, smaller version of octopus dumplings called akashiyaki in 1935. These miniaturized dumplings on a stick became wildly popular in the more rural parts of the Kansai region, and over the decades, their influence has spread throughout the country. Today, takoyaki can even be found in convenience stores and prepackaged in markets.
Takoyaki is made from a special batter made of wheat and water. It is prepared in a pan specifically for cooking this unique mixture, and small pieces of chopped octopus meat, or tako, are pressed into the center of each one. They may also be filled with crispy tempura bits, diced green onion, or cubes of pickled pink ginger. Takoyaki vendors have perfected the art of spinning the dough into a perfectly round ball using a wooden or stainless steel pick. They make it look easy, but this dish is actually very difficult to prepare at home. After the balls have been spun correctly, they are topped with a thin, fishy sauce and Japanese mayonnaise.
Although it is much easier to go out and find some takoyaki, it isn’t impossible to make it on your own. If you want to try, pick up a takyokai pan for around $30 at any kitchen or department store, and don’t forget to grab a pick for another five dollars or so. It is possible to buy a takoyaki cooker, but it will cost at least $100 and may be too much of an investment if you don’t plan to prepare this dish pretty often.
If you want to try the most impressive takoyaki in Japan, head to the Kansai district, and particularly check out Osaka, the birthplace of takoyaki. There are dozens of excellent takoyaki restaurants and street shops as well in this vibrant city, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. Gindaco is a popular chain of takoyaki restaurants, but check out the mom-and-pop places you can find in the “America Town” district for some of the most delicious takoyaki around. Kougaryu is easily the best place to enjoy this unique Japanese food in Osaka, and a serving of takoyaki here will only run you about $4.
Kougaryu is located at 2 Chrome-18-4 Nishishinsaibashi Chuou-ku in Osaka.
You might have tried something similar to shabu-shabu at a Chinese restaurant buffet or at a more authentic Japanese restaurant. However, nothing compares to a true made-in-Japan serving of this delicious meal. The dish is made of beef that has been sliced thinly along the grain and prepared in a pot of boiling broth, similar to fondue-style. It is comparable to sukiyaki, but sukiyaki is known to be made from a more expensive cut of beef with a sweeter overall flavor. The word “shabu-shabu” is the Japanese term for the sound the meat makes when it is being stirred as it cooks.
Today, shabu-shabu comes in many different varieties and can be composed of just about any type of protein, but beef (and particularly ribeye) is still the standard. Shabu-shabu beef is usually prepared alongside bok choy or cabbage, strips of cooked nori, mushrooms such as shiitake or straw mushrooms, onions, carrots, and sometimes sprouts. The raw beef is cut and served, and everyone at a single table shares a pot of boiling hot broth in which to dip their meat and vegetables. Just like a shared pot of fondue, the hot liquid cooks the meat for everyone at the table, and the meal is very communal. Pieces of meat and vegetables are usually eaten over a bowl of white rice, and the remaining broth is often eaten at the end of the meal.
Shabu-shabu wouldn’t be right if it didn’t come with plenty of sauces for dipping the meats and veggies. Along with a full serving of shabu-shabu, diners usually have ponzu sauce, soy sauce, sesame sauce, hoisin sauce, and several other options for dressing up their cooked meat slices. It is perfectly acceptable to sample all of the sauces available with shabu-shabu. It is not, however, okay to plop your meat into the pot and leave it to overcook. Treat it like fondue, and just lightly cook each piece to get the best flavor and to give others a chance with the broth, as well.
Visit Kisoji Shinjuku in Tokyo to try the best shabu-shabu in the country. This restaurant serves high quality beef at a very affordable price. It does not include a wide selection of sauces, but the few it does serve are delicious. Consider mixing your serving of garlic into one of the sauces to enhance the flavor. At Kisoji Shinjuku, shabu-shabu is served with noodles, so expect to get a very filling meal when you stop in!
Kisoji Shinjuku is located at 3-17-5 Shinjuku 160-0022 in Tokyo. It is inside the New Fuji Building, on the fourth floor.
No trip to Japan would be complete without sampling a crispy meal made of tonkatsu. This super-savory dish revolves around a pork cutlet, which is heavily breaded and deep fried to a crunchy golden brown. The people of Japan love tonkatsu, and it shows up just about everywhere, from restaurants to weeknight dinner tables to sandwiches in convenience stores. The ingredients used to make this tasty dish are affordable and easy to find, which has led to its immense popularity since its creation at the turn of the 20th century.
It is easy to prepare tonkatsu at home, if you so choose. The meal begins with a pork loin or pork fillet, which is pounded to a tender and thin cut of meat with a mallet. The tenderized cutlets are then seasoned, dredged in flour, dunked into the yolk of a beaten egg, and patted thickly with panko. Once the cutlets have been prepared, they are dunked into seasoned peanut oil and cooked at a high temperature until they are crispy and completely fried. Many chefs will actually remove the cutlets after the first frying, repeat the egg and panko dipping, and fry them one more time to ensure that they are crispy enough. The cooked cutlets are served with steamed white rice, pickled shredded cabbage or daikon, and miso soup. The meal is topped with tonkatsu sauce, which is like Worcestershire mixed with hoisin.
Busy people on the go like to enjoy their tonkatsu in a sandwich. Often, tonkatsu cutlets are sliced into large chunks, placed between two crustless pieces of white bread, and topped with well-done egg before being packed into a bento or served at a convenience store for a grab-and-go lunch. These variations on the traditional meal are not quite as messy, but it is completely acceptable to top them with a little bit of tonkatsu sauce as well. If you try tonkatsu in Nagoya, you may have a slightly different experience, as it is usually prepared with a miso base and topped with a thicker miso sauce in that part of the country.
When in Tokyo, don’t miss Tonki, one of the best places to sample restaurant-style tonkatsu. A full tonkatsu meal here costs around the equivalent of $18, which is quite affordable for this tasty dish. You can choose a slightly cheaper option that does not come with all the side items if you prefer, but if this is your first time eating tonkatsu, do yourself a favor and splurge for the full portion. Tonki prepares very authentic, home-cooked tonkatsu that has been delighting its customers for over seven decades.
Tonki is open daily from 4:00pm to 10:45pm. You can find it in the Meguro district of Tokyo.
Kansai style okonomiyaki in Nara, Japan.
Okonomiyaki is a popular Japanese street food that has been a part of Japan’s cuisine officially since World War II, although its precursors date back centuries before that time. There is documentation to prove that a crepe-like, much simpler version of this food was consumed as long ago as the 1500s, but it was during wartime when ingredients were difficult to come by that the modern-day “whatever you want” version of okonomiyaki really took shape. The word okonomiyaki literally translates to “whatever you want, grilled.”
The main type of okonomiyaki is the Kansai version, and in most of the country, if you order this dish, you will receive Kansai’s take on it. Kansai okonomiyaki is made from a mixture of grated yam, flour, eggs, broth, and cabbage that are combined to form a simple batter. This base batter almost always contains other ingredients, depending on taste preferences. Common Kansai okonomiyaki add-ins include shrimp, green onion, pork, sprouts, carrots, and even (very rarely) cheese. The desired items are added to the batter, which is then poured pancake-style onto a hot griddle or teppan and fried to a crisp on the outside, leaving the inside a little bit softer. The cooked okonomiyaki is almost always served with a topping of eel sauce, fish flakes, mayonnaise, and pickled ginger.
In Hiroshima, okonomiyaki is quite different from its Kansai counterpart. Although many of its ingredients remain the same, the pancake is layered instead of combined into a batter. The first layer is made of the flour and water mixture, then topped with chopped cabbage. The cabbage is then topped with pork belly, octopus, and cheese (which is much more common in Hiroshima okonomiyaki than it is in Kansai). The Hiroshima version is ultimately topped with a fried egg and eel sauce, and does not include mayonnaise. Pickled ginger is optional.
If you only have time to try one type of okonomiyaki during your trip to Japan, be sure to sample it in the Kansai region, instead of in Hiroshima. Although the Hiroshima variation is delicious in its own right, the Kansai type is more traditional and much more widely accepted as the original okonomiyaki. Head to Nara to try the okonomiyaki at Kameya, a tasty restaurant that serves up this dish every day. Kameya offers a menu in both Japanese and English, making it an excellent choice for American travelers. Choose whichever ingredients you would like and watch the chef cook up your pancake right in front of your eyes.
Kameya is located in Nara and is open daily from 11:00am to 10:00pm.
If you love potstickers or dumplings, you’re sure to enjoy gyoza! These tasty little bite-sized snacks are usually eaten before a larger meal, much like an appetizer, or for a light lunch or quick meal for those who are in a hurry. They are a very casual type of food, which means that they are quite affordable and easy to find, particularly at noodle shops. A serving of six gyoza usually costs around $3 or so, and comes with a vinegary soy sauce for dipping.
Gyoza is made from a thin dough wrapper that can be handmade by a chef or purchased in a package from the grocery store for home preparation. The dough is similar to a pasta, and it is basically the same thing as the outside shell of a Chinese potsticker. Almost always, gyoza is filled with boiled pork and cabbage, but it is possible to find it with other specialty fillings, particularly in gyoza specific shops. The flavor is enhanced by lots of green onions and garlic, which work together to give these dumplings their signature zesty taste.
More often than not, gyoza is served yaki style, which simply means that it is skillet-fried in oil to give it a crispy outer shell. After frying for a few minutes, they are doused in cornstarch and water to help keep them soft and springy inside their harder exterior. When prepared correctly, the dumplings should be the perfect combination of crunchy and soft. For those who prefer a completely soft dumpling, sui gyoza are simply boiled, and the shell is not crispy at all. On the opposite end of the spectrum is age gyoza, which is completely deep fried and crunchy. The boiled and deep fried variations are much more common in Chinese restaurants, but may be found occasionally in Japanese ones as well.
Anzukko is a restaurant in Kyoto that draws in a huge crowd just to eat the gyoza served there. Although it serves other dishes as well, it is the gyoza that has helped this restaurant make a name for itself. Order the tetsunabe gyoza to experience incredible handmade dumplings fried in a cast iron skillet for the perfect light crisp. Anzukko also serves sui gyoza, if you would like to try it boiled. For something very unique to Japanese cuisine, try the cheese gyoza, filled with Camembert and pan fried.
Anzukko is located in the same building as the Kyoto Royal Park Hotel and is open from 6:00pm to 11:00pm daily.
Omu-Rice in broth with shrimp in Osaka, Japan.
Finally, be sure to try omu-rice while you are in Japan. This simple dish blends Western cuisine with Japanese traditions to create something that is strange and comforting all at once. Unlike many of the dishes on this list, omu-rice only dates back to the 20th century, but it has become a very popular staple of Japanese eating since that time. When it was first created, it was a bizarre meal that burst onto the scene in Tokyo, where dining has always been pushed past the point of being normal. In comparison to the types of strange food that can be found there now, omu-rice is very tame, but at the time, it drew a lot of attention!
Omu-rice is, simply, a large omelette filled with fried rice and served with a big blob of ketchup on top. More often than not, the rice inside contains peas, carrots, and chicken, but any type of fried rice can be included in a serving of omu-rice. In more savory recipes, the rice is cooked in beef stock rather than in water to give it additional flavor, and sometimes, yakisoba noodles replace the rice inside the egg. The omelette itself does not have any added ingredients, and is just a large cooked egg similar to a crepe.
Order omu-rice at Kichi-Kichi in Kyoto and prepare to be amazed! This restaurant is known for a viral video that shows its talented chef preparing omu-rice with incredible skill (and a bit of panache) in only a couple of minutes. When you visit this famous restaurant, you too will be treated to a perfectly cooked, expertly flipped omelette filled with delectable fried rice and topped with whatever you like. This is a more expensive restaurant, so be prepared to spend about $20 a person. It’s well worth the cost.
Kichi-Kichi is open daily for lunch from 11:30am to 2:00pm, and for dinner from 6:00pm to 9:00pm.
The food culture of Japan has had a long and varied history, but even today, many of the edible favorites of this great country remain the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Try these traditional classics, and your trip to Japan will truly be complete.
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