Japan has some of the most delicious food that I’ve tried during our world travels, and during our first trip to Japan this April, I was surprised to learn about all the various regional cuisines they specialize in! If you grew up anywhere outside of Japan, when you hear “Japanese food”, you probably think of one thing….sushi. But Japan’s foodie scene has so much more to offer than just perfectly sliced fresh raw fish over an intricately-formed rice mound, smeared with a magic touch of wasabi. Oh yes, Japan is so much more than Giro Dreams of Sushi.
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Japanese cuisine contains simple flavors that usually consist of a base of soy, sesame, miso, or fish broth, forming a complex umami taste. They don’t tend to use many seasonings or herbs; just a simple handful of green onions will do. Japanese food is not spicy, but there is usually a side of hot chili pepper or chili oil you can add to give it some zing. Japanese love their carbs, so you’ll find plenty of noodles, bread and rice, but vegetables and fruits were difficult to come by.
We live on the island of Oahu, Hawaii where there is a huge Japanese influence in our cuisine. However, I hadn’t even skimmed the surface of all there is to eat in Japan until actually visiting the country. You can check out my Ultimate Oahu Foodie Guide if you’d like to see our favorite eateries on Oahu, many of which are Japanese!
Allow me to walk you through 35 foods you must try on your next trip to Japan! (In no particular order except for number 1, which was our absolute favorite type of Japanese food, and one which we ate every single day.)
Also, if you’re planning a trip to Japan, be sure to check out my post on 61 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Japan.
I can’t even count on two hands the number of bowls of ramen we consumed during our 12-day trip in Japan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one per day. My favorite was black garlic ramen. They are usually served with some sort of thinly sliced meat, a soft-boiled egg with that beautiful golden yolk, green onions, and bamboo shoots. If you don’t see the egg in the photo, it means it doesn’t come with one, but don’t worry, there’s a button for that! Just order it separately. You’ll always order and pay at a machine (cash only), then bring the ticket inside.
*FUN FACT* There are actually only two types of noodles in Japan: Udon and Soba. Ramen is a relatively new kid to enter the Japanese noodle realm, and is considered fast food because it’s cheap (under $10 USD per bowl) and University students and workers on the go enjoy it during lunch break because they can be in and out in under ten minutes.
Udon is typically a simpler dish with a plain broth, thicker noodles and a soft egg. It is a common breakfast item that you will find in many train stations where people stop in on their way to work. One of our favorite restaurants was called Udon Main, located in the Gion district in Kyoto.
Soba means buckwheat in Japanese, and these noodles are thinner and have an earthier flavor. Usually served cold.
The American name is potstickers because they stick to the pot when cooked. Similar to Chinese dumplings, gyoza are usually fried in a pan or cast iron skillet, and contain minced chicken, pork or beef. Our favorite place for Gyoza was located in the Gion district of Ginza, and was called Gyoza Bar Anzukko.
I grew up in Hawaii, California, and Seattle; three states with a big Asian influence in cuisine. However, I never had a “real” sushi experience until visiting Japan. We discovered a highly rated place on Googlemaps off a side street in Gion. It had no sign outside whatsoever, so when we slid open the wooden door and ducked in, we felt as though we were intruding into somebody’s home. We were pleasantly greeted with Irasshaimase by what appeared to be a husband and wife duo. We were one of two other couples in this small but humble space, and our sushi took nearly half an hour to arrive. We started to become impatient until we were presented with the most beautiful work of art in front of us when it finally arrived. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. I didn’t realize that those fancy rolls you see in sushi restaurants in America are actually quite Westernized; in Japan, rolls still exist, but they’re much simpler and plainer; just some fresh raw fish, rice and a smear of wasabi wrapped in seaweed. No fancy toppings, and you will never see cream cheese anywhere near sushi. I don’t know how that became a thing in America.
Cream cheese in sushi? Gross. Who invented that?
Many Japanese people actually eat their sushi without soy sauce because it can be blasphemous to cover up the flavor of such fresh fish.
Also, be sure to try conveyor belt sushi. You order from an iPad in front of you and it gets delivered right to your seat via a cute mini Shinkansen (bullet) train. 🙂
Tempura is usually served in a bar-style seating where you can see exactly what the cook is doing. I recommend ordering a set so that you can sample a bit of everything! Seasonal vegetables in April consisted of eggplant and kabocha (orange squash.) Our favorite place was located in Nara just outside the subway station in the food market. They used sesame oil to fry the batter, so it had a deliciously light, airy texture seasoned perfectly but didn’t feel heavy or oily.
I coined this food “OkonomiYUCKY” because I was not a fan. To be fair, I only tried it once and was so turned off I didn’t give it another go, but I’ve heard that each region does it a bit differently (some even use fried noodles!) and I’ve heard that Osaka is the place to try a good Okonomiyaki. So what is it, exactly? Think giant savory pancake with all the leftovers in your grandmother’s fridge, tossed into one meal. No joke, up to 12 items in one pancake! The part I didn’t care for was the sweet sauce (they went a bit too heavy on it) and the very runny egg, which made everything soggy. The good news is, it’s cheap ($7.30 USD per plate.)
8. Tonkatsu & Karaage
This is Japan’s version of fried meat. Tonkatsu is a fun dining experience because it’s interactive; you receive a bowl of sesame seeds with bumpy edges and a wooden pestle to grind your own sesame paste. You then add your sauce of choice, and this becomes your dipping sauce. Tonkatsu is served with shredded cabbage and miso soup (usually unlimited refills.)
Yaki = grilled
Yakitori = grilled chicken
Yakiniku = grilled beef or pork
Meat skewers grilled over a small charcoal fire.
So this isn’t really a type of Japanese fare, it’s more of a pub that serves anything from sashimi to yakitori to tonkatsu. Our favorite place for Izakaya was in a place called Omoide Yokocho (AKA “Piss Alley”) in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo.
Japanese hot pot where you choose your meats and vegetables and they bring them to you raw. Cook it yourself in a pot of boiling broth.
12. Japanese Curry
I’m personally not a huge fan of Japanese curry because it has quite a heavy consistency and strong flavor.
Traditional Japanese food served in small portions over multiple courses (usually 5 – 9 course meal and on the pricier side.)
Small portions (like Spanish tapas), served in one partitioned box or large plate or leaf. Our favorite bento place was at Cafe Lifestyle and Goods Gallery in Nara.
Street food is part of life in Japan! No matter where you go, you can easily make street food filling enough to suffice as a full meal, which means that yes, indeed it is possible to have dinner in Japan under $10 USD per person. Be sure not to miss all of the items listed below and try a little bit of everything! Our favorite street food markets were:
- Nakatanidou, Nara
- Nakamise Street, Asakusa, Tokyo
- Ameyayokocho – Ueno, Tokyo
- Nishiki Market – Kyoto
- Dotonbori – Osaka
By the way, the word Yokocho means alley in Japanese, so usually when you see this word, it means that great street food is about to follow.
Fried octopus balls…err…not the balls of the octopus (octopi don’t have testicles, they have tentacles…rather, a ball-shaped dough with fried octopus inside. There we go, that sounds a bit better); you’ll see these all over the streets of Kyoto and Nishiki Market. They cook them in little circular dents and turn them over with a stick until they are cooked through. They are then topped with mayonnaise, a sweet & sour sauce, bonito flakes and green onions.
These are some of my favorite because they’re basically fried hash browns (potato) with various ingredients inside. Try the soy milk croquette!
17. Curry pan
This is the perfect way to try a taste of Japanese curry without ordering a whole plate and being overwhelmed by the strong flavor. Curry pan was often my breakfast on many mornings.
Japanese rice cracker. I grew up with Chinese-American grandparents and loved eating this delicious snack as a kid, so it reminds me of warm sunny days on the beach in Hawaii when I was little. It’s comfort food for me and reminds me of my Grandma. 🙂
19. Sweet Octopus with a Hard-Boiled Egg Stuffed Inside its Head
This was probably the strangest thing we ate in Japan. As you can see, Sasha was quite skeptical, but boy, was it delicious! You can just pop the whole thing in your mouth or eat it in two bites, and it has a sweet taste without being too chewy. The hard boiled egg inside the head is the best part!
20. Fried King Crab Leg
This may be a seasonal item as we only saw it in a few places during March/April.
21. Tempura-fried sweets
We found these at Nakamise Market in Asakusa, Tokyo. Flavors are seasonal and include: red adzuki bean, black sesame, matcha, sweet potato, and sakura.
23. Pickled Vegetables
24. Melon Pan
This is similar to a cream puff with ice cream inside and it has nothing to do with a melon. They just call it that because it’s shaped like a melon.
25. French Pastries!
Nobody talks about how amazing the pastries are in Japan; honestly they’re up to par with those in France. The process is to take a tray and tongs, put your desired pastries directly onto the tray, and take it to the counter to pay for it.
These can be found in many train stations. My favorite flavor was Hojicha, which is green tea roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal. Whereas most Japanese teas are steamed, hojicha is fired at a high temperature, turning the color to a light brown instead of green. Hojicha does not contain as much caffeine as green tea, and actually helps to calm the body because of the L-Theanine.
Crepes are especially famous in the Harajuku area, where Kawaii (cute) rules.
28. Fluffy Pancakes
There are pancakes, and then there are fluffy pancakes. If I can best describe these, I would say it’s like stuffing a light airy cloud into your mouth and floating around in heaven. Some pancakes can be up to four inches tall. Our favorites were at a vegan/vegetarian restaurant called Heavenly Pancake in the Shinjuku area. If you’re halfway through your trip and craving fruit and vegetables like I did, I highly recommend this place! They have delicious vegan salads!
Mochi is Japanese rice cake, pounded into a paste and molded into balls. Try the mochi-wrapped strawberry, or anything matcha. Our favorite matcha mochi was in Arashiyama, Kyoto near the bamboo forest. There are also stores that sell individually packaged various mochi that you can add to a box and take home as a gift.
If you grew up in the Tokyo area, these fish-shaped cakes are a fond part of your childhood memories. And don’t worry, there’s nothing fishy about them except for their adorable appearance. Try the yellow sweet potato & sweet red paste made from Adzuki bean. They are served piping hot, which was a welcome reprieve from the temperatures in late March in the low 40’s F. (5 degrees C.)
31. Cheese Tart
Try them at Pablo’s in Harajuku, but there are locations all over Tokyo.
32. Individual Custard Cream Mini Apple Pies
Get them at RINGO inside Shinjuku Station. It’s literally all they make.
Matcha is life, especially in Kyoto, where it is a revered tea. Be sure to try matcha tiramisu.
34. Royal Milk Tea
This is basically black tea, milk/cream, and sugar, but it tastes divine. They are sold in vending machines throughout the city, but I recommend getting one from a cafe instead, as it is fresh without any preservatives. Our favorite royal milk tea was from a cafe called Milk Cafe, located near the Shinjuku area in Tokyo. This is a cow-themed cafe that specializes in a delicious home made cream, which they put into everything (coffee, tea, desserts, etc.) Be careful, the caffeine and sugar contents are high, so this is great if you need a good buzz or pick-me-up mid afternoon after 10 miles of walking everywhere, but don’t drink it before bed if you are sensitive to caffeine.
35. Pocari Sweat
The first time we saw this in a vending machine in Kyoto, we laughed and made fun of it, giggling about the poor choice of marketing words….until I got a bad cold in Tokyo, and this became my lifesaver. You can find it in most vending machines all over; it’s an electrolyte beverage and actually tastes delicious with a hint of grapefruit, but not too sweet. I’ve heard that summers in Japan are terribly hot and humid, so I imagine this tastes delicious on a hot day as well.
What were some of your favorite foods while traveling in Japan? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!
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