The famous Land of the Rising Sun is known for so many things, it’s hard to even mention them all: culture, history, pop culture, manga, anime, cosplay, sights, architecture...the list could go on and on. A big component of this host of things for which Japan is world famous is food. No matter where you’re from, or whether you’ve ever visited this country, chances are you’ve stumbled upon more than a few Japanese food restaurants.
Many of us know of sushi and sashimi, or ramen. Yet Japanese food culture is much richer than that. If you’re among those who like to experience food, when you travel to another country, then, unless you’re already an expert, you’ll need some guidance to navigate through the sea of restaurants and dishes this country has to offer.
1. Butaniku no shogayaki (ginger pork)
This is one of the most common (and tasty) Japanese dishes. Try it in many restaurants, izakaya (traditional Japanese restaurant/bar), in fast food chains, and even as a bento box (a pre-prepared Japanese style lunch) found in many grocery stores and convenience stores.
The word yaki means literally “grilled”. This dish is prepared by grilling thin slices of pork dressed with a delicate sauce of mirin, soy sauce, sake (Japanese rice wine), granola oil mixed with sliced onions and ginger.
The dish makes for a great quick and tasty meal and it’s perfect for any season.
This dish may look like ramen at first sight (and you could say it belongs to same group of dishes) but it’s different and unique. If you want to taste something really traditional, don’t miss out on this dish.
Champon is originally from Nagasaki as it first appeared there in a Chinese restaurant during the Meiji era (1868-1912). Unlike the many different kinds of ramen, its noodles (specifically made for this dish) are boiled in the soup itself, instead of being added at a later time.
A great seasonal dish, Champon’s ingredients vary slightly depending on the season (pork, seafood, vegetables, or any combination of these).
The ingredients are fried in lard and a soup of chicken and pig bones is later added. The result is a robust and satisfying taste that is rarely the same. In fact, not only can different versions of this dish be found in many countries in Asia, but also within Japan. This creates a variety of unique styles and flavors that will keep you wanting for more!
Okay so they're not really a dish, but they are a wildly popular food in Japan. These are not yet mature soy beans, still in their pods. They can be served hot or cold (at times grilled instead of boiled) and are dressed, usually, only with salt. They make for an amazing appetizer. Try a few and you will find yourself reaching for more and more before you know it. They usually accompany a meal in all izakaya, but they are almost always part of the menu in the vast majority of Japanese restaurants in Japan.
For those of you looking not only for an amazing dish, but also for a thrilling experience, fugu is the dish to try!
The fugu is a pufferfish which is yes, delicious, but it can also be lethal due to the presence of a toxin in some parts of its body. Fugu is usually served as sashimi, or in certain kinds of nabe (soup).
The preparation of this fish, due to its characteristics is rigidly controlled by the Japanese government. Chefs who aspire to prepare this fish must undergo at least three years of very rigorous training to get their license. Before being served, the toxic parts of the fish are removed, making it safe to serve.
An interesting fact is that the liver is considered to be the tastiest part of the fish, but it’s also the one that can be the most poisonous. Serving fugu liver was outlawed in Japan in 1984. Should you try this dish, you’ll certainly remain amazed by its taste, but do careful research before ordering it in a restaurant (and never try to prepare it by yourself).
Gyoza are moon shaped dumplings. Another one of those dishes that can be found in almost every Japanese restaurant, regardless of their style, but that many people miss. Although Chinese in origin, the varieties you'll discover during your Japan stay are often quite distinct from the original.
Gyoza come in several varieties in Japan. One of the most popular is "yaki-gyoza": the dumplings are prepared with a filling of minced pork meat, cabbage, garlic, onion, and ginger. They are then lightly fried, until they become crunchy and of a nice dark-gold color.
Enjoy them with a dip made with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and spicy oil.
Gyudon is a mouth watering one-dish meal of beef over rice (gyu = beef). Gyudon is a quick meal served in specific restaurants or in Japanese fast-food chains such as Yoshinoya.
A bawl of steamed rice is topped with thinly sliced beef and tender onion, simmered in dashi broth (a popular Japanese ingredient), and then seasoned with mirin and soy sauce. Sometimes it’s served topped with a lightly cooked egg.
If you want to experience a typical Tokyo salary man’s lunch break, enjoy this quick and tasty dish and get back to your tasks (although you probably won’t be needing to go to work, you’ll definitely enjoy having more time to sightsee and explore on a full and satisfied stomach).
7. Gyukatsu (beef cutlet)
A wonderful beef variation of the popular pork-based tonkatsu (which we also recommend you try), this is a dish of deep fried breaded beef, usually served with cabbage, barley rice, miso soup, potato salad, and pickles.
The preparation makes for a tender and crunchy texture, and for a very flavorful but not overwhelming taste. You won’t find this dish as easily as it’s pork counterpart, but if you do, you’ll be happy!
Depending on your country of origin, this dish may appear, at glance, too atypical, but bear with us and keep reading.
Gyutan literally means cow tongue and yaki means grilled. This is exactly what the dish is: grilled cow tongue. You can usually find this dish in yakiniku restaurants, served with salt, or different sauces (usually a lemon one) and scallion. The meat is thin, tasty and tender.
The dish originated in Sendai where the owner of a yakitori restaurant opened a new one, in 1948, which served gyutanyaki. Since then the dish spread all over the country like wildfire. Try it and you’ll know exactly why.
As soon as you set foot into Japan, you’ll start seeing the typical Japanese style fried foods (Karaage). Karaage usually refers to chicken, but it can be found as a variety of meats, or seafood.
The meat or fish are lightly coated with wheat flour or potato starch and deep fried in oil. Sometimes the ingredients are marinated prior to the coating. It’s usually served with a slice of lemon on the side, but you can enjoy it with or without it.
The chicken variety is especially common to stumble upon, in restaurants, street-food carts, izakaya, convenience stores (and pretty much anywhere else). Karaage is cheap, tasty and fast. Only downside? So good, it’s addictive!
Similar to gyudon, but prepared with pork, this is another popular and often neglected (by foreigners) dish that is as cheap as it is fast and tasty. Perfect for those of you who are on the go, you can enjoy this meal in specific restaurants, and in all Japanese-style fast food chains.
A bowl of rice is served with a topping of deep-fried pork cutlet, egg, vegetables and condiments.
It’s a standard dish in Japan, but you can find several kinds, like the one served with tonkatsu sauce, the demi katsudon (a specialty of Okayama), shio-katsudon (flavored with salt), or the miso Katsudon (originally from Nagoya).
Regardless of the variety, you’ll love this dish!
This dish, known also as kushiage is crunchy deep-fried skewered meat, fish, or vegetables. The etymology refers to its preparation with kushi referring to the skewers that are used and katsu meaning the deep frying of a cutlet of meat.
Some of the more interesting kinds are the ones prepared with bamboo shoots, lotus root, cartilage (nankotsu), and gizzard (sunagimo). All of them though, are certainly worth tasting.
On top of the different ingredients that can be used, there are also several geographical varieties, such as Osaka; Tokyo (serving also pork rib kushikatsu), where the meat is prepared slightly differently and dressed with brown sauce; Nagoya is famous for its doteni (a rich miso based dish with beef tendons, intestines, and daikon (radish). Here you can order Kushikatsu with this staple dish. The region also uses different sauces and batter.
12. Miso Soup
When talking about Japanese food, we cannot avoid mentioning miso soup. This dish, served in almost any combination of breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals, is truly a staple of Japanese cuisine. Simple and flavorful it’s an amazing side dish to enjoy with the rest of your food.
Once again we see dashi being one of the main ingredients. This stock is mixed with miso (seasoning produced by fermenting soy beans) paste creating the famous soup. Other ingredients are then mixed accordingly to preference.
Very often miso soup will be served with tofu, scallion, and wakame seaweed. Other items, such as daikon, shrimp, fish, mushrooms, potatoes, onions, or meat can be added.
Particularly recommended during cold winter days, you can’t leave Japan without trying this evergreen dish!
Nabe means cooking pot. It’s sometimes referred to as nabemono (literally things in a cooking pot). The name already tells you everything there is to know about preparation, but it can’t begin to paint a picture of the immense variety of nabe one can find in Japan. This dish can be found all year round, but it’s ideal during cold months.
Popular both in nabe restaurants and at home, the dish is prepared by boiling in seasoned or unseasoned water a variety of ingredients: meat, fish, shellfish, vegetables, and tofu.
Nabe is also famous as the favorite dish of Sumo wrestlers. In particular, when talking about sumo nabe, we are referring to "chanko nabe."
Chanko nabe usually includes meatballs, chicken, vegetables, and noodles. It’s designed to be served with more ingredients, in order for the wrestlers to gain weight.
Another notable name in the nabe family is shabu-shabu.
Shabu-shabu’s name springs from the movement one makes when dipping thinly sliced meat into the boiling pot. The dish is served with meat (usually beef and pork), as well as vegetables and tofu. The food is then enjoyed with a sesame dipping sauce or ponzu (a lemon based dressing), or with a mix of the two.
Sukiyaki is a variation of shabu-shabu in which the ingredients are stewed in sweetened water and soy sauce, and enjoyed with a dip of raw egg.
Yose nabe (yose=putting together), as the name implies, is a variety of nabe in which all things, meaning meat, fish, vegetables and tofu, are cooked together at the same time in the pot. It’s usually based on a soup of miso or soy sauce.
The types of nabe available in Japan is truly staggering, so go look for some, experiment, and enjoy!
Known as a kind of food disliked by most foreigners, natto is daily and widely consumed by most Japanese people.
The reason why most foreigners seem to not be able to eat natto is because these fermented soy beans have a very powerful smell that most find unpleasant. Furthermore, its stickiness makes it a little weird for many non Japanese. It is, though, definitely worth trying, as it’s a truly Japanese food.
Natto is often served with rice (there’s also a rolled variety you can easily find in convenience stores and sushi restaurants) and dipped in a few drops of soy sauce. Alternatively it’s served with a spicy Japanese mustard called karashi.
We will admit that it may be hard to get used to this dish, and it’s a bit of an acquired taste, but we recommend you give natto a shot, as you may find you have more of a Japanese palate than you had thought!
Oden is a tasty, light, hot dish, you’d especially enjoy on those cold winter days. This is another variety of one-pot dishes consisting of several ingredients (usually eggs, konjac, fish cakes and daikon) served in a dashi and soy soup.
While some restaurants specialize in the preparation of this dish, you can commonly find oden in many Japanese fast food chains, and in convenience stores.
Oden can be prepared in many different ways (and sometimes even its name is different. In Nagoya, for example, it may be called Kanto-ni). The soups in which the ingredients are boiled also change depending on the region.
Oden is a great, cheap, and original dish that will never bore you, especially if you’re travelling through different cities in Japan.
If you’re visiting the country you’ll want to try one of the many kinds of this staple dish. Hard to compare to other dishes, okonomiyaki can be considered the Japanese frittata, or pancake.
The etymology of the name itself (meaning what you like or how you like + grilled) hints at the number of different ingredients that can be used to prepare this savory dish.
The most popular varieties of Okonomiyaki are the ones from the Kansai region, and the one from Hiroshima.
This is probably the predominant version of the dish in Japan. The batter is prepared with flour, nagaimo (a kind of yam), dashi (or water), eggs, cabbage, pork belly, octopus, squid, shrimp, mochi or cheese, and konjac.
Osaka is particularly renowned, in Kansai, for okonomiyaki, as it seems the dish originated from there.
In this version (also known as Hiroshima-yaki or Hiroshima-okonomi) the ingredients are not mixed, but arranged in layers. Usually noodles such as yakisoba, or udon as well as eggs and lots of sauce are added as a topping.
Many other kinds of this dish exist in several areas across Japan (Tokushima, Hamamatsu, Okinawa, and more), but if you’re visiting Tokyo, you’ll have to stop by Tsukishima district, famous for both okonomiyaki and monjayaki. The main street of this area has been renamed Monja Street. You will want to visit it to try monjanyaki, a dish similar to okonomiyaki, but with a less dense texture and with different ingredients.
The name of this flavorful dish derives from the contraction of the words omelette and rice. Omuraisu, as the name suggests is an omelette filled with fried rice and usually topped with ketchup.
The dish seems to have originated in Tokyo, in a western-style restaurant, roughly 100 years ago.
You’ll find this dish in most Japanese cafes that also serve food, as well as in several restaurants.
If you’re staying with friends from Japan, chances are they’ll know how to prepare it, as it’s a common dish among Japanese people.
Once again, a filling, cheap, and tasty one-dish meal that will certainly be popular among adult visitors, as well as children!
Who hasn’t seen in anime, movies, videos, or documentaries, the famous Japanese rice ball, the onigiri? While not very common as a menu item in restaurants, this is the king of the on-the-go dishes. You’ll find it in virtually every grocery store and convenience store.
The onigiri can be a simple rice ball flavored with spices, or it can be filled (and it usually is) with a variety of ingredients from vegetables, to meat, fish, seafood, and more. It’s sometimes wrapped in a sheet of flavored or unflavored nori (seaweed), depending on the region, and on one’s preference.
Many people visiting Japan eat mainly onigiri while sightseeing given its very cheap price (usually around 100 yen) and it’s availability and simplicity.
Most people know ramen, especially for it’s world famous instant variety, but when in Japan, you’ll be surprised by its amazing taste (definitely not even comparable to its cup counterpart) and huge amount of different choices.
The broth can be based on chicken, pork, beef, fish, vegetables, and flavored with soy sauce, miso, dashi, and many other seasonings. Usually scallion, seaweed, tofu, and bamboo shoots are added, but it’s impossible to list all the different combinations in which this dish can be served.
Not only each region, but even each restaurant can have a different recipe, sometimes creating very original and tasty meals.
The noodles are specifically made for ramen and have a very distinctive texture, being soft but with a bit of a bite.
The most common soup stocks are miso, salt, soy sauce, and curry.
Ramen is probably the most popular shime (the last meal at the end of a day or night out). It’s considered to be fast food, and, while some kinds can be served cold, it’s usually hot, and a godsend on cold days.
Robatayaki (or robata) is a Japanese unique kind of food preparation in which food is grilled on an irori style fireplace (wide, flat, open fireplace) over charcoal.
This kind of food is usually found only in specialized restaurants, so you may have to look/ask specifically for it.
The list of food at robata restaurants is everything you can think of, although traditionally it is a combination of seafood and vegetables.
Most visitors miss on this amazing food. Make sure you taste a real slice of Japan by looking for a good robata (there are many in Tokyo and all over Japan).
Soba is a buckwheat noodle specialty of Japan. It’s extremely popular, and it’s served both in general noodle restaurants, and in specialized (often expensive) ones.
It’s also relatively simple to prepare at home, by getting the noodles and the soup in which they are dipped at a grocery store.
Soba can be enjoyed in a cold dip, or in a broth, as noodle soup.
This dish appears in different varieties depending on the season, and the region you’re visiting. Don’t forget to ask for a soba dish, next time you visit a restaurant in Japan!
Somen is the Japanese version of a very popular kind of noodles across Asia. Made out of wheat flour, it’s usually served cold. These very thin noodles are served with a simple cold dipping sauce, or with a sauce flavored with onion, ginger, and myoga (a different kind of ginger).
This dish is particularly popular in summer, when a dish of somen chilled with ice cubes is all you need to recharge, fill up, cool off, and take a break from the brutal Japanese summer heat.
23. Sushi and sashimi
Of course we all know these dishes, but we can’t avoid mentioning them in this guide. Sushi and sashimi are among the foods at the pinnacle of Japanese staple cuisine.
While very famous world wide, many fail to understand the variety of cuts, and preparation that can go into preparing this food. Sushi chefs are regarded as artists and most of them have to practice as apprentices for years (and at times decades) before they too can be called sushi and sashimi masters.
This doesn’t mean though that it’s impossible to find good quality sushi or sashimi at a fair price. Japan offers options for all palates and all pockets.
A particularly fun experience is that of the rolling sushi restaurants, in which you order from a small computer at your table and the sushi is served directly to you via a rolling mat. The food is very good, and it’s only 100 yen per dish (these restaurants are usually called 100 yen-sushi, or sushiro).
Something missing outside of Japan is usually the so called temaki zushi (lit. hand rolled sushi). You can certainly find restaurants in which this dish is served, but you’ll love making your own at home (if you have Japanese friends, it’s pretty much guaranteed they’ll know how to do it). The preparation is simple. You’ll need sushi rice, cuts of your favorite fish (thin slices, usually), sea weed sheets, and whatever other ingredients you’d like to add, accordingly to your taste. Often used ingredients are cucumber, crab, avocado, and wasabi.
Spread the rice on a sheet of seaweed, add fish and other fillings, roll the seaweed in a cylinder or cone, and enjoy with soy sauce.
If you’re in Japan, propose a “temaki zushi party” and you’ll surely get amazing approval.
Takowasa is raw octopus (tako) served in a wasabi sauce (wasa). This is one of those Japanese dishes that, depending on your cultural background, may appear weird. Do try it out!
Takowasa is a common appetizer in many restaurants, and especially in izakaya. It’s very popular and for good reason. It’s tasty, unique, and a true symbol of Japanese popular food tradition.
Tempura is a great dish all year round, especially for those of you who enjoy sharing a few drinks with friends.
Tempura consists of shellfish, fish, chicken, or vegetables covered in a flavorful batter and deep fried until they reach a perfect level of crunchiness.
You can enjoy tempura as is or with dipping sauce.
While many restaurants serve this dish, there are several which specialize in it, where you can find a larger choice for an even more amazing dive into traditional Japanese food.
Teppanyaki is one of the less known (but still delicious) styles of Japanese cooking. Teppan means iron plate and yaki means grilled.
Teppanyaki is a term that encompasses a large variety of dishes, including okonomiyaki, yakisoba, and monjayaki, but it’s usually used to refer to a particular kind of preparation of western-influenced food.
Typical ingredients for teppanyaki are beef, shrimp, vegetables, chicken, and scallops. They are prepared on a hotplate, usually with soybean oil.
Some of you may be familiar with this kind of cooking, as in the U.S. these restaurants are pretty popular (although known as hibachi).
If you come to Japan and you want to taste amazing food that espouses Japan and the west, you’ll really want to give teppanyaki a shot.
Tonkatsu is a very popular and easy to find dish of breaded pork cutlet deep fried in vegetable oil.
You can find this cheap, tasty dish in several chain restaurants and in bento boxes in grocery and convenience stores. You can even make it yourself!
Season the meat with salt and pepper and cover it with flour. Then dip it into beaten egg and add a layer of panko (Japanese flaky bread crumbs). Deep fry, and serve with cabbage, potato salad and some brown sauce or karashi.
Tonkatsu is perfect also for on-the-go sandwiches, making for a great quick meal.
Of the huge variety of noodles you can find in Japan, udon, similarly to ramen, is one of the most popular. Udon is a thick wheat flour noodle that you can enjoy in its simplest form (broth made of dashi, mirin and soy sauce), or in a variety of combinations.
Try it with tempura, for a robust meal, or with tofu, for a more delicate taste.
Udon can be served hot or cold, depending on the season (and on one’s taste) and it’s prepared in many styles depending on the region you’re visiting.
While the word udon refers to the noodles themselves, there’s no limit to the flavors, soups, and ingredients that can be added. As a matter of fact, challenge yourself to try out as many styles of udon as you can during your visit in Japan, and not only are you going to be satisfied, but also nowhere near the end of the list of possible dishes!
This term literally means grilled stuff. Virtually anything can be grilled, but some yaki dishes in Japan are a must-try.
Yakiniku means grilled meat. These restaurants are wildly popular and you can find a number of high-end ones, as well as more budget-friendly ones (many of which offer also all-you-can-eat menus).
In yakiniku restaurants you order the meat, or vegetables that you prefer (seasoned or unseasoned). The selection is huge. Then you grill it yourself on a hot plate or grill usually embedded within the table. You can then add sauces such as lemon, bbq, and many others, or simply salt and pepper.
Yakisoba as the name suggests is a variety of grilled soba (or noodles in general). You can also prepare yakisoba by stir frying the noodles. You can add pork, fish, or vegetables and garnish with seaweed powder, ginger, and fish flakes. Give a finishing touch with sauces such as oyster sauce and thank us later!
Although the word yakitori literally means grilled chicken, this concept encompasses all kind of skewered meat (and vegetables) prepared on a grill. This is a simple and flavorful dish with a never-ending list of combinations, which can be found in several restaurants (specialized ones as well) and which is especially recommended when visiting a good izakaya, to experience another one of the true Japanese popular dishes.
Being in Japan, we can’t leave out grilled fish.
Yakizakana may not be as popular as sushi outside of Japan, but in this country it’s arguably much more common than raw fish.
Usually a whole fish is grilled and served with side dishes of various vegetables and rice. Try it in specialized restaurants for a fully immersive experience, or in chain restaurants for a tasty, cheap, and fast meal that will keep you going for the several hours of sightseeing ahead of you!
You’re now on the way to become a true expert on Japanese food! Yet there’s much more to Japanese cuisine that can be discovered! While visiting this amazing country and taking in all the sights, the fun, and the culture… Don’t forget to eat!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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