When you think of Japanese food, you probably think of sushi and ramen. But, there is so much more than that when it comes to the Japanese cuisine! If you’re spending your time right and visiting the right places in Japan, every meal should excite you.
So, to help you seek out the right dishes, here is a list of Japanese food that we think every visitor to Japan has to try! The list is long so bear with us, but that’s only because Japan has such a wide range of delicious foods. If you don’t have enough time to get through the whole list, we’ve put a star next to the ones we think you should prioritise.
1. ★ Izakaya
Not technically a Japanese food but rather a place where you can try all kinds of Japanese dishes. Translated directly as ‘tavern’, an izakaya is the place to go if you want to have one (or many) drinks while chatting and picking on a whole bunch of small plates of delicious Japanese food.
You can get most of the Japanese cuisine mentioned in this blog in izakayas. Their menus are often overwhelming, so if you would like to check out what they normally have, check out our blog on food and drinks you should try at an izakaya.
2. ★ Sushi
Sushi. It’s arguably the representative Japan cuisine. Your sushi options are plentiful and varied. There’s traditional Japanese sushi (e.g. raw fish sushi, cod roe sushi, egg sushi), modern fusion sushi (hamburger sushi, cheese sushi, fried chicken sushi), and much, much more.
Sushi can be as affordable as 98 yen (USD$1) for two pieces, or as luxurious as 15,000-20,000 yen (USD$140-185) for certain restaurant courses. Make sure to take your time and enjoy the complimentary green tea available at most, if not all sushi restaurants, as well as the many different types of miso soup!
From salmon and tuna to more unique options such as jellyfish, squid and all kinds of seafood, there’s loads of sashimi to be had in Japan! Recently, it has become increasingly popular for people to eat other kinds of raw meat as well: beef, horse, chicken. Not everyone’s comfortable eating raw meat but don’t worry, most restaurants serving sashimi will usually have plenty of other cooked options for you.
There are so many different types of ramen and every shop has their own take on it. It would probably take several years and even several lifetimes to try all the different types. Check out all the different types of ramen and the biggest chains you can find both in Japan and in other countries.
5. ★ Tempura
Tempura is the Japanese cuisine that is consisted of deep-fried seafood or vegetables. The dish is simple, yet incredibly delicious. While there are restaurants that serve just tempura, there are also other restaurants where tempura is a topping you can select to go with rice or noodles. For this option, you’ll want to look up donburi (丼, rice bowls) and soba/udon (noodles).
6. ★ Curry Rice
Japanese curry tastes sweeter, unlike other curries around the world. Fewer spices are used, and this makes the flavour lighter compared to South East Asian curries. Despite its mild spice, its flavour is undoubtedly unique and you’re unlikely to find it imitated anywhere else in the world, so don’t miss out on this in your time here.
Teppanyaki is typically found on the more expensive end of the price spectrum because you’re not just paying for the food, but also a performance. A chef cooks delicious dishes with iron plates and oftentimes does tricks with the food and equipment. This Japanese cuisine is also known as ‘hibachi’ in the United States and some other nations, but having it in Japan guarantees you the original Japanese taste that we’ve found is lacking in other nations’ version of teppanyaki.
8. ★ Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is the Japanese version of a savoury pancake. It’s said to have originated in Osaka (in the Kansai region of Japan) which is well-known for serving the best okonomiyaki even today. A wide variety of ingredients such as shredded cabbage, pork and egg are mixed in a wheat-flour-based batter.
Derived from the words okonomi (お好み) which translates to “what you like” or “how you like it” and yaki (焼き) which translates to “cook” or fry”, there are some okonomiyaki restaurants that allow you to choose your own ingredients (okonomi: “what you like”) and cook (yaki) it yourself on an iron plate installed at your table.
9. ★ Monjayaki
Monjayaki is essentially the Tokyo version of okonomiyaki. It is runnier and may not be very pleasing to the eye, but this Japanese cuisine is perceived as the healthier option as it uses less flour.
10. ★ Takoyaki
Takoyaki is octopus in perfectly round dough balls. They’re served with sauces that are also commonly used in okonomiyaki and monjayaki. If you’re not a fan of octopus, have no fear; there are various fusion takoyakis popping up all over town lately (For example, some places serve takoyaki with ham and cheese inside instead of octopus).
11. Shabu Shabu
Shabu shabu is a Japanese hot pot, perfect for the winter time. There are many shabu shabu restaurants with fairly-priced all-you-can-eat courses. There are also restaurants where you can try the famous A5 wagyu beef. Though shabu shabu is usually shared with a group, some restaurants offer individual shabu shabu hot pots as well the group can taste several different soups/broths instead of being limited to just one.
Similar to shabu shabu, sukiyaki is enjoyed by cooking thin slices of beef in a pan set in the middle of the table. Unlike shabu shabu, there is no soup and the slices of beef are cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Once the beef is cooked, you remove it from the pan and dip it into a bowl of battered raw egg before popping it into your mouth. The idea of mixing beef with raw egg is most likely a disturbing one to many but give it a shot; it’s absolutely delicious!
Kushiyaki is skewered vegetables and meat. The ingredients are usually cut into small little pieces. You can have these skewers grilled or battered then deep-fried. The main types of sauces you eat it with are sweet or salty-sweet. Kushiyaki restaurants usually have a big tube of sauce at the table for you to dip, and even double-dip.
14. ★ Yakitori
Yakitori is a specific type of kushiyaki: chicken skewers. You can usually get yakitori in the flavours of salt or sauce. Depending on the restaurant, there might be other options for you to choose from, such as mentaiko (pollock roe), yuzu or more.
Ordering yakitori can be confusing because there’s a ridiculously wide range for you to choose from, but have no fear, we have compiled a guide of all the different types yakitori you can get!
15. ★ Yakiniku
If you like meat, you will love yakiniku! ‘Yakiniku‘ is directly translated to “grilled meat (焼肉)” in Japanese. You usually get a variety of sauces to go with the meat: classic soy sauce, yakiniku sauce, lemon yakiniku sauce, and many more. The meat selection is just as varied; you can order different kinds of meats from different parts of the animal. Also, as you cook the meat yourself on a grill at your table, you can have it cooked anyway you like—well-done, rare, burnt, whatever you’d like. It’s a fun Japanese food experience to share with your friends and family and one I highly recommend you try!
Udon is a type of noodles made with wheat flour, and it’s thicker than ramen or soba. You can order udon with simple toppings such as seaweed, tempura, egg, meat and more. There are lots of different broths to choose from, from simple soy sauce-based broth to richer soup stocks. Some restaurants even put a modern, international spin on this traditional Japanese dish, for example carbonara udon!
This is the lesser-known but just as delicious and popular choice of Japanese noodles. Soba is made of buckwheat. It is one of the healthier noodle options you can get. You can have it served cold or hot. You might have seen the cold soba noodles in your set meals, where the noodles and the cold broth are separate. If you flew to Japan on Delta Airlines, cold soba is the side of green noodles served with sauce. This is known as zaru-soba. The hot soba noodles usually come with simple toppings, such as tempura, seaweed, egg and/or meat, not unlike udon.
18. ★ Donburi
Donburi translates to ‘bowl’ and quite literally, donburi is always served in a bowl, with rice at the bottom and different toppings on top. There’s many kinds of donburi you can order: kaisen-don (seafood bowl), katsu-don (cutlet bowl—the cutlets are usually fried with egg), and more. One of the most interesting donburi, in my opinion, is the oyako-don. It is pan-fried chicken and egg on rice. What makes it interesting (in a dark sort of way) is that the name for this donburi is derived from the Japanese words oya which translates to “parent”, and ko which translates to “child”—parent-and-child bowl, ergo chicken-and-egg bowl.
Gyūdon, a beef bowl, is a type of donburi and is the go-to fast food in the world of Japanese food. Gyūdon consists of shredded pieces of beef with onion, usually cooked in soy sauce, on top of rice. It is one of the most common and cheapest options you can get around Japan (it’s a permanent item on the menus of Yoshinoya, Matsuya and other similar Japanese fast-food restaurants).
20. ★ Gyōza
There are so many different types of gyōza in the world, each with its own twist. Japanese gyōza is a Japanese food that you must try! It is usually pan-fried with minced pork and veggies as its stuffing. It is simple yet incredibly addictive. Most people eat gyōza with soy sauce but the “proper” way to eat it is with soy sauce mixed with vinegar. Give it a shot!
Tonkatsu is deep-fried breaded meat cutlet, usually served in a set with shredded cabbage, miso soup and rice. Tonkatsu initially referred to pork only but now you can get all kinds of deep-fried breaded foods which includes seafood and chicken.
This Japanese cuisine is one of the healthier items on our list. Oden is a broth with sides such as radishes, fish cakes, sausages, toft, konjac and more. Oden is widely eaten in Japanese homes, especially during winter, which is also when Japanese convenience stores will start to sell them; the oden pots are located at the cashiers and you can simply point at the sides you want and the cashier will put them in a to-go broth cup for you.
Natto is not Japanese cuisine but it’s definitely worth mentioning. It goes only two ways: you either love it or hate it. It’s fermented soybeans, and that sounds innocent enough.
What makes it such a controversial food is its less-than-fragrant scent and its slimy texture and look. Though it looks questionable, natto is actually rated as one of the healthiest foods on earth. Japanese people who do enjoy them will usually have it on the side for breakfast.
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The meaning of wabi-sabi should help everyone remember that you don’t have to be perfect. It is a view of the world that accepts the natural course of life for what it is, and accepts it.
There you have it! If you’re only in Japan for a short amount of time, then try the the dishes with a start ★ next to them. If you have enough time in Japan, then definitely check out all of the above!
Japan is food heaven. In the 6+ years, I have lived here, I have never had even one bad food experience! Enjoy your time feasting the amazing Japanese cuisine!
Want to find out more about Japan? check out How to celebrate the New Year in Japan, with New Year traditions and food and Japanese food and drinks you can make at home and All the different types of yakitori you can get and All the different types of ramen you must try in Japan !