One of the greatest things about traveling to a new place is experiencing new cuisine and local specialties. And Japan is one of our favourite destinations for trying new foods, as well as indulging in some old favourites.
These are some of the things you should eat when visiting Japan. This is hardly a comprehensive list, just some suggestions on what to try if you’re not familiar with Japanese cuisine.
In no particular order:
This one is probably obvious. Sushi originated in Southeast Asia many centuries ago as a preservation method. Salted fish was packed in fermented rice to keep the fish from spoiling. Today, vinegared rice is used in many sushi dishes, keeping a bit of that tradition alive.
There are four different types of sushi:
Maki: the seaweed wrap is on the outside of the roll, holding the sushi and rice inside
Sashimi: thin slices of raw fish served without rice
Nigiri: thin slices of raw fish served on top of sushi rice
Uramaki: the rice is on the outside of the roll
The dish below has both nigiri and maki varieties of sushi:
Mark especially liked the sushi at the little food stalls found around the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. You really can’t get much fresher than that! Also, try any one of the many 24-hour sushi restaurants in Tokyo to satisfy your late-night cravings.
If you can’t stand the texture or the non-flavour-flavour of tofu, try it in Japan. I don’t know what we’re doing wrong with it, but the Japanese know how to prepare tofu to delicious perfection. I’ve had “okay”, even good tofu here in Canada, but I could eat the tofu in Japan all day long.
One of our favourite tofu dishes came from a cramped little windowless restaurant in a covered shopping mall in Kyoto called Daijobu.
Mark and I ordered several small dishes to share. We got the deep fried tofu with okonomi sauce, and it was one of my surprise favourite meals of the entire trip. The sauce worked perfectly with the fresh green onions and crispy tofu. I came really close to ordering a second plate!
I loves me my gyoza, or dumplings. I ate a lot of gyoza in Japan, typically filled with ground pork and vegetables and served with a dipping sauce. There are four ways to prepare gyoza: steamed, boiled, deep-fried, or pan-fried.
I like gyoza all by themselves, but you can also enjoy them as part of a larger meal. As we did:
You can also get gyoza in ramen dishes. If there’s a qyoza quota, I haven’t reached it yet.
We stumbled on a small food festival while in Tokyo, where I had even more gyoza. I don’t know very many Japanese words, but I can order gyoza like a pro. One thing about Japan: you won’t ever go hungry!
4. Fresh Rice Crackers
Prior to our Japan visit, we’d only ever eaten grocery store, pre-packaged rice crackers. It never even dawned on me how they’re actually made. But in Tokyo, we stumbled upon vendors making and selling fresh rice crackers, called senbei. Senbei come in different varieties, and may be sweet, salty or spicy.
These senbei were lightly coated with soy sauce, and had a slightly buttery flavour. They were crunchy, warm, and all sorts of addictive.
5. Coffee Jelly
This is exactly what it sounds like. It’s jelly made with strong coffee, usually served in cubes. I’m not ashamed to say that I had it more than once for breakfast. Coffee jelly is particularly delicious if you eat it with soft serve vanilla ice cream. You can find coffee jelly served at many coffee shops and cafes, or dessert shops like Karafuneya in Kyoto.
6. Hot Coffee from a Vending Machine
Japan has all sorts of cool street-side vending machines dispensing snacks, drinks, and even toys. But we really loved the vending machines filled with a wide selection of coffee. Some of them even dispensed hot coffee in cans! (You can also find hot coffee in cans at convenience stores.) You just have to be careful, as they are hot to the touch.
Most of the coffees found in vending machines already have cream and sugar added, so read the descriptions carefully if you’re more of a black coffee lover.
7. Black Sesame Ice Cream
Black sesame ice cream became a new weakness of mine after trying it for the first time in Japan. It’s hard to describe the flavour if you’ve never tried black sesame seeds before. It’s similar to regular sesame seeds, but more intense, and just slightly bitter. Mix it in with ice cream though, and it is a fabulous flavour combination.
You can find black sesame ice cream as soft serve or regular ice cream. But I would suggest you take it a step further, and look for it as an ice cream sandwich filling.
This ice cream sandwich is on a melonpan bun. It’s a sweet bun made of enriched dough coated in a thin layer of cookie dough. I mean, everything about this is so crazy good, I can’t even tell you.
Mochi are one of my favourite Japanese sweet treats of all time. The traditional way to make these sweet balls of heaven was to mash and pound glutinous rice until it was a sticky, gooey consistency. Today, mochiko, or rice flour is commonly used. Mochi can have different fillings, such as red bean paste, black sesame paste, or my personal favourite, taro. I tried matcha green tea mochi at Nara Deer Park:
Ice cream mochi combine two amazing sweets in one. These are basically bite-sized balls of ice cream with a mochi-dough casing. Mochi is an acquired taste though, more so because of the soft, doughy texture. But give it a try at least once and see what you think!
Dango is sort of similar to mochi, yet different. These are sweet dumplings also made with mochiko, or rice flour. But the texture isn’t quite the same as mochi, I find them a bit more firm and rubbery. And unlike mochi, dango are often served on skewers.
Dango come in a variety of colours and flavours too. You’ll often see pink, white and green colours together on a skewer, especially during cherry blossom season. Dango can also be sweet and salty, served with a sweet soy sauce. The salty ones surprise me every time when I’m expecting a sweet treat.
Taiyaki are sweet, fish-shaped cakes often sold at markets, street vendors and covered shopping streets. They usually have red bean paste or custard filling, and are cooked on a hot, fish-shaped griddle. It’s a popular treat during festivals and fairs, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding them at any time of year.
The dough is somewhat similar to a pancake or waffle. While not a stand-out in terms of flavour, taiyaki are a classic street food in Japan, so Mark and I wanted to try them at least once.
Soba noodles are thin buckwheat noodles. They’re often used in soup or served with a dipping sauce, and come hot in the winter and cold in the summer.
When Mark and I visited Hakone, we stopped for supper at a little family-run restaurant. I’d read online that the soba noodles in Hakone were some of the best in Japan, so I had to try them. (I think it had something to do with the water?)
Our hostess brought out the soba on a woven bamboo tray. I suddenly realized that I had NO idea how to eat soba noodles like this. I carefully lifted up the bamboo tray to find a plate underneath. Was I to pour the sauce over the noodles? That didn’t seem right, as the sauce would just pour out onto the plate below. Or do you dump the noodles onto the plate first?
Mark started tucking into his meal while I struggled awkwardly to eat mine without embarrassing myself or offending the restaurant owners and everyone else around us.
Thankfully, after watching me suffer in silence for a few perplexed minutes, our hostess came over to instruct me. She didn’t speak English, so she mimed the appropriate actions. I was to simply pick up the noodles with my chopsticks and dip them into the sauce bowl a little at a time, then eat them. I felt like a complete ignorant dork, but I was grateful for her help. And yes, the soba was incredible.
These savoury pancakes are a must-try. Many restaurants specializing in okonomiyaki have hot griddles built right into the tables.
The basic ingredients include flour, water or dashi, eggs, grated yam, and cabbage. You can order okonomiyaki with different fillings, such as seafood, chicken, cheese, vegetables, and so forth. Every region or city in Japan has their own take on the recipe, ingredients and finishing touches.
Interestingly, we noticed the Japanese people in this particular restaurant were all making their own okonomiyaki at their tables; pouring out the batter, flipping them, etc. But we didn’t have that experience. Our hostess poured out the batter on our griddle, flipped them when ready, cut them and placed them on our plates. I guess we looked like we didn’t know what we were doing – and that’s totally valid.
Ramen is rather like a hearty soup, containing Chinese-style wheat noodles, broth, and ingredients such as sliced pork, nori, green onions, and so on.
When Momofuku Ando created instant noodles in 1958, he changed the ramen game forever, making it easy and inexpensive for anyone to have a quick ramen-like experience without the extra work of actually cooking. (You can check out my post about visiting the Cup Noodle Museum in Yokohama).
Ramen comes in a variety of broths from clear to creamy, and ingredients vary as well, so there’s one to satisfy every taste and preference.
By the way, did you ever wonder what that frilly white thing with the pink swirl is that you often see in a ramen bowl? It’s a seasoned and cured fish paste called narutomaki.
14. Takoyaki and Tako Tamago
Takoyaki are octopus balls dipped in batter. What else can I say. Mark loved them and said they were amazing. I decided to just take his word for it. But if you love seafood, this is something you should definitely try. Mark ordered these in the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. The topping is bonito flakes, a type of fish similar in flavour to skipjack tuna.
Or, if you like your octopus batter-free, try tako tamago. These are baby octopus with quail eggs inside.
Another nope from me, but Mark ordered them several times during our stay:
15. Steamed Buns, Both Savoury and Sweet
Steamed buns are more my speed. The savoury buns usually have meat, like BBQ pork and other ingredients inside. They’re handy to grab and eat on the go.
They look pretty plain on the outside, save for some fancy folding techniques. But they’re warm and tasty, especially on cooler days.
If you have a sweet tooth like I do, sweet dessert buns are very satisfying. Longevity peach steamed buns, for example, are delicious! The steamed dough has kind of a spongey consistency.
A Few Tips for Eating in Japan
Knowing how to order food in Japan is almost as important as what to order. But we have some tips to help you fully enjoy your dining experiences here!
If you’re worried about ordering food in a language you don’t speak from a menu you can’t read, let me put your mind at ease. Many Japanese restaurants offer English menus, or have some English-speaking staff that can help you with your selections. You’ll also see many restaurants with plastic representations of their offerings in a window display, so you can order by sight alone.
Not all restaurants have wait staff coming to take your order or to check on you. Some restaurants have a vending machine at the front where you make your food selections and print a receipt for your order.
Once you sit own at your table, look around. Do you see a button or something that resembles a doorbell?
This is how you call wait staff to your table once you’ve made your food selection from the menu. They most likely won’t come to check on you if you don’t use the button. This saves them time from coming to check on you when you don’t require their service.
When looking for a place to eat, try going upstairs or downstairs to find a restaurant or cafe. Although we had some great food in street-level restaurants, our most memorable meals involved either going down a few steps or going up a flight or two. A lot of tourists tend to overlook these restaurants, so they’re often more reasonably priced, while still offering amazing food.
Department store basements are also a treasure trove of interesting kiosks, food markets and eateries. These basement-level grocery stores/eating establishments are a crowded, frenzied peek into everyday Japanese life that you must experience at least once in your travels.
Covered shopping streets also offer great places to eat for reasonable prices. We had some of the best food in cozy restaurants hidden away in covered shopping streets. Again, these usually required going up or down a flight of stairs to get to them. But the food was second to none.
I hope this list helps you to step out of your comfort zone a little when ordering food in Japan. We absolutely loved the food here, and so will you!