If you’re planning a trip to Japan, chances are that Japanese food is one of the things you’re most excited about – whether or not you refer to yourself as a “foodie.”
Japan is an amazing destination for so many reasons – its history, traditions, culture, arts – but Japanese food alone is reason enough to visit!
Over the past several years, we’ve watched Japan go from being slightly off the radar to becoming one of the world’s top culinary meccas. Traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku) has been recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and as it becomes famous for more than just sushi and ramen, Japan has begun to rival culinary destinations like France and Italy.
Yet despite its remarkable popularity around the world, most people know very little about the diversity of authentic Japanese food in Japan. Lucky for you, you’re in for a treat!
Below you’ll find an overview of our favorite culinary experiences in Japan, though it goes without saying that this is just a sampling of what you’ll discover — and eat! — during your trip.
We’ve also included our favorite culinary resources from around the internet to help you go down the Japanese food rabbit hole if you wish. You’ll find websites devoted to everything from Japanese coffee and whisky, to street food and Michelin-starred restaurants.
If you love great food, regardless of whether it’s prepared by an award-winning chef or brilliant street side master, you’ll find endless inspiration below.
Japanese Culinary Experiences
Below is a selection of our favorite types of culinary experiences in Japan.
Private Market Tours
Visiting a Japanese market with a local expert is the best way to immerse yourself in Japan’s culinary culture.
Whether you want to visit Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, Kyoto’s colorful Nishiki Market, a depachika food hall – or even a neighborhood grocery store – a private market tour is the best way to get beneath the surface.
And of course your guide will have expert insights on what to sample, and where to eat afterwards!
Japan’s most well-known market is Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, a must-visit if you are eager to learn about Japanese food or simply love markets.
In Kyoto, the best place to immerse yourself in Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine), is at Nishiki Market. Nishiki is a long and narrow shopping arcade packed full of vendors selling a beautiful array of Kyoto’s distinctive culinary delicacies.
Another unique culinary experience we highly recommend is a visit to a department store food hall, known as depachika.
Unlike department stores in the west, Japan’s department stores are a foodie paradise, offering a mouthwatering selection of sweet and savory, Japanese and European, and more food than you could possibly hope to ever sample.
Please note that market tours are generally limited to very small parties, as most markets have narrow lanes.
Foodie Honeymoons in Japan
An increasing number of newlyweds are choosing Japan for their honeymoon, and we love arranging honeymoons in Japan!
Japan attracts couples who are seeking unique experiences, and love immersing themselves in new cultures.
And Japanese cuisine is a major draw: if you’re looking for the foodiest honeymoon imaginable, Japan is the place.
If you want to experience the best sushi in the world, it’s worth splurging at one of Tokyo’s many sushi temples – or even traveling to Kanazawa, or the northern island of Hokkaido, for some of Japan’s best seafood.
Modern sushi’s roots are based in Tokyo, and for the quintessential sushi experience get counter seats for a special dinner at one of Tokyo’s best sushi restaurants.
But even if your budget doesn’t allow for extravagance, you’ll find delicious sushi at neighborhood sushi-ya, depachika food halls, and sometimes even at kaiten-zushi (“conveyor belt”) shops.
Kaiseki is Japanese cuisine in its most refined form.
A kaiseki meal consists of course upon course of masterfully-prepared dishes featuring seasonal and local specialties.
A stay at a luxury ryokan usually includes a kaiseki dinner – often served in your room, or in a private dining room overlooking a small Japanese garden.
Even if you’re not staying in a ryokan during your Japan trip, restaurants specializing in kaiseki cuisine abound, particularly in cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo.
Izakaya, Tachinomiya & Street Food
Japan is not all haute cuisine, and some of the best meals you will have will also be some of the most casual.
Izakayas in Japan
There’s nothing quite like going to an izakaya in Japan.
An izakaya is a neighborhood establishment where people go equally for the food and the drink.
It’s often translated into English as Japanese-style pub, tavern or gastropub – they’re lively places where you go to have a drink with friends or coworkers, while eating delicious Japanese-style tapas.
Izakayas exist in every city of Japan. In addition to being the perfect place to sample a wide variety of Japanese dishes – from seafood to fried foods, tofu to vegetables – eating and drinking at an izakaya is also a great way to mingle with locals.
Tachinomi: Stand Bars
Izakaya are usually casual, but for an even more casual drinks-focused experience, head to a tachinomiya.
Tachinomiya (tachi means stand, nomi means drink) are “stand bars,” where you can really rub shoulders with locals.
These casual bars can be found throughout Japan, and are a great place to strike up a conversation with locals over reasonably-priced drinks and unpretentious Japanese bar food.
Street Food in Japan
Japan is not generally known for its street food, but in some Japanese cities – such as Osaka and Fukuoka – you’ll find street vendors selling delicious local specialties such as takoyaki and Hakata ramen, respectively.
And during Japanese matsuri (festivals), colorful food stalls line the streets.
While you can experience izakaya, tachinomiya and Japan’s street food without a guide, having a local culinary guide can heighten the experience.
Not only can your private guide take you to hard-to-find “hidden” establishments, he or she will also be able to interpret, as most such establishments lack English menus or English speakers.
The Michelin Guide is controversial in Japan.
While many in Japan embrace it, many chefs and critics denounce it as a foreign standard being imposed on Japanese cuisine.
No matter your stance, one thing is certain: Japan is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other country in the world (including France).
And when Japanese critics and Michelin inspectors agree on a restaurant, you can usually be assured of a transformative culinary experience.
Sake Tasting & Breweries
Most people don’t realize how complex and delicious nihonshu (sake) really is.
Going on a private sake tour with a local sake expert is the best way to learn about different varieties of sake, through tastings and explanations.
In many parts of Japan you can also visit a sake brewery. During a sake brewery tour you’ll have the opportunity to see where and how sake is made, and the chance to ask all the questions you might have about this incredible beverage.
Dinner with a Geisha or Maiko
Geisha and maiko (apprentice geisha) are highly misunderstood outside of Japan.
The chance to enjoy private dinner with a geisha or maiko, along with an expert interpreter, is a rare opportunity to get a glimpse into this world which is largely hidden behind closed doors.
Japanese Cooking Lessons
Taking a private Japanese cooking class is a great way to learn more about Japanese ingredients, while adding some recipes to your repertoire.
You can learn highly authentic dishes, or a mix of authentic and slightly-adapted dishes, to ensure you can re-create the recipes using ingredients available to you in your home country.
As you can hopefully see, if you’re planning to visit Japan, you should be prepared to have some of the most unforgettable culinary experiences of your life!
The Best Websites on Japanese Food & Drink
We’ve compiled what we think are the best websites on Japanese food and drink, including a few pages from our own site that we think will help you along the way.
A word of caution: unless you’re a professional eater (it’s true, some of you are), we strongly recommend against trying to plan all your meals in advance. We’re all for obsessive preparation, in general (our trip-planning depends on it). But countless ambitious diners have found themselves craving a break after one too many pre-planned meals – and canceling in is a huge breach of Japanese etiquette.
As for casual meals, while you can certainly pre-plan some, many informal restaurants don’t take reservations. Don’t fret: as most Japan visitors can attest, it’s hard to find a bad meal in Japan. Also, in contrast to other culinary destinations like France and Italy, tourist traps are relatively scarce – and the quality of food is extremely high across the board.
So our suggestion is to use the resources below to plan a few special meals — whether high-end sushi or kaiseki, or cheap and satisfying ramen — and allow yourself to experience how wonderful Japan can be with a little flexibility. They’re divided into the following categories:
- General: Covering Japan and its food, in general.
- Destination-specific: Focused on specific cities.
- Special Dietary Needs: For those with special dietary requirements.
- Restaurant Reservation Services: If you need help making reservations.
- Drinking in Japan: Bars, whisky, sake, and more.
- Tea and Coffee: Tea shops, cafes, and more.
- Tabelog: Comprehensive restaurant database. Filter by city and type of cuisine, then sort by overall ranking.
- LuxEat: Reviews of high-end restaurants in Japan and beyond.
- Foods To Try in Japan (Boutique Japan): A short list of key foods to try in Japan.
- Michelin Guide Japan: Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
- Ramen Adventures: Interesting reviews of ramen shops throughout Japan.
- The Hungry Tourist: List of outstanding restaurants in Japan and around the world.
- Bento.com: Basic restaurant listings.
- Food Sake Tokyo: Insightful writing on dining in Tokyo and around Japan.
- Tokyo Food File: Informative accounts of restaurants in Tokyo and beyond.
- The Infatuation: Solid listing of restaurants and bars in Tokyo.
- Roads & Kingdoms: Mostly culinary guide to Tokyo.
- Ramen Beast: Ramen resource for Tokyo and beyond, including a handy app.
- What to Eat in Kyoto (Boutique Japan): An introduction to Kyoto’s culinary specialties.
- What to Eat in Osaka (Boutique Japan): An introduction to Osaka’s casual and delicious cuisine.
- What to Eat in Fukuoka (Boutique Japan): An introduction to the unsung culinary destination of Fukuoka.
Special Dietary Needs
- Happy Cow: Vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Japan.
- Gluten Free Japan: Guide to eating gluten free in Japan.
- Traveling around Japan with Dietary Restrictions (Boutique Japan): For travelers with dietary restrictions.
Restaurant Reservation Services
- TableAll: In addition to its reservation service, this website also contains some fascinating restaurant and chef features.
- Pocket Concierge: Restaurant reservation service.
- OpenTable: Free restaurant reservation service.
- Voyagin: Tour provider also offering restaurant reservation service.
Drinking in Japan
- PUNCH: The PUNCH guide to drinking in Tokyo.
- Nonjatta: Authoritative website on whisky in Japan.
- Dekanta: Highly informative blog on Japanese whisky.
- Whisky in Japan (Boutique Japan): An introduction to whisky in Japan.
- Japan’s best whisky distilleries (Boutique Japan): Featuring Japan’s best whisky producers.
- Urban Sake: Comprehensive sake-focused website.
- Sake 101 (Boutique Japan): An introduction to sake.
- Shochu 101 (Boutique Japan): An introduction to shochu.
Tea and Coffee
- Japanese Tea: An overview of tea in Japan.
- Tea in Kyoto: A selection of teahouses in Kyoto.
- Tea in Japan (Boutique Japan): An introduction to tea in Japan.
- Good Coffee: Lists of great coffee shops in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and beyond.
- Tokyo Coffee: Guide to specialty coffee in Tokyo.
- Coffee in Japan (Boutique Japan): An introduction to coffee in Japan.