In today’s Japan Travel Q&A we answer a question about Japanese food from Caleb in Encinitas, California:
“Having been to Japan before, it would be helpful to have a list of foods that I should definitely try, and ones to probably avoid.”
Don’t feel like watching a video? Read below for today’s answer!
This is a great – and timely – question!
Japan has become a major culinary destination, thanks to its variety of incredible cuisine, both high and “low.”
In 2013, traditional Japanese cuisine (known as washoku) was even recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
So where to begin?
Let’s start with some foods that you should definitely try while in Japan.
Japanese Foods To Try
An Important Note: To keep the list from getting too long, we’ve purposely excluded “famous” foods like sushi, ramen and tempura – but you should still definitely try them in Japan!
Here we go…
Bento Box: Few things are as enjoyable as a gourmet, seasonal bento box while riding the shinkansen (bullet train).
Bonito flakes: Some people don’t like these ubiquitous fish flakes, but those who do love them with a passion. They’re served on top of a variety of foods, including tofu and takoyaki.
Curry: While not spicy like other countries’ curries, there’s nothing more comforting than a made-from-scratch Japanese curry.
French pastries: You might not expect this, but the quality of French pastries in Japan is outstanding.
Fruit: Square watermelons aside, it’s seriously worth splurging on some fancy Japanese fruit, and one of the best places to do so is at a depachika (see below).
Gyoza: A Japanese take on Chinese-style dumplings (perfect with draft beer).
Karaage: Japanese-style fried chicken. If you think Southern US fried chicken is the best, you may be in for a surprise!
Kushi-katsu: Deep-fried skewered meats and vegetables.
Miso: Fresh miso in Japan is a must-try, and fortunately you’ll encounter it fairly often while traveling around Japan.
Niku-man: The Japanese take on Chinese-style meat buns (and the perfect snack).
Rice: It’s worth seeking out top-quality rice, but even “average” Japanese rice is fantastic.
Saba no shioyaki: Grilled mackerel, a classic “simple” food available in shokudo (cafeterias) and izakaya (see below).
Shishamo: A drinking person’s favorite, these almost bite-sized grilled smelt fish are served whole and filled with roe. “Real” shishamo come from Hokkaido, but these days in most places they’re imported.
Soba: Handmade soba is incredibly good. Soba is made from buckwheat and is generally considered to be the healthiest of Japan’s three major noodle types (the other two are ramen and udon).
Takoyaki: Sometimes called “octopus balls,” these are griddle-cooked bite-size balls filled with octopus and other goodies. Known as an Osaka specialty, these days you can find them all over Japan.
Tofu: Fresh tofu in Japan is shockingly good, particularly compared to what you find in grocery stores outside of Japan.
Tonkatsu: Breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, typically served with shredded cabbage, tsukemono (Japanese pickles), rice and miso soup. Mmm.
Tsukemono: Japanese pickles, which pair perfectly with white rice, and are also delicious on their own. An integral part of Japanese cuisine, you’ll find tsukemono throughout the country, but Kyoto’s are the most revered.
Wasabi: Fresh wasabi is nothing like what you’ve likely tasted at sushi restaurants outside of Japan.
Yakiniku: A Japanese take on Korean barbecue, featuring a variety of grilled beef.
Yakitori: Legendary grilled skewers of chicken.
Hopefully this will get you started!
There are far more to try as well – and the great news is that you can find almost all of these foods (and many others) in almost any Japanese city.
Where to find them?
Specialty shops and restaurants are a great option, but the best place to sample a variety of Japanese foods – all in one sitting — is at a Japanese izakaya.
What’s an izakaya, you ask?
Izakaya, Kaiseki & More
An izakaya is a Japanese “gastropub,” where people go to casually eat and drink among friends and coworkers.
You’ll find izakayas in pretty much every city, town and neighborhood of Japan.
They typically serve small tapas-style dishes, and are the perfect place to sample a wide variety of delicious Japanese foods.
And in addition to izakayas, here are some other dining experiences you shouldn’t miss while in Japan:
Depachika: Depachika means “department store basement,” and if you’re interested in food this is a must.
Depachika food halls are renowned for their sheer variety of mouth-watering foods and beautiful displays. You’ll find depachika throughout Japan, in almost any department store’s basement.
Kaiseki: To experience Japanese cuisine in its most refined form, splurge on a multi-course kaiseki meal. Kaiseki cuisine revolves around the seasons, and features seasonal (and typically local) ingredients.
If you’re staying in a high-end ryokan (Japanese inn), your stay will most likely include a kaiseki meal. Otherwise, kaiseki restaurants abound, particularly in cities like Kyoto and Tokyo.
Edomae Sushi: Modern sushi’s roots are based in Tokyo (Tokyo was formerly known as Edo), and Tokyo remains the world’s premier destination when it comes to top-quality sushi.
To savor sushi in its highest form, splurge on a high-end Edomae sushi experience. Thanks to the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro is still best known among non-Japanese, though sushi connoisseurs have other favorites!
Tachinomiya: Less for eating than for casual drinking (with the option of bar snacks), tachinomiya are “stand bars.” These casual bars can be found throughout Japan, and are a great place to strike up a conversation with locals over reasonably-priced drinks.
Tsukiji Market: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is a must-visit for foodies, photographers, and market lovers.
Non-Japanese food: Japan is home to some of the world’s best French, Italian and Chinese restaurants (not to mention excellent Thai, Korean and Indian restaurants).
While most travelers prefer to focus on Japanese food while in Japan (and rightly so), it’s worth taking a break and seeking out a top-notch non-Japanese meal, particularly in cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto.
And Finally… Foods To Avoid?
You’ll probably have more fun (not to mention memorable experiences!) if you keep an “open palate.”
But here are some foods that many non-Japanese (and even some Japanese) tend to avoid:
Natto: Perhaps Japan’s most “infamous” food among non-Japanese, natto is made from fermented soybeans, and is notorious for its pungent smell and sticky texture.
Chicken sashimi & horse sashimi: In a country as clean as Japan, both of these are generally considered safe to eat – not to mention delicious. However, despite their domestic popularity, many non-Japanese steer clear of them.
Horumon: This offal-based cuisine is very popular in Japan, and is considered great “drinking” food. While it may be perfect for Anthony Bourdain-esque eaters, it’s not always a hit with non-Japanese.
Fugu: Fugu is poisonous pufferfish (sometimes called blowfish), and can be deadly. Even though it’s strictly controlled and generally considered safe “enough” at established fugu restaurants, a handful of people still die every year from consuming it.
Shirako: Shirako (cod milt, i.e., sperm sacs) is a delicacy in Japan, and a favorite of nihonshu (sake) enthusiasts and adventurous diners.
Not every food we wanted to include made the final list, but if you think we’ve missed anything essential please let us know! I hope our recommendations help you navigate the incredible world of Japanese cuisine.