What to Eat in Japan: 18 Tasty Foods from Ramen to Taiyaki
With its focus on using fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients and an emphasis on health, Japanese cuisine is loved by people the world over. There’s a wide variety of dishes for every taste, from hotpot dishes full of vegetables to fried street food, but the fun goes beyond and Japanese cuisine draws not only on traditional dishes but on foods introduced to Japan over the centuries by other countries. Read on for a guide to some of the best advice on what to eat in Japan.
Deciding What to Eat in Japan is a Matter of (too Much!) Choice
Noodles: Ramen, soba, udon, somen
When thinking about what to eat in Japan, the possibilities are endless--even the noodles come in huge varieties. Ramen, soba, udon, and somen are the four main types of noodle dishes in Japan. Noodles were first introduced to Japan via China, and egg-based ramen noodles are still considered a food of Chinese origin. The other three noodles are considered to be more distinctly Japanese: soba are healthy noodles made with buckwheat flour, while udon and somen are white flour noodles—udon is thick and chewy while somen is long and thin. All are equally delicious!
Tempura is a dish of battered and deep-fried ingredients. In the eastern Kanto region around Tokyo, it’s made with vegetables and seafood and served with a dipping sauce, while in the western Kansai region around Osaka, tempura is primarily vegetable based and served with salt.
Kaiseki, the traditional haute cuisine of Japan, is a course meal of various dishes prepared around a seasonal theme. Every dish features a local ingredient served at the peak of its freshness. Of all the food to eat in Japan, the experience of a tasty and attractive kaiseki meal is a definite can’t-miss.
Shabu shabu is a type of hot pot cuisine where the ingredients are cooked tableside by swishing them lightly in broth. Popular ingredients include paper-thin sliced beef or pork as well as napa cabbage, onions, mushrooms, carrots, and tofu. The cooked ingredients are then dipped in either ponzu (a citrus-y soy sauce) or gomadare (sesame dressing).
Tonkatsu is a crispy pork cutlet that’s breaded in flakey panko breadcrumbs. It can be eaten in a teishoku set with thinly sliced raw cabbage and a side of rice, in a sandwich, or with curry.
Onigiri is a salted rice ball that’s quick and easy to eat, making it a common go-to when thinking about what to eat in Japan. Especially popular at lunchtime, onigiri fillings range from salted salmon flakes to pickled plum, kombu seaweed, and tuna with mayonnaise.
Probably the most popular Japanese cuisine around the world, this should be number one on the list of food to try in Japan. Sushi consists of vinegared sushi rice served in various styles. One of the most common types of sushi in Japan is nigiri sushi, a ball of sushi rice with a raw fish or seafood topping. Maki zushi (sushi roll) is probably the most familiar type of sushi to people outside of Japan, with rice and ingredients rolled up together in nori seaweed and cut into bite-sized pieces. Other types include temaki zushi (hand rolls), gunkan maki (battleship roll sushi), and oshi zushi (pressed sushi).
Teppanyaki is a modern style of Japanese cuisine where meat, seafood, and vegetables are prepared on an open iron cooktop. In many teppanyaki restaurants, highly skilled chefs cook the meal directly in front of guests, exhibiting their graceful culinary techniques with style and flair. Outside of Japan, teppanyaki is sometimes called “hibachi.”
Yakiniku may have been introduced to Japan via Korea, but this delicious barbeque tops the list of what to eat in Japan. It features various cuts of high-quality meat, cooked over a traditional charcoal grill or a flat teppan iron cooktop. It’s great for parties--don’t forget to order sake or beer.
Sometimes deciding what to eat in Japan is as simple as filling a bowl with rice and adding topping. Donburi, or Japanese rice bowl, is a convenient and filling one-dish meal from Japan. Popular varieties include katsu-don (fried pork or chicken cutlet cooked with onions and egg in a savory broth), gyuu-don (beef bowl), and tempura-don (rice in a donburi bowl topped with deep-fried tempura and sauce).
Sashimi is any kind of thinly sliced raw meat, including beef, chicken, and pork, but fish and seafood are the most common. Popular Japanese varieties include mackerel, bonito tuna, and yellowtail, while more daring varieties include torisashi (chicken sashimi) and even basashi (horse sashimi)! Especially that last one isn’t something you’d be able to eat anywhere else, so take the chance to chow down--and tell your friends how good it was--on your next visit.
If you like sumo wrestling, chanko nabe should definitely be on your list of food to try in Japan. It’s a type of hotpot dish, a hearty blend of different kinds of meat, seafood, and vegetables cooked together in one pot and eaten with a big bowl of rice--so incredibly filling that it’s actually the main dish in a good sumo diet.
Yakitori features different cuts of chicken grilled on skewers. This includes more familiar cuts of meat such as chicken breasts, thighs, and wings, as well as more adventurous—but no less delicious—items like chicken liver and chicken neck. The meat is usually seasoned with salt before grilling or dipped in tare sauce.
Okonomiyaki is an extremely popular street food that originated in the western region of Kansai that should make your list of what to eat in Japan. It’s a savory pancake grilled on an iron cooktop with ingredients like sliced pork belly, cabbage, and crunchy tempura crumbs. Okonomiyaki is served with a sweet and savory sauce, mayonnaise, bonito fish flakes, and powdered nori seaweed.
Another famous street food from the Kansai region, takoyaki are fried balls of heavenly dough with pieces of octopus in them. Like okonomiyaki, they are usually topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, fish flakes, and powdered nori.
Food to Eat in Japan Goes Beyond Savory: Try Something Sweet Too!
Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets that were originally eaten as small treats to enjoy with tea. This includes sweet bean paste-filled cakes, dumplings made with mochi rice, and jellied desserts. One taste of this time-honored goodness and you’ll never look back.
Sofuto kurimu is the Japanese name for soft-serve ice cream, which is a favorite dessert from Hokkaido all the way down to Okinawa. Flavors like matcha green tea and sesame are standard in most places, but you may also encounter oddities like wasabi, squid ink, and goya bitter melon. Whatever flavor you prefer, this is definitely a food to try in Japan on a hot summer day.
Taiyaki is a popular Japanese sweet that consists of a small red bean-filled cake shaped like a fish. The dessert gets its shape and name from the tai (red snapper) fish, which is a symbol of good fortune and celebration in Japan. Have one--and let fortune smile upon you.
What to Eat in Japan? Try Everything, of Course!
With a wide variety of dishes ranging from healthy to delectable, there’s no shortage of choices about what to eat in Japan--the country has something for everyone. Be sure not to miss these popular foods on your next visit. Itadakimasu!