Eating traditional and popular Japanese food is one of the highlights of Japan travel. I have written many articles about why Japan is such a great country to travel in and things you can do there. One of my favourite things to write about is the traditional Japanese food.
After living and exploring Japan for several months I have tried a lot and eaten many local specialities. Here’s a run down on some of the main food I ate that you should definitely try, if not in Japan, then maybe somewhere near where you live.
I have included links to articles about the particular food mentioned and also links to Japanese cookbooks I recommend.
If you’re going to Japan think about getting a Japan rail pass (get one with that link), as it it will save you money on transport if you plan to move around a lot.
10 Traditional Japanese Food to Try
1. Sushi in Japan
This is a non-brainer and for me as far as the best Japanese food goes. Funnily enough I used to hate sushi when I was younger and yet now as I got older it became my favourite.
If you don’t eat seafood then this will obviously not interest you. But seafood is the best thing you can eat in Japan, in my opinion. It’s so fresh, and the Japanese know how to make sushi perfectly (obviously).
Even “bad” sushi in Japan beats most “good” sushi places I have tried in other countries.
It’s fun trying lots of things you may not have eaten before. Some can sound disgusting (fish sperm sacks) or look gross (fish sperm sacks)! While others will make your mouth water.
But it’s great because you may be surprised at what you end up liking. At the end of the day something like a good bluefin tuna will blow you away.
One of the best ways to eat sushi is to go to a conveyor belt restaurant. Different plates of sushi go around on a conveyor belt (no surprise given the name of the thing) and you take plates of sushi you want to try from it.
The plates are colour coded so you know how much each one costs. The trick if you’re on a budget is to stick to mostly the cheaper plates while treating yourself to just 2-3 middle to expensive ones.
At the end you stack all the plates you have eaten and it will be counted to show how much it costs. If you go with friends try and have a contest to see who can stack the most.
Head to a local fish market such as Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo to get some amazingly fresh fish sashimi.
I could go on and on about sushi but if you want to know a lot more then take a look at this good book to learn more about sushi: Sushi: The Beginner’s Guide
2. Ramen in Japan
Along with sushi ramen is another dish that you will find absolutely everywhere, and is one of the best Japanese foods. It’s a staple in many peoples diet and is very tasty if you go to a decent place, such as the ramen in the photo above found in Sapporo.
Different regions of Japan have their own ramen specialities, like what the soup broth is based on and the noodles used. Fukuoka is famous for their pork based ramen. Sapporo ramen like the one mentioned is famous for adding miso.
All ramens are based around the broth (which is what makes the ramen so good), then the noodles, and the meat and other toppings.
One fun part of eating ramen in Japan is that it’s actually polite to slurp your noodles. Then pick up the bowl at the end to drink down the remainder of the broth.
When you have finished say: oishi! It means “tasty” in Japanese and is a compliment to the ramen cook.
No matter what you will likely be trying ramen when in Japan. It’s almost impossible not to.
I have tried making ramen myself but found the broth hard to do. But I can recommend this book on making your own ramen at home, it’s served me well: Ramen at Home: The Easy Japanese Cookbook
3. Okonomiyaki in Japan
Okonomiyaki can best be described as Japanese soul food. Very filling, tasty, and not so expensive.
Although found all over, Okonomiyaki is best tried in the cities of Osaka or Hiroshima as they are the most well known for their variation and ways of making it.
I particularly enjoyed eating okonomiyaki in Hiroshima at a well known establishment where there are several floors all with different okonomiyaki eateries.
The general way to cook it is to fry up some cabbage or noodles, or both, then cover in meat toppings of your choice, with pork being the best. Some will also have fried egg pancake style on the top and bottom, such as in Hiroshima.
This is also a great vegetarian choice as you can ask for no meat.
You can also have fun in some restaurants where you can make your own okonomiyaki. You are given the ingredients and have a hot frying surface in the middle of the table that you cook it on, such as my friend doing in the photo below.
4. Udon Noodles
Udon noodles are of the very thick and slippery variety of noodles that fill you up easily. They are generally not that expensive either, which is great.
A popular way to eat them is to have them as “dipping” noodles. You will have the noodles in a separate bowl accompanied by another bowl generally consisting of some type of soup. You then pick up the noodles with your chopsticks and dip them in the soup before eating them.
Like most food in Japan particular areas have their own speciality. One such place is the island of Shikoku where you can try some of the best udon noodles around.
5. Japanese Barbecue in Japan (Yakiniku)
It has to be stated again that eating in Japan can be a fun experience, never mind how tasty all the food is.
The Japanese barbecue is built into the centre of a table and you are given different types of meat and vegetables that you cook yourself.
Not only is is fun and very good with company, but it will allow you to try a lot of different types of meat. Wash it all down with some good Japanese beer such as Sapporo, or some sake rice wine and you’re good to go.
6. Yakitori in Japan
Yakitori is so simple and yet so good. It’s basically marinated pieces of meat on a stick barbecued. You can try different types of meat normally from simple chicken pieces, up to hearts and more.
Everyone has their favourite.
It’s a very popular bar snack in Japan.
There’s plenty of small little bars that have yakitori cooking right on the bar itself. If you walk past a yakitori place the smell of the barbecued meat is often to hard to resist, and before you know it you have a beer in front of you and a plate full of yakitori to munch on.
The perfect bar food.
7. Tempura in Japan
Tempura is simply just deep fried meat, fish, or vegetables.
Sounds simple enough but somehow the Japanese have made an art out of it, in the sense that I haven’t had as good deep fried food anywhere else in the world.
Thankfully it’s also super delicious and goes great as a side dish with other food. For example tempura shrimp (ebi) in a bowl of noodle soup.
In fact tempura shrimp is one of my Japanese food addictions. A great place to try it is normally at a local fish market.
This is also a great Japanese food vegetarian option.
8. Takoyaki in Japan
Another Japanese soul food that is most famous in the city of Osaka (that city does have some of the best soul food).
They are chunks of octopus tentacles cooked up in a doughy ball that is fried. Different places put their own flavouring touches to it.
These can be found all over Japan and are probably, along with fried squid, the most well known Japanese snack. Like a lot of food they go great with a beer and are very common in bar areas for the drinking people to munch on.
Look for the colourful octopus signs and you will find your takoyaki fix.
9. Sweets in Japan
Sometimes sweets in Japan look so cute that you just don’t want to eat them.
But there are loads to try and it’s part of the Japanese food fun to sample as many as you can. Some you will not be so keen on while others will make you drool for more.
One of the more well known ones is a waffle in the shape of a fish with sweet red bean paste inside. Even sweets in the small supermarkets like 7/11 are good to try.
Some of the weird Japanese ice cream flavours won’t be to everyones liking and can be downright disgusting (fish and squid flavours come to mind), but certainly make for entertaining “treats”. It’s fun just to watch the expressions on your friends faces when they try them.
Regions like Hokkaido are known for its high quality milk from their cows and have some of the best ice cream to try.
If you go to Japan hopefully you have a sweet tooth!
10. Speciality Food in Japan
This post could go on forever if I start to include every single local speciality, so I’ll say that whatever region you happen to be in make sure to ask what food they are known for.
When in Beppu I asked what their speciality was and they said fried chicken. How different could fried chicken be from place to place? Well lets just say that the best fried chicken I ever had was indeed in Beppu.
That’s why one of the biggest pieces of advice when it comes to eating in Japan that I can give you, is to always find out the local specialities.
Just take a wander in the local markets and see what they have, and you can normally try small samples for free.
Ask in the hotel/hostel/apartment that you are staying in what they recommend to try that’s special to the area.
Being a Vegetarian in Japan
Some vegetarians are worried that as the Japanese love eating fish and meat that they may have trouble as a vegetarian in Japan.
It’s true that you will be missing out on some “famous” Japanese food dishes but it certainly won’t be a problem,
Even at sushi places you can generally get some sushi rolls with just vegetables in them. Or as mentioned in the article get some regular meat dishes but without the meat.
One problem arises when it comes to eating ramen especially, is that all the broths tend to be meat based. So you could ask for your ramen without meat, but the broth will still have been made from meat.
But generally you will be fine and can still have a great experience with Japanese food.
Indeed take a look at this cookbook that gives a rundown on Japanese vegetarian and vegan options:
Popular Japanese Food
So this is just a quick glimpse into the culinary heaven that is traditional Japanese food. Maybe you knew all this already or are now keen to try some for the first time.
I have grouped all of my articles on Japan into one easy to navigate page to help you. You can see my Japan guide here:
Japan is an expensive destination so be sure to check on travel insurance before going just in case. I use WorldNomads:
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