Skip to content

10 Best Traditional Japanese Food Dishes To Try

Traditional Japanese food, renowned for its delicate balance of flavours, artful presentation, and deep cultural roots, reflects the essence of Japan’s rich culinary heritage.

Japan’s food culture is famous worldwide and for good reason. After spending several months in Japan I can say that these 10 traditional Japanese food dishes are some of the best food you can find anywhere in the world.


Traditional Japanese Food

With a focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients, as well as techniques passed down through generations, traditional Japanese food not only delights the palate but also serves as a testament to the country’s culinary mastery and cultural identity.

This is my guide to the best traditional Japanese food dishes to try.


1. Sushi

sushi-Sapporo traditional Japanese dishes

This is a no-brainer for me as far as traditional Japanese food goes. Funnily enough, I used to hate sushi when I was younger and yet now as I got older it has become my favourite.

If you don’t eat seafood then this will 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.

squid-sushi Japanese food
Baby squid sushi may look not so good but tastes ok.
salmon-roe-sushi Japanese food
Fish eggs are very salty and have an acquired taste.

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.

sushi-train
Conveyor belt restaurant for sushi. It’s great fun with friends.

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.

sashimi-tokyo Japanese food.
A fresh bowl of sashimi at a fish market.

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

ramen-hokkaido traditional Japanese dishes
Sapporo ramen.

Along with sushi ramen is another dish that you will find absolutely everywhere, and is one of the most popular foods in Japan.

It’s a staple in many people’s diets 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 ramen specialities, like what the soup broth is based on and the noodles used. Fukuoka is famous for its pork-based ramen.

Sapporo ramen like the one mentioned is famous for adding miso.

All ramen is based around the broth (which is what makes the ramen so good), then noodles, meat, and the other toppings.

One fun part of eating ramen in Japan is that it’s 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.

japan-ramen Japanese food
Use the large wooden spoon to get the tasty broth.
ramen-tokyo-2

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 in the beginning, but slowly got the hang of it. I can recommend this book on making your ramen at home, it’s served me well: Ramen at Home: The Easy Japanese Cookbook.


3. Okonomiyaki

okonomiyaki-hiroshima Japanese food
The tasty Japanese food of okonomiyaki.

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.

hiroshima-okonomiyaki
Hiroshima okonomiyaki.
okonomiyaki-osaka Japanese food.
The finished okonomiyaki.

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, as my friend is doing in the photo below.

okonomiyaki-tokyo

Traditional Japanese dishes… yep okonomiyaki has that down!


4. Udon Noodle Dishes

udon-osaka Japanese food
Udon noodles dish in Osaka.

Udon noodles are a 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 Japanese food, different areas of the country have their speciality. One such place is Shikoku where you can try some of the best udon noodles.

In Matsuyama City on Shikoku, you can find many restaurants serving them.

udon-shikoku Japanese food
Udon in Shikoku is accompanied by some vegetable and shrimp tempura.

5. Yakiniku (Japanese Barbecue)

japanese-bbq Japanese food
It’s fun barbecuing for yourself.

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 it 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.

japanese-okonomiyaki
japanese-bbq-1
Barbecuing the meat in the middle of the table.

6. Yakitori

yakitori-japan

Yakitori is so simple and yet so good. It’s marinated pieces of meat on a stick barbecued. You can try different types of meat normally from simple chicken pieces to hearts and more.

Everyone has their favourite and it’s a very popular bar snack in Japan.

There are 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 too 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

dsc02348_14475973005_o

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.

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

takoyaki-osaka
Takoyaki balls.

Another Japanese soul food that is most famous in the city of Osaka (Osaka is known as the “Nation’s Kitchen”) is takoyaki.

It is chunks of octopus tentacles cooked up in a doughy ball that is fried. Different places put their flavouring touches on 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.

takoyaki-japan

Look for the colourful octopus signs and you will find your takoyaki fix.

takoyaki
Takoyaki snack stand in Osaka.

9. Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is a popular Japanese food that is a hot pot dish typically consisting of thinly sliced beef, tofu, vegetables (such as green onions, mushrooms, and napa cabbage), and other ingredients cooked or simmered in a sweet and savoury soy-based broth.

The ingredients are usually cooked at the table and you can pick and cook your preferred items in the simmering broth. It’s a fun way to eat, especially with friends.

This was one of my favourite ways of eating Japanese food.

The sukiyaki broth is made with soy sauce, sugar, sake (Japanese rice wine), and mirin (sweet rice wine). The dish is often cooked in a shallow iron pot, and the ingredients are gradually added and cooked in the broth, developing rich flavours.

Once the ingredients are cooked, they are often dipped in raw beaten eggs before being eaten. The eggs add a creamy texture to the dish and enhance its overall taste.

Hot pot restaurant in Japan.

Sukiyaki is a communal meal, as people gather around the hot pot, cook their food, and enjoy it together. It is commonly enjoyed during colder seasons in Japan, providing warmth and comfort.

There are regional variations in the preparation of sukiyaki, just like other Japanese food dishes, and individual preferences can also influence the ingredients used.

There is also another Japanese hot pot dish called shabu shabu with the main differences from sukiyaki being that raw egg is not used as a dipping sauce and the meat is only slightly cooked in the pot.

The broth is normally a bit more savoury and milder as well and you generally put the food pieces one at a time and eat them individually.

Both sukiyaki and shabu shabu are great traditional Japanese food dishes to try.

I enjoyed sukiyaki more, but that’s just personal taste.


10. Natto

I’m putting this one at the end as it’s a very much love-it-or-hate-it dish.

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. It is known for its distinctive strong flavour, unique texture, and strong aroma. Natto is a staple in Japanese cuisine and is often eaten as a breakfast food or as a topping for rice.

Natto is made by fermenting soybeans with the help of a specific strain of bacteria called Bacillus subtilis var. natto (sounds yucky, I know). This fermentation process gives natto its characteristic slimy and sticky texture.

It has a distinct and acquired taste. It can be described as nutty, savoury, and umami. The flavour can vary slightly depending on the specific fermentation process used.

The great news is that Natto is a very nutritious food, rich in protein, fibre, vitamins, and minerals. It is also a good source of probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that can contribute to digestive health.

Natto is commonly served over rice, and it is often accompanied by condiments such as soy sauce, mustard, or green onions. Some people also enjoy natto mixed with raw egg. It can be part of a variety of dishes, including sushi rolls and salads.

While natto is beloved by many in Japan, its strong flavour and sticky texture can be an acquired taste. Some people find the smell and texture off-putting, but others appreciate its unique characteristics and health benefits.

If you’re curious about trying natto, it’s worth approaching it with an open mind, as it is a distinctive and culturally significant food in Japanese cuisine.

Love it or hate it you should try it at least once in life to see.

I loved it!


Extra Japanese Food Tips!

Traditional Sweets

Sometimes sweets in Japan look so cute that you just don’t want to eat them.

japanese-sweets
Too cute to eat? Nah, it’s too tasty!

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.

Be sure to keep an eye out for ‘wagashi‘ which have a long history in Japan and are crafted with great attention to detail. They come in various shapes, colours, and flavours, and they are typically made from ingredients such as rice, beans, and sugar. They are often served with green tea.

Wagashi are commonly served during the Japanese tea ceremony, where the balance of flavours and the visual appeal of the sweets are carefully considered.

One of the more well-known wagashi varieties is taiyaki which is a waffle in the shape of a fish with sweet bean paste inside, or other fillings like custard, depending on which one you get. It’s simple but delicious and can be found everywhere.

Some of the weird Japanese ice cream flavours won’t be to everyone’s 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 their high-quality milk from their cows and have some of the best ice creams to try.

If you go to Japan hopefully you have a sweet tooth!

ice-cream-hokkaido
Hokkaido cream desserts are some of the best.

There are many other traditional Japanese sweets to try so ask around and keep an eye out.


Speciality Food

fried-chicken-beppu
Fried chicken in Beppu is the best.

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, let’s just say that the best fried chicken I ever had was 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.

Ask in the hotel/hostel/apartment that you are staying in what they recommend to try that’s special to the area.

Take a wander in the local markets and see what they have, and you can normally try small samples for free.

fish-market-kyoto Japanese food
Seafood stall in Kyoto market.

Being Vegetarian in Japan

Some vegetarians are worried that as the Japanese love eating fish and meat, they may have trouble as a vegetarian in Japan. You will indeed be missing out on some “famous” Japanese food dishes but it certainly won’t be a problem.

I didn’t eat fish and meat all the time. For example, when staying at my friend’s family home in the Japanese Alps I was eating a lot of vegetable tempura.

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 that arises when it comes to eating, with 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:

Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions.


Traditional Japanese Dishes

So this is just a quick glimpse into the culinary heaven that is traditional Japanese food. Maybe you know all this already or are now keen to try some for the first time.

Japanese cuisine seamlessly blends tradition with innovation. From the simplicity of sushi to the complexity of kaiseki, each dish tells a story of meticulous craftsmanship and a harmonious connection to the land and sea.

Happy eating!


Share this article about traditional Japanese food:

28 thoughts on “10 Best Traditional Japanese Food Dishes To Try”

  1. The post is amazing admin. i have to say your writing skills are very nice and also inspirational. I will surely share this post. cheers !!
    from: New Islamic naat

  2. any plans to visit Pakistan 😀
    anyways thanks for sharing such a wonderful resource Jonny,next time you visit there, do try Naruto, Nigiris and Tatakis

  3. I have gluten sensitivity, I missed out on a lot of delicious foods in Japan because of it. But we are going again in April and I love seafood so I will survive, it’s just the sweets I will miss out on. There is always ice cream!

  4. My name is Mary Duncan —my Husband was the Duncan —William Austin Duncan —parents grew up in Kansas and Missouri —Spent two years in Japan at Camp Zama —He was in the Army —served 30 years —his parents were also stationed in Kyoto right after the end of the War —

  5. Pingback: 10 Must Read Books About Japan (From Culture To The Modern)

  6. Pingback: Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima (The Best of Japanese Soul Food)

  7. Pingback: What To Do In Osaka Japan (The Best Things For 2019)

  8. Pingback: Tokyo vs Osaka (For Travel or Living In 2021)

  9. Pingback: Documentaries About Japan (10 Best To Watch)

  10. Pingback: 2 Weeks Japan Itinerary (Plus More Japan Advice)

  11. Pingback: Living in Japan as A Foreigner (The Good, The Bad, & The WTF)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares