Trying all the delicious Japanese food is a highlight of any trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. There are so many different local and regional specialities that there is always something new to taste and discover. So here’s my list of the best Japanese food to have on your next visit!
An Osaka speciality, these delicious wheat-flour balls are typically filled with octopus and fried on a special moulded grill. They are then seasoned with katsuobushi (fish flakes) and mayo and are eaten piping hot. This is one of the most famous Japanese street food snacks and there are often massive queues at popular stands.
Where to try: Dotonbori, Osaka
Gyoza are one of the things most people will be familiar with on this list. The dumplings originated in China but have become popular in Japan since World War 2. There are many different types of gyoza in the West but in Japan, most gyoza will be filled with pork. They can come fried or boiled and dipping them into soy or chili sauce is a must!
Where to try: City of Utsunomiya is famous for its Gyoza. Alternatively, there are plenty of great spots in Tokyo.
The delicious noodle soup is one of the staples of Japanese cuisine. There are loads of variations using different soup bases, noodles and toppings. Ramen is cheap, tasty and there are even museums dedicated to it! Instant ramen is a popular snack and can be bought from vending machines! It’s ideal for those travelling in Japan on a budget!
Where to try: Nagi Golden Gai is a hidden upstairs joint in the super cool Golden Gai area. The ramen here is INCREDIBLE.
These sweet fish-shaped snacks are usually filled with red bean paste and are common around the country. You can find pre-packaged ones in convenience stores and train stations but I definitely recommend grabbing a warm, freshly made one from a street stall!
Where to try: Yanagiya in Tokyo is famous for its taiyaki and has been around for 100 years!
One of my favourite foods in Japan! Okonomiyaki is a kind of cross between a savoury pancake and an omelette that is very popular in Osaka, Hiroshima and the surrounding areas. There are different styles of okonomiyaki and they can come in many varieties with meat, fish or even vegetarian options. Ingredients are mixed into a batter, cooked and then served on a special hot plate in front of you. Some restaurants even let you make okonomiyaki from scratch!
Where to try: Dotonbori in Osaka has many restaurants serving okonomiyaki while Okonomi-mura in Hiroshima is a self-proclaimed temple to the dish. It has dozens of restaurants across three floors all serving the delicious pancakes! Take your pick, sit down and watch the food being prepared right in front of you.
Katsu kare is another popular dish consisting of curry sauce, rice and a tonkatsu (deep fried pork). It’s one of the common variations of kare (Japanese curry) and is popular with many Japanese, including businessmen who often enjoy it as a post-work meal. There are dedicated kare restaurants and some even let you choose your meat, level of spice as well as toppings and side dishes. Best of all, it’s pretty cheap and is a great option for budget travellers!
Where to try: Coco Ichibanya might be a chain but does a pretty good curry and allows you to customise ingredients, amount of rice, spicyness and so on. For a more authentic experience, try one of many kare joints dotted around Japan!
This is what you’ve come all the way to Japan for! The promise of tasty sushi at every corner, freshly prepared and practically melting in your mouth. Well, you definitely won’t be disappointed! Japan’s most famous export is just as good as you imagined. Shops serving sushi will range from the familiar-to-Westerners conveyor belt joints to small, traditional shops to high-end restaurants. Prices will also vary from cheap (£1/$1.20 a plate) to meals costing hundreds!
Where to try: Anywhere! From cheap and cheerful convenience store sushi to shopping mall food courts to Michelin-star restaurants, I recommend trying as much as possible in as many places as possible!
Yakitori is one of my favourite snacks! The grilled chicken skewers are served in izakaya pubs, restaurants and street food stalls and are great to enjoy with a cold beer. Pretty much every part of a chicken can be used in yakitori and there are also non-chicken options including beef and vegetarian varieties.
Where to try: Torikizoku, a budget pub chain found around the country, is popular and cheap with prices for all dishes and drinks set at ¥280 (£2/$2.50).
Mochi are soft and chewy rice cakes that come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavours. They have many different fillings, are colourful and very very tasty! Dango is a type of mochi that’s sold on wooden skewers and covered in delicious sauces and seasonings.
Where to try: You can usually find Mochi in department stores, markets and specialty stores. I loved the variety on offer in Kyoto’s Nishiki Market.
Senbei are Japanese rice crackers and are a great snack, often served hot at street stalls around the country. They are crunchy and are usually baked or grilled and also come in many different sizes and flavours. They can be savoury, like the popular soy and pepper flavours or sweet with apple and plum versions available. They are usually inexpensive and perfect for a quick bite between meals!
Where to try: My favourite was a small stall in the small post town of Magome on the Nakasendo Trail where the senbei were freshly handmade by the owner at the back of her shop.
Japanese LOVE their fried chicken (there is even a Christmas tradition to have a special KFC meal) so it’s no wonder that karaage is one of the most popular foods here. You can try it in specialist restaurants or as a snack in an izakaya alongside a beer. Make sure to dip the chicken in the delicious mayo that usually accompanies the dish.
Where to try: Izakayas are a great place to order a plate of karaage while enjoying a cold beer.
Kaisen-don (sashimi rice bowl)
These steamed rice bowls are topped with fresh raw meat or fish slices and sometimes served as a teishoku set with green tea and various side dishes and miso soup. I was lucky enough to try a kaisen-don at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. The tuna was caught only a few hours before and practically melted in my mouth. It wasn’t cheap but was unlike any sashimi I’ve ever had!
Where to try: Arrive early to the Tsukiji Fish Market and enjoy a kaisen-don for breakfast or wait until after touring the market itself.
Melon Pan Ice Cream
Melon Pan was probably the thing I ate the most in Japan – it was my go-to breakfast, lunch and post-dinner snack. The delicious sweet bun is sold in all convenience stores and even at street stalls and is super cheap yet filling. While it’s great on its own, cutting one in half and filling it with ice cream is basically the best thing ever.
Where to try: I got mine from a van on Dotonbori, Osaka with a massive queue waiting for their sweet treats.
Gohei Mochi is a rice cake that is grilled and skewered on a wooden stick before being slathered with a delicious paste, giving it its unique flavour. I tried it on my hike between Magome and Tsumago on the Nakasendo Trail and it was so good, I had to go for seconds! This snack is popular in the southern Nagano region of Japan and is not easily available across the rest of the country.
Where to try: Yuya or Yamagiri Shokudo offer delicious gohei mochi in the ancient post town of Tsumago.
Kobe beef is as premium as it can get. The term refers to meat from Tajima-gyu breed of cattle in the Hyogo Prefecture and it has to go tick a LOT of boxes to receive the prestigious classification. The cows are said to be treated to massages, relaxing music and even given beer to create the right environment for the cows. As you can imagine, this makes it pretty expensive – but so very worth it.
Where to try: If you are in the area, head to Kobe itself for the real thing. There are a number of restaurants and stalls selling 100% Kobe beef with queues for popular places reaching epic proportions.
Have you had any of these delicious Japanese dishes? Have I missed any out? Let me know!