From deeply marbled Kobe Beef, reputedly the best beef in the world, to raw crabs legs, Japanese cuisine took me a little by surprise. During a week-long press trip, I was taken to numerous high-end restaurants, many of which specialised in a particular Japanese cuisine. These included a crab restaurant, a chicken restaurant and an eel restaurant, each serving umpteen ways to prepare that particular meat. A friend who has lived in Japan for the last five year told me that in her experience, the more exclusive a restaurant is, the weirder the food is. Chicken sushi? No! Really? That’s just wrong. And my taste buds confirmed this.
Yet Japanese food can be fabulous! It is also very varied. I’m sorry to say much of what I was given, for me at least, wasn’t great and occasionally it was darn right disgusting. It was often the texture of the food as much as the flavour that I struggled with — a chewy eel’s liver floating in a clear broth springs to mind. And while raw crab’s brain, I could just about stomach, it wasn’t a pleasurable experience. The raw crab’s legs, however, were a step too far. Never again!
I felt terrible. My hosts were taking me to all the best restaurants so that I could experience their finest cuisines but most of it I really couldn’t stomach.
But then there were dishes that sent my mouth into raptures, including unagi (eel) and ebi furai (deep-fried shrimp). My favourite dish of all, however, wasn’t in one of the expensive restaurants or one of the most prized delicacies, it was a Japanese curry in a motorway service station cafe, much to the bewilderment of my hosts. And boy, was it good!
If it’s your first visit, a great way to discover the best Japanese food and what you do and don’t like is to join a guided food tour soon after you arrive. Food and drink themed tours are available in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Kanazawa. You might also want to check out my Travel Tips for first-time visitors to Japan.
Having heard so many other people rave about food in Japan, I knew I was missing out on something. To help unravel the mysteries of both traditional and modern Japanese food, I asked my fellow travellers what is the best and worst things they’d eaten in Japan? Interestingly, not many people came back with dishes they didn’t like.
Best savoury dishes in Japanese cuisine
by Alexander from Destinavo.com
Bonito is a type of fish, and a common choice in sushi restaurants along with tuna, salmon, shrimps, maki rolls, etc. It’s one of the meatier fishes, and it’s often served seared. Bonito is also served as sashimi (on its own), but I prefer the sushi (on a bed of rice) version with scallions and grated ginger or garlic. It’s available year-round and can be found in most sushi places in Japan.
I recommend Genki Sushi, a restaurant chain found throughout Japan, where you get two pieces for 108 yen.
One of the first things I ate when I arrived in Japan were these giant deep-fried shrimps in Nagoya. I thoroughly enjoyed them and was disappointed not to come across them again during my stay. The coating is a light, crispy Japanese bread crumb called panko also used on tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and the chicken cutlet below. The advantage of panko is that it doesn’t absorb as much oil when fried as its western counterpart making it a healthier option. In Nagoya, they are often served with an aka miso sauce, a dark red saltier miso made locally.
above image: Wikipedia Commons小太刀 [CC BY-SA 3.0]
by Sylvia from Wapiti Travel
Gyoza are the tasteful Japanese variant to the more widely known Chinese dumplings. The main difference between the two is that gyoza are both steamed and fried making them crisp on the bottom and tender on top. The traditional recipe includes pork, onion, cabbage, garlic, chives and ginger and you’ll find them all-around Japan. They’re most commonly served as an appetizer or a side dish and are to be enjoyed with soy sauce and sesame oil.
As the popularity of the dish grew, so did the creativity of the recipes. These days you find gyoza with shrimp, scallops as well as vegan varieties.
Why not pop along to a cooking class and try your hand at making gyoza yourself. We found a Japanese cooking class to be one of the highlights of our Japan trip.
Forget the specialist restaurant selling twenty different ways to serve chicken or crab, one of my favourite meals in Japan was at a simple motorway cafe. We had to select a dish from what looked like a vending machine, pop in our money and take the ticket that was printed out to the serving window next door and wait for our number to be called. The resulting curry with a panko breaded cutlet of chicken and rice was the best thing I had to eat all week. Absolutely delicious. It gets my vote as amongst the best Japanese food there is but there’s so much I’ve yet to taste.
Curry was brought to Japan in the Meji Period (1868-1912) via Europe and adapted to local tastes. The resulting Japanese curry is thicker, sweeter and milder than a typical Indian ecurry.
by Priya from Outside Suburbia
During our December trip to Japan, we stayed at one of the best Ryokans in Kyoto and enjoyed a traditional Kaiseki meal. Diners kneel on rice straw tatami mats and sample a series of small dishes made from seasonal ingredients. Cooked in the most regional way possible in order to best bring about the flavours of the changing seasons, this is one of the best meals to have in Japan no matter what season you visit.
by Shelley from Travel Stained
You can find Kobe beef around the world, but unless you’re paying at least $110 per pound for your meat, you’re likely just eating a lesser strain of Wagyu beef. That’s because all cattle bred in Japan is classified as Wagyu beef. To put it simply, all Kobe beef are Wagyu, but not all Wagyu can be called Kobe. It’s very specialized, and ONLY Tajima cattle bred and raised in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan can be certified as Kobe beef.
So what’s all the fuss about? Well, these cattle are known for a genetic predisposition to superfine marbling and a melt in your mouth quality. It’s something I can attest to. This meat is unlike any other beef I’ve tried, and worth trying at least once in your lifetime.
Undoubtedly, the best and most affordable place to try Kobe beef is at its source in Kobe, Japan. The area around Sannomiya Station is a literal utopia of beef restaurants. Steakland Kobe is firmly on the tourist radar for incredible value lunch and dinner sets, but try it at Ishidaya if you have a higher budget. Reservations are essential.
by Nicole from Travelgal Nicole
While in Osaka you must try Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake made with cabbage, meat and savory toppings. Its traditionally a snack food but it is plenty filling for dinner. The word Okonomi means how you like it and yaki means cooked so how you like it cooked – usually fried!
Okonomiyaki is best had in the Kansai district of Japan so Osaka or Kyoto would be a good choice.
by Sarah from Hotels and Hand Luggage
Ramen is one of the most popular dishes in Japan and can be found everywhere from street stalls to Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s a delicious noodle soup dish that was introduced to Japan from China and is a must-try on any Japan trip.
There are 4 main types of ramen dishes that are served, although there are hundreds of variations. The different types of bases for the ramen are Shio — salt-based ramen, Shoyo — soy sauce-based ramen, Miso — soybean paste flavoured ramen and Tonkotsu — pork-bone broth ramen.
The noodles used within the dish also vary. They are generally made from wheat with an elastic texture, but we also tried ramen using buckwheat and soba noodles. The other toppings added to ramen dishes are usually sliced pork, bamboo shoots, green onions, seaweed, slices of steamed fish cake and sometimes a boiled egg.
Ramen is usually served with chopsticks and a spoon and it’s also fine to drink the soup directly from the bowl.
Our favourite type of ramen was Tonkotsu and to give this pork-bone broth a try we recommend visiting Ichiran Ramen, a popular chain of restaurants in Japan. We tried two of the branches in Tokyo but there are also many other locations throughout the country.
by Lia from The Nomadic Panda Blog
Tako Tamago is a popular street food found in the regions of Osaka and Kyoto. If you are visiting Nishiki Market in Kyoto or Kurumon Ichiba Market in Osaka, you are bound to run into a stall selling these candied baby octopus on skewers. The inside of the octopus head is stuffed with a hard-boiled quail egg while the octopus is then “candied” by drenching it in a sweet barbeque-like sauce. Once you bite into the head, you’ll find the octopus slightly chewy and the egg inside rich and soft. Tako tamago is an oddly cute-looking Japanese street food you have to try.
by Sean from LivingOutLau.com
Takoyaki is a famous, very tasty, traditional Japanese food that can be found easily on the streets throughout Japan but it’s reputedly best in Osaka.
At first glance, takoyaki looks like a meatball but its texture is actually quite soft. It’s made of octopus, tempura scraps, spring onions, and pickled ginger and batter. They are all tossed together into a specially moulded pan. As the takoyaki are cooking they are regularly turned to form the round balls. Once cooked, they are smothered in a special savoury takoyaki sauce and sprinkled with finely sliced spring onions. Together they give a unique flavour that is unlike any other dish. The pickled ginger creates a weird imbalance with the otherwise savoury taste. Well, Japan is a place for weird things and takoyaki is definitely one of them.
by Lena from Nagoya Foodie
Tonkatsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet served all over Japan. It usually comes either as a tonkatsu teishoku with a side of sliced raw cabbage, a bowl of rice and some soup or as a Katsudon, tonkatsu on a bowl of rice. The tonkatsu is traditionally served with a dark sauce called tonkatsu sauce (creative right?).
Tonkatsu is incredibly delicious. The outside is crunchy and crispy from the deep-fried crust and the inside is juicy. The dish goes perfectly with the fresh cabbage and rice.
One variation of tonkatsu can be found in Nagoya, this dish is called miso katsu and the only difference is the use of a different sauce. The sauce in Nagoya is made from a dark miso called hatcho miso which is only produced in the region. It has a very strong flavour and is very popular with the locals but might be an acquired taste.
You can try the traditional tonkatsu as well as miso katsu in Nagoya at a restaurant called Misokatsu Yabaton, they serve a half-and-half dish (pictured below) which is perfect if you try Misokatsu for the first time.
by Erika from Erika’s Travelventures
Udon noodles were created in Japan when flour was first introduced from China thousands of years ago. It has been a popular Japanese comfort food ever since and can be found everywhere when travelling in Japan. The noodles are similar to ramen in that they are made with wheat, but udon noodles are thicker and more filling. Udon is enjoyed with fewer or with no toppings (called “kake-udon”) for this reason also, with the only flavouring being the soy sauce and mirin broth base.
Local favourite ways of eating udon include curry udon, in a curry broth, “kitsune” fox udon, with a sweet tofu pocket as a topping, “tanuki” raccoon udon with crispy tempura pieces, and “tsukimi” or moon-viewing udon which has a raw egg on it. Other popular toppings include tamaboko, or fish cake, thinly sliced green onions, and shichimi togarashi spices.
When visiting Japan, Marugame Seimen is the best chain store for udon. Their noodles are made fresh in-store, instead of coming from frozen packets like many other fast-food style udon joints. Their prices are low, with the standard “kake” udon starting at just 380 yen in Tokyo ($3.60 USD). For big appetites, you can “super-size” your udon meal by asking for a “dai”, large portion which is served in a wooden bucket instead of a bowl.
Grilled freshwater eel, known as unagi, is an expensive delicacy in Japan. Not only is it delicious it is said to give you stamina and is traditionally eaten on the ‘Day of the Ox’ during Japan’s hot summers giving you strength and vitality for the rest of the year. The eels are first grilled over hot charcoal, then steamed to remove excess fat, then seasoned with a slightly sweet sauce and grilled again to give a crispy skin. It is one of my favourite Japanese dishes. The sauce, which varies from restaurant to restaurant as is a closely guarded secret. I loved the way it gave the rice the unagi was served with a fabulous flavour as it seeped through.
Unagi restaurants will display an elongated う, the first character in the ‘unagi’ which rather resembles an eel.
Sadly, as I learned after I got back from Japan freshwater eel farming is unsustainable. Japanese eel is an endangered species and all three eel species used in unagi are struggling. Seafood Watch says eating eel should be avoided but it remains an extremely popular dish. I know, I’m sorry. I’m gutted too!
If you want to be able to easily make sustainable seafood choices download the Seafood Watch app.
by Kavita from Kavey Eats
Yuba is something I hadn’t heard of before I started researching Japanese cuisine ahead of our trip.
It’s the “skin” that forms on vats of soya milk as they are heated, very much like the skin that forms on thick custard. The skin is skilfully lifted off the soy milk as a thin sheet, and either served fresh and warm or hung out to dry. It’s most commonly sold in this semi-dehydrated form, to be reconstituted in hot stocks and soups.
It might not sound the tastiest of foods, but if you’re a fan of high quality, super fresh tofu, you will definitely enjoy trying this delicacy, particularly in its hot and fresh form.
There are fewer traditional yuba shops in Kyoto than there once were, but we came across a tiny specialist store while meandering through the narrow alleys of the Higashiyama district, on our way to the Yasaka-no-to Pagoda. We watched the shop keeper carefully check each of her many trays of warm soya milk, gently lifting the skin off when she deemed one to be ready.
Served with a dash of soy sauce, the still-warm yuba was soft, silky and chewy with a rich, creamy flavour.
Best desserts in Japanese cuisine
Crème Brûlée Crêpe
by Tina from Hangry by Nature
Okay, forget all of the other crepe vendors on Takeshita Street in Harajuku. If you’re after a delectable sweet treat, this under-the-radar crepe specialist (yes, I say specialist because their menu blew my tastebuds away) needs to be on your Tokyo food bucket list.
The crepe is super thin and spongey, filled with light, fluffy and sweet, sweet custard. The top has a crispy toasted candied coating that you just want to sink your face and body into.
Cremia Ice Cream
by Daniel from Blorg.com
When travelling around Japan, keep an eye out for Cremia Ice Cream! It’s a special type of “soft cream” with a rich and creamy taste. Cremia is made with a higher percentage of milk fat and fresh Hokkaido cream which gives it the extra rich and creamy taste.
Cremia is more expensive than your typical ice cream and can be found all over Japan for an average cost of 500 yen. Once you have it, you’ll be hooked on this delicious treat!
Matcha Ice Cream
I came across this delish sweet treat in Gujo Hachiman in Gifu prefecture, north of Nagoya. Next to the Sogi-Sui Shrine, where a natural spring is the source of the town’s water, we found a fabulous café serving the most beautifully presented matcha (green tea) ice cream – layers of roasted tea jelly, green tea pudding, rich matcha ice cream, red bean paste and sticky rice flour dumplings topped off with thick cream. And it was superb! Matcha Ice Cream is popular throughout Japan but I bet you won’t find any that looks as good as this.
by Chelsea from The Portable Wife
If you’re sampling Japanese street food, you’ve probably seen taiyaki. This fish-shaped pastry is a beloved sweet treat, and one of the best things I ate during my week in Tokyo.
The outer layer is baked (or fried) with a light, slightly sweet batter reminiscent of a waffle. It’s traditionally filled with azuki bean paste, which has a sweet flavor and smooth texture. However, modern day taiyaki are filled with everything from pumpkin pie to chocolate!
Taiyaki was created in a Tokyo cafe over 100 years ago. Today, you’ll find taiyaki stalls at festivals and in major cities across Japan. If you want to sample a wide range of fillings, head to Tokyo’s Akihabara neighbourhood or the Minami area of Osaka.
The worst things to eat in Japan
by Augusta from Mini Me Explorer
Fugu is known to be the ultimate Japanese delicacy. It’s suitably over-expensive and potentially lethal. I am talking about pufferfish, which I tasted raw, as sashimi. Only licensed restaurants may serve fugu as some parts of its body contain a very poisonous toxin and the chef who prepares it needs to have had years of training and passed a very strict exam. I had fugu in the Solamachi food court under the Tokyo Skytree. The fish is cut into very thin slices that look translucent and each slice is arranged like a petal. What does it taste like? Well, bland to say the least. Tasteless and with a texture similar to chewing-gum.
Kimosui is a clear soup made with boiled eel livers and a broth of dashi (soup stock), mirin 9rice wine condiment), soy sauce, and Japanese mitsuba (Japanese parsley).
I tried kimosui in a restaurant specialising in eel served as an accompaniment to a delicious bowl of unagi no kabayaki with rice. The soup, however, was not so good and the whole liver floating in the broth was horribly rubbery and tasted revolting. Give me cow’s liver with bacon or even steak and kidney pie but never give me eel’s liver again, please!
by Ciara from A View Outside
While most Japanese food is considered incredibly delicious, there is one Japanese dish which tends to turn off most tourists. And that dish is Natto.
Natto is a traditional Japanese food made of soybeans which have been fermented in Bacillus subtilis. It is most commonly eaten on top of rice as part of a traditional Japanese breakfast or as a quick snack in between meals. Despite natto being highly nutritious, it is the smell and texture which makes it so unappealing. Once you open the packet, you will be faced with the pungent smell of old socks and then as you lift some of the soybeans with your chopsticks, you will notice the slimy, gooey texture too. The taste of natto is an acquired one, however, it is a Japanese food you really should try when you visit Japan. Who knows, you might even like it!
Don’t forget your travel insurance!
I never travel without insurance. It’s just not worth the risk. From losing your luggage to a medical emergency, if something unexpected goes wrong it can cost you hundreds even thousands.
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