Food writer Andy Hayler writes, “Personally I think the food in Japan is of an extraordinarily high level. The focus on ingredient quality there is second to none, and the technical skills of the chefs are extremely high.”
From unique textures and flavor combinations to themed restaurants, Japan does have a phenomenal food scene. Many Michelin stars have been earned in Japan in the past few years, and Tokyo in particular has become a top destination for gastric delights.
However, I didn’t always feel like I could dive in head first. Although Japan makes everything pretty dang easy, I struggled with food.
At times it felt inaccessible. A lot of appealing restaurants didn’t have English menus, and come dinner time, popular restaurants were often booked up, but that didn’t stop us. By the end of our trip, we had learned to eat dinner early, make reservations when we could, and grab seats- no matter how cramped- when they were open.
Here are 16 things I ate and drank throughout Japan that my tastebuds truly enjoyed:
This was one of my favorite food experience in Japan. I had my first Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima where cabbage, eggs, cheese, meats (shrimp being my preference), thick sauce, and green onions are layered on top of a bed of noodles.
Not only is this hearty soul food filling and delicious, it’s dinner AND a show; you can watch the cooks deftly whip it up on cooktop. If you’re seated along the cooktop, they’ll slide it over to you, and it’ll stay warm while you eat! I couldn’t get enough of this Japanese pizza/pancake.
These little veggie and meat filled critters are the perfect appetizer. They’re originally a Chinese dish, but they’re a popular menu item in Japan. Dip ’em in a bit of soy sauce, and voilà!
Warning: it tastes like soda! This fun cocktail has a low alcohol content (shōchū based), and it comes in every flavor of the rainbow: lemon, lime grapefruit, lychee, orange, you name it! The canned version is also popular in grocery and convenience stores.
Who doesn’t love these giant noodles? During my visit in the winter, I had several warm soups with Udon, while colder Udon soups would be more of a summer time thing. I also ate these versatile noodles cooked in a peppery sauce (below).
Sushi had to be on this list, right? The seafood used in sushi is fresh and high-quality, and each little piece is a careful work of art from a skilled craftsman. I love that the wasabi comes already rolled inside, so you’ll get a punch in the nasal passages weather you like it or not.
Anything can taste good if it’s battered, deep fried, and dipped in salt! The avocado tempura below was one of my favorite tempura-d items.
I became obsessed with Japanese Fuki Plum Wine in college, so I was ecstatic to find plum wine on almost every menu. Here it’s served with ice, and they may ask you if you want it diluted with warm or cold water. I found it utterly sweet and delicious as is.
These fish-shaped cakes are a great street find. Made with pancake batter and filled with red bean paste and custard, these babies are flipped back and fourth until golden brown. They’re the sweetest fish I’ve ever eaten!
This potent alcoholic drink made from fermented rice is a social lubricant and a staple of Japanese cuisine. There are many brands, and it’s hard to know which ones are served cold vs. hot, so ask the server what their recommendation is! I worked at a Japanese restaurant where sake bombs were all the rage… butttt they aren’t really a thing in Japan.
These flavorful chicken skewers come straight off the grill, and they’re to die for. They’re generally ordered by the stick, though you may have to order quite a few to make it a meal. My favorites were bacon wrapped leek, chicken and green pepper, and the chicken wings. After you’ve had a few, you’ll want to try them all.
Skewers go great with beer…
Asahi beer is the pride and joy of Japan. It’s also “Super Dry”… though I couldn’t quite figure out what that meant. Saporro and Kirin beer are also Japanese favorites.
If this fish were any fresher, it would be alive. We tried this sashimi bowl right outside the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo at a packed food stall. It was incredible how the textures and tastes varied in this mix of sliced, raw fish: it included salmon, tuna, and roe (fish eggs, or the orange balls). The meal was complete with miso soup and tea!
AKA Japanese BBQ! Japan is known for their high standards for beef, so even though I generally don’t eat beef, I sampled it while in Japan. (Is it true that soothing music is played to calm cattle in Japan?) We grilled the little pieces ourselves, dipped them in the sweet sauce, and it tasted absolutely amazing… so what if it’s copy-cat of Korean BBQ?
These ubiquitous balls with gooey insides have bits of octopus, pickled ginger, and green onion, and they’re topped with with a mayo sauce and katsuobushi. They’re fun to eat, but it’s even more fun to watch street vendors craft these balls with just 2 pointy sticks. I regularly find them on the streets of Bangkok, too.
There’s nothing like a giant, brothy bowl of noodles after sightseeing in the cold. From Donburi to Ramen, there are hundreds of noodle bowl combos that will have you slurping…. a very appropriate and welcomed sound. The soup below has udon, egg, and shrimp tempura.
I’ve saved my personal favorite for last. I have long been obsessed with the flavor of matcha even before my trip to Japan. Many find it hard to love, but I was blown away by the unique, full-bodied matcha flavors that dominate Japan. Items made with matcha come in every size and shape including ice cream, kit-kats, lattes, noodles, cakes, and whatever else you can dream up.
But of course, the true matcha experience comes from drinking matcha, a certain type of green tea. I went to traditional tea ceremony at En in Kyoto where I learned about the tools for preparing matcha and how to serve and drink matcha in a traditional tea ceremony. Matcha tea is also a super food!
Not only does Japan make excellent Japanese food, but have them make pizza, falafel, pastries, etc, and they can knock that out of the water, too. Two weeks is barely enough time to skim the surface of Japan’s enigmatic food world, nor is it enough time to become impressive with chopsticks.
Just remember to slurp when it’s delicious, and mind your yaki’s, taki’s, and tori’s.