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Eat Like A Japanese – 11 Dishes You Must Try When Going To Japan

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It is official, Japan is one of the best culinary countries in the world! In December 2013 Washoku, the traditional cuisine of Japan was recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage asset by UNESCO. Tokyo is thereby the unofficial culinary capital of the world, beating all other cities in terms of the number of Michelin star restaurants (currently 14 with top star rating). It can, however, be difficult to find out what to eat in Japan as it so much to choose from.

When we started planning our trip to Japan, my first thought when it came to food was sushi, but Japanese food is so much more than sushi! Japanese cuisine is one of the world`s most diverse, with fresh vegetables, all sorts of meats, and seafood, both raw, cooked, and grilled. Enjoying this country`s delicious cuisine is a big reason for visiting Japan!

Japan is a small country compared to many other countries in the world, but every region and island has its own specialty when it comes to food. It is said that Japan has the highest number of restaurants per inhabitants of any country. One reason for this is that few Japanese take their guests home for dinner, instead, they prefer to meet out at restaurants. Most restaurants in Japan are specialty restaurants, specializing in one dish or one type of cuisine. That way they become very good at it! Smart huh? 🙂

11 Japanese Food Dishes You Must Try

1. Ramen

You will find Ramen (ラーメン) basically all over Japan, on almost every street corner. It is a wheat noodle soup dish that was originally imported from China.

It is one of the most popular and inexpensive dishes in Japan. Ramen restaurants, or ramen-ya, can be found everywhere in Japan, and they serve countless regional variations of this common noodle dish.

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Shoyu Ramen noodle soup with chicken, onions, a fish ball, seaweed, and cabbage

Shoyu Ramen is the most common type of Ramen. This is usually what is served when the menu does not specify a specific type of soup. Shoyu Ramen is clear, brown broth flavored noodle soup with soy sauce (shoyu).

The soup is usually made of chicken broth but often contains other meats such as pork, beef, or fish depending on the region. It usually also contains hard-boiled eggs and different vegetables, such as onion, mushrooms, bean sprouts, seaweed, and corn.

RamenPin
Ramen with pork broth, mushrooms, and bean sprouts

Ramen is eaten with chopsticks, and as the noodles get soggy pretty quickly you should eat them immediately after they are served. As with other noodle dishes in Japan, a slurping sound is made when eating ramen. You can actually find Ramen restaurants by their sound. 🙂 The slurping has several purposes, however, as it enhances the flavors and helps cool down the boiling hot noodles as they enter your mouth. So remember to slurp as much as you possibly can when eating Ramen, it is not considered impolite! 🙂

Ramen is popular as a lunch dish and is considered fast food. At some Ramen restaurants, you choose what kind of Ramen you want from a vending machine, pay, and get a ticket that you hand over to the chef. And voila you get your Ramen served at your table. Easy-peasy! 🙂

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A Ramen vending machine at a restaurant in Tokyo.

2. Okonomiyaki

Is it a pancake? Or is it a pizza? Hmm, Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a real must when it comes to what Japanese food to try, as it is delicious! It is pan-fried and consists of batter and cabbage. Different toppings and ingredients are added, anything from sliced meat and seafood to wasabi and cheese. This variability is what gave it its name “Okonomi”, which means “to one’s liking”.

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Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style with a layer of fried Soba noodles.

You will find Okonomiyaki all over Japan in restaurants that specialize in the dish, but it is most popular in the west, particularly the cities of Hiroshima and Osaka which have their own variations. We had Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima and Kyoto, and they were very different. The Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki includes a layer of fried Soba noodles.

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Okonomiyaki Hiroshima style in process at Miyajima Island outside of Hiroshima.

At some Okonomiyaki restaurants the dining tables are each equipped with an iron griddle (“teppan”), and customers are given the ingredients to cook the Okonomiyaki themselves.

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Okonomiyaki at a restaurant in Kyoto.

3. Udon

Udon (うどん) are thick white noodles made of wheat flour. They are thicker than Soba and Ramen noodles, whiter and chewier. Udon is very popular and available at specialty Udon restaurants (Udon-Ya) all over Japan, which usually also serve Soba noodles. Udon is served both hot and cold, with or without soup, and sometimes with vegetables, egg and meat.

The same goes for Udon as for Ramen and Soba – making a slurping sound when eating Udon is mandatory! 🙂

Udon NoodlesPin
Cold Udon noodles with soup, lemon, and onions. Served with chopped cabbage and deep-fried chicken on the side.

4. Sushi

Sushi (すし, 寿司, 鮨) is raw fish and seafood packed together with rice and vegetables into beautiful pieces. Each little piece is almost like art!

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Sushi is like small pieces of art
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Yummy sushi

Sushi dates all the way back to the 4th Century BC, as a way to preserve the fish (sprinkled with salt and encased in rice).

Tokyo has some of the best Sushi restaurants in the world. You will however not find fresher Sushi than from the Sushi shops found around the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

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Tuna, white fish, and shrimp Sashimi (raw fish without rice) at the Ryokan we stayed at in Takayama.

Did you know that it takes three (Yes, 3!!) years just to learn how to cook the Sushi rice properly?! And that it takes eight years to learn how to make Sushi right! It sure is an art form!

5. Yuba

Yuba is a popular traditional dish in the Nikko area (north of Tokyo). Yuba is the skin that forms when making tofu out of soybeans. It is cut into strips and used in everything from Udon dishes to Sashimi to fried bean buns. To tell you the truth, it doesn`t taste very much! 🙂

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Yuba served with Udon noodle soup

6. Soba

Soba (そば) are noodles made of buckwheat flour, which makes them grey/brownish in color. They are Tokyo`s favorite and date back to the Edo period (1603-1868) when they became popular among Samurais.

Soba noodles are roughly as thick as spaghetti and prepared in various hot and cold dishes with and without soup. They can be served with vegetables, tempura, raw egg, and meat. Soba dishes are very popular and easy to find across Japan. Since 100% buckwheat Soba noodles tend to be brittle, many restaurants add some wheat flour when preparing their noodles.

Soba dishes come in many different variations, but the most basic Soba dish is Mori Soba in which boiled, cold Soba noodles are eaten with a soy-based dipping sauce (Tsuyu). You can also have green Soba, which is Green Tea Soba (Matcha Soba), where buckwheat flour is mixed with green tea powder.

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Green Tea Soba noodle soup

Most of the Soba dishes are eaten throughout the year, but some are only available seasonally. A special kind of Soba dish is Toshikoshi Soba, a symbol of longevity, that is only eaten on New Year’s Eve.

Soba is served in special Soba and Udon restaurants, and also when eating Soba slurping is very normal and expected! 🙂

7. Tempura

Japan can thank the Portuguese for Tempura (天ぷら or 天麩羅), as it was Jesuit missionaries in Nagasaki who first introduced Japan to the art of batter frying in the 16th century.

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Crunchy Tempura vegetables

Tempura is chunks of seafood and vegetables dipped in a light batter and cooked in canola and sesame oil. The end result is far less stodgy than other deep-fried food that we have in the West.

Tempura is normally eaten together with a bowl of rice.

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Tempura of fish, mushroom, shrimp, and basil

8. Dumplings – Gyoza

Japan does not really have a “street-food” culture as other Asian countries like Thailand, but Gyoza or Steamed Dumplings are the sort of food that you will find sold at street stalls around Japan and at train stations. It is originally Chinese but has become very popular all over Japan.

The dumplings have different kinds of filling, like pork, beef, chicken, vegetables, and beans.

9. Yakiniku

Yakiniku is the Japanese version of barbecue, which invites diners to cook slices of meat and vegetables on a plate or griddle in the middle of the table. Beef and offal are the most popular options at Yakiniku restaurants, but also pork, chicken, and seafood are usually on the menu.

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Yakitori – Spits with chicken and internal organs roasted on coals

If you are feeling really hungry, visit a Yakiniku that offers Tabehodai (all-you-can-eat), and stuff yourself silly! 🙂

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Korean style barbecued meat

10. Horse

Ever tried horse meat?! It is a BIG thing in Japan, and especially Tokyo. It was a popular horse restaurant right across the street from our hotel, so of course, we had to check it out. And it did actually taste pretty good, but the sashimi (raw horse meat) was a little bit tough to chew.

 

11. Japanese sweets

Japan sweets are really nice, cute and colorful, some of the most delicate sweets I have ever seen. Each piece looks like a piece of art. Japanese usually drink green tea together with sweets.

A typical green tea set is San-ten Nama Youkan & Macha Set. Youkan is a typical Japanese sweet made of jellied bean paste. They usually come in three different colors; brown is made of black soybeans, yellow/green is made of green soybeans while purple is made of purple sweet potato.

San-ten Nama Youkan and MatchaPin
San-ten Nama Youkan and Matcha Set at a restaurant in Nikko. Japanese Matcha tea is finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea. It is super healthy!

The Japanese also make delicious small cakes, in different cute shapes like birds, leaves, trees, and fish. One typical and popular cookie is Ningyo-yaki that you will see in all souvenir shops around Japan. Ningyo-yaki is made from fluffy batter filled with sweet bean paste, and they come in all different shapes from Hello Kitty to cute birds.

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Small cute cakes served with green tea at the Ryokan we stayed at in Takayama. They are filled with sweet bean paste.

A sarubobo (さるぼぼ?) is a Japanese amulet, particularly associated with the town of Takayama. The cakes are in the shape of Sarubobos, red human-shaped dolls, with no facial features, made in a variety of sizes.

Traditionally, Sarubobos are made by grandmothers for their grandchildren as dolls, and for their daughters as a charm for a good marriage, good children and to ensure a well-rounded couple. I am not sure if eating a Sarubobo will give a good marriage or not…hmm…

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Delicious cakes in the shape of fish filled with chocolate, vanilla, or sweet bean paste bough in Matsumoto. Yummy!
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“Fish” cakes filled with dark soft chocolate. Mmmmmm

Ice cream is extremely popular in Japan, especially shaved ice (yep, normally frozen ice cubes that are shaved into small pieces) with different toppings.

The Japanese are crazy about sweets and candy. They have some of the finest and most delicate candy and sweets, often with green tea flavor.


There you go, the list of our recommended Japanese foods to try while you are in Japan. Japan really surprised us with its cuisine, it is very tasty and healthy with a great variety. They really put their pride in their cooking and food, and it is all very clean as hygiene is very important in Japan.

One can find food at different price ranges, although the food is on average more expensive than in other Asian countries. Finding something to eat in Japan should be easy. Japan has food for everybody, whether you like seafood, raw food, strange meat, vegan, vegetables or noodles….they have it all!

Japanese food is definitely at its best in Japan. So eating should be a big part of your Japan journey!

⇒ Check out what else you should do in Japan, besides eating lots of delicious Japanese food!

Japan has some awesome restaurants making some of the best food in the world, and in 2020 Japan also finally banned smoking in restaurants. There are some exceptions like small bars like Izakaya’s and such, but overall it is a most welcome change for us non-smokers.

What I also LOVE about Japan is that you always get a wet towel (hot or cold) to wash your hands (NOT your face or other body parts! 🙂 ) before the meal. It is super refreshing! I also love that they always serve cold water and/or green tea automatically, you don`t even have to ask or pay for it, and they refill your glass constantly! Very nice for thirsty tourists. 🙂


Travel Guides

We used Lonely Planet`s Japan Travel Guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below which will take you to Amazon.com (affiliate links):


If you want to make some of these delicious dishes at home, these books are what you need:

washoku_cookbook     japanese_cuisine_cookbook     Japanese_coocking


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Hover over the pictures below, and press the red “Save” button that pops up:

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What to eat in JapanPin      a guide to the best food in JapanPin

Do any of these dishes look tempting? Can you see yourself trying horse meat? Have you tried any of these dishes? What is your favorite Japanese food? Have we missed any Japanese must-try dishes on our list? Please leave a comment in the comment area below. Thank you! 🙂

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Written by Maria Wulff Hauglann

Maria is a Norwegian travel nerd who has explored more than thirty countries on four continents. She holds a master's degree in Computer Science, as well as an MBA. In 2014 while on a year-long trip across South East- Asia, Maria co-founded the travel blog Nerd Nomads to help others get out and explore the world. In 2018 she left her day job permanently for a life of full-time travel. See our about page for more about Maria.

51 Comments

  1. WOW! These are the most gorgeous and appetizing pictures of food ever! And now I’m hungry… especially for that sushi and soba. I don’t think I can try horse meat though… it just sounds so… barbaric, lol. But I applaud you for trying it! There may be a chance that I’m going to Japan next spring/summer… I can’t wait to eat (most of) this stuff there!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much Anna!! Japan has some of the best Sushi in the world, so that is a real must if you go to Japan. Hehe, yep, the horse meat (especially the raw sushi version that we had….) was a challenge to chew but it did actually not taste that bad! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Oh, wow!! All of that looks delicious! Except for the horse meat, won’t eat that. But sushi, tempura & noodles… Where is that 3Dprinter, haha?

    I am looking forward to read more about Japan. Especially costs. We wanted to go in October, but tickets are soooo expensive that we decided not to.

    Reply
    • I already miss the great food in Japan! That 3D printer sounds like a great idea….hehe….maybe it is possible one day, who knows?! 🙂

      We plan to have a blog post about the costs in Japan, but I can tell you that it was expensive! Especially hotels, transportation and ticket prices to sights. But you can find cheap food, like noodle dishes for about 6 us$. But food in supermarkets was expensive, especially fruits and vegetables. It felt like we were back in Europe actually price wise. So we went way over budget during our five weeks in Japan. Nice to be back in low cost countries again! 🙂

      Reply
  3. I personally love japanese food but my absolute favourite is actually the don! They have all kinds of dons so i usually have one depending on my mood. This is a pretty good list though! It is pretty comprehensive…:)

    Reply
    • Oh no, we must have totally missed this don dish while we were in Japan. 🙁 Thanks for the tip Sha, we will definitely try the don next time we visit Japan.

      Reply
  4. Stilig! Takk for veldig god forklaring av den japanske maten. Skal til Japan i oktober selv, så dette kommer godt med! 😀

    Reply
    • Tusen takk Ingeborg! Så kult at du skal til Japan i oktober! Har skrevet mange blogpposter fra Japan som kommer ut nå framover, forhåpentlig mer flere gode tips. Hvor i Japan har du tenkt til å reise, og hvor lenge?

      Anbefaler å kjøpe Japan Rail Pass (http://www.japanrailpass.net/eng/en001.html), som er kun for turister og som du bare får kjøpt utenfor Japan før du reiser dit. Vi kjøpte pass for 14 dager, og det funka kjempebra og ble veldig mye billigere enn om vi skulle ha kjøpt enkelt-billetter på toget.

      Håper du får en super tur til Japan Ingeborg! Det er et fantastisk fint land, men ganske dyrt. Kos deg masse! 🙂

      Reply
  5. Excellent overview of one of the world’s great cuisines. It was a shame I never got over to Japan while I was teaching in Korea, but I hope to make it back to East Asia sometime soon !

    Reply
    • Thanks James! 🙂 Wow, teaching in Korea sounds like a great experience!

      We were actually thinking about going to Korea while we were in Japan, since it is so close. But having spent too much money in Japan, we had to head back to some cheaper Asian countries. 🙂 Would love to visit Korea some day! Did you visit North Korea?

      Reply
  6. Delicious! We travelled some of Japan last year, and beforehand I went with the mistaken thought that I might lose weight whilst we were there!! 😀

    Reply
    • Thanks Emma! Wow, we had the same idea, that we would loose some weight, hehe! 🙂 But I actually think we did, because we walked so much, plus drank so much green tea. Japanese food is very healthy, with less fat and sugar than Western food.

      Reply
  7. Maria, Great list. I’ve tried them all (many times) except for Yuba…maybe because I only went to Nikko once. Maybe I’ll get to do it next time I go…next summer, perhaps. Your photos make me miss Japan a lot…gorgeous.

    Reply
    • Thanks Corinne! Well, Yuba does not taste that much to be honest. It was not my favorite among all the delicious Japanese food. But Yuba is ok to try if you go back to Nikko.

      Reply
  8. I think that as a vegan I would be just utterly lost and on a strict tea diet 😀 And smoking in restaurants, eww…That vending machine looks like a fun thing though 😀

    Reply
    • Hmm, yeah it might be a little difficult being a vegan in Japan, especially outside of the major cities. In the big cities however, like Tokyo and Kyoto, they have just about any conceivable food available. I´m sure it can be done, but I would research a little before going. Find some Japanese dishes that satisfies your vegan diet, and also bring some Japanese phrases to explain, since English is not spoken everywhere. But yeah, the Green Tea diet is always an option, hehe.

      We were not too fond of the fact that they allow smoking inside restaurants and cafes either. It is so strange, because smoking is prohibited outside on the streets! There are non-smoking signs everywhere on the pavements, and smoking is only allowed in dedicated areas outside. The opposite of most other countries in the world.

      Reply
  9. Gimme, gimme, gimmeeeeee them all. I am craving anything Asian right now. We have zero any of that here where I live. Sigh… Thanks for linking up with us for #SundayTraveler.

    Reply
    • Ah, too bad there are no Asian restaurants where you live in Croatia SJ! But I bet there are lots of delicious food in Croatia too!

      Reply
  10. Conveyer belt sushi , how I miss thee. I spent almost $1000 on food during my 7.5 weeks in Japan. That was my biggest expense.
    Coming from NY, the whole smoking inside thing drove me up a wall. I absolutely hated that.

    Reply
    • Hehe, yeah it is so much delicious food to try out in Japan, Melissa. We have probably only covered a small part of the Japanese cuisine in this post.

      We spent a lot of money on food too, but we have not dared to do add up our expenses from our five weeks in Japan yet. 🙂 Have just noticed from our bank statement that we spent A LOT of money there! But hotels and food were probably our biggest expenses.

      Ah, we so hated the smoking inside as well! It seems like smoking is very popular and trendy in Japan. Almost everybody smoked, especially inside restaurants and cafes. Very annoying! We actually ended up leaving a couple of restaurants before we had ordered anything because it was just too grey and smokey there. Poor chefs and waitresses that have to work in that kind of smokey environment day after day.

      Reply
  11. I LOVE LOVE Japanese food. I think if I could only eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, it would have to be Japanese (despite my adoration for all things Chinese as well). You shot some great photos and I’m hungry despite having just eaten lunch. The only thing I haven’t tried yet is horse, but of course, I haven’t tried any of these in Japan. Gotta go asap.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much Adelina!! There is nothing like eating Japanese food in Japan! 🙂 Japanese and Chinese food are a bit similar, and some of the Japanese noodle dishes for instance actually comes from China originally, but is served with a Japanese twist in Japan. You definitely have to try horse when you visit Japan! It is a bit challenging though. 🙂

      Reply
  12. Your pictures of Japanese food looks DELICIOUS! I love eating Japanese food. I cannot wait to return to the country in a couple of months to eat everything up!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much Chanel! Japanese food is the best, and also very healthy which is the ultimate combination! 🙂 Lucky you who will go back to Japan soon, have a great trip!

      Reply
  13. I am a Japanese living in Shikoku.
    The photograph of the ninth Yaskiniku is wrong.

    The upper photograph is food said to be “Yakitori”.
    “Yakitori” spits chicken and the chicken internal organs and warms it by a charcoal fire.
    It is a chicken dish to eat with sauce and saltiness.

    The lower photograph is like Korean food.
    And bake the meat put on top of the vegetables, is another dish.
    It is different from “Yakiniku” which is popular and is said in Japan.

    Because Japan has a lot of delicious Yakiniku shops, please try it.

    Reply
  14. Wow! Not sure if it’s a good thing that we stumble upon your post just two hours after having lunch. Because now, we’re craving for a bowl of ramen! We’re visiting Japan this fall and can’t wait to try these authentic foods.

    Thank you! 🙂

    Reply
    • I am craving for a hot bowl of noodles too, always! 🙂 Simply love noodles, especially Udon which is my favourite. It is thicker than Ramen. There are so much delicious food to try out in Japan, so you got something to look forward to.

      Have an awesome trip to Japan Sheila & Rap! I`m sure you will love it as much as we did.

      Reply
  15. Yummy! I love Matcha. Try to make it at home but not look like your picture. I will go to Nikko restaurant to try it. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • Hi Keiko,

      I tried Matcha tea for the first time on this trip to Japan, and loved it too! It was delicious at this cafe in Nikko.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  16. I love Japanese food, so this list is exactly what I’ve needed. I’ve never seen Ramen made like the picture before, but it looks delicious. I’ve never heard of Okonomiyaki before, but i really like the sound of it! I really want to try everything in these photos now.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Petunia! Japan has some of the best food in the world, in my opinion. I had hardly tried any Japanese food before going to Japan, so visiting this beautiful country was a real eye-opener foodwise. Ah, I sure miss Udon noodles, my favourite.

      Reply
  17. This post has been officially amended to my bucket list. Get fed or die trying. Seriously though, I absolutely love sushi and can’t wait to try the rest. Really great post.

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Mary! Japan has great food. Although they are most famous for their delicious sushi, they have so much more to offer when it comes to food.

      Cheers,
      Maria

      Reply
  18. Thank you very much for the post but as a Japanologist I see a few mistakes here. for instance the history of sushi or Tenpura and not Tempura or the second picture of the sushi which is a western sushi and you wouldn’t find sushi looking like that in Japan. it’d be great if you could correct them. Thanks again for the information.

    Reply
    • Hi Sarva,

      Thank you for pointing this out! Sadly I don`t speak much Japanese, but you are right, it looks like the word for this Japanese dish (battered and deep-fried seafood and vegetables) is written Tempura but pronounced Tenpura, at least according to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempura.

      We ate this sushi at a real Japanese restaurant, but it might be that it was a bit western oriented kind of sushi, made for tourists. It was very tasty, however! 🙂

      Happy travels!

      -Maria-

      Reply
  19. The picture of your dish of tuna and shrimp from your ryokan, you described it as “sushi” but it is not sushi because it has no rice – it is sashimi. Sashimi is raw flesh by itself. Sushi is anything (animal or vegetable) pressed with sushi rice, such as rolls, handrolls, nigiri, etc.

    Likewise you labeled the horse meat as sashimi but it’s actually nigiri. Nigiri is a type of sushi that consists of a piece of flesh or vegetable pressed over a ball of rice.

    Basically what I’m saying is you’ve gotten sushi and sashimi backwards. Sushi has rice, sashimi does not.

    Reply
    • Hi Nina!

      Thank you so much for pointing this out! I am not very familiar with either sushi, nigiri or sashimi, so it is great to learn what the difference is! Thanks for commenting! I will sure fix this error immediately.

      -Maria-

      Reply
  20. Hi! Maria I’m 11 years old and I jut want to say……
    OH. MY. GOSH. This article is amazing! Really helped my Geography assignment. Just really want some “fish” cakes filled with dark soft chocolate right now!!!!!! >w<

    Reply
    • Hi Toy,

      So happy to hear that my article could be of help to you on your Geography assignment! Yeah, those cakes shaped like fish are delicious! You can choose between vanilla, chocolate or caramel fillings. You will love them! I had too many of those….. 🙂

      Thank you so much for commenting! Good luck with your assignments!

      -Maria-

      Reply
  21. Nice page! We just got back from Japan and i must say we didn’t see the horse meat anywhere but we did have some nice Wagyu! Top class! We tasted the kobe but also the ishigaki beef on the Okinawa islands.

    Reply
    • Hi Peter & Ingrid,

      Thank you so much! Japanese food is just the best! So cool that you went to the Okinawa Islands, we plan to visit the islands on our next Japan trip.

      Happy travels!

      -Maria-

      Reply
  22. How many times do you eat ramen in Japan? We eat instant ramen noodles in a plastic bag in home. We love ramen very much. I also cook Okonomiyaki in home. It is easy to cook.

    I am Japanese, but I have not eaten horse meat!! Well, raw horse meat are getting popular after prohibition of beef yukke.

    Did you visit dollar shops, like Daiso or Seria? There are many interesting goods!!!

    Reply
    • Hi Masako,

      We had ramen almost every day while we were in Japan. We love ramen too! 🙂 Okonomiyaki is one of my favourite Japanese dish but I’ve never tried to make it at home. You should definitely try horse meat, it is delicious!

      Yes, we went shopping in a couple of Daiso shops, everything was so cheap although maybe not the best quality… 😉

      -Maria-

      Reply

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