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 number of Michelin star restaurants (currently 14 with top star rating).

When we started planning our trip to Japan, my first though 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 sea food, 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 contain hard-boiled egg and different vegetables, such as onion, mushrooms, bean sprouts, seaweed and corn.

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Ramen with pork broth, mushrooms and bean sprouts.

Ramen are 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 it`s 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 a 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. Easypeacy! 🙂

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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 it`s 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 are 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! 🙂

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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) and Sashimi, raw fish and seafood packed together with rice and vegetables into beautiful pieces. Each little piece is almost like an art!

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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 Sushi 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!

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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 soy beans. It is cut into stripes 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 make them grey/brownish in color. They are a 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 comes in many different variations, but the most basic Soba dish is Mori Soba in which boiled, cold Soba noodles are eaten with a soya based dipping sauce (Tsuyu). You can also have green Soba, which is Green Tea Soba (Matcha Soba), where buckwheat flour are 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 Nagaski who first introduced Japan to the art of batter frying in the 16th century. 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 kind 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 colourful, 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 soy beans, yellow/green is made of green soy beans while purple is made of purple sweet potato.

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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 are 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 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. Yummi!

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“Fish” cakes filled with dark soft chocolate. Mmmmmm

Ice-cream is extremely popular in Japan, especially shaved ice (yep, normal 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.

 

The End

Japan really surprised us with it`s cuisine, it is very tasty and healthy with a great variety. They really put their pride into their cooking and their 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 the other Asian countries. Japan has food for everybody, whether you like sea food, raw food, strange meat, vegetables or noodles….they have it all! So eating should definitely be a big part of your Japan journey!

Japan sure has some awesome restaurants making some of the best food in the world, BUT most of the restaurants in Japan allow smoking inside. Not so cool 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. 🙂


Books

We used Lonely Planet`s Japan guide book on our trip. It was very good! You can buy that and some other great Japan books from Amazon:

Lonely_Planet_Japan lonely_planet_discover_japan dk_japan rought_guide_Japan national_geo_japan a_geek_in_Japan

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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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 in our list? Please leave a comment in the comment area below. Thank you! 🙂

Maria

Maria

Maria is a Norwegian travel nerd, who has explored more than thirty countries on four continents. She holds a masters degree in Computer Science, as well as an MBA. See our about page for more about Maria.
Maria

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