This article was first published in September 2019 and was last updated in June 2020.
It’s easy to understand why Japanese food has become an obsession for diners worldwide. From melt-in-your-mouth sashimi to flash-fried tempura, Japanese cuisine delivers flavors that are delicate, seasonal, and distinctly satisfying.
Not long ago, Japanese dishes such as raw fish were considered bizarre to travelers. The US didn’t even have a sushi restaurant until 1966, in Southern California. How the times have changed!
Today, Japanese cuisine is a favorite among foodies young and old, and you’ll find sushi parlors in the smallest and most remote towns worldwide. There are now over 90,000 Japanese restaurants around the globe, and the boom shows no sign of slowing down.
Almost everyone is familiar with the most popular food in Japan, such as ramen and sushi rolls. However, the full spectrum of Japanese cuisine spans an enormous variety of regional styles and ingredients, some of which may be obscure to you (such as oden and yuzu).
Certain dishes are also far better prepared in Japan, so you should make sure to enjoy all the possible Japanese food experiences you can when in Tokyo or elsewhere. Exploring the different local and seasonal dishes is one of the best things to do in Japan.
For example, I’ve yet to have an okonomiyaki pancake that has lived up to the ones I’ve eaten in Kobe and Osaka, or a ramen bowl that rivals the one I slurped up in a little Kyoto stand.
If you’re traveling to the “land of the rising sun,” I encourage you to indulge in both modern and traditional Japanese dishes. You’ll undoubtedly discover new favorites, and be surprised by the creativity and finesse of the local cooking – whether you’re eating at a train station stand, or a 3-starred Michelin restaurant.
I hope this Japanese food list gets your tastebuds excited, and inspires you to try unfamiliar drinks and dishes during your travels in the country.
I’ll begin this article with a historic run-down of the cooking culture, and then highlight my recommendations for the best breakfasts, meals, desserts, and drinks in Japan. Here’s to a delicious journey, and may you end each day happily “ippai” — or “full” in Japanese!
- History of Japanese cuisine: culture and influences
- What is Japanese food?
- Types of Japanese restaurants and etiquette
- Japanese etiquette and table manners
- Japanese breakfast
- Best Japanese food and dishes
- Miso soup (fermented soybean soup)
- Edamame (Japanese soybeans)
- Onigiri (rice balls with seaweed)
- Gyoza (dough dumplings with fillings)
- Tempura – Battered deep-fried food
- Okonomiyaki – Savory Japanese pancake
- Takoyaki – Battered/grilled octopus balls
- Soba – Buckwheat noodles
- Udon – Chewy white noodles
- Somen – Thin wheat flour noodles
- Japanese curry
- Nabemono (hot pot dishes)
- Donburi (Rice bowls)
- Yakimono – Grilled meats
- Kobe beef
- Bento boxes (lunch boxes)
- Omurice – Omelet Rice
- Chawanmushi – Savory egg custard
- Japanese desserts
- Japanese drinks
History of Japanese cuisine: culture and influences
If you look at a map of the country, you can see how geography has influenced food in Japan.
Japan is an island nation, located in the Pacific Ocean and surrounded by the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and East China Sea. From the earliest days, citizens had easy access to fresh fish, seafood, and seaweed – which remain pillars of Japanese cooking to this day.
During the Heian Period, or about 2000 years ago, the Japanese learned to grow rice from its Chinese neighbors. The crop was relatively cheap, easy and abundant to produce.
Rice quickly became a staple of the local diet for people of all social classes, much like the Mayans relied on corn, and turned into the most important ingredient in Japanese dishes.
Around the 7th and 9th century ACE, the Japanese adopted the Chinese use of chopsticks, and began cooking with soybeans. From that point on, tofu and soy sauce were here to stay.
In 675 ACE, Japan’s Buddhist Emperor Tenmu banned his subjects from eating meat. His decree was spurred by his spiritual devotion to nonviolence. Food in Japan was already mostly fish-based, but from this point on, a meal typically consisted of grilled or raw fish and seafood along with rice, soup, and vegetables.
Over the years, foreign traders introduced new foods and cooking techniques, such as corn and potatoes brought by the Dutch, and batter frying (tempura) from the Portuguese who also left their mark on the food of Macau.
However, Japan remained almost entirely closed off from the West until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and food evolved without further foreign influence.
After the mid 19th century, Japan was open for business. Western imports brought in a variety of new ingredients, and changed the face of the local diet.
Chocolate (a Mayan delicacy), coffee, and ice cream became widespread for the first time, and much-loved by locals. People began eating less rice and reached for bread and noodles instead.
In the 20th century, chefs began experimenting with fusion flavors and quick-cooking techniques like microwaves. Fast food restaurants and processed foods like instant ramen boomed (it is the meal of choice in Kiribati too!).
Today, Japan is known worldwide as a top food destination. Between 2011 and 2018, Tokyo collected more 3-star Michelin restaurant ratings than any other city in the world (more than Paris even).
Japanese celebrity chefs, like Nobu Matsuhisa (today a dining and hospitality empire) and Masaharu Morimoto, are household names and have famous restaurants worldwide.
There’s no doubt that locals are passionate about food. If you flick on the TV, you’ll undoubtedly come across a show where stars sample dishes, and react with giddy expressions!
What is Japanese food?
Of course, it’s impossible to reduce Japanese food to a single definition. However, the cuisine has certain key elements which can be linked to the country’s distinct history and culture.
For one, Japanese cooking has historically relied on seasonal flavors. This approach is tied to Shintoism and Buddhism, spiritual practices that encourage the appreciation of nature.
The country also has four distinct seasons, with traditional celebrations to mark these stark changes – such as the “sakura” or cherry blossom festival in the spring.
As a result, Japanese cooking has always focused on using the freshest ingredients while they are available. Locals continue to seek out foods that peak during certain periods, such as chestnuts, matsutake mushrooms, and Pacific saury fish in the fall.
A “traditional” Japanese meal may be described as “ichiju-sansai,” or “one soup, three sides”. To this day, a home-cooked meal typically follows this formula.
Each family member sits down to a warm bowl of steamed rice, and a small serving of soup – usually a light miso broth, perhaps with seaweed, tofu, or vegetables.
Then, everyone helps themselves to about three communal dishes in the middle of the table. These seasonal plates typically consist of vegetables (pickled, steamed, or stir-fried) and protein (fish, seafood, tofu, or sometimes meat).
The Japanese are known for having one of the longest life expectancies in the world at almost 86 years old, and studies have linked this to their healthy diet. The Japanese consume plenty of healthy fish oils and vegetables, and dishes tend to be simmered, steamed, boiled, or grilled, rather than fried.
In addition, cooks use small amounts of fermented seasonings — such as soy sauce, sake, mirin, and miso – instead of dousing foods with salt and sugar. The “one soup, three sides” foundation also encourages a variety of nutrients, while the small dishes discourage overeating.
Types of Japanese restaurants and etiquette
Locals love to dine out, and food in Japan can be enjoyed at a wide variety of eateries. Most of these specialise in a specific type of meal or Japanese dish and will serve only that with some variations and side dishes.
Standing soba joints
Standing soba joints cater to workers who are short on time. The bowl arrives within minutes of placing your order, and you slurp it while standing at the high counter!
Fast noodle restaurants
“Fast” noodle restaurants (soba, udon, ramen) tend to have informal counter seating with high chairs. They sometimes have a few standard tables for larger groups, and seating is first-come-first-served.
Many ramen restaurants use a vending machine ordering system, which foreigners may find confusing. Instead of telling the staff what you’d like to eat, you must push buttons on the vending machine to select your order. These buttons tend to be written only in Japanese, but include photos to help you visualize the meal.
After you pay for the total, the machine prints out a ticket. Bring it to the ramen counter, and find a seat. Usually within five minutes, the servers will bring out a steaming bowl of ramen noodles, along with any sides, drinks, or toppings that you selected.
Some ramen restaurants even have individual partitions to your left and right for privacy, so you can eat without seeing your neighbors next to you!
Kaiten – Conveyor belt sushi
“Kaiten” or conveyer belt sushi parlors might also be a bit of a culture-shock, unless you have seen them in your home country, as the formula has spread quite a bit. They are a fun family-friendly type of eatery and they serve perhaps the most popular Japanese food of all.
When you walk through the door, the staff will yell “irrashaimase” (welcome) and lead you to a seat next to the rotating conveyor belt. Everyone has direct access to it though sometimes there are tables that are attached rather than individual stools.
You can pick plates of sushi as they pass by you and simply eat them. Note that the sushi plate colors correspond to the prices; for instance, a blue one may cost 300 yen ($3 USD), while an orange plate is 150 yen ($1.50 USD).
If you don’t see your favorite item on the belt, or prefer a freshly-made nigiri, you can call “sumimasen” (excuse me), followed by the name of your order, and number of plates. Typically, the menu has photos and the name of the sushi written in English, to help you out. If you don’t know how to count in Japanese, then holding up the number of fingers will do.
Help yourself to the shared containers of pickled ginger, brew your own tea with powdered matcha and hot water, and dig in.
Izakaya – Japanese pubs
Friends love to gather for a meal at an izakaya, or Japanese homestyle pub. Many izakayas have a touch-screen digital menu with pages of photos. Simply select the items you’d like, and press “send order” once you’re ready.
The comforting pub dishes are made for sharing, and usually moderately priced. Some of my izakaya favorites are hiyayakko (cold tofu), grilled mackerel, salads with seaweed, and takoyaki octopus balls.
As for drinks, I always look for yuzu (Japanese citrus) liquor, or an “oolong hai” tea and shochu cocktail. You can join a Tokyo food tour to experience eating at an izakaya with a group.
Kaiseki – Multi-course seasonal meal
For a special occasion, I recommend trying kaiseki, a traditional multi-course seasonal meal. Kaiseki tends to be expensive (5,000 yen or $50 USD and up per person), but the elegant cultural experience is not to be missed.
Dinner is served at a classic ryokan (inn) or small restaurant. You’ll sit at a low table on a tatami mat, and savor a succession of intricately-decorated individual dishes. The menu changes with the seasons, and always uses regional ingredients with an artful presentation.
Kaiseki generally includes adorable bite-sized appetizers, a soup, multiple small dishes prepared in different styles (simmered, pickled, with rice), and beautiful desserts. If you’re eager to try kaiseki, you can book a dinner here.
Japan is also known for the weirdest, most wonderful and unique cafes. From the many animal cafes (from owls to lizards or hedgehogs), to the bizarre, loud and colorful Robot Restaurant, these eateries will impress you at every corner.
While these are usually just regular cafes, the presence of animals in many of them gives them a peculiar feel. But most interestingly, you can expect the food there to also be themed.
Alice in Wonderland shaped food, cute owl cookies, omelet-rice decorated with your name in ketchup, drag queen maid servers, the list goes on. You can’t leave Japan without trying one or several of these strange themed cafes.
Japanese etiquette and table manners
Before we move on to the most popular Japanese foods, here are a few tips for table manners in Japan. More than in any other country, etiquette for the Japanese is very important, so the following tips should help you avoid faux-pas or offensive actions.
At more formal restaurants, such as izakaya and kaiseki, you’ll usually be asked to remove your shoes, and put them in a cubby hole at the entrance. The restaurants often provide slippers for you to wear, if you need to leave the table to use the restrooms.
The serving etiquette is mostly common sense, and in friendly situations, there’s no need to worry about overly formal rules (as opposed to at a tea ceremony). If you watch the cartoon “Aggretsuko,” you’ll recall that the pig boss got upset at her for not pouring his beer with label side up – but don’t worry about such tiny details in a casual gathering.
However, it’s encouraged to serve and hold tea with both hands, and take small sips to avoid making too much noise. Pour sake and other shared alcoholic drinks for your guests before yourself.
Everyone waits for the food to arrive before saying “itadakimasu” (I gratefully receive) and beginning to eat. Use the designated chopsticks to place food on your plate or in your rice bowl, to avoid contamination.
Don’t rest your chopsticks on your bowl, or stick them vertically in the rice, as this mimics a ceremony for the dead. When you finish your meal, you can say “gochisosama deshita,” or “thank you for the feast”.
Breakfast in Japan is a unique combination of savory dishes that is not commonly found elsewhere. Of course, you can also find Western foods if you are staying at international hotels or look for global cafe options but it is worth trying the local foods at least once.
Traditional Japanese breakfast set
Let’s begin our Japanese food journey with breakfast. Many hotels offer a “Japanese breakfast” set, and it’s a fantastic way to get introduced to traditional Japanese cuisine.
If you’re accustomed to the “Western breakfast” of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and toast, then you’ll be in for a surprise. The server will bring you a large platter laden with small, covered dishes.
When you lift the lids, you may be amazed to see rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, grilled salmon or mackerel, a tofu or vegetable mix, and a raw egg (don’t mistake the shelled egg for a hardboiled one, or you might cause quite the mess).
I recall my first time eating a Japanese breakfast at a hotel, as a child. I was confused by the raw egg, and had to ask the server what to do with it. She showed me how to crack it, pour it over the hot bowl of white rice, and mix everything together with chopsticks. The result: a warm, fluffy dish rich in “umami” (the Japanese word to describe a rich, savory, glutamate-rich taste).
This egg and rice dish, called tamago kake gohan, may seem bizarre to travelers who are wary of eating raw eggs. However, in Japan, eggs are held to strict safety standards and checked for salmonella and other bacteria.
The hot rice also cooks the egg slightly, as it’s mixed. Give tamago kake gohan a try in the morning, and you might find the warm dish so addictive that you’ll end up making it at home.
Most hotels and ryokans (traditional inns) will offer a Japanese-style breakfast. One of my favorite experiences was at Kagari, the restaurant in the basement of Keio Plaza hotel in Shinjuku.
The 3,500 yen ($35 USD) set includes six sides on beautiful porcelain plates, including salmon, tofu soup, egg, and umeboshi (pickled plum). As you might expect, the healthy and nutritious meal comes with a pot of Japanese green tea in a fine kettle.
Natto (fermented Japanese soybeans)
Another traditional Japanese food eaten for breakfast is natto, or fermented Japanese soybeans, considered a superfood. These beans are packed with nutrients and probiotics and have an acquired taste.
Natto is cheap (about 100 yen or $1 USD for three small packages) and can be purchased at any convenience store or supermarket, making it a go-to breakfast for students on a budget.
However, a word of warning: natto is not for everyone. Many foreigners are startled by the strong smell and gooey yellow appearance, which some might liken to a mound of sticky termites.
To corroborate this, you can find many YouTube videos showcasing people’s first time trying natto, with over-the-top reactions.
Convenience store breakfast
In fast-paced Japan, locals don’t always have time to prepare a morning meal, especially if they must rush out the door at sunrise to catch the train.
Today, the most popular breakfast in Japan is probably something purchased at a convenience store, and eaten on-the-go. In Japan, you can find a “conbini” such as 7-Eleven or FamilyMart on almost every street.
Take a cue from Tokyo’s businesspeople, and pick up a SoyJoy protein bar, Kagome vegetable juice, and Meiji liquid yogurt for a quick breakfast.
If you’re feeling a cold coming on, you might grab a small shot bottle filled with vitamins or energy-boosting ingredients. Just don’t eat or drink while you’re on the subway, as that’s an etiquette no-no.
Japanese coffee shop breakfast
You might be surprised to learn that the Japanese are among the largest coffee consumers in the world.
In the morning, you can join the throngs at a Japanese coffee shop. Try one of the local chains, such as Doutor, Excelsior, Pronto, Veloce, or Cafe de Crie. Order a Japanese-style drink like a soy matcha latte, and grab a pastry from the shelf.
Head’s up: drink sizes are far smaller than in the US, so a “large” coffee at one of these chains is equivalent to a “tall” size at Starbucks!
Fluffy soufflé pancakes
Perhaps you’ve seen Instagram photos of Harajuku girls, smiling in front of a tower of thick, wobbly pancakes. These “soufflé pancakes” are a Japanese invention – so why not get together with friends, and indulge in these sweets for breakfast?
The batter is whipped with plenty of egg whites to create the tall, cloud-like texture. Pile the jiggly stacks with cream, fruit, nuts, chocolate, and other decadent toppings.
Don’t forget to take a selfie before you dig in. Osaka’s Gram Cafe invented the soufflé pancake, and they now have over 50 locations throughout Japan. Youths also love to eat these pancakes at Burn Side St Cafe in Harajuku.
Best Japanese food and dishes
Japanese food is extremely varied, and the national cuisine is one of the most exciting and diverse there is. Although several ingredients are omnipresent and will feature in every dish, namely rice, soy (in any shape or form) and seaweed, you can find an unlimited amount of variations.
What is sure is that there is a Japanese dish for everyone and that you will be able to find many of the food items on this list appealing and delicious.
Miso soup (fermented soybean soup)
Both at home and in restaurants, a Japanese meal typically begins with a soothing, steaming bowl of miso soup. Many mothers have their own personal twist on the recipe, which they prepare at breakfast and dinner for their families. From childhood through adulthood, most Japanese drink miso soup at least once a day.
Miso is a rich, brown paste made from fermented soybeans and other ingredients. It comes in red and white varieties (the former is stronger, as it’s fermented for longer), and the two are sometimes mixed. Miso is considered a health food worldwide, as it’s clean and low in calories, and the fermentation makes it a powerful probiotic.
To make the popular Japanese soup, miso paste is dissolved in a broth made with dashi, an infusion of dried fish, kemp, bonito, and shiitake mushrooms. Small squares of tofu and strips of nori seaweed are typically added. Order one at an izakaya or sushi restaurant to prime your palate for the meal ahead.
Edamame (Japanese soybeans)
Edamame, or Japanese soybeans, are another favorite starter at sushi restaurants and izakayas. The green pods are boiled or steamed, and sprinkled in salt. To eat them, you split open the skins to reach the little beans inside.
Onigiri (rice balls with seaweed)
Anyone who watches anime (Japanese cartoons) has likely come across a scene where the characters munch on onigiri, or rice balls, with a smile.
Onigiri consists of a ball or triangle of white rice, stuffed with vegetables or protein, and wrapped in nori (dried seaweed). Children have fond memories of eating their mother’s fresh onigiri for breakfast, or taking it to school for lunch.
Onigiri remains a favorite snack for adults — especially at a picnic, or after a long night of drinking.
You can purchase onigiri in any convenience store or supermarket in Japan, for 200-300 yen ($2-3 US). Conbini are open 24/7, so you can find this snack at any hour. I have a tradition of picking up a rice ball from the Narita Airport “conbini” as soon as my plane lands, for my first meal in the country.
Vegetarians reach for onigiri filled with seaweed or umeboshi (pickled plum), or wrapped in inari (a sweet, moist tofu skin). Omnivores can try those stuffed with salmon, tuna mayonnaise, chicken, and other meats. My personal favorites are unagi (eel), mentaiko (cod roe) and ikura (salmon eggs).
Gyoza (dough dumplings with fillings)
Japanese gyoza, or potstickers, are another favorite late-night snack and perhaps one of the most commonly found Japanese food outside the country. There are even gyoza chains sprouting in places like Singapore and opened by famous Japanese chefs, where all you can get is that.
Japanese gyoza are similar to the Chinese version: crescent-shaped dough dumplings filled with ground pork, scallions, ginger, and garlic. Variations of this dish can be found across Central Asia from Tibet to Nepal or even India.
Gyoza are usually pan fried, and served with a soy sauce and vinegar dipping sauce that cuts into the richness of the meat and the oils used to fry it. For a bit of heat, you can add a few drops of chili oil to the dip.
When travelers think of Japanese food, sushi is probably the first thing that comes to mind.
Although the humble food appears to be simple, becoming a sushi chef in Japan is a gruelling process that takes years of training under a master. The world’s best sushi chef, Jiro Ono, thinks that he is not yet perfect at his old age.
Often, the apprentice spends years simply washing and preparing the sushi rice, before he can move on to greater tasks.
With these high standards and access to fresh local fish, Japanese sushi is undoubtedly the best in the world. But don’t expect to find creative fusion rolls such as California rolls laden with avocado and sauces. Sushi in Japan sticks to the traditional fish-on-rice formula, and lets the subtle flavors do the talking.
Sushi comes in a variety of forms. The most popular are nigiri (a slice of fish or seafood on a bed of rice), and maki (rolled in seaweed and sliced). You might also try sashimi (raw fish), inari (stuffed in a soft sweet tofu skin), aburi (flame-seared), temaki (cone-shaped), or uramaki (a seaweed roll with rice on the outside).
If you love fish, be sure to try the local toro (tuna belly), aji (horse mackerel), and hamachi (yellowtail). You can have an exceptional sushi experience at all price points, making it the best place in the world to enjoy this popular Japanese food.
My friends and I gravitate to affordable conveyor belt sushi; because of the exceptional quality of the local fish, these parlors easily rival 5-star sushi in any major North American city.
If you want to learn more about this famous Japanese food, you can also join a half-day sushi tour.
One of my favorite “kaiten” conveyor eateries is Midori Sushi, located in the Seibu department store in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. For a futuristic experience, visit Uobei Genki in Shibuya, which I nickname the “robot sushi” restaurant.
At Uobei, there isn’t a sushi chef in sight. Sit down on a stool, and press the touch-screen menu to place your order. Within minutes, the dish comes shooting down the ramp in a boat, and stops in front of you. Pick it up and tap the scowling-face emoji button to send the boat back to the kitchen.
If you are a sushi aficionado, you can discover Japan’s diverse fish and seafood offerings at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. On a market tour, you can see the morning tuna auction, learn about local ocean species, and taste multiple fresh-caught dishes.
Tempura – Battered deep-fried food
Tempura is another favorite Japanese food that is a people-pleaser anywhere in the world. It consists of vegetables or seafood that are battered and deep fried, and served with a mirin and soy dipping sauce.
This Japanese recipe requires skill to execute well, as it’s easy to come out overly breaded or oily. The pieces must also be eaten straight away for maximum warmth and crispiness.
Fortunately, Japanese chefs excel at tempura, and Tokyo’s Shinjuku district is especially known as a hotspot for these restaurants. You won’t be disappointed by the version at Funabashiya Honten, which opened over 100 years ago.
Try a mixed selection of vegetable tempura, especially if it includes kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and okra. Mix the dipping sauce with a bit of daikon and grated ginger, and revel in the harmony of flavors and textures.
Okonomiyaki – Savory Japanese pancake
I had never heard of okonomiyaki, a savory Japanese pancake or “pizza”, until I visited Tokyo as a child. From that point on, it became one of my all-time favorite Japanese dishes, and something I seek out upon every return visit.
Okonomiyaki begins with a savory batter flavored with dashi (stock made with seaweed and bonito fish flakes). The pancake is mixed with cabbage and other ingredients such as octopus, pork belly, cheese, or vegetables.
The dish originated in Osaka, and this “soul food” is a must-have if you’re visiting the Kansai region.
At some restaurants, you place your order and the chef prepares the okonomiyaki for you. In other venues, your table comes equipped with a DIY grill so you can cook and flip the disk to your liking.
The dish isn’t complete without its signature toppings: a sweet brown okonomiyaki sauce reminiscent of Worcestershire, seaweed flakes, Japanese mayonnaise, and dried bonito flakes.
Japan has several regional twists on okonomiyaki. Try a modanyaki with soba or udon noodles as the base. In Hiroshima, the ingredients are layered and usually topped with a fried egg, resulting in Hiroshimayaki. Tokyo created a semi-liquid version called monjayaki.
But no matter which variation you try, the contrast between the crisp exterior and still-creamy inside is certain to please your senses.
For an elevated experience, dine at Tengu in Osaka – chef Waka creates pancakes like an artist, in front of a sizzling grill. You can also try okonomiyaki while enjoying a walking tour through Shibuya.
Takoyaki – Battered/grilled octopus balls
Takoyaki, or battered and grilled octopus balls, are another Kansai favorite. The dish is served in many izakayas, but it’s mainly a street food dish doled out from small stands and eaten on the go.
Takoyaki is prepared in a special molded pan, which consists of dozens of circular impressions. The chef pours batter over the pan, and places little pieces of octopus in the center of each ball. He uses a metal stick to flip them individually, forming perfectly grilled spheres.
The finished balls are served in a takeaway container (you can order six, twelve, or more), and covered in toppings. Takoyaki has a similar vibe to okonomiyaki, as the classic finishings are the same: drizzles of sweet brown sauce and mayonnaise, and seaweed and bonito flakes that move because of the heat.
Takoyaki was invented in 1935 by an Osakan street vendor named Tomekichi Endo. Osaka remains the best spot to seek out takoyaki, especially in the Umeda, Dotonbori and Shinsekai food districts. Since the stalls tend to move around, I recommend simply “following your nose,” and looking for stands frequented by plenty of locals.
If you’re in Tokyo, you can visit an entire “Takoyaki Village” on the entertainment island of Odaiba. Choose from dozens of vendors, including some that specialize in unusual flavors such as radioyaki, or grilled beef and konnyaku (a rubbery Japanese tuber).
The village also has quirky souvenir stores where you can pick up a stuffed octopus and other fan memorabilia. In Shibuya, you can also join a food walking tour that includes a taste of takoyaki.
Up to a decade ago, Westerners mostly associated the word “ramen” with the cheap, packaged type that you throw into a pot of boiling water, and cover in preserved seasonings.
Now, foodies from around the world are obsessed with Japanese ramen in its true form – a bowl of fresh wheat noodles in a rich savory broth, typically topped with chashu (slices of pork), scallions, nori (dried seaweed sheets) and a soft-boiled egg.
Japan’s popular noodle soup has become such an obsession that there are entire food blogs, video channels and online communities devoted to ramen. Famous Japanese chefs have opened entire chains abroad in countries like Singapore or the US.
Wheat noodles from China spurred the development of the dish around the mid 19th century. Now, almost every region of Japan takes pride in its original take on ramen. For instance, Hokkaido is known for miso ramen, while Gifu specializes in a chicken bone broth.
In a typical ramen restaurant, you can choose from a handful of preparations such as shio (salty), shoyu (soy sauce), spicy, miso, and tonkotsu (made with pork trotters). During the summer, you might try the cold vinegary version called hiyashi chuka.
When ordering your ramen you can usually customize the type of noodle (thick or thin), the hardness of the cooked noodle, the oiliness of the stock, and the toppings. If you want to add more heat to your broth, you can sprinkle on shichimi togarashi (seven spice powder) from the shaker bottle at the counter, or order the spicier version of the broth.
Ramen aficionados have fierce opinions about what constitutes the “best” ramen, often with complex and subjective rating systems. If you ask me, I had a life-changing experience at Sen no Kaze in Kyoto.
Expect to wait at least 30 minutes for a spot at the traditional-style ramen bar, which is run by women in fedora hats. The spicy miso ramen perfectly balances every ingredient, and the charred chashu melts seamlessly in your mouth.
If you’re in Tokyo and looking for something different, you might enjoy the sardine-based broth at Ramen Nagi in Shinjuku or the vegan ramen at T’s TanTan at Tokyo Station. You can also join a Tokyo ramen-tasting tour to sample multiple versions.
Soba – Buckwheat noodles
In recent years, Japanese soba has been hailed as a health food. These grey-brown buckwheat noodles are packed with nutrients and relatively low in calories. Soba can be gluten-free, although many mixtures include wheat flour, so be careful if you’re celiac.
Soba noodles are served hot or cold, and it’s worth trying both versions. Chilled soba comes with a side dish of dipping sauce, which is a light mixture of soy, mirin and kombu. Don’t make the mistake of pouring the sauce over your bowl of noodles, as one of my friends once did.
Instead, you’re supposed to pick up some noodles with your chopsticks, and dip them in the sauce before putting them in your mouth.
The warm version of soba comes in a light soup broth, with some grated daikon and scallions scattered over top. Commuters often grab a bowl at a train station stand. Most of these parlors use a vending machine ordering system, and the bowl arrives within minutes to ensure customers have enough time to catch the subway.
On the flip side, soba reaches the level of an art form at certain establishments. Tokyo-ites line up for the handmade noodles and dashi broth at Kanda Matsuya Awajicho, a soba shop that has been open since 1884.
Udon – Chewy white noodles
The final dish in the “Japanese noodle soup” trifecta is udon. Imagine thick, chewy white wheat noodles in a mild broth made with soy sauce, dashi and mirin, and scattered with green onions and nori flakes.
Udon can come with seasonal toppings, including vegetable tempura or fish cakes. It can also be made as a cold salad mixed with cucumber, shredded chicken, and omelette pieces. The large noodles also have different shapes, thicknesses, and styles in various regions.
Udon tends to be less of a “fan favorite” since some consider the dish bland, especially compared to ramen’s fire and fat. However, udon’s subtle nuances shine when it is made with hand-rolled noodles, and carefully stewed broths.
Challenge your expectations at Waranokura Joan in Fukuoka, a remote restaurant that received a Michelin recommendation for its outstanding udon.
Somen – Thin wheat flour noodles
Japan’s lesser-known somen noodles are a summertime treat.
Almost always served cold, these barely-there noodles are less than 1.3 mm or 0.05 inches in diameter and are one of the lightest and simplest of Japanese dishes. Served with a soy sauce and dashi dip, the thin wheat flour noodles are a refreshing way to beat the heat.
Somen is especially popular during Japan’s summer Golden Week holidays. Some gatherings and restaurants serve the noodles in an unusual way that turns noodle-eating into a game. Cold water runs down bamboo tubes, which are split and arranged in a long, twisting slide.
Somen noodles flow down the pipes, and diners have to use chopsticks to try to catch them: it’s almost a food version of a slip-and-slide.
The best place to try “flowing somen” is at Hirobun in Kyoto. The large restaurant serves the noodles year-round, and resembles a waterpark with complicated slides and an impressive waterfall. Or you can also buy your own noodle slide from Amazon.
When I’m in Tokyo, I eat Japanese curry with friends at least once a week.
Adapted from Indian curry, this Japanese dish is brown with a smooth gravy-like texture, and has a slightly sweet taste.
Before digging into your plate of curry-rice, be sure to add on a few spoons of chopped pickled vegetables from the container on the table, generally a mix of daikon, eggplant, lotus root and cucumber.
No one does Japanese curry quite like Coco Ichibanya, a chain with locations throughout the country. The classic “roux” base is made from beef or pork, but “Coco Ichi” now offers a vegetarian version that’s just as tasty. Try eating here once, and I’ll wager that you’ll be as addicted as I am.
At Coco Ichiban, you can customize your order in oddly precise ways, up to the number of grams of rice on your plate (I always pick the lowest number, 200 grams, as it also reduces the total price of the meal).
Select your vegetable or meat to accompany the curry. The egg, tonkatsu (fried pork), and eggplant are popular, and the menu offers limited-edition seasonal choices too.
Finally, you can choose a spice level between 1 and 10 – but major warning, the scale is skewed on the side of hellfire! Level 4 is equivalent to “extremely hot” by normal tastebud standards.
If you go higher, you might not be able to stomach more than a few bites. In fact, the servers will dissuade you from ordering above a 5 unless you assure them that you’re an experienced Coco Ichi eater and have worked your way up the scale.
If you ask me, anyone who achieves “level 10” challenge status must be practically superhuman.
Japanese curry is also served in mom-and-pop cafes throughout the country. In Tokyo, a sweet grandfather runs Curry Station Niagara. The theme restaurant also showcases his collection of vintage train memorabilia, and plates of curry arrive at your table via a toy choo-choo that loops throughout the walls.
Nabemono (hot pot dishes)
Japan can reach below-freezing temperatures in the winter, which is when warm traditional dishes are especially welcome.
During the coldest months, locals rely on nabemono, or hot pot dishes, to keep toasty. There are several classic versions of one-pot dishes, which generally consist of protein and vegetables simmered in broth.
Sumo wrestlers rely on chankonabe to bulk up. This dashi or chicken soup base is flavored with mirin or sake, and then loaded with anything you might find in the kitchen. Tofu slices, fish balls, beef, quartered chicken, bok choy… there’s no set recipe, so throw it in and get those gains!
Add on copious servings of rice and beer, and chankonabe will soon bring you to a sumo wrestler’s weight.
To see these athletes in action, you can watch a grand tournament in Tokyo in what will surely become one of the most amazing experiences you will have.
Shabu shabu is the go-to party dish in the winter. A group of friends gather around a hot pot, which is filled with seasoned water or broth (or sometimes several types of clear soups, in dividers).
Immerse thinly-sliced beef and vegetables such as mushrooms into the pot, taking care to turn the pieces and not overcook them. A similar version, sukiyaki, dips the ingredients in raw egg before immersing them in a sweeter broth, and is a New Year’s favorite.
Roppongi’s Hassan serves upscale versions of both, with the option of Kobe beef, in a Zen-like space.
Finally, you can keep warm on-the-go with an order of oden. It’s a casual mix of fish cakes, tofu, boiled eggs, konnyaku (a rubbery tuber) and other root vegetables in a light soy and dashi stew.
The dish tends to be doled out of street food carts, and you can also find it at the counter of convenience stores such as 7-Eleven in the coldest times of year.
Donburi (Rice bowls)
Donburi translates to a rice bowl dish and it is one of the best comfort Japanese foods there is. Within this basic formula – ingredients simmered or stir-fried, and served on rice – there’s a world of flavor possibilities each with their own name.
The savory toppings contrast with the plain white grains in each bite: simple, yet satisfying. And as my father puts it, the “one bowl, one spoon” format also makes this an easy meal to eat.
If you’re feeling hungry, a katsudon will fill you up with tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) over rice. Children tend to love oyakodon, a bowl with simmered chicken, egg, and scallions.
My personal favorite is unadon, or unagi (glazed and charcoal-grilled eel) over rice. Since the Edo era, Japanese have turned to unagi bowls for nutrition and stamina, especially in the summer.
They’re also considered the most artistic of donburi and Japan has 7 Michelin-starred unagi restaurants, with six in Tokyo alone.
The healthiest version of donburi is chirashi, which is a rice bowl with sushi and roe on top, as simple as it sounds. Because the fish is not cooked and the rice comes with no additional sauces, it is one of the best Japanese dishes if you want to stay healthy.
Gyudon, a beef and onion rice bowl in a mirin and soy sauce, is the country’s most popular – partly because it’s a specialty of the ubiquitous fast food chain, Yoshinoya.
Japan Airlines even serves the beef rice bowl on the plane, complete with egg yolk and brown sauce packages to mix in. You can easily find donburi in inexpensive neighborhood eateries, many of which are “fast food” style with ticket vending machines at the front.
If you want to learn how to make donburi you can become a master in this cooking class and market tour.
Yakimono – Grilled meats
What if you’re on a low-carb diet, and limiting rice and noodles in Japan?
Then look for yakimono, an umbrella term for grilled meats and vegetables. Yakitori, or skewered chicken that is grilled over charcoal fire, is perhaps the best known version of yakimono.
Beef and fish such as mackerel are also wonderfully juicy when lightly salted or marinated in a mirin-soy-sake sauce, and cooked over flames.
If you’re an adventurous type, you can channel Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods and look for the strangest versions of yakimono.
A small alleyway in Shinjuku, known as Memory Lane or the less-appetizing Piss Alley, is famous for serving flame-grilled skewers. Walk down this alley, and squeeze into one of the tiny food stalls. Start with the special of the day, and then move on to pig penis and chicken hearts if you dare!
Japan is also world-famous for its Kobe beef, which is considered the best steak in the world.
Fine Japanese beef is often labelled wagyu, but this term actually refers to all cattle from Japan. The expensive Kobe beef is a wagyu from a highly prized Hyogo breed, raised according to strict standards. So don’t get confused with the terms.
These cows are massaged daily, and fed a high quality diet that includes grains and beer. This results in a full flavored, fatty and marbled meat that is considered the best in the world. The high quality comes at a price, as Kobe steaks can be over $100 a pound.
As you’d expect, the city of Kobe, in Hyogo, is the best place to chow down on one of these steaks. Be sure that the Kobe beef is authentic, and comes with the official paperwork, since some restaurants advertise steaks with the name that aren’t the real deal.
You can try Kobe beef at a local steakhouse and order it from a range of grades which determine the amount and type of fat that is embedded in the meat and which is what gives it its flavor.
Even if it’s not Kobe beef, Japanese wagyu is phenomenal and served in a variety of ways that bring out the flavor.
Dip thin slices of wagyu into a hot broth at a shabu shabu restaurant, or taste iron-grilled slices at a teppanyaki restaurant. If you’re mad about Japanese cows, head to Ginza Steak, which offers all-you-can-eat A5 level wagyu beef.
Bento boxes (lunch boxes)
Japanese bento boxes have a special place in the hearts of locals both young and old. These takeaway or home-packed Japanese lunch boxes are divided into little compartments, each with a serving of rice, noodles, fish, meat, or vegetables.
I especially look for bento boxes with hijiki (a black sea vegetable, often mixed with carrots, tofu, and edamame) and gobo (slivers of light grey-brown burdock root, usually with carrots). Although bentos are inexpensive and meant to be eaten quickly, they tend to be balanced and healthy and can be presented in incredibly pretty ways.
In recent years, “kyaraben” or character bentos have been all the rage. These bento lunches are decorated to look like cute characters, such as Miffy and Hello Kitty. To delight the children, a parent might shape white rice into a bunny’s face and ears, and add black nori pieces for the eyes and mouth.
Train stations and department store basements are the best spots to find bento boxes of all types and sizes. Ekiben, or railway station bentos, are an essential part of Japanese culture.
Each region has its own take on the bento, featuring local delicacies such as Hokkaido squid or Hiroshima seafood. The boxes come with beautiful packaging that represents the region, making them excellent souvenirs.
Travelers can purchase these location-based bentos at stations throughout the country. You can also buy them from food push-carts while riding the rails.
Omurice – Omelet Rice
Most Japanese maid cafes have an odd dish called omurice on the menu. Short for omelet-rice, this comforting dish wraps a thin layer of fried egg around a mound of rice.
Then, the bright yellow surface is decorated with gobs of red ketchup. In most cases, the condiment is squirted from a bottle with a fine tip so that you can spell out words or make drawings.
Many Japanese children have fond memories of their mothers cooking them omurice for a meal. Each time, they’d be delighted by the ketchup designs on the egg and plate. Perhaps their mom would write their name with hearts, or wish them a happy birthday,
At maid cafes, omurice lets customers feel nostalgic for their childhood, as well as interact with the cute servers. When the girls serve you your dish, they will ask what type of drawing or words would make you happy.
They’ll then crouch down and decorate the omelet just as you requested, leaving you with a big smile on your face.
Chawanmushi – Savory egg custard
Chawanmushi is another dish served both at home and in restaurants, as a hot appetizer. The delicate dish is a savory egg custard, steamed in a bowl with dashes of soy sauce and mirin.
The light egg custard is speckled with vegetables, usually an eye-pleasing mixture of mushrooms, small shrimp or fish cake slices, and a touch of vegetables such as green onions or spring peas, and carrots cut into the shape of flowers.
Chawanmushi is typically served in a cup with a lid on top, so you can open it to let the steam out, and be wowed at the elegant presentation. Don’t reach for your chopsticks: this dish is one of the few in Japanese cuisine that’s meant to be eaten with a spoon.
Anyone with a sweet tooth will fall in love with Japanese desserts. Traditional “wagashi” sweets are made with rice flour and no dairy, giving them a unique and light taste. Plus, those who are gluten-free and lactose intolerant can indulge to their heart’s delight.
Dango – Sweet skewered dumplings
Dango, or sweet skewered dumplings, are so iconic that they have their own emoji 🍡
The tri-color rice balls are also the favorite snack of the cute bear character Rilakkuma. The lazy brown bear is such a fan that you might even find him dressed up in a dango outfit.
When you order dango, you’ll receive a skewer with three to five sweet balls. The flavors vary with the seasons, and are usually dyed with natural colors such as red bean, matcha powder, and black sesame.
Mochi with strawberry and chocolate sauce
Mochi is a similar treat, which has gone from an unrecognizable word to a worldwide favorite. While dango is made with rice flour, mochi uses pounded grains of rice to form circular dumplings with sweet filling and a delicate texture.
Young people especially love mochi ice cream, which puts ice cream inside the bite-sized rice balls for the most amazing treat.
You can find both mochi and dango in Japanese department store food halls. If you’re visiting Nara, the city of friendly wild deer, stop by the sweet shop Nakatanidou.
Your jaw will drop when you see the staff pounding the green mugwort rice dough at breakneck speeds. They fill each ball with anko (sweet red bean paste), sprinkle it with brown soybean flour, and serve it to you fresh.
Taiyaki – Fish shaped waffle
Many Japanese desserts are filled with anko, a semi-smooth red paste made from sweetened azuki beans. Taiyaki puts anko inside a waffle that looks like a cute fish, hence the name (“tai” means Japanese red snapper).
At a taiyaki stand, you can watch the staff pour batter over fish-shaped moulded pans, which are divided in matching halves. They’ll add filling to the middle before closing the pans.
If you’re not in the mood for anko, the stalls frequently offer custard, cheese, and chocolate too. The three-dimensional “fish” comes out crispy and warm, with gooey sweetness inside… heaven!
Some themed restaurants put a twist on taiyaki by using pans that look like pop culture mascots. The Gundam Cafe in Akihabara serves robot-shaped “gundamyaki.” I’ve also seen limited-edition Sega and Hello Kitty themed taiyaki during my travels.
For an old-school version, look for Taiyaki Wakaba near Tokyo Station. Their classic anko waffles have been drawing long lines since 1953.
Dorayaki – Pancake filled with red bean paste
If you pick “Team Pancakes” over “Team Waffles,” then take a bite of dorayaki.
This treat puts red bean paste between two small patties and merges them together, the finished product almost looks like a flat mini-burger.
Doraemon, the cute blue robot-cat mascot, takes his name from dorayaki, as it’s his favorite food. A clothing store even released pillows shaped like dorayaki, to celebrate Doraemon’s birthday. Head to Usagiy in Ueno, Tokyo, to try dorayaki, as this shop invented this sweet double-layer version.
Japanese pan – Breads
Walk into a Japanese neighborhood bakery, and you may be surprised by the slightly odd selection of “pan,” or breads. These baked goods are based on French and Portuguese traditions, but with a uniquely Japanese twist.
Pick up a tray at the bakery entrance, and use the metal prongs to load it up with sweet bread rolls.
Anpan is filled with red bean paste – did you know that the Japanese comic superhero Anpanman is made from this fluffy bun?
Look for pastries filled with custard, jam, chestnut, and white bean paste as well. Be sure to select a melon pan, a sweet roll with a cookie crisp exterior that makes it resemble a cantaloupe.
I always look for cute limited-edition “pan” that coincides with the seasons, such as smiling kabocha pumpkin bread at Halloween. You might also find buns decorated to look like “kawaii” characters, such as Totoro and Anpanman.
Unlike the elegant French original, the Japanese crepe is an eye-popping triangle overloaded with sugary, rainbow ingredients.
Chefs make the treat by heating up a thin circle of batter on a griddle. Then, the crepe is stuffed with creative fillings from crème brulee to strawberry cheesecake, and covered in dollops of whipped cream.
Harajuku is especially known for its colorful crepe stands. The pastel-colored stalls display dozens of plastic crepes, illustrating the wild world of fillings that you can taste.
Try one from Marion Crepes, the oldest creperie on the Takeshita Doori walking street, or from the Instagram-friendly Santa Monica Crepes. You can also join a Harajuku food tour that includes a stop for crepes.
Honey toast is an “only in Japan” concoction that might leave you scratching your head in disbelief.
Karaoke parlor Pasela invented the dessert, and it’s usually ordered to celebrate a birthday while singing with a group of friends. Pick up the phone in your karaoke booth to call for one, and you’ll get the option to customize the toast with a name or message.
Soon, a platter arrives with a large unsliced loaf of bread that is slightly hollowed out and caramelized. The sweet toast is then covered in fruit, ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate sauce.
Personally, I prefer the taste of birthday cake, but you can’t beat the “lost in translation” feeling of cutting into honey toast while belting out “Mr Roboto” at karaoke.
This popular Portuguese and Macanese sweet is also extremely popular in Japan, especially in Hokkaido. This pastry originates from the northern island, where cows roam freely and milk is at its freshest.
Unlike other Japanese foods on this list, the egg tarts are a relatively recent addition to the national cuisine. They have been making waves not just in the country, but in the entire Asia region. People would join long queues in Hong Kong or Singapore to get their hands on the sweet. Some waited over an hour for a tart from the original bakery, Bake Cheese, when it opened outlets.
The Japanese version of the tarts is softer, the pastry flakier and the filling runnier than the Portguese pastel de nata. They are a bit cheesier and less sweet, making them a mouth-watering treat especially when served warm out of the oven.
Modern packaged sweets
Japanese packaged sweets tend to come in adorable containers, so why not pick up a few to taste and take home for friends?
You can find a wide assortment of cute, inexpensive treats at convenience stores and supermarkets.
Look for black and white Pocky sticks in a panda bear box, or smiling Koala’s March cookies filled with milk chocolate. Meiji chocolates and Korean brand Lotte “Crunky” crunch bars are other local favorites and are also found all over Seoul.
In Japan, Kit-Kat bars famously come in weird flavors like wasabi and sweet potato, melon in the summer, green tea matcha all year-round, or pretty pink sakura during cherry blossom season. Go on a hunt for the strangest ones, and give them out as souvenirs.
Wagashi – Traditional Japanese sweets
For a more refined gift, look for wagashi, or traditional Japanese sweets. These bite-sized confections include intricately-decorated jellies and miniature cakes, flavored with natural fruits.
Wagashi come in gorgeous boxes, and are usually savoured slowly with a cup of tea. They are an excellent present to bring along when visiting someone at home.
Look for wagashi in the lower levels of high-end department stores such as Daimaru, Mitsukoshi, and Isetan. Choose a colorful mixed selection made from red bean, mochi, and fruits.
Every region of Japan specializes in certain types of confections, so look for tiny banana sponge cakes in Tokyo, and momiji manju (maple syrup, buckwheat and rice cakes) in Hiroshima. You can also join a wagashi experience to taste the best confections in the country.
Kakigori – Shaved ice dessert
During Japan’s humid summers, locals love to cool down with kakigori, a shaved ice dessert with flavored syrup and condensed milk. This is different to Korea’s adaptation called bingsu which has tteok (rice cake) and sweet red bean paste with fruits.
The syrups come in a variety of flavors like lemon, matcha, strawberry and red bean. Top the kakigori with mochi balls, fruit and ice cream for extra decadence.
When you’re temple-hopping in Asakusa, you can cool down with a kakigori at the highly-rated Naniwaya. It’s also easy to find the shaved ice dessert at summer festivals.
Food in Japan is best accompanied with one of the many local drinks. Japan can lay claim to some uniquely Japanese drinks, such as the oddly-named Calpis milk. The Japanese have also produced masterful version of several global drinks, such as beer or whiskey.
Tea is at the heart of Japanese food and culture. The brewed drink first came to Japan in the 9th century, when Buddhist scholars brought back leaves from a visit to China.
In the late 12th century, Zen monk Eisai preached the health benefits of drinking tea, leading it to become widespread among the samurai class, followed by the general public. Tea production grew, and before long, it was difficult to imagine a Japanese meal without a soothing cup.
While traveling in Japan, you can find tea everywhere you go, from cold bottles in the convenience store, to hipster cafes with matcha lattes.
Sencha, or loose leaf green tea, is the most widely-drunk version. I also recommend trying the nutty hojicha, made from the roasted stems and leaves of late-season plants. Genmaicha, or green tea mixed with roasted rice, is another earthy choice.
The most intense form of green tea is matcha, a vividly-colored powdered version rich in antioxidants. Look for an establishment that specializes in matcha, such as Cafe Dong in Kyoto.
Watch the staff vigorously mix matcha and hot water in a bowl with a bamboo whisk, until the liquid is frothy.
For a futuristic version, purchase a ticket to TeamLab Borderless, aka the Mori Digital Museum in Tokyo. At their dimly-lit teahouse, En, you can watch neon images flow out of your glass bowl every time you take a sip.
A cultural journey to Japan isn’t complete without experiencing “chado,” the refined tea ceremony. This ritual originated in the 9th century, and has reached the status of an art form.
A Japanese tea ceremony usually takes place in a traditional tatami-floored tea house. Relax and be in the moment, as you watch the master mindfully brew and serve tea with specialized tools.
You’ll take part in multiple cleansing and pouring rituals, before enjoying an elegant cup of tea along with small confections. Anyone can book a classic Japanese tea ceremony experience in Hiroshima with a guide here (also includes calligraphy & Higashi Dessert Making).
I remember shooting a food and travel TV show with a “celebrity chef,” who somehow pronounced sake incorrectly every time he said the word on camera. Please don’t make the same mistake. Also known as nihonshu, this Japanese alcohol is pronounced “sack-ay.” Not “sack-ee” (“Onegaishimasu,” or please and thank you…).
Sake is generally a clear beverage made from polished and fermented rice, with about a 15-20% alcohol content and served hot or cold.
As with wine, sweetness, acidity, and tasting notes differ depending on the quality of ingredients and production process. For instance, a coarsely-filtered “nigorisake” results in a cloudy and tart flavor.
Sake is served in a small cup, which sometimes sits inside a wooden box, and without any additions. You can sip it at a bar, or pair it with a meal. Japan has close to 2,000 breweries in all regions, and many are open to visitors. You can also join a Tokyo sake tour and food pairing with a sommelier.
It’s easy to get confused between sake and shochu, since both are clear alcoholic beverages, so here are the differences.
Rather than being fermented, shochu is distilled from rice, barley, or sweet potato. Shochu also contains more alcohol than sake, sitting between 20-45%. Finally, shochu tends to be served on the rocks or mixed in a cocktail, rather than straight-up like sake.
Fruity shochu cocktails, or chu-hai, are a beloved drink at izakayas and other eateries. I always look on the menu for “yuzu-hi,” a tall glass of the inimitable Japanese citrus liquor along with shochu and ice.
I’m also a fan of the one with shikuwasa, a green citrus that hails from Okinawa, and the oolong-hai. You can sample standard chu-hais like lemon, or get crazy with a strawberry milk version. Or why not join a Shinjuku nightlife tour, and have a round of everything?
Japanese fruit liqueurs
Japan has a lovely selection of local fruit liqueurs, which tend to be lower in sugar and alcohol (around 12%) than Western versions such as peach schnapps or Balkan Rakia popular from Montenegro to Albania or Azerbaijan.
My favorite is yuzu, a tiny yellow citrus fruit with a distinctive tart taste. You can’t easily find yuzu liquor outside of Japan, and when you do, it’ll be sold at an immense mark-up. So drink up while you’re here, and nab a bottle at the duty free shop before you fly home.
Japan’s best-known fruit liquor is umeshu, made from steeping plums in sugar and alcohol. The syrupy and refreshing drink is so popular that it’s found in most convenience stores, and consumed widely during hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties). You can also sip on apricot or mikan (Japanese mandarin) liquor as an aperitif, or in a mixed cocktail.
Japanese beer was first produced in the 19th century. Today, the four major labels – Suntory, Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi – are so famous that they are served worldwide.
If you aren’t sure what to order, go with the people’s choice: Asahi Super Dry is the most consumed beer in the country (and even in places like Singapore). Pale Pilsner-style lagers are also popular, particularly the award-winning Suntory Premium Malt.
In recent years, independent craft beer makers have been making waves with their innovative brews. Experience these small-batch brews at Far Yeast Bar in Shibuya. Or relax and pop open a cold one, while on a three-hour bar hopping tour in Tokyo.
Those who read novels by Haruki Murakami will notice that his characters often end a stressful day with a glass of Japanese whiskey on the rocks. As Murakami wrote in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, “Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink”.
The country first began producing a Scotch-like whiskey commercially in 1924. Today, Japanese whiskeys are renowned worldwide and have won many awards, even beating Scotland at its own game in 2017.
The two biggest labels are Nikka and Suntory, which produces the famous Hibiki and Yamazaki whiskeys and was the first to distill the spirit.
At The Society Bar in Park Hotel Tokyo, you can experience Japanese whiskey in its most elevated form.
The bar is the first in the country to be recognised by The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and stocks hundreds of bottles from around the globe. Prices are steep at The Society, but a tiny taste goes a long way, and the views out the skyscraper windows are unmatched.
If you have whiskey lovers back home, the airport is a great place to buy gift bottles of some of the more exclusive and limited-edition whiskeys, often in pretty bottles such as limited edition sakura Hibiki.
Vending machine drinks
As a child visiting Tokyo, I was amazed to see colorful drink vending machines at almost every corner. Today, the red machines remain ubiquitous, and stock both hot and cold beverages in various bottle sizes.
Some of the machines have been upgraded to giant touch-screens, which flash enticing drink ads over the screen. For 100-200 yen ($1-2 USD), you can sample authentic Japanese juices and soft drinks.
Down the aptly named Pocari Sweat to replenish your ions on a hot day, or dare to try a milky and slightly acidic Calpis. The fizzy citrus CC Lemon is another refreshing drink commonly found in vending machines.
I try to avoid the high sugar content in most of these, so I punch the buttons for plain green or barley tea.
I hope this Japanese food list makes you eager to experience both modern and traditional food in Japan. Keep an eye out for seasonal ingredients and local specialties, as you travel throughout the country.
You can’t go wrong with sitting down at a small local eatery, especially if the menu is only in Japanese. May you discover new favorites, and have plenty of “oishii” (delicious) dishes on your journey!
BIO: La Carmina is a travel writer and TV presenter specializing in Japanese subcultures. She runs the award-winning La Carmina blog, wrote three books about J-pop culture for Penguin Random House, and has appeared as a Tokyo expert on CNN, Discovery, National Geographic, ABC and other television networks worldwide.
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