Did you know that Japan has the most Michelin stars out of all the countries? This country boasts over 550 stars with over 200 of them being in Tokyo. Most people think of sushi and tempura when Japanese food is mentioned, but their cuisine goes beyond that. With a history that spans back thousands of years, it is not surprising that their cuisine is just as varied, if not a little freaky! If you’re a daring foodie, then Japan is a destination you have got to put on your list. You can try some of the most incredible and bizarre foods in the world in this country.
First-time travelers will most definitely be dazzled when they first touch down in this incredible country. With so many options and good smells in every direction, people won’t even know where to start. Luckily for you, we’ve got you covered. We’ve compiled a list of crazy food experiences that will leave your friends back home in shock. From raw chicken to poisonous fish, here are 20 questionable food experiences you can only get in Japan.
Unagi in Japanese means freshwater eel, and there is an entire city in Japan that is dedicated to this wiggly fish, so much so that there is even a special day in the summer, called Doyo No Ushi No Hi, that is set for eel eating. We’ll admit, looking at these creatures while they are in the tank is a freaky experience. However, once these bad boys are filleted, grilled, and covered in a delicious sugary soy sauce glaze, you will have no trouble chowing down. Each bite of this fish is a perfect blend of umami flavor. Everyone knows the four basic flavors—sweet, salty, spicy, and bitter. But umami, Japanese for “good flavor,” is a whole category on its own. Identified by the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, umami is a blend of sweet savouriness that just cannot be defined by the other four well-known tastes.
Lake Hamana in Hamamatsu city is where you can find the best unagi in Japan. Small restaurants surround the lake that supplies their eels. Freshly caught, the eels are slowly grilled over charcoal until they are lightly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. A rich soy sauce glaze is brushed over these fillets as a finishing touch. There are several ways to eat this amazing dish–one on its own and two as sushi–so cut pieces are placed on top of rice. Or three, the most popular way, is over a bowl of steaming rice. Called an “unagi-don,” bowls of rice are heavily layered with the eel and you can even get extra sauce to go with the rice. Are you drooling yet?
19 Beef Tongue
Before you get all freaked out, beef tongue is actually a common ingredient in several countries. Latin America, Europe, and most of Asia all use beef tongue in some way or another in their cooking. It is just another muscle in the cow! Called gyūtan in Japanese, the most common way of eating this meat is to BBQ it. That’s right, Japan has BBQ too. They, however, call it yakiniku, which literally just means grilled meat. The tongue is usually thinly sliced and cooked over charcoal. It has a deep meaty flavor with an extremely satisfying texture. It is not as tender as a piece of steak, but more like if steak and cartilage were combined. It is tender...with a crunch (we're sorry if we just grossed you out).
Gyūtan became popular when a chef in Sendai started using it in one of his restaurants. The dish quickly became popular throughout Japan, and every yakiniku place offers it as one of their staple dishes.
Probably Japan’s most beloved snack food, takoyaki can be found all over Japan. If you’ve ever watched an anime or read a manga, you’ve probably seen one of the characters eating some kind of round-shaped food with a toothpick. 90% of the time, the character ends up fanning their mouth because the dish was too hot. Well, mystery solved! That dish was takoyaki, which translates to octopus ball. Before you start cringing and questioning everything you know about octopuses, these are wheat flour batter filled with diced octopuses. The ball shape comes from the batter molds. After they are popped out, the balls are covered with a tangy soy sauce-based glaze, mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and dried fish flakes. They have a notorious reputation for being extremely hot, so take caution when eating them.
Takoyaki was created by a street vendor named Tomekichi Endo in Osaka, so it is no surprise that one of the most famous streets in Japan, Dotonburi, is lined in takoyaki stalls. While alongside dozens of other food stalls, takoyaki is clearly king. It is incredible watching the vendors make hundreds of these snacks in minutes.
This dish is one of Japan’s more controversial dishes. Basashi translates to “horse meat sashimi.” If you’re not already horrified to find out that it is horse meat, let me freak you out further. Basashi is specifically raw horse meat. Also called sakuraniku, “cherry blossom meat,” due to its pink color, this dish is only served in a few restaurants.
Basashi originated from Kumamoto, southwest Japan, where legend says that due to a lack of food during a battle in the feudal era, warriors had to eat their horses. Much later, during the Second World War, people also turned to eating horses for lack of other options. However, today, the practice of eating horse meat is fairly common. Several European countries, Asia, and even parts of America eat horse meat.
While some restaurants in Japan offer this protein in a cooked style, more often than not, this meat is presented raw. Served cold with a side of soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi, this meat is eaten exactly like a cut of fish. The meat is surprisingly tender. It is smooth and sweet and pairs extremely well with the wasabi and soy sauce. Easiest to find in Kumamoto, this dish can usually also be found in most traditional Japanese food restaurants.
Not as crazy as raw horse meat, this next delicacy is a Japanese favorite. Manjū is a dense dessert made from flour, rice powder, and buckwheat. The dough is usually filled with anko, red bean paste (but some places use novelty flavors), before being steamed. This dessert was actually brought over from China and then made popular in Japan. When attending a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the sweet that accompanies the tea is called “wagashi.” There are many kinds of wagashi, but the richly sweet manjū is a popular accompaniment to the bitter green tea.
Most cities in Japan have their own version of manjū using different fillings or a unique shape. One of the most famous manjū shapes is Hiroshima’s with their maple-leaf-shaped manjū. Sometimes, these desserts are almost too pretty to eat! Oftentimes, Japanese workers will travel somewhere and bring back the city’s version of manjū as a souvenir for the office. If you want to try this sugary sweet, hit up any gift shop in the area. Because Japan has a tradition of giving coworkers and friends gifts (usually some kind of snack) from places they’ve traveled, every city has stores dedicated to their brand of snacks, manjū included!
Whoever first came up with the idea of mochi must have had a lot of time on their hand. It takes quite a while to make mochi, at least if you’re making it the traditional way. This requires pounding rice over and over again while adding splashes of water until it forms a sticky solid glob. The mound is pulled apart and rolled into little white balls and ready to eat. Doesn’t that sound appetizing? Actually, mochi has an extremely long history in Japan. While it isn’t 100% confirmed, archaeologists have found tools that look like today’s tools for making mochi that dates back to the Kofun Period, which is one of the earliest periods of Japan. Mochi is even used in religious holidays. During the New Year, a display is created using mochi cakes. After about a week or so, the family takes the mochi, breaks it apart, and eats it. Of course, you don’t have to wait until the New Year to eat mochi. You can buy the dessert at any grocery store or convenience store.
However, as unassuming as this treat looks, there is a dark side to this moon-like dessert! Authorities have to annually warn people to be careful when they are eating mochi. Every year, during peak mochi eating season, someone chokes and dies from eating mochi. The gelatinous dessert gets caught in a person’s throat and prevents them from breathing. So when you’re chewing on this sweet treat, make sure to take small bites.
One of Japan’s most beloved winter food, oden is made by boiling ingredients in a light broth of fish stock, sake, mirin, and soy sauce. The most popular items in oden are generally tofu, daikon, fish cakes, and sausages. Some of the ingredients are easy to recognize. However, when you look into a pot of oden, there will definitely be some raised eyebrows at the “fish cakes.”
The fish cakes are made by pounding fish until it forms a paste, shaping it, and then boiling it. By pounding the fish before boiling it, the results are actually a springy and flavorful “cake.” There are hundreds of different kinds of fish cakes. Some are mixed with miso, others are mixed with green onions, and some may have sausages in the middle. Regardless, they’re all thrown into a giant bowl and boiled to perfection. In the winter, you can go into any convenience store and get a bowl of hot oden. After you’ve eaten everything, you can sip the hot broth to keep warm.
Did you know that there is only one thing that the emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat? That’s right, the emperor of Japan is expressly prohibited from eating fugu. That’s because fugu is prepared from pufferfish which, if you didn’t know, is poisonous. Due to a toxin (tetrodotoxin), if fugu is incorrectly prepared, best case scenario is becoming ill while the worst case scenario means an abrupt end to the trip. There is no cure, and the poison is quick-acting. Chefs have to undergo intensive training to learn how to prepare this deadly catch. The fish is carefully cut, and the most poisonous parts of the fish are removed. The flesh is thinly sliced and arranged on a plate served to guests with a side of wasabi and soy sauce. People have described the taste as delicate but underwhelming. It seems that it is more to the thrill of flirting with death than the taste that draws people in. Although there are some people that swear the taste and texture of fugu is like no other cut of fish. There are currently eight restaurants in Japan that have a Michelin star serving fugu. We’d recommend Usukifugu Yamadaya in Tokyo which is the only fugu restaurant with three Michelin stars to its name.
Maybe when the current emperor abdicates his throne (the first ever to do so), he will go and enjoy a plate of fugu as his first meal.
One thing is for sure, Japan has a love for fermenting things. Often eaten in the morning, natto is not for the faint of heart. Natto is a traditional Japanese health food that is made by fermenting soybeans. The result is a less-than-appetizing bowl of slimy beans with a powerful smell and flavor. Some people describe the particular smell of natto as sweaty feet, old cheese, and hot garbage (are you salivating yet?). And another unpleasant quality is the texture. It is slippery and sticky and, after stirring, an extremely stringy mess. Why on earth would anyone want to eat it then? Well, natto is surprisingly nutritious, contains no cholesterol, and is a significant source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and contains vitamins B6, B2, E, and K2. Most people that eat it immediately love it or hate it (we think that most people likely hate it). The beans are eaten with mustard and soy sauce and are usually served on top of rice. It is easily found and can be bought at any grocery store.
Here we go again with the fermented foods that the Japanese people seem to love so much. Another popular fermented food in Japan is called Funazushi. It is a specialty of the Shiga prefecture because the fish, a fish of the carp family, that is used for the dish is caught at Biwa Lake. The fish is cured by stuffing salt through the gills and covering the outside of the scales. It is then packed in steam rice and left to ferment from between one to three years. During the fermentation process, the meat and bones grow soft. The distinct aroma is one similar to cheese. Some believe that funazushi may be the original sushi. In the old days, funazushi was given as an offering to the gods, and usually, the first funazushi of the season was left as an offering. The fish was also gifted to members of the samurai and aristocratic families. There are not many places that offer this dish due to the lengthy process it takes to make it. This delicacy is usually only found in the Shiga prefecture.
This next dish combines two staples of the Japanese diet in an unexpected way. Chasuke, meaning submerged tea, is a combination of steamed rice with green tea poured over it. The dish can be eaten plain or topped with various toppings. Common toppings include pickles, seaweed, sesame seeds, salted salmon, wasabi, and several more. This dish is usually eaten at breakfast or as a quick snack.
Ochazuke has a long history and has been dated back to the Hein period (794-1185). The practice began when people poured water over their rice to make a softer and simpler meal. Water was gradually replaced by green tea when the drink became more popular. Adding toppings make a more varied and substantial meal. Today, there are even instant packets that contain freeze-dried toppings and seasonings to go with the dish. So if you’ve had a long day of exploring in Japan and are in need of a simple heartwarming meal, try making this simple dish. All the ingredients are easily found in grocery and convenience stores.
Chawanmushi actually translates to “steamed in a teacup” (we're not going to question the simple name). It is a steamed savory custard that has a delicate flavor full of umami. The name comes from the fact that the dish is usually served in small individual teacups (clever). The cups are filled with small pieces of mushrooms, chicken, shrimp, and ginkgo nuts. Then a mixture of egg, dashi, soy sauce, and salt is poured over the top. The cups are covered and steamed until they have a firm texture. The result is a light and fluffy custard that is simply delicious and just melts in your mouth. It definitely beats your run-of-the-mill scrambled eggs!
When you go to a Japanese restaurant and order a set meal, one of the side dishes that is served is usually a small cup of chawanmushi. It can also be found as a popular option in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
If you are ready to eat a massive meal in one sitting, chankonanabe is the dish for you. This Japanese stew is traditionally eaten by sumo wrestlers as a way to gain weight. The dish starts with a soup base, usually dashi or chicken broth, and then everything but the kitchen sink is added. There is no set recipe for the meal. Instead, every restaurant and person adds whatever they would like to the dish. Generally, the dish is filled with large amounts of protein because the sumo wrestlers are trying to maintain a certain weight. Chicken, fish, tofu, shrimp, and vegetables are all added to the mix.
This heavy meal is a staple for sumo wrestlers as an easy way to pack on the pounds. Sumo wrestlers will eat several bowls of this dish before retiring to take a nap and process the meal. The heavier you are, the more difficult it is to get knocked down! The best places to eat chankonanabe are actually at restaurants that retired sumo wrestlers have opened up. There are several in Tokyo, one being Chanko Shibamatsu Midorigaoka located in the Meguro-ku district of Tokyo. After a hearty meal, maybe you’ll feel brave enough to take on a match against the restaurant’s owner. Then again, maybe not.
Japan seems determined to make an effort to eat every single part of the fish. From eyeballs to fish eggs, nothing goes to waste. Well, this is a specific part of the fish that you’ve probably never even thought of. In English, shirako is known as milt. If you are still uncertain of what this is, then let us clarify. Milt is male genitalia of fish when they contain sperm. The kanji (Japanese characters) of shirako translates to “white children.”
In Japan, shirako is usually served raw. It is usually opaque white and looks like a piece of the human brain. The flavor is described as mild but fishy, and the texture (and we’re not sure how we feel about this) is disconcertingly creamy. This dish is easily found in most sushi restaurants where it is served gunkanmaki style (battleship style). The rice is shaped in an oval with seaweed wrapping the outside. The seaweed comes up over the rice so that it forms a shallow bowl, and toppings are placed inside. Cross this item off your “foods to try” list and your friends will undeniably be impressed, if not slightly horrified. You'll definitely earn some bragging rights after trying this.
6 Whale Meat
After World War II, Japan faced a crisis. With the country in ruins, food was scarce. Japan took two US Navy tankers and converted them into factory ships. They then journeyed to the Southern Ocean and hunted for whales. For the next 20 years after the war, whale meat was the largest source of meat in Japan. The most common whale that was caught for consumption was the minke whale. Today, whale meat is no longer a staple. Instead, people eat it as a novelty, and not very many places sell it. In the Tsukiji fish market, Japan’s largest fish market, only two vendors still sell whale meat.
Before, whale was eaten as a replacement for all other kinds of protein. Today, it is eaten by very few people and usually as sashimi. It is a thick and chewy fish with a strong gamey flavor. Since it is no longer a major protein in the Japanese diet, only a few restaurants that specialize in serving it still exist. Most of these restaurants can be found in Tokyo with one restaurant being Kujirarya, which is located in Shibuya, Tokyo.
If the picture hasn’t already sent you screaming away, you've earned macho points. The next insane food on our list is habushu, also known as Okinawan snake wine. It isn’t difficult to see what exactly snake wine is. A habu snake, Japan’s only venomous snake and only found in Okinawa, is placed in a bottle of liquor. There are two methods of making this alcohol, and both are equally horrifying. One, the snake is drowned in the alcohol. Two, the snake is frozen, gutted, and then placed in the alcohol. Regardless of the method, the end result is a terrifying bottle of liquor that has an entire snake floating inside.
It is believed that drinking this concoction will increase the male libido. This myth is based on the fact that the habu snake mates for over 26 hours. No matter what “beneficial properties” this alcohol may contain, it will take a good amount of convincing to get one of us to open up for this drink. This drink is commonly found in Okinawa, the southern islands of Japan. However, it is easy to find this in liquor stores throughout Japan.
Japan is nowhere near the first country to jump on the bandwagon of eating bugs (nor is it the last). Insects are actually a fantastic source of protein and are making huge moves in becoming a sustainable protein. In Japan, inago no tsukudani is a Japanese dish of locusts. The bugs are caught and placed in a bag or box for a day with no access to any food. This ensures that the feces are removed. The insects are then put into boiling after. Then, they are placed in a hot pan without oil to remove the water. Afterward, oil is added and the locusts are tossed ‘til crispy (we're thinking that it's kind of like eating bug chips?). The final step is coating the bugs in soy sauce and sugar. This snack is commonly found in the mountain regions of Japan—Nagano, in particular.
When locusts swarm, they destroy entire fields of crops in a short amount of time. To battle starvation, people started eating the locusts. After the cooking process, the insects don’t have a strong taste. Instead, the snack tastes primarily of the soy sauce and sugar that coat it. Are you feeling peckish yet?
3 Maguro Nakaochi
We weren’t kidding when we mentioned earlier that Japan likes to use every bit of the fish. However, this dish is much more palatable. Maguro Nakaochi is the scrapings of tuna meat off the fish bones. The meat is finely chopped and served either in maki rolls or on a bowl of rice. Most of the meat is usually taken off around the spine where prize cuts of the fish have already been sliced off. However, the scrapings that are left are delicious and would be a travesty if wasted. The scrapings are creamy and full of flavor and pairs amazingly well with the rice soaked in vinegar and soy sauce. Each bite is a combination of the creamy fish and springy rice, your mouth will never be as happy.
A great place to eat this dish and also have an incredible experience is at Maguro Mart in Nakano. Here, the restaurant specializes in tuna, and you can get every cut of tuna imaginable. The best part is when they bring you the massive bones and a spoon. You get to scrape the flesh off yourself. It’s always fun to work a little for your food, and this place is definitely worth a visit.
2 Tamago Kake Gohan
Tamago kake gohan is Japanese food at its simplest. While it is a staple in Japan, it might be considered shocking in America. This is because Tamago kake gohan is just white rice with a raw egg in it. Raw egg has a fierce stigma in America due to the fear of salmonella poisoning. However, eating raw eggs are a staple in Japanese diets. They’re used in multiple ways, and tamago kake gohon is just one of many ways that raw eggs are eaten.
Because eating raw eggs are common, Japan has an intensive screening process to clean and sort the eggs. Each egg is carefully washed and inspected before it is packaged for the consumer. The machines do everything from using spectroscopic analysis to study the wavelengths passing through the egg to using gentle hammers to listen to the egg and ensure that there are no cracks. After passing through the tests, the eggs are considered safe for consumption, raw or cooked. Tamagokake gohan is often eaten at breakfast. Using leftover rice from the night before a raw egg is cracked into the bowl, drizzled with a little soy sauce, and voila, breakfast is served. Are you daring enough to try this dish?
1 Chicken Sashimi
What on Earth? That's right, you read that correctly... The last item on our list is probably the most controversial food in Japan right now (and with reason). Chicken sashimi is exactly what it sounds like, raw chicken. If you want to claim the title of “Adventurous Food Eater,” then you have to try this dish while you’re in Japan. The chefs take center cuts from the breast, the area less likely to be contaminated by salmonella, and serve it thinly sliced or diced. The chicken is seared for about ten seconds to give it a slight crust, probably just to make it easier to pick up more so than anything else, and then it is plated. Just like that... While there are restaurants that are licensed to prepare this dish, Japan’s Ministry of Health still warns about being careful. The places that serve this controversial dish claim that all their chickens are carefully selected from small farms to ensure the cleanliness and freshness of the meat. If you are ready to take this final food test, then Akira in Nakameguro Meguro, Tokyo is probably a good place to try out (we still suggest that you proceed with caution). This place is famous for their chicken, both raw and cooked. So if you chicken out, there are still some other options for you to eat.