Japan is a food lover’s paradise offering an overwhelming number of choices to try! There is so much more to Japanese cuisine than just sushi and ramen. Japan provides both outstanding Michelin star restaurants, street food and everything in between that you easily could spend years touring Japan to try all the different regional dishes.
Just like France or Italy which are famous tourist destinations for foodies, Japan is a must-visit spot for culinary travel. In 2013 Japanese cuisine (known as washoku) was recognized by UNESCO for being an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Washoku translates to Japanese food but can also mean the harmony of food which is a core concept of Japanese cuisine. In Japan, chefs aim to showcase the individual ingredients and have a beautiful presentation of the food.
Because of the fantastic culinary scene, it is no surprise that when people visit Japan trying a wide variety of food is an essential part of their travel plans. While experiencing fresh sushi in Japan is vital, there are a variety of other delicious dishes you need to try too. If you are visiting Japan for only a short visit, it can be a challenge to figure out what to eat, as there are so many options and not enough days. With that in mind, here are the 20 dishes you need to try when you are in Japan.
Ramen is one of Japan’s best-known and most popular dishes that you can find absolutely everywhere in Japan. It is the perfect meal for budget travelers as it is very filling and relatively inexpensive. Ramen consists of a soup broth filled with noodles, and there are four major types, shio (salt-based broth), miso (soybean paste-based broth), tonkotsu (pork bone-based broth), and shio (soy sauce-based broth). While it is possible to find these flavors anywhere in Japan, each area of Japan has their regional versions.
In addition to picking the broth type, at some ramen shops you can further customize your order by selecting the type of noodle you want (thin, regular or thick) and how cooked you want the noodles (regular or firm). Typical ramen toppings include seaweed, kamaboko (a steamed fish cake), green onions, pork belly, and a soft boiled egg but this highly varies depending on the region.
Is it a pancake? Or is it a pizza? Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake, often referred to as ‘Japanese pizza’ containing a variety of different ingredients. The dish is very popular in Osaka and Hiroshima with both region having their unique style of okonomiyaki. The Osaka-style version is flour, eggs, grated yam, dashi and shredded cabbage cooked into a pancake. The pancake is then topped with strips of bacon, sauce, seaweed flakes, and Japanese mayonnaise. The Hiroshima-style is layered on top of each other instead of mixed. It starts with a noodle base, topped with layers of cabbage, bacon, egg, the okonomiyaki pancake batter, sauce, green onions and pickled ginger.
Takoyaki is a fried octopus ball and is one of Osaka's most famous dishes. It is a straightforward dish, just a piece of octopus covered in a dough batter and cooked into a ball shape. The cooked takoyaki is then covered with a sweet sauce (often okonomiyaki sauce), bonito flakes (dried fish), and Japanese mayonnaise.
The dish can be found all over Osaka in both restaurants and as street food. For a classic Takoyaki experience, head to Dotonbori in Osaka and look out for the large red octopus sign where you will be able to see from the street people making takoyaki.
Tempura is pieces of battered and deep-fried seafood or vegetables such as shrimp, eggplant, mushroom, pumpkin, sweet potato, lotus root or shiso leaves. It can be found all over Japan and can be served as a main dish, a side dish, or as a topping over udon or soba noodles. While tempura is available at many restaurants as a side dish or in bento boxes, tempura-ya are restaurants that specialize in serving tempura.
To eat tempura either you can dip it into the dipping sauce or sprinkle some of the salt over the tempura before eating.
Yakitori is grilled chicken skewers that are cooked over a charcoal fire. It is a very inexpensive dish that costs around 100-200 yen per stick. This dish is popularly enjoyed with a glass of beer at a Japanese pub (izakaya), but it is also a favorite street food during summer festivals.
When ordering yakitori, it is common to order a few sticks at a time, as they are served hot off the grill, and to order more food later if you are still hungry. To eat yakitori, eat the chicken directly off the bamboo skewers.
Unlike Thai or Indian curries Japanese curry also known as curry rice is much milder, with a thicker sauce that is slightly sweeter. It is a very popular dish that is served with rice. Typical ingredients in the curry are potatoes, carrots, onions, and meat. The two most popular types of meat added to a Japanese curry is thin slices of beef or deep-fried pork cutlets (this dish is called katsu kare). Japanese curry is to be eaten with a spoon and can be topped with pickled lotus, daikon, eggplant, and cucumber that have a salty and sweet flavor and are sometimes dyed bright red with shiso.
Mochi is a chewy Japanese rice cake that is traditionally made by pounding rice. There is a vast variety of mochi with some only available seasonally.
Sakura-mochi is cherry blossom mochi that is filled with red bean paste and wrapped with a pickled cherry leaf. The texture varies across Japan, with Osaka having a coarse grain, and Tokyo offering a smoother consistency.
Daifuku is round mochi stuffed with fillings such as sweet bean paste and lightly dusted to potato starch to keep them from sticking together. Other popular varieties include strawberry daifuku which has a whole strawberry and sweet red bean inside, mochi ice cream (mochi with ice cream inside).
Soba is long and thing buckwheat flour noodles. In the winter it is best enjoyed in a bowl of hot soy and dashi broth. Meanwhile, in the summer, soba noodles are served cold with a dipping sauce.
It is worth noting that another popular dish in Japan, yakisoba, which literally means "fried buckwheat", isn’t made with buckwheat noodles but ramen-style wheat noodles. It is stir-fried noodles with pork, vegetables, and topped with yakisoba sauce, fish flakes, pickled ginger, seaweed powder and Japanese mayonnaise and delicious too.
Tonkatsu is slices of pork that are breaded and deep fried similar to a German schnitzel. When ordering you can select if you rather the lean pork tenderloin or filet or juicier 'rosu' which uses pork with more fat.
It typically served as a set meal with miso soup, shredded cabbage, and rice. The cabbage which has a juice over it provides a nice contrast to the rich tonkatsu which has a sauce of Worcestershire sauce and mustard. Tonkatsu can also be enjoyed in a variety of Japanese dishes including katsudon (Japanese curry with tonkatsu pieces), katsu sandwich (a tonkatsu sandwich), and tonkatsu ramen.
Dango is a chewy steamed dumpling with three to five sweetened rice flour balls skewered on a stick. Similar to mochi, dango is made with rice flour, but the dough isn't pounded like done in mochi. This delicious sweet is enjoyed year round with different flavors being available depending on the season or region.
Popular varieties include shoyu dango (sweet soy sauce dipped), yaki dango (grilled dango) and hanami dango. Hanami dango is so iconic it even has an emoji, which is the pink, white and green dango balls on a stick which are available during cherry blossom season.
Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake that is a favorite dessert during street festivals, but you can find it sold throughout the year too. The pancake-like batter is poured over a fish-shaped mold and cooked until the mixture is lightly crispy on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. In Japan it is traditionally filled with sweet red bean paste you can now find varieties filled with custard or chocolate. This dessert is best enjoyed fresh while it is still hot.
Donburi is a Japanese rice bowl, and it is the perfect convenient, affordable and filling dish. You won’t have to look far too far find donburi in Japan, as there are fast food chains everywhere selling donburi.
The name, donburi means rice bowl, so dishes that have 'don' in the name indicate they are a rice bowl. There is a variety of different donburi types, each with a different name, but some of the popular varieties of rice bowls include: gyudon (thinly sliced beef and onions), unadon (grilled eel), oyakodon (chicken and egg), katsudon (deep-fried pork cutlets), tendon (tempura), and tamagodon (scrambled egg).
Nabe is Japanese hot pot that is made in the winter to warm up. In a pot of hot broth, a variety of ingredients are added such as noodles, vegetables, tofu, and meat. The dish is meant to be enjoyed family-style, so each person would pick out what they want to eat from the pot of hot soup.
One of the most popular dishes is sukiyaki where sliced beef, vegetables simmered in a sweet and salty sauce. Another common nabe dish is shabu-shabu you cook the vegetables and meat in a kombu based sauce. Shabu-shabu means 'swish swish' and that is the motion you are to make when cooking.
Omurice, short for omelet rice is a strange combination of savory chicken rice wrapped in a paper-thin egg omelet and is garnished with ketchup. If you are someone who enjoys ketchup on your scrambled eggs omurice is a dish you need to try. In recent years some restaurants are ditching the thin egg omelet, and instead laying soft and fluffy scrambled eggs over the bed of fried rice and topping everything with a generous dollop of ketchup.
There are so many types of Japanese noodles you need to try while in Japan, and udon is one of them! Compared to soba and ramen noodles the noodles are thicker and chewier wheat flour noodles. In the colder months, a bowl of udon in a hot broth made of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin is the perfect way to warm up. While in the summer udon noodles are best enjoyed cold with a soy-sauce dipping sauce.
In the hot udon bowls, the flavor of the broth and the toppings vary from region to region, with eastern Japan having a much darker broth compared to western Japan.
Onigiri is flavored balls of rice that are perfect for an inexpensive snack or quick meal. The dish is sold everywhere in Japan so you can get it at convenience stores or even restaurants.
The most simple onigiri is rice molded into triangular shape and wrapped in seaweed. The simple dish can also be flavored with a variety of fillings like tunamayo (tuna and mayonnaise), umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum), salmon, or kaka (bonito flakes with soy sauce). For extra flavor, it might also have a salty seasoning topping sprinkled over the rice with commonly sold flavors being pickled plum, dried fish, shiso or egg. It is the perfect snack for when you’re on the go.
Yakiniku, or grilled meat, is a must-try social dining experience you need to try in Japan! At Yakiniku restaurants you sit at a table with a BBQ in the middle of the table and cook your meat and vegetables. Unlike Western BBQ, in Japan, the meat is cut into bite-sized pieces and is served raw as you get to cook it yourself.
If you are hungry Yakiniku restaurants are a great choice as they offer all you can eat menus where you will be given unlimited food to cook for a set time limit such as 2 hour.
In Japan soft serve ice cream is the perfect refreshing treat. Every region in Japan has own signature flavor, and you could easily travel around Japan just sampling the ice cream. Each prefecture has ice cream based upon their specialty fruit or dishes, for example, Okayama Prefecture that grows white peaches make an excellent white peach soft serve ice cream.
When ordering ice cream in Japan, you'll also find a bunch of unique flavors that you'll only see in Japan such as wasabi, miso, soy sauce, soba noodles, squid ink, bitter melon, and cherry blossoms.
Crispy and gold brown on the outside, gyoza are dumplings filled with vegetables and meat and wrapped in thin dough. Based upon Chinese pot stickers gyoza has a thinner wrapper to allow for a crispier texture. Compared to potstickers Japanese gyoza are usually smaller and designed to be enjoyed in one to two bites. The dipping sauce for the gyoza is typically vinegar, sesame oil, and spices, but sometimes ponzu is added for a citrus flavor too. Curious to try this delicious dish? You can commonly find gyoza as a side dish at ramen shops or izakayas (pubs).
Sushi is typically the first food that comes to mind when people think about Japanese food, and it is indeed a dish you will want to experience in Japan. One of the best ways to experience sushi is at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant where you can pick plates of sushi off they conveyor that catch your eye. This is an easy way to order sushi for tourist, as you won’t need Japanese to order. Here the plates are prices based upon the color of the plate.
Some common varieties of sushi you’ll want to eat are classic maki rolls you might be familiar with, nigiri sushi (a piece of raw fish over rice), sashimi (a piece of fresh fish), inarizushi (rice inside Aburaage tofu pouches).