One of my greatest joys of travel, no matter where I go, is food. I love seeking out as much authentic local food as possible. I spend lots of time before and during our travels researching what and where to eat. Before traveling to Japan, I had some knowledge of the food of Japan. After all, sushi and ramen and tempura are all common and easy to find at home. But, Japanese food will alway be better in Japan! I added greatly to my Japan food knowledge and experience while exploring Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Hiroshima. Let me show you 12 great things to eat in Japan.
Udon & Tempura
Noodles of various styles and ingredients are very common in Japanese cuisine. Udon is a thick chewy wheat noodle. It’s often served in a warm flavorful soy sauce based broth and topped with green onions, as pictured here.
Tempura is deep fried meat or vegetables, covered with a light batter. Chicken tempura is pictured alongside the bowl of Udon above. The use of ice water, low gluten flour, and minimal mixing (ideally with chopsticks) helps keep the tempura batter light and crispy.
The pictured meal is from Udon Sanshiki in Kyoto. We ate tempura several times in Japan, and this version was the best. The batter was incredibly light and the chicken very tender and flavorful. The udon was wonderfully chewy and the broth was so good. Udon Sanshiki is a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant. These are restaurants recognized by the Michelin rating system for outstanding quality at prices lower than the typical Michelin-starred restaurants.
Another popular Japanese noodle is Soba. These noodles are made from buckwheat. It is common in the summer for soba noodles to be served cold and presented on a bamboo platter along with a soy-based dipping sauce and garnishes. Tenzura Soba (pictured) is soba served with tempura seafood and vegetables. This was our first meal in Japan at Tempura Pub Kyoto Gatten. We had jet-lagged stomaches and so wanted something light. It perfectly served that purpose.
In winter, soba noodles are often served in a warm broth instead.
Ramen is easily Japan’s most famous noodle soup. Like udon, ramen noodles are also made from wheat, but include a key ingredient called kansui. Kansui is a specific type of alkaline mineral water that gives the noodle a firmer texture than udon, and a yellowish hue.
Ramen is also defined by its broth. The broth – usually made from pork or chicken stock – is thicker and richer than other Japanese noodle soups. Sliced pork is a common addition along with various other toppings including green onions, mushrooms, dried seaweed (nori). Many versions of ramen exist across Japan, with different regions offering their own take on this classic.
We ate ramen three different times during our trip to Japan. Each was different and each was delicious. I’ve included a picture of my favorite – from Ramen Hiwamatanoboru near the Fushima Inari Shrine in Kyoto. It featured a very thick and rich pork-based broth (tonkotsu broth) with the the consistency of a light gravy. The pork was tender with a great chargrilled flavor.
Many people mistakingly think sushi – perhaps the most famous food of Japan – is synonymous with raw seafood and rice. In fact, the word sushi actually refers to the sour rice – the key ingredient in all sushi. Sushi rice (mixed with rice wine vinegar to give its slightly sour taste) can then be combined with many ingredients – not always fish – to create a great variety of different sushi options and styles.
My favorite sushi meal during our trip to Japan was at Toki Sushi in Osaka. Here we opted for the style of sushi called nigirizushi – hand pressed balls of sushi rice, topped with a slice of seafood. We ordered sushi with both grilled and raw seafood – and let the chef chose the freshest fish selections of the day for us. Pictured is our grilled sushi. You can see that not only is the fish grilled, but so is the rice. Every bite had a delicious chargrilled flavor.
Kobe Beef Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki is a style of cooking. It refers to the use of a metal griddle (called a teppan) to cook food. Usually, the Japanese teppanyaki chef prepares the meat and vegetables on the teppan right in front of you.
Many types of protein can be used for a Teppanyaki meal. Kobe beef is a popular choice. This is a very specific form of Waygu beef that must by definition come from a particular strain of Japanese cattle raised in the Japanese prefecture of Hyogo (Kobe is its capital city). Kobe beef is famous for its fat marbling which maximizes its flavor and tenderness. It’s the most expensive and sought-after beef in the world.
This Kobe Beef Teppanyaki is from Teppan Tavern Gion Tenamonya in Kyoto. It is A5 Kobe Beef – the highest grade. I had read many reviews prior to our trip where diners concluded that their Kobe Beef Teppanyaki experience resulted in the best steak they’d ever eaten. And ours was indeed very delicious. But I can’t say it was the best steak I’ve ever eaten. I still prefer the smoky flavor of a great ribeye cooked on my own backyard grill.
Curry was brought to Japan from India in the 19th century and now curry restaurants are very popular all over the country. Japanese curry dishes are milder than Indian curry (which includes many more additional spices). I love curry and enjoyed the Japanese version, though it is definitely less complex in flavor than the Indian curry I am more accustomed to.
Pictured is a version from Wakasa Curry Honpo in Nara. I ordered two different types of curry including one with spinach (the green version). They also offered the option of adding an omelet to my curry platter which turned out to be a splendid idea.
It seems like everyone is always on the go in Japan, and the public transportation system is amazing. Consequently, there is a vast selection of grab-and-go food at all the train stations. And it’s really good! Bento boxes are a common way to conveniently package this delicious food.
Pictured is a selection of Bento boxes we purchased for our bullet train ride from Kyoto to Hiroshima. Pork Tonkatsu sandwiches, Unagi Don (eel and rice), lightly Smoked Salmon. And also a couple skewers of Chicken Yakitori.
Takoyaki is a popular Japanese snack that originated in Osaka. It consists of small octopus chunks cooked inside a batter and served with various sauces and toppings. We tried Takoyaki while exploring the Dontonbori area of Osaka. This area is famous for its nightlife, neon, and street food – including Takoyaki.
The lines can be long outside the popular Takoyaki street stalls. But eating on the street in Japan is highly frowned upon – one of the reasons Japan is spotlessly clean. Each street-front Takoyaki stand also has a small inside eating area behind, where we sat down and enjoyed these slightly gooey balls of goodness.
Okonomiyaki are cabbage pancakes and are popular throughout Japan. Different regions of the country put their own spin on the dish. Pictured is a version that I ate in Hiroshima where it’s popular to layer the ingredients one on top of another, while also including noodles. It’s popular to eat Okonomiyaki at a long teppan counter and watch your meal prepared in front of you.
My Okonomiyaki chef started with a pancake batter that was then topped with cabbage. At certain points through the process, bacon, egg, noodles, the largest pile of green onions ever, special tangy BBQ-type sauce, and other proteins of choice are added. I chose oysters – oceanside Hiroshima is famous for its huge oysters. This pile of food is then served to you right on top of the teppan grill, and you are given a sharp spatula to help cut it into more manageable pieces.
Japanese Convenience Stores are certainly the greatest of all. The selection and quality of grab-and-go food items is very impressive. Wandering through these ubiquitous convenience stores offers a completely different insight into the food of Japan. While we were in Japan, I would visit the closest one every morning – usually Lawson – and gather up a variety of breakfast selections. I’d heard that the pre-packaged convenience store sandwiches were delicious, but remained skeptical until I ate my first. Never stale and flavorful fresh ingredients. I mean…look at that egg!
Green Tea Ice Cream
And now let’s finish with dessert! Green Tea is an extremely popular drink in Japan and matcha green tea powder is used to make the equally popular Green Tea ice cream. Green Tea ice cream cones seem to be everywhere, and we couldn’t help but enjoy one almost every day. And while Green Tea is easily the most popular ice cream flavor, you will find other unusual ice cream flavors in Japan, too. We tried Black Sesame, Black Tea, and Purple Yam at various times. All were very good and less sweet than American ice creams or European gelatos.
As I do anytime I travel somewhere new, I left Japan with a much great appreciation of its food. Hopefully, reading about these 12 great foods of Japan will help whet your appetite for a trip to Japan. And while I can get pretty good ramen and sushi at home, it will never match the experience of eating it in Japan!
And if you want to read about another great Asian cuisine, check out my post about seeking out Korean food in Las Vegas