Food,  Japan

Food of Japan – 12 Great Things to Eat

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

Udon and Chicken Tempura from Udon Sanshiki in Kyoto Japan

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.

Soba

Tenzura Soba - a popular way to eat Soba noodles in Japan

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

One of the great foods of Japan - Ramen

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.

Sushi

Lightly grilled sushi from Toki Sushi in Osaka Japan

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

Kobe Beef Teppanyaki from Teppan Tavern Gion Tenomonya in Kyoto Japan

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.

Japanese Curry

Japanese Curry served with an omelete from Wakasa Curry Honpo in Nara Japan

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.

Bento

A selection of Bento Boxes purchased at the Kyoto Train Station

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

Takoyaki - Octopus chunks cooked in batter and topped with various sauces

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

Okonomiyaki - Japanese cabbage pancakes.  This one topped with large Hiroshima oysters

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.

Lawson’s Sandwiches

A Lawson ham, egg, and cheese sandwich.  A tasty grab and go options from one of Japan's great convenience store chains.

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

A sign advertising green tea ice cream and various green tea drinks in Japan

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

28 Comments

  • Cindi | aneasyjourney

    This post was super helpful- I have learned so much! To me as well, getting to experience the local foods & customs is a top reason to travel. Have always heard the foods of Japan were very good & want to try them even more now! Also liked your format with photos and explanation 👏😀

    • thethoroughtripper

      We had such a hard time choosing which Bento boxes to buy at the train station. There were so many delicious-looking options. That’s why there is more food in that picture than we could actually eat 🙂

  • Lisa

    I’m drooling over this post! Japanese food is one of my favourites. that said, I won’t discriminate, I’d eat all of these dishes.

  • kasia

    I love green tea ice cream! We have some really amazing Japanese restaurants in Toronto but I haven’t come across Japanese curry. I can’t wait to go to Japan and eat my way through the country 🙂

  • Jane Frith

    I agree completely about searching out local cuisine when travelling – this is one of the joys. Japanese food is wonderful so I really enjoyed reading this post. The best meal I have ever had anywhere in the world was in Japan. Just looking at your pictures here now, my mouth is watering. I had never heard of Okonomiyaki before visiting Japan and when my daughter, who was working there, described it, it did nothing for me. When I sampled it for the first time though I was completely sold. I did not know that Sushi meant sour rice!

    • thethoroughtripper

      I passed through the Tokyo airport several times before actually spending time in the country. Hope you get the chance.

  • Vanessa Shields

    Yummy! How I would love to try many of these now. Haha. When I was younger I never wanted to visit Japan as I greatly dislike sushi. Luckily I found out there is a lot of other delicious foods like noodles and tempura! Would love to visit during the spring one year to see the blossoms too.

  • Wendy White

    I, like you, always want to try authentic cuisine when we travel. It’s one of the reasons I love going to new places. Our family love sushi and make it at home sometimes. I’ve never had Japanese Curry and must admit that I didn’t even know it existed. Would like to try Okonomiyaki when we visit Japan though.

    • thethoroughtripper

      I think that making sushi would be difficult. It’s often so difficult to get rice just right. But eating it in Japan was a major check off the food travel bucket list.

  • John Quinn

    You definitely left me with a longing to go on a foodie trip to Japan. That Kobe beef teppanyaki had me watering at the mouth. I’ll have to try that some day. I’m not convinced by the green tea ice cream though. I can’t stand green tea.

  • Ana

    Everything looks so delicious, it makes me hungry already 🙂
    I will be saving this great post for my trip to Japan – hopefully next year.
    Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂

    • thethoroughtripper

      I hope you can make it next year too. One of our kids has plane tickets for April and is really hoping travel to Japan opens up by then

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