Must Eat Food in Japan: Where to Find the Best Dishes

Colorful plate of sushi rolls and nigiri, a must eat food in Japan

Japan is the only country where it’s nearly impossible to have a bad meal. Even the food on my ANA flight was delicious and artfully presented, and I was seated in coach! If you want to sample the country’s best dishes, this guide to the must eat food in Japan has got you covered.

You’ve probably had sushi and a few other traditional Japanese dishes in your home country. But I promise you: the food you get in Japan will be miles above what you’ve eaten previously. When you’re eating soba that was made by a master chef using local flour and mineral water, the quality is apparent.

From haute cuisine in Kyoto to fried pastries shaped like fish, you’ll find plenty of foods to try in Japan on your first visit.

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Ramen

Black bowl of tonkotsu ramen with negi and onsen egg

If your only experience with ramen is the kind that comes in a package or styrofoam cup, you have not lived a full life. Authentic Japanese ramen is one of the most famous things in Japan, and it’s all about the noodles.

Even the low-budget ramen shops in Japan, where you can get a filling meal for $5, have better quality noodles than what you’ll find in most restaurants outside the country.

But ramen is far more than a bowl of Japanese noodle soup. In fact, not all ramen noodles are served in broth!

There are five main types of ramen:

  • Shio: Salt-based broth
  • Shoyu: Soy sauce-based broth
  • Tonkotsu: Pork bone broth
  • Miso: Miso (soybean paste)-based broth
  • Tsukemen: Noodles served with a side of broth for dipping

Aside from the broth, there are dozens of toppings to supplement the noodle-y goodness. Chashu (sliced pork roll), menma (marinated bamboo), ajitama (soft-boiled, seasoned egg), and negi (Japanese green onion) are popular options. The ticket machines found in typical ramen shops make it easy to choose your combo of toppings and broth.

Where to Eat Ramen in Japan:

Ramen shops are ubiquitous, so you won’t struggle to find this must try food in Japan. In populous areas like Tokyo, you’ll find one on every corner and down every alley. Fortunately, sampling the best ramen from around Japan only requires a visit to Tokyo Station.

Under the busy rail hub lies Ramen Street, a collection of the city’s eight best ramen shops. These restaurants were hand-selected for their quality to open up shop in the underground retail center.

Lines get incredibly long during lunch time, so plan to arrive close to 11am, when the shops open up for service. Rokurinsha, which specializes in tsukemen, is the most famous spot. But frankly, you can’t go wrong with any of these options!

Japanese Curry

Katsu curry with potato and carrot curry sauce and stick rice, a must try food in Japan

When people think of what to eat in Japan, images of artfully arranged sushi rolls usually come to mind. Japanese curry is quite the opposite.

With big, uneven chunks of potato and carrots in thick, yellow-brown sauce, this dish is certainly not elegant. But it is delicious. And if you’re on a budget, it’s one of the most filling yet affordable things to eat in Japan.

Japanese-style curry is always served with a large helping of sticky rice. Most restaurants will also offer it with ebikatsu (fried shrimp), torikatsu (fried chicken cutlet), or tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet).

However, katsu curry is not always served with vegetable curry; sometimes it’s just the curry sauce. Luckily, most Japanese restaurants have picture menus and plastic models of their dishes, so you can see just what you’ll be getting when you order!

Where to Eat Curry in Japan:

Don’t go looking for Japanese curry in a Michelin starred restaurant. Instead, head to a casual place to sample this deceptive delight. You’ll find curry on the menu of many family-run shops and Japanese diners (known as teishoku restaurants).

If you’re having trouble finding a place, Curry House CoCo Ichibanya (a.k.a. Coco Ichi) is a chain restaurant found all over Japan. Their curry is tasty, super-customizable, and perfect for low-cost travelers or people in a hurry.

Unagi-no-Kabayaki

Red and black bowl filled with grilled unagi-no-kabayaki, a famous Japanese dish

If you love the sweet, savory, and smokey taste of barbecued ribs, you’ll definitely enjoy unagi-no-kabayaki. This dish is simple: a boneless filet of eel, coated in a sweet soy-based sauce, broiled over a (usually charcoal) grill. Despite it’s humble ingredients, unagi-no-kabayaki has the kind of addictive flavor that will leave you wanting more.

If you’ve tried unagi outside of Japan, it may have had a chewy or rubbery texture, which is due to poor preparation. In Japan, unagi is far more tender, even when it’s prepared Kansai style (no steaming, just grilling). As with many Japanese dishes, it’s traditionally served with rice. If the unagi is served on top of the rice, the dish is called unadon.

Where to Eat Unagi-no-kabayaki in Japan:

Many Japanese restaurants serve unagi-no-kabayaki, but Shizuoka prefecture is known for it’s eel production. If you’re planning a visit to Mt. Fuji, which sits on the border of the prefecture, a steaming hot bowl of unadon makes for a pre- or post-hike meal.

If you’re planning to stay in Tokyo, Ishibashi restaurant sources it’s eel from a special supplier in Shizuoka and has a Michelin star for it’s unagi. Reservations are a must.

Tsukemono

Japanese pickles (tsukemono) of cauliflower, carrot, and cucumber in green bowl

Tsukemono are Japanese pickles, but not the kind you buy in a jar from the supermarket. These colorful beauties are a significant part of traditional Japanese cuisine, and are served alongside other Japanese dishes. You’ve probably eaten tsukemono without even realizing it: gari (pickled ginger) almost always accompanies a tray of sushi.

Tsukemono come in a rainbow of colors, textures, and flavors, from the crunchy takuan (daikon turned yellow from fermentation) to the squishy and very pungent umeboshi (dark red plum pickled for 12+ months). One of my favorite pairings is Tokyo-style curry with a side of red-tinted fukujinzuke.

Where to Eat Tsukemono in Japan:

As I noted earlier, tsukemono make a frequent appearance alongside other must eat foods in Japan. If you’re staying in a hotel or ryokan that serves breakfast, you’re guaranteed to find tsukemono on the buffet or your plate. I started every morning in Tokyo with a big bowl of pickles, much to the dismay of my husband, who is not a pickle fan.

Traditional/homestyle Japanese restaurants will have tsukemono on the menu as a side dish. And if you’re feeling adventurous, pop into a convenience store for an onigiri (rice ball) stuffed with sour umeboshi. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!

Matcha Everything

Table with green matcha ice cream, matcha pudding, matcha green tea, and metal pitcher

Matcha has become a trendy dessert and beverage ingredient across the globe. But quality matcha is hard to come by outside of Japan, so that matcha fro-yo you had at the mall doesn’t compare to what you’ll find in the dessert parlors of Tokyo.

This green tea powder lends an earthy, unmistakable tea flavor to everything from lattes to Kit-Kats. As an ice cream lover, I’m a big fan of matcha gelato and matcha parfaits, especially when chocolate is involved.

Where to Eat Matcha Foods in Japan:

You’ll find sweet matcha dishes in the cafes of major cities. If you’re traveling to Kyoto, you should definitely pop into the Saryo Tsujiri in Gion. Their matcha parfait is one of my favorite desserts!

Kagizen Yoshifusa, also in the Gion district, is revered as one of the best Kyoto-style wagashi (sweets) shops. It’s a great place to buy gifts from Japan.

Uji and Shizuoka, both popular day trips from Kyoto, are famous for their green tea production. While Uji has a ton of specialty shops for buying matcha products, Shizuoka City focuses on cool cafes that serve matcha drinks and desserts.

Taiyaki

Fried fish pastry (taiyaki) held in front of anime mural

Whenever people ask me what to eat in Japan, I always say taiyaki. These delicious, fish-shaped pastries filled with sweet bean paste are hard to find outside of the country. It sounds unappetizing, but if you like filled doughnuts, I bet you’ll take a shine to this Japanese treat!

Although taiyaki is usually a dessert-type food, there are vendors that bake their cakes with savory fillings like pork. Also, some places serve taiyaki fresh from the oven, while others toss the pastries into a fryer for a more crispy exterior. It’s definitely a must try Japanese street food.

Where to Eat Taiyaki in Japan:

During festivals, street vendors sells taiyaki all over Japan. However, it’s easy to find year-round in Tokyo, where the dish was invented. There’s a great stall in Akihabara near the Square Enix cafe whose taiyaki has the perfect combo of crispy dough and slightly sweet paste.

Save me for later!

Soba

Bowl of soba in broth with chicken, carrot, and green onion

Soba are thin noodles made with buckwheat flour, and they may be served hot or chilled. Scientists debunked the theory that New York City’s water makes their bagels taste better. But when it comes to soba, the use of Japanese mineral water in the dough definitely makes a difference.

Soba dishes come in all varities, including mori soba (served cold with dipping sauce), tensoba (served hot with tempura vegetables), and wakame soba (served warm and topped with seaweed). I’m partial to tempura soba, which usually comes with a tempura shrimp and savory broth.

Where to Eat Soba in Japan:

For the best soba experience, visit a specialty soba restaurant in Northern Honshu. Azumaya Honten in Iwate prefecture is famous for its wanko-soba, or all-you-can-eat noodles. Wanko-soba is traditionally served in tiny, one-bite portion bowls, which your server will keep refilling until you put the lid on top of your dish.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki topped with negi and ginger on metal grill

Of all the must try Japanese dishes on this list, this one is my favorite to pronounce. Okonomiyaki are savory, griddle-cooked pancakes filled with cabbage and other local ingredients. Once finished, the pancakes are brushed with a sweet and salty sauce.

Most okonomiyaki will contain a mix of protein and vegetables, and will be topped with bonito flakes and a drizzle of Japanese mayonnaise. You’ll also find fillings such as octopus, pork belly, cheese, and even mochi!

Where to Eat Okonomiyaki in Japan:

Okonomiyaki is the signature dish of Osaka, with street vendors all over the city grilling up this savory delight. However, I recommend going into a little family-run shop to get the full experience. Depending on the restaurant, you may even get to cook the pancakes yourself. This itinerary is perfect for okonomiyaki lovers.

When my husband and I were in Kyoto, we popped into a home restaurant off the beaten path. The owner started to prepare our okonomiyaki at the table, but walked away once she poured the batter.

After a few minutes of wondering if were supposed to wait or flip the pancakes ourselves, my husband reached his hand towards the spatula. He was met with a “no touch!” from the other side of the restaurant. So rest assured that you won’t be left to your own devices in an okonomiyaki shop, even if it seems like no one is watching.

Takoyaki

Man cooking takoyaki balls in pan using chopsticks

Another signature Osaka dish, Takoyaki are ball-shaped battered snacks traditionally filled with diced octopus. They have a crunchy exterior, but the inside remains slightly creamy (though cooked).

Takoyaki are typically topped with a drizzle of Japanese mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and sometimes okonomiyaki sauce and spring onion. The flavor is slightly sweet due to the octopus, while the bonito flakes and sauce add a salty element.

Where to Eat Takoyaki in Japan:

Takoyaki is definitely street vendor fare. Outside of major city streets, you’ll also find these snacks sold near popular shrines and other tourist destinations.

If you take a Nara day trip, you might find some for sale outside of Todai-ji Temple. Still, Osaka is your best bet for finding the tastiest version of this must eat Japanese food.

Tofu

Purple tofu with dashi and tea in blue floral bowl next to chopsticks

Forget everything you know about the misshapen, spongy tofu of the Western world. Japanese tofu is silky, creamy, and insanely appetizing.

Made from soymilk curd, tofu is a versatile and vegan-friendly Japanese dish. While other country’s cuisines tend to use tofu as a protein substitute or mix-in, Japanese cuisine makes tofu the star of the show.

There are numerous ways to prepare tofu, from fried agedashi and inari to delicate cubes served with a side of dashi. Even the skin, known as yuba, is a highly sought-after delicacy in Japan.

Where to Eat Tofu

Thanks to its pure mineral-infused water, Kyoto is renowned for its perfectly textured tofu. And the best place to eat tofu in Kyoto is Toyouke Chaya.

This three-story restaurant fills up quickly, with a long line that starts forming nearly an hour before the 11am opening time. However, their tofu set meals are extradorinarily good yet affordable, so it’s worth the wait if you have time in your itinerary!

Sushi

Platter of colorful sushi rolls, nigiri, and sashimi on white marble table

Without a doubt, sushi is the most widely-available Japanese food outside of Japan. Unfortunately, high-quality fish is hard to come by in the rest of the world, meaning you’ve probably had a sub-par sushi experience or two (or 50) in your life.

Aside from the fish, making excellent sushi rice is an art form that chefs train for years to perfect. When a master sushi chef combines perfectly executed sushi rice with insanely fresh ingredients, magic happens.

Where to Eat Sushi in Japan:

Tokyo is the sushi capital of the world, and it would be a mistake to skip this culinary staple when you’re in the city. Many of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo are very small (think 6-12 counter seats) and book out well in advance.

However, if you have the money and do some advanced planning, eating Tokyo sushi could be the food experience of your life. Culture Trip has a great guide to the best sushi in Tokyo. I also recommend checking out Seafood Watch’s page on sustainable sushi.

If you want supremely fresh sushi straight off the boat, Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market is the place to go. There are multiple places serving melt-in-your-mouth morsels, but Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi are regarded as the best of the best.

The inner market sushi stalls open for business at 5:30am and close around 1pm, so plan to eat your sushi for breakfast. And if you want to try Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi, you’ll need to arrive around 5am or risk waiting in line for several hours.

Kaiseki

Assortment of Japanese dishes on platter for kaiseki meal

This last one is cheating a bit, because kaiseki is a series of dishes rather than a single must eat food in Japan. Known as Japanese haute cuisine, kaiseki is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Every aspect of the meal, from the ingredients to the plating to the order in which dishes are served, is governed by Japanese principles of nature, balance, and order.

If you want to sample the region’s freshest seasonal ingredients in an elegant space, kaiseki is for you. While kaiseki dinner is quite expensive (upwards of $100 per person), there are some restaurants that serve kaiseki lunch at a more affordable price.

Where to Eat Kaiseki in Japan:

Having a kaiseki dinner in a Kyoto ryokan (traditional inn) is the pinnacle of Japanese food tradition. When we stayed at Yuzuya Ryokan in Gion, we splurged on a private kaiseki dinner. We spent two hours eating some of the best food we’ve ever tasted, and it was the highlight of our trip.

If you want to go beyond the city’s fine dining scene, check out this itinerary for 4 days in Kyoto.

Adventurous Foods to Try in Japan

While the 12 foods above should appeal to most travelers in Japan (dietary restrictions aside), there are a two unique Japanese foods that adventurous folks might like to try.

Natto is a fermented soybean dish primarily served at breakfast. The flavor is extremely pungent, and many Westerners find its taste and slimy, sticky texture repulsive. However, it’s worth trying while in Japan, as it’s rare to find it anywhere else. I was definitely not a fan, but that’s just me.

Fugu is the famously dangerous pufferfish. Usually served as super-thin sashimi, fugu flesh can kill you if not prepared correctly due to the pufferfish’s toxin. Fugu sales are controlled to ensure a safe dining experience. However, nothing is a sure thing, so eat at your own risk.

Japan is a country of culinary wonders, so be sure to sample everything you can on your next visit!

My Favorite Japan Travel Planning Books

These books win my travel blogger Seal of Approval for vacation planning:

8 thoughts on “Must Eat Food in Japan: Where to Find the Best Dishes”

  1. What a delicious post! I literally want to book a flight to Japan just for the food. And I had no idea there was a Japanese curry dish. Amazing! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. I’m heading to Tokyo in a few weeks for work, hopefully I’ll have a chance to try some of these! Do you have any recommendations for good food near Shibuya?

    Reply
    • How exciting! My only dining experience in the Shibuya area was a cat cafe (Cat Cafe MoCHA). They had a tasty hot strawberry latte! However, there is an Ichiran ramen location in Shibuya that you should definitely visit. Hope you have a great trip 🙂

      Reply

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