Japan is the only country where it’s nearly impossible to have a bad meal. Quality and excellence are highly valued in Japanese culture, and these values are expressed through Japanese dishes. Even the food on the ANA flight was delicious and artfully presented, and I was seated in coach!
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.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, here are 11 must-eat Japanese dishes and where to find them. And before you go, make sure you read about these common Japan travel mistakes!
Japanese Vegetable Curry
I have a serious addiction to Japanese-style curry. When people think of Japanese dishes, 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, Japanese vegetable curry is certainly not elegant. But it is delicious. And if you’re on a budget, it’s one of the most affordable Japanese dishes you can buy.
Vegetable curry is always served with a large helping of sticky rice. Some places 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 Japanese Vegetable Curry:
Don’t go looking for vegetable curry in a Michelin starred restaurant. Instead, head to a casual place to sample this deceptive delight. You’ll find vegetable curry on the menu of many family-run shops and Japanese diners.
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 vegetable curry is cheap and tasty, perfect for low-cost travelers or people in a hurry.
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:
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 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:
As I noted earlier, tsukemono make a frequent appearance in Japanese meals. 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 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 Sweets:
You’ll find sweet Japanese dishes in the many 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) shop. They had several matcha offerings during our visit in 2017.
Speaking of sweets, taiyaki is a delicious treat that’s hard to find outside of Japan. Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake traditionally filled with sweet azuki bean paste. It sounds unappetizing, but if you like filled doughnuts, I bet you’ll love this most whimsical of Japanese dishes!
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 street food in Japan.
Where to Eat Taiyaki:
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!
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 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:
Ramen shops are absolutely everywhere 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!
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:
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.
Of all the 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:
Okonomiyaki is a 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 Osaka, Kyoto, Nara itinerary is perfect for okonomiyaki lovers.
When Jeff 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, Jeff 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.
Another signature Osaka dish, Takoyaki are ball-shaped battered snacks filled with octopus. They have a crunchy exterior, but the inside remains creamy (though cooked). Takoyaki are usually 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:
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 perfectly prepared takoyaki.
Without a doubt, sushi is the most widely-available of Japanese dishes 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:
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.
This last one is cheating a bit, because kaiseki is a series of Japanese dishes rather than a single item. Known as the haute cuisine of Japan, 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:
Having a kaiseki dinner in a Kyoto ryokan (traditional inn) is the pinnacle of Japanese food tradition. When Jeff and I 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 Japanese Dishes
While the 11 dishes above should appeal to the 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!
Have you been to Japan? What were your favorite Japanese dishes from the trip? Let me know in the comments section!