40 Must-Eat Japanese Food – Our Picks of the Japanese Cuisine

Last Updated on 16/06/2024 by secretmoona

It’s difficult to think about Japan without considering Japanese food. After all, traveling is an opportunity to explore a destination’s culture and culinary traditions. Japanese cuisine is renowned for its high-quality ingredients, unique seasonings, and flavors, which come together to create a vibrant and well-designed cuisine. It’s no surprise that the capital city, Tokyo, has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world.

Japanese cuisine to try while in Japan

Japanese culinary traditions are centered around umami, also known as the fifth taste. While sushi and ramen are often associated with Japanese cuisine, the country’s washoku (traditional cuisine) is expansive, with a long history dating back thousands of years.

Since Japanese cuisine is extensive, here’s a list of 40 Japanese foods you must absolutely try when in Japan.

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Japanese Cuisine: Noodle Dishes

Japanese people have a strong affinity for noodles, whether it’s udon, yakisoba, soba, ramen, or somen. Make sure to sample a variety of noodle dishes while in Japan.

Ramen (ラーメン)

Japanese food to try - Ramen

Ramen is arguably the most well-known noodle dish in the world. Although it originated in China, the Japanese have developed their own version. This noodle dish is served in a flavorful broth with various toppings. Wheat noodles can be prepared in different types of broth such as shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork bone), shoyu (soy sauce), or miso. Ramen can be enjoyed hot, fried, boiled, or in soups. If you’re a fan of instant ramen, you must visit the Ramen Museum in Yokohama.

Udon (うどん)

Kitsune udon, a popular Japanese food

There is a feud between fans of soba and udon. I personally prefer udon, which is a thick and chewy noodle made from wheat flour. It can be enjoyed hot in a soy-dashi broth or in a cold broth, which is popular during the summer. I recommend trying the “Kitsune udon,” which comes with deep-fried tofu called aburaage, as foxes are believed to love tofu. You can find many restaurants in Japan, especially around Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, where you can try this udon dish.

Soba (蕎麦, そば)

Matcha (green tea) soba, popular Japanese dish in Kyoto

Soba is one of Japan’s most iconic types of noodles. The thin, brown noodles are made of buckwheat flour. They are an integral part of Japanese culinary culture and can be served in various ways. Whether cold or hot, with or without a broth, plain or topped with eggs or tempura, soba is delicious.

The best way to enjoy soba (Mori soba) is by eating it plain. Sprinkle a bit of rock salt to bring out the umami and sweetness. Next, dip your soba into a sauce made with soy sauce paired with seasonings like wasabi, ground radish, and green onion.

The first time I had soba, I made the dinners and the small restaurant owner laugh. Soba dishes come on a bamboo tray. Instead of dipping the soba in the sauce, I poured the entire content of the soy sauce on the noodles. All the sauce drained to the bottom of the plate. After a good chuckle, the owner returned with another soba plate and showed me the correct way of eating soba.

Whether you are eating ramen, soba, or udon, be sure to slurp. It’s considered polite and shows appreciation for the food.

Somen (素麺)

Somen noodles, popular summer food
Nagashi somen. Credit: BBC

Somen are wheat-based noodles, similar to udon but they are thinner. It’s mostly served cold in summer with a dipping sauce called tsuyu. There is a cool way to eat somen called nagashi somen. The noodle is placed on a bamboo slide with ice-cold water. You catch the noodles with your chopsticks as they flow past you. 

Yakisoba (焼きそば)

Yakisoba is a popular fried noodle dish that is cooked with cabbage, meat, carrots, and other vegetables. Sometimes, it is served as Yakisoba-pan, where the fried noodles are placed in a hot dog type of bread and garnished with mayonnaise and pickled ginger. Additionally, Yakisoba is commonly enjoyed as a festival food.

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Classic Traditional Japanese Food

Miso soup (味噌汁)

Miso soup is often served with set menus in Japanese restaurants. It’s considered an essential part of Japanese meals, and people enjoy it at any time of the day.

The miso broth is light and is made by adding miso paste to a dashi broth. Depending on the ingredients you add to the soup, it could be as simple as seaweed and tofu, or you can add potatoes, meat, seafood, green onion, daikon radish, and more.

Miso, a vital ingredient in Japanese cuisine, is made from fermented soybeans and is used to make soups, sauces, or marinades. There are many types of miso, each with its distinctive flavours. 

Donburi (どんぶり)

Oyakodon, a type of Japanese donburi

Katsudon, oyakodon, and tendon are all types of donburi, a dish served on rice. Donburi can be found everywhere from convenience stores and small eateries to specialist restaurants. This dish is one of Japan’s favourite comfort foods due to it being quick, cheap, and delicious. Donburi consists of a large bowl filled with rice and various toppings. The word “donburi” actually refers to the bowl itself rather than the dish. There are numerous variations of these dishes, and here are some of the most popular ones:

  • Katsudon: A breaded pork cutlet cooked together with egg and topped on rice.
  • Unadon: Grilled eel topped on rice.
  • Gyudon: This is the signature dish of many chain restaurants. It consists of thinly sliced simmered beef with onion cooked in a sweet sauce.
  • Oyakodon: Chicken cooked with egg. Oyako means “parent and child,” referring to the chicken and egg.
  • Kaisendon: Fresh seafood selection on rice.
  • Tendon: Seafood and vegetable tempura.

Tonkatsu (豚カツ) or tori katsu

Tonkatsu is a popular Japanese comfort food. It consists of a pork chop breaded with flour, egg, and panko (bread crumbs) and then deep-fried. For those who don’t eat pork, there is tori katsu, which is made with cut chicken breasts or thighs. Both tonkatsu and tori katsu are served with shredded cabbage, which helps cut some of the grease. Tonkatsu sauce, made from Worcester sauce, is added to complement the dish. Chicken katsu is a delicious and satisfying dish that you should definitely try while in Japan.

Kare Raisu (カレーライス)

Japanese curry is quite different from the Indian version. Curry powder was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Period. As with most foreign cuisines, the Japanese adapted the curry sauce to suit their tastes. Therefore, Japanese curry is sweeter and made with beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions. It is always served with rice and can be topped with tonkatsu (deep-fried pork).

Nabemono (なべ物)

Nabemono, also known as nabe, refers to a variety of Japanese hot pot dishes that are cooked with a mix of ingredients. It’s a great option for colder days. The cooking involves preparing meat and vegetables in a seasoned broth at the table. Nabe is considered healthy as it doesn’t require the use of oil for cooking. Instead, you add different ingredients like meat, vegetables, seafood, and noodles to the pot. Some types of nabemono include:

  • Chankonabe is the favourite food of Sumo wrestlers. It consists of various vegetables and meat cooked in a broth. The best place to try this dish is around Ryogoku, the sumo stables’ area.
  • Shabu-shabu is a hotpot dish made by dipping vegetables and thin slices of meat in hot water or broth at the table and switching them around to cook. They are then dipped into a sesame sauce before being eaten.
  • Mizutaki is a nabe-style pot consisting of chicken cooked with vegetables in a dashi broth. Once cooked, the chicken and vegetables are picked out, dipped in ponzu sauce, and eaten with chopped leek.
  • Sukiyaki is made with thinly sliced meat, vegetables, tofu, and konnyaku noodles cooked in a sweet soy sauce broth. The cooked ingredients are then dipped into raw beaten egg and then eaten.
  • Oden is a nabe dish prepared with various fish cakes, boiled egg, daikon, konnyaku, and kombu seaweed. All the ingredients are simmered and slow-cooked in a light broth. It is popular during the winter months and can be found at oden food stalls or convenience stores.

Nikujaga

Nikujaga, traditional Japanese stewed meat

Nikujaga is traditional stewed meat (niku) and potatoes (jagaimo). This is delicious comfort food and one of the most traditional dish from Japan. The thinly sliced or diced beef is simmered in soy sauce, sake and mirin. 

Omurice (オムライス)

Omurice is a fried rice dish wrapped with a thin, crepe-like omelette. This dish is another example of a Western-style food that Japan reinvented some years ago. Omurice is typically prepared with chicken or ground beef. Keep in mind that although omurice is usually made with chicken or ground beef, pork is sometimes added, so it’s a good idea to check before ordering.

Kaiseki-ryori (懐石)

A set of small dishes served at Kaiseki ryori

Kaiseki-ryori is the ultimate type of high-end cuisine in Japan. It’s akin to a fancy a la carte menu, consisting of a set of small dishes carefully presented and served one item at a time. Kaiseki was initially introduced as a meal served with a tea ceremony, but nowadays, it is served in specialized restaurants, ryokans, or some high-end hotels. There are two ways to experience it: cha-kaiseki (a simple course) or kaiseki-ryori (fine dining). The meal typically includes sashimi, hot soup, seasonal fish or meat, and seared meat and vegetables, followed by rice, pickled vegetables, miso soup, and fruit salad.

In specialised restaurants, each dish is carefully selected by the chef, taking into account the dish’s history, availability of the ingredients, preparation method, and presentation. The chef also handpicks the tableware used for each course to complement the dish. Kaiseki is designed to please both the palate and the eyes.

Good to know: Kaiseki-ryori is an experience in itself, especially in top-end restaurants. However, some restaurants offer “mini-kaiseki” for those on a budget. Alternatively, you can combine this experience with a stay in a ryokan, a Japanese-style hotel.

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Fish and Seafood-based Japanese Food

Japan is an island nation with an abundant quantity of fish, providing people with access to fresh seafood. Seafood is enjoyed in various ways, including grilled, simmered, or served as sashimi.

Sashimi (刺身)

Sashimi is a delicacy that has been enjoyed for centuries and is an integral part of Japanese cuisine. The fresh fish is sliced thinly and served raw, typically accompanied by soy sauce and shredded daikon radish called tsuma, which acts as a palate cleanser.

Although sashimi is often associated with seafood such as salmon, fatty tuna, yellowtail, and squid, it is not limited to these options. In Japan, beef, horse, and chicken sashimi can also be found, displaying the dish’s versatility and Japanese culinary creativity.

Good to know: This is a good option for gluten-free travellers but does check that the soy sauce is also gluten-free. 

Kaisendon, a fresh seafood selection on rice

Sushi (寿司)

Sushi is Japan’s best-known food and is popular all around the world. Sushi consists of two main components: fish and rice. But what exactly is sushi? It’s sashimi (raw fish) served on top of rice. A typical sushi meal includes several small pieces of sushi and rice. Despite its simple appearance, the preparation of sushi is very precise and has evolved over centuries. Sushi chefs undergo years of training to be able to judge the freshness of the fish with their naked eye. The key to exceptional sushi is using fresh fish cut into the right size and thickness.

Having tried sushi in Japan and Europe, I can confidently say that the taste is incomparable. Sushi in Japan is fresher and more flavorful, even at affordable conveyor belt restaurants. In Japan, each order is prepared by the chef on the spot, resulting in a melt-in-your-mouth experience. Conversely, in Europe, sushi is typically prepared in advance and stored in a fridge, often resulting in hard rice.

The rice used in sushi is cooked, mixed with vinegar, and formed into bite-sized portions. The toppings, known as “neta,” consist mainly of seafood such as red or white fish, shellfish, and shrimp.

The origins of sushi can be traced back to Southeast Asia. In ancient times, sushi was a method of preserving fish through fermentation. Initially, the rice was only used as a packing material, and only the fish was consumed.

Good to know: Sushi is one of the few Japanese foods that can be eaten without strict etiquette. It is acceptable to pick up a piece of sushi with your hand and eat it. If using your hands isn’t your preference, chopsticks are always available. Also, when dipping sushi into soy sauce, it’s best to dip the fish part and not the rice to prevent the rice from falling apart. Some sushi will already have a sauce, so there’s no need to dip them.

Platter of sushi, essential part of Japanese cuisine

Types of sushi:

  • Funazushi: This type of sushi is just fish without rice. The dish is made with a type of fish only found in Lake Biwa. The fish is preserved in salt, aged for a year, then compressed with steamed rice and fermented for up to four years. Due to the fermentation, it smells a bit cheesy, but if you like cheese, you will love funazushi.
  • Nigirizushi or Nigiri sushi is the most traditional form of sushi. This type of sushi consists of bite-sized rectangular rice topped with a piece of sashimi. Wasabi or a strip of seaweed will be between the rice and fish to tie the rice and fish together. Nigiri means “two fingers” and describes the size of the rice.
  • Maki: Makizushi or Maki sushi is a type of sushi with fillings wrapped in sushi rice-filled seaweed. Most of the time, you will see Maki rolled together in a long cylinder form. Maki sushi is a prevalent type of sushi around the world. Maki is made in rolls and sliced into round bite-sized pieces. The fish, vegetables, and other ingredients are rolled up inside seaweed (nori) and vinegared rice. Maki can be made with raw or cooked fish and vegetables like avocado.
  • Uramaki: Sushi roll with the filling on the outside.
  • Temaki: Sushi in a cone shape with nori on the outside.
  • Sugata sushi: It’s prepared with barracuda fish, cleaned, and stuffed with vinegared rice. The fish is also brushed with vinegar.

You can learn how to make sushi at one of the many cooking classes available in Japan.

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Sushi Experiences in Japan

Conveyor belt sushi, also known as kaitenzushi, are convenient restaurants where a conveyor belt carries small sushi plates and you can pick the ones you like. These types of sushi restaurants are perfect for people on a budget as they are relatively cheap. Kaitenzushi restaurants typically use plates of different colors to indicate the price.

Konbini sushi, another option for budget travelers, can be found at convenience stores with a good variety of sushi at low prices. Look out for the three most popular chains: Lawsons, 7 Eleven, and Family Mart.

For fresh and instant sushi, fish markets are the place to be. If you are an early riser and can visit one of the many fish markets around the island, make sure to feast on freshly caught sushi.

If you’re looking for a high-end sushi experience, one of the best ways to enjoy it is omakase-style. Omakase sushi is a “chef’s choice” tasting menu. By choosing the omakase menu, you show that you trust the chef to provide you with a great selection. Omakase is an excellent way to try something new that you would not have tried otherwise. However, if you are a picky eater or a budget traveller, this experience might not benefit you, as the bespoke experience is quite expensive.

Finally, if you want to get hands-on experience making your own sushi, Japan is the right place. Taking a sushi-making class is an excellent way of learning about the techniques and ingredients used to make sushi, all while having fun!

Unagi no kabayaki (蒲焼, うなぎ)

Unagi no kabayaki, freshwater eel on rice

Unagi no kabayaki is one of the most traditional dishes in Japan. The dish consists of freshwater eel cooked on a grill, glazed with sweet soy-based sauce, and topped on plain rice. It’s relatively simple, but so delicious. Unagi is considered a delicacy in Japan, so it can be quite expensive.

I tried Unagi no kabayaki in Kawagoe, a small town referred to as the “Little Edo”. The restaurant has a big window showing the kitchen where you can see the chef preparing the fresh fish. It requires lots of skills to debone, fillet, skewer, and grill the Unagi to perfection!

Japanese Izakaya Food

Gyoza – (餃子)

Gyoza, top of Japanese izakaya food

Gyoza, inspired by Chinese cuisine, are half-moon shaped dumplings typically filled with ground pork, spring onion, cabbage, ginger, and garlic. They can be steamed or pan-fried.

Yakitori (焼き鳥)

Yakitori, typical Japanese pub

Yakitori is a popular Japanese food served in izakayas (Japanese pubs) or yakitori bars all around Japan. It consists of grilled chicken skewers dipped into a Teriyaki sauce. These chicken skewers are delicious and are usually served to accompany drinks. Most yakitori places grill the chicken on a charcoal grill, and it always smells delicious when you walk past it. Yakitori is made with every part of the chicken, including the heart, cartilage, thighs, skin, gizzard, etc.

Karaage – (唐揚げ)

Karaage, Japanese fried chicken

Fried chicken is popular worldwide, with each country having its own style. Whether it’s Asian, African, or American, I love delicious fried chicken. In Japan, fried chicken is cut into bite-sized pieces, coated in flour, and deep-fried. It’s commonly served as an appetizer in izakayas and convenience stores. Karaage refers to deep-fried food without batter. In addition to chicken karaage, you can also find versions with fish, octopus, or meat.

Tsukemono (漬け物)

Tsukemono are sliced Japanese pickles that are served as a side dish with rice or as a garnish for meals such as porridge. These pickles come in various colors and shapes and are made from different vegetables like daikon, cabbage, ginger, cucumber, or sour plums. Umeboshi, in particular, is often served on top of white rice or used as a filling for onigiri.

Japanese Side Dishes  to Try

Onigiri (おにぎり)

Selection of onigiri, a rice based Japanese food

Onigiri are cooked rice balls, usually wrapped with nori seaweed and filled in the center. The filling can be anything from fish (salmon, tuna) to vegetables (pickled plum “umeboshi”). In Japan, onigiri are similar to sandwiches in Europe. They are available in convenience stores across Japan, inexpensive, and perfect for a quick and easy snack. They make a perfect affordable lunch or picnic item.

Tempura (天ぷら)

Selection of tempura

Tempura is a vital part of traditional Japanese cuisine. It consists of vegetables and seafood that are battered, deep-fried, and served over a bowl of rice or noodles. Tempura is enjoyed all over Japan, especially in izakayas. Despite being fried, tempura is exceptionally light and crispy.

Tempura did not originate in Japan. It was created after Portuguese missionaries brought the frying method to Nagasaki in the 1600s. The Japanese adopted the technique and created the delightful tempura that everyone enjoys. They often draw inspiration from foreign foods and adapt them to their tastes. Nowadays, tempura is served on a rice bowl called tendon or on top of soba noodles. It’s also commonly served as a side dish.

Tempura is a great option for vegetarians or pescatarians. It’s important to note that the dipping sauce is dashi-based (a stock made from dried fish).

Obento (弁当, 御弁当)

Obento, Japanese packed lunches

Japanese packed lunches, known as bento, typically contain a variety of foods arranged inside a small container. A standard bento box usually includes vegetables, meat or fish, pickles, and rice. Bento was originally a simple packed lunch carried by travelers, but now they have evolved into colorful, edible works of art that showcase the creators’ imagination and skills. Bentos can be served hot or cold and are available in convenience stores, restaurants, train stations (ekiben), or airports (soraben).

Tamagoyaki (玉子焼き)

Tamagoyaki, a Japanese omelette meal

Tamagoyaki is a Japanese omelette cooked in a rectangular pan and then rolled up. It is commonly eaten for breakfast, as a side dish, or used as a topping for sushi. Tamagoyaki is a staple in bento boxes. It is typically sweetened with sugar, mirin (sweet sake), and soy sauce.

Edamame (枝豆)

Edamame is a green soybean picked young in pods. While the pod is not edible, it adds flavor, making edamame a great and healthy snack. It’s often served in izakayas as an appetizer and is an excellent option for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone looking to eat healthily. Although edamame is used to make tofu, it tastes more like peas with a hint of sweetness. The primary seasoning is salt, and sometimes soy sauce is used.

Must Eat Japanese Street Food

Takoyaki (たこ焼き, 蛸焼き)

Takoyaki is bite-sized balls of octopus

Takoyaki is bite-sized balls made with a simple batter that has pieces of octopus inside. They are cooked using a traditional iron pan with round molds. The batter is poured in, and small pieces of octopus are added to each one. As they cook, they are rotated to form them into balls. Then, they are served with sauce and bonito flakes.

In a single bite, you experience the creaminess of the takoyaki and the crunchiness of the octopus. Be careful not to eat the takoyaki when they are extremely hot, although it’s hard to resist!

Takoyaki is usually eaten as a snack but can also be a light meal. You can find takoyaki everywhere in Japan, with lots of street vendors and food stalls making takoyaki. However, in my opinion, the best place to try takoyaki is in Namba, Osaka, where you will find many restaurants specializing in takoyaki.

Nikuman (肉まん)

Nikuman is a soft, steamed bun filled with meat and vegetables, typically enjoyed during the winter months.

Roasted chestnuts

The Japanese chestnut, known as “kuri,” symbolises the arrival of the autumn season in Japan. The most common way to enjoy kuri is by boiling or roasting the chestnuts. I particularly enjoy the roasted chestnuts (“yakiguri”) that are available at street stands, markets, festivals, and station booths. They are also used in rice dishes to make “kuri-gohan,” which literally means chestnut rice.

Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)

Okonomiyaki is another famous dish you will find in Osaka. It’s hard to explain what it is really; you will often hear that it’s like a pancake, omelette, or pizza. However, it’s definitely like neither; the only similarity is perhaps the round shape. So what exactly is okonomiyaki? It’s a batter made with flour, stock, and egg combined with shredded cabbage, and topped with other ingredients. Everything is then cooked on a hot plate. You can add anything as a topping such as bonito flakes, mayonnaise, pork, seafood, etc.

This delicious dish is perfect as a snack or a full meal with a bowl of rice and miso soup. Most of all, it’s very budget-friendly at 1000-1500 yen.

Like most famous dishes, okonomiyaki has some variations you will find in Tokyo and Hiroshima. Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki includes noodles. In Tokyo, you will find the monjayaki. You cook the toppings on a hot plate, then create a circle in the middle of the cooked toppings to pour the liquidy batter. Mix everything up until it’s crispy at the bottom. In my opinion, monjayaki doesn’t look appetizing at all, but it’s tasty. My favorite is the Osaka version; however, everyone has their own. There are also some restaurants offering okonomiyaki made of glutinous rice instead of wheat flour for gluten-free travelers.

Kushiage (串揚げ)

Kushiage, also known as Kushikatsu, are deep-fried, panko-crusted meat and vegetables on bamboo skewers. These delicious, bite-sized pieces originate from Osaka, the city nicknamed “the kitchen of Japan.” Kushiage is easy to eat, affordable, and delicious. There are many specialized restaurants and small street food stands that sell these great skewers. Although the street food version only comes with Worcestershire sauce, the restaurant version comes with side dishes to balance the flavours.

Korokke (コロッケ)

Korokke, a Japanese snack

Korokke is the Japanese version of the French croquette. It consists of mashed potatoes, ground meat, seafood, or vegetables. All the ingredients are mixed into a shape, then coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. This snack is not very healthy, but it’s incredibly delicious! You have to try it to see how addictive it is! You can find korokke in every convenience store, and their low price makes them hard to resist.

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Japanese Sweets and Other Patisseries 

This guide to Japanese food would not be complete without mentioning the available sweets. Whether or not you have a sweet tooth, you will find something for you in this section. Traditional Japanese sweets are called wagashi and are customarily enjoyed with green tea.

Taiyaki (たい焼き) / Imagawayaki

Imagawayaki, Japanese biscuits filled with red beans paste

Taiyaki and imagawayaki are popular Japanese snacks made from fluffy dough and filled with anko (sweet bean paste). The main difference between the two lies in their shape: imagawayaki is rounded, while taiyaki is shaped like a fish (specifically, a red sea bream). In Japanese, the fish is called “tai” and is considered an auspicious dish often eaten during festivals and the New Year.

These snacks can be found almost anywhere during festivals. Naniwaso Honten in Kanda is the place where Taiyaki is said to have originated.

Mochi (もち, 餅)

Shiratama zenzai, Japanese sweet
Shiratama zenzai, a sweet hot soup made with azuki red beans and Japanese mochi dumplings.

Mochi is a small cake made from steamed glutinous rice, which is pounded into a solid, sticky paste and then shaped into a round form. Although mochi originated from China, it is now an essential part of Japanese cuisine and culture. As a dessert, mochi (daifuku) is found in various colors and filled with different fillings such as red beans and ice cream. Mochi making (mochitsuki) is fun to watch, but it involves lots of hard work. The glutinous rice is repeatedly pounded until it becomes a mass. When in Shikoku, I was invited to join the mochi-pounding. Although it was fun, I was scared to hurt the man who was turning the rice with his bare hands between each strike.

Good to know: People should eat mochi with extra care due to its chewy texture. 

Dango (だんご) 

Dango is similar to mochi, as it is a small ball-shaped mochi dumpling. This traditional Japanese sweet is usually served on bamboo sticks and can be grilled with a sweet sauce poured over them. In winter, people enjoy dango in a red bean soup called “zenzai.”

Senbei (煎餅)

Senbei, Japanese rice crackers

Senbei are crispy rice crackers that are made from potatoes, wheat flour, glutinous or non-glutinous rice, and various flavors, shapes, and colors. The most traditional type of senbei is the soy sauce-flavored version, but you can also find spicy or seaweed flavored senbei. There are many senbei shops along Nakamise Street in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Kakigōri

Mango flavoured Kakigōri, a Japanese shaved ice dessert

Kakigori is a delightful and refreshing summer dessert made from shaved ice topped with flavored syrup (such as strawberry, mango, or melon), condensed milk, and fruit toppings. It has a soft and fluffy texture that melts in your mouth. My favourite flavour of kakigori is mango.

Dorayaki (どら焼き)

MUST-EAT JAPANESE FOOD - Dorayaki

Dorayaki is a wagashi, a traditional Japanese sweet, made by sandwiching Anko, a sweet azuki bean paste, between two soft, small pancakes. It’s incredibly delicious and popular with both kids and adults. Anko can be either mashed or whole, and depending on the season, dorayaki can also be filled with sakura leaf in spring, or sweet potatoes or roasted chestnuts in autumn, which is my favorite variation.

Manjū (饅頭)

Manju are sticky rice buns filled with sweet red beans. They are traditionally round, but can be found in various shapes.

Namagashi (生菓子)

Namagashi, traditional wagashi Japanese sweets

Namagashi, also known as raw sweets, is a traditional Japanese sweet and a type of wagashi. These sweets are made of natural ingredients such as fruit jellies or sweet bean paste, which are then shaped into beautiful forms reflecting the seasons, such as leaves or flowers. Namagashi is typically served at traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.

Melonpan (メロンパン)

Melonpan is a large, round bun called melon bread not because it tastes like melon, but because it supposedly resembles one. The crunchy top is criss-crossed to resemble the melon rind. Melonpan is a cheap but delicious sweet snack that you can find in bakeries or convenience stores.

Japanese family food restaurants

Tips for Eating in Japan

Eating in Japan is simple even if you don’t speak Japanese. Most restaurants offer English menus or display available dishes.

Quick Japanese Food Etiquette for Tourists 

Japanese people are typically respectful and place great importance on manners. Cultural norms vary, so behaviors that are acceptable in your country might be the opposite in Japan. Therefore, it’s crucial to adhere to their customs. To avoid any embarrassment, it’s advisable to acquaint yourself with these guidelines. Based on my experience eating soba, the best advice I can offer is to observe and follow the behavior of other Japanese diners.

  • Before and after meals: When your food is served, it’s customary to fold your hands in prayer and say “Itadakimasu” (which means “I humbly receive”). At the end of the meal, say “Goshisousama deshita.”
  • Mind the chopsticks: It’s important to follow chopsticks etiquette. Never stick your chopsticks in your bowl of rice; instead, leave them on the chopstick rest provided. It’s also considered impolite to point with the chopsticks, rub them together, or pass food with them.
  • Hot towels: Many places, especially sushi restaurants, will provide hot towels. These are for washing your hands only, so don’t use them to wipe anything else.
  • Slurping noodles: In Japan, it’s acceptable to slurp noodles. This may seem unusual for someone raised in France, but it’s encouraged in Japan because it helps cool down the hot noodles and shows that you’re enjoying your meal.
Typical teishoku style menu

Tips for Eating Inexpensively in Japan

Japanese food is generally cheaper compared to Europe, so if you’re looking to save money, it’s best to eat like a local. It’s worth noting that some high-end restaurants offer relatively cheaper lunch menus. Set menus are budget-friendly options and are cheaper than a la carte menus. Knowing the words “teishoku – 定食” (set meal) and “higawari teishoku” (daily special) can help you save money.

Another inexpensive way to eat out in Japan is at “tachi-kui” (stand-and-eat restaurants) which are commonly found at train stations and in shopping areas. It’s also essential to acquaint yourself with convenience stores like Lawson, 7eleven, and FamilyMart, as you will likely visit them daily. Japanese supermarkets are especially great, particularly around closing time when prices for certain food items are reduced.

Additionally, fast-food chains like Sukiya (known for curries & donburi rice bowls), and Yoshinoya (known for gyudon or “beef bowls”) are good options for affordable meals. Moreover, some bakeries offer freshly baked sandwiches and cakes at relatively lower prices, which could be a perfect choice for a picnic meal.

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Dietary Requirements

Restaurants in Europe and America are accustomed to accommodating customers’ dietary needs, such as allergies, intolerances, or religious restrictions. However, the situation is a little more complex in Japan. Eating a strictly vegetarian diet—no meat or seafood—can be challenging because many dishes contain dashi, a fish broth made with bonito flakes. Additionally, some dishes like Ramen may contain pork or animal fat. While some chain restaurants provide information about the ingredients they use, finding vegetarian options in Japan can be tricky.

Good to know: Before sitting down, it’s important to communicate your dietary requirements to the staff as some restaurants may not be able to cater to your needs. This post about useful Japanese phrases to learn before visiting Japan will help you when you’re in a restaurant.

If you are planning to stay in a ryokan, contact the inn in advance as well, so they are aware and can make the necessary adjustments. 

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Vegetarian Japanese dishes

  • Sushi
  • Kushiage
  • Ramen – do check that the broth doesn’t contain dashi or bonito flakes 
  • Japanese curry (kare raisu)
  • Tempura
  • Zaru soba – buckwheat noodles dipped in tsuyu sauce
  • Tofu
  • Okonomiyaki
  • Shojin ryori – traditional Buddhist food. It’s served when you stay in a temple or some restaurants located close to important temples

Planning a trip to Japan soon? We have lots of content on Japan to help you in your trip planning. Check out our:

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Hi there! I'm Mayi. Welcome to my blog SecretMoona! I hope to share with you the hidden secret of places I visit.

22 thoughts on “40 Must-Eat Japanese Food – Our Picks of the Japanese Cuisine

  1. Fabulous post Mayi!

    I looove Japanese food and it is always nice to see such a comprehensive post to include the best bits! I love that you included nagashi somen (that has to be one of the most fun ways to eat noodles) and I LOVE unagi. Om nom nom.

  2. As someone who’s obsessed with Japanese food, I feel like this article was written for me. And learned so much from it! I’ll keep this for my future reference when I go to Japan next.

  3. I love the food in Japan! I travelled there twice and I ate many of the dishes that you recommended. But I also discovered some I haven’t tried yet! Thanks for sharing this great list. Also I want to add a Japanese sweet specialty that is not on your list: the fluffy pancakes! The delicious soufflé pancakes are a must eat in Japan if you have a sweet tooth!

    1. Japan is very fish based but you still have vegetarian and meat-based dishes. With so many variety of ramen, you will spoiled for choice!

  4. This has me wanting to visit Japan again SO badly! Japanese food is so incredible. Even the food at 7 eleven was amazing haha! My favourite by far was trying authentic ramen.

  5. I’ve always dreamed of going to Japan and eating my way around the country. Their food looks so amazing and flavorful. What a wonderful guide, I love how you included some of the background and ingredients to the food. While Japan is famous for sushi, I want to try Donburi and the hot pot dishes. Yum! What a great guide, thanks for sharing.

    1. Donburi is so good. I love it. There are so many different toppings that you can basically eat every day without getting bored of it.

  6. I only knew about sushi. But, after reading your post, I am in love with soba and udon noodles. Tried it at my place. There is a Japanese restaurant in my area. Simply awesome.

  7. I only knew about sushi and the Japanese noodles, so it’s great to discover many more must-try Japanese dishes from your article! Their sweets and patisseries look especially tempting to me.

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