40 must-eat japanese food – our picks of the japanese cuisine

It’s hard to think about Japan without thinking of Japanese food. After all, travel is an opportunity to discover the culture of a destination and the food. 

Japanese cuisine to try while in Japan

Japanese cuisine is known to feature the best possible ingredients, unique seasoning and flavours. All of these come together to create a colourful and well-designed cuisine. No wonder, the capital city Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world. Japanese culinary traditions revolve around umami, also known as fifth sense. 

When thinking about dishes from Japan, people usually think of sushi or ramen. However, the country’s washoku (traditional cuisines) is extensive. Japanese cuisine has a long history going back to thousands of years.

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Japanese noodles

Japanese have a love affair with noodles. Whether it’s udon, yakisoba, soba, ramen or somen, make sure to try a few noodle dishes while in Japan.

Ramen (ラーメン)

Ramen is arguably the most known noodle in the world. Although originated in China, the Japanese have made their own. The noodle is served in a broth with several toppings. The wheat noodle is done in different broths: shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork bone), shoyu (soy sauce) or miso. Ramen is eaten hot, fried, boiled or in soups. If you love instant ramen, the Ramen Museum in Yokohama is a must-visit. 

Udon (うどん)

Kitsune udon, a popular Japanese food

There seems to be a war between soba lovers and udon lovers. I consider myself to be on the udon side. Udon is made from wheat flour and is chewy and thick. It’s eaten hot in a soy-dashi broth or a cold broth (popular in summer). One recommendation is to try the “Kitsune udon” which translates to fox udon. The dish is served with slices or whole deep-fried tofu known as aburaage; this is based on the belief that foxes love tofu. There are many restaurants in Japan where you can eat this udon dish, especially around Fushimi Inari shrine, in Kyoto. 

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. It’s an integral part of Japanese culinary culture and can be served endlessly. Whether cold or hot, with or without a broth, plain or topped up 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 say sauce on the noodles. All the sauce drained at 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 fried noodle dish cooked with cabbage, meat, carrots and other vegetables. It is sometimes served as Yakisoba-pan, the fried noodles are then put in a hot dog type of bread and garnished with mayonnaise and pickled ginger. Yakisoba is a popular festival food.

Classic traditional Japanese food

Miso soup (味噌汁)

Miso soup is often something you get without ordering. It’s always served with set menus in Japanese restaurants. Miso soup is an essential part of Japanese meals, and people eat it any time of the day. 

The miso broth is light and 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. The popular filling is potatoes, meat, seafood, green onion, daikon radish etc.

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

Donburi (どんぶり)

Oyakodon, a type of Japanese donburi

Katsudon, oyakodon and tendon are all kinds of donburi, a type of dish served on rice. You can find donburi everywhere from convenience stores, small eateries to specialist restaurants. It’s one of Japan’s favourite comfort foods. It’s quick, cheap and delicious. 

Donburi is a large dish in a bowl filled with rice and all kinds of toppings. The word “donburi” actually refers to a bowl. There are so many variations of these dishes: here are some of the most popular:

  • Katsudon: breaded pork cutlet cooked together with egg and topped on rice.
  • Unadon: grilled eel topped on rice
  • Gyudon: thinly sliced simmered beef with onion cooked with a sweet sauce, the signature dish of lots of chained restaurants. 
  • 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 popular Japanese comfort food. It is pork chop breaded with flour, egg and panko (bread crumbs) and deep-fried. There is tori katsu for those who don’t eat pork (cut chicken breasts, or thighs). Both tonkatsu and tori katsu are served with shredded cabbage which helps cut some of the greases. Tonkatsu sauce (made from Worcester-sauce) is added to complement the dish. Chicken katsu is both a delicious and satisfying dish you should try while in Japan. 

Kare Raisu (カレーライス)

Japanese curry is nothing like the Indian version. Curry powder was introduced to Japan during the Meiji Period. Like most foreign cuisine, Japanese adapted the curry sauce to suit their taste. As a result, Japanese curry is sweeter and made with beef, potatoes, carrots and onions. It is always served with rice and can be plated out with tonkatsu on top (deep-fried pork).

Nabemono (なべ物)

Nabemono, or simply nabe, is a variety of Japanese hot pot dishes, cooked with various ingredients. It’s the perfect choice for colder days. You cook meat and vegetables in a seasoned broth at the same time as you eat, usually at the table. Nabe is healthy as no oil is used in the cooking. Instead, you add the ingredients (meat, vegetables, seafood, noodles) to the pot. Types of nabemono are:

  • Chankonabe: 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: It’s 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: The nabe-style pot consists of chicken that’s cooked with vegetables in a dashi broth. Once cooked, the chicken and vegetables are picked out and dipped in ponzu sauce and eaten with chopped leek.
  • Sukiyaki: Thinly sliced meat including vegetables, tofu and konnyaku noodles are cooked in a sweet soy sauce broth. The cooked ingredients are then dipped into raw beaten egg and then eaten. 
  • Oden: This nabe dish is 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 beef is simmered in soy sauce, sake and mirin. 

Omurice (オムライス)

Omurice is a fried rice dish wrapped with a crepe-like thin omelette. This dish is yet another westerner style of food that Japan reinvented some years ago. Omurice is usually cooked with chicken or ground beef. 

Good to know: Although omurice is made with chicken or ground beef, pork is sometimes added, so do check before. 

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. The Japanese version of a fancy a la carte menu. It’s a set of small dishes carefully presented and served one item at a time. Kaiseki was initially introduced as a meal served with tea ceremony. Nowadays, it is served in specialised restaurants, ryokans or some high-end hotels. You can find it in two ways: cha-kaiseki (simple course) or kaiseki-ryori (fine dining). The dishes are served by order: sashimi, hot soup, seasonal fish or meat, seared meat and vegetables. The meal is finished with 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 handpicks the tableware used for each course to complement the dish. Kaiseki is served both to please the palate and eyes.

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

Fish and seafood-based Japanese food

Japan is an island nation with an abundant quantity of fish available. So obviously, people have access to fresh food. People enjoy seafood in various manners: grilled, simmered or as sashimi. 

Sashimi (刺身)

Sashimi is a delicacy that has been enjoyed for centuries. It’s an integral part of Japanese food and a must-eat while in Japan. The fresh fish is cut into thin slices and served raw. Sashimi is eaten plain without any addition aside from soy sauce, and shredded daikon radish called tsuma. Tsuma acts as a palate cleanser. 

The fish used for sashimi is of the highest quality commonly salmon, fatty tuna, yellowtail, and squid. Sashimi can be expensive food if you eat it in excellent restaurants. In Japan, you can also find beef, horse or chicken sashimi! 

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

Sushi (寿司)

Kaisendon, a fresh seafood selection on rice

Sushi is Japan’s best-known food and is eaten all around the world. Sushi embodies two of the pillars of the Japanese diet: fish and rice. What is sushi? Sushi is sashimi on top of rice. A meal of sushi consists of numerous small portions of sushi and rice. It looks simple, but in fact, the method of preparation developed around centuries is very rigorous. Sushi chefs go into several years of training to ensure they determine with a naked eye the fish’s freshness. The pinnacle of great sushi is fresh fish cut into the right size and thickness. 

I have tried sushi both in Japan and Europe, and I have to say that the taste is not comparable. It is fresher and tastier in Japan, even in cheap conveyor belt restaurants. In Japan, the chef prepares each order on the spot. As you eat, the fish and rice melt in your mouth. In comparison, in Europe, the sushi is prepared in advance and stored in a fridge. Therefore, the cooked rice is, most of the time, hard. 

The rice is cooked, mixed with vinegar and prepared into bite-sized portions. The Topping called neta comprises various toppings, mostly seafood (red or white fish), selfish, shrimps etc.

The origin of sushi is from South East Asia. In ancient times, sushi was a means of preserving food through a fermentation process. Initially, they only ate the fish, and the rice was only for packing around it. 

Good to know: Sushi is one of the Japanese foods you can eat without following the proper etiquette. You take a piece of sushi with your hand and eat it. If this is a no-no for you, chopsticks are always available. Also, note that when you dip your sushi into the soy sauce, dip the fish part and not the rice to prevent the rice from falling apart. The sushi chef will prepare some sushi with a sauce, so you won’t 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 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. It smells a bit cheesy because of the fermentation, but if you like cheese, you will love funazushi.
  • Nigirizushi or Nigiri sushi is the most traditional form of sushi you’ll see. This type of sushi consists of a bite-sized rectangular shaped rice topped with a piece of sashimi. There will be wasabi between the rice and fish or a strip of seaweed 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 and wraps them 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, these are convenient restaurants where a conveyor belt carries small sushi plates. You 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 colours to indicate the price. 
  • Konbini sushi: Another option for budget travellers is convenience stores with a good variety of sushi at low prices. Look out for the 3 most po[ular chains: Lawsons, 7 Eleven and Family Mart.
  • Fish markets sushi: Where else can you get fresh and instant sushi? If you are an early riser and can visit one of the many fish markets around the island, be sure to feast on freshly caught sushi. 
  • High-end sushi restaurants: One of the best ways you can eat sushi 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, suppose you are a picky eater or a budget traveller. In that case, this experience will not benefit you as the bespoke experience is quite expensive. 
  • Sushi-making cooking class: If you want to get your hands on making your 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 grilled, glazed with sweet soy-based sauce and topped on plain rice. It’s relatively simple, but oh so delicious. Unagi is considered a delicacy in Japan so that 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 could see the chef preparing the fresh fish. It requires lots of skills to debone, fillet, skewer and grill the Unagi to perfection!

Izakaya food

Gyoza – (餃子)

Gyoza, top of Japanese izakaya food

Gyoza is another dish inspired by Chinese cuisine. The half-moon shaped gyoza are generally stuffed with ground pork, spring onion, cabbage, ginger and garlic. However, you can find other varieties. They can be eaten steamed or pan-fried.

Yakitori (焼き鳥)

Yakitori, typical Japanese pub

Popular food served in izakayas (Japanese pubs) or yakitori bars all around Japan, yakitori are 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: heart, cartilage, thighs, skin, gizzard, etc.

Karaage – (唐揚げ)

Karaage, Japanese fried chicken

Fried chicken is famous all around the world, with each country having its style. I love fried chicken which is delicious, whether Asian, African or American. The Japanese fried chicken is cut into bite-sized pieces, floured and deep-fried. It’s a great appetizer, so it is commonly found in izakayas but also in convenience stores. Karaage means deep-fried food with no batter. Therefore, as well as chicken karaage, you can also find fish, octopus or meat versions.  

Tsukemono (漬け物)

Tsukemono is sliced Japanese pickles served as a side dish with rice, to garnish a meal like porridge or accompany drinks. The pickles come in various colours and shapes. They are made from different vegetables like daikon, cabbage, ginger, cucumber or sour plums. Umeboshi is often served on top of white rice or as a filling for onigiri. 

Side dishes  to try

Onigiri (おにぎり)

Selection of onigiri, a rice based Japanese food

Onigiri is cooked rice balls, usually wrapped with nori seaweed and filled in the centre. The filling can be anything from fish (salmon, tuna) to vegetable (pickled plum “umeboshi”). Onigiri in Japan is just like sandwiches in Europe. They are available in convenience stores across Japan and are cheap and great for a quick and easy snack. They make a perfect cheap lunch or picnic item.

Tempura (天ぷら)

Selection of tempura

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

Tempura is not a dish that originated in Japan. It was created after Portuguese missionaries brought this method of frying to Nagasaki in the 1600s. The Japanese adopted the technique by making the delightful tempura everyone enjoys. Japanese usually get 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. You will also find tempura as a side dish.

Tempura is a good option for vegetarians or pescatarians. It is 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 are known as bento typically contain a varied range of food arranged inside a small container. A typical bento box will include vegetables, meat or fish, pickles and rice. Originally bento was a simple packed lunch carried by travellers. Nowadays, they are colourful, edible works of art that showcase the creators’ imagination and skills. Bento can be both hot and 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 rolled up using a rectangular pan until cooked. It is usually served either for breakfast, a side dish or as sushi topping. You can always find it in bento boxes. Tamagoyaki is enjoyed sweet with sugar, mirin (sweet sake) and soy sauce.

Edamame (枝豆)

Edamame is a green soybean in pods picked young. Although the pod is not edible, it adds flavour, making edamame a good and healthy snack. The edamame is usually served in izakayas as an appetiser. It 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 little sweetness. Salt is the primary seasoning and sometimes soy-sauce. 

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 made using a traditional iron pan with round moulds. The batter is poured in, then small pieces are added to each one. As they are cooked, they are rotated, forming them into balls. Then, they come 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 gobble the takoyaki while extremely hot! (although it’s hard not to!) 

Takoyaki is usually eaten as a snack but sometimes also as a light meal. You can eat takoyaki everywhere in Japan. There are lots of street vendors or food stalls making takoyaki. However, in my opinion, the place to try the best takoyaki in Namba in Osaka. You will find lots of restaurants specialised in takoyaki.

Nikuman (肉まん)

Nikuman is a fluffy, steamed bun stuffed with meat and vegetables. The satisfying snack is mostly enjoyed during the winter months.

Roasted chestnuts

Kuri (Japanese chestnuts) symbolises the coming of the autumn season in Japan. The simplest way to eat kuri is to boil or roast the chestnuts. I love the roasted chestnuts (Yakiguri ) version you can find in street stands, markets, festivals, or booths in stations. They are sometimes cooked in rice to make Kuri-gohan, literally meaning 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. 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 appetising at all, but it’s tasty. My favourite 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 travellers.

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, cheap and yummy. There are lots of kushiage-specialised restaurants, and small street food stands that sell these great skewers. Although the street food version only comes with a Worcestershire sauce, the restaurant version comes with side dishes to balance it. 

Korokke (コロッケ)

Korokke, a Japanese snack
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Korokke is the Japanese version of the French croquette. It consists of mashed potatoes, ground meat, seafood or vegetables. All the ingredients are then mixed into a shape then coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. This snack is not very healthy, but they are so delicious! You need to try to see how addictive they are! 

You can find korokke in every convenience store, and their low price means it’s hard to resist. 

Japanese sweets and other patisseries 

This guide on Japanese food wouldn’t be complete with a mention of the available sweets. Whether you have a sweet tooth or not, 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 difference between the two is within the shape: imagawayaki is rounded. In contrast, taiyaki is shaped like a fish (red sea bream). The fish called “tai” in Japanese is considered an auspicious dish often eaten during festivals or New Year.

You can find taiyaki and imagawayaki anywhere during festivals. Naniwaso Honten in Kanda is 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 pounded into a solid, sticky paste. It is then shaped into a round form. Although mochi originated from China, it is an essential part of Japanese cuisine and culture. As a dessert mochi (daifuku) is found in various colours and filled with different fillings such as red beans, ice cream etc.

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. as you see the rhythmic pounding. 

While 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 small ball-shaped mochi dumplings. The sweet Dango is usually presented on bamboo sticks. It’s a traditional Japanese sweet. They are sometimes grilled with a sweet sauce poured over them. In winter, people enjoy them in a red bean soup called “zenkai”. 

Senbei (煎餅)

Senbei, Japanese rice crackers

Senbei is crispy rice crackers. They are made from potatoes, wheat flour, glutinous or non-glutinous rice and various flavours, shapes and colours. The most traditional type of senbei is the soy sauce-flavoured version, but you can find spicy or seaweed flavoured senbei too. There are lots of senbei shops along Nakamise Street in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Kakigōri

Mango flavoured Kakigōri, a Japanese shaved ice dessert

Kakigori is a delicious and refreshing summer dessert. It’s made from shaved ice with a syrupy topping (strawberry, mango, melon etc.), condensed milk and fruit toppings. It’s so soft and fluffy that it melts in your mouth. Mango kakigori is my favourite.

Dorayaki (どら焼き)

Dorayaki is a wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) with Anko sandwiched between two soft and small pancakes. It’s incredibly delicious and popular with kids and adults alike. Anko is the azuki bean paste that is present in most of the Japanese wagashi sweets. Some dorayaki will have the Anko mashed up a bit, and some will have them whole. In addition to the sweet bean paste, you can find variations depending on the season. For example, in spring, the dorayaki will be filled with sakura leaf. In autumn, it will either be sweet potatoes or roasted chestnuts (my favourite). 

Manjū (饅頭)

Manju is sticky rice buns filled with sweet red beans. Traditionally, they are round, but you can find various shapes.

Namagashi (生菓子)

Namagashi, traditional wagashi Japanese sweets

Namagashi (raw sweets) is a traditional Japanese sweets and a type of wagashi. They are made of natural ingredients such as fruit jellies or sweet bean paste and then shaped into beautiful shapes, reflecting the seasons, such as leaves or flowers. Namagashi is served at the ceremony. 

Melonpan (メロンパン)

Melonpan is a large, round bun. It’s 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 nice sweet snack you can find in bakeries or convenience stores.

Japanese family food restaurants

Tips for eating in Japan

Eating out in Japan is easy, even if you don’t speak a word in Japanese. Many restaurants will have an English menu or will display the dishes available. 

Quick Japanese food etiquette for tourists 

Japanese people are typically respectful people and give lots of importance to manners. Cultures are different, so what seems acceptable in your country might be the opposite in Japan, so it’s essential to follow their rules. To avoid embarrassing yourself, try to familiarise yourself with these tips. The best advice I can give following my soba experience is to look around you and watch how other Japanese diners behave.

  • Before and after meals: The first thing that Japanese do when their food is served is to fold their hands in prayer and say Itadakimasu (I humbly receive). At the end of the meal, you say Goshisousama deshita
  • Mind the chopsticks: Chopsticks etiquette is important to follow. Never stick your chopsticks in your bowl of rice, instead leave them on the chopsticks rest provided. It is also not good manners to point with the chopsticks, rub them together or pass food with them.
  • Hot towels: Most places, especially sushi restaurants, will provide hot towels. It is for washing your hands only, don’t attempt to wipe anything else with it. 
  • Slurping noodles is acceptable. For someone raised in France, slurping is unthinkable. However, it’s encouraged in Japan because it helps cool down the hot noodles and shows that you are enjoying your dish.
Typical teishoku style menu

Tips for Eating Inexpensively in Japan

  • Japanese food is very cheap compared to Europe so if you would like to save money, go local. It’s worth noting that some of the high-end restaurants offer lunch menus relatively cheaper. 
  • Set menus are budget-friendly set menus are cheaper than a la carte menus. Knowing the words “teishoku – 定食” (set meal) and “higawari teishoku” (daily special) will save you a lot of money.
  • Eating at a “tachi-kui” (stand-and-eat restaurants) is another cheap way to eat out in Japan. You’ll find them at train stations and in shopping areas.
  • Please familiarise yourself with Lawson, 7eleven, FamilyMart and other convenience stores as you will likely visit them daily. Japanese supermarkets are heaven, especially around closing time when prices of certain foods are reduced. 
  • Fast-food chains like Sukiya (for curries & donburi rice bowls), Yoshinoya (for gyudon “beef bowls”) are good options.
  • Some bakeries also freshly baked sandwiches and cakes that won’t cost you a thing – a perfect option for a picnic meal. 
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Dietary requirements

Restaurants in Europe or America are used to cater to customers’ dietary requirements for allergy, intolerance or religious reasons. It’s a little more complicated in Japan. Eating strictly vegetarian — no meat, no seafood — can be a little tricky because many dishes use dashi, a fish broth made with bonito flakes. Some other dishes like Ramen may have pork or animal fat. Some chain restaurants will have information about the ingredients they use.  

Good to know: Try to communicate your dietary requirements to the staff before sitting down because some restaurants may not cater to your needs.

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. 

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 contents 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.

13 thoughts on “40 must-eat japanese food – our picks of the japanese cuisine

  1. I learned so much about Japanese food and how to eat it from this post. The photos all look delicious.

  2. 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.

    1. Thanks Josy. Nagashi somen is fun. I love unagi too, I didn’t think I would enjoyed it that much.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. I’m not a fish eater, but I would definitely love to try out the rest of the food you’ve listed! Anything with noodles and I’m there.

    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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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