Food plays a big part in the lifestyle of each country around the world. For an island nation like Japan, food acts as a living form of their traditions and culture that continues to evolve year after year. In addition, each of Japan’s prefectures tends to go their own way when it comes to local cuisine, resulting in a seemingly endless list of Japanese dishes that includes traditional, street, and weird foods.
Before diving into the immense world of Japanese cuisine, tourists should first understand what the staple foods of the country are. Other than rice, which is the staple food of almost every Asian country, a lot of Japanese dishes also often include noodles, soy products, and seafood.
There are two terms used to refer to rice in Japan – gohan and kome. Gohan literally means cooked rice in English but is also used to refer to a meal, while kome is strictly used to refer to uncooked rice. Other associated Japanese terms are asagohan (morning rice) and yuuhan (evening rice), which refer to breakfast and dinner, respectively.
The rice of Japan is best described to be sticky and short-grained. It is believed that the cultivation of rice served as the catalyst for Japan’s cultural evolution, given the great sense of cooperation required among the communities to maintain and develop paddy fields.
Rice is so widely used in Japanese cuisine that it can be found in meals, snacks, desserts, and even drinks. Some popular examples include rice bowls, rice balls, rice cakes, and rice wine.
Udon noodles are often served hot but can also be ordered cold especially during the summer. They are made using wheat flour and are cooked in boiling water. Hot udon noodles often come with a broth while cold udon noodles come with various toppings such as raw eggs or fried tofu.
Soba noodles, on the other hand, are more often served cold than hot. Cold soba is called zaru soba and comes with wasabi, sliced green onions, and a savory dipping sauce. Hot soba, or kake soba, is similar to udon in terms of broth and toppings.
What makes soba noodles different from udon noodles is its use of buckwheat instead of wheat flour. Soba noodles are usually darker in color and thinner than udon noodles.
Ramen is probably the most popular out of all the Japanese noodle dishes. Thin egg noodles are used for ramen and are often served in a flavored broth.
The three main soy products used in Japanese cuisine are daizu (soybean), shoyu (soy sauce), and tofu (soybean curd). Daizu and shoyu are often used for flavoring, while tofu is often served as a standalone dish. In fact, there are even tofu ice cream and donuts being sold in Japan.
Compared to western countries, the fish consumption of Japan’s community is significantly greater. Seafood is served in the country in nearly every form imaginable including raw, grilled, fried, and steamed.
Before the Meiji Restoration in the 1870s, consuming meat was actually considered illegal in Japan. Once the country exposed itself to western influences, their cuisine evolved to include various kinds of meat including chicken, beef, pork, and even horse.
For first-time visitors to the land of the rising sun, it is always best to start with the most popular foods of Japan. The top 10 dishes that need to be included in one’s food adventure in Japan are:
Sushi is probably the most popular Japanese dish known across the world. Although many other countries also house several sushi specialty restaurants, nothing beats the sushi of Japan. The country has a wide array of sushi that consists of more than a hundred different kinds designed to suit every taste.
The staple ingredient of sushi is vinegared rice, which may be served with a topping of seafood, with a seaweed wrap, or with a seafood filling, among many other variations. These sushi dishes often come with a light soy sauce dip, wasabi, and pickled ginger (to cleanse the palate) on the side.
Sashimi is often closely associated with sushi but is an entirely separate dish. It is considered as a delicacy in Japan and is even regarded to be the finest dish one can enjoy in a formal dining experience. Basically, sashimi refers to raw seafood or meat that are served in thin slices. Similar to sushi, these dishes are also served with a light soy sauce dip, wasabi, and ginger.
Ramen is a dish believed to have originated from China and modified by the Japanese community to suit their own taste. The dish has become so popular in Japan that its origin story has become an issue of debate.
There are different kinds of ramen available in Japan, most of which are available at affordable prices. The ramen dishes offered by the many cities of Japan differ from each other in terms of toppings and broth. Some of the most common toppings include eggs, pork slices, and spring onions, while common broth flavors include shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (fermented bean paste), and tonkotsu (pork marrow bones).
Soba, as previously mentioned, is available in cold and hot variants. Both types often come with tsuyu, a soy sauce mixture, either as a dip for cold soba or as a broth for hot soba.
The simplest way to enjoy udon is to order it hot. This dish is known as kakejiru and often comes with a savory broth and seafood toppings. Just like soba, it can also be ordered cold.
Tempura is a traditional Japanese dish that found its way to Japan in the 16th century thanks to Portuguese missionaries. The term tempura actually refers to the cooking method of deep frying batter-coated seafood, meat, or vegetable in a light oil. As such, tempura dishes come in many variations, all served with a light dipping sauce.
Sukiyaki is a highly recommended dish for lovers of beef. It is a hot pot kind of meal that usually consists of thin beef strips, tofu, and vegetables cooked in a broth made from mirin (rice wine), soy sauce, and sugar.
Okonomiyaki is one of the most popular comfort foods in Japan; particularly in Osaka but it can also be found in other cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. It is best described as a pancake of sorts; consisting of numerous ingredients such as pork, octopus, shrimp, and cabbage. Fittingly, its name roughly translates to mean “grilling what one wants” in English.
The dish is available in restaurants and food stalls along the street. Other than its scrumptious flavor, tourists can also enjoy watching a local chef make it on the spot or choose to make it themselves.
Miso soup is a staple Japanese dish that many locals consider as a nutritious breakfast meal. It typically consists of dashi (fish stock), tofu, and seaweed, making it packed full of protein. Many restaurants in Japan serve it as a side dish to go with full meals.
Unagi is a term used to refer to fresh eel. There are various Japanese dishes that include unagi such as unadon, a rice bowl dish topped with grilled unagi, and unakyu, a sushi dish that makes use of cucumber and unagi.
Holidays in Japan revolve around numerous traditions and festive foods. Some foods are uniquely Japanese in terms of preparation and presentation while others are a result of western influences. The most popular traditional foods eaten on Christmas, New Year, and other important days of the year are:
Christmas cakes in Japan feature festive colors or white and red. The most popular cake consumed on Christmas Eve by locals is the strawberry shortcake. Many bakeries and dessert shops sell many other generic Christmas cakes that are just as popular.
Wagashi is a term used to refer to the traditional Japanese sweet that is often designed to represent a particular season. These Japanese confections are usually filled with a sweet paste made from red beans, green tea, or burdock root. Christmas wagashis come in appropriate holiday shapes such as holly leaves, snowmen, Santa Claus, and reindeer.
Hishimochi refers to the pink, white, and green rice cakes that are layered on top of each other and eaten during Hina Matsuri or Girl’s Day Festival. The three layers represent the going and coming of the spring and winter seasons.
Another traditional dish eaten on Hina Matsuri is the hina arare. Just like the hishimochi, the colors pink, white, and green are also used for these crunchy balls of puffed rice.
Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that has a tart flavor similar to that of a grapefruit. The yuzu season is from November/December to January/February, which is why a lot of yuzu-flavored foods pop up come Christmas time. Some examples include yuzu-shaped pastries, yuzu jelly cakes, and yuzu-flavored KitKat.
Eating KFC for Christmas became a popular trend in Japan in the 1970s after the company’s marketing campaign that revolved around the concept “Kentucky For Christmas”. Since then, many Japanese families have made it a tradition and even order their Christmas meals in advance. KFCs in Japan offer special Christmas dinner packages which include sparkling wine and cake.
Osechi Ryori refers to the traditional Japanese foods eaten by families on the outset of New Year’s Day. It consists of different dishes that each represent a certain form of luck or fortune. Some common dishes include daidai (a bitter orange), datemaki (a sweet omelet), kamaboko (a broiled fish cake), and kazunoko (a herring roe). These dishes are placed in intricately designed boxes with several inner sections called jubako boxes.
Tsukimi Dango is a traditional Japanese food that can be described as a small rice dumpling. It is eaten on O-tsukimi, the Harvest Moon Festival of Japan that was initially celebrated as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival more than a thousand years ago. The rice dumplings represent the moon’s beauty and are consumed as a form of celebrating it.
Every year, Japan hosts over a hundred thousand of festivals, ceremonies, and events. Other than the bustling energy of the community, another charming aspect of these occasions is the large group of vendors selling various street foods. On any other day, these food stalls are also present along the narrow streets of Japan. Some of the most popular street foods include:
● Yaki Imo – baked sweet potatoes
● Imagawayaki – thick pancakes filled with cheese, meat, or red bean paste
● Nikuman – Chinese pork dumplings
● Izayaki – grilled squid
● Onsen Tamago – eggs slow cooked in natural onsens (hot springs)
● Jaga Bata – baked potatoes served with butter
● Tomorokoshi – grilled corn on a stick served with butter, soy sauce, and miso
● Taiyaki – fish-shaped pancakes with a cheese, custard, or chocolate filling
● Takoyaki – pancake balls with bits of octopus inside
● Shioyaki – salty baked fish on a stick
● Yakisoba – fried noodles served with pork and a sweet sauce
● Bebi Kasutera – a Japanese sponge cake similar to the Pao de Castela of Portugal
● Dango – mochi (rice cake) dumplings on a stick served with a mixture of sugar and shoyu
Japan is known to house some of the most unique and interesting items, trends, and forms of entertainment. The country’s reputation for being significantly different also applies to its local cuisine that includes several foods that may be a bit hard to stomach. For foreign travelers up for a gastronomical challenge, some of the must-try items include:
● Curry Pan – donuts filled with curry
● Basashi – raw horse meat
● Uni – sea urchin
● Shirako – fish genitals and sperm served hot or cold
● Natto – slimy fermented beans
● Funazushi – fermented carp
● Fugu – pufferfish served in various ways
● Ika Ikizukuri – raw squid that is sliced alive and still moves when served
● Shiruo No Odorigui – tiny fish (ice goby) eaten alive
● Suppon – various parts of a soft-shell turtle served as a hot pot dish
● Kujira – whale meat served raw or as a hot pot dish
Given the varied selection of food establishments that range from a food stall to a Michelin restaurant available in Japan, the price range for certain local foods can get quite wide. Those who have more than enough to splurge on their meals are recommended to do so at least once, as the majority of expensive Japanese dishes are sure to be of high quality.
For those working on a budget for their trip, some of the most popular meals in Japan, fortunately, start at affordable prices:
● Rice ball (onigiri) – ¥150
● Soba or udon - ¥200
● Ramen - ¥700
● Sushi - ¥1,000
● Lunch meal set - ¥800
● Dinner meal and an alcoholic drink at a Japanese gastropub (izakaya) - ¥3,000