With all the general travel tips about Japan out of the way, we can now focus on my favorite part of traveling: the food! We westerners are most likely to think of sushi when it comes to Japanese food, and while this is definitely going to be discussed below, I’d like to take this chance to introduce you to even more amazing parts of Japanese cuisine.
Warning: many mouth-watering pictures ahead!
Where To Eat
Surprise: everything in the pictures above is fake! They’re amazingly realistic plastic models as an art form of their own, and you’ll find most restaurants have these models (with prices) in their front window to show off their menu. These models make it that much easier to figure out where and what to eat, since each restaurant tends to specialize in one particular food (like soba noodles): you need to know what’s there before stepping inside. Some general tips to help you find the right places:
- Eating out is quite affordable for the mid budget traveler – noodle shops were our favorite and easy to find in many variants without breaking the bank, but there’s many options.
- For breakfast, skip the hotel buffets and instead find one of the many convenience shops i.e. konbini (e.g. 7-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart). They sell ready-to-eat meals, drinks and snacks alongside other essentials e.g. toiletries. The food is actually decent, especially for the price! Start your day by grabbing a quick onigiri (rice balls with a huge variety of fillings) or sandwich (usually filled with stuff like egg salad) as breakfast. You can even find full meals for a cheap dinner, too.
- Vegetarian food is perfectly doable! While you definitely have to keep a special eye out (Google is your friend), it’s not too hard to find veggie options although they usually have eggs and/or cheese. If you want vegan food, look for more Buddhist cuisine with lots of delicious tofu.
- If you do eat meat but avoid pork like I do, I’ve found a lot of places using icons for chicken/beef/pork to know what not to order – just watch out for broth used for noodles, which is often pork even if there’s no pork meat involved as a filling.
- As mentioned in the previous post, look up the food markets like Tsukiji Outer Fish Market (Tokyo), Nishiki Market (Kyoto) and Dotonbori (Osaka) for awesome streetfood! Most revolve around fresh fish (Tsukiji was world famous for tuna fish auctions, which moved to Toyosu market nowadays) but there’s also other yummies to be found including many of the sweets I mention in this post.
What To Eat
Here we come to the main goods: all the different types of foodstuffs you can find in Japan! While there’s no way for me to cover everything, I’m picking out my favorite things – you can find more popular dishes on japan-guide.com if you need even more inspiration to make you hungry.
The big obvious one, sushi is usually what people think of first when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Don’t let yourself be limited by just sushi though, but it’s definitely worth tracking down. While sushi is usually a more luxury eating out type of food in the western world, in Japan it’s actually possible to have it either expensive (by super skilled chefs) or cheap (conveyor belt style).
- Conveyor belt restaurants: cheap mass production but still very tasty! Sit down at a conveyor belt that runs from the kitchen throughout the restaurant, loaded with colored plates of sushi and associated foodstuffs. Grab whatever plate you like and once you’re done eating, the total is counted by summing up the different plates by color reflecting price. You can also special order from the menu if you have a particular craving, and some restaurants have a second conveyor belt to zoom your order right to your table! Prices? We’ve eaten our bellies full for less than €20 total for both of us.
- Specialty sushi restaurants: the expensive kind. Sit at the bar where the chef prepares all the sushi or at one of the few tables usually available in these small restaurants. The sushi served is of much higher quality reflected in the price: we paid about €50 per person for a lunch of “only” 10 sushi pieces! (right side photos) But beyond the incredibly fresh and quality ingredients, some of which I’ve only seen in Japan, each piece is also prepared by the chef with exactly the right amount of soy sauce and/or wasabi applied. Ready to eat to enjoy just the way the chef intended, all the tastes balanced exactly right. Expensive as it was, the one time we decided to splurge for it literally left us with a ginormous smile after every single bite. If you enjoy sushi, treat yourself just once!
So regardless of sushi’s reputation, noodles are actually my favorite thing about basically any Asian cuisine. Japan is no exception. There are SO many different kinds of noodles, prepared in SO many different broths or dipping sauces with an equally great variety of toppings. These were probably the easiest to find vegetarian options for, service is usually very quick and yes, there will be slurping involved: it’s not considered rude. I couldn’t get myself to slurp along but you get used to the sounds from other folks…
- Most popular types of noodles in the regions we visited were spaghetti-sized buckwheat based soba noodles and the much thicker wheat-based udon noodles but there’s many more kinds to discover: try what you can, it’s fun to experiment!
- If you want noodle soup, pork broth is the most common but they also use chicken or beef or veggies. Pick whatever tickles your fancy!
- “Dipping noodles” are cold noodles that you get on a separate bamboo mat, and a little container of soy-based sauce to dip the noodles in to eat. Some restaurants also add hot water (that the noodles were boiled in) to that container at the end of your meal, so you can drink it like a hot soup.
- Toppings usually include things like meat, fish, seafood, tofu, eggs and loads of veggies. One of my particular favorites is yuba i.e. tofu skin one variant of which is shown on the bottom left of the above picture, which may not sound very tasty, but is seriously yum.
- However, my most favorite noodle dish is featured in the picture below: dipping noodles featuring real freshly grated wasabi which I have never ever seen outside of Japan before. You may know that most of the wasabi we’re used to in western countries is usually not real wasabi but a substitute made of horseradish and green food coloring and other non-wasabi ingredients. Though this does tend to have the “hot flash” kind of spicy contrary to the long burn of chili peppers, I’ve discovered that real wasabi has a much more earthy tone to it that adds that much more flavor. I got mine at Kobayashi Soba in Matsumoto but definitely keep an eye out anywhere else!
Beyond sushi and noodles, there are many more culinary wonders to explore. Although there is no way for me to cover all the things, the photos above are a selection of some of my favorites that I’d recommend you try:
- Top left: takoyaki i.e. octopus balls! Again, this may not sound very appealing, but trust me, it’s delicious. If you’re Dutch, basically think of them as savory poffertjes that are more round, with yummy sauce and bonito flakes sprinkled on top. Contrary to one’s expectations, the octopus is not an overwhelming flavor nor chewy at all. Try it!
- Top middle: freshly flambéed scallops from the fish markets mentioned earlier. All they did was add a bit of soy sauce then put it to flames, which means you get the full fresh scallop flavor just lightly supported by the soy. Heavenly.
- Bottom left: yakiniku i.e. Japanese barbecue, where you get thinly sliced meats soaked in delicious marinades to cook on your own personal grill. Very close to Korean BBQ, but different kinds of meats/marinades.
- Bottom middle: torikatsu i.e. chicken cutlet although the more traditional and common variant is the tonkatsu i.e. pork cutlet (but I don’t eat pork). Usually can be ordered separate or as a topping for rice or noodles.
- Right: Japanese curry in this case from the commonly popular Curry House CoCo chain, found in most cities all over Japan. While you might think of India when it comes to curries, Japan has its own variant of curry which is a lot lighter and thinner, and comes in many variants in terms of meats/veggies and spiciness levels. CoCo was an easy place to find affordable and yummy dinner, very easy comfort food!
- Not pictured: okonomiyaki i.e. Japanese savory pancake, which you might think doesn’t sound very special, but is also very yummy thanks to the special batter and sauces used! They’re available with a variety of ingredients so take a look around!
- Also not pictured: kushiyaki which is basically grilled meat on skewers such as the more commonly known yakitori (chicken skewers) but there’s many more things one can put on a stick and grill. We had fun going to an izakaya i.e. pub where they serve drinks and pub food including these many different kinds of skewers – sadly we went there on our first night in Japan and were too jetlagged to think of taking pictures!
For all my love of Japan’s savory dishes, there’s a special place in my heart for their many desserts and other sweets: once again, I can’t cover everything but definitely recommend these!
- Top and bottom left: fluffy pancakes! While I’m used to the more flat pancakes in the Netherlands, I also love the thicker pancakes more common in the US. However, Japan takes the fluffiness up another level, resulting in these ginormous souffle puffs of pancakes shown above! Definitely try one of the A Happy Pancake or other locations in bigger cities like Tokyo or Kyoto.
- Middle: matcha green tea parfait! Okay, so I know that parfaits i.e. huge frozen desserts are more of a French thing originally and these Japanese variants are based more on the American icecream-laden ones, but believe me when I say you need to try these matcha ones. They’re glorious. Add a matcha latte and your day will be a happy one!
- Top right: taiyaki i.e. fish-shaped sweet waffles! Usually filled with either yellow custard, red bean paste or chocolate. Mostly found at streetfood stands like at the abovementioned fish markets, where the shapes are even more appropriate.
- Bottom right: dango! If you’re a fan like me of the anime Clannad, you’ll know these from the ending theme that I will fully admit to being part of the reason why I was very excited to try these. They’re sweet dumplings similar to mochi that come in many variants, although the one above (mitarashi dango) covered in sweet syrup was the most common that we found. Very yummy!
For those who remember from my previous post, I’d recommended staying at a ryokan for the unique experience of not just these traditional luxury hotels, but also traditional Japanese haute cuisine called kaiseki ryori. Basically this consists of a set order of 13 types of dishes, the description of which you’re better off reading about in the link, but let me give you a visual taste of what our ryokan dinners looked like:
Once again, the nice thing about experiencing kaiseki ryori at a ryokan is that you can just wear the yukata (light kimono) and sandals that you’re given in your hotel rooms to wear all around the resort, which means you don’t have to worry about dressing up more formally to go out to a restaurant. And there’s nothing like soaking up in the associated onsen after you’ve let all that wonderful food settle for a couple hours…
That’s It, Folks!
While this is far from a complete overview of all the many different delicious foodstuffs available in Japan, I hope I’ve managed to give you a good idea of what to find beyond sushi. There’s a whole culinary world to explore there, go and enjoy!