10 Foods to Try in Japan (That Aren’t Sushi or Ramen)
Chow down on these Japanese staples.
Sushi and ramen have already made culinary waves around the world and, of course, you’ll want to check out the real deal while you’re here. But the fact that this list was so hard to narrow down (and caused a whole lotta’ debate here at GaijinPot) is proof that when it comes to food in Japan, the choice is pretty much endless.
So put on those stretchy pants and let’s go!
1. Sukiyaki and shabu shabu
Order plates of your favorite raw meats, cook them in a big pot in the middle with seasonal vegetables in broth and dip them into a sauce of your choosing. Polish it off with some delicious white rice.
The main difference between the two is that sukiyaki is cooked in a sweet and salty broth with a strong flavor while shabu shabu is meat boiled in a clear, seaweed-based broth. Both are pretty classy meals here (especially shabu-shabu) – mainly because of the amount of meat consumed – so watch your wallet as things can get pricey.
The Kanto and Kansai regions have their competing versions of sukiyaki which vary in ingredients and cooking processes, but you can find it almost everywhere in Japan. While the first-ever shabu-shabu restaurant was in Osaka, you can find a huge range of places offering it across the country from inexpensive chain stops to Michelin-starred options like Imafuku in Tokyo.
At first sight, katsudon is not the most appealing of dishes aesthetically-speaking, but it sure is tasty. Made with a solid helping of rice, onions, deep-fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu), and eggs poured over the top, this is the ultimate Japanese comfort food.
It’s also become a tradition for Japanese students to eat it the night before taking an exam since “katsu” also means to win. Recently, katsudon has become more familiar to western audiences because of the popularity of the figure-skating anime, Yuri on Ice, and its main character’s obsession with the dish.
Tonkatsu-specialty restaurants almost always offer up a variety of katsudon as well as the regular tonkatsu dish (the cutlet served with shredded cabbage and a barbecue-style sauce). A sauce-loaded katsudon is really popular in Fukui, but you can find it practically anywhere.
Miso Katsu Yabaton in Nagoya is a regional specialty. There is also Katsuya, a popular fast-food chain where you order via a ticket machine and wolf it all down at a counter lined with businessmen doing the same.
How can eggs and rice be so darn satisfying? Omurice (an abridged katakana version of “omelet and rice”) is usually mixed with ketchup, stuffed with chicken, rice, and vegetables, and held in a smooth embrace by a simple egg omelet.
Although usually homemade fare, there are plenty of restaurants that feature omurice on their menus or specialize in this most versatile of meals. Favorite variations include demi-glace sauce instead of ketchup and Okinawan style with taco rice.
You’ll spot omurice on most all-rounder restaurant menus, and it’s also a popular breakfast feature in retro Japanese cafes. It’s the crowd-pleasing equivalent of spaghetti and meatballs.
4. Anago (conger eel)
Rest assured, this yummy seafood is nowhere near as slippery on your plate as the creature is while alive. For those who aren’t a huge fan of seafood but don’t want to miss out on Japan’s fishy cuisine, anago is perfect as its texture and smell have more in common with meat than your typical seafood. Anagodon is grilled eel in a kind of teriyaki sauce laid on top of steaming rice. It’s a good introduction for the skeptics.
Keep in mind that anago’s freshwater cousin, unagi, is endangered, and you should avoid eating it if you are concerned about sustainability.
5. Karaage (fried chicken)
KFC has nothing on Japan’s version of fried chicken. Technically called tori no karaage, the basic recipe involves boneless, tender chicken thighs, marinated in sauce, and deep-fried. Almost everybody in Japan knows how to make it at home, yet they’ll almost always order it when drinking in an izakaya (Japanese pub).
Chicken nanban is the sunny southern version of karaage. It’s served with tartar sauce and is available all across the country, but it’s most famous in Miyazaki, the dish’s place of origin.
It’s a mystery why delicious and filling onigiri hasn’t swept the world, but you cannot leave Japan without trying one. It’s a cornerstone of Japanese lunchboxes, snacks, and late-night eating. The humble rice ball is a simple concoction of rice and filling that’s shaped into a triangle or ball. They’re usually wrapped in seaweed, which adds a nice, healthy crunch.
You can find onigiri in every convenience store in Japan for about ¥100 each. Some favorites are tuna and mayonnaise and the sour umeboshi (pickled plum). There are also dedicated onigiri restaurants like Bongo, which serve giant, handmade rice balls with a choice of fresh fillings.
Mochi is about as traditional as it gets in terms of Japanese food. Roughly translated as a “rice cake,” mochi is made from glutinous rice, which is traditionally pounded with a large and heavy hammer into a sticky texture.
There are lots of ways to eat mochi—in soup, grilled, stuffed with anko (sweet red bean), or wrapped in an edible leaf for cherry blossom season. Daifuku is a mochi cake usually stuffed with a sweet filling. Not only are these little guys adorable to look at (those pale colors and squishy texture are just too much), they’re also one of the most delicious of the mochi-variants.
If you want the best of the best, you’ve gotta try strawberry-stuffed daifuku. Head to a food shopping court in the basement of a high-end department store, known as a depachika, for top-quality-guaranteed.
A uniquely Japanese bakery sweet, melonpan (i.e., “melon bread”) is a sugary, cookie dough-coated bun in the shape of a cantaloupe melon that doesn’t taste anything like a melon. Variants can be found throughout the country, such as chocolate chip, caramel, and custard filling.
Melonpan can be picked up anywhere from fancy cafes to your local Seven-Eleven convenience store. Kagetsudo, close to the historic Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, is famed for its jumbo versions.
Like lots of ingredients used in making traditional Japanese sweets, anko (red bean paste) isn’t that sweet, and its texture can sometimes be off-putting to foreigners. For those who can get over their initial reservations, there is a whole new world of related goodies for you to try. Take Doraemon’s namesake, dorayaki, for example.
These mini pancakes are filled with pure red bean goodness and rated by top pastry chefs like Dominique Ansel. How about trying taiyaki next? These cute little fishies come with not only the traditional anko filling but also chocolate, custard, and matcha. Anmitsu, made of agar jelly, topped with anko, and lots of fruit is a classic Japanese dessert beloved by grandpas and grandmas out for an afternoon coffee and a sweet.
From supermarket cans to artisan vendors, it’s highly likely that you’ll come across ankoin some form or another on your travels. If you’re in Tokyo, Ginza is a reliable place to seek out traditional Japanese wagashi (sweets) in a bubble economy-era setting.
10. Seasonal food
Japan loves to boast about having many different seasons. Take the cherry blossom season, for example. From mid-February until the beginning of April, everything is sakura-themed. Everything is mango and cherry-themed during early summer.
Scorching August? Cool down with a peach frappuccino. Christmas? Try a strawberry-packed Christmas cake. Valentine’s Day? Stuff yourself with chocolate! White Day? Stuff yourself with even more chocolate!
There is always food of some kind that is “in season” in Japan. Once its season is over, it can disappear completely until the next year, so stock up while you can!
For more regional foods, check out our Famous Foods series highlighting Japan’s stellar and unique food culture.