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Guest post by Lena Scheidler from Nagoya Foodie
When I first visited Japan about 10 years ago I fell in love, I fell in love not only with the country, its friendly people, stunning nature and fascinating culture, most of all I fell in love with the Japanese food.
Even after living in Japan for more than three years not a week would go by when I didn’t crave some Sushi, and it wasn’t unusual for me and my Japanese boyfriend to visit our favorite Udon place multiple times a week, just because it was so delicious.
After I started traveling the world for a year people I met on the road would ask me ‘What do you miss most while traveling?’ and my answer would always be ‘Japanese food!’.
Now that you know just how much I love Japanese food, let’s talk about what every first-time visitor to Japan should try to get a good overview of what the countries cuisine has to offer with a list of the top 10 foods to try in Japan.
Let’s first talk about the one thing everyone associates with Japanese food: Sushi
It’s really a cliche, but my favorite food is Sushi. When you visit Japan for the first time you should try some, no matter if you have tried it somewhere before or not. It will be much better in Japan, trust me.
There are different categories of Sushi, from the cheapest kind you can buy in convenience stores or supermarkets, and 100 yen running Sushi chains to high-end Sushi restaurants where one dinner will cost you hundreds of dollars. And while the quality and the experience is very different, I still have to say the Sushi in Japan is very good no matter where you buy it.
By the way, the difference between Sushi and Sashimi is whether there is rice under the fish or not. Remember Sushi is raw fish on rice, Sashimi is just raw fish. There are other finer points, like a different soy sauce that is used for example but for the first time visitor knowing a simple difference is enough.
Udon and Soba are two different kinds of noodles. Udon noodles are thick, white noodles made from wheat flour, Soba noodles are made from buckwheat and are usually thin and grey but can be green as well if green tea powder is added.
Both kinds of noodles are served in many different variations, hot as well as cold. In the colder months I highly recommend you try Curry Udon, noodles served in a thick and creamy curry sauce. If you visit in the summer some cold Zaru Soba or Udon is perfect as a light meal. The noodles are served chilled and dipped into a cold broth.
Another favorite of mine and something really unique to Japan is Unagi, river eel. It is a pricey speciality and mainly eaten in the summer months around July but you can find it all year round in speciality restaurants. The eel is usually grilled or steamed and served in a rich and sweet sauce on top of rice.
My favorite variation of Unagi is called Hitsumabushi, this style is only served in Nagoya. If you want to find out more about what makes Hitsumabushi in Nagoya so special check out my full post about it.
Okonomiyaki roughly translates to ‘fried whatever you like’ and if I had to compare it to some western food I might say a combination of pizza and a pancake, but it really isn’t anything like pizza or pancakes.
In a bowl batter made from water, egg and flour are mixed with the ingredients you like, typical are bacon and cabbage but there are other toppings like seafood, cheese, egg, potato and much more. The Okonomiyaki is then grilled like a pancake on a hot plate, garnished with condiments like Okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, dried seaweed, and bonito flakes and served hot. Yum!
Okonomiyaki is a local speciality of Hiroshima as well as Osaka, and the styles are quite different, in Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki noodles are typically used as a topping. Therefore I recommend if you have the opportunity to try both variations.
In many parts of the world, there is a barbecue culture. People all over the world love grilled meat, and why wouldn’t they, it’s delicious. The Japanese answer to barbecue is Yakiniku. But you don’t have to fire up a grill in the garden, Yakiniku restaurants have a little barbecue grill in the middle of every table and you grill all kinds of thinly sliced meat on it.
There are the standard varieties like chicken breast and beef filet but also all manner of intestines from chicken, beef and pork the Japanese love to barbecue. It’s not for everyone, but I still encourage people to try everything once, you might like it! I especially enjoy beef tongue, much to my own surprise.
Ramen is everywhere in Japan. There are so many different varieties of this Japanese noodle soup and each is more delicious than the next. There are those with thin noodles and others with thick noodles, broth made from pork bones, soy sauce, salt or miso and the biggest variety of toppings.
Basically, every little Ramen shop has their own speciality and there are hundreds of Ramen shops in Tokyo alone, some even with Michelin stars.
My favorite kind of Ramen is from Fukuoka in the southern island of Kyushu, the Ramen there is called Hakata Ramen and is made from pork bone broth.
Tonkatsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet either served with cabbage and rice on the side or topped on a bowl of rice (called a Katsudon). It is simple, it is delicious and you should try it when you visit Japan.
One of my favorite restaurants serving Tonkatsu is located right in Tokyo Station called Suzuki, if you have the chance, check it out.
8. Curry Rice
The Japanese curry has very little to do with Indian curry, Thai curry or any other curry that is served around the world. It is a uniquely Japanese curry with a uniquely Japanese flavor. Curry is always served with rice, and the typical Japanese curry contains beef, carrots, and potatoes. That’s the way a Japanese mother would serve it at home to her family.
Teishoku is not a dish like the other 8 foods mentioned above. A Teishoku is a Japanese meal set, served with one main dish (could be some kind of fish or meat) and a side of miso soup, a bowl of rice and a salad or pickles or some other side dish. It is basically also what a Japanese meal consists of at home, although there might be more than one side dish.
If you order a Teishoku meal at a restaurant you can usually request a refill of rice and miso soup for free. So, if you are very hungry don’t forget about that.
10. Japanese Sweets
Number 10 on my list of the top 10 Japanese foods to try in Japan has to be Japanese sweets, just because I love all of them so much. I highly recommend you eat every kind of sweet you come across exploring the country, no matter if it is the packaged kind at a supermarket or some sort of street food like soft serve ice cream or Taiyaki (a fish-shaped snack filled with red bean paste) or parfaits or cakes ordered at a cafe or restaurant. If you have a sweet tooth Japan will seem like heaven to you. It is heaven to me.
In addition to these universal top 10 Japanese foods, I encourage you to try the local foods of every location you visit in Japan. As I mentioned above Hiroshima has delicious Okonomiyaki and Nagoya has Hitsumabushi. Nagoya actually has a wide variety of unique dishes that can only be found in the region. You can find out more about them reading my Nagoya Food Guide.
I hope you find this list helpful and you will enjoy every bit(e) of Japan!
Other articles you will love:
- 25 Weird and Interesting Facts about Japan
- Tokyo Accommodation: Where to stay in Tokyo [Japan]
- 32 Must-See Places To Visit in Japan
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