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Japanese Food Culture: 11 Must Try Food in Japan

Last Updated on October 30, 2021 by queenie mak

If you are travelling solo to Japan for the first time, you may be wondering what type of food you should try. And typical Japanese food is very different from foods from other cultures so you may want to study this guide before you go.

Every time I go to Japan, I spend hours researching the best places to eat. I would search high and low for the best Japanese food at different budgets. I tend to stick to the inexpensive options but I would splurge from time-to-time if I think its worth it. And honesty, it is really worth spending a bit of money to eat good Japanese food!

So in no particular order, here is an introduction to 11 must try food in Japan.

Related Post – Taiwanese food culture: 22 must-eat food in Taiwan

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Japanese food culture: things you need to know

Before you experience the food culture in Japan, take a look at my post on everything you need to know before going to Japan. I included a lot of travel information including how to get around Japan and other travel tips.

Here are few additional tips for when you try all the food food in Japan:

  • You can eat Japanese food anywhere! You can even have an excellent meal at a Japanese convenience store.
  • Some ramen restaurants will require you to purchase a ticket from the vending machine. First, you purchase your ticket from the vending machine. Then you give your ticket to one of the staff, and they will seat you inside. 
  • Making loud slurping sounds when eating noodles is good in Japanese culture. It is considered to be a compliment to the chef!
  • Tipping is not necessary. It is considered rude according to Japanese culture.
  • You can find any of these must-try Japanese foods anywhere in Japan. But I included specific recommendations as well.

What to eat in Japan: 11 must eat food in Japan

If this is your first time travelling solo to Japan, then you must be really excited about exploring a new culture and trying new food.

Below is a list of my favourite Japanese food that any first-time traveller must try.

I also included locations for each Japanese food because some of them are exceptional and you shouldn’t miss them while you are travelling across Japan.

1. Sushi

Sushi is a traditional Japanese food where a slice of fresh fish or seafood is placed on a bite-size amount of vinegared sushi rice. And some of the most common sushi ingredients include tuna, salmon, shrimp, and octopus.

But you may also have heard of other “sushi” type foods like sashimi, which is just the fish, maki, a rice cylinder wrapped with seaweed and stuffed with fish and other ingredients, and chirashi, which is a bowl of raw fish served on top of seasoned sushi rice.

It doesn’t matter which type of “sushi” you eat, you always want to eat it with wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and a bit of soy sauce.

And you can eat sushi anywhere in Japan. From local restaurants to the sushi aisle of a supermarket. Or you can splurge and have omakase sushi (where the chef selects the freshest ingredients of the day) dinner at Michelin-starred restaurants.

Where to eat sushi

  • Sushi no Midori Ginza ($$) in Tokyo – a busy but affordable sushi restaurant popular with tourists
  • Manten Sushi ($$$) in Tokyo – excellent mid-range option for omakase sushi, book ahead
  • Sushi Umi ($$$$) in Tokyo – enjoy an omakase sushi dinner at this Michelin 2-star restaurant. Must make reservation
  • Tsukiji Outer Market ($$) in Tokyo – have sushi for breakfast at one of the local restaurants at the wholesale fish market
  • Kagoshima Fish Market ($) in Kagoshima – Japan’s 7th oldest fish market that serves sushi for breakfast

2. Ramen

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup with thin wheat noodles, savoury broth and a variety of toppings. Most broths are meat or fish-based and are flavoured with soy sauce or miso. And some toppings for ramen include sliced pork, dried seaweed, and a variety of local ingredients.

And every region in Japan has their own version of ramen.

Tokyo-style ramen has thin noodles in a clear soy-flavoured chicken broth. And toppings like sliced pork, dried seaweed and egg is added to the savoury noodles.

Onomichi ramen has flat noodles in a chicken, fish and soy sauce-flavoured soup and topped with sliced pork and bamboo shoots.

Hiroshima ramen features thin noodles in a milky pork broth and soy sauce-based broth. And for Hiroshima Tsukemen, you dip the noodle in a concentrated soup. The dry noodle is served with sliced pork and extra-spicy dipping sauce.

Moreover, Kyushu Island has its signature tonkotsu ramen, a creamy pork bone broth with thin fresh noodles. And as the capital of Hakata ramen, Fukuoka is the home to the famous Ippudo ramen restaurant.

And further south in Kyushu, you’ll find Kumamoto ramen, which uses thicker noodles in a tonkotsu pork and kogashi garlic is added to the broth for extra flavour.

Where to eat ramen

  • Tsuta Ramen ($$) in Tokyo – try the shoyu soba (soy sauce ramen) at the first Michelin star ramen shop but be prepared to wait
  • Mugi to Olive ($$) in Tokyo – a Michelin Bib Gourmand ramen restaurant best known for hamaguri clams ramen.
  • Fuunji ($$) in Tokyo – try the Tsukemen dipping noodles at this busy ramen shop
  • Ramen Sen No Kaze ($) in Kyoto – a favourite ramen noodle shop in Kyoto
  • Ramen Miyachi ($) in Onomichi – try a bowl of Onomichi ramen
  • Bakudanya ($) in Hiroshima – try their Hiroshima Tsukemen with either cold or warm noodles. Pick between cold or warm noodles and choose your level of spiciness. 
  • Ippudo ($) in Fukuoka – eat a bowl of shiromaru classic at Ippudo’s original location
  • Kokutei ($) in Kumamoto – try the tamago-iri ramen at this Kumamoto ramen restaurant that has been around since 1957

3. Udon

Udon is a bowl of thick wheat flour noodles in a bowl of mildly sweet broth. This simple but wholesome food can be eaten hot or cold. And it can be made into a stir-fry too.

I love a simple bowl of udon noodles. But I also love eating it with different toppings. Some typical toppings include shrimp tempura, aburaage (deep-fried tofu pouch), kakiage (mixed tempura fritter), and many more.

And certain regions in Japan have their own specialties. For example, kitsune (large fried tofu) udon is popular in Osaka as the dish is originated there. And Fukuoka is known for its goboten (deep-fried burdock) udon.

And you can get this comfort food anywhere in Japan. But here are some of my favourites.

Where to eat udon

  • Mentouan ($) in Nara – they serve delicious curry udon and udon noodles inside a tofu package in a broth
  • Memme ($) in Himeji – try the Memme udon (udon with raw egg, dried bonito, sesame seeds) or Kitsune udon (udon with sliced and deep-fried tofu)
  • Bukkake-Udon Furuichi ($) in Kuraishiki – try their nikuten bukkake udon which comes with beef, shrimp tempura and egg
  • Maki No Udon ($) in Fukuoka – try their goboten udon
  • Marugame Seimen ($) all over Japan – a franchised Japanese restaurant chain serving a variety of udon

4. Soba

There is another Japanese noodle dish that you must try while you are in Japan. Soba is a thin buckwheat noodle served either cold with dipping sauce or in a hot bowl of soy-based dashi broth.

As a cold dish, the soba noodle is served on a bamboo tray. It comes with a bowl of soy-flavoured dipping sauce that pairs perfectly with the bouncy noodle. All you have to do is to pick up a bite full of noodles with chopsticks, dip the noodles in the sauce and eat.

Fancier soba noodles come with a variety of sides including shrimp tempura, clams and more.

This inexpensive dish can be found all over Japan. You can even buy packages of dried soba noodles and cook them at home.

Where to eat soba

  • Benten ($$) in Tokyo – go to Asakusa and get their famous clams soba noodles
  • Osoba no Kouga ($$) in Tokyo – they buy buckwheat seed directly from local farmers and mill it themselves. Try their uni soba. Make a reservation before you go.

5. Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu is a Japanese pork cutlet dish where a thick cut of pork is breaded with panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Many restaurants fry a thick pork sirloin cut where it may be sourced from Kagoshima, Okinawa or other parts of Japan.

As a meal, tonkatsu is always accompanied by a bowl of rice, miso soup and a raw cabbage salad.

It also comes with a delicious tonkatsu sauce. Some restaurants will give you a sesame grinder where you grind the sesame in the bowl and pour it into your sauce. Then the mixture is poured over the pork.

There are other variations of this dish, including tonkatsu curry and tonkatsu sandwiches. They are all equally good. I just can’t choose!

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Where to eat tonkatsu

  • Butagumi ($$) in Tokyo – get the thick-cut tonkatsu at this local restaurant near Roppongi. Make a reservation.
  • Ponchiken ($$) in Tokyo – try the Michelin Bib Gourmand level tonkatsu in the Kanda neighbourhood
  • Kappa Tonkatsu (かっぱ) ($) in Kurashiki – get a homey plate of tonkatsu at this retro diner run by a group of women

6. Tendon

Tendon is a tempura rice bowl that consists of a variety of deep-fried tempura ingredients over a bowl of rice. Tendon is short for “tempura donburi” (donburi means rice-bowl dish).

The usual ingredients include shrimp tempura and vegetable tempura (green bean, mushroom, lotus roots, squash and eggplant). But there are fancier ones where you can get seafood tempura too. Every item is fried to perfect – not too oily and super crispy.

Then a generous amount of sauce is poured over the entire bowl. The sauce is a bit sweet because it is made with dashi, sake, sugar mirin and soy sauce. It goes really well with the white rice. This is what I called my ultimate Japanese comfort food!

Where to eat tendon

  • Tendon Makino Kyoto Teramachi ($$) in Kyoto – a tendon restaurant on the main shopping street serving tempura shrimp and vegetables over rice
  • Tenya ($) all over Japan – an affordable franchised Japanese restaurant chain serving tendon and tempura

7. Yakitori

Yakitori is a Japanese skewered meat grilled over a charcoal fire. Typical yakitori skewers include different parts of the chicken including thigh meat, chicken meatball, cartilage, skin, liver, gizzard and many more parts.

These bite-size made-to-order grilled meat is seasoned with salt or yakitori sauce.

And it is sold by the stick or set of two sticks. And cost approximately ¥100-200. Very inexpensive (especially if you don’t eat a lot) and goes well with beer.

And if you are a vegetarian, you can try different skewered vegetables, like peppers, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and asparagus.

Where to eat yakitori

  • Iseya ($) in Tokyo – a cheap yakitori restaurant popular with locals in the Kichijoji neighbourhood in Tokyo
  • Omoide Yokocho ($) in Tokyo – many yakitori restaurants fill this narrow alley in Shinjuku
  • Torikizoku ($) all over Japan – there are many locations for this popular yakitori chain restaurant

7. Gyoza

There are many versions and names for dumplings throughout the world. And in Japan, the dumpling is called gyoza.

Typically, the Japanese gyoza is stuffed with ground meat and vegetables. It can be grilled, pan-fried, boiled or deep-fried. And it is eaten with gyoza sauce which can be soy sauce, ponzu sauce (citrus sauce) or some type of homemade mixture of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil.

And gyoza can be eaten as the main meal or a side dish.

While you can find gyoza across Japan, there is a small town north of Tokyo that is known for gyozas. And Utsunomiya is the name of the town.

And in Fukuoka, there are bite-size gyozas called Tetsunabe. It has the same filling, smaller in size and is made in a round cast-iron skillet, which makes the gyoza extra crispy.

Where to eat gyoza

  • Gyoza no Ohsho ($) all over Japan – a popular Japanese restaurant chain serving gyoza and Chinese food; try their gyoza at one of the 700 stores around Japan
  • Chao Chao Gyoza ($) all over Japan – another chain restaurant serving a variety of gyoza
  • Utsunomiya Minmin ($) in Utsunomiya – try their grilled, fried or soup dumplings at the oldest gyoza restaurant in Utsunomiya
  • Hakata Gion Tetsunabe ($) in Fukuoka – order tetsunabe and beer at this old gyoza restaurant

8. Oden

Oden is a Japanese fish cake stew where many types of ingredients are cooked in a one-pot dish. Typically the ingredients include various types of fish cakes and fish balls. Plus other ingredients like daikon radish, konjac, deep-fried tofu, and vegetables.

The soup base is made with a light dashi broth and either flavoured with soy sauce or miso paste.

Even though oden is a popular winter dish, you can sample this must-try dish in Japan any time of the year.

There are variations of oden throughout Asia. You’ll find a similar version in China, South Korea, and Taiwan. They even have oden in 7-11’s in Taiwan!

Where to eat oden

  • Otafuku ($$) in Tokyo – a traditional oden restaurant in Asakusa that is over 100 years old; English menu is available
  • Nadagiku Kappatei ($) in Himeji – dine at this oden restaurant has been around since 1910. Besides the good food, check out the retro interiors.

9. Wagyu Beef

When you are in Japan, you’ll have to try wagyu beef, one of the world’s most famous beef.

And while there are several types of wagyu beef, you might have heard of Kobe beef. It is from a type of Tajima black cattle raised only in Hyogo Prefecture. About 3,000 cattle can be quantified as Kobe beef each year which makes it one of the most expensive types of beef in Japan.

The beef itself tastes so good! It is tender because of the marbled fat distributed evenly. Plus, it is rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

There are several ways of preparing Kobe beef including sukiyaki, shabu-shabu, sashimi or it can be eaten as a steak. But the best way to eat Kobe beef is to have it at a teppanyaki restaurant where the chef cooks the Kobe beef on the hot flat skillet in front of you.

This premium beef is expensive but definitely worth trying.

Where to eat Kobe beef

  • Steakland ($$) in Kobe – the popular teppanyaki restaurant serves a variety of Kobe beef. A set meal includes salad, grilled vegetables, rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables and your choice of Kobe beef
  • Wakkoqu ($$$) in Kobe – another teppanyaki restaurant for grilled Kobe beef

10. Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake made with noodles, shredded cabbage, flour batter and various toppings including seafood and meat. Then a copious amount of sauce is drizzled directly on top of the pancake. Most places make okonomiyaki on a hot plate right in front of you at your table while some prepare in the kitchen.

There are two types: Osaka-style okonomiyaki and Hiroshima-style okonomiykai.

The Osaka-style okonomiyaki is how I described above.

The Hiroshima-style okonomiyai is similar to the Osaka version but the one in Hiroshima starts with a thin crepe base, then add cabbage, bean sprouts, few slices of pork, soba noodles, fried egg, okonomiyaki sauce, and topped with dried seaweed flakes.

Where to eat okonomiyaki

  • Botejyu ($$) all over Japan – they serve Osaka-style okonomiyaki with traditional and fusion ingredients. And they also serve “modern-yaki,” a specialty of Osaka that combines okonomiyaki and yakisoba
  • Tsuruhashi Fugetsu ($) in Osaka – the restaurant staff will make the okonomiyaki in front of you in this chain restaurant
  • Okonomiyaki Yocchan ($) in Hiroshima – locals love this okonomiyaki restaurant because of the quality and the price. There is another location at the second floor of Hiroshima Station
  • Hassei ($) in Hiroshima – another great place for inexpensive Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki
  • Okonomimura ($) in Hiroshima – you can only find Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki restaurants in this building! Some restaurants have English menus.

11. Matcha green tea dessert

Matcha (powdered green tea) is produced in a small town called Uji, which is just outside of Kyoto and Osaka. But you don’t have to travel all the way to Uji to sample the best matcha desserts. You can find a variety of matcha green tea desserts just about everywhere in Japan.

And it comes in many different forms. Some popular matcha dessert including matcha ice cream, matcha parfait, matcha float, matcha pudding, matcha latte, matcha roll cake, matcha warabimochi (jelly-like mochi) matcha kakigori (shaved ice mountain with condensed milk and green tea flavour), etc. The list goes on but you get the idea – it’s all matcha!

Where to eat matcha green tea desserts

  • Nakamura Tokichi Byodo-in ($$) in Uji – a teashop selling a variety of Uji matcha green tea desserts. And they also have green tea soba noodles.
  • Daimyo Softcream ($) in Fukuoka – get the perfect green tea soft serve ice cream cone
  • Nana’s Green Tea Cafe ($) all over Japan – they have many types of matcha desserts including ice cream, matcha milk tea, and matcha parfait

Which Japanese food are you most excited about?

This is just the introductory of Japanese food that you must try as a first time traveller. There are so much more! I will continue to add other suggestions and recommended places to eat as I discover new ones. So make sure you bookmark this blog post and come back often.

And if you have any other suggestions, leave a comment below.

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About Author

Hi, my name is Queenie, and I've been a solo traveller for 18+ years and currently based in Hong Kong. Follow me on my adventures through Instagram and my blog!

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