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Japanese Food Culture: 11 Must Try Food in Japan

If you travel solo to Japan for the first time, you may wonder what type of food you should try. Japanese food culture is very different from foods from other cultures, so you may want to study this guide before you go.

Every time I visit 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 would splurge occasionally if I think it’s worth it. And honestly, it is really worth spending a bit of money to eat good Japanese food!

If you want to experience the best of Japanese food culture, try some (or all) of these 11 must-try food in Japan.

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Japanese food culture: things you need to know

Before you experience Japan’s food culture, 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 a few additional tips for when you try all the famous 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 one of the best Japanese food traditions. It is considered to be a compliment to the chef!
  • Tipping is not necessary. It is considered rude according to Japanese culture.

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

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

Below is a list of my favourite food to eat in Japan that any first-time traveller must try.

I also included locations for each must-try food, so you don’t have to wonder where to find these Japanese specialties.

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 as it is a big part of Japanese food culture. 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.

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.

Since ramen is an essential part of Japanese food culture, every region in Japan serves ramen and has its own version.

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 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.

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.

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.

The soba noodle is served on a bamboo tray as a cold dish. 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.

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 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 a bowl and pour it into your sauce. Then the mixture is poured over the pork.

Other variations of this popular Japanese food include tonkatsu curry and tonkatsu sandwiches. They are all equally good. I can’t choose!

6. Tendon

Tendon is a tempura rice bowl consisting of various 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 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, made with dashi, sake, sugar mirin and soy sauce. It goes really well with the white rice. This is what I call my ultimate Japanese comfort food!

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.

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

And it is sold by a stick or set of two sticks. And cost approximately ¥100-200. This must-try Japanese food is 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.

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, a small town north of Tokyo 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.

8. Oden

Oden is a Japanese fish cake stew with many ingredients 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 flavoured with soy sauce or miso paste.

Even though oden is a popular winter dish, you can sample this must-try dish in Japan anytime.

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!

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 Tajima black cattle raised only in Hyogo Prefecture. About 3,000 cattle can be quantified as Kobe beef each year, making it one of Japan’s most expensive types of beef.

The beef itself tastes so good! It is tender because the marbled fat is 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 a hot flat skillet in front of you.

This premium beef is expensive but definitely worth trying.

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 drizzles directly on 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 what 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, a few slices of pork, soba noodles, fried egg, okonomiyaki sauce, and topped with dried seaweed flakes.

11. Matcha green tea dessert

Matcha (powdered green tea) is produced in a small town called Uji, just outside 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 desserts include 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!

Which must-try Japanese food are you most excited about?

This is just the introduction to Japanese food you must try as a first-time traveller. There are so many 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 yes, food travel in Japan can be a lot of fun. As a foodie, I always enjoy researching and finding hidden gems around different cities in Japan, and I”m happy to be sharing all of these discoveries with you.

And if you have any other food suggestions, leave a comment below. Let’s grow this list together!

Thank you for reading my Japanese food post

You might also like these other posts on solo travel in Japan:

Introduction to Japan

Kanto region

Kansai region

Chugoku region

Kyushu region

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About Author

Hi, my name is Queenie, and I've been a solo traveller for 20+ years and currently based in Hong Kong. Follow me on my adventures through Instagram and my blog!

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