15 Japanese Food you MUST try when visiting Japan

Planning a trip to Japan and wondering what to eat in Japan? There is so much more to Japanese cuisine than just sushi and ramen! Here are 15 foods you must try when visiting Japan. And yes, you will have no trouble finding vegetarian food in Japan.

Japan has amazing Michelin star restaurants, street food and everything in between. You easily could spend months visiting Japan to try all the different regional dishes. One of the best food experiences in Japan is enjoying a warm bowl of matcha green tea with a Japanese wagashi, hand-made from mochi and fruits and molded into adorable little shapes. At the bottom of this article, you can find a great Japanese company that organizes cooking classes and food experiences.

Ramen is one of Japan’s most popular dishes that you can find absolutely everywhere in Japan. Ramen consists of a soup broth filled with noodles and topped with egg, pork, vegetables and other condiments. There are four major types of ramen you can find: shio (salt-based broth), miso (soybean paste-based broth), tonkatsu (pork bone-based broth), and shoyu (soy sauce-based broth). My favorite is the miso-based ramen.

15 Japanese Food you MUST try when visiting Japan — Photo by Priya at Outside Suburbia
15 Japanese Food you MUST try when visiting Japan — Photo by Priya at Outside Suburbia

Ramen is a relatively inexpensive Japanese dish and the perfect food to enjoy in the winter. You can even find vending machines in Tokyo where you can order ramen.

Sushi is the first food that comes to mind when people think about Japanese food! Sushi is probably the most popular Japanese food and best enjoyed with some sake, a fermented rice wine. One of the unique ways to experience sushi in Japan is at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant where you can pick plates of sushi off the conveyor that catch your attention. This is a great way to order sushi, especially if you are a tourist. The plates are priced based upon the color of the plate and added up when you are done.

If they don’t have vegetarian options on the conveyor, you can request for rolls with cucumber, soybean and other vegetables. Just learn to say:
I’m a vegetarian “Watashi wa bejitarian des”
I don’t eat meat or fish. “watashi wa niku toh sakana wo taberarimasen” “Taberarimasen” means “I don’t eat”

We found some great conveyor belt Sushi place near the Shinjuku station in Tokyo.

Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake, popular in Osaka and Hiroshima. This Japanese dish is almost like a Japanese pizza than a pancake! The Osaka-style Okonomiyaki made with flour, eggs, grated yam, dashi and shredded cabbage cooked into a pancake. The pancake is then topped with strips of bacon, sauce, seaweed flakes, and Japanese mayonnaise. You can opt out of the topping if you want a vegetarian version.

Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is layered on top of each other instead of mixed. It is made from a noodle base, topped with layers of cabbage, bacon, egg, the special okonomiyaki pancake batter, sauce, green onions and pickled ginger. Fish flakes are also added giving it a fishy taste.

Soba is long and thing buckwheat flour noodles. In the winter it is enjoyed in a bowl of hot soy and dashi broth. In the summer, soba noodles are served cold with a dipping sauce. We had the best bowl of Soba when we went to see Mount Fuji in the Fuji Five Lakes area. We stopped at a small place per the recommendation of our guide to enjoy these Yamanashi style Soba.

Another popular dish in Japan, yakisoba, which literally means “fried buckwheat”. This is not made with buckwheat noodles but ramen-style wheat noodles. It is usually stir-fried noodles cooked with pork, vegetables, and topped with yakisoba sauce, fish flakes, pickled ginger, seaweed powder, and some Japanese style mayonnaise.

There are so many types of Japanese noodles you need to try while visiting Japan, and Udon noodles is definitely one of them. Compared to soba and ramen noodles, the Udon noodles are thicker and chewier. They are made from wheat flour noodles. In the colder months, a bowl of udon is had best in a hot broth made of dashi, soy sauce, rice wine, vegetables and other toppings. During the summer, udon noodles are best enjoyed cold with a soy-sauce dipping sauce.

Shabu shabu is a popular hot pot dish from Japan consisting of thinly sliced meat, mushrooms and vegetables cut into bite-size cooked in steaming hot broth. It gets its name from the “swish swish” sound that the meat makes when simmering in the broth. The flavorful broth called kombu dashi. It is a communal experience where everyone at the table takes part in the cooking and you can enjoy it with different dipping sauces.

We had the best Shabu Shabu on the way to Shirakawa Go in the Japanese Alps. I opted for the vegetarian version which you can see in the photo.

Food culture in Kyoto is influenced by environmental factors and its long history and culture as it was Japan’s capital up until the Meiji Restoration. Kyoto is the best destination to see the Zen Temples and Gardens, experience traditional Japanese culture and enjoy some local Japan Food.

A traditional meal in Kyoto — Photo by Priya from Outside Suburbia
A traditional meal in Kyoto — Photo by Priya from Outside Suburbia

Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal, best enjoyed in Kyoto, where diners kneel on rice straw tatami mats and sample a series of small dishes made from seasonal ingredients.Here Japanese Food is made with 3 principles ki — Kisetsu(season), Kikai(chance) and Ki (dishes). The menu changes every month and dishes are usually selected with a monthly theme.

15 Japanese Food you must try  — Photo by Priya from Outside Suburbia
15 Japanese Food you must try  — Photo by Priya from Outside Suburbia

We had the best Kaiseki Christmas meal prepared for us at the Michelin Star Restaurant, Kanamean Nishitomiya.

Onigiri is a snack that you will find anywhere, from airports to convenience stores and even in some restaurants. They are basically flavored balls of rice that are travel well. I was not a big fan, I could not get used to cold balls of rice! Sorry, Japan!

Crispy on the outside, warm and filled with vegetables, Gyoza is my favorite Japanese food! You can find these dumplings filled with vegetables and meat. Based on the Chinese potstickers but the gyoza is smaller and has a thinner wrapper which makes for a crispier texture.

They are the tapas of Japan and can be found in many dishes at ramen shops and izakayas (Japanese pubs). Did them in sauce and gobble them up in one to two bites. The dipping sauce for the gyoza is typically vinegar, sesame oil, and spices, with ponzu sometimes added for a citrusy flavor.

Tempura is another Japanese dish I lived on when we were in Japan! Deep-fried pieces of battered vegetables such as eggplant, mushroom, pumpkin, sweet potato and lotus root. Yum! You can get meat and shrimp as well. It can be found all over Japan and can be eaten appetizer, main dish, or as a topping over ramen, udon, or soba noodles. Tempura is available at many restaurants as a starter dish or in bento boxes.

Seek out the specialty Tempura restaurants for those unique ones. You can eat the crispy tempura either by dunking it into the dipping sauce or sprinkle some of the provided salt over the tempura before enjoying them.

Tonkatsu is basically slices of pork that are breaded and deep-fried similar to a German schnitzel or fried chicken. When ordering a Tonkatsu, you can select if you want the lean pork tenderloin or filet or juicier ‘ rosu ‘ which uses pork with more fat.

Tonkatsu can also be enjoyed in a variety of Japanese dishes like katsudon a Japanese curry with tonkatsu pieces, katsu sandwich which is basically a sandwich made with Tonkatsu. And you can always have tonkatsu with your ramen or udon bowls.

Yakitori, especially Chicken yakitori is a tasty Japanese appetizer served on skewers. The meat is typically basted with a savory-sweet sauce as it cooks over a hot barbecue grill. You can find them in street shops and pubs. Order a few at a time and eat them right off the skewers. A great combination of umami and sweet flavors, you can also find pork belly yakitori in some places.

Enjoying some Chicken yakitori and Hida beef — Photo by Priya from Outside Suburbia
Enjoying some Chicken yakitori and Hida beef — Photo by Priya from Outside Suburbia

Mochi is basically a Japanese rice cake where the rice is steam, pounded and mashed to make cute round buns. They are soft, chewy and have different fillings. I love the ones that are filled with ice cream, especially Lavender and Strawberry ones! Be careful though, if you don’t chew but simply swallow the sticky mochi, it can get stuck in the throat and can lead to suffocation. So chew, chew, chew! But don’t miss trying all the different flavors of mochi! Sakura-mochi is cherry blossom mochi that is filled with red bean paste and wrapped with a pickled cherry leaf, a special treat to try if you are vising Japan in Spring.

Dango is a chewy steamed dumpling with three sweetened rice flour balls skewered on a stick. Similar to mochi, Dango is made with rice flour, but the dough isn’t pounded like in a mochi. This delicious sweet is also available in different flavors depending on the season and region. The most popular Dango is the Hanami Dango, it even has an emoji. Available during cherry blossom season, it consists of pink, white and green Dango balls on a stick.

On my list to try when we make a Spring trip to Japan!

Other than the mochis, the most popular Japanese desserts seemed to be soft-serve ice creams. They come in so many different flavors like matcha green tea, even wasabi, miso, soy sauce, and squid ink!

If you want to get something quick and sweet, you can find many shops selling colorful snacks, and vending machines dispensing warm teas. We loved the array of crepes choices and tried a few sweet snacks when people watching on Takeshita Street, in Harajuku, Tokyo.

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Originally published at https://outsidesuburbia.com on December 11, 2020.

Family travel writer & photographer who writes about adventures outside the ‘burbs & other experiential luxury family travel. OutsideSuburbia.com