Don't be that person that arrives in Japan and heads straight to McDonalds!
The car scene in Japan is exciting, yes, but then there’s the food. The glorious, mouthwatering food! Experiencing this unique cuisine is a huge part of Japanese culture, and to miss out would be a huge loss! Leave your comfort zone behind and get ready to experience intense new flavours, strange textures and some of the freshest and most delicious food you’ve ever eaten in your life!
Restaurants are absolutely everywhere in Japan, and it’s common for them to specialise in a specific type of dish, although usually they’ll also have a few side dish options you can try too. Main meals can also usually be ordered as a set or ‘setto’ – look for the “セット” symbols on the menu. This means they‘ll come with some complimentary side dishes; usually rice, miso soup and a range of flavoured pickles.
If you’re a vegetarian, this is can be a little bit tricky. Most Japanese dishes include meat, and if you can’t read the menu properly this can further complicate things. Vegetable tempura, tofu or stir-fried noodles with vegetables are all safe choices, but we’d also recommend learning some Japanese phrases to help communicate with the restaurant staff, just to be safe.
From raw fish to Japanese-style savoury pancakes and all of the different types of noodles, (yes, there are different types!), our Ultimate Food Guide will have you schooled up and ready to take on any Japanese food adventure – no matter how weird or wacky!
Sushi and Sashimi.
Raw fish should be the first food on your ‘to-eat’ list upon arrival in Japan! Traditional sushi in Japan is served ‘nigiri’-style – think slices of raw fish on top of rectangular-shaped balls of rice – while sashimi refers to slices of raw fish (or sometimes meat) on its own. Both are accompanied by soy sauce for dipping, as well as fresh wasabi, which is also sometimes included between the rice and fish in nigiri sushi. Sushi restaurants aren’t as common as you’d think, so we’d recommend doing some research online to find a restaurant instead of trying to stumble across one. If you’re a raw fish newbie, start with seared salmon sushi and then progress to red tuna!
Ramen is an incredibly popular noodle soup dish, and it’s cheap and easy to find. Different types of ramen vary in ingredients, flavours and different types of noodles, and almost every region of Japan has its own variation! It consists of a delicious hot broth and usually sliced pork, bamboo shoots and spring onion, and sometimes boiled egg, dried seaweed and corn. Season with chilli flakes, sesame seeds or whatever other condiments are provided at the restaurant! Ramen spots are easy to locate – just keep an eye out for the ‘らーめん’ or ‘ラーメン’ symbols.
DID YOU KNOW: Making lots of noise when you eat and drink is considered polite in Japan. Telling people that their food is delicious is also taken as a huge complement!
Japanese for ‘grilled meat’, yakiniku restaurants are a whole lot of fun as you get to cook the food yourself at your table! Meat (most commonly beef, but also pork and chicken), is ordered in raw bite-sized pieces and then grilled over hot coals or a hot plate. Dip the cooked meat in sauces and salt, and whatever you do, make sure the chicken is cooked before you eat it!
Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu.
Both of these dishes include thinly sliced meat and vegetables served with dipping sauces, but they’re still quite different. Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot-style dish with sliced meat, tofu, mushrooms, leafy greens and noodles, as well as other varying ingredients cooked in a sweet soy-based broth. The ingredients are then dipped in raw beaten egg before being eaten! Shabu shabu is slightly more savoury, with even skinnier slices of marbled beef, but these are swished around in boiling water (or sometimes a flavoured broth), before being dipped in sauce and eaten along with veggies and rice.
Nothing beats properly prepared Japanese tempura! These scrumptious, deep fried pieces of vegetables and seafood are coated in a light batter which has a unique fluffy and crispy texture when cooked. Common tempura ingredients include prawns, white fish, eggplant, sweet potato, pumpkin, green beans, onion and mushroom. Tempura can be enjoyed on their own or as a side dish with a dipping sauce, or they can be included in a bowl of udon or soba noodles, or on top of rice. Mmm…
The Japanese pizza! Okonomiyaki is a delicious savoury dish consisting of batter and cabbage. Sounds weird right? It is, and it’s amazing! Okonomiyaki restaurants are a whole lot of fun, as you get to sit around a big hot plate and cook your meal yourself. Depending on the restaurant, the chef may do the first few steps for you, but basically the ingredients – which can include anything from pork and tomato to shrimp, cheese and octopus – are mixed and then cooked similarly to a pancake, and topped with sauce and/or Japanese mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes. Both Osaka and Hiroshima are well-known for their okonomiyaki, although the Hiroshima version includes noodles and is made quite differently.
Curry, in Japan? That’s right! It might surprise some people to learn that Japanese curry, ‘カレ’ is one of the most popular meals in Japan. Curry was originally introduced to Japan by westerners over a century ago, but it has since ‘evolved’ into its own dish, and it has a very distinct flavour – it’s absolutely nothing like Indian curry at all! The most popular way to eat curry is with rice (of course!) and our personal favourite, along with crumbed cutlets of pork or chicken known as ‘katsu’. Eat with a spoon, and add the red pickles for extra flavour!
An ideal beginner dish for the less adventurous foodie, tonkatsu consists of breaded, deep fried cutlets of tender pork, (sometimes chicken or beef might be on the menu too), enjoyed with a delicious Japanese sauce. Tonkatsu is generally served alongside shredded cabbage, and with a bowl of rice and miso soup. Some tonkatsu restaurants might also give you a small side bowl to grind up sesame seeds to add to the sauce, which is usually found in a small pot on your table. Tonkatsu pieces can also be served with Japanese curry (a dish known as ‘katsu kare’) or on top of a bowl of rice with a mixture of egg and onions (known as a ‘katsudon‘).
A popular option in the Nagoya area is Misokatsu, crumbed pork cutlets served with a thick ‘miso sauce’. It’s an acquired taste but we find it absolutely delicious! Misokatsu can be served in a bowl with rice or on skewers like pictured above.
These delicious ball-shaped snacks are made from an egg and wheat-based batter, filled with small pieces of octopus or ‘tako’ and grilled in a special pan which gives them their round shape. They’re sprinkled with seaweed and bonito flakes, and of course, Japanese mayo and special takoyaki sauce! Takoyaki are eaten as a snack rather than a meal – you can find them all over Japan, but where you really want to eat them is in Osaka, where they originated from. Watch out you don’t burn your mouth – they’re super hot at first!
DID YOU KNOW: In Japan, it’s common to get served a small bowl of miso soup to enjoy along with your meal. Miso is made from a paste produced by fermenting soybeans. The soup usually contains seaweed, green onion, tofu, and sometimes even tiny clams!
Udon are thick, chewy Japanese noodles made from wheat flour, and they can be
eaten in a variety of different ways! They’re generally enjoyed in a hot broth, sometimes with other ingredients like meat, vegetables or tempura, but they can also be eaten cold.
In the above photo, the noodles are served on a bamboo mat accompanied by a dipping sauce. Many regions of Japan have their own ‘specialty’ udon dishes, like the Mizusawa udon noodles pictured, which are handmade using local ingredients from Ikaho, Gunma. If it’s udon you’re after, just look for the ‘うどん’ symbols!
Know your noodles! Soba noodles are thin and have a light brown-greyish colour, as unlike udon, they’re made using buckwheat flour. Although some soba noodles are made with a small amount of wheat flour, proper fresh soba is made using only buckwheat and is gluten free, with a rich, wholesome flavour. Enjoy with plenty of freshly chopped spring onion, either cold or in a soy-based broth – mmm!
A Nagoya specialty, tebasaki are extra crispy chicken wings covered in a salty, spicy seasoning, and they’re so good they’ll blow your mind – especially when chased down with an ice cold beer!
Unagi & Anago.
Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel, and Anago is saltwater eel. Both are commonly enjoyed in Japan as a cooked ingredient in donburi bowls and sushi, as well as many other dishes.
‘Yakitori’, literally meaning ‘grilled chicken’, refers to skewers of small pieces of chicken meat cooked over hot charcoals. Popular yakitori skewers can be made with chicken thigh meat, which is often skewered with pieces of leek, but also other parts of the chicken, such as skin, liver and cartilage! Yakitori are most commonly found at Izakaya which are like the Japanese equivalent of a traditional pub, serving drinks and a variety of different grilled snacks. Yakitori are also popular at festivals or special events where they’re sold at food stalls. Enjoy with a glass of cold Japanese beer! Mmm…
Usually made with chicken, pork, beef, seafood or vegetables like pumpkin, asparagus, onion and lotus root, kushikatsu (also sometimes called kushiage) are skewers where the ingredients have been dipped in a mixture of flour, egg and panko crumbs, before being deep-fried and served with a tasty savoury sauce. It’s a famous food in Osaka and a must-try!
Gyoza are steamed/pan fried dumplings which actually originated from China, but have now become a popular dish in Japan too. These cheap, tasty morsels consist of a thin layer of dough containing ground meat and vegetables – most commonly pork, chives and cabbage, but different restaurants can offer many different fillings. The most important part about eating gyoza is the dipping sauce, which you’ll usually have to make up yourself using soy sauce, vinegar and chilli oil. Gyoza are commonly found at ramen restaurants, but there are some specialty gyoza restaurants around Japan too!
You may or may not have tried tofu before, but it at least deserves a mention in here seeing as it’s such a staple food in Japanese cuisine. Tofu is made from coagulating soy milk which is then pressed into white blocks. It can be soft or firm and eaten hot or cold, by itself or as an ingredient in soups or desserts – make sure to try it!
Are you ready for Japanese-style fried chicken? Mmm! The word ‘karaage’ actually refers to the cooking method of marinating food and then coating it in a delicious flour-based seasoning before deep frying it, but generally it refers to chicken. Season with fresh lemon juice and enjoy with, you guessed it – cold beer!
Edamame is a dish of boiled young green soybeans, which are still in their pods. They’re a popular snack and they go perfectly with a nice, cold Asahi beer! They’re usually boiled in salt water or seasoned with salt afterwards. The correct way to eat edamame is to put the pod in your mouth and squeeze out the beans! The empty pods are then placed in a separate bowl.
Nothing beats a Japanese-style steamed bun! These soft, fluffy pouches of deliciousness can have many different fillings; some sweet, some savoury. Ground pork is arguably the best, but you can also get flavours like Japanese curry or beef, or the cute, sweet anko-filled bun pictured. Different convenience stores offer different variations depending on the season, so this is where you’ll find the most interesting ones. Restaurant halls/stalls at Parking Areas sometimes also sell really delicious nikuman!
You’ve probably eaten croquettes before, but did you know they’re a really popular snack food in Japan? Korokke are deep-fried and coated in crunchy panko, and they usually contain a mixture of mashed potato and onion. You can buy them at any supermarket or convenience store (we’ll talk about those soon!).
Mochi is a super sticky substance made from a type of short-grain japonica glutinous rice. It’s often eaten by itself in ‘cakes’ or is used in different types of Japanese desserts, although it can feature in some savoury dishes too. Mochi, pronounced ‘moh-chi’ is often moulded into balls and stuffed with sweet fillings like red bean paste, (more on that below!), chocolate or even ice cream, like the colourful mochi ice cream balls pictured. If you’re eating it by itself, be careful not to bite off more than you can chew – several people die every year from choking on this chewy treat!
Sweet red bean paste, known as anko, might sound strange if you haven’t tried it before, but once you get over what it is, you’ll grow to love it! It’s a super common ingredient in Japanese confectionary and desserts, whether it’s wrapped in mochi or hiding inside cakes or biscuits, or even served with ice cream and pancakes! Anko is best enjoyed when it’s freshly made, and sometimes you can find beautiful, high quality paste with an extremely smooth texture like the dessert pictured – one of the most delicious things we’ve ever eaten!
You’ll see these everywhere in Japan; they’re called dango, small skewers with mini balls of mochi on them. There are heaps of types of dango, which are usually enjoyed in different seasons in Japan. Generally 3-4 dango are served on one skewer, and they’re sometimes eaten with toppings or different sauces, like the mitarashi dango pictured. This syrup is an acquired taste – it’s sweet and salty, probably because the main ingredient is soy sauce! You’ll also see green, white and pink (hanami) dango, dango with red bean paste, sesame and green tea flavour; the list goes on!
If you think anko and dango sound weird… well, things are about to get even weirder! Yokan is a traditional jelly-like dessert made from azuki beans, (the same type used to make red bean paste), agar and sugar, and it has a thick texture and sweet taste. It can come in many different flavours and colours – green tea is a popular one – and it’s usually served in block-like slices.
If you’ve only ever had sweet potato as part of a savoury meal, this is really going to change things for you. In Japan, sweet potato is often cooked as a dessert dish known as daigaku-imo, which involves frying the potatoes and coating them in a sweet, sticky syrup. They have a crispy texture and are incredibly tasty, as you can imagine! They’re often sprinkled with sesame seeds, and they’re a popular treat during autumn. You can also buy packets of the candy coating from Japanese supermarkets to take home with you!
Not to be confused with takoyaki (aka. fried octopus balls!), these sweet fish-shaped cakes are really popular and they’re most commonly filled with, yep you guessed it – red bean paste, or anko. Taiyaki are made using a pancake-like batter and are cooked in a similar style to waffles. Other fillings can include chocolate or custard, and sometimes you might even be able to find savoury taiyaki containing cheese or sweet potato.
Coffee jelly and other anomalies…
Japan has some seriously crazy desserts, and a lot of the time you might not actually be able to identify them. Coffee jelly is really popular – it’s an agar or gelatin-based dessert flavoured with black coffee, (it’s not milky) and it’s usually served with cream or in ice cream sundaes. You’ll also find lots of green tea flavoured desserts, like green tea ice cream (a must-try) and even green tea brownie! Our advice? Try everything! Duh…
Commonly found in slightly less built-up areas, these chain restaurants have huge menus and serve all different types of foods, from Japanese to (not very good) western foods like pasta and pizza. Gusto, Royal Host, Denny’s and Jonathan’s are all popular ones. They’re cheap and easy, with free drink refills and they always have a really weird, outdated vibe – definitely worth checking out at least once.
Alcohol in Japan.
Beer is the most popular drink in Japan, and there are plenty of delicious Japanese beers to try. None of that ‘bottled outside of Japan’ business, this stuff is the real deal, and it’s super cheap too! Asahi and Suntory Premium Malts are two of our favourites.
Chances are that you’ve tried Sake before, but there are many different types. Made from a process involving fermenting rice, it can be enjoyed cold or hot, and in small drinking cups. Careful – it can be potent!
Japanese plum wine or Umeshu is another specialty drink. It’s a sweet plum liqueur enjoyed chilled or with ice – and you can eat the plum if it comes with one!
You’ll see a lot of these in supermarkets and convenience stores – Chuhai are like fizzy,
alcoholic soft drinks, and they come in favours like peach, melon, lemon and strawberry.
Tabehodai and Nomihodai.
This means ‘all you can eat’ and ‘all you can drink’! Restaurants that offer tabehodai and nomihodai deals generally have a variety of foods and a crazy selection of drinks – but go for the sake if you want more drunkness for your money!
Yes, you can buy alcohol from vending machines in Japan! But you can also buy pretty muchany type of drink from a vending machine, from hot coffee and green tea to ‘Pocari Sweat’ and many other weird and wonderful beverages. It’s far too easy to get carried away trying them all!
An izakaya is an informal Japanese pub or tavern. These establishments vary in size and layout; they could be five stools and a small bar down a tiny alleyway, a cosy private bar specialising in yakitori or a large indoor restaurant with many tables and a huge, colourful menu with tonnes of photos. Whatever the situation, generally izakaya are found within close distance to train stations, as they’re popular stop-offs for after work drinks and snacks. Some larger establishments also offer nomihodai – a special ‘all you can drink’ deal which usually lasts for one hour.
This is an absolute must-try in Japan. Kaiseki is an elaborately presented multi-course meal, consisting of various traditional, seasonal dishes cooked using different methods. The best place to try a kaiseki meal is at a traditional hotel or ryokan, where you’ll get the full dining experience – slippers included! You might not be able to identify each and every ingredient (beware the savoury custard pudding!), but that’s all part of the fun, right?
You might’ve heard about the phenomenon of Japanese convenience stores, which are known as kobini. You can get everything from pastries and vegetables to fried foods, all kinds of alcohol, tasty hot meals and other incredible snacks. Heck, you can even buy a fruit sandwich if you want! They’re open 24 hours a day and they’re basically everywhere you look, which is all part of the convenience, of course. Family Mart, Seven Eleven and Lawson are all popular stores – just don’t get lost in there!
So there you have it – these are some of the main types of foods in Japan, and we’d recommend you try as many as you possibly can! We’d even go so far to recommend losing a few pounds before you head to Japan – you’re seriously going to need as much room in there as possible for all of this!
You might be asking how all of this relates to Japanese car culture, but if you’re wanting to make friends and meet new people in Japan, at some stage you’re going to want to go out for a meal (because Japanese people LOVE food!), so it’s good to know what to expect and what options are out there.