Japanese food: what to eat in Japan

When people think of Japanese food, they normally think of raw fish and rice rolls. But that’s not all that’s on offer. Find out what dishes you should try on a visit to Japan.

By Saga team

Published 4 May 2024

When people think of Japanese food, the first image that usually comes to mind is a multitude of plates of sushi proceeding on their way around a conveyor belt.

This isn’t entirely surprising: sushi is one of Japan’s most recognisable cultural exports. But there is a lot more to Japanese cuisine, and there are plenty of different foods to try on a holiday to Japan, including barbecue, noodle and rice dishes. Read on to discover what foods to try in Japan…

Firstly, the sushi you may be familiar with in the UK is just the tip of the iceberg. While many people associate sushi with raw fish, traditional sushi also incorporates plenty of vegetarian options.

The one ingredient that’s always found in sushi is the vinegared rice to which other ingredients are added; the name 'sushi' refers to the rice, not the fish. If you want raw fish without rice, you will be ordering sashimi, which is generally available anywhere sushi is.

As sushi has spread across the globe, countries have adapted it to their local tastes, so it’s not unusual to find cooked meat and seafood at less traditional establishments.

The US influence is particularly prevalent in international sushi, with the California roll an obvious example.

Japanese sushi restaurants can be broadly separated into two main groups: counter and belt.

Belt restaurants will have an array of food mounted on a conveyor belt that winds its way around the restaurant.

If a customer wants something that is not on the belt, a bell on the table or a call of ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) will summon a member of staff to take your order.

There are a huge number of mid-range restaurants which serve food in this way as well as a lot of cheaper options, with plates ranging from 100-200 yen.

While it may seem a little risky plumping for cheaper raw seafood, the quality is roughly equivalent to what you would find in a chain restaurant in Britain, but for a far lower price.

Counter restaurants tend to have a bar looking directly into the kitchen along with tables and booths on the main floor with either Western seating or Japanese-style tables.

These are often more expensive, but if you want the best seafood they are very much worth it, and you will have unparalleled variety.

If you’ve been to a sushi bar in the UK, then you probably know to expect pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce as your condiments.

If you have found yourself indifferent to wasabi in the UK, you should definitely try the authentic product in Japan as ‘wasabi’ in Britain is often horseradish with green food colouring.

That said, this is changing with time as British farmers have been expanding their crops.

If you’re not convinced on eating raw fish, kushiyaki might be what you’re looking for.

Kushiyaki is skewered meat and vegetables cooked over a charcoal grill, suiting the palate of anyone who enjoys a barbeque.

There’s something for everyone, whether you feel like chunks of pork and beef or taking the healthy options with mushrooms, tomatoes and assorted vegetables.

Food tip: Try korokke

Try cheese croquettes (korokke) grilled until they are crispy with a warm, melted centre.

Yakitori restaurants are a popular branch of Kushiyaki restaurant specialising in chicken.

While this may seem limited, every part of the chicken is used and a number of herbs and spices can be added giving a quite varied menu.

If you’re feeling adventurous, a yakitori restaurant is where you want to get your chicken feet!

A mix of flour, yam, cabbage and eggs, okonomiyaki can be roughly compared to a savoury pancake with a wide range of accompanying ingredients available including seafood, meat and vegetables.

And don’t be put off even if you don’t usually like cabbage – you’ve probably never had cabbage quite like this before.

Though it originated in Osaka, a city known for its excellent food, okonomiyaki can be found in any Japanese town, be it from general restaurants, street vendors or specialist eateries.

While some okonomiyaki restaurants have a chef who prepares your food in front of you, you can also find restaurants where you can have a go at cooking it for yourself.

The ingredients are set out for you alongside a hotplate where you can put your masterpiece together- if you’re going to sample the cuisine, why not have a go at cooking it?

Though it might seem daunting there are instructions and assistance available.

The sweet brown okonomiyaki sauce sets off the meal brilliantly, and if you bring some home with you it’s surprisingly good with cheese on toast.

Takoyaki, like okonomoyaki, is from Osaka originally but now available across the country. They’re small round snacks of stuffed savoury batter brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, topped with a sprinkling of seaweed and fish flakes.

While a snack rather than a meal, they are both delicious and unique to Japan so if you have an opportunity to try these balls of batter and octopus, don’t pass it up!

Kobe beef is famous around the world for its soft texture and strong flavour.

It’s also famous for its exorbitant cost, though if you order it at a restaurant in Japan you can be assured that it is the genuine article: restaurants will proudly display the certification for their meat, tracking the cow’s origin and lineage back several generations.

Should the cost seem a bit steep, wagyu beef is very similar if you buy the more expensive cuts.

The key to the taste is down to the high fat content and marbling of the meat, which mean that it melts at just above room temperature.

With this in mind, it should be cooked medium-rare at most so that you can enjoy a steak that literally melts in your mouth.

People are often surprised at the popularity of kare - Japanese curry.

Curry over rice or udon noodles are the most common forms, though the curry filled pastries are also widely available – you can even find it used as a doughnut filling.

The curry is similar to the type that you would find in Pan-Asian restaurants in the UK so you probably have a good idea of what to expect.

It’s fairly mild but full of flavour, often served with breaded and fried chicken or pork, known as a katsu curry or katsukarē.

Food tip:

Savoury fillings such as curry are often used in pastries and dumplings, and while they might be unusual to western tastes they’re well worth trying.

Tempura is battered seafood or vegetables that can be served as a dish by themselves or combined with a noodle or rice dish.

When served by themselves with a dipping sauce or mix of spices, they should be eaten fairly quickly after cooking to maintain the crispness of the light batter.

Cooking tempura batter correctly is an art of its own and it’s definitely a good choice at any decent restaurant.

The heat of the oil means that the batter hardens almost instantly and vegetables keep their moisture and flavour, making it surprisingly healthy for fried food.

Japanese restaurants are increasingly aware of vegetarianism as a diet and are starting to cater towards it, especially in areas with a lot of tourism.

If you see ‘yasai’ as a menu option, then at least some of the main ingredients are vegetables. For example, yasai katsu kare is breaded and fried vegetables in a curry sauce.

That’s not to say that the entire dish will be vegetarian, so it’s worth checking if the menu gives you any indication or if the staff can help.

If the staff have trouble understanding ‘vegetarian,’ it might be worth explaining your diet as ‘Buddhist’ as traditionally they avoid eating meat of any kind.

Kyoto has a large number of vegetarian restaurants due to the links with the Buddhist shrines there, so if you’re in the area make sure that you head to the city. Zen Buddhist meals are in fact vegan and surprisingly varied.

Donburi are rice bowls dishes consisting of meat or fish and vegetables simmered together and served over rice in large, oversized bowls also known as donburi.

The sauce the meat and vegetables are cooked in varies depending on what’s in season but it’s usually made from broth, soy sauce and rice wine. Popular rice bowl combinations are beef and onion (gyudon), pork in a slightly sweet sauce (butadon) and pork cutlet (katsudon) – but this is just the tip of the iceberg and you’ll find a lot more rice bowl options on menus across the country. While they may seem simple, it’s the mix of spices and garnishes which really make the meals Japanese.

Japan is, of course, home to a variety of noodle dishes, the most famous of which is no doubt ramen. Ramen was adapted from Chinese noodle dishes, and the name itself comes from the Chinese word for ‘pulled noodles’. These days you can find ramen bars on almost every street corner.

Ramen is made with wheat noodles served in a broth and flavoured with soy sauce and miso. Other broth flavourings can vary from region to region.

The topping choices are endless, but popular foods include sliced pork, seaweed, boiled egg, bean sprouts, mushrooms, squid and tofu. Whatever ramen topping you have it’s bound to be a messy eat – the good news is slurping your noodles in Japan is a sign you’re enjoying them and a mark of appreciation.

Food tip

Developed a taste for ramen? Many ramen restaurants in Japan allow you to refill your bowl for a small fee.

Yakisoba is another popular noodle meal. It’s a stir-fried noodle dish made with wheat noodles, vegetables, pork or chicken and a dark and tangy sauce, usually made from soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and ketchup. Fish flakes, shredded pickled ginger and seaweed powder are often used as a garnish.

You can even enjoy yakisoba as a sandwich. Yakisoba-pan is a popular convenience store food made by stuffing a hotdog-style bread roll with fried noodles. This high carb, low-cost sandwich is often sold in school canteens, bakeries and convenience stores.

Yaki udon is a similar stir-fried noodle dish made using thick udon noodles instead of wheat noodles.

Udon are thick, chewy wheat noodles that can turn up in a wide range of meals, from stir fries to hot pots and even served cold. They’re most commonly found in soup, where they can be topped with vegetables, tofu, meat and garnishes. Some of the most popular toppings include aburaage fried tofu (‘fox udon’), tempura and mochi rice cakes.

Tofu shows up in almost any dish but is also enjoyed on its own and has been a staple of Japanese cuisine for 2,000 years. Tofu is made from soy milk curds pressed into blocks and can be eaten raw, boiled in soups, stir fried, deep fried or even served as a dessert. Tofu has a mild flavour on its own so is usually served with garnishes, broth or dipping sauce. You’ll likely find a version of it in pretty much any Japanese meal type we’ve covered – from the slightly sweet inari tofu pockets found in sushi restaurants to topping ramen or udon noodles, or breaded and topped with curry sauce.

In Japan you might come across restaurants specialising in tofu, many of them making it fresh each day with their own unique methods.

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