Japan has inarguably one of the best food cultures in the world, but there are so many incredible foods to try when you visit, it can feel overwhelming figuring out where to start. Having recently eaten our way through Japan for a month, I’m here to help you narrow down and navigate your own Japanese food journey. Here are our 8 Can’t Miss Dishes In Japan, and where you can try them.
1. GREEN TEA SOFT SERVE
As I mentioned before in my Kyoto post, you can get pretty much green tea flavored everything in Japan. I fell particularly hard for the perfectly creamy soft serve ice cream that is ubiquitous throughout the country.
WHERE TO TRY: It’s hard to go wrong anywhere, but my favorite was just across the street from the main entrance for the Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto, where it was flecked with gold in honor of this golden pavilion (pictured above).
You definitely can’t go to Japan without trying ramen, and there are multiple types to try, including Tonkotsu (pork bone), Shoyu (soy sauce), and Miso. You’ll find ramen shops practically on every street corner of Japan– all you have to do is master the vending machine for ordering and paying that is widely in use, and remember that slurping is considered polite.
WHERE TO TRY: For Tonkotsu style, super rich pork broth ramen, we recommend going straight to the source and trying it in Fukuoka/Hakata where this dish originated. Try Ramen Stadium in the central train station where there are multiple shops– just pick the most popular looking one and you won’t go wrong.
For for the modern style miso ramen with a serious kick check out Kikanbo in Tokyo. This stuff is seriously good, and depending on the spice level you order, it has the potential to melt your face off. As a bit of a spice chicken, I got the mild version which had a pleasant kick to it, but I actually probably could have managed the medium as well. Anthony went straight for the highest level of spice, Oni level, and all the cooks looked at him like he was crazy. For four years I have watched him consistently order the spiciest item on the menu at every restaurant we’ve been to and barely break a sweat. He could only eat about half his ramen and then couldn’t feel his face for about 24 hours after. This might be because they use scorpion pepper which is one of the ten hottest chilis in the world.
I could write odes to the deliciousness that is crispy fried panko breaded pork cutlets that are tonkatsu. Versions of this were a staple in our diet while in Japan (with delicate and bright shredded cabbage, served over rice with gravy a la katsudon, or on top of a Japanese curry, or even sandwiched between two fluffy pillows of bread from a 7/11). Don’t pass up any opportunities to enjoy this common, but wonderful dish.
WHERE TO TRY: Hands down the most succulent and perfect version I tasted was the pork medallion tonkatsu set meal served with shredded cabbage, perfectly tangy sauce, pickles, rice, and miso soup that I had at Marugo in Tokyo. You will end up standing in line for an hour plus, but it will all be worth it when you finally reach the promised land.
Sushi is probably the first style of cuisine you think of when you think of Japan. Perfect morsels of fish served over rice or in rolls or sashimi style. To be honest we didn’t end up eating a whole lot of sushi while we were there. I picked up a few boxes of preprepared sushi from some of the nicer ready-made places (generally in train stations or underneath department stores), but was never that impressed. But we did have one of the best meals of our lives, and certainly the best sushi of our lives in Tokyo…
WHERE TO TRY: You’re going to need to book months (in our case about 2) in advance to score a seat in the super intimate Sushi Bar Yasuda, but it is COMPLETELY worth it for an unforgettable, once in a lifetime meal that at about $150 a person is pretty reasonable when it comes to this level of fine dining. (You will need your plane tickets booked in order to complete the online reservation form).
Order the omakaze and listen to Chef Yasuda tell you about his one of a kind rice technique as he serves you simple but perfect sushi one piece at a time. You will try a wide variety of unique fish from around the world not often available at most restaurants. This is also the perfect place to stretch your comfort zone as Anthony, who isn’t a huge fish person, loved even the uni and the oysters which he normally wouldn’t touch.
Delicious, wonderful, pan fried pork and cabbage dumplings that don’t hurt the wallet. These babies originated in China, but have become a very popular dish in Japan. Enjoy with some cabbage salad, pickles, and a cold beer.
WHERE TO TRY: We were lucky enough that a local friend introduced us to the amazing Gyoza no Ohsho which is a cheap chain restaurant with locations all over Japan. We tried gyoza in some other places, including at least one highly recommended destination spot, and none of them surpassed the wonderfulness of no Ohsho.
A crazy kitchen sink of a dish, Okonomiyaki definitely needs to be on your list of must try foods in Japan. It is essentially a savory pancake, but it’s on steroids. First there is the bottom pancake which is topped with either soba or udon noodles, cabbage, and your choice of meats before being sandwiched with another pancake and slathered in special sauce and scallions.
WHERE TO TRY: A popular dish all over Japan, we tried Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima where they have their own style which is layered as opposed to mixed. We waited in line for over an hour at Okonomiyaki Nagata-ya, and definitely weren’t disappointed. As a bonus we got to watch them cooking a whole line up of them on a large teppanyaki grill before we got to dig in.
7. KOBE BEEF
Along with Sushi Yasuda, we knew we weren’t going to go to Japan without having legit Kobe beef, also known as wagyu. In the States, the terminology “Kobe Beef” has become so widely used as to be rendered meaningless– Anthony Bourdain even said that you should walk out of a restaurant if they have Kobe sliders on the menu. Most steak houses that claim to feed you wagyu are usually lying too because there are only twelve restaurants in the whole of the US that are licensed to import legit Kobe from Japan. When it’s the real deal, the high marbleization makes it melt like butter in your mouth. The high quality stuff is also easier on the wallet in Japan than it is outside it, for obvious reasons.
WHERE TO TRY: We were determined to have Kobe beef in Kobe, and had an amazing meal at Ishida Kitanozaka. An intimate restaurant with only a few seats around a teppanyaki grill, you have your own personal chef cooking the meat and accompaniaments right in front of you. Definitely opt for the fried rice option as they cook it in the rendered fat with small dices of delicious steak.
8. KAISEKI RYORI
This is a quintessential style of Japanese dining which originated as a simple meal served with tea ceremonies, but over the centuries evolved into elaborate multi course haute cuisine style of dining which was popular amongst the aristocracy. These meals have a prescribed order to their dishes that highlight different traditional Japanese cooking methods, with a focus on subtle flavors and seasonal ingredients. There may be some flavors, textures, or temperatures that are a challenge for a Western palette, but ultimately it will truly be a feast for both your eyes and mouth.
WHERE TO TRY: As I mentioned in my Kurukawa Onsen post, we enjoyed an amazing kaiseki two nights in a row at Ryokan Sanga. If you’re not staying at a ryokan that does kaiseki, Kyoto has several great restaurants that specialize in this style of cooking.
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.