A Japanese Food Guide for Travellers

There are so many sights and sounds across Japan that make the Asian nation a bucket list destination for countless travellers.

There’s Tokyo and the famous Shibuya Crossing, the temples and shrines of Kyoto. Then there’s Osaka and its Blade Runner-style neon nightlife. Look anywhere in Japan and find something interesting and exciting to discover.

This is especially true of Japanese food and cuisine. You’re probably familiar with sake and sushi. But there are so many other delicacies and local dishes waiting to be discovered that can really enhance your experience of Japan.

Did you know?
Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world

But, it’s not just high-end eateries that pull tourists to Japan. The country is teeming with regional dishes and unique traditional flavours that offer an incredible insight into the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.

Not sure what to eat in Japan? Take a look at our Japanese food guide and discover our top seven dishes you shouldn’t miss:

  • Okonomiyaki
  • Hoppy
  • Whiskey highballs
  • Yakitori
  • Takoyaki
  • Ramen
  • Convenience store treats

What to Eat in Japan…

Okonomiyaki

Roughly translating to ‘cooked however you like’, this famous savoury pancake is made with buckwheat flour and garnished with an abundance of spiced cabbage, served with different toppings of your choosing. Meat, seafood, and eggs are some popular additions. Add some Japanese mayonnaise and soy sauce to create a unique and incredibly filling snack.

Freshly made Okonomiyaki

Although they are found across the country, okonomiyaki is most prominent in the cities of Hiroshima and Osaka.

When you’re on your holiday in Osaka, we highly recommend finding somewhere to try okonomiyaki along Dotonbori canal.

Watch the throngs of tourists and locals enjoying the sights as you tuck in.

One of the best places to eat okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is the station. Here you’ll find a number of different restaurants on the upper floor to fuel up in before venturing out into the city.

In Osaka, your pancake will usually be topped with your additions, while in Hiroshima they will be mixed together so you can get all of the flavours at once.

And, because these two cities have their own take on the dish, it’s well worth trying it in both areas.

Hoppy

It’s not just about what you eat in Japan. Be sure to try some of the country’s unique drinks, too.

For all of the flavour of a beer without the alcohol, make sure you get a taste of Hoppy. Try it in a chilled glass filled with ice and shochu (a Japanese distilled alcohol) that, when poured into the glass with the hoppy, gives you that foamy head reminiscent of beer.

You can’t really find Hoppy anywhere else in the world. So, try it here for a uniquely Japanese experience.

Whiskey Highballs

Whiskey Highballs are a incredibly popular in Japan. You can even buy pre-mixed cocktails at convenience stores across the country alongside popular beers like Asahi or Sapporo.

Simply made with soda, like Hoppy, they are a great way for to unwind and refresh after a busy day exploring.

Whisky Highball with fried chicken

Though highballs have always been popular in Japan, they have seen a recent increase in popularity thanks to a successful advertising campaign by Suntory, a Japanese whisky company. Plus, a recent TV show that serialised the life of Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky, has brought the drink to the fore once again.

As well as whisky, you can also find highballs with shochu or vodka. You can even try one with pickled plum or lemon in for an added dimension of flavour.

To explore your whisky knowledge further, a short train journey from Kyoto will land you at the Yamazaki distillery (the first purpose-built whisky distillery in Japan) for guided tours and tastings.

Yakitori

Yakitori is the quintessential Japanese street food.

Traditionally in Japan, skewered chicken is cooked over a charcoal fire, lightly seasoned with salt or soy sauce. It’s simple, but easily one of the best foods to eat in Japan.

Vendor grilling fresh Yakitori

Add a sauce called tare (containing mirin, sake, soy and sugar) for a salty-sweet flavour. Because of the ease of transport, you’ll often find yakitori street stalls (called yatais) dotted around popular sites and destinations.

Vegetarian? Yatai stalls will often also sell mushrooms, peppers or asparagus as alternatives.

Takoyaki

Often simply referred to as ‘octopus balls’, these snacks are particular popular in Osaka.

This must-try Japanese street food is made of batter filled with minced octopus. The balls are cooked in a special moulded pan to produce delicious spherical delights. They can then be topped with green onion, dried fish shavings, takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise.

Takoyaki in Osaka

Equally popular among tourists and locals, you’ll often see people eating takoyaki before a night out.

Finding where you can buy takoyaki is easy – simply keep an eye out for the distinctive hemispherical pan. Try not to tuck in straight away though. Once cooked, the takoyaki can be molten so give them a few moments to cool.

Ramen

At the train station in Kyoto, there is a saying plastered across the wall in the food court.

“Don’t think, just slurp.”

And that is exactly how you should enjoy your ramen noodles.

Woman enjoying her ramen exactly how it should be done – ‘itadakimasu!’

Yes, ramen noodles are probably one of Japan’s most workld-famous foods. They are great if you’re unsure about what to eat in Japan first and you are sure to find a flavour you like.

Don’t worry about the noise – it’s an indication to the chef that you are enjoying their food. Simply put, ramen consists of noodles served in a broth (usually chicken, pork, or fish). The noodles come with a variety of different toppings including pork, mushrooms and scallions.

For vegetarians and vegans, be aware that tonkatsu means ‘pork bone’, so steer clear. Miso and soy sauce are other common soup bases.

Each area of Japan has its own take on ramen. So, it’s a great idea to tuck into a steaming bowl wherever you go. For scientific research, of course.

For example, Sapporo, on the north island of Hokkaido, is famous for its miso ramen.

Meanwhile, Asahikawa has a variety of ramen served in a hot soy sauce broth. The city has reached temperatures of -41 degrees Celsius, the coldest ever recorded in Japan, so a hot soup is just the ticket. This fiery favourite is also found on Hokkaido and near to the Daisetsuzan National Park.

Convenience store delights

Japan is filled with small convenience stores which offer a delightful range of small snacks that are not to be missed.

For a start, Sandos are tiny sandwiches filled with egg, chicken or meat that are ideal for a quick bite to eat while you’re exploring a city or before visiting a shrine.

You should also try Onigiri. These small balls of rice are wrapped in seaweed, and often filled with meat or other interesting flavours such as tuna mayonnaise or pickled plum.

Convenience store Onigiri

For dessert, we also recommend picking up a dorayaki – sweet pancakes often sandwiched with cream.

Feeling hungry yet? If you’re inspired to visit Japan, contact us to speak to one of our Travel Specialists today.

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Anna Rushbrooke
If I’m not travelling, I’m planning my next trip. My perfect holiday is a combination of sightseeing, enjoying great food and spending time on a beautiful beach with great bar service.

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