The food in Japan is so much more than sushi and sashimi. If seaweed and raw fish have you doubting Japanese cuisine, think again! Your tastebuds are in for a whirlwind of smells, sights, tastes and textures!
Some Tips Before You Go!
Many of these are street food, but remember that in Japan it’s rude to walk around eating food! You’ll usually find a standing area next to the stall where you can eat your goodies!
Oishi (o-ee-shi) is the word you need to know, it means delicious in Japanese!
Before you eat, it’s polite to say itadakimasu (ee-ta-da-kee-mas, the u is silent). It’s the Japanese equivalent of saying, bon appetit!
While some convenience food have English translations written on them, you’ll find a lot of guessing comes into play, which can be a plus when you try foods you never would have tried before. There is an app called Payke that can help. Just scan a bar code and it will come up with a description of what the item is! This works for any bar code too, so it’s perfect for figuring out makeup and toiletries as well.
Minced beef mixed with onions, crumbed and fried. Very oishi! Some have potato in them as well but I prefer the texture without them.
You can find an amazingly juicy menchi katsu at Asakusa Menchi. It’s just off the main walk that leads to Sensoji Temple.
If you’re at Tsukiji Market, check out Yoshizawa Shoten. They use 100% Matsuzaka beef in its menchi which gives it a strong umami taste.
Mochi is rice pounded into a soft, gooey mass. Sometimes it’s a bit meh, sometimes it’s alright and sometimes it’s freakin amazing! I didn’t realise how good mochi could be until I tried a custard daifuku that comes with a giant strawberry on top.
This one I got in Sensoji in Asakusa, a great place to find street food. The mochi was so soft and silky and had none of the claggy aftertaste that comes with bad mochi. The custard provides creaminess and the strawberry a tarty, sweet hit of juiciness. It’s really good. There are two main stalls at Sensoji, one on the main walk, Nakamise and another in the adjacent laneway behind it. I kept going back to the one in the laneway, especially since there was rarely a line like the one on busy Nakamise.
They also have daifuku filled with red bean and green tea but the custard was definitely my fave.
I don’t know the name of the place but you can find it here!
There’s also a cool fake food shop nearby on the same laneway behind Nakamise.
Before heading back to Japan for the third time this year, I kept telling people that the one thing I was really looking forward to, was a 7-Eleven egg sandwich. Seems like an odd choice but you just don’t understand till you’ve tried it! There are fan pages dedicated to it for a reason!
They’re so creamy, the bread so soft with a hint of sweetness, they’re just perfect. You can also find them at any konbini (convenience store) like 7-Eleven, Lawsons or Family Mart. I’ve tried them at all three and couldn’t pick a winner. Definitely a cheap must-try if you like egg!
I even found a limited edition Egg Salad Sandwich Pringles! They weren’t terrible but I wouldn’t go back for seconds, haha!
The sandwich selections at the konbinis are quite varied, you can usually get a ham and salad or tuna and mayo sandwich but the majority of the flavours are not as common in western convenience stores. You can get sandwiches with shrimp katsu, chicken katsu & cabbage, sweet omlette and even cream and fruit!
One time I picked up what I thought was an egg and ham sandwich only to find it also had prawn, potato and cheese in it too!
On my first two trips to Japan, I didn’t bother with onigiri. While I like sushi, I have it all the time in Australia and this just looked just a triangular piece of sushi. I thought there would be so many other things to enjoy first.
I was wrong. While onigiri is basically just a filling surrounded by seasoned rice and seaweed, it’s quite different to a nori roll. The main difference is the seaweed itself. The one that wraps an onigiri is packaged separately from the rice, with a thin film of plastic between them. This keeps the seaweed crunchy. It also has a richer taste than normal seaweed sheets. I don’t know if it’s been roasted differently or has soy sauce sprayed on it, but it’s definitely more enjoyable than the flimsy seaweed that normally wraps my sushi. There are also plenty of fillings to choose from, my favourites were shrimp with mayo and tuna with mayo. They make a great cheap snack or light breakfast and are available at all konbinis.
When you first get one you might be a bit confused how to open it. You’ll see a tab on one of the corners, pull that down and all the way around, then pull the plastic film out sideways from the other two corners. Your onigiri should now have the seaweed directly on the rice and you can eat it now!
Okonomiyaki are savoury pancakes that are filled with all sorts of meat and veg of your choosing. There are regional varieties such as the noodle-packed okonos in Hiroshima and Osaka, or the noodleless type in Tokyo. I personally prefer the Tokyo style as I find the added noodles to be a bit too heavy.
Don’t forget to slather it in okono sauce and kewpie mayo, then pile it up with bonito flakes and nori powder!
Try Hazeya in Hiroshima or Sometarō in Asakusa, Tokyo. Sometarō has the added novelty of letting you cook your own, on a table grill.
Crispy balls filled with a gooey octopus centre and the usual toppings of okono sauce, kewpie mayo, bonito flakes and nori powder. You can find takoyaki at most street food places but Osaka’s Dotonburi area is definitely the most popular. One place even has a giant takoyaki ball sitting above it, which is not out of place in a street with giant crabs, sushi pieces, octopus and whales.
You can watch yours being made by the deft hands that continually flick the balls around on a custom-grill with a pokey stick.
These are famous, maple leaf (momiji) shaped cakes that can be found on the island of Miyajima, just south of Hiroshima. There are two types to be found, the more traditional uses a buckwheat and rice cake batter and the other uses flakey puff pastry (my preference). Both come in a number of flavours. The traditional type being red bean paste (of course), but you can also find custard, sesame, green tea and chocolate. One specialty even batters and fries the cake version!
These are a popular souvenir on Miyajima and you’ll find plenty of shops selling them, many having an open window into their production line that makes them.
The Japanese/Western fusion takes the humble omelette over a bed of tomato sauce seasoned rice (hence the name). There are a range of variations that include slathering it in a rich demi-glace, cheese sauce, curry sauce or more tomato sauce and then adding various sides.
My favourite was at Star in Kyoto, where I had my omurice served with a half n half white sauce and passata with crab cream croquettes.
If you book ahead on their website, you might be lucky enough to get a seat at Kichi Kichi, also in Kyoto. Here you’ll get a theatrical experience with the jubilant Chef Motokichi Yukimura.
Tamago means egg and yaki means grilled, and together it makes a rolled omlette. Fluffy on the inside and with a sweet and savoury flavour, this omlette can take years to perfect. Watch the chefs make it if you can, they’ll flip it around with chopsticks, add some more raw egg and gently push it into the custom square pan corner. Some recipes also include dashi stock and other seasonings.
Royce Nama Chocolate
Royce chocolate makes the most out of Hokkaido’s famous dairy cows and creates these addictive ganache-like chocolate squares that come with their own freeze bag to keep it cool.
The first time I had these, I bought two boxes at the airport on my way home… they didn’t last the flight, haha. Their chocolate potato chips are pretty good too!
You can get Royce chocolate at the Tokyo and Osaka airports and I’ve also seen them at a few of the bigger train stations. If you’re up in Hokkaido, you should be able to find plenty of Royce stores.
While any tempura is usually good, (what can go wrong with something dipped in a light batter and fried!) I’ve found that tempura prawn is my favourite and I enjoyed it at no better place than Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
You’ll see the stacks of fried prawns sitting out the front of the store. They’re drizzled with a sticky umami sauce that just makes this snack delightful. There are plenty of other goodies sold there as well and it’s a great spot to see how tamagoyaki is made (like an omelette made in a square pan).
It literally means, octopus-egg, and indeed you’ll find a quail’s egg shoved in this lil octopus’ noggin.
It tastes alright, a bit chewy, but who are we kidding, we’re totally buying it to show how we ate something ‘gross’ in Japan, lol.
You’ll also find this lil guy with his friends at Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
Not to be confused with Takoyaki (octopus balls), Taiyaki is a grilled pastry often found in the shape of a fish and traditionally filled with… yep, red bean paste. Although, you can also get it in sweet potato, custard or green tea. You’ll find these everywhere around Japan.
Cheesecake & Cheesetarts
The Japanese seem to have a thing for anything resembling cheesecake. I don’t blame them, it’s one of my favourite desserts.
The cheesecake souffle is something you might have seen in your planning. This light and fluffy cheese sponge is usually judged on its wobble as you shake it. Commonly found in department store food halls and train station with a little logo branded into the top, they make a great afternoon tea.
Cheese tarts have become popular and Pablo is one you will probably come across on the street or in train stations.
Their original cheese tart has a crispy pastry shell and is filled with gooey sweet cheese.
On my most recent trip I was the lucky recipient of the very last tart in stock that night, a milk tea mini tart. It was pretty good. You can also get matcha, chocolate and some seasonal flavours.
The konbini stores also have an assortment of different cheesecakes.
Anytime you see ‘don’ added onto the end of anything on a menu, it means the preceding comes on top of a rice bowl. Don is the shortened version of donburi which means bowl,
You can have gyudon (beef on rice), unadon (unagi (eel)), tendon (tempura) or my favourite katsudon, which is usually breaded and fried pork cutlet or chicken. They’ll often come with sliced onions cooked in a sweet/savoury sauce, sometimes with a soft-cooked egg on top.
It’s definitely comfort food and often my go-to on set menus, with a bowl of miso soup and pickled vegies.
One of the holy grails of Japanese food, ramen feeds the soul and is sought after by perfectionists. Ramen restaurants usually specialise in one or two broth bases like pork, chicken, miso, soy, garlic or sesame. They usually have a few bowls on the menu with different cuts of meat and toppings like soft-boiled egg, spring onions, pickles and nori sheets.
A lot of visitors like to head to Ichiran (right pic), which has a number of restaurants around Japan and provides a closed-off experience where you eat in your own little booth. The food is ordered at the front of the restaurant via a vending machine. Then your vending tickets are placed at the top of your booth for collection, along with a piece of paper where you circle how strong you want the broth, how soft you want the noodles etc. Two hands come out of a sliding screen to take the papers and replace them with your order but you never see the face of anyone.
The ramen here is pretty good and subsequently, there is nearly always a long line to get in, especially in the touristy areas. Ippudo is another good chain (left below) but there are 100’s of other ramen restaurants to check out as well.
You can even buy a bowl of instant ramen at 7-Eleven. It’s made by a Michelin-starred restaurant in Japan (middle pic), you can buy the egg separately in the cold meals section.
Probably not what you expected on this list, and it was only by chance that I came across it. I don’t know how they do it, but the Japanese make the softest sponge cake I’ve ever had. I just happened to try this slice of sponge with cream in the middle, from a 7-Eleven (left pic) and OMG it was by far the best sponge I’ve eaten. So soft and light! Sometimes it has a little bit of jam in it too or a layer of custard, which is even more delicious. Have eaten a few other convenience store ones as well and they’re all well worth a try!
It’s fried chicken, who doesn’t love fried chicken! You can find it on most casual restaurant menus as a side dish, at festivals or at the front counter at the convenience stores. Often served with Kewpie mayo!
I liken Japanese curry to Australian curry from the 1970’s, usually mild and a little bit sweet. Although it looks like a baby’s diaper gone wrong, it’s a great comfort food when tossed over a katsu cutlet, omurice or filled with minced meat and veg over rice.
Try the Coco Ichibanya Curry House chain which are all over Japan. You can often find curry filled buns (karepan) at most konbini stores.
Bao is Chinese for bun and you’ll either find them called bao or man for steamed buns and pan for ones that are more like donuts. Man (from manju) is Japanese for bun, but calling them a man bun conjures up something different to westerners! The most common is a Nikuman, which is a meat filled bun, but you can get plenty of different fillings, like curry (kareman), pizza (pizzaman), chocolate (chocoman) and cherry blossom flavour (sakuraman), amongst others. You’ll find them as street food, at festivals or at the front counter of any konbini store.
There are just over 5 million vending machines in Japan, that’s 1 vending machine per 25 people! And they’re amazing! Not only do they carry a huge assortment of cold drinks but also hot drinks as well. You can find a range of hot coffees, teas, hot chocolate and even soup. My favourite is the corn soup (not the one that has potage written on it, that one was kinda meh, but the others I tried are awesome.) My favourite drink was either the I Lohas Peach Water for something cool or the Royal Milk Tea (has tartan on the bottle). You’ll also find alcohol vending machines but you need a Japanese ID to use them.
The Japanese love KitKats, like, really love them. Since 2000, there have been over 300 seasonal and regional flavours produced! They make a great souvenir for people back home and you can buy a number of flavours at the airport gift shops.
My favourite flavours are Tokyo Banana, Nagano Apple and Matcha Green Tea. Steer clear of the wasabi flavour!
There are many delicious items to find in konbinis, but my favourite chocolate item would have to be a box of Meltykiss. They’re like a cube of chocolate ganache covered in cocoa dust and very moorish!
I only saw them in a few konbinis but you can sometimes get them at discount stores as well. Keep an eye out for them! There are a few different flavours too, like strawberry, matcha and rum!
Cororo Gummy Jellies
So I actually first had these in Australia when I visited a local Japanese supermarket and bought so much they gave me free stuff, and a bag of Cororo Apple Compote was one of them. These taste amazing! Like actual real apple compote. I noticed they come in other flavours too, like melon, lychee, peach and tropical. Look out for them in konbinis or Don Quixote.
This crunchy, sweet bread gets its name from the patterned top resembling a melon. No melon in it, just bread but is often filled with icecream. You can find it all over the place. There’s a good one near Sensoji Shrine, just off Nakamise.
Japanese potstickers that make it onto most menus and are something I always have to order. If you like dumplings, you’ll love gyozas!
Make a little sauce with the usual condiments tray by mixing the soy sauce with some mirin and chilli oil/powder.
Starbucks Matcha Frappucino
So these are usually available at any Starbucks around the world. But in case you’ve never tried it, what better place to have a matcha frappuccino, than in Japan!
I’d never stepped foot into a Starbucks thanks to Australia running most of their stores out of business due to Aussies preference for quality coffee, but OMG I love their matcha frappuccino!
Unlike Australia, Starbuck stores are everywhere in Japan.
Uni (Sea Urchin)
If you’re into the creamy, salty taste of sea urchin, you’ll find plenty of Uni options in Japan. Traditionally found on top of sushi, you’ll now find them scattered over pasta dishes, in sandwiches or, my favourite, in a squid ink steamed bun. You can find uni buns at Tsukiji Markets in Tokyo, but can be found around Japan as well.
When it comes to uni, make sure the uni pieces look like they have a firm texture and aren’t slimy. Fresh uni should appear almost dry and holding its shape well.
So, if you’re heading to Japan, I’m so jealous! It’s amazing and the food is always of such high quality and flavour. Do get out and enjoy as much as you can, including all the ‘weird’ stuff!
And of course, itadakimasu!
You might also enjoy reading these: