I love Japanese food. I don’t think I’ve ever met a Japanese dish I didn’t like. In fact, my hypothetical last meal would be sushi and if I were to be limited to just one cuisine for the rest of my life, then it would have to be Japanese. The food is a big reason why we love visiting this country so much.
I was just granted a 5-year multiple entry visa to Japan so we intend to go back at least once a year for the next five years. We want to explore as much of this country as we can so I thought what better time to start a comprehensive food guide than now? I jokingly tell Ren (though I’m not really joking 😆 ) that I want to be an expert on all things Japan by the end of these five years, with food being a priority. As I learned on a recent trip to Hokkaido and Kyushu, there are so many interesting regional specialties in Japan that go beyond the usual dishes like sushi, tempura, and ramen. As much as we love Japan’s core dishes, we want to try as many of these local specialties as we can.
For a dish to be listed here, we need to have tried it ourselves. I’ve added links to specific restaurants throughout this guide that are known for serving those specialties. Having explored less than 20% of Japan thus far, we aren’t experts nor is this a definitive list (at least not yet) but I do hope it gives you a good introduction to Japan’s culinary landscape.
MUST-EAT DISHES IN JAPAN
Like any must-eat list, this guide is subjective and reflects our personal taste. It would be boring to add every Japanese dish so we only list the ones that A) we’ve tried ourselves; and B) find supremely delicious or interesting.
It starts off with dishes that are widely available in Japan before getting into regional specialties. Dishes are listed in alphabetical order and broken down by prefecture.
Chawanmushi is a savory egg custard dish. It’s traditionally served hot in winter and chilled in summer and is usually part of a larger set meal. The ingredients in chawanmushi vary and can include things like shiitake mushroom, parsley, ginkgo, lily, chestnut, chicken, and seafood.
Chawanmushi is enjoyed throughout Japan, though some accounts trace its origins back to 17th century Nagasaki. It’s said to be one of the dishes served in shippoku set meals which are large, banquet-type spreads containing a medley of traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Western dishes. We’ve had it several times in Japan but one of the best was at Yossou, a chawanmushi specialty restaurant in Nagasaki. Open since 1866, this restaurant makes their signature chawanmushi with nine specific ingredients – white fish, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, kikurage mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginkgo, kamaboko (fish paste), wheat powder, and anago (grilled conger eel).
Japan’s love for crab is legendary. Its crab consumption ranks among the highest in the world and their love for it reaches fever pitch in winter. Typically eaten in the colder months, crab is the quintessential winter dish in Japan. One of the best places to have it is Hokkaido. We were there to attend the Sapporo Snow Festival in 2017 and Nijo Market in Sapporo and Sankaku Market in Otaru were practically drowning in several types of crab – king, snow, hairy, and thorny.
Other places renowned for crab are Tottori, Northern Hyogo, and Northern Kyoto. There you’ll find the prized Matsuba Crab, which is a term given to male snow crabs fished from the Sea of Japan. They’re considered some of the finest in the country.
Curry is one of the most popular dishes in Japan. It was introduced by the British during the Meiji era (1868–1912), but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that it exploded in popularity when it became widely available at supermarkets and restaurants. Today, it’s so popular that it’s now considered a national dish and is widely available throughout the country.
Japanese curry is commonly served in three forms – over rice, over udon, and in pastries – and is typically accompanied by different types of meats and vegetables. The dish pictured below is a horse meat katsu curry (deep-fried breaded cutlet) which we enjoyed at Warokuya restaurant in Kurokawa Onsen. Kumamoto and Nagano are among the few prefectures in Japan known for farming horse meat.
The Japanese have an amazing ability to adapt. Take their fruit for example. Japan has very little arable land, only about 12%, yet they produce some of the best fruits in the world. How do they do it? By focusing on quality, not quantity. Fruit orchards are small and the cost of living in Japan is high so to turn a profit, orchards must grow premium products that fetch a high price. From Fuji Apples to Satonishiki Cherries to those famed Yubari Melons that fetch USD 50-100 per piece, the fruits in Japan are of consistently high quality.
Pictured below are Amao Strawberries from Fukuoka. We bought them from a grocery in Osaka after our Japanese friend’s endorsement. They’re considered some of the very best strawberries in Japan.
Strictly speaking, hamayaki refers to the grilling of freshly caught seafood right at the beach. These days however, it’s used to describe the act of barbecuing seafood regardless of the setting. We enjoy visiting markets in Japan and we’ve always found at least one vendor selling hamayaki-style dishes. Hokkaido is known for having some of the best seafood in the country so we enjoyed many hamayaki dishes there, including the grilled uni pictured below.
Kaiseki doesn’t refer to any one dish, but a whole dining experience. It’s a traditional multi-course meal typically consisting of 13-14 dishes. Served at ryokans and small restaurants called ryōtei, kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine and is one of the most expensive dining experiences you can have in Japan.
There’s no formula for kaiseki meals though there is a prescribed order to the dishes. A kaiseki meal typically consists of appetizers, a soup course (suimono), seasonal courses, cooked dishes, a rice course (shokuji), and dessert and tea. Much is left to the creativity of the chef who’s free to omit any course except the suimono and shokuji courses. You can have kaiseki anywhere in Japan though the experience has its roots in Kyoto.
Kaisendon / Chirashizushi
“Don’t call me chirashizushi”. For the longest time, I thought kaisendon and chirashizushi were one and the same, but they’re not. While chirashizuhi is made with vinegared sushi rice and contains other ingredients like vegetables, beans, and scrambled egg, kaisendon is basically a mountain of fresh seafood piled high over regular steamed rice, like you see below. In fact, if you google both dishes, you’ll notice the difference. Chirashizuzhi is more thoughtfully arranged, almost like a pattern.
Karaage is a Japanese cooking method that involves deep frying meat, most commonly chicken, in oil. It’s similar to tempura except it usually uses a heavier wheat flour or potato starch mix resulting in a thicker, crunchier texture. You can find chicken karaage pretty much anywhere in Japan.
Korokke is the Japanese term for croquette. It’s a breaded deep-fried patty containing meat, seafood, or vegetables mixed with mashed potato or white sauce. It’s rolled in wheat flour, eggs, then panko breadcrumbs before being deep-fried to a golden brown. Korokke is widely available anywhere in Japan, even groceries and convenience stores. We had these delicious crab and octopus croquettes at a popular stand in Yufuin.
If you haven’t heard of matcha, then you’ve probably been living under a rock the past few years. It’s a finely ground powder of specially grown and processed green tea that’s been all the rage on Instagram and social media. Traditionally, it’s mixed with hot water to make tea, but nowadays it’s become a trendy ingredient used to flavor many products like mochi, ice cream, chocolates, candy, lattes, cakes, and pastries. It’s even used to flavor savory dishes like soba and tempura.
Matcha is available everywhere in Japan. In Ren’s hand below is an ultra creamy matcha soft cream from Kitakaro in Sapporo.
Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from mochigome, a glutinous short-grain rice. Available anywhere in Japan, it’s enjoyed year-round though it’s traditionally eaten to usher in the Japanese New Year. Apart from attracting good fortune, it’s believed that long strands of freshly made mochi symbolize a long life and good well-being.
Mochi is often eaten on its own but it’s also used as an ingredient in many products like confections and ice cream. To welcome spring, a special type of pink mochi is made called sakuramochi. It’s filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf. If you’re in Japan for sakura season, then you may want to try that.
Have you ever seen mochi being made by the way? It’s a super laborious process! We got to experience it first-hand in Hyogo. The steamed rice is pounded with a heavy wooden mallet (kine) in a large mortar (usu). Two people work in tandem – one pounds while the other turns and wets the mochi. They have to keep a steady rhythm so as not to crush the mochi-wetter’s hand with the heavy kine! 😯 Here I am below about to enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Otoro is tuna meat and should fall under sushi/sashimi, but it’s so special that it deserves its own mention. Bluefin tuna has two types of flesh – akami and toro. Akami is the most common type. It’s cut from the dorsal part of the fish and is lean and deep red in color. Toro, on the other hand, is much lighter in color, like a pale washed out pink. It’s cut from the belly and is the fattiest part of the fish.
There are two types of toro – chutoro and otoro. Chutoro is the fatty underbelly while otoro is the fattiest part found closer to the head. It’s the prime part of the fish and one of the most expensive types of sushi/sashimi you can get. It literally falls apart the moment it hits your tongue and is loaded with umami. It’s so unbelievably good and probably one of the best dining experiences you can have in Japan, especially for sushi and sashimi lovers.
Like sushi and curry, ramen is one of Japan’s most popular dishes. It’s a noodle soup comprised of four basic elements – the broth, the tare (seasoning), the noodles, and the toppings. Also known as kaeshi, tare is the salty, concentrated essence placed at the bottom of every ramen bowl. Together with the broth, it’s what determines the style of the ramen, of which there are four main types – shoyu, miso, shio, and tonkotsu. The noodles and toppings enhance the experience but the true star of this dish is the seasoned broth.
It’s important to understand that even with the four recognized styles of ramen, limitless variations exist within each style. For example, not all shoyu ramen is the same. All ramen may fall into one of the four basic categories but the variations within each style are immense. And we aren’t even talking about the type of noodles or combination of toppings yet! So vast are the possibilities with ramen that a large number of regional varieties have been established throughout Japan. In fact, you can write an entire post on ramen which I may just do with more trips to Japan.
Soba refers to thin noodles made from buckwheat flour. They can be served cold with a dipping sauce called tsuyu, or in a hot broth as noodle soup. Chilled soba noodles are often served on a bamboo tray (zaru) with a tsuyu of dashi, mirin, sweetened soy sauce, wasabi, scallion, and sesame seeds. You dip the soba into the tsuyu before eating. Many people feel this is the best way to appreciate soba since allowing the noodles to soak in hot soup often changes its texture. We agree.
Buckwheat is produced mainly in Hokkaido but soba is widely available throughout Japan. We’ve had it at Kannabe Sanso Waraku in Hyogo and Iromomiji in Kurokawa Onsen. Both were delicious but the most celebrated soba is said to come from Nagano.
Sushi / Sashimi
Arguably the most recognized dish in Japanese cuisine and one that needs little introduction. For the unfamiliar, sushi refers to the Japanese preparation of vinegared rice served with a variety of ingredients, mostly fish and other types of seafood. It’s commonly eaten with pickled ginger and dipped in soy sauce mixed with wasabi. Unlike sushi which may contain cooked or prepared ingredients, sashimi is always served raw and without rice.
You can find some form of sushi or sashimi anywhere in Japan, but one of my favorite places to have it is at kaitenzushi restaurants. They’re those fun conveyor belt restaurants where you can grab plates of sushi as they pass by. If you’re visiting Sapporo, then a great place to try it is at Nemuro Hanamura. It’s one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Another fun place to experience kaitenzushi is at nationwide chain Kura Sushi, where every plate goes for just JPY 100.
Tempura is a Japanese cooking method that involves battering and deep frying seafood or vegetables in oil. It’s similar to karaage except it uses a lighter batter made of cold water and soft cake flour. The batter is lightly mixed and kept cold with lumps to create a crisp and fluffy texture when fried.
Most tempura is cooked for just a few seconds before being served with grated daikon radish and a dipping sauce, most often tentsuyu which is made with dashi (soup stock), mirin (rice wine), and shoyu (soy sauce). Alternatively, it can be sprinkled with sea salt or mixtures of powdered green tea, salt, and yuzu before eating.
Different types of seafood and vegetables are used in tempura though ebi (shrimp) is the most popular. I had this delicious mixed tempura paired with chilled soba at Kannabe Sanso Waraku in Hyogo.
Udon refers to a type of thick noodle made with wheat flour. It’s typically served hot in winter or chilled in summer and is often topped with thinly chopped scallions, tempura, aburaage (deep-fried tofu), and kamaboko (fish cake). Like ramen, the type of udon broth and toppings used vary from region to region. Eastern udon tends to be darker brown in color while western udon is lighter. This comes from the type of soy sauce used.
Among all types of Japanese noodles, udon is my favorite. We had this one at a shop in Kyoto.
Unagi is freshwater eel. It’s not to be confused with anago, which is saltwater or conger eel. Both are common sushi ingredients.
To prepare unagi, the eel is cut open and its head and bones are removed. The meat is then skewered and broiled before being slowly grilled over charcoal while being basted with a kabayaki sauce (sweet soy sauce). Aside from being used in sushi, it’s also served on a bed of rice in a dish called unadon.
Unagi is one of my favorite dishes. We had this one at a 160-yr old unagi specialty restaurant called Izumiya in Nagasaki. Unagi is available throughout Japan though Lake Hamana in Shizuoka is said to be the home of the highest quality unagi.
The term wagyu refers to any of the four Japanese breeds of cattle – namely Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn. Any beef produced from these breeds is wagyu, but not all wagyu are equal. The most desired wagyu comes from cattle that’s genetically predisposed to intense marbling, like the Tajima strain of cattle raised in Hyogo. You’ve probably heard of it as Kobe Beef.
Wagyu in Japan is branded according to where it was raised, so Kobe Beef means it came from Kobe, Aso Beef means it came from Aso, and so on and so forth. Of all Japanese wagyu, the best brands are said to be Kobe, Matsusaka, Saga, and Ohmi. Of those four, we’ve been lucky to try two – Kobe Beef at Tsurugyu and Saga Beef at Iroha. Both restaurants are in Osaka.
Yakiniku isn’t a specific dish, but refers to the Japanese style of grilling meat. Raw meats and vegetables are brought to the table so diners can cook the food themselves on tabletop grills. They’re accompanied by the restaurant’s own blend of dipping sauce or tare, which is commonly made with soy sauce, sake, mirin, sugar, garlic, fruit juice, and sesame.
Though yakiniku is a Japanese term, it’s interesting to note that this style of cooking is widely considered to have Korean roots. It’s believed to be a variant of Korean bulgogi or galbi, which was modified to suit Japanese tastes. I found it curious at the time but that explains why kimchi was available as a side dish at this yakiniku restaurant in Sapporo – ホルモン食堂 4条店. Yakiniku became widespread in Japan after WWII.
Speaking of Sapporo, people who’ve been there may recognize jingisukan or Genghis Khan as a specific type of yakiniku. It’s native to Hokkaido and entails the grilling of mutton or lamb meat over a convex metal skillet.
Yakitori / Kushiyaki
Strictly speaking, yakitori refers to skewered chicken grilled over charcoal, though it’s often used to describe skewered meat in general, both poultry and non-poultry. The proper blanket term to describe all types of skewered grilled meat is kushiyaki. Available throughout Japan in small shops called yakitori-ya or at izakaya (Japanese gastropubs), meat is skewered on bamboo or metal sticks and grilled over charcoal before being seasoned with a salty or salty-sweet tare (sauce).
We had the yakitori below at Korombia izakaya in Sapporo.
Zuke refers to an old method of preserving fish by soaking fish fillets in a soy sauce mixture. It was a technique long forgotten since the onset of refrigeration but has seen a resurgence in recent decades as a method of food preparation. Today, modern zuke entails marinating thinly sliced fillets of fish not for preservation, but for flavor.
We had this delicious bowl of maguro and shake zuke at Kaisen Ichiba Nagasakiko in Nagasaki.
I love trying interesting new dishes like this. A specialty of Nagoya in Aichi, we had this at Yufumabushi Shin Ekimae, a hitsumabushi specialty restaurant in Yufuin. Hitsumabushi is traditionally made with eel though this restaurant makes it with Bungo Beef and chicken as well.
Served in a bowl over rice with a side of yakumi (condiments) and dashi (soup stock), there are three stages to eating hitsumabushi. The first entails eating the eel over rice as it is. After you’ve had a few bites, you then mix the yakumi into your bowl for the second stage. The type of yakumi varies between restaurants but they typically include ingredients like wasabi, pickled vegetables, nori, green onion, etc. You mix them into your bowl thoroughly and continue eating. When you’re down to your last few bites, you pour the dashi (sometimes tea) into your bowl and polish off the rest. It’s a fun way of eating eel that you wouldn’t normally do with regular unadon (eel over rice).
Japan produces premium quality fruits and these Amao Strawberries are a good example of that. According to our Japanese friend, they’re one of the best strawberries in Japan. Amao Strawberries are grown in Fukuoka but we bought this pack at a supermarket in Kyoto. They’re big and plump and almost entirely red inside when you take a bite.
Hakata (Tonkotsu) Ramen
There are many ramen varieties in Japan but Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen is one of the most famous. It’s a tonkotsu-style ramen made by boiling pork bones, fat, and collagen over a high heat for 12-20 hours. This breaks down the marrow causing it to ooze out and create a rich, creamy broth reminiscent of milk. Hakata ramen features thin, non-curly noodles and is often topped with scallions and slices of charshu pork.
There are plenty of places to have Hakata ramen in Fukuoka but one of the best is Ganso Nagahamaya. It’s a local favorite that’s been around since the end of the Pacific War.
If you like offal, then you’re going to love this Fukuoka specialty. Motsunabe is a hot pot stew made with beef or pork offal. Beef intestines are most common, though other types of offal are also used. Cooked in a shallow pot on your table, the offal is allowed to simmer for a few minutes in a soup base seasoned with soy sauce, garlic, and chili pepper. Other ingredients like cabbage, garlic chives, and champon noodles are later added to complete the dish.
We tried many new dishes on a recent trip to Japan but this motsunabe may have been my favorite. It’s so good when eaten with rice and a side of kimchi. We had it at highly regarded Hakata Motsunabe Yamanaka Akasakaten in Fukuoka.
Yatai Food Stalls
Unlike the other entries on this list, yatai isn’t a dish or a cooking method, but a venue for food unique to Fukuoka. They’re tiny outdoor food stalls that open only at night and offer simple dishes like yakitori, hot pot, and Hakata ramen.
Yatai are a popular symbol of Fukuoka and you can find over 150 stalls clustered in different parts of the city. Many serve beer so it’s a fun place to have a late night snack and interact with locals. With that said, some people don’t think too highly of yatai, including the Japanese, so you may want to read my post on Fukuoka’s yatai food stalls before going.
As previously described, some of the best crab in Japan comes from Hokkaido. It’s a wonderland for crab with several types available in winter – king crab, snow crab, hairy crab, and thorny crab. You can have them cooked in different ways but one of the most popular is to have them boiled in a hot pot. We had the the king and snow crab at Hokkaido Kani Syougun in Sapporo. Pictured below are the luscious pieces of king crab meat before they were dropped in the pot to boil.
As previously described, Hokkaido is known for having some of the best seafood in Japan so it’s a great place to have hamayaki-style dishes (barbecued seafood). We had this grilled uni and some scallops at Nijo Market in Sapporo. We also had the juiciest oysters at Gotsubo in Susukino and more grilled scallops at Takinami Shokudo in Otaru.
Jingisukan (Genghis Khan)
Jingisukan (pronounced jing-giss kahn) or Genghis Khan is a mutton yakiniku dish popular in Hokkaido. Servers will bring out the raw meat and vegetables to your table which you’ll cook yourself, typically on a convex metal skillet over a gas stove or hot coals. The dish is rumored to have gotten its name in prewar Japan, when lamb was believed to be the meat of choice among Mongolian soldiers. The dome-shaped metal skillet used today is meant to represent the soldiers’ helmets which they allegedly used to cook their food.
Kaisendon are rice bowls topped with different types of sashimi. They’re widely available throughout Japan though Hokkaido is known for having some of the best seafood in the country so it’s no surprise that kaisendon is a favorite there. Otaru, a small port city northwest of Sapporo, boasts some of the freshest seafood in Hokkaido. That’s where I had this overflowing bowl of kaisendon, at Takinami Shokudo restaurant in Sankaku Market.
Despite being a relative newcomer to Japan’s ramen scene, miso ramen is one of its most popular. It rose to prominence in the 1960s and features copious amounts of miso (soybean paste) mixed with oily chicken or fish broth to create a heavy and hearty soup suitable for Hokkaido’s harsh winters. It’s often topped with a variety of ingredients like chashu (braised pork belly), nori (seaweed), ground pork, leeks, scallions, onions, bean sprouts, hard-boiled egg, sesame seeds, and chopped garlic.
Sapporo is one of Japan’s most popular ramen destinations and is considered the birthplace of miso ramen. In fact, there’s a legend that a customer walked into a noodle shop in 1955 and asked the chef to put noodles in his miso and pork soup. From that day, a new style of ramen was born.
In Susukino, you’ll find a cluster of ramen shops known collectively as Ramen Alley. That’s where we had our bowls of miso ramen, at a tiny closet of a restaurant called Shirakaba Sansou.
Soft Cream / Dairy Products
Hokkaido is the biggest prefecture in Japan and home to a massive dairy industry. They produce about half of the country’s milk and 90% of its cheese. Dairy from Hokkaido is more expensive than dairy from other prefectures because of its reputation for quality and freshness. It’s so highly regarded that you’ll often find labels on packages proudly showing they were made with Hokkaido Dairy. This is true even outside of Japan. At Choux Creme pastry shop in Hong Kong, two of their products had labels indicating they were made with Hokkaido Dairy. Guess which two we bought?
There are terrific dairy products everywhere in Hokkaido but the best we found were in Otaru, a small port city less than an hour northwest of Sapporo. Take a stroll down Sakaimachi Street and sample goodies at its many dairy shops. Be sure to stop at hugely popular LeTao to pick up one of these double fromage cheeseckaes. You won’t regret it.
Kobe Beef is arguably one of the most renowned foods in Japan, and among its most expensive. Kobe Beef refers to wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese cattle raised in Hyogo. Wagyu in Japan is branded after the area in which they’re raised hence the name “Kobe Beef”. Prized for its flavor, tenderness, and well-marbled texture, it’s considered one of the best wagyu brands in Japan together with Matsusaka, Saga, and Ohmi. Without question, it’s the most famous.
Kobe Beef can be ridiculously expensive but we were lucky to try it at Tsurugyu in Osaka thanks to a Japanese friend’s meat distributor connections.
Hokkaido may be home to some of Japan’s best crab but Northern Hyogo is no slouch either. It’s home to the prized Matsuba Crab, a term given to male snow crabs caught from the Sea of Japan. What sets Matsuba Crab apart from other snow crab is the plankton-rich environment where it lives. This results in crabmeat loaded with flavor. So prized is Matsuba Crab that the Japanese make trips to Tottori, Northern Kyoto, and Northern Hyogo in winter just to indulge in this crustacean.
I went on a FAM trip to Kinoaski Onsen in Hyogo and found many vendors and restaurants offering Matsuba Crab. I was fortunate to try it an inn in Toyooka called Nashikisou. It was one of the best crabs I’ve ever eaten in my life, even better than the crabs in Hokkaido.
Aso Beef refers to wagyu cattle raised in Aso, Kumamoto. It isn’t considered one of the top three or four wagyu brands but it’s still a premium quality beef. I had it over rice at Iromomiji in Kurokawa Onsen. If you’re visiting Kurokawa Onsen, then another great place to have it is at Warokuya. Unfortunately, it’s so popular they were out of it the two days we were there.
This dish may be controversial to some. Basashi is horse meat, specifically raw horse sashimi. Horse meat in general is referred to as sakuraniku – meaning “cherry blossom meat” – because of its pinkish color. It’s a highly localized dish, a specialty in only a handful of prefectures in Japan, most notably Kumamoto and Nagano. Even for most Japanese, eating basashi is a rare occurrence.
We tried basashi at two restaurants in Kurokawa Onsen in Kumamoto. Practically every restaurant in that small town was serving some form of horse meat. We had it in a croquette and in curry as well. Kumamoto had an over-abundance of horses in the 1960s which they no longer needed for transport or agricultural work, so it was around that time when they turned to it as a regular food source. Today, there are horse farms and restaurants all throughout Kumamoto.
Basashi is typically served cold along with soy sauce, garlic, and wasabi. From what I understand, it’s served cold because it’s treated for bacteria and other parasites at -20°C for at least 48 hours.
This is one of those things that most foreigners probably won’t hear about unless they have a Japanese friend. We were exploring Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto with a friend from Hyogo when he told us to try hiyashiame, a refreshing ginger drink popular in the Kansai region of Japan. It’s a sweet and spicy drink usually enjoyed in summer to overcome the heat.
As previously described, kaiseki is a traditional multi-course dining experience. The uni dish below was one of the appetizers we had at Iroha, a one-michelin-starred ryōtei in Osaka. You can have kaiseki anywhere in Japan though the experience has its roots in Kyoto, which was home to the imperial court and Japan’s nobility for over a millennium.
If you’d like to experience a kaiseki meal in Kyoto, then a good place to start is the Kyoto Michelin Guide. Be prepared to spend for it though since typical kaiseki dinners will cost you anywhere between JPY 15,000-40,000 per person. Some ryōtei may offer cheaper lunch options at JPY 4,000-8,000 with half the number of dishes.
Mushizushi is steamed sushi. It’s a regional dish that comes from either Kyoto or Osaka, though no one really knows its exact origin. A good buddy of mine is from the Kansai region and even he doesn’t know. 😆
Mushizushi is like a steamed version of chirashizushi. Different types of fish like anago (conger eel), unagi (freshwater eel), and tai (snapper) are placed on a bed of rice with shredded egg and vegetables. The entire thing is then steamed until the fish is cooked.
We had this funky-looking bowl at Yossou in Nagasaki. The yellow part is shredded egg and the pink is fish floss. I’m not sure what the brown part is but it may be some type of prepared fish.
Tako tamago are these cute glazed baby octopuses on sticks. Commonly sold as street food, their heads are stuffed with whole quail eggs. They’ve become so popular among tourists that you’ll often find them mentioned in blog posts about food in the Kansai region. They seem to have originated from Nishiki Market in Kyoto but you can find them at Kuromon Ichiba Market in Osaka as well.
Like Kumamoto, sakuraniku or horse meat is a regular part of the people’s diet in Nagano. It’s farmed locally and consumed in many ways both raw (basashi) and cooked.
Interestingly, it was found that the longest-lived people in Japan hail from Nagano prefecture. Nagano men have an average lifespan of 80.88 years. Could their regular consumption of horse meat have something to do with it? After all, horse meat is said to be rich in protein, zinc, and iron while being low in fat, making it a healthier choice of meat compared to beef or pork.
Soba noodles are thin buckwheat noodles served either chilled with a tsuyu dipping sauce, or in a hot broth as noodle soup. They’re available throughout Japan but the best soba noodles are said to come from Nagano. Known as Shinano or Shinshu soba, the volcanic soil and extreme variance in temperatures within Nagano’s highlands make it the ideal place for growing buckwheat in Japan.
Castella is a sponge cake made with sugar, flour, eggs, and starch syrup. It was brought to Japan by Portuguese merchants in the 16th century through Nagasaki, which at the time was the only Japanese port open for foreign commerce. Now considered a specialty of Nagasaki, its name is derived from the Portuguese Pão de Castela, meaning “bread from Castile”. It’s available at many shops in the city and is one of Nagasaki’s most popular tourist gift items. We bought a few boxes at popular Castella chain Bunmeido.
Champon is a Chinese-Japanese regional noodle dish from Nagasaki. It’s made by frying pork, seafood, and vegetables with lard, then adding a soup made with chicken and pig bones. Champon ramen noodles are then added to the mix before boiling. There are a few varieties of champon in Japan but the Nagasaki version is the most well-known.
Champon was first served in Nagasaki by Chinese restaurant Shikairō. According to the restaurant, it was based on a dish in Fujian cuisine called tonniishiimen. It was created during the Meiji period to provide a cheap, filling meal for Chinese students attending school in Japan. We had the bowl below at Horaiken Bekkan, a highly regarded champon restaurant near the Atomic Bomb Museum.
Like champon, kakuni manju is a Chinese-Japanese regional dish of Nagasaki. It’s basically a Japanese-style pork belly bun. The pork belly is simmered in dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake before being cooked for a long time over a low flame. The slow cooking breaks down the collagen into gelatin, which keeps the meat moist while making it extremely tender. It’s then sandwiched in a soft cloud-like bun, often with scallions and cucumber, and served out of bamboo steamers. You can find them pretty much anywhere in Nagasaki, especially around Chinatown.
Bungo Beef refers to wagyu raised in Bungo, Oita. Like Aso Beef in Kumamoto, Bungo Beef isn’t one of the topmost wagyu brands in Japan but it’s also a high-class brand of beef.
Ren had it in this bowl of gyu-mabushi at Yufumabushi Shin Ekimae, a hitsumabushi restaurant in Yufuin. Hitsumabushi is a specialty of Nagoya in Aichi and is typically served with eel, but this restaurant makes it with Bungo Beef and chicken as well.
There are three stages to eating gyu-mabushi. Served in a bowl over rice with a side of yakumi (condiments) and dashi (soup stock), you first eat the Bungo Beef and rice as it is. After a few bites, you then mix the yakumi into your bowl for the second stage. The type of yakumi varies between restaurants but they usually include things like wasabi, pickled vegetables, nori, and green onion. When you’re down to your last few bites, you pour the dashi (sometimes tea) into your bowl and polish off the rest. It’s a fun way of eating that allows you to experience the Bungo Beef in a number of ways.
If Osaka is one of Japan’s greatest food cities, then okonomiyaki and takoyaki are its most popular representatives. These two dishes are practically synonymous with the region.
Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake often referred to as “Japanese pizza”. It’s made with a batter of flour, eggs, dashi, and shredded cabbage mixed with ingredients like pork belly, vegetables, shrimp, squid, and other seafood. The batter and fillings are pan-fried on both sides then finished with a variety of toppings like a sweet and savory okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, dried seaweed, and bonito flakes.
Okonomiyaki is available throughout Japan, most often in the Osaka- or Kansai-style. We had the okonomiyaki below at Donguri in Kyoto.
Takoyaki is a ball-shaped snack made from wheat flour batter. It’s filled with minced or diced octopus (hence tako-yaki), tempura scraps (tenkasu), pickled ginger, and green onion. Before serving, it’s topped with a sweet and savory takoyaki sauce, Japanese mayo, green laver (aonori), and bonito flakes.
Like okonomiyaki, takoyaki is largely associated with Osaka though it can be found throughout Japan.
Like its more famous contemporaries in Kobe and Matsusaka, Saga Beef is considered one of the premier wagyu beef brands in Japan. For Wagyu reared in Saga to be officially branded as Saga Beef, it has to rate between 7 and 12 in the Beef Marbling Standard set by the Japan Meat Grading Association. Any wagyu that doesn’t meet those standards can’t be branded as Saga beef.
Unagi is freshwater eel. It’s typically barbecued and served as an ingredient in sushi or over rice in unadon. Unagi is widely available throughout Japan though the highest quality unagi is said to come from Lake Hamana in Shizuoka. There you’ll find many small restaurants around the lake serving various unagi dishes.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to add this as it seems to be a trendier street food. Bakudan-yaki is a giant version of takoyaki that may or may not contain octopus. It’s typically 8 cm in diameter and filled with all sorts of ingredients like shrimp, squid, clams, corn, cabbage, mushroom, quail eggs, and pickled ginger. Meaning “grilled or fried bomb”, some people describe bakudan-yaki as a combination of takoyaki and okonomiyaki.
Bakudan-yaki was pioneered by Bakudan-yaki Honpo in Tokyo. They opened their first branch in Ikebukuro but they now have branches throughout the country, including this stall in Yufuin where we had it. It’s said to be especially popular with young Japanese.
Though you can find Matsuba Crab in Northern Hyogo and Northern Kyoto, it’s probably best associated with Tottori prefecture. Hokkaido may be one of the most famous places for crab in Japan but Sakaiminato in Tottori produces the most. It’s the largest landing port for red snow crab in Japan. Available from November to March, Matsuba Crab is Tottori’s quintessential winter dish. For me, it’s the best crab I’ve ever tasted, even better than the crab in Hokkaido.
Japan produces top-quality fruits all around and these Satonishiki Cherries are another example of that. Like Amao Strawberries and Yubari Melon, Satonishiki Cherries rank among the best in its class. They’re cultivated primarily in Yamagata and are in season from May to July.
I’m not sure how available they are throughout Japan. I remember not being able to find any at grocery stores in Osaka in May. Thankfully, we were served a few pieces in a kaiseki meal at Iroha in Osaka.
Fugu is the Japanese word for the notorious pufferfish, a highly toxic fish that contains a powerful neurotoxin 1,200 times stronger than cyanide. So dangerous is this fish that the preparation of fugu in Japan is strictly controlled by law. Only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish. Even then, it’s said that it takes a minimum of ten years of apprenticeship to be a proper fugu chef.
Fugu can be prepared a number of ways but it’s most commonly served as sashimi. We had this sashimi and some fugu sushi at Zuboraya in Osaka. It’s said that the liver is the tastiest part, but it also happens to be the most poisonous so serving liver in restaurants has been banned since 1984.
If you’re serious about trying fugu, then it’s best to make a trip to Yamaguchi. The city of Shimonoseki in Yamaguchi is the largest harvester of pufferfish in Japan and is nicknamed the country’s “Fugu Capital”.
As long as this post already is, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. We’ve touched on just 17 of Japan’s 47 prefectures thus far so this guide will only get longer over time. As described, it’s a labor of love that I’ll be expanding on and refining after every trip to Japan. We plan on visiting this country at least once a year every year so it’s our goal to explore every prefecture and experience its food.
As with everything I write about in this blog, I’m not an expert so if you spot any mistakes or wrong information, then feel free to let me know in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for reading and enjoy eating your way through Japan! 🙂
JB and Renée are the Traveleaters behind Will Fly for Food, a travel blog for the gastronomically inclined. They enjoy experiencing food from different cultures so they’ve made it their mission to try every country’s national dish. Read more about them and their National Dish Quest here.