Top 10 foods to try in Japan

With its stunning landscapes and strong cultural identity, Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime holiday destination that's home to some deliciously fresh cuisine.

Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms

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Unique and beguiling, Japan is a country of binaries. It straddles both the traditional and ultra-modern, with buzzing cities alongside stunning natural landscapes. Its food is famously nutritious, with a diet based around super-fresh, seasonal products. We've picked 10 dishes to seek out when visiting. 

Don’t leave Japan without trying…

1. Sushi

Mackerel sushi in lunchbox with chopsticks
Put simply, sushi is raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. It’s in the variety of flavours and textures – like tangy, creamy uni (sea urchin roe) and plump, juicy amaebi (sweet shrimp) – that things get interesting. Despite sushi’s lofty image, it has a humble origin: street food. 

Try rolling your own smoked mackerel maki with our easy recipe.

Watch our video on how to make your own sushi.

2. Ramen

Ramen with egg and chopsticks
Ramen (egg noodles in a salty broth) is Japan’s favourite late-night meal. It’s also the perfect example of an imported dish – in this case from China – that the Japanese have made completely and deliciously their own. There are four major soup styles: tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, soy sauce and salt. Fukuoka is particularly famous for its rich tonkotsu ramen while pungent miso ramen is a specialty of Hokkaido. 

Make your own ramen noodle soup for a comforting yet wholesome supper. 

3. Unagi

Unagi is river eel, usually grilled over charcoal and lacquered with a sweet barbecue sauce. According to folklore, unagi is the ideal antidote to the heat and humidity of Japan’s stultifying summers. It’s a delicacy evocative of old Japan and most restaurants that specialise in eel have a wonderfully traditional approach. Fresh, wild-caught unagi is available May through October.

4. Tempura

Cauliflower tempura on napkin
Light and fluffy tempura is Japan’s contribution to the world of deep-fried foods (though it probably originated with Portuguese traders). The batter-coated seafood and vegetables are traditionally fried in sesame oil and served with either a tiny pool of salt or a dish of soy sauce-flavoured broth spiked with grated radish for dipping. Do not miss out on ebiten (tempura prawns).

Try making your own crispy-fried prawns or create our basic tempura batter and make a variety of crunchy snacks. 

5. Kaiseki

Part dinner, part work of art, kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine. It originated centuries ago alongside the tea ceremony in Kyoto (and Kyoto remains the home of kaiseki). There’s no menu, just a procession of small courses meticulously arranged on exquisite crockery. Only fresh ingredients are used and each dish is designed to evoke the current season. 

6. Soba

Soba noodles with prawns in bowl
Soba – long, thin buckwheat noodles – have long been a staple of Japanese cuisine, particularly in the mountainous regions where hardy buckwheat grows better than rice. The noodles are served in either a hot, soy sauce-flavoured broth, or at room temperature on a bamboo mat with broth on the side for dipping. Purists, who bemoan soup-logged noodles, prefer the latter. 

Try our ideas for cooking with soba noodles.

7. Shabu-shabu

Shabu-shabu is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of thin slices of beef or pork being swished around with chopsticks in bubbling broth. It’s a decadent dish, with platters of marbled meat brought to the table for diners to cook themselves (it takes only a moment) one mouthful at a time.

8. Okonomiyaki

Japanese pancake with sauce and seasoning
Literally “grilled as you like,” okonomiyaki is Japanese comfort food at its best, and a clear violation of the typical refined image of Japanese food. It’s a savoury pancake filled with any number of things (but usually cabbage and pork) and topped with fish flakes, dried seaweed, mayonnaise and a Worcester-style sauce. It’s also a lot of fun – at most restaurants, diners grill the dish themselves at a hotplate built into the table. 

Try making Japanese okonomiyaki with our recipe packed full of authentic flavours and textures. 

9. Tonkatsu 

Tonkatsu pork with noodles and rice on plate
Tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, dates to the late 19th century when Japan threw open its doors to Western influence. But never mind the European origin: the ingredients and attention to detail are thoroughly Japanese. Tonkatsu – especially when it’s kurobuta (Berkshire pork) from Kagoshima – is melt-in-your-mouth tender, served with a side of miso soup and a mountain of shredded cabbage. 

Try our version of tonkatsu pork with a delicious sauce for a simple Japanese feast.

10. Yakitori

Chicken skewers on plate
A cold beer and a few skewers of yakitori – charcoal-grilled chicken – is an evening ritual for many of Japan’s weekday warriors. Nearly every part of the chicken is on the menu, all grilled to perfection, seasoned with either shio (salt) or tare (a sweet soy sauce-based glaze) and served with a side of friendly banter.

Make our version of deliciously sticky yakitori chicken with a soy and mirin sauce. 

Check out our top 10 foods to try in Tokyo for more delicious Japanese cuisine as well as our ultimate foodie guide to Tokyo

A fan of Japanese cuisine? Do you agree with our selection, or have we missed your favourite? Share your must-try dishes below…

Comments, questions and tips

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23rd Jun, 2017
Quintisentialy Japanese but much cliche'd is raw fish or sashimi. For those in the know it need not be just fish. On my last trip to Tokyo I sought out as much as I could find. This means whale, horse, chicken, in fact everything which I could not expect to find in the UK. The one thing I missed was pork. There is apparently just one venue for that & I ran out of mealtimes ! Sashimi of fish is a favourite with me. In fact, I think that cooking fish most often spoils seafood. I have been a seafood fanatic for the last 1/2 century and have eaten it in preference to meat most of the time in my travels around the world, going Japanese whenever possible. This is important as no-body understands fish better than the Japanese and the fact that they have a mania for freshness does help. To miss sashimi seafood from the list is, I think, a cardinal error. OK sushi usually uses raw fish but the clean, fresh taste of good sashimi does not need to have the sushi component.
21st Jan, 2017
yassss i love japanese food and agree to all of this
29th Apr, 2016
This is a nice article for anyone interested in Japanese food. There are a couple of errors however. First, Uni is NOT sea urchin roe. It is sea urchin. Roe is eggs. It is the creature itself that you eat. I know this is a bit picky, but Kaiseki Ryori is not a dish. It is an approach to preparing and presenting food. From Wikipedia: Kaiseki (懐石 ) or kaiseki-ryōri (懐石料理 ) is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. The term also refers to the collection of skills and techniques that allow the preparation of such meals, and is analogous to Western haute cuisine. Other than that, it is nice introduction to Japanese cuisine.
23rd Mar, 2015
I have to agree with everything KMS114says. Kobe beef was incredible (way better than ShabuShabu).. as was Tsukamen/taskumen soba noodles.. You have to try the OoTorii, it's worth the extra money. Luckily I am here now and have still 2 weeks to find more delicious food. On your list I have only Tonkatsu Kaiseki and Ramen to go! ;))
25th Sep, 2014
great article - I visited Japan earlier this year on a foodie quest to eat my body weight in sushi! I managed to cross out most of the foods listed here. A 6am sushi breakfast at the Toyko fish market is a must for sushi fans. It is worth keeping in mind though that true Japanese sushi is very different from the sushi we get in the UK, with the focus being on the flavour of the raw, fresh fish - so most of the sushi is simple rice with fish on top (nigiri), rather than elaborate sushi rolls. The real suprise for me was sea eel, which wasn't expecting to like but it was delicious, served tempura style from a food market in Kyoto. There are lots of different types of ramen, my favourite was tasukamen, where the noodles are served cold on the side and are then dipped into the hot soup. The one highlight you've missed here is kobe beef - maybe the best steak I'll ever eat in my life (unless I go back to kobe!)
26th Feb, 2015
Hi, I am a student at the Gilbert school and I am studying Japanese cuisines and this was a very useful website for me. I was wondering if there were anymore traditional or popular foods in Japan? Thank you!
29th Apr, 2016
When you go to Japan and you want to eat the best beef, some people will swear by Kobe beef. However most people here in Japan prefer Matsusaka beef. Almost no one in the US knows about it, because it is not exported. For the record, most of the "Kobe beef" sold in the US is not real Kobe beef. In 2009 the USDA banned the import of Kobe beef. Beginning in 2012, limited shipments were allowed but it was not until 2013 that Kobe beef began to be shipped regularly to the US. Even now however only nine businesses in America serve legitimate Kobe, according to the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association. Please come to Kobe and eat some of the best beef you have ever had. But be prepared to open your wallet. It does not come cheaply.