Did anyone else gawp in bemusement during last week’s opening episode of the 2016 Great British Bake Off, when Paul and Mary appeared never to have heard of matcha? No? Just me then. I accept I may be on one end of the spectrum (stark raving matcha mad) but as two of the country’s leading celebrity bakers, I certainly didn’t expect them to be on the other.
It did help me to re-frame my perspective though as frankly, unless you fall into the categories of (a) world foodie (b) all-things-Japan obsessed or (c) happen to do your weekly shop at a Japanese supermarket, there is really no reason why you should know about it.
Take my mother for example: her’s is one of those “name an ingredient and you’ll find it in here” kind of larders – and even she has never had a tin of matcha powder in there.
Green tea aside, I had forgotten that I have a serious miso-glazed weakness for plenty of other dishes found in the Japanese flavour palette and not long after arriving, I found myself on an inadvertent mission to sample as many as possible of the must try foods in Japan (trickier than you may imagine in a two week trip and I almost never ate the same thing twice.)
Must-Try Foods in Japan
Think of this as Japan’s take on Schnitzel – breaded pork that has been fried with a tasty outer crust shielding the most tender pork meat interiors and accompanied by rice and sauce. Thanks to a tip-off from Tokyo resident and blogger Nano, we headed to Maisen Tonkatsu on our final night in Tokyo.
It was a leap of faith as we sacrificed our proposed plan to attend the bonkers Robot Show in order to sample this Tonkatsu but any intentions we had to slowly savour each mouthful fell to pieces as effortlessly as the tender Tonkatsu did in our mouths. Would we go back and play choose our night differently? Not a chance.
Parking somewhere between an omelette and a Japanese savoury pancake, we found ourselves spoilt for choice for Okonomiyaki at Hiroshima station. The fabulous thing about Japan (and many other Asian destinations) is that you don’t have to fork out on flashy restaurants to score top-notch meals.
Some of the most saliva-inducing feasts we enjoyed were found at shopping malls, train stations and shabby basement restaurants, exemplified by this Okonomiyaki, cooked on a hot plate and packed full of prawn, squid, shredded cabbage, green onions or sometimes with other meats in place of seafood – a snappy, speedy and oh-so-tasty one plate meal.
There was only one occasion in Japan when I ate noodles that weren’t submerged in broth and that was during my lunch of Yakisoba noodles at the Shibazakura Festival.
These thick buckwheat noodles with pork and vegetables were served to us straight from pan to plastic plate and lent all the insulation I needed to compensate for being under-wrapped for the chilly mountainous air.
For those who eat neither fish nor meat, sustaining a diet of traditional Japanese cuisine during your Japan visit may prove tricky and will certainly take some planning but vegetarians, fear not – tofu is your friend and is found in abundance. Find it fried or steamed, battered or soaked in broth; personally I love them all and even if the very idea of soya-based, cuboid food makes you wince, the silky satin feel of authentic Japanese tofu may just sway you.
A famed street food from Osaka, Takoyaki was the one and only item from this list that I had never heard of or come across until I arrived in Japan.
Another one to shy away from if you are averse to seafood, the substance of these spherical snacks is not dissimilar to Okonomiyaki in the way they are made from a batter, this time poured into round moulds.
The key ingredient in Takoyaki is chopped or minced octopus and these savoury rounds are typically served with a drizzle of mayonnaise and a dusting of dry fish flakes.
Pumpkin devoured these but I must admit they weren’t to my liking, primarily as I’ve never been one for eight-legged food. 😀
Sushi & Sashimi
What is any kind of round-up of must-try Japanese foods without sushi and sashimi?! In London, I have a tendency to veer towards fanciful, colourful, innovative Maki rolls.
In contrast, in Japan, there is a simplicity to the sushi and sashimi with the emphasis on quality, flavour and preparation of the fish without the distraction of other ingredients and accompaniments.
From conveyor belt sushi in Osaka to an early morning sushi breakfast at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and even to the takeaway boxes of sushi we would grab for our Bullet Train lunches, my only regret about the sushi in Japan was not having more of it!
Fellow foodies and Japanese cuisine addicts may be horrified to hear that the first time I ever tried Ramen was 4 months ago in Osaka. Whilst there is no better place to break my Ramen virginity than in Japan itself, I suspect the bar has now been set so high that nothing will ever live up to it again. And for those of you still to break your Ramen celibacy, it comes in a variety of styles and forms but in essence, is a form of noodle soup, often served with a pork topping.
I have never warmed to the concept of noodle soups but after the first spoon full of mouthwatering pork Ramen on our final night in Japan, I quickly realised that you never quite know till you try!
Vegetables are the one food group that I find lack most from my diet during my travels but I hoped I was taking in at least one of my five a day (albeit fried) when I bit into the powdery soft pumpkin centre encased within the crispy exterior shell of the pumpkin korroke (that’s croquette to you and I.) And this time I am talking about literal pumpkin rather than my Pumpkin!
Nasu Goma Aubergine
That’s not to say all my vegetables arrived in deep-fried form. Nasu Goma, for example, is a dish I order just about everywhere I spot it and Japan was no exception. The sleek, grilled layers of aubergine (or eggplant if you’re that way inclined) come glazed with a Miso gloss.
Whilst this one and the next one are some of the better known Japanese dishes you may already be familiar with, they undoubtedly remain among my favourites. A well-made tempura batter encases its filling (typically seafood or vegetables) with such a light lift that I found myself wondering if my prawn was about to levitate gracefully into the atmosphere.
With most fried foods, the richness takes its toll on your appetite after a few mouthfuls but rather dangerously, with the airy quality of tempura, these safeguards against greed no longer hold true. After a night of sleep at Tokyo Airport, I cannot begin to describe how satisfying and comforting our tempura meal was as our first dinner in Japan.
With Gyoza, we didn’t even attempt to apply the brakes. Having managed to beat the queues at Harajuku Gyozaro, queues that elongated within minutes of us taking our seats, we took more of a “eat gyoza like it’s your last meal on earth” approach with a mix of boiled and pan-fried Gyoza.
Unsurprisingly from the title of the restaurant, these bite-size dumplings are all they serve and they have honed it down to a fine art. If you are seeking a good plate of these pork filled Gyoza dumplings in Tokyo, this is a great find right in the heart of the Harajuku area.
Another street food favourite in Japan are the Yakitori, conventionally grilled chicken that has been skewered, seasoned and cooked on charcoal grills.
On the streets of Tokyo and Osaka, these were a perfect informal bite after a long day of sightseeing but we could perhaps have been accused of being a little un-adventurous by sticking with conventional cuts of chicken and not opting for the array of innards and cartilage on offer for more thrill-seeking diners!
Kaiseki Dinner Experience
When I recently shared some of my top travel tips for Japan, I made reference to the fact that our Ryokan stays were by far the most memorable of our visit and Kaiseki dining is to a Ryokan what glamorous dining is to an iconic 5 star hotel. These traditional, intricately-presented, multi-course Japanese menus are filled with numerous small items, cooked with subtle, simple flavours from an array of differing culinary techniques.
Of course, it is not imperative to stay in a Ryokan to partake in a Kaiseki meal with many restaurants serving Kaiseki cuisine but served in the comfort of your own Ryokan room, the in-room Kaiseki dinner experience escalates the concept of a room service meal to an entirely new level of elegance and tradition.
It is an absolute must-do during a visit to Japan, particularly in Kyoto, a city that harbours a loyal allegiance to the Kaiseki traditions.
Fine Dining Experience
You remember earlier when I said that you don’t need to do the whole fine dining thing to get a great meal in Tokyo? Well, you don’t – but it’s still exciting to don a frock
and a pair of heels occasionally right?
We decided to try out one glamorous dining experience during our time in Tokyo and chose the Kozue restaurant at the Park Hyatt, a hotel made famous after its eminent presence in the film, Lost in Translation. I am a bit of a hopeless romantic and time and again during my online searches for “romantic restaurants in Tokyo”, the name Kozue kept recurring. Plus, it was really near our hotel and I can’t walk in heels so it was a no-brainer.
With a dazzling view of the Tokyo skyline seen from our window-side seat on the 40th floor of the hotel, we ordered from a multi-course menu of contemporary Japanese cuisine, which mostly, we loved but at times felt a little bit too experimental even for (amateur) Japanese food fans like us.
As with most skyline-view restaurants, you pay for the view as well as the food so this meal ended up costing more than all the other ones combined but it was worth it to dabble in the vibe of Japan’s swanky, high-end dining.
The Ones That Got Away – Wagyu Beef and Puffer Fish
The 15th inclusion is a little cheeky on my part as however “must try” they are, I left without trying them! I don’t eat beef at all so it was a no to the Wagyu and I don’t like my food to be fatal so I took a rain check on the puffer fish but considering we were there for less than a fortnight, I was fairly content with achieving 15 of the best must-try dishes in Japan.
And for those of you astute enough to be wondering why all the matcha has disappeared into the ether after I shamelessly devoted the entire introduction to it – I owe its absence to the fact that when I reached the end of this post and looked at the approximate word count, I simply couldn’t bring myself to push your reading limits any further by doubling its length with my dessert hit list. My Japanese sweet treat guide will be on its way to you shortly! 🙂
Do you have a taste for Japanese food? What would you add to this list?
Part of a monthly travel blog link up with Emma, Angie, Jessi and Tanja
54 thoughts on “15 Foods You Must Try in Japan”
I had matcha ice-cream in my hometown. To be honest if it weren’t for the blog world I wouldn’t have heard of it either! so I was surprised when I saw it in one tea room:)
Ooh yummy, I love matcha ice cream and actually had a go at making it myself at home with the ice cream maker! Turned out ok but I still prefer the ones you get in Japanese restaurants 🙂 Thanks so much for reading Tanja!
you made it? cool!:)
Loved this post! I wish we’d had time to try Kozue as the menu looked amazing! Those Kaiseki dinners in Japan were out of this world!
Thanks so much Angie, that’s so sweet of you to say 🙂 I completely agree about Kaiseki dinners – they’re so unlike any type of dining experience I’ve had before and such a great way of sampling so many different flavours and techniques! It’s so hard narrowing down restaurant choices in Tokyo isn’t it?! I had a list as long as my arm of places that I wanted to pick for the fine dining experience. If only I’d have had a bit more time and less jam-packed days in Tokyo!
It’s funny because I’m having a dinner at Japanese restaurant tomorrow evening. I’m planning to have some takoyaki and sushi, of course. I can’t really forget my first visit to Japan and how good the local food tasted there. Missing it so badly right now!
Thanks for including some veggie options there! I did struggle to eat proper Japanese food without any meat or fish and did have to resort to sandwiches in Starbucks once or twice…
Oh I do feel for you because my hubby and I said many times during our visit that it must be quite a hard place for veggie people to really enjoy food. Even lots of the veggie sounding dishes came with fish broth so I can see how you might have had to resort to Starbucks in the end! Hope you enjoyed Japan despite this though 🙂
Yes I did, though there were a few encounters with fish broth which I just couldn’t manage. We joined a tour after a week in Tokyo and had a Japanese guide which made all the difference. My Japanese just wasn’t up to the task!
I basically want to commit each and every single one of these images and descriptions to memory… actually salivating!!! As I mentioned, we are carefully plotting a plan to spend a couple of months exploring Japan (basically my dream come true) so fingers crossed we can pull it off!
You’re basically living out my dream come true too Connie, I’m not even remotely jealous 😀 I totally fell in love with Japan, so much more than I ever anticipated I would and having a couple of months there will really allow you to see at the pace and with the coverage that just isn’t possible in shorter time frames. And oh my word, we ate Japanese food virtually lunch and dinner every day and barely scratched the surface yet never once got bored or saturated with it – you are in for a foodie paradise, brace yourself!
I adore sushi and sushimi but I’d not heard of matcha until bake off and I’m a Ramen virgin too (really at my age!). After reading your post I’d go to Japan for the food alone…
Hehe, don’t be so hard on yourself Suzanne, I don’t even think I fully knew what Ramen was till I got to Japan! And I always think of myself as a Japanese food fan but obviously still had and still have a lot to learn! Now that Paul and Mary have introduced you to matcha, go try it in some desserts – it’s bit of an acquired taste that seems to divide people like Marimte but I’m hoping you’ll join my camp 🙂
This blogpost is making me SO hungry, thanks love! 😀
Haha, sorry Em, didn’t mean to make you starving but you can consider it payback for all the brunch/afternoon tea posts that have left me cursing my carton of soup at lunchtimes!!
OK. Fair is fair I guess!
Oh wow they they delicious I love Japanese food! Need to try Okonomiyaki next!
It’s deceptively filling Becky but just so hearty, piping hot and comforting!
I absolutely love okonomiyaki and gyoza! Experiencing the authentic Japanese version has set the bar so high, it’s hard not to compare when I eat the dishes in NZ!
We don’t eat pork or beef so also found it a little hard to experience some of the cuisine. I’ve recently gone vegetarian but there so many delicious veg alternatives out there 😉 I’m really looking forward to your Japanese sweet treat guide!
Aww thanks Priti – I’ll try not to wait too long before getting the dessert guide out. Not everyone is fond of Japanese style desserts but I personally really like the flavours they incorporate 🙂 Gyoza and Okonomiyaki are two of my favourites as well and especially with Okonomiyaki, it’s hard to find places that do a really authentic one here in London too – though I’m hoping to have some fun discovering through trial and error!
Shikha, you are so sweet, thank you so much for the feature. 🙂 Loved reading about your Japanese foodie adventures and you just inspired me to try korroke, which I still haven’t sampled! xoxo, nano | http://www.travelwithnanob.com
Oh not at all Nano, thank YOU for telling us about Maisen Tonkatsu! I honestly never would have imagined breaded pork would be my thang at all, as really not the sort of description that would have appealed but we went with your suggestion and we both devoured our meals. It was so tasty in fact that we barely said a word to each other as the food was too good to get distracted by other things – utterly melt in the mouth food!! 🙂
I’m so happy you loved it! 🙂
This is a great blog post – I love Japanese food! Matcha is so trendy now but there are still a lot of people that have not come across it 😉 I really liked seeing it on the British Bake Off.
Thank you so much for your kind comment Miriam! I’m glad it came up on Bake Off, as hopefully, it’ll help spread the matcha love! You’re right though, as lots of my own non-foodie friends have never heard of it either. I personally can’t get enough of matcha stuff 🙂
I really shouldn’t have read this before eating my dinner- mouth watering! I adore Japanese food! Only tried some of these during my Tokyo trips though – an excuse to speed up a return visit!
Well I had these illusions that a nearly fortnight long trip would be more than enough to have all the Japanese foods I love and then to go back and do it all again with my favourites – but I hadn’t clocked on to just how many dishes and items there were and as a result, many things we tried, we could only try once! Japan is a foodie paradise isn’t it?! I too would happily go back for that reason alone!
Yay I’m glad to see that I ate most of those when I was in Japan! But I didn’t have a Kaiseki experience, or a high end meal experience! I find it so odd too that celebrity chefs wouldn’t have heard of matcha! But maybe it’s because I was lucky to live in Los Angeles, where it’s truly a melting pot of a city, so matcha seemed like something you can find everywhere, even as a regular frozen yogurt flavor in Yogurtland!
Oh wow, I really didn’t know it was such a melting pot in LA Anna!!It’s really started to take off in London in the last year (it was around before that for a while but only in select Japanese restaurants/supermarkets and a few ice cream places etc but it’s become really fashionable recently with London instagrammers all over it and lots of new matcha flavours opening up!) It’s great for matcha lovers like me but lots of my own friends hadn’t heard of it either. I think sometimes, because I’m so into world foods and flavours, I sort of forget that many people really just aren’t and I guess they would have no reason to have heard of matcha in the same way that I’ve probably not heard of the names of lots of car parts or something else like that that I’m not at all interested in! 😀
Oh my word! That all looks absolutely amazing! I am actually thinking of planning a trip to Japan so when I saw your post on the Linkup I had to check it out. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Oh Natalie, I hope you do get to go! Have you been before? If not, I can’t rave about it enough. It was my first visit this year and it exceeded all my expectations and the food! Despite eating nothing but Japanese food pretty much the entire time there, I still found myself ordering sushi for dinner about 5 days after being back in London 😀
Fantastic post Shikha! I’m totally obsessed with pumpkin korroke too (Yo Sushi of all places used to dish up a mean one), nasu miso and *all* the matcha (as you well know 😉 ) but having read your post, I’m clearly just scratching the surface of Japanese wonders! Okonomiyaki sounds intriguing, I wonder if I can find a veggie version hmmm… xx
Thank you Ayushi! I’m so pleased to hear you liked this post, especially as I love reading your foodie round ups so much 🙂 I’ve been to Yo Sushi a few times but don’t think I’ve ever tried the Pumpkin Korroke there so must remember that tip next time and I’m sure there must be some veggie Okonomiyaki around somewhere, where they stuff it full of veg and perhaps tofu. I went to a place in London many yrs ago called Abeno in Russel Sq that did great Okonomiyaki so that may be one worth looking up!
I’m so glad to hear you enjoy my posts too! Going to pop Abeno on my list, Russell Sq is super close to work so should be easy to check out 🙂 xx
Lovely pictures! I especially like the photos of the “fine-dining” food you ate – it’s stunning 🙂
Thank you so much! That restaurant was just such a breathtaking setting with those views over Tokyo and the food was just so beautifully presented too 🙂
Ooh I love yakitori, I wish I could find a good one in London. If you find one, let me know, Shikha!
They are so tasty aren’t they Suze?! Hmmm I’m scratching my head now to think of where in London does a good one. I recently had a nice one at Chi Kitchen on Oxford Street but there have definitely be others – I shall let you know if they come back to me 🙂
A rain check on the puffer fish?! You need to live a little!
Haha…just kidding. This post makes me want to run to the nearest (amazing) Japanese restaurant. Since a trip to Japan is unfortunately not in the near future. Great roundup of all the classics, and there were definitely a few, new ones on your list too!
Haha, no you are right Heather, it was definitely a little boring on my part but there were so many things I actually wanted to try and we were running out of meal slots so I thought I’d put them to good use trying things I still wanted to try – like Ramen for example! I love Japanese food too and we eat it a lot here so it was nice to still find lots of new dishes out there that we’d never heard of or tried before 🙂
okonomoyaki. why? I tried it a few times. Never a pleasant experience! Tonkatsu on the other hand is heavenly!
Totally with you on the Tonkatsu Andy! But I actually really like Okonomiyaki but I can totally see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea though!
Okay so some of these actually sound and look quite appetising so maybe I could find some local food I liked it I ever visit Japan. I’m quite keen to try some more matcha too after trying some of your yummy cheesecake!
I told you there would be some of it you’d probably like!! I think the misconception lots of people have (that I used to have too) is that it’s all raw fish and seafood but even of you don’t like that at all, there are plenty of other tasty choices! And I’d be very happy to find a new matcha dessert buddy in you to traipse around all the new matcha places opening up around London! ☺
Nice! I like visual descriptions! We’re off to Japan in a month where we’ll be for 7 weeks during which time we hope to become Japan food experts 🙂
By the way, didn’t know the Hyatt was the site of Lost in Translation. Spanky loved that movie so I think we may pay it a visit if only for a drink.
I’m so jealous that you guys are going for so long as I completely fell in love with Japan and there is so much more I would love to see and do there one day! Aaah if Lost on Translation is a top pick of Spanky’s, then definitely pop into the bar at the Park Hyatt for a drink – it’s the bar where the 2 main characters on the movie met & is shown a few times! I watched the film for the first time before going and am keen to see it again now that I’ve seen some of those areas. I’m excited about reading your posts in the next few weeks and months about Japan & hope you have a great time there! ☺