Japanese cuisine is diverse, encompassing traditional, modern and regional dishes, with a focus on seasonal ingredients. While you may sometimes come across something eyebrow raising, it is virtually impossible to have a bad culinary experience in Japan. Here are 15 things to try on your next adventure in Nippon.

Shabu-Shabu

via Website


This Japanese hot pot dish (or nabemono) is cooked at the dinner table in a savory boiling broth. While the star ingredient is beef, cooked in paper-thin slices, it is also possible to find versions with crab, lobster, chicken or pork. Assorted dishes of vegetables and meats are brought to your table so you can cook them all together. You will easily find shabu-shabu specialty restaurants throughout Japan, such as Mo-Mo Paradise in Tokyo. Perfect for a social dinner with friends, shabu-shabu is a feast for the eyes as well as the mouth.

Mo-Mo Paradise, 8F Humax Pavilion 1-20-1 Kabukicho Shinjuku 160-0021, Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-3208-0135; 
mo-mo-paradise.com

 

Tea

Photo by Cole Hutson


Probably more than in the United Kingdom, tea — especially green tea — is big in Japan. An important element of Japanese culture, it is consumed everywhere, and mostly served for free in restaurants, just like water. But if you get a chance, head to a teahouse to attend a tea ceremony. Matcha tea, the star element of the ceremony, is considered the highest grade of green tea. It has strong grassy flavors and is often paired with traditional sweets called wagashi, made of sweet azuki bean flour.

Nakajima-no-ochaya, 1-1 Hama-rikyu Teien, Chuo-ku 104-0046, Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-3541-0200; teien.tokyo-park.or.jp

 

Taiyaki

Let us introduce the mighty taiyaki, a popular street food you will see often at festivals and during the winter. This fish-shaped treat is actually a pancake-style sweet stuffed with sweet red bean paste. Other filling options include chocolate, custard and sometimes sweet potatoes.

 

Tonkatsu

Photo by City Foodsters via Flickr


Tonkatsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet eaten with sweet brown sauce. Heavy and rich, it is often paired with a mountain of shredded cabbage and miso soup. The dish dates from the late 19th century, when the country finally opened its doors to the Western world. 

Marugo, 1-8-14, Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku 101-0021 Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-3255-6595

 

Okonomiyaki

Meaning “grilled as you like,” okonomiyaki seems at odds with the typical idea of Japanese food being refined and elegant. This savory pancake, made popular in the West through the manga Ai Shite Knight, consists of batter and cabbage and includes a variety of toppings, such as fish flakes, dried seaweed, a sauce similar to Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise. What's most fun about it is that in most okonomiyaki restaurants, you get to grill yours on a hot plate (teppan) built into the table. 

Osakaya, 1-17-12 Kabukicho, B1F, Shinjuku 160-0021, Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-3209-0760

 

Udon

It is virtually impossible to write an article on Japanese cuisine without mentioning noodles. Made of wheat flour, udon is a thick noodle that's part of many hot and cold dishes. Available throughout Japan, it is usually served in a broth or with a sauce. Don’t be shy with the slurping, as it's meant to enhance the flavors and helps cool down the noodles.

Menme, 68 Honmachi, Himeji 670-0012, Hyogo Prefecture. +81 79 225 0118

 

Onigiri 

Photo by Cyclonebill via Flickr


If you plan to explore Japan, you are bound to take the train a lot. Since you may not always be able to grab a bento lunch before wheeling away, one of the best options for a quick snack is onigiri. Available in convenience stores and fast-food joints, onigiri are rice balls usually shaped in triangles, though they are also available in circular shapes as well. Often stuffed with fillings such as salted salmon or umeboshi (pickled plum), these babies will make you feel like you’ve instantly been transported into a manga — and give you reason to use some of those emojis you neglect.

 

Ramen

A popular late-night meal in Japan, ramen is a dish of wheat noodles served in a salty broth. While it was imported from China, the Japanese brilliantly made it their own. The noodles can be adorned with all manner of toppings, and are often paired with a variety of side dishes, including gyoza dumplings, another Chinese import.  

Motenashi Kuroki, 1F Yonren Bldg. 3rd 2-15 Kanda Izumicho, Chiyoda 101-0024, Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-3863-7117

 

Curry

You may be surprised to learn that Japanese curry is a thing. This dish, called raisu karē/karē raisu, was brought to the country by the British navy in the late 19th century. But don't mind the origin, as the Japanese demonstrate once more than they can make anything their own. You will find a plethora of curry dishes in Japan, such as kare udon, with udon noodles in a curry-flavored broth, and kare nanban, the same with thin buckwheat soba noodles. Things get serious when you try the raisu kare topped with tonkatsu.  

 

Sake

Contrary to popular belief, sake actually refers to alcohol in general and not just to rice wine. What we Westerners understand as sake is actually called nihonshu by the Japanese. Made from fermented rice, this alcoholic beverage is served in all restaurants and bars, though your best bet for a unique sake experience is to pop by a traditional sake bar, where, if you are lucky enough, you may be able to find an English-speaking staff who will gladly help you decide. Or you may just have your own Lost in Translation moment while enjoying a local institution.

Hana Sake Bar, 1-8-4 Nishishinsaibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka 542-0086, Osaka Prefecture. +81 6-6484-7896; hanasakebar.com

 

Tempura

Photo by Jenn via Flickr


Another popular dish in Japanese cuisine is tempura, which refers to pieces of seafood and vegetables lightly battered and deep fried. Fun fact that you should mention at your next dinner with friends is that tempura was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese during the 16th century. But as we've seen, the Japanese refined it over the centuries to make it their own. Often served as a main dish, tempura can also be eaten a side dish or as a topping in noodle dishes and rice bowls. 

Juunidanya, 570-128 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto 605-0074, Kyoto Prefecture. +81-75-561-1655

 

Yakitori

The Brazilians have churrasco, the Greeks souvlaki, Southeast Asians satay. The Japanese have yakitori. This cooking style involves grilling skewers of chicken (and vegetables) over a charcoal flame. Usually enjoyed with a tall glass of beer, yakitori is served in specialty restaurants as well as traditional izakaya (informal gastropubs) and at food stands during festivals.

 

Teppanyaki

Photo by Naka7a via Flickr


With humble origins in Tokyo, teppanyaki cooking, which involves cooking meat, seafood, veggies, rice and noodles on an iron griddle, quickly gained fame abroad. While you may have been to teppanyaki-style restaurants across the world, you should nonetheless try it Japan. Expert chefs put on a show that turns the whole dining experience into a performance.  

 

Sushi 

Yes, Japanese cuisine is far more than sushi this list is a confirmation of that fact. However, we believe you cannot go to Japan and not eat sushi. While you may not want to rise early to go to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market to enjoy the freshest sushi you will ever try (although we recommend you do it), you can easily find tasty options throughout the country. And while you’re at it, have a go at uni, or sea urchin. Technically, a sea urchin's gonads. Just saying.  

Sushiya, 6-3-17 Ginza Chuo 104-0061, Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-3571-7900

 

Kobe Beef 

Photo by Scott Wang via Flickr


For many meat lovers, it doesn't get much better than Kobe beef. Get ready to splurge, as this intensely marbled beef, made from the Tajima strain of Wagyu cattle, costs a lot. But anyone who has tried the real deal will tell you that it's worth the price.

Kagurazaka-shinsen, 1F, Yashio-Bldg. 5-32 Kagurazaka Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825, Tokyo Prefecture. +81 3-5225-1616; kagurazaka-shinsen.com


By Ethel Dilouambaka

Polyglot, translator, adventure seeker, food enthusiast. Always amazed by the gift of love she receives daily, Ethel enjoys spending quality time with friends and family. There's usually a certain amount of eating and drinking involved.