The Must Eat Foods While Traveling in Japan For a Virtual Food Tour
Are you scared about eating the food in Japan? Is that one of your main concerns on your upcoming trip to Japan? Maybe you love sushi but are really scared about some of the stories you've heard of friends that have come back from Japan talking...like natto. Don't worry! This post has got you covered with all of the popular, touristy, traditional foods that you are likely to see in Japan. These are all foods that I've tried myself and I will be giving you my sincere opinions on them. I will give a brief description of each of the foods along with how pricey it might be if it's a location specific cuisine, and how popular it is with local Japanese. Enjoy!
Sushi is number one.
Sushi is probably the most iconic, traditional, Japanese cuisine is known to the rest of the world. Pictured is unagi or eel sushi from Yajima sushi in Shibuya, Tokyo. There are some forms of sushi that can be found in local convenience stores like 7-Eleven or Lawson or family mart that local Japanese eat, however, most sushi restaurants are for special occasions or for travelers because it tends to be higher priced.
Unlike in America, sushi in Japan often comes in individual pieces more than rolls, allowing you to try many different flavors. Often times, a true sushi chef will already have the wasabi inside the sushi and will not want you to dip it in soy sauce. However just enjoy your food! And if you want to dip yours in soy sauce or lather on the wasabi, go right ahead! For those of you not aware, sushi is a piece of raw fish on top of vinegar rice and is often served cold and quickly after the fish has been sliced for freshness. Tip: it should never taste or smell fishy!
Miso Soup is number two.
Pictured is crab miso soup from Tsukiji. Miso soup is one of the most common soups in Japan and will often be served alongside a set meal or before sushi. Miso is created from a fish broth called dashi along with a fermented miso or soybean paste. There can often be other ingredients as well such as mushrooms, tofu, green onions, and fancy flavors like crab as well. Tip: never assume that everything served in your soup is edible. At nice restaurants like Sushi Dai, they may put fish bones in your soup to add flavor to the broth but you would never want to eat those. Miso soup prices are highly variable, but usually, it is one of the most inexpensive options on the menu.
Bread is number three.
Now I know this fresh carb option makes many of you very excited :-) and it should! Japan often gets a bad rap for only serving fish or raw food or fermented food. But if you are in any decently sized city in Japan you will be able to find some fresh bakeries containing a wide selection of fresh bread from sweet to savory. For an example of some of the bread flavors you might see here's a list: octopus bread (pictured above), apple bread, melon bread (named such for the shape not the taste), white bread, curry bread. It is rare to see lots of nuts in Japanese bread and they will often use white flour or rice flour more than heavier flours like wheat. Tip: The word for octopus is taco in Japanese. So if you don't like octopus, don't get taco. Bread choices are also on the inexpensive end. And one of the best things about bread is that you can choose a variety and share with your friends and family.
Fruit is number four.
Fruit can be expensive as I'm sure many of you have been told or have seen crazy pictures of the mangoes that cost $80. However, there's a wide selection of fruit and often times the high-priced fruit is served in the basement food court of fancy department stores. When a fruit is in season, usually you can find well-priced options at local convenience stores and even at restaurants. However there will be a wide variety available so if you see some expensive options, look nearby and see if they have any cheaper ones that might be packaged a little bit less perfectly. Japanese fruit art is amazing and I hope you get to try some. Tip: melons and mangos tend to be some of the most expensive fruits. One of my favorite is the peaches from Yamanashi.
Sake is number five.
Pictured above is blueberry Sake that we were able to taste during a sushi tour in Tsukiji. I know it's not technically food, but I wanted to include it because of its popularity in Japan. A rice wine that can be flavored or not and is often kept in large barrels or casks with kanji on them. You may pass by them on sidewalks in parks like Yoyogi Park. Priced in the normal range of typical wines, it tends to be a little bit more than soft drinks and a little bit less than foreign drinks. There are lots of sake tasting tours in Tokyo and Kyoto. But I suggest only trying sake with some sort of food. Oh yes, the sake cups are similar to the shape and size of shot glasses.
Mochi is number six.
Pictured is homemade mochi (much larger than typical because of my lack of rolling skills) with ground toasted sesame seeds and some water for handling. A pounded rice cake basically is mochi. It has a slight sweetness from the rice that really not a lot of other flavor and the texture is more sticky. The toasted sesame seed side is very common in Japan, but you might also see flavored mochi in various colors: strawberry is usually pink, Matcha green tea is usually green, and taro root is normally black or purple. Definitely an inexpensive snack that can be found at a convenience store.
Breakfast foods are number seven.
I wanted to keep this list more specific, but just to cover my bases I thought I would add a section on breakfast. Breakfast can mean adding a salad to eggs and toast, or it can mean hot rice with seaweed sheets, and a raw egg for dipping. I also tried that traditional breakfast version in Karuizawa. Breakfast tends to be more savory which is more common outside of America.
Grilled fish is number eight.
Salted and usually smaller fishes that can be eaten whole such as this week fish, it can be found well priced at a restaurant or in a grocery store as long as they are in season, salt is usually one of the only additions when cooking. Sweet fish is also often served on a skewer at festivals or as a course at a nice restaurant.
Crepes are number nine.
Crepes are very popular and not traditional food in Japan. Common in the younger generation and tourist areas it is one of the most popular things to do at Takeshita street in Harajuku. And creperies can be found all over the country with lots of different flavors and usually models showing all of the ingredients. They are well priced for a snack, but they are not commonly seen in restaurants but are frequently at festivals or pop-up shops. Gelato (pictured below from Hakodate) is also becoming increasingly popular and is usually found nearby the crepes.
Starbucks is number ten.
Mentioning Starbucks should give many of you hope that regardless if you like Japanese food or not, you will be able to eat something and probably have free Wi-Fi. The Starbucks pictured above was up inHokkaido. I had been traversing the city and found the Starbucks on Hakodate Bay The menu honestly looked pretty much the same as America except the Starbucks was probably three or four times the size of the kind I'm used to. I got my scone and black coffee, went upstairs, and found an outdoor terrace. I sat down about ready to munch into my warmed scone, and a seagull flew down and grabbed my entire scone right out of my hand an inch away from my mouth. Tip: if you're going to eat a scone outside, be careful of the birds. The local Japanese do seem to like Starbucks, and the prices seem pretty similar to America.
Sea urchin is number eleven.
All around Japan, see urchin is mostly found at fish markets. At first glance these see creatures do not look edible with all of their spikes. However, the internal side of the sea urchin is full of nutrients with a texture similar to grainy pudding and it's a fairly bright yellow as pictured. The flavor is fairly mild but the texture can be a little hard to get used to. Try it out for an adventure!
Picking your own cherries (or other fruit) is number twelve.
Because of the season, cherries are what I picked. However, there are a lot of details I wish I would've known before this experience that I will share here. Picking your own fruit is a little bit different in Japan thanit is in America. The prices are about the same as in America in that they are a little bit more than grocery stores prices because you're also paying for the experience. However, one big difference is that you are only supposed to pick what you will eat so they charge by the amount of time. When I ask for a box to take home my cherries the farmer looked very confused but got me a box anyway. And then pricing was really confusing for him. He seemed to be guessing. Specifically for cherries, I had pulled them off the stem when picking which is OK if you're going to eat them right away. But since I was putting them into a box the farmer was nervous they wouldn't taste as good later. This is a common trend and the same reason most restaurants won't offer take home boxes. They don't want you to eat their food later when it might not taste like it should. Tip: you can fit more cherries in a box without the stems but they should be eaten in a day or so and kept refrigerated. If you are traveling by public transportation and wanting to take fresh fruit with you, it is a good idea to let the farmer know ahead of time so they can accommodate you with dry ice which is widely available.
Modern Japanese lettuce salad is number thirteen.
In some of the hip neighborhoods, you might find lettuce salads, which are actually fairly rare, with some unique Japanese toppings. This salad is an example with watermelon, kabocha, and thinly sliced grilled meat, seaweed, and a sesame dressing. Unique items like this price all over the board. But they seem to be a favorite with college-aged and middle-aged Japanese people. This was served at an outside food court surrounded by food trucks in Shibuya.
Gourmet hot dogs and strawberry smoothies are number fourteen.
Similar to the lettuce salad above with unique Japanese toppings, this hot dog had a super soft egg on top of bacon, seaweed flakes, and cheese. And it was served with a strawberry smoothie with a sprig of rosemary. You can find them here in Shibuya from a food truck.
Ramen is number fifteen.
A classic in itself, ramen has made a name for itself as the cheap but savory favorite in America eaten by college kids on a tight budget. In Japan, ramen is enjoyed by all ages as a large bowl hot soup with savory meats and lots of broth. You will get choices of broth flavorings and at some restaurants you make it have a small charge for more noodles so you can keep eating the broth. Some ramen restaurants even have you order by vending machine. In Kyoto station, the ramen (in the first picture) was about ¥750, which equals about seven US dollars. Most ramen shops are about this price as well. The second picture is of Hiroshima style ramen from the famous Ramen Museum in Shinyokohama.
Omen is number sixteen.
Omen is a traditional Japanese noodle dish served hot with lots of variety of toppings that allow you to create the perfect bowl of noodles for yourself. Only put on it what you want. This picture was taken at The Sannenzaka slope in Kyoto with a Japanese friend of mine. Pricing is similar or a tad bit higher than ramen but will depend on your location. More details here.
Okonomiyaki is number seventeen.
This favorite started its popularity in Hiroshima but its popularity is pushing it to all areas of the country and even internationally. It is a savory pancake with lots of vegetables like cabbage cooked down with noodles to hold it together and a special fish/soy sauce topping. Tip: if you see something that looks like cheese on top or inside, it is probably not cheese. It could be fish flakes or mayonnaise. Never assume! This is a fast and cheap favorite for a locals dinner in Japan. Read more about my fun and not so fun times in Hiroshima.
Yakiniku is number eighteen.
Grilled meat usually served on a skewer is yakiniku. It is a very cheap option for a snack and can be often found by street vendors or little bars, or a side at a restaurant. My yakiniku pictured was yakitori from a small bar in the Golden Gai of Shinjuku. I asked also for edamame which is available in Japan, but not a common offering. Language Tips: Yaki means grilled. Niku means meat. So if you see yakitori=grilled chicken. If you see gyuniku=beef. If you see yakisoba=grilled/fried noodles.
Japanese candy is number nineteen.
Japanese candy is known for its delicate intricacy and high level of sweetness, the texture might be more gummy or more like rock sugar. The designs will be amazing and the price will definitely vary. For example, at a hydrangea festival, there were special Japanese candies shaped like little hydrangeas that were being sold for four dollars each and they were the size of a quarter. I consider that expensive no matter how gorgeous they were. They are a fun gift to give to someone and they would keep in a carry-on but I wouldn't tempt fate by putting them in the suitcase. Sugar does melt.
Classic Japanese bento box is number twenty.
This picture is a classic bento lunch served inside a traditional tea house right inside of Koishikawa Kouen. Most of the food inside is either fermented or pickled and would not require refrigeration. Common vegetables you may see are pickled daikon, burdock, and various forms of seaweed. Pickled plum is often considered a sweet favorite and might be a dark purple powder on top of your rice. Bento lunches can be between $10 and $20 usually.
Doranyaki is number twenty-one.
This is a sweet pancake that would be easy to find in Asakusa filled with a sweet red bean azuki paste. They will often be sold in street vendors and pop-up shops, and I really found hand side of restaurants. They are a great festival food!
Chawanmushi is number twenty-two.
A steamed egg mixture with fish broth, sometimes mixed with steamed mushrooms and carrots, is very good for your digestive health. I have had some of my friends complain about the fishy flavor that comes from it, however. It is often offered as a side of a typical meal and is like a savory putting with a mild fish flavor.
Salmon roe bowl is number twenty-four.
Fish eggs, known as roe, can often be eaten in this form mixing it with a vegetable like burdock, and some flaked salmon meat, over rice. I really like fish eggs like this, they have a lot of nutrients in them and they are beautiful. Pictured above is the salmon fish eggs with burdock over rice from a restaurant right next to the Tokyo National Museum in front of the teahouse. The texture might be difficult to get used to for some. If you picture something like a savory tapioca with large pearls you would be close. Because of the protein, roe would be considered a main course with a similar cost to other main courses like tempura or sushi. A friend of mine has a Japanese-American daughter who loves fish eggs so much more than other "normal" foods like chicken.
Soba and Tempura are numbers twenty-five and twenty-six.
Soba and Tempura are common favorites all over the country of Japan. Soba is a buckwheat noodle that can be served either hot or cold. I really love it chilled, or cold, because it is so refreshing in the summer. It will be served with the broth cold or hot as well. Tempura is a lightly panko crusted fried piece of either vegetables or shrimp. Tempura may also be served with a broth/sauce to dip. Soba tends to be a little bit more inexpensive than tempura, but they are both fairly cheap. Soba can be made from hand rolled noodles, however, which would increase its price.
Yuzu is number twenty-seven.
Yuzu is a fruit in Japan that is a cross between a lemon and a grapefruit. It is absolutely delicious! I recommend it to all travelers who like citrus flavors. It can come in many forms including a tea or 'cha' form which is not actually tea and has the texture of the marmalade or jam (middle in picture). It's most common form is a liquid concentrate that can be added to sauces or drinks. It can also be a flavor in candy (right in picture). Finding pure yuzu juice can be tricky because most people use it as an ingredient in other things. However, I did find a restaurant that is known for using yuzu in its entire menu. It was wonderful!
Kobe beef is number twenty-eight.
I had to list Kobe beef because of its high popularity and attention outside of Japan especially. It is fairly famous, but it is not specific enough for most Japanese people to be intrigued. Saying Kobe only refers to the area in Japan, it would be a higher quality of beef if you would ask for wagyu beef instead which means "Japanese style beef". And surprisingly this kind of beef is also not extremely expensive, small amounts in Kyoto only cost me about $20 over some rice with a few sides. Tip: there is even an all you can eat wagyu and Kobe beef restaurant in Kyoto. I have not been there yet, but I know my brothers would probably love it.
Gyoza is number twenty-nine.
A fried dumpling filled with beef, onion, and maybe some cabbage. They are delicious when made and served right away while hot. They can often be found at ramen shops. I love Gyoza and I think most tourists will have tried it before. They are inexpensive and if you like fried things, you can't go wrong. Definitely, try the sauces on the table to mix them in but be careful with the spicy option. Your waiter can gladly show you which two liquids to mix together for dipping your gyoza.
Vending machines are number thirty.
More of an honorable mention, Japan has a large amount of vending machines. I wish someone would've told me this before I went the first time, but next to each drink offering there usually is a blue or red circle which tells you if it is a hot or cold drink. For example, when I hiked Mount Fuji at the very top there was a vending machine. It was very cold, so I got the hot cocoa and it was served very hot. That same vending machine can serve you cold lemonade or ice coffee. Vending machines can also serve things other than drinks, such as undergarments in capsule hotels or onsens. And I saw a milk vending machine for various flavored milks in Karuizawa.
Tororo is number thirty-one.
I do not have any pictures of this, but I wanted to mention this because of my own experience. Tororo is a Chinese yam that has usually been mashed to a slimy substance. It is served hot and often for breakfast out of a crockpot-looking appliance. Japanese people seem to love this and top it with some soy sauce. When I tried it, I could barely swallow it because of the mucus-like texture. So I want to forewarn anyone who has an aversion to slimy food textures this might not be the best choice for you, especially for breakfast. When I realized that I didn't care for it at a Japanese hotel's continental breakfast, I didn't have a chance to learn its name. After a , ew trips I finally learned the word tororo and I have learned to avoid it when I can. But I hear that this texture can be very healthy. So if texture doesn't bother you, go ahead and give it a try. Let me know in the comments what you think!
Natto is number thirty-two.
Again an honorable mention, not though is one of those nightmare stories you might have heard from your friends. It is a fermented soy bean mixture that is meant to be warmed up stirred and eaten right away. When stirred it often binds together with the spiderweb texture. It really just taste like fermented beans so it's not as scary as others may make it sound. However, for myself, I am picky about Texter and I am not a fan of fermented beets. So I tend not to eat it. However because of its health benefits You will see many Japanese people putting it on hamburgers or eating it by itself. The only way I've been able to eat it has been mixing it with some hot rice which works pretty well.
Udon is number thirty-three.
Senbei is number thirty-four.
Umeboshi is number thirty-five.
Konnyaku is number thirty-six.
Onigiri is number thirty-seven.
Sashimi is number thirty-eight.
Tonkatsu is number thirty-nine.
Oden is number forty.
Sukiyaki is number forty-one.
Tofu Skin in number forty-two.
Shabu Shabu is number forty-three.
Gyudon is number forty-four.
Kaiseki is number forty-five.
Japanese curry is number forty-six.
Chankonabe is number forty-seven.