It’s not a secret that Japan is my absolute favorite country in the world. Over the past few years, it has become almost a second home to me – I have been visiting Tokyo twice a year for the past decade. But really, does anyone need an excuse to go to Japan?
Anyway, through my frequent visits, I’ve gathered a list of favorite things to eat in this country. This article took a long time to put together but I’m finally ready to share them with you!
- Common Terms in Japanese Cuisine
- The Holy Trinity of Japanese Cooking
- About Japanese Rice
- What to eat in Japan
Common Terms in Japanese Cuisine
Before we get into it, I’m going to list out some of the most common food terms you will see in Japan.
By themselves, these words don’t mean anything and can’t be used as-is. But when combined with each other, or paired with some other food-related words, it forms some of the well-known dishes you’ll find across Japan. Understanding these terms will help you know what you can expect from a menu item.
- Katsu (カツ) – Meat cutlet, usually deep-fried, and breaded in panko crumbs
- Age (揚げ) – Deep fried
- Yaki (焼き) – Grilled or cooked over direct heat
Types of Carbs
- Men (麺 or メン) – Refers to a noodle dish. Comes from the Chinese word “mian”, which means noodles.
- Soba (そば or 蕎麦) – buckwheat, usually refers to soba noodle which is made from buckwheat flour
- Don (丼) – Rice Bowl
Types of Protein
- Gyu (牛) – Beef
- Tori (鳥) – Chicken
- Buta (豚) – Pork
- Ton (豚) – Pork
For example – Gyudon means beef rice bowl, Torikatsu means deep-fried and breaded chicken cutlet, Butadon means pork rice bowl, and so on so forth.
Another example would be the word “men“. When you see a menu item that ends in “-men” – such as Tsukemen, Somen, or Ramen – you can expect that it will be a type of noodle dish.
The Holy Trinity of Japanese Cooking
Soy, Mirin, and Dashi – These three ingredients make up a large portion of flavors used in Japanese cooking. Let’s get to know what you’re eating:
- Soy – The type of soy sauce used in Japanese cooking is shoyu. It is different than the soy sauce you might be familiar with. Shoyu is made with soybean and wheat, slightly sweeter and lighter than other types of soy sauce you might be used to.
- Mirin – Rice wine with low alcohol content and high sugar content. It is used to add a hint of sweetness to the dish.
- Dashi – The soup stock commonly used in Japanese cooking, usually made from bonito (fish) flakes and kombu (kelp) or shiitake mushroom, It adds the umami flavor to the dish.
In fact, if you have these three ingredients in your kitchen, you’ll be able to cook many Japanese dishes at home very easily.
About Japanese Rice 🍚🌾
I know you’re starting to wonder – is she going to finally get to the point and tell me what I should eat in Japan? Okay okay, I’ll be quick, but I don’t think this is a section I could have skipped. Japanese people are SERIOUS about their rice.
Japanese rice is typically short-grain white rice. It is more sticky than other varieties of rice you might find elsewhere in the world. Due to the milling process used in Japan, it results in a rounder and shorter grain of rice with a chewy texture. They also have a different taste than other types of white rice. So, the next time you eat white rice in Japan, take a moment to appreciate its taste and texture!
There are many varieties of Japanese rice, but Koshihikari is probably the most popular variety.
What to eat in Tokyo
And finally, here are some of my must-eat dishes whenever I’m in Japan and where you can find them!
Please keep in mind that this is definitely not an exhaustive list. Within Japan itself, there will be dishes that are popular in certain regions and cities. I am only listing Japanese dishes that are popular and can be commonly found no matter where you are in Japan.
Here is a list of what you must try whenever you’re in Japan:
- Ramen 🍜
- Soba Noodles
- Sushi and Sashimi 🍣
- Kushikatsu (Kushiage)
- Okonomiyaki & Monjayaki
- Oden 🍢
- Tempura 🍤
- Ochazuke 🍵
- Japanese Curry Rice 🍛
- Onigiri 🍙
- Dango 🍡
1. Ramen 🍜
OK, let’s face it. You can’t go to Japan and not have Ramen!
Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish. It is so popular that there are many different styles of Ramen across Japan. There is shoyu (soy) ramen, shio (salt) ramen, miso ramen, tonkotsu ramen (which uses pork bone as the base of its broth), just to name a few. There are also a variety of styles for the noodles: whether it’s straight noodles or curly noodles.
The most popular style of ramen that you’ll find in Japan is Tonkotsu ramen, originated from Hakata in Fukuoka. Usually served with straight thin noodles, white milky tonkotsu broth (pork bone), chasu (pork belly) slices, negi (spring onion), nori (dried seaweed sheets), bamboo shoots and ajitsuke (seasoned) egg.
Where to eat Ramen in Tokyo
Tokyo Ramen Tour – If you’re a fan of this comforting noodle dish, definitely try this Tokyo Ramen Tour. I went on this tour during one of my visits to Tokyo. Although I’ve had plenty of ramen in my life, they were mostly Tonkotsu ramen. I learned a lot about other types of ramen from Frank’s tour.
Come with an empty stomach! Seriously, because you’ll be trying many different types of ramen during your visit – up to 6 bowls of tasting-portion ramen. I was so stuffed (but happy) by the time we were done with the tour.
➡️ Book Tokyo Ramen Tour here
Ichiran – Hakata ramen originated from Fukuoka in Kyushu region of Japan. While Hakata ramen can be found pretty much everywhere in Japan, what made Ichiran stand out from the rest is the way the dining experience here works – it is completely designed for solo diners!
From start to finish, you rarely need to interact with a human being – Ordering and payment can be done through the vending machine outside right before you fall in line for a spot in the restaurant (and there is always a line). Once it’s your turn, you won’t sit at a regular table, but you’ll sit at a single-occupancy booth instead. Your noodles would then be served through a small window in front of you. Once done, you leave – that’s it! No human interaction is needed.
Zundou-ya in Shinjuku – This is a great spot to try tonkotsu ramen. They are open 24 hours on weekends!
Kisurin – This place is famous for Tantanmen, which is a Japanese take on the famous Chinese dish “dan dan mian”. Unlike other types of ramen, the broth of Tantanmen contains sesame paste, which gives it an extra savory taste.
Afuri – A different type of ramen than what you might be used to in Japan. The broth is light and clear. It contains Yuzu, a citrus fruit commonly used in Japanese cuisine.
Tsukemen is a dry dip noodle dish, where the broth are served separately as a dipping “sauce” for the noodles. This dish was allegedly invented in Tokyo in the 1960s, so it is definitely a must-have in Tokyo!
Where to eat Tsukemen in Tokyo
Rokurinsha – made popular recently by Ugly Delicious, Rokurinsha has been a local favorite for over a decade. You can find a long snaking queue for this restaurant at the basement of Tokyo station – expect a 1-hour long queue since the place is quite tiny (seats about 15 people).
But, here’s a hack! if you’re flying from Haneda Airport, there is a Rokurinsha in the airport after immigration, and it rarely has any queue. The flavor and authenticity are preserved, so you’ll be eating the exact same thing as you would in Tokyo station. The downside is you don’t get that uniquely Tokyo vibe. I think it’s a fair trade though!
3. Soba Noodles
Soba is buckwheat, and is famous in Nagano prefecture as a rice alternative and a way to get some carbs, due to the mountainous terrain where it’s difficult to successfully grow rice. Soba became the main product of Nagano. The most popular form of buckwheat is, of course, Soba noodles!
You can have soba pretty much everywhere in Japan, and of course, in Tokyo as well. In fact, you’ll find soba commonly served as fast food in Tokyo. When you’re in a business district like Shibuya or Shinjuku, you’ll often see small eating establishments with automated tickets outside, where you can choose how you want your soba.
You can have Soba noodles in a hot soup or served cold with a broth on the side, and with various toppings. You can then take your ticket inside, and your soba will be served in less than five minutes.
Where to eat Soba in Tokyo
- Miyota in Aoyama
4. Sushi and Sashimi 🍣
Sushi is yet another type of food that’s pretty much synonymous with Japan. It’s usually a piece of raw fish, served on top of a nugget of Japanese rice that has been mixed in vinegar, and might be eaten with light soy sauce and wasabi. There are different types of sushi with the most popular being nigiri, maki, and chirashi.
Sashimi, on the other hand, is raw fish that has been sliced thinly and eaten as-is, without rice. You can then dip the sliced fish in soy sauce and wasabi, depending on what you like!
Where to eat Sushi in Tokyo
Sushi Zanmai – I know having sushi at the Tsukiji/Toyosu fish market is probably something you should do at least once while in Tokyo, but if you want to know where locals really go when they want a quick sushi fix, this is it. Yep, it’s a restaurant chain but Sushi Zanmai is everywhere in Tokyo.
Tsukiji Outer Market – Sushidai is a popular one in this area
Tonkatsu is a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet. The type of breading used in Japanese cuisine is slightly different than what you might expect. In Japanese cooking, they will often use Panko, which is breadcrumbs made from white bread and ground into thin flakes. It results in a more crispier texture than regular breadcrumbs!
Tonkatsu is usually served with miso soup, a side dish of thinly sliced white cabbage with goma (sesame) dressing, and grated radish.
Unlike its cousin Katsudon, Tonkatsu is considered a luxury dish. Many tonkatsu restaurants have received the coveted Bib Gourmand nod from Michelin.
Where to eat Tonkatsu in Tokyo
- Maisen Tonkatsu in Aoyama
- Wagokoro Tonkatsu Anzu in Ginza
- Keitei Tonkatsu in Ginza
- Katsukichi Bodaijyu in Shibuya
Gyukatsu is similar to tonkatsu, but instead of pork, it is breaded and deep-fried beef cutlets. It’s lesser popular than its cousin Tonkatsu, but the preparation and the way it’s served is pretty much the same way – breaded with panko and served with cabbage salad.
Where to eat Gyukatsu in Tokyo
- Gyukatsu Motomura
- Asakusa Gyukatsu
7. Kushikatsu or Kushiage
A popular street food originated in Osaka, Kushikatsu is a breaded and skewered vegetable and meat. Similar to tonkatsu and gyukatsu, panko crumbs are used to coat the vegetables before it is deep fried
Where to eat Kushikatsu in Tokyo
- Tatsukichi in Shinjuku
“Oya” means parents in Japanese and “ko” means children, so the literal translation of Oyakodon is “parent and children” rice bowl. This refers to the fact that the dish contains both chicken and egg, a rather grim reminder that you’re indeed eating a parent and its potential children in one bowl. But hey, it’s tasty!
Oyakodon is one of my favorite comfort Japanese meals – tender chicken with soft eggs, put over a warm bed of Japanese rice. It’s a classic and commonly made at home due to its simplicity.
Gyudon consists of very simple ingredients – thinly sliced beef, simmered with onion, in a broth of dashi, shoyu, mirin, and served over a warm bed of Japanese rice.
Much like Oyakodon, Gyudon is a comfort meal that can be found everywhere in Japan. And because it is easy to make, this is a common homemade food as well.
Where to eat Gyudon in Tokyo
10. Okonomiyaki & Monjayaki
Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake, usually cooked on a teppanyaki (iron griddle) right in front of the guests and served fresh. I love going to Okonomiyaki restaurants because they usually would have teppanyaki on every table, making it a very interactive experience.
This dish is highly customizable – “okonomi” literally means “to your preference”, because you can choose what goes inside your okonomiyaki.
In Japan, there are two popular Okonomiyaki styles – Kansai style and Hiroshima style. The Kansai style okonomiyaki is more like a pancake, with the ingredients mixed into the batter. Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki, on the other hand, would have its ingredients cooked in stages. They are both topped with okonomi sauce and kewpie mayonnaise.
In the Kanto region, there is a similar concept for savory pancakes called Monjayaki. The batter for Monjayaki is similar to Okonomiyaki, but with added dashi stock which makes it more runny.
Where to eat Okonomiyaki in Tokyo
- Hiroki in Shimokitazawa
- Okonomiyaki ZOO
Takoyaki is one of the most well-known street snacks in Japan. It’s a ball-shaped snack made from a wheat-flour-based batter with chopped-up juicy octopus tentacles and other ingredients such as ginger and green onion, grilled in a pan with hemispherical holes to help shape it into a ball. Once done, it’s served with takoyaki sauce and Japanese mayo, then topped with crispy bonito flakes.
Takoyaki is more of an Osaka thing, but you can find this snack all over Japan these days.
Where to eat Takoyaki in Tokyo
Yakitori is a skewered grilled chicken – it could be many parts of the chicken, from meatballs (tsukune), chicken thighs (momo), wings, liver, and heart.
Yakitori is often associated with izakaya, a small nightlife establishment in Japan that offers alcoholic drinks and yakitori as casual snacks that are often patronized by Japanese salarymen on Friday nights. Basically, it’s associated with fun times of winding down after a long week of work!
Where to eat Yakitori in Tokyo
13. Oden 🍲🍢
Oden is a type of nabemono, which is soup that is served while still being simmered, similar to hot pot. It often consists of different types and shapes of fishcakes, as well as radish, boiled eggs, and udon, simmered in a light soy and dashi-based broth. It’s the perfect food for cold winter nights.
14. Tempura 🍤
Tempura is deep-fried fritters made from all kinds of vegetables, and typically protein like shrimp, white fish, or chicken. The batter used for tempura is usually very light, resulting in crispy and non-oily fritters.
My favorite tempura vegetables are Japanese pumpkin (kabocha), shiitake mushrooms, and eggplants.
Where to eat Tempura in Tokyo
- Tempuraya Miyakawa in Aoyama
Ochazuke is a breakfast soup made with light broth from green tea and dashi, served over rice and topped with flaked salmon, small cuttings of nori (seaweed), and furikake (Japanese fish-based crispy condiment) for crunch. It is usually used as a way to use up leftover rice.
Where to eat Ochazuke in Tokyo
16. Japanese Curry Rice 🍛
In Japanese cuisine, there are plenty of occurrences of “japanized western food” aka Yoshoku, where the Japanese have adopted foreign (usually Western) dishes and made them into a unique dish that is completely their own, often no longer recognizable from the original.
Japanese Curry Rice, or Kareraisu, and Omurice is a popular example of this and has become a staple comfort food for many Japanese households. Often served with rice as the name implies, but it’s sometimes on offer with thick udon noodles as well.
Like Kareraisu, Omurice is a type of Yoshoku. Omurice is short for Omelette (Omu) Rice. It can be served in tomato-based sauce, or demi-glace sauce (savory beef sauce). I prefer the latter.
Omurice is usually categorized as a children’s dish because it’s usually a dish made by a mother for their small children as it’s fun to eat and tastes good.
But no one is stopping any adults from enjoying Omurice! This is actually one of my favorite Japanese dishes.
18. Onigiri 🍙
Onigiri is a quick meal that can be grabbed on the go. It’s made from steamed rice with various fillings like roasted salmon, tuna mayo, chicken karaage, and umeboshi (sour plum).
In Japan, you can find Onigiri at any konbini (convenience store). My personal favorite is roasted salmon from Family Mart.
Onigiri is convenient to be eaten by hand without any utensils needed, so it became a popular choice for picnics. During Sakura season, you’ll definitely see some homemade onigiri making an appearance at Hanami parties!
Where to eat Onigiri in Tokyo
- Onigiri Marutoyo
- Any Konbini
19. Kaiseki 🍱
When you stay in a ryokan in Japan, it is also a custom to have a Kaiseki – a multi-course traditional Japanese dinner. It is similar to fine dining in western culture, where you are served lighter dishes in the beginning, leading up to a main and dessert.
Usually, Kaiseki will use seasonal ingredients that are available locally, with an emphasis on manners and respect for the ingredients you are eating. Thus, you’ll have different Kaiseki experiences depending on where and when you are having it.
20. Dango 🍡
Dango is a traditional snack consisting of chewy balls made from rice flour. It is similar to Mochi but with a different texture and different ways of serving.
There are many types of Dango, but the most popular one is Mitarashi dango, which are grilled and served with a sweet soy-based sauce, and Hanami dango, which are colored like the sakura flowers and were traditionally eaten during Sakura season.
Hanami Dango is a dango variation with pink, white, and green and is traditionally eaten during Hanami or spring season. And yes, it’s the emoji! 🍡 The pink color comes from either the Sakura flower itself, or azuki (red beans) and the green is from green tea. It is said that the pink, white, and green symbolize the blooming Sakura, the white sky, and the green grass the trees grow on.
And that’s all for now! Wow, that was a long list… I truly hope it helped you in navigating the amazing world of Japanese cuisine.
➡️ What’s next? If you are visiting Tokyo and need a comprehensive guide, do check out my Tokyo Guide and Itinerary post! The post is optimized for first-time visitors, but I’m confident even repeat visitors can learn a thing or two from my post 😉