Japan is one of the most popular foodie destinations in the world. It comes from centuries of history and tradition, along with a balance in flavors, colors, presentations, and ingredients. This has brought the world many traditional Japanese dishes and some of the most unique food in the world.
You can find some of the most famous Japanese delicacies everywhere in the world. However, some of the more local traditional Japanese cuisines remain fairly unknown in much of the rest of the world.
Traditional Japanese dishes
Much of this food is hidden in various regions in Japan. So, we asked fellow travel bloggers about their favorite authentic and traditional Japanese dishes. Here are some of their recommendations.
A very different and authentic Japanese dish to try during your Japan trip is yuba, a specialty of Kyoto. Yuba is the skin that forms when making tofu from soybeans.
It is slightly chewier than normal tofu and has a relatively bland flavor. It’s a perfect food option for vegetarians and vegans.
Tofu and Yuba have a long history in Japan. You can purchase it either fresh or dried product; however, the fresh product is definitely superior. A great place to get yuba is at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Ask someone to direct you to a place that serves deep-fried yuba, which is sometimes fried in olive oil.
The result is hot melty yumminess (or “oishi” to use the Japanese term) which is delicious. Even non-tofu eating customers will be very happy to eat yuba in this form!
Yuba features in other Kaiseki multi-course meals at the KAI Hoshino Nikko Resort at Lake Chuzenji. They have an amazing dish – a Scallop Dumpling wrapped in Yuba with Yuzu and Chrysanthemum, which is a delight to eat!
Contributed by Anne, Japan Travel Planning
Traveling by train in Japan: Japan has some of the best trains in the world. Check out this guide to the Japan Rail pass for everything you need to know.
Dashimaki Japanese Omelet
Dashimaki is the sweet omelet version of tamagoyaki, the traditional Japanese omelet. The word Tamagoyaki translates as “grilled egg” and is a traditional Japanese dish that is cooked in a rectangular pan.
Layers of scrambled eggs are gently rolled from one end of the pan to the other, creating a cylindrical cooked egg roll.
Tamagoyaki is a traditional Japanese dish served as nigiri sushi or in sushi rolls. But it can also be served for breakfast or as the final course of a sushi dinner.
The dashimaki version of tamagoyaki is more sweet and moist because of the use of dashi, which is the base of miso soup. The dish is a mixture of eggs, soy sauce, salt, sugar, mirin (sweet rice wine) and, of course, dashi. The texture of dashimaki is also softer compared to the original version.
The extra moisture and softer texture make dashimaki more difficult to roll. To help with this, many Japanese will use a sushi mat to aid in the rolling process. Once the dashimaki cools, it becomes easier to serve and the lines from the sushi mat also add aesthetics to the dashimaki.
A Japanese restaurant can rise or fall based on how well they make dashimaki.
One of the best places to experience dashimaki in Tokyo is at Shouro Sushi. With three locations around the city, Shouro Sushi Tokyo has been perfecting the art of dashimaki for over half a century. Shouro Sushi has a range of tamagoyaki dishes, including dashimaki, with prices around $10.
Dahimaki is also a must-eat food in Osaka, Kyoto, and other food-focused Japanese cities.
Contributed by Amber, With Husband in Tow
Gyoza dumplings come from traditional Chinese cuisine, where they are called jiaozi. Although the dish is now permanently inscribed in the culinary tradition of Japan, the Japanese do not claim rights to it, calling it gyoza with Chinese dumplings.
During World War II, the Japanese, occupying the areas of Manchuria, had their own jiaozi, or crispy dumplings stuffed with meat. After returning to the country, soldiers tried to recreate the recipe using the ingredients and techniques available in their homeland. That’s how gyoza came about – Japanese dumplings from a slightly thinner dough, filled with more crumbled stuffing.
Gyoza dumplings are usually available with meat and vegetables. In addition to Western modifications (with banana or Nutella), it is difficult to find sweet versions of gyoza in Japan.
Gyoza is usually not a separate dish, but an appetizer or an addition to the main dish. Japanese people very often throw raw dumplings straight into the pan. You can bake Gyoza, but much more often they are fried – also in deep fat – or cooked by steam.
The best gyoza dumplings in Tokyo are in the neighborhood of the Tsukiji Fish Market. There are plenty of small bars for local employees, where you can find fresh and delicious gyoza.
Contributed by Marta and Milosz, Backpackers.wro
Nikuman is the Japanese take on Chinese-style steamed pork buns (also called bao buns). Traditionally, these buns have a light, fluffy and slightly sweet exterior. The stuffing contains minced pork, onions, and shitake mushrooms.
More inventive flavors are becoming popular. You can find combinations like pizza, Thai curry, and mochi cheese dumplings. What was traditionally a meat-filled bun, now also comes in vegetarian and vegan varieties, like sweet potato, mixed veggie, and black sesame paste.
Nikuman were originally introduced to Japanese cuisine in the 1990s as something cheap and quick to satisfy hunger. They became such a hit, that you can now find them at convenience stores all around the country. They are especially popular with students looking for an after-school snack, or with businessmen and women needing to grab a bite between meetings.
The best place to get your nikuman fix is at a convenience store, like 7-Eleven or Lawson. Japanese people sure do love their convenience stores. The food you’ll find inside is of much higher quality than you’d find in many other countries!
Nikuman are perfect for a quick bite during a day of exploring. Just don’t actually eat them on-the-go, as it can be rude to eat while walking in Japan.
Piping hot, these tasty snacks are best on cold days when you’re craving something warm to fill your belly. And if you’re traveling in Japan on a budget, rejoice! This filling snack will only set you back around ¥100 to ¥120 (around $1 USD).
Contributed by Katie, Two Wandering Soles
Onigiri Rice Balls
Japanese Onigiri ride balls are a traditional Japanese dish made from white rice which is shaped into a ball or triangle. The secret is the fillings, which are rich and varied.
A traditional Japanese snack of Onigiri contains salmon, ume, tuna, or any salty or sour ingredient. You’ll find a wide variety of them in convenience stores like 7-Eleven.
Onigiri is great as a snack or for lunch, as they’re portable. Think of them as the Japanese version of a sandwich – wrapped in nori, or edible seaweed.
Onigiri has been on the Japanese menu since the 11th century when they were hand-rolled. In the 1980s, machines took over the process, creating the current popular triangular shape. A machine adds the inner filling, and the nori wrap is kept separate from the rice by a plastic film. This prevents moisture wicking from the rice into the nori and making it, well, goopy.
You’ll find Onigiri for lunch in Japan in many spots. They’re easy to store, and they’re lightweight, making them fabulous Japanese snacks for hiking in places like Kamikochi National Park.
Contributed by Sarah, ASocialNomad
Kushikatsu is a traditional Japanese dish of meat, seafood, or vegetables on a skewer, covered in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried to order. The cooking of the ingredients sounds simple, but in each of the restaurants where we ate this dish, there was a similar level of skill and attention to detail by the chef.
Each individual piece of meat, seafood, and vegetable had a golden and crispy exterior, with an interior cooked to perfection.
Kushikatsu is an authentic Osaka dish. Each of the kushikatsu restaurants in Osaka had counter-only seating, with the smallest one having 7 seats. This means that the quality of ingredients and cooking have to be first-rate in order for the restaurant to be successful.
The best way to introduce yourself to the dish is to order a mixed plate, which provides a full range of textures and tastes. For example, a mixed plate might include Kushikatsu included pork, sausage, quail egg, baby corn, lotus root, okra, eggplant, and pumpkin.
All of them are delicious. You can order each Kushikatsu skewer individually. And if you have a favorite, order however many you like.
The standard kushikatsu dish comes with a plate of cabbage and a dipping sauce that is sometimes communal. So be sure not to “double-dip.”
Contributed by Markus, The Roaming Fork
Yakitori is a delicious Japanese snack or dish that is a must-try in Japan. It consists of meat, seafood or vegetables, which the chef will skewer, marinate and barbecue over a fire of charcoal.
What makes it different from Turkish skewers or kebabs is the type of sauce they use to season it during the cooking process. In terms of selection, you may especially like seafood, giant clams, or assorted mushrooms. They marinate them so well and they are absolutely delicious!
It’s especially fun to enjoy it in Piss Alley. Also known as Omoide Yokocho, Piss Alley in Tokyo has a very authentic Japan vibe. You’ll find all the shops narrow, small, and cramped together. You sit at a bar table in a row in front of the cook while he prepares the food for you by the side.
This place attracts a lot of local businessmen in Tokyo who come here to hang out with their friends over a beer or sake after a long day of work. Piss Alley is open and bustling all the way into the night.
Not to worry if you don’t speak Japanese! You can easily point to whatever you want to order and they’ll prepare it for you. This alley is open all year round.
Contributed by Lydia, Lydiascapes Travel
Traveling to Tokyo? Before you try one of these amazingly delicious Japanese dishes, why not check out a Kabuki Theater performance at the Kabukiza Theater?
Takoyaki Octopus Balls
Takoyaki is easily one of Japan’s most common street foods, and you can find it all over the country. You typically buy it from street-side vendors and Japanese kiosks as an easy option to eat on the go.
At their simplest, Takoyaki are savory dough balls mixed with small cuts of octopus and scraps of tempura, spring onions, and often pickled ginger. They commonly come in a “boat” with optional toppings and sauces of mayonnaise and a soy-like sauce which is comparable to Worcester sauce.
Takoyaki will always be best as street food, where they come hot and sticky from the grill. But you can also find these octopus balls as a popular side dish at many restaurants. However, the best place to eat takoyaki is at its origins in Osaka, a fantastic street food city known for its love of food.
Look for them at the famous Ebisu Bridge at Dotonburi Canal (Namba) with its famous Glicoman backdrop and maze of arcades selling all sorts of weird and wonderful foods.
Contributed by Allan, Live Less Ordinary
Unagi, Japanese freshwater eel, is a very popular traditional Japanese dish, especially during summer. You can find it on sushi, even at cheap sushi places. The ultimate Unagi experience though is a dish called Hitsumabushi in Nagoya.
Hitsumabushi is a special kind of Unagi dish, with a long tradition. The chef slices the eel along the belly and grills it whole. Then, he or she will dip it into a rich, sweet sauce and serve it on rice.
Hitsumabushi comes as a set meal with different condiments, such as Sansho (a special kind of pepper), wasabi and green onions, and pickles. The way you eat Hitsumabushi is also special and differs from other regions in Japan. Every serving of Hitsumabushi is split into four parts. You’ll enjoy the first serving as it is, just eel on rice with the delicious sauce.
The second serving changes its flavor completely by adding the condiments to your liking. For the third serving of Hitsumabushi, you pour a broth made from soy sauce or green tea over the eel and rice to create a kind of Ochazuke. This changes the flavor again.
The last serving is for you to enjoy however you like. Multiple different flavors in one dish.
Contributed by Lena, Nagoya Foodie
A favorite food of Japanese people is okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese dish that comes from Kansai – the area around Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe – as well as in Hiroshima, though there are differences in the preparation in these two places.
Okonomiyaki is a kind of cabbage pancake, but that description doesn’t do it justice. It’s a batter with lots of cabbage, pork belly, spring onions, or loads of other ingredients. Sometimes it has fried ramen noodles added in, all covered in a special okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and (optional) fish flakes.
You’ll usually find Okonomiyaki in specialty Japanese restaurants. These restaurants have long counters with an endless hot plate running the entire length. That way, the chef can cook it right in front of you.
There are plenty of different ingredients you can use, and it’s easy to find vegetarian versions in Japan. Though you will have to be very clear about not including fish flakes.
In Kansai, they mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl before pouring them onto the hot plate. In Hiroshima, they layer the ingredients on top of each other. Either way, you will soon discover why this is one of the most popular comfort foods in Japan. Note that, although not impossible, it is harder to find in Tokyo, as it is a regional specialty.
Contributed by James, Travel Collecting
Yakiniku is not only a favorite traditional Japanese dish but also a small event in itself. You can find this dish in certain restaurants that specialize in Yakiniku.
In Yakiniku restaurants, each table includes a table-top coal grill. Above the table hangs an extractor hood, which ensures that the whole restaurant doesn’t fill with smoke. Once you arrive at the restaurant, you also get a plastic wrapper for your bags so your belongings will not smell like smoke later. Then, the experience starts.
On the menu, you can choose between different options, mostly different kinds of meat. But there are also different types of vegetables. Once you choose and your grill is on, you can grill your chosen delicacies yourself at your table.
The best thing about this dish is the Yakiniku No Tare sauce. It’s just incredibly yummy.
Yakiniku is not only delicious but it also gives you a great way to spend time with your friends or family. So it’s not just food, but an event. Yakinku restaurants in Japan are becoming increasingly popular. You can find them all over the country, especially in big cities like Osaka.
Contributed by Vicki, Vicki Viaja
Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish that consists of thinly-cut marbled beef strips, a variety of vegetables, and noodles cooked hot pot style. The stock of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, known as warishita, is what gives sukiyaki its distinct savory-sweet flavor. A crucial element to this Japanese dish is dipping the meat into a cup of scrambled raw egg as soon as it cooks.
Sukiyaki doesn’t have a long history in Japan. Meat didn’t become part of the traditional Japanese diet until late into the 19th century. This was largely for religious reasons. But this all began to change when Japan opened its ports to the West. The defining moment came in 1872 when the Emperor of Japan ate beef during his New Year’s celebratory feast.
You cook Sukiyaki in the center of the table and people help themselves to its mouth-watering contents. Sukiyaki is an incredibly fun and social meal. That’s what makes it such a popular meal of choice for family gatherings and special occasions.
One great sukiyaki experience in Japan is in Hiyama, Tokyo. This historical Japanese restaurant features only private rooms. This allows for a lively atmosphere and the best sukiyaki you will ever eat!
Contributed by Ciara, A View Outside
Genghis Khan Grill
With a name coming from a popular Chinese historical figure, you might wonder what kind of dish Genghis Khan in Sapporo is supposed to be?
There’s really no concrete explanation of why this traditional Japanese dish gets its name from the Mongolian emperor. But some sources say it is because the metal skillet for grilling the meat resembles a traditional Mongolian soldier’s helmet.
Genghis Khan is a famous meal, originally from Hokkaido. They make it with grilled lamb and vegetables, like bean sprouts and onions. You eat Genghis Khan with a special dipping sauce.
There are many restaurants in Sapporo that sell this famous dish. One of them is the Sapporo Beer Museum. If you happen to travel to Sapporo, this is a must-try specialty of the local cuisine!
Contributed by Mervz, Pinoy Adventurista
Noroshi-Nabe Hot Pot
There are many kinds of “noroshi-nabe” in Japan and one of the most memorable ones you can taste is at Restaurant Kamakura-Mura in the Nagano Prefecture.
Like most hot pots, the dish features savory miso broth, noodles, meat, and a variety of local vegetables, including several types of mushrooms. What makes it extra special is that they serve it inside a hut made entirely of snow!
Indeed, during the months of January and February, 15 to 20 snow huts pop up outside Iiyama city on a snowy field set against a mountain backdrop.
At night, lanterns line the walkways between the huts which gives it a charming and almost mystical atmosphere. During both lunch and dinner, those with reservations (make them weeks in advance!) can enjoy a massive, steaming pot of noroshi-nabe inside an igloo.
It’s best to bring an appetite or some friends or family for this traditional Japanese dish since the portions are enormous.
Contributed by Thea, Zen Travellers
Zubura Udon Noodles
Normally when you order noodles in Japan they’ll put them in a sieve and plunge them in boiling hot water to cook. But that’s not what happens at Hakata Akachokobe in Fukuoka, western Japan. Here they specialize in a type of noodle called Zubora Udon, which they cook in a kettle and serve to you the same way.
To eat them, you dip the noodles into one of the accompanying sauces. If you want a cold sauce, it comes with natto, the stinky soybeans Japan loves, If you want a hot sauce, it comes with chilies and tiny floating pieces of intestines. Both are acquired tastes – but pretty good if you’re brave enough.
However, picking your sauce is not where the fun begins. See, not only does it seem that they don’t like to wash pots at Hakata Akachokobe. They also, don’t cut their noodles. In other words, you have to work out how to lift a piece of noodle, that is at least 30 cm long, out of the kettle and over to the dipping sauce without it splatting on the table.
Still, the potential humiliation is worth it. Zabura Udon noodles are the perfect firmness and the spicy intestine sauce was delicious. It’s the perfect accompaniment to a cold Fukuoka day.
Once you’re done, take a short stroll to the Kushida Shrine, just a hundred meters away, or try one of the many other unusual things to do in Fukuoka.
Contributed by Helen, Destination Differentville.
Ramen is of the most popular Japanese foods around the world and eating ramen in Japan is even more amazing than you might imagine!
The exciting thing about eating ramen in Japan is that there are actually so many varieties. Many local restaurants even have their own unique ramen style.
Ramen houses serve food quickly without sacrificing quality by focusing on just a few options. They will likely only have one or two broths to pick from and then a few choices for meats and noodles. The broth for ramen is usually made from meat stock, so it’s usually not vegetarian. You can find vegetarian broths though, so be sure to ask.
A favorite type of ramen comes with thick slices of pork tenderloin in a hearty broth. A half-boiled egg adds a yolk that is so perfectly gooey when tossed in with fresh noodles and herbs.
Eating ramen in Japan is incredibly affordable at only 600-1000 yen. And you can get a larger upgrade for roughly 200-300 yen more. Often you’ll find a lunch set that includes a side salad and rice cake dessert.
You typically eat this traditional Japanese dish with chopsticks, and slurping your noodles is a sign that you like the food! You’ll get a big spoon to also enjoy the broth. Locals warn against drinking it all since the bottom of the broth has all the oils and salts.
That’s not surprising since a typical Japanese diet focuses more on healthy eating than in America.
Contributed by Mike, Live Travel Teach
Dango is a sweet dumpling of rice flour (called mochiko) and sugar. To add more taste and color to these Japanese snack rice balls, you can add food coloring and matcha to the dough.
The texture of the rice balls is chewy. Mitarashi Dango is a variation of this basic Dango. They grill the Dango balls in Mitarashi Dango first. Then you pour a sweet and savory soy sauce over them. So, if you don’t have a sweet tooth, you may prefer the Mitarashi variation.
If you want to try Dango balls, you can find them at Ueno Park in Tokyo. There’s usually a street food market near the Shinobazu Pond. For more info on Ueno Park, check out this article from Traveling Pari.
Japanese Taiyaki Sweets
Taiyaki is one of many different styles of Japanese sweets. The fish-shaped pancakes are usually made with waffle batter, which they fill with sweetened azuki red bean paste. Unlike typical westerner pancakes, Taiyaki doesn’t taste very sweet. It is the perfect balance of savory and sweetness.
One of the most unique places to get Taiyaki is at the Tokyo Kabuki Theater. It is the only place in Japan where you can find the red and white azuki paste inside the taiyaki.
The paste represents the colors of the Japanese flag.
Warabi-mochi (with Amazake)
Sweet, chewy dumplings of glutinous rice flour, mochi are a popular sweet across Japan. Warabi-mochi is a variation made instead from warabiko (a starchy flour ground from bracken fern). In many parts of the country, warabi-mochi come warm with hot sugar syrup, often a dark molasses type.
In the Kansai region of Japan, they coat them liberally in kinako, a soybean flour that’s toasted to give it a sweet and nutty flavor.
Try them alongside another authentic Japanese specialty, amazake. Amazake is a very low-alcohol sweet drink made from rice. The addition of Koji mold to cooked rice causes the carbohydrates to break down into sugars. To make amazake, it’s then mixed with water. You can also ferment the mixture into alcohol to make sake.
Enjoy this drink either hot or cold. Over ice, it’s refreshing for a summer’s day. Hot, with ginger on top to mix to your taste, it’s perfect for cooler months.
Try warabi-mochi and amazake at the wonderful and quirky Bunnosuke-jaya tea house in Kyoto, a few paces away from Yasaka Pagoda, in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district.
Contributed by Kavita, Kavey Eats
Awamori Rice Liquor
Sampling awamori is one of the top things to do on a visit to Okinawa, the tropical island archipelago in southwestern Japan. This potent rice alcohol is often confused with sake, but is actually a distilled spirit, while sake is fermented wine.
One of the oldest spirits in Japan, awamori originates from the 15th century using rice from Thailand and black koji mold. Today, they still prepare it using the same basic ingredients and methods. The secret to producing fine awamori is aging the alcohol in clay pots to produce a refined product known as kosu.
The longer you age it, the smoother it becomes.
There are two great places to try awamori. First, in the city of Naha at one of the many nightclubs and bars on lively Kokusai Dori Street. Or, you can try it awamori at Zuisen Distillery near Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular visitor attraction.
It’s best if you sip it straight up or mix it with water.
Contributed by Michele, A Taste for Travel
The first time you taste kakigōri, you’re immediately captivated by its structure, taste, and look. Kakigōri is a traditional Japanese dessert made of shaved ice and flavored with syrup and a sweetener, often condensed milk.
It came about in the 11th century when the Japanese aristocracy wanted a way to cool down during the summer. They shaved big ice blocks that they saved from the colder months and ate them with sweet syrup.
It was only in the 19th century that kakigōri became more of a “people’s dessert,” when ice was more readily available in Japan.
Kakigōri is sort of like a snow cone, but the texture is slightly different. It’s more like freshly fallen snow and it distinguishes kakigōri from other shaved ice desserts. The most popular flavors include strawberry, lemon, cherry, grape, and watermelon.
Contributed by Sander, Ars Currendi
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Halef moved from Indonesia to the US nearly two decades ago to go to college here. He hasn’t looked back. He’s been to over forty countries and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. He’s a Landscape Architect in Atlanta, GA.
That’s good to know that you can request vegetarian broth for Japanese ramen. My sister-in-law is vegetarian and we’re trying to figure out a restaurant she can eat at on our date night since my husband and I are doubling with them. We’ll have to look for a local Japanese restaurant and see if they have some good options!
The chances of your local “Japanese” restaurant in the US being run by Japanese people is about 0.00001%
I love that you mentioned Hitsumabushi, a traditional Japanese meal with multiple flavors in just one special dish. I want to try unique dishes such as this one made out of freshwater eel. The next time I dine in a Japanese restaurant, I’ll try out this meal!