The best thing about visiting Japan is trying different foods that aren’t available anywhere else. Japan surprises with a diversity of dishes that are left out of international Japanese restaurants abroad. Fresh, prepared, packaged and specially ordered foods in Japan have been crafted to bring out their best flavor.
Besides using the best quality ingredients, restaurant owners, cooks and chefs take pride in their dishes. This combination presents incredibly tasting food coming out of Japan. Most places in Japan whether it’s a street vendor or restaurant are clean. This cleanliness can bring immediate relief and relaxation knowing your going to eat in a clean environment.
Internationally, Japanese food is mostly thought of as sushi, teppanyaki and tempura but it’s quite the contrary.
Sushi is a big part of Japanese cuisine but it’s so much more diverse. Some of the names of dishes sound more intimidating than what the dish really is. Here are a few recognizable dishes with names that could intimidate a conservative eater from trying them.
Yakiniku means grilled meat, meat is grilled directly on the flames. Some restaurants may have the word yakiniku attached to them, this means the meat is grilled over fire.
Yakitori involves skewering the meat with a skewer, then placing it on the grill.
Kushikatsu is deep-fried meat or vegetables on a stick. The item is coated with a breading or panko crust before being deep fried whole. Katsu means deep fried in English. Kushi means skewer in English.
Tempura is the most common dish (besides sushi) associated with Japanese cuisine outside of Japan. Tempura is originally from Portugal but made popular by Japan. Tempura is seafood or vegetables that have been battered and deep fried. Grocery stores have large displays of freshly fried tempura, the early bird gets the freshest. This dish is best eaten fresh because after a while it can become very greasy.
Croquettes are surprisingly popular in Japan. Beef, pork and plain potato croquettes are made with small pieces of meat mixed with soft mashed potatoes breaded with panko and deep fried. This turned out to be one of my favorite items in Japan.
Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese snack made of a flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan. It is typically filled with minced or diced octopus tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion. In Osaka, this dish is very popular. The balls are cooked to order using two picks . The process is fun to watch.
Ramen is a very popular in Japan and most places make their own noodles and pride themselves on the broth. The word soba usually refers to ramen also. Thin noodles are placed in a meat or fish-based broth and topped with meat and/or fish and vegetables in all combinations. The broth ranges from clear to creamy depending where you go.
Nearly every region in Japan has its own variation of ramen. Ramen’s two main ingredients are noodles and broth. Tokyo style ramen are slightly thin, curly noodles served in a soy-flavoured chicken broth. In Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture, city of Takayama has their ramen consist of thin curly noodles in a simple dried bonito and soy sauce broth. Thicker wheat based noodles are called udon.
Fast food noodle cafes and restaurants have vending machine ordering systems. The guest inserts cash into a large vending machine and chooses the dishes by photo/name. A ticket is printed out and presented to the counter where the order is prepared.
*Kikyou-ya restaurant – has been serving Takayama ramen for many years to the locals of Takayama. 506-0011 Gifu Prefecture, Takayama, 本町3−58.
Steak – Some of the best beef in the world comes from Japan. Wagyu is the name of Japanese beef cattle and Kobe beef is the most well-known type of wagyu outside of Japan. Japanese farmers pride themselves on the white parts of fat in the meat, known as sashi. This is what makes the beef melt in your mouth.
Essentially the fattier the beef, the more expensive the price. The most expensive and deemed the best beef in the world is Matsuzaka beef from cows raised in Matsuzaka, Japan. Only a few of these cows are slaughtered a year so it’s very hard to find and extremely expensive. There are many places to have a great steak in Japan without shelling out big dollars. “Hida-gyu” (Hida Beef) is a black-haired Japanese cow, that has been raised in Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. Hida beef is one of the finest quality varieties of beef, meets every standard, and is of the highest quality. Both of these meats can be purchased in area supermarkets.
*Hidatakayama Kyouya restaurant specializes in serving Hida beef. The beef is served sliced raw with a couple of vegetables. A grill is set up in the middle of the table and we grilled the meat and vegetables individually before eating it. 1 Chome-77 Oshinmachi, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture 506-0851, Japan.
*Ikinari Steak restaurant lets you choose the grade of steak and how many grams you would like to purchase, meat from a large flank of beef is cut. The steak is served on a sizzling plate with a side of corn and a few garlic chips topping the meat. Each person is given a plastic apron to wear and protect your clothing from the splattering of the steak frying. The locations in Tokyo are standing only tables but in Kyoto they offered high chair seating.
*Jirōmaru restaurant is the best place to try high grade beef at affordable prices. Imagine a sashimi bar of beef. There are many different types of beef and the pieces are sold on an individual basis then grilled on a personal grill at your “table”. It’s a very small standing restaurant, with about 10 people cramped in, 2 per grill and there is always a line outside (but it moves faster than you’d think). address: 1 Chome-26-3 Kabukicho, 新宿区 Tokyo
Gyukatsu – is a deep-fried breaded beef cutlet. This dish is becoming a trend in Tokyo. The breading is deep fried and the meat remains rare inside. A table top hot stone grill is set up to grill the meat to their desired doneness.
*Gyukatsu Motomura in Shinjuku is known as one of the best places in Tokyo to experience this dish. The line is long but moves faster than you’d think. The hostess takes your order before seating you at a table. The beef arrives very rare and a hot stone grill is prepared on the table to cook the meat to your desired preference. The Shibuya location is limited with only ten seats.
Speaking of beef, gyutan is grilled sliced beef tongue. Gyutan is a very popular dish throughout Japan. Beef tongue comes in various grades and qualities just like the beef in Japan.
Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. These are available at grocery stores freshly fried and many different restaurants and cafes. A popular sandwich in Japan is a tonkatsu sandwich which is the breaded pork in between white bread with mayo served cold.
Unagi (Eel) – Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel. Eel is served in many Japanese dishes. The most common is kabayaki. Kabayaki is when unagi eel is gutted, boned, butterflied, cut into square fillets, skewered, and dipped in a sweet soy sauce-based sauce before being broiled on a grill.
Japanese Soufflé Pancakes – pancakes are different in Japan than anywhere I’ve had them on this world trip. The batter is made out of egg yolks only making them fluffy and melt in your mouth creamy but firm enough to hold the cake together. The pancakes are made to order and topped with fruit and whipped cream. There are many different pancake cafes throughout Tokyo.
*Flipper’s Cafe in Shimokitazawa serves these fluffy specialties and is always busy. Place your order while waiting in line. When its your turn to be seated the pancakes arrive shortly after. I recommend trying this specialty because they are unique to Japan. address: 北沢2-26−20, 1F Setagaya, 東京都 〒154-0017
Okonomiyaki – is a Japanese savory pancake made from noodles, meat or seafood, cabbage, bean sprouts, fried egg and a crepe. This is a very popular filling dish all over Japan. Some areas of Japan are known for the best okonomiyaki.
Some of ingredients vary from place to place but the base of noodles, cabbage, egg and crepe stays the same.
The best way to eat this dish is to top it with mayonnaise. Some of the restaurants have seating along the main grill top and the food is served in your space of that grill area.
Hiroshima has their own version and the city prides itself on serving the best okonomiyaki in Japan. They are very rich and the portion is big, if you have a friend to split one with, try that option first.
Momoji manju – a maple leaf shaped cake stuffed with sweet or savory filling. Miyajima and Hiroshima sell these all over and the vendors display the huge machine making them as fast as they sell them. Momji manju is served both deep fried and baked. Some of the fillings are: red beans (sweet), custard, cheese, mango, apple and lemon.
Butaman is a Chinese steamed bun. While this isn’t native to Japan, it’s a popular dish served at train stations and shopping areas. The buns are filled with meat then steamed creating a cake like dough surrounding seasoned meat filling. The buns sold at Futami No Butaman were filled with minced pork, ginger and sweet onions. They can be purchased fresh or boxed to warm again at home.
*Futami No Butaman – This small stand in Osaka serves fresh made butaman by the individual piece, half dozen or dozen. They only sell one type with minced pork, ginger and sweet onions. Each one cost 200 yen – well worth the price. address: 3 Chome-1-19 Nanba, Chuo Ward, Osaka.
Seafood is the jewel of Japanese dining. Fresh seafood is caught daily off the shores along the coast of Japan. Seaweed, fresh wasabi are also featured fresh at local markets. A delicacy of Japan is the fugu fish. Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish.
What makes the puffer fish a delicacy is the careful preparation before serving. Only chefs who have qualified after three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare the fish.
If a puffer fish is eaten without proper preparation the result is death. This fish is served sashimi style (raw) and fried.
Seafood vendors sell fresh and cooked seafood at the markets. Fresh sushi is always available at the seafood market.
Tsukiji fish market is Tokyo’s wholesale commercial daily fish market. This market sells the freshest seafood to high end restaurants, supermarkets, food vendors and personal buyers. Displays of rare fish and shellfish from around the shores of Japan are displayed. Kanazawa also has a bustling seafood market that sells large horsehair crabs.
Tsukemono – Japanese pickles. Some are soaked in a liquid and some are fermented in a mixture of roasted rice bran (the hard outer skin of the rice that is removed when polishing the rice grain), salt, konbu, and other ingredients. Whole vegetables are stirred into the mash and allowed to cure anywhere from a day to several months.
Kyuri asazuke are cucumbers or eggplants marinated in a salt brine (shiozuke) that is sometimes seasoned with konbu, togarashi pepper and/or vinegar. Whole cucumbers served on a stick are often pickled this way and sold by street vendors. They have a salty sour taste. The vinegar is very mild not leaving the tangy taste like most pickles. They are on the par of a half sour pickle. While visiting Kyoto Street venders have them sitting on ice with lemon. The liquid based cucumbers are sold served cold and the rice bran cured pickles are sold at at room temperature.
Fruit is very expensive in Japan. Grapes and cantaloupe being the most expensive I’ve ever seen. Some of the fruits are known as luxury fruit because the prices can go upwards in the tens of thousands! But in most grocery stores the prices range from $3-$40 depending on the fruit.
There are high end grocer’s dedicated to selling only luxury fruit. I had to try the grapes after seeing how expensive they were everywhere we went and they didn’t taste any different from the grapes at an American supermarket. I bought a cup of 9 grapes (off the vine) for $5.00 (USD). Granted these were the least expensive I just wanted to see what the hype was about. Late in the trip I tried a free sample of a grape that cost $19.00 (USD) per cluster and yes there was a big difference in taste.
If your wondering about fast food in Japan, don’t. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s (aka First Kitchen) and even Taco Bell have landed in Japan with pretty good success rates. There are a few minor changes to the menu but nevertheless, the same comfortably familiar dishes are there. I found the featured dishes to be far more interesting than the standards.
Tea is the most commonly drunk beverage in Japan and green tea is the most common type. Various grades of green tea are cultivated, differing on the timing of harvest and on the amount of sunlight the tea leaves are subjected to. The highest grade is gyokuro, next is sencha, and bancha is a lower grade of green tea whose leaves are obtained from the later rounds of harvesting. Matcha is powdered green tea. Just like green tea, matcha ranges in various qualities from high to low.
Matcha is also used in cooking, especially desserts. Kyoto Japan is known for their matcha production.
Desserts are available on every corner in Japan. Some cities are known for a specialty dessert. Crepes, donuts, gelato, cookies, candy and cakes only scratch the surface of the confections made in Japan.
Yatsuhashi is a dessert sweet that looks like a raw wonton. They are made with glutinous rice flour, sugar and cinnamon and formed in a triangle. The texture is like a cooked piece of spaghetti or raw doughy wonton. The insides vary from mashed sweetened red beans to sweet potatoes. They taste mostly like sugar and cinnamon.
Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake made with a griddle folding pan. The most common filling is red bean paste. Other fillings may be custard, chocolate, cheese, or sweet potato.
Sake is the national alcoholic drink in Japan.
Sake is another name for Japanese rice wine. The alcohol in sake comes from a fermentation process where starch is converted into sugars which ferment into alcohol. Undiluted sake contains 18%–20% alcohol. It takes between nine to twelve months for sake to mature.
The selection seems endless in Japan.
Traditional Japanese knives are world renowned and directly linked to Japanese cuisine and history. There are many styles and uses of Japanese knives. Each style is designed to slice meats, vegetables, fish and bone with exceptional precision.
Some of the best food in the world is in Japan. Simplicity is the crux of Japanese cuisine. Each dish is carefully crafted and artistically prepared more so than any other cuisine.