Japanese food, where clean eating meets culinary artistry. Where raw fish and pickled vegetables sit astride seaweed strands and tempura sculptures. Japan, the place where you can eat blowfish sashimi, octopus balls and cow rectum one evening, then follow it all up the next day with a 15-course meal that might qualify as one of the truly greatest eating experiences of your life. Japan, the home of some of the world’s most exquisite beef, certainly its most exquisite fish.
Japan, where the dining experience is not only about the actual food consumed, but also the presentation, the design, the sheer beauty of what you’re eating. Japanese cuisine, where the food canvas employs color, where form truly follows function.
From the traditional to the modern, from the quick to the drawn-out, and from the haute to the street — with a few unusual (and necessary) ideas for limited budgets to help your yen go a bit further — this is our take on Japanese food.
Japanese Cuisine: A Taste of Ritual
In traditional Japanese cuisine, as in Japanese life, there are rules. Food rules. Meals are divided into bowls and dishes, which are then further subdivided, all in an effort to separate flavors so that they might not touch each other.
This is precision on a plate.
In Japan, aesthetic is critical, from the many porcelain plates and bowls from which you might take one meal, to the landscape of the tray upon which it is all served. There’s logic, there’s purpose in every facet of the dining experience, in each item in the meal. By design for design. Contrast this with other East Asian cuisines where large pots are shared from the middle of the table.
Japanese food is careful, that is, full of care. (We’re certain we horrified our share of hosts by sharing with each other tastes from our respective meals.)
Rice: As in other Asian cuisine, rice is the guiding force, a requisite. In fact, the Japanese word for rice, gohan, is also the word for meal. In other words, you can’t have one without the other. Or perhaps in Japan, one is the other.
Pickled vegetables: The Japanese seem to be able to pickle just about anything and everything that grows. And they make it all taste good. Japanese picked vegetables (tsukemono) are to be eaten on their own or in condiment fashion. Beware: portion sizes are usually inversely related to the strength of the pickle.
Their artistic arc begins with their shapes and colors accenting serving plates and bowls and ends curled astride one of your courses in complement. Perhaps best of all — and we are running on intuition here — pickled vegetables serve a function to the body in better absorbing or processing the food they are served with, balancing all the protein and rice, cleansing the palate between bites.
Japanese pickled vegetables. Small, but they pack a punch.
Soup: Often a miso soup, but you may also be served another lighter broth or clear soup.
Meat/Fish: Japan is an island, so it’s not surprising that fish is abundant and the go-to source of protein. Raw is the chosen method of preparation, but in multi-course meals you’ll find an occasional piece of steamed fish topped with a light sauce.
However, a perfectly marbled beef such as Kobe beef (or the new king, Hida beef) will be served beautifully raw with the expectation that you’ll cook it to taste on your own individual tabletop hibachi grill.
You’ll find the same deliberate practice in a traditional Japanese breakfast as well. Your tray will contain many small plates, each with a different flavor and purpose. They all come together to provide a substantial – and protein rich – start to the day.
A Japanese breakfast landscape.
Where to find a Japanese breakfast: The best place to try a traditional Japanese breakfast is to stay in a ryokan (Japanese inn). Our two favorite ryokans for breakfast: Oyado Iguchi in Takayama and Tagaoogi in Kawaguchiko near Mount Fuji. Our favorite breakfast treat in all of Japan: hōba miso, grilled miso paste served atop fish on a dried magnolia leaf.
Bowing to the Alter of Raw Fish: Sushi and Sashimi
Smiles and sashimi for breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.
Many of you are probably familiar with the different styles of sushi – nigiri (slice of raw fish on top of rice), maki (rolls) and sashimi (slices of raw fish, no rice). We also became fans of sashimi don – a bowl of sushi rice covered in slabs of freshly cut sashimi.
After learning how Tokyo manages tons of fresh seafood each day, grab a sushi or sashimi don breakfast of champions at one of the tiny sushi restaurants in the market.
Tuna sashimi on top of a bowl of rice (don).
Our favorite sashimi dons: We did not have time to wait in line for three hours at Sushi Dai (Daisha) but we did enjoy a great sashimi don at a small place a few doors down called BenTomi Sushi in Building #6.
Mixed sashimi don, breakfast of choice in Tokyo.
Conveyor Belt Sushi
Sushi purists may snub their nose at conveyor belt sushi or sushi trains, restaurants with moving belts of sushi plates where you serve yourself and pay at the end based on your pile of empty plates. However, we found that in Japan the quality of fish in these establishments could be exceptional, especially when you consider the price.
Instead of being held prisoner by what was goes around the conveyor belt, you also have a choice of ordering sushi directly from the chef for the same price. Once we figured out this trick by watching locals in their routine, we rarely picked anything off the conveyor belt and ate exclusively from custom orders.
Often, we would be stuffed to the gills with sushi goodness for around $25-$30 for the two of us. In Japan terms, that’s considered a steal. And a win.
Favorite Conveyor Belt Sushi: Tototoriton Sushi Go-Round near Shinjuku station (south exit), Tokyo. Not only were most plates 130 Yen (under $2), but the custom order menu was 40+ options deep with sushi and sashimi options.
Blowfish (fugu) is delicious, but it’s one of those delicacies that can kill you if it’s not properly prepared. Do your research to find a trusted fugu den (i.e., a restaurant that focuses only on fugu). We opted for a sashimi plate and found the fugu to be subtle flavor, slightly sweet, a tad numbing, with the consistency of very tender squid.
Thinly sliced tender fugu sashimi.
For even more fugu fun, be sure to get a glass of fugu sake – hot sake with fugu fins set on fire and infused into the brew. Fugu sake: intense, tasty, and also very fun to say ten times fast.
Where to find fugu sashimi: Osaka, they’ll even let you hold the fugu afterwards. Just beware that the fish might begin to blow up in your hands.
Kaiseki Dinner: Traditional Japanese Cuisine at its Best
We often sing the praises of cheap eating as we travel, but we are making an exception here for a traditional kaiseki meal. If you plan to splurge somewhere in Japan, consider doing it for this. Our kaiseki meal at a ryokan near Mount Fuji was one of the most memorable and unique meals of our lives.
Kaiseki is a multi-course (6-15 courses) traditional dinner, served in the manner of samurai (we’re not kidding). But it is more than just a meal, it’s an entire cultural experience. Each course is tiny, but delicately prepared and served in bowls and dishes that are well-suited to the food. And no two dishes will be the same; everything has a purpose. The presentation and service is an unforgettable experience, sheer joy.
The start of our kaiseki dinner, the first of many dishes.
The courses of a kaiseki meal will change based on the seasons and what is fresh, but they’ll often represent all the different styles of cooking – raw, boiled, grilled, and steamed. The experience will pull influence from the mountains to the sea. There’s a pace that ensures that the meal moves along, but it’s slow enough as to enable the full appreciation of presentation, design, and flavor.
Recommended Kaiseki Dinner: Tagaoogi Ryokan at Kawaguchiko near Mount Fuji. Just amazing, from the quality of the food to the presentation and service.
Japanese Cheap Eats
It is true that the words cheap and Japan don’t often go together, but there are thankfully a few tasty, healthy Japanese options that are easier on the wallet.
A friend living in Japan told us the style of okonomiyaki is a reflection of the city where it is served. Some places are more orderly with straight streets, others are messy with curved roads. You can find this personality in the local okonomiyaki.
Okonomiyaki, roughly, is a savory pancake stuffed with sliced vegetables, seafood and other bits. Although its roots go back centuries, its popularity dates from the days of U.S. troops and post-WWII deliveries to Japan of wheat flour (used in the pancake batter). Usually, okonomiyaki is cooked on a big griddle or at your table in a cook-your-own style. Top with hanakatsuo — dried, fermented, and outrageously thin bacony looking smoked bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes that curl like mad when you place them atop hot food.
Hiroshima okonomiyaki in the making.
Trust us, it tastes much better than the description makes it sound. It’s usually an inexpensive meal as well, especially if two people can share one portion.
Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki: This was the first okonomiyki we enjoyed, and it was massive. Noodles (choice of soba or udon), grated vegetables and seafood are served on top of a thin fried pancake. Usually it is topped with a sweet Worcestershire style sauce and topped with mayonnaise.
Where to get Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki: Just near the Hiroshima train station is the main street Johoku Dori. If you walk past the Post Office you’ll find this place on the right side in a brick building. All locals, lots of fun.
Osaka-style Okonomiyaki: In contrast to Hiroshima’s signature okonomiyaki, Osaka okonomiyaki does not include any noodles, its veggies are more finely chopped, and the whole package is more tidy.
Where to get Osaka-style okonomiyaki: There are lots of places along Dōtonbori Street in Osaka that specialize in okonomiyaki. If you ask nicely, they’ll even draw Hello Kitty on top in mayonnaise.
Tokyo style, okonomiyaki: Officially known as monjayaki, all the ingredients are blended into the batter so that it is all cooked together, almost like a pancake-omelette. Our server came to the rescue when he realized we had no idea what we were doing on our grill and piled the cut cabbage and other goodies on the outside and while much of the liquid batter cooked on the inside. Then you mash the whole thing together with little metal scrapters. Rather messy, not very orderly, but really satisfying.
Where to get monjayaki in Tokyo: Just at the main crossing at Shibuya station in Tokyo, look up to find this sign across the street and left from the metro. You’ll have your choice of monjayaki or okonomiyaki that you cook yourself at your table. Lots of fun, terrifically social and inexpensive.
Takoyaki, you say? Hot octopus and herbed dough balls. All part of the experience: watching takoyaki masters quickly turn their takoyaki balls in something that looks like a cupcake pan with long toothpicks to that they are cooked evenly on all sides. Takoyaki is often topped with a sweet sauce, oregano, and ample helpings of hanakatsuo.
Takoyaki from the streets of Osaka.
Where to get takoyaki:
- Nishiki Market, Kyoto: There’s a bustling stand in the covered indoor market serving up piping hot takoyaki for a great price. Fun atmosphere with lots of students hanging around.
- Dōtonbori Street, Osaka: Several vendors sell takoyaki fresh from the grill along this busy street.
Izakaya are technically known as drinking restaurants, but there’s usually a large menu of dumplings, salads, fried chicken and other snack bits to nosh as you drink your beer. Izakaya sometimes even offer karaoke so you can sing off all the calories. If you look around, you can find some good deals at Izakaya restaurants with dishes that run $3-$5.
Although we’ve heard that Japanese curry originated with the British, it’s nothing at all like a British or Indian curry. The best way to describe Japanese curry sauce: brown. It’s a smooth sweet and savory gravy. Although not on par with Indian or other curries, it can be a nice food break from typical Japanese fare, and it’s usually pretty inexpensive.
Mixed seafood Japanese curry from Coco Ichibanya.
Where to get Japanese curry: Most major cities feature inexpensive curry restaurants. We tried Coco Ichibanya in Kyoto and enjoyed a large plate of mixed seafood curry for about $10.
There are quite a few restaurants specializing in soups. Often you can choose your noodle (thick udon or the thinner soba), style of broth and the meat or vegetable inside.
Where to get Japanese soups: Although a chain restaurant, Tenkaippin (or Tenka Ippin) serves a formidable bowl. Ippudo is another popular and apparently reliable soup chain.
Ootoya is actually a chain restaurant, but one that features high quality food at very reasonable prices (e.g., around $8-10). A great option when you want a hearty, good-looking meal without breaking the bank. You can find Ootaya restaurants all around Tokyo, especially in and around the business disticts. We went to the one in the Subaru building in Shinjuku.
Regional and other Favorite Japanese Eats
Conger Eel, Miyajima
Much of the eel that you’ll find in Japan is unagi, meaning freshwater eel. But in the Miyajima and Hiroshima area, the eel of choice is anago, or saltwater eel. It’s grilled slightly and then topped with a sweet sauce. We ate our anago as a rice bowl (don) just near the train station in Miyajimaguchi. Standard price is around $25-$30 per bowl.
Anago meshi on top of a bowl of rice.
Grilled Oysters — Miyajima
You would think that with all the raw food Japanese eat they’d throw oysters into the raw eating basket. But they don’t, at least during certain times of the year when water temperatures are too high. So during the time of our visit in May, oyster vendors on Miyajima island grilled their oysters. While the oysters were not petite, they were tasty and rich, massive guys, a perfect complement to a good dry sake.
Grilling oysters is a hot business on Miyajima.
Tempura always struck us as an odd Japanese food — it is fried, whereas most Japanese food is light on oil. Dig into the history of tempura and you’ll find out why: thank the Portugese influence for tempura in Japan.
While tempura is often done badly – meaning overly fried or not using fresh oils – there is a beauty to it when done well. The exterior of excellent tempura is just slightly crunchy, protecting the tenderly cooked interior. And there’s no better way to appreciate the skill behind perfectly prepared tempura than by eating at a bar where you can watch tempura masters at work.
Serving up freshly fried tempura at Tsunahachi in Tokyo.
Where to eat tempura in Tokyo: We went for the lunch menu at Tsunahachi Restaurant in Shinjuku ($15-$30). The cheapest lunch menu available, while missing some of the special seafood bits, is an excellent value. Their tempura is exceptionally high quality. We also enjoyed sitting at the bar watching the chefs do their magic. This restaurant will give you eating and dipping instructions in English to be sure you eat everything correctly. Helpful, cute and delightfully Japanese.
Many people have heard of Kobe beef, but few have heard of Hida beef. This is the new top beef in Japan according to the latest food competitions. The meat is marbled with fat, making it melt in your mouth when you grill it. Not inexpensive at $25-$30 for a set meal, but worth trying. Since the town of Hida is just north, Takayama is full of restaurants specializing in Hida beef.
Chunks of marbled Hida beef ready to go on the grill.
Drinks and Desserts
We had no idea that Japanese people had such a sweet tooth, but if you look around the basement food floor of any department store you will be amazed by the array and selection of sweets. Many are made with rice flour doughs and bean paste or other bits of regional fillings. The sweets that take the cake (and we almost made ourselves sick on all the free samples in Kyoto) were the Yatsuhashi sweets — rice flour dough pillows tucked with various sweet fillings.
Yatsuhashi sweets with bean paste filling in Kyoto
Sake: Made from fermented rice, sake is a traditional Japanese alcohol that pairs nicely with sushi, grilled oysters and other bits of traditional Japanese fare. Obviously, not all sake is created equal, so if your first experience is not great, don’t dispair. To get a sense of the range of sake available, taste and sample as much sake as you can. If you find yourself in Takayama, be sure to take part in free sake tasting in the old town near Sanmachi (or Kamisannomachi). Look for the sugidama (large cedar balls) hanging outside, indicating that sake is brewed and served inside. The best tastings include an array of sake, and also indicate which sake is best served cold or warm.
Free sake tasting in Takayama. Dangerous in the middle of the afternoon…
Green tea: We had never really been big fans of green tea prior to visiting Japan. Much of what is passed off as green tea in the West, can be less than noteworthy, especially in the bottled iced tea arena where tastes border on the syrupy and tea-free.
In Japan, however green tea is everywhere, and it is often exceptionally good. There is a smooth, smoky flavor that is to be appreciated without any sugar or additives. Take the opportunity to attend a Japanese tea ceremony and you’ll appreciate the culture behind tea drinking even more.
Water preparation in a Japanese tea ceremony, Kyoto.
A note for coffee drinkers: Knowing that Japan is mainly a tea-drinking society, we were surprised by the prevalence of coffee shops and espresso machines. Getting your coffee fix is possible, however, but it is not cheap (i.e., $4-7 at a Starbucks or similar type of café).
By no means is this an extensive Japanese food guide, but it should help you navigate the Japanese food landscape and offer a few options for budget eating in Japan.
Japan: eat it, live it, enjoy it — and share with us your favorite features and dishes in Japanese cuisine.
Environmental note – BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks): Most restaurants in Japan will provide you with disposable wooden chopsticks. Consider bringing a pair of your own portable / foldable chopsticks or just regular chopsticks for your Japan travels to avoid all that wooden chopstick waste.
Disclosure: Our Discover Japan tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. Some, but not all, eating expenses, were covered. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.