It goes without saying that you’re going to have the most amazing sushi you’ve ever tasted when you travel to Japan. Because not eating sushi in Japan would be the same kind of crazy as not eating pizza in Naples. That’s bonkers! There are many other foods in Japan that aren’t sushi, and we’d like to share 11 of these must-trys with you.
I’ve (Stephen) spent a lot of time touring in Japan as a drummer over the last few years. Being the only American on most of these tours, I’ve been fortunate to have the most hospitable tour manager, band members, and crew – all Japanese – to make me feel at home and well-fed throughout tour. It’s so much fun watching them watch me as I taste something for the first time, and seeing their anticipation of what my reaction will be. I realize this is a unique position to be in, and not everyone will have such a luxury while traveling. But since I have, I’d like to pass on what I’ve learned, and encourage you to try everything at least once. There’s nothing “crazy” on my list here, (well, except for the “squid – seasoned in squid guts” as it was first described to me. But I digress…) but I have just about every one of these dishes every time I’m in Japan. And some, as often as sushi!
You can find pretty much all of these dishes throughout Japan, but some are more specific to cities or prefectures, which I’ll mention where applicable. In no particular order, let’s check ‘em out!
11 Must-Try Foods In Japan (That Aren’t Sushi):
From Osaka, and one of the city’s two most popular foods, Okonomiyaki is a savory dish. A sort of Japanese “pancake,” made with a wheat flour-based batter, eggs, shredded cabbage, your choice of protein, and topped with a variety of condiments. The name is derived from the word “okonomi,” meaning “how you like” or “what you like,” and “yaki” meaning “cooked.” The chef whips it up right in front of you on a grill. It’s loads of fun watching it come together, ingredient by ingredient, your mouth watering as you watch the amazing “show.”
Along with Okonomiyaki, this next dish is another that you should absolutely have in Osaka, to get the best possible representation.
The other most popular dish in Osaka is Takoyaki. A.K.A., “octopus balls.” No, they’re not octopus testicles! Takoyaki is a ball-shaped snack made of a wheat flour-based batter and cooked in special molded pans. They’re typically filled with diced or minced octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion. Probably the most popular spot to have these is called TakoTako King (a spin on “B.B. King,” in typical Japanese fashion). They’ve got a walk-up counter outside if you want to grab & go, or you can dine inside the funky-cool little restaurant while listening to killer vintage blues-y garage rock, which I recommend. But be careful, they’re hot AF when they land on your table and take several minutes to cool. Pro tip: slice them open first and sit tight. It will be worth your moment of patience!
3. Kobe Beef
If you think you’ve had “Kobe beef,” you probably haven’t, unless you were in Kobe, Japan. The Kobe beef brand name is highly protected and strictly regulated. Therefore, expensive. But no worries! If you can’t afford the high price tag of a Kobe steak, A) welcome to the club! B) you can get an affordable and delicious legit-Kobe beef bowl while in Kobe! The beef is thinly sliced, seasoned by magic fairies (or so it seems), and perched atop a bed of rice. The flavor of the beef is stunning. You’ll most likely have to wait in line to be seated, but it’s worth it. The restaurant we went to is popular and also only seated about 10 people, so our wait was almost 2 hours during lunch time. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – worth the wait!
Grilled freshwater eel. I know, I know. “Eel???” Trust me here. I thought the same, and was blown away at how surprisingly delicious it is. Unagi is a rich and bold flavored elongated fatty fish, not to be confused with its saltwater cousin, anago. It can be sauteed, pan-fried, or incorporated into soups, and is also delicious when smoked. Oh, and the more you know: you cannot eat unagi raw, as eel blood has toxins in it that will kill any animal. Hot tip: the best unagi (and most sustainable) is caught wild, not bred in farms. If possible, be sure to know the source of the unagi you’re eating.
This is absolutely one of my favorite dishes in Japan. Nothing fancy, it’s great, affordable Japanese comfort food. A bowl of rice topped with a deep-fried pork cutlet, eggs, vegetables, and varying condiments. You can find it throughoutt Japan at any time of day for the most part. I love having it for “brunch” at the venues before soundcheck, as my first meal of the day! The name comes from the words “tonkatsu” (pork cutlet), and “donburi” (rice bowl dish). It’s simple and perfectly satisfying.
More commonly referred to as simply “nabe.” “Nabe” (cooking pot) + “mono” (thing). Basically, a boiling pot of goodness, usually cooking away right on your table on a portable stove! There are different variations of nabe, as far as types of broth and ingredients, but ultimately it’s an “everybody-in-the-pool” kinda dish. You add the ingredients as it cooks, based on which items take more or less time to cook (chicken, little meatballs, veggies, etc.). Eat what you want from the pot with either sauces or the broth it was cooked in. I always go soup-style. During the cold months, nabe is to die for!
7. Whole Grilled Fish
Yes, the WHOLE fish. Head, tail, eyeballs and all. Don’t let yourself get hung up on the bits we westerners might not typically eat. Honestly, you won’t even be able to tell that you’re eating those certain parts. It’s just delicious. Japanese people believe that grilled dishes are the best way to test the skills of a chef. The fish is grilled over charcoal until it’s just slightly undercooked, and then plated immediately. By the time the dish arrives at the table, the residual heat has finished cooking the fish thoroughly, to a juicy, tender perfection, with a slight crispness on the outside. When I had the opportunity to try it in Nagoya, Japan, I went for it. And it was so good, I had two!
Two more things you must try in Nagoya:
- Pressed squid. It’s an addictive snack-y small bite that will likely be floating around your table along with…
- Chicken wings. We know, sounds basic. But Nagoya is known for these, and they’re far superior to any wings we’re familiar with here in the states.
Full disclosure, this is one of maybe two foods in Japan that I tried and legit did not fully appreciate. However, I believe you must try it at least once, for better or worse. If not only to force yourself even a little more out of your comfort zone and a little more into the Japanese cultural zone. Here’s how it was “pitched” to me the first time I tried it: “it’s squid seasoned in squid guts.” Funny, that tracked! Little bits of slimy squid in a small bowl. I didn’t love the flavor, but it was also the sticky-slimy texture in addition that just didn’t leave me wanting a second bite. But while I didn’t enjoy shiokara in Tokyo, I did try it a second time in Hokkaido and found it to be decent! Potato accompanied the shiokara this time and it made a world of difference. Naturally, as Hokkaido is famous for and provides ⅔ of all of Japan’s potatoes! You’ll fly over loads of potato farms as you approach your landing in Hokkaido. So, I firmly believe you should try shiokara at least once for the experience. Who knows, you might dig it!
Grill-your-own-meat, right on your table! “Yaki” (grill) + “niku” (meat) = YUM! This typically refers to bite-sized meats like beef, pork, fish along with vegetables, cooked on gridirons or griddles over a flame of wood charcoals carbonized by dry distillation, or a gas/electric grill. This makes it one of the most popular national dishes of Japan, and it’s fun, so go for it!
10. Ramen, Soba, and Udon
Noodles are such an iconic part of Japanese cuisine, that you absolutely must eat at least one of these three varieties – if not all (which I recommend). The main difference between the three is what each noodle is made from. Soba noodles are made with buckwheat while ramen and udon are made with wheat flour. Udon (pictured) is cut into thick pieces and is chewy. Ramen is thinner, and soba noodles are more like spaghetti. You really ca’t go wrong with any choice – as with most foods in Japan – just let your mood and tastes guide you. And don’t forget, it’s customary to slurp while eating your noodles!
Last but definitely not least – onigiri. You will find this ubiquitous snack literally everywhere you go. From restaurants to every convenient store – which by the way, are all AMAZING in Japan! Pretty much any store will have a wide variety of onigiri in the cooler for you to choose from. It’s basically a palm-sized hunk o’ rice, usually in triangular shape but sometimes round, often but not always wrapped in seaweed, and containing a variety of ingredients in the center. Anything from tua, salmon, seaweed, kelp, and on and on. Good news, too, is that the packaging will often have both Japanese and English on it. So if your Google Translate app isn’t working, you’ll still know what you’re getting. I find myself having one pretty much every day every time I visit, and have to make a conscious choice to say “no” once in a while to save some rice for the rest of humanity.
If it’s your first time visiting Japan and you’re under the impression that there’s nothing but crazy and unheard-of things to eat, I promise you that you’ve got nothing to worry about. There are plenty of foods in Japan that you will love. And all it requires is having just a little bit of an open mind and you’ll be a-ok. I also recommend you don’t fall back on all of the American food that’s available by way of every fast food chain you can think of. There are way too many new things waiting there for you to try that will make you say “oishikatta!” (that was delicious!)
Interested in more about Japan? Check out these posts: