On my trip to Japan this May, I had some of the best meals of my life. And I don’t say that lightly. But as anyone who’s been to Japan knows, the food is incredible: it’s well-balanced, expertly prepared, and steeped in thousands of years of Japanese culture.
By any measure, Japanese food is some of the finest in the world. You could (and should) plan a trip to Japan just to eat. So I wanted to write about the Japanese foods you should try on your trip to Japan. It turns out you don’t need to spend a fortune on food in Japan, either: I had some of my best meals at 7-11.
Before we get started, here are a few tips for finding the best food in Japan:
- One, go to Japanese convenience stores like 7-11 and FamilyMart, which serve fresh, inexpensive, and delicious food that is re-stocked every morning.
- Two, book restaurants in advance. Things book up quickly in Japan, so it’s best to book popular restaurants a month or so in advance.
Without further ado, here are some amazing (and bizarre) foods to try in Japan:
Conveyer-belt sushi at Himawari Sushi in Tokyo
My first meal in Japan was conveyer belt sushi. Conveyer belt sushi is exactly what it sounds like; sushi that is delivered to you via a conveyer belt. Sitting at the sushi counter, you either grab a picture of a dish or the dish itself as it comes around on the belt.
Freshly arrived in Tokyo, my sister and I felt jetlagged and exhausted when we decided to duck into the first sushi restaurant we saw. Thankfully, the sushi at Himawari was exquisite. We enjoyed familiar fish like salmon and freshwater eel, and tried new-to-us seafood-delights like golden eye snapper and winter crab. The pièce de résistance was the butter-soft fatty tuna belly (o-toro), which truly melted in your mouth.
A few things I learned about conveyer-belt sushi while in Japan– one, the color of the plates corresponds to the price (see below). Two, the best kaitenzushis (conveyer belt sushi restaurants) have pictures of the sushi on the conveyer belt, not the actual sushi. That way it’s served fresh.
Tonkatsu at Asahi Restaurant in Mitaki
Tonkatsu are breaded deep-fried pork cutlets, usually served with Japanese Worcestershire sauce, rice, and a vegetable salad.
I tried tonkatsu at Asahi Restaurant, a tiny, family-run restaurant in the suburbs of Tokyo. A traditional restaurant where you took off your shoes, Tonaktsu was clearly the restaurant’s specialty — almost everyone in the restaurant had a plate of it.
After taking my first bite, I could see why — the crust was crunchy and slightly salty, while the pork was moist and slightly chewy. It was the perfect meal after a long day of sightseeing.
And the price? Only $8 USD each.
Vending-machine ramen at Ippudo in Tokyo
Vending machine ramen is huge in Japan. Here’s how it works — you step up to the vending machine, punch in the customizations you want, and await a steaming bowl of ramen.
There are two main ramen chains in Japan: Ippudo and Ichiran. After sampling both a few times, there was a clear winner for me — Ippudo. I especially enjoyed the Ippudo in Shibuya that specializes in ramen with a shiromaru base, which is made with pork bones. Boiling the pork bones for hours yields a creamy, fatty, light-colored broth, which pairs perfectly with the delicate noodles. So good.
Also, before visiting Japan, I thought vending-machine ramen meant the machine dispensed a bowl of ramen, when in fact, you just order your ramen at the vending machine. Ha.
Salmon Onigiri from Family Mart
If I could eat one Japanese food every day, it would be Japanese rice balls (onigiri). Onigiri is made by forming white rice into a triangle and filling it with ingredients like kelp, fish roe, salmon, and salted plum.
Every morning, my sister and I enjoyed onigiri at FamilyMart, a convenience store that stocks fresh onigiri daily. My favorite flavor was salted salmon.
Fun fact- the numbers on the onigiri label mean something. See the big 1 at the top? That’s where you start opening the package. I learned this on my second-to-last day in Japan.
DIY Sushi at a Sushi Lesson in Tokyo
While in Japan, I knew I wanted to take a Japanese cooking class — so I signed up for a sushi lesson on Airbnb.
Our sushi instructor, Nori, was a gruff sixty-something man who worked as a third-generation sushi chef. “My father made me practice making sushi with a rag. After three years, I was allowed to touch rice,” he growled as we failed to form rice properly for the eighth-time.
Though the sushi lesson was slightly terrifying (my sister and I got so stressed every time he spoke to us that we blanked on the current task), I was pleased with final product. We managed to produce sashimi classics like shrimp, scallop,tuna, and omelet (tamago). For dessert, we made Inarizushi, sushi rice stuffed in sweet tofu pouches.
After the meal, I asked the chef, “So, do we have a job in your restaurant now?”
“No,” he retorted without a trace of irony. Ouch.
Job prospects aside, we learned a lot during the lesson. And now that I know how much work and skill go into making sushi, I appreciate it more than ever.
Omakase at Sushi Bar Yasuda in Tokyo
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many wonderful meals around the world. But having omakase at Sushi Bar Yasuda was the best meal of my life.
Omakase means “I’ll leave it up to you” in Japanese. As in, you’ll leave it up to the chef to serve whatever food he fancies. Spoken of highly by Anthony Bourdain, Sushi Bar Yasuda is run by Naomichi Yasuda, a Japanese sushi master who spent 25 years running a sushi bar in New York before returning to his native Japan.
We opted for the Omakase menu, which starts at 14 pieces of sushi, ranging from USD 6 – 9 per piece of sushi. What followed was the sushi feast of my dreams: sea bream, sweet shrimp, steelhead salmon, and countless more. My favorite was the sea urchin (uni), which was briny, buttery, and so good we ordered it twice.
In addition to the food, I loved the ambiance at Sushi Bar Yasuda. The restaurant was tiny, only seating 12 people, which made the environment more intimate. I also enjoyed chatting with Yasuda, who was gregarious and funny. During the meal, he told us dozens of stories about his career as a boxer and about living in the US.
After many, many courses we were stuffed. But the chef kept placing sushi on the bar, so we kept eating it to be polite. Once I got the bill, I realized we were being charged by the piece. Our meal cost more than $200 per person. Whoops.
Honestly though, it was so good, I’d do it again.
Street food on Dotonburi Street in Osaka
We only went to Osaka for a day trip, where we concentrated on one activity – eating. After getting off the train, we headed Dotonburi Street, a raucous, brightly light street that is lined with street food stalls.
Osaka is famous for its street food specialties like takoyaki and ononomiyaki, both of which we tried. Takoyaki are deep-fried dough balls with chunks of octopus that come topped with bonito flakes and mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake.
But the best thing we ate in Osaka was melonpan, a sweet bun filled with vanilla ice cream. We loved it so much we later tracked it down in Tokyo (more on that later).
Matcha-flavored sweet treats in Kyoto
Matcha-flavored food seems to be all the rage in Kyoto. When we arrived at our Airbnb, we saw our host had left us a matcha-flavored cake, which was so delicious we devoured the whole thing in one sitting. We later found out it was a Baumkuchen, which is German for “tree cake”, named for the cake’s tree ring-like layers.
But the best green-tea flavored food we tried in Kyoto was a matcha croissant at the train station. Though it looked a bit like Oscar the Grouch, it tasted divine.
Melonpan from World’s Second-best Freshly Baked Melonpan Ice Cream in Tokyo
Our last meal in Japan was melonpan. I loved the crunchy, sugar-covered texture of the bun, which reminded me of something you would find in Latin America, similar to a Mexican concha. I also enjoyed the temperature contrast; the bun is served warm so the ice cream melts into it. Yum.
One thing to note about melonpan- the name is slightly misleading, as neither the bun nor the ice cream is melon-flavored.
Also, World’s Second-best Freshly Baked Melon-pan Ice Cream is the restaurant’s actual named. Apparently, it’s named that because the owner’s mom’s melon-pan is the best. Aw.
The worst meal I had in Japan: soufflé pancakes from Flippers in Tokyo
My sister and I were lucky to have many delicious meals in Japan. But there’s always a bad egg somewhere, right?
The worst thing we had in Japan was soufflé pancakes at Flippers. Popular on Instagram, Flippers is famous for pancakes so light and fluffy they call to mind a soufflé.
What offended me most about these pancakes wasn’t the flavor or texture. As promised, they were fluffy, though they seemed a little undercooked to me.
What bothered me was the insanely long line. Despite arriving before 11 a.m., which is when Flippers opens, we waited almost two hours for our food. Just… no.
Are you a fan of Japanese food? What’s your favorite dish?