Japanese food is unique in this world-untainted by the globalised push on fast-food, it lives in the purity of ingredients such as soy, tofu and fresh, seasonal produce. In fact, Japan is aiming to get rid of fast-food chains like McDonalds altogether, and the majority of the population not only love their nation’s food, but also live to ripe old ages eating it.
So what does that mean for a tourist? For one, do not worry- Japanese food is not diet food, and it is perfectly possible to gorge yourself on it’s treasures and huge variety. Many prefectures and cities in Japan are home to a speciality dish or ingredient- in Kyoto it’s fresh tofu and matcha, in Hokkaido it is milk produce and amazing seafood, in Kobe its wagyu, and in Osaka it’s takoyaki. Before you go to a certain prefecture, find out what it is known for and check out the best restaurants with Tabelog (which is the best for finding out what the locals like), although you will have to use auto-translate to guide you around the website. Many popular restaurants and smaller joints also have reviews by bloggers on the web and on Instagram, so make sure to check out the names of some of the ones here.
Tokyo is wonderful for getting started with food- the most popular tourist destinations are full with shops and stalls serving great food, which will help you taste a variety of dishes and figure out what you like. Tokyo has the most Michelin starred restaurants in any city, and it is worth noting this for special occasions, or just to taste the best quality food available in Japan. Some restaurants offer English menus, however if you do want to step off the beaten track, it is advisable to get a trusted guide, as some places will not be fully accessible for non-native speakers. Many hotels will also be able to book your chosen restaurant for you and advise you on tourist-friendly locations.
So what is Japanese food all about? For one, it is quality and tastiness (the phrase Oishii, or ‘It’s delicious’ is used for a reason). The Japanese people usually keep their diet very simple everyday- for breakfast, a bowl of rice, some furikake (dry rice seasoning), salted salmon and pickled cucumber or daikon (radish) would be more than enough. Lunch for the salary man would usually be something quick like a bento (lunchbox) or an onigiri (triangle-shaped rice with a savory filling), and for the ladies a relaxing coffee lunch in the many popular coffee and tea shops in town. Men usually do not come home to their families until very late, and eating out with colleagues and bosses is an accepted part of the workplace environment.
This is where it gets interesting- the majority of food made to be eaten quickly and to fill up the growling stomaches is made for those salary men. These are the most delicious and filling dishes- ramen (chinese-style noodles in stock, with meat and vegetable toppings), udon (thicker white noodles with toppings), soba (buckwheat noodles with a light tsuyu-based dipping sauce or in a soup with toppings), yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers), tempura (deep-fried prawns and vegetables in a light batter)… The list goes on. Here are the most popular foods of Japan, shown with where is the best and cheapest places to eat them.
What is it? Sushi as we know it now is a dish that started out as snack food out of the stalls on the street of Japan. The main ingredients are simple- vinegared rice and fish or other typical ingredients like kampyo or cucumber pressed into a small shape. The rest is down to tradition and the creativity of the chef. There are multiple varieties of sushi- the main one in Japan is nigiri, which is simply slices fish on vinegared rice, and hosomaki, where one ingredeint is pressed into the vinegared rice and the everything is rolled into a cylinder, surrounded by nori. These differ from the sushi that is sold in the western world, which is mostly uramaki (when the rice is on the outside of the roll) and futomaki where multiple ingredients are stuffed into a roll. Quality levels in Japan are usually down to the price of the sushi. Edo-mae sushi is usually served in expensive restaurants, where the chef places emphasis on ultimate freshness and enhancing the flavour of the fish. Kaiten-zushi is served on a conveyor belt, and is usually of lower quality, and cheaper.
Best ones to try? Tuna (akami, toro, otoro), prawn (ebi), sea urchin (uni), mackerel (saba)
Where to eat it? Magurobito in Asakusa, Ganso Zushi in Asakusa, Sushi Zanmai in Akihabara
Soba / Udon
What is it? Soba noodles are made of buckwheat, and are a staple food for the Japanese, especially in the summer. With substantial health benefits, the noodles are a popular alternative to udon, the thicker type of wheat flour noodle. Udon and Soba are both usually served with the same types of accompaniment: a tsuyu-based dipping sauce or a light soup broth (cold or hot), with tempura on the side or in the bowl. These foods are incredibly good in the summer, since everything is chilled.
Best one to try? Freshly made soba and udon are very different from the ordinary store-bought variety, so make sure to check for the handmade ones in your area.
Where to eat it? Maruka Asakusa (soba), Hanamaru (udon),
What is it? Called the ‘Japanese pizza’, it has very little to do with this famous Italian dish. Made from sliced Japanese cabbage and pancake batter, it features a variety of fillings- pork belly slices and seafood are among the most popular. It originated in the Osaka region, and is a firm favourite in the traditional Dotonbori line-up in Osaka. The best part of the okonomiyaki is that in some restaurants you can cook the okonomiyaki yourself, a feature that is very particular to Japan. Many dishes (teppanyaki, yakiniku) are grilled or cooked on a hot plate by the customer.
Best one to try? Pork and seafood are always the best choice, however different prefectures have slightly different ingredients and ways of preparation, so try to taste the local varieties.
Where to eat it? This is a dish served primarily in Osaka and Kyoto, so I will put down locations there. Okonomiyaki Machiya (Porta, Kyoto Station), Warai Okonomiyaki Dotonbori
What is it? ‘Yakiniku’ traditionally is just barbecued meat, however yakiniku restaurants have developed much further than just serving grilled meat nowadays. Many serve a variety of cuts of beef, pork and chicken, as well as seafood and grilled vegetables. This is a wonderful dish to have with beer, and always served with a bowl of steaming rice.
Best one to try? Karubi, or short ribs are the most popular on the menu and give the right kick of umami for the yakiniku first-timers
Where to eat it? Gyukaku (Shinagawa, Shibuya, Ueno)
What is it? Ramen is the fast-food of Japan. A noodle and stock concoction, with a couple of ingredients chosen by the chef of each ramen establishment. Originating in China, ramen is now a staple of Japanese cuisine. Each ramen stock recipe is closely guarded by each owner, and restaurants pride themselves on their ‘most authentic’ ramen. This is quite a calorie-packed dish, with stock, egg noodles, slices of barbecued pork, egg and bamboo shoots as the main ingredients.
Best one to try? Variety is key to ramen- try one of each: miso, shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork bone), shoyu (soy sauce)
Where to eat it? Ramen Street, Tokyo Station, Kitakata (Shinjuhu, Aomori), Rokurinsha, Ramen Street, Tokyo Station
What is it? A ‘donburi’ is basically any ingredient on top of rice. This is considered to be the most basic meal, and is the most popular food served in shops. The most common ingredients are: sashimi tuna and salmon, uni and ikura, thinly slices wagyu in a sweet soy sauce, oyako (cooked egg and chicken) and most famously, raw egg. This is a perfect lunchtime meal, and is available at every Matsuya and Sukiya (fast-service chains) if you are in need of a quick bite.
Best one to try? The wagyu meat don is the biggest people pleaser!
Where to eat it? Matsuya, Sukiya