Traditional Japanese Food Guide

Japanese food is absolutely delicious and I was fortunate enough to sample dozens of different foods during my 2 weeks in Japan.  According to Japan-Talk, the Japan has 30 different types of restaurants with a wide variety of choices.  Thankfully Andrew and David both speak Japanese so while driving around Shikoku and the main island of Honshu we got a truly authentic experience eating traditional Japanese food.

There are many different types of food in Japanese cuisine.  Noodles and rice are extremely common and they seem to like putting everything on a stick.  You’ll find lots of deep fried dishes and a wide selection of meats.  Seafood is everywhere but mostly served raw as sushi with pork, chicken and beef being readily available too.

Super Fatty, Medium Fatty and normal Tuna Sushi

30 Different Types of Restaurants in Japan

Walking into a Japanese restaurant its quickly apparent what style food they serve.  Similarly to Korea, many restaurants in Japan specialize in a specific type of dish.  Want ramen?  Head to a ramen shop.  Feeling like sushi?  Go to the local sushi joint.  If you want breaded pork cutlet or buckwheat noodles there’s a restaurant for that too!  If you want to have a wider selection of dishes than you can head to an Izakaya and still have quality food, otherwise you are likely sacrificing quantity for quality.

Izakaya is a traditional type of Japanese pub that often serve a medley of foods.

Japanese food is pretty amazing and I ate as much as I could giving me the chance to bring you this Ultimate Japanese Food Guide!

Japanese Food

Noodles in Japan

Ramen Set with a side salad and dango (sticky rice balls) for dessert

Ramen – Its a toss up between ramen and sushi for Japan’s most famous food but once you’re in Japan ramen restaurants are everywhere. Almost anywhere you go its guaranteed to be delicious but if you’re a major foodie than be sure to google the best ramen in your city. Ramen usually comes with bamboo and thinly sliced meat in a delicious broth. Broths range from pork or chicken to fish and even duck flavored

Delicious Pork Ramen with Giant Chunks of Meat!

I’m sure you can also find beef broth too and they are all yummy. Ramen is typically eaten with chopsticks and slurping your noodles is a sign that you like the food! You’ll get a big spoon to enjoy the broth with but locals warn against drinking it all since the bottom of the broth has all the oils and salts. For me that makes it even tastier but then again Japanese are more focused on healthy eating than most Americans. Ramen will usually cost between 600-1000 yen making it great even for travelers on a budget! make it a large for 100-200 yen extra.

Traditional Japanese Food

Udon – Udon are thick wheat noodles served in a delicious broth. Also eat with chopsticks, just like ramen, don’t be afraid to slurp your meal and show the chef how much you’re enjoying it! Meat and veggies are all available to add to your udon and I highly recommend adding some ‘crispies’ from the jar on your table!

Soba – These buckwheat noodles are ramen’s healthy alternative. Most restaurants will give you a choice of hot or cold along with a similar variety of broths and additives to what you find in ramen.

Soba with an Egg

Yakisoba – When you take those healthy buckwheat noodles and fry them in oil adding vegetables it becomes yakisoba! Think of yakisoba as a noodle stir fry; it can be found in street stalls just about everywhere and makes a great snack!

Japanese Sushi

Two types of Sushi Restaurants in Japan

There are 2 types of sushi restaurants: Belt Sushi and Traditional

Tradtional Sushi is made to order

Sushi (traditional restaurant) – some of the best sushi is found at more traditional restaurants where you place your orders. Everything is made fresh just for you and you can often watch the chefs put it together. Expect to pay a minimum of 1500 yen for this meal with high end sushi establishments setting you back 5000yen or more per person.

Sushi (belt sushi) – ask around Japan you’ll find restaurants serving sushi by the plate on conveyor belts. prices range by restaurant but you can usually find them for about 150 yen per plate with delicacies getting above 500yen per plate. These are generally cheaper and faster than a more traditional restaurant.

Grab Belt Sushi at about 150yen per plate

Fugu – Fugu is famous around the world as one of the deadliest foods.  The pufferfish can be lethal if not prepared correctly so naturally when I saw it on the menu I had to try it!  Truth is I had it on my first trip to Japan and it really just tastes like any old white fish.  Both times it was only available fried and although enjoyable unless you’re in it for the thrill I’d recommend trying a different dish.

Japanese Pork Cutlet

Katsu – Breaded pork cutlet can be found all over and served dozens of different ways. Usually served with rice you can often find it with curry or other vegetables too. Chicken katsu is quite commonly served at katsu restaurants to appease anyone who doesn’t eat pork.

Katsudon – My favorite way to eat katsu is katsudon, a rice bowl with veggies, breaded pork cutlet slices and an egg on top. the flavors blend beautifully together with the egg keeping it all together. Often served with a side salad or miso soup this is a great cheap lunch option.

Katsudon Set with Miso Soup & Pickled Veggies

Japanese Food on a Stick

Kushi Katsu – Put anything on a stick and deep fry it for added deliciousness right? That’s what they do at Kushi Katsu joints and it is a great way to sample a wide variety of foods while enjoying some beer or rice wine! Veggies, meats and cheeses are all skewered for your enjoyment at these hole in the wall restaurants. You can find 100 yen kushi katsu places and they are often just as delicious as the pricier ones. But beware that you’ll have a hard time sticking to a budget meal because they are just so damn tasty!

Yakitori – Yakitori is the healthier cousin of kushi katsu. Although traditionally grilled stick chicken they’ll haoily toss veggies and just about anything else onto a skewer for your enjoyment. They often come with sauces and are also quite cheap per serving. But each plate is usually just 1 or 2 skewers and you’re going to want a drink to wash it all down with.

Yakitori


Tako tamago
– Baby octopus stuffed with a quail egg and skewered caught me by surprise in Kyoto’s food market.  I almost passed up this delicacy then remembered Ronda convincing me to try skewered chicken heads in Cebu and thought I had to try it just for her.  They have a sweat candied outside and are much tastier than expected.  I definitely prefer eating baby octopus like this than the raw Korean version, sannakji that wriggles in your mouth!  That being said I’m not

 

Karage – Karage is a special type of fried chicken that is always boneless and always delicious. You can find it on the street or in restaurants ranging from 300-1000 yen. From a street truck it’ll come with giant skewers to help you eat it and the more you buy the more you get so it can easily be turned into a meal.

Japanese Pancakes

Okonomiyaki – Also know as ‘Japanese pancakes ‘ Okonomiyaki comes with a variety of ingredients but typically has an eggy dough, sprouts, green onions and whatever else you add. Seafood and other veggies are quite common in okonomiyaki and you’ll usually have the option to add fish-flakes on top. There are always 2 sauces, sweet or spicy, and most Japanese add mayo on top of this meal. Typically cooked at your table and often by the visitor this is a meal everyone should experience. You get a little metal spatula to cut and flip your okonomiyaki and it is even served differently in different regions. For instance, Hiroshima okonamiyaki is specifically layered and will be cooked by the chef while more traditional okonomiyaki is a bit more of a medley that you make at your table.

Okonomiyaki

Octopus Balls

Takoyaki – These octopus balls are doughy, chewy, delicious and always piping hot! You can find many ingredients besides octopus in them but its usually seafood and comes with a savory brown sauce and fish flakes on top. Popular as a street food you can find it at most rest stops too.

Japanese Dumplings

Gyoza – All east asian countries have their version of dumplings and Japans are called gyoza. Often smaller than Korean mandu that I’m used to but still quite delicious. A thin doughy exterior holds a meaty veggie mix. Most gyoza I ate were fried but I hear you can find them steamed too. Gyoza should only cost about 250-300yen but some places specialize and charge a little more.

Dango – A sort of sticky rice dumpling, these balls are usually skewered and covered in a sweet sauce.  They are much chewier than traditional rice cakes that I’m used to here in Korea

Drinks in Japan

Sake

Sake (nihonshu) – Sake is a quintessential Japanese drink.  This rice wine is famous around the world and rightfully so.  There are countless brands but the important thing to think about when ordering sake is do I want it hot or cold.  Personally I prefer hot sake but that may simply have been because I visited Japan in the winter.  Certain sakes are supposed to be hot and others cold while some can be enjoyed either way.  Sake is typically served in either large or small carafes and then poured into small sake cups that resemble shot glasses.   At 15-20% ABV sake will creep up on you but can be enjoyed more freely than its stronger cousin, shochu.

It is normal to sip sake and not drink the whole cup at once.  But you can still do that.

Beer – Japanese beer is easy to drink but largely devoid of flavor.  Perhaps that’s why its so easy to drink.  All Japanese meals can be enjoyed with a beer and you can buy beer in just about any restaurant, at a connivence store and even in vending machines on the street!

Shochu – Shochu is the vodka of rice wines and can be found at Izakayas and many other Japanese restaurants.  Typically about 40% ABV shochu is often served on ice or simply with hot/cold water to dilute it but can also be found in cocktails.  I didn’t enjoy shochu very much but its well worth trying if you are visiting Japan!

Green tea – Everyone’s heard of and probably tried green tea. Japan is famous for green tea and you’ll be able to get it at just about every meal. Its a simple, healthy drink that will warm you up on a cold winter visit to Japan.

Ginger tea – Often simply called ‘ginger hot water’ this is my favorite Japanese tea. At many temples you’ll find ginger tea and it might even be free. It has a slight ‘spicy’ flavor too it but I simply love ginger tea.

Tap Water – Surprise! Even though Japan is in Asia it’s perfectly safe to drink the tap water. I did for 2 weeks and if you’ve got a refillable bottle this is a great way to save a few bucks and help the environment.

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

58 thoughts on “Traditional Japanese Food Guide

    1. I absolutely loved the sushi and gyoza. Great choices. Next time you could check out all the different noodle dishes. Find a good ramen joint and you’ll never eat anywhere else haha

  1. I’ve only tried sushi so far, but it seems there are so many choices that I’d have to go back to a Japanese restaurant again. Those octopus balls, Takoyaki, seem to be delicious. Too bad there’s no good Japanese restaurant where I live, so I’ll have to wait until I go to Paris or London to try some more goodies.

  2. I can’t believe you tried the fugu! I think I would be too nervous to attempt that one. Good news is it sounds like there’s many other options for me to choose while I’m there 🙂

    1. Melissa, yeah I was a bit nervous after I ate it. I think I had some phantom nausea for no reason and googled Fugu happily to find out that if its actually no prepped right you’ll feel a tingling in you lips and fingers first.

  3. I love the Americanized Japanese – I can only imagine the authentic would be all the better. Can’t wait to one day visit and indulge in all these dishes!

    1. Shane, you are absolutely right. Americanized Japanese does the cuisine justice but its a thousand times better in Japan!

  4. This was truly a delicious read. My knowledge of Japanese food was limited to sushi and a few more things, but now I, at least, know far more names 🙂

    I would love to know more about veggie food options and Japanese desserts 🙂

    1. There are a lot of noodle options for vegetarians plus a lot of yakitori and kushi katsu are veggie. But if you are a vegetarian and don’t eat fish either be careful because they like to add fish to things and still consider it vegetarian.

  5. It’s nice to see how the cuisine of every culture coincides with it’s food. Rice, noodles, green tea etc. are very popular in India as well. But still I had never heard of these traditional Japanese cuisines made out of the same ingredients

    1. I really like yakisoba as a meal. Soba noodles taste excellent and i like them fried. Sake is really nice to have with Japanese food but I don’t find myself drinking it any other time. The only japanese beer I’ve had is Asahi and Sapporo.

  6. There are so many options for people to choose from, especially for non-vegetarians. Since I am a vegetarian, I would love to try the Japanese Pancakes since they do seem vegetarian. Would love to try Sake too.

    1. Soumya, I think you would love Okonomiyaki! Be careful as a vegetarian though because many dishes come with seafood in Japan

  7. I admit, this is a very comprehensive and informative post about Japanese food and drinks. A fan of Japanese cuisine, as well as having studied in Japan for a while, I really appreciate to see the things that I love eating here. Although I must say I haven’t tried Fugu (a bit scared to risk it) nor have seen tako tamago.

  8. Maybe it’s not a good idea to read through this while I’m hungry, it’s raining outside and the nearest “authentic” Japanese restaurant here is about 30 mins away! Nooo.. there’s nothing on this list I do NOT love…yeap, including the tap water! Japanese cuisine is definitely one of my faves!

    1. Sarah, I’m glad you drink tap water too! It such a drain on our environment to drink bottled water when the tap is safe. Sure there are places where you have to but happily Japan isn’t one. I hope you find something yummy on this rainy day!

  9. Thanks for de-mystifying these dishes. Some I knew but the majority have always been a mystery. Fugu I know is one of the craziest dishes – one needs to be really careful. I have read so many accounts where the dish turned lethal. 🙁

  10. I’ve only spent about 24 hours in Japan (Osaka) on layover but have always been a fan on the food. Yakatori is one of my favourites but I never so much considered it healthy lol. I think that just gives me permission to eat way more of it 🙂

  11. What a great guide to Japanese food! I would have pork ramen or Yakitori – they look just so tempting! Also the pancakes (Okonomiyaki ) look delicious! Gotta go there sometime and try all this wonderful food. Our local restaurants aren’t even close to the quality you get in Japan!

  12. Besides the casual sushi and dumplings, I absolutely love Japanese food!
    There is one Japanese restaurant in my city where the waiters all know me by name and order — that’s how often I crave their food!

    I’m actually planning a trip to Japan where, amongst other things, I plan to eat until my face explodes!

  13. Hmmm i don’t know what’s going on today. I’m coming across so many food posts. Everything here looks so amazing and I’m so hungry it’s actually making my mouth water. I love Japanese food sooo much that katsudon set in particular looks so so good!

  14. Finally it’s time to read something interesting 😀 This is one of my favourite blog and this post is a perfect example of well-writing and interesting read! Anyway, I love japanese food but I just tried it in my city and during my travel in in Southeast Asia, never in Japan because I have never been there! My wife went in Japan for 2 weeks and she confirmed Japanese food is amazing! I love to eat Dumpling, Sushi of course and Yakisoba!! thanks for sharing your experience, great like always! 😀

  15. Just love Japanese food! Could eat it every day! But I haven’t heard of Japanese pancakes until know. And what’s up with Octopus Balls?! Have to try this delicacies very soon. What is your favorite dish?

  16. Being vegetarian, I would sift through the choices and decide carefully, but I guess we can get rice and noodles preparation with vegetarian variants in Japan. I think yakisoba is a vegetarian option. I was also fascinated reading about Fugu and its lethal potential.

  17. Great post – I am in the process of planning a ski trip to Japan for Christmas this year (I know its a long way away…. but peak season so need to get in early) this has made me completely excited. And I never knew that Sake can be served hot – so excited to try that!

  18. This is an absolutely necessairy post! Every time I’m ordering either japanese it’s either tempura, suhi or ramen… I never dare to pick something else because I’m never sure what it really is… So, thanks a lot for sharing all these explanations! I will think of your post next time I’m having japanese food 😉

  19. Nice to see that there is more than only Sushi 🙂
    There is a lot of these dishes that I have never heard of and should probably try one day. Japan is actually the current plan for our next big trip, we will see when and if it happens. 🙂

  20. Japan is my not-so-secret crush! Here they try to imitate Japanese food but I’ve been said it’ll never be the same, because when you taste it in Japan, you can’t forget about it! I really, really need to go there!! Oh and the photos on this are a-w-e-s-o-m-e!

  21. Ahhhh this is my kinda post!! I love a good food guide and Japanese food is one of my favorite cuisines. I haven’t been lucky enough to try it in Japan yet, but this is such a helpful guide for when I do. I’ve pinned it and will totally refer back to this whenever I finally manage to plan a Japan adventure!

  22. This is such a fantastically comprehensive guide, I love it! I’ve only actually tried your bog standard Japanese sushi before, but I’m a sucker for dumplings in any country so can’t imagine Japan would be any different. Octopus balls sound…um…interesting haha.

  23. Mike this is a really excellent article. Japanese food can be a little scary to westerners who aren’t used to it. I really like how much effort you’ve gone into explaining all the foods. There are some faves here for me – katsu and yakitori…yum. Sharing this with a friend who is off to Japan soon.

  24. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out when I read posts like this! I found it quite difficult to find vegetarian food when I went to Japan, even though I could speak a little Japanese at the time. Okonomiyaki was one of the Japanese foods I could eat, and when I joined a tour the leader was a pescatarian and ordered veggie sushi for me. So I still got to eat some Japanese food! I also love the plastic models of each dish on display in the window that you can just point to if you can’t read Japanese.

  25. Everyone who travels to a certain country needs a food guide like this, something that just bloody well lays it out, with terms and preferences, nice then. The best thing is when people can then go beyond sushi and ramen and the canon into other aspects. For me, izakaya food is the best thing to experience there, an aspect that’s not quite exported.

  26. I am sorry to say I never found the courage to try Japanese food. I consider myself adventurous except for Japanese things, lol. But your pictures are very cool and looking at them twice mayyyyybe I would try the ramen thing.

  27. Thank you for this! I love Japanese food but sometimes, I just guess what I’m eating especially when there’s no description what the food contains. 🙂

  28. Oh how I wish I were a sushi lover 🙁 It´s like you can´t go to Japan without trying the sushi, but it´s just not my thing. I think it´s the texture. However, when I was in Kyoto last year I LOVED the yakitori. Sooo delicious! I definitely want to go back and try some of these other goodies on your list. Great guide!

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