Known throughout the world for its stunning cuisine, Japan has a huge number of dishes that you are absolutely need to try. My boyfriend and I gorged ourselves silly during our time in Japan, and here are ten of our favourite dishes that we strongly recommend, along with where to find them. After reading about these ten must-try dishes, you’ll be itching to book a flight to Japan as soon as possible.
Disclaimer: Exchange rates are constantly fluctuating, so I have written prices in yen and euros as they were at the time.
First off is the most famous Japanese food of all-time – sushi. You will probably have had sushi in your home country many times, but it’s a must if you’re in Japan. The quality is so ridiculously high, it would be a crime not to try some.
Coming in a variety of different types such as nigiri, maki and sashimi, sushi consists of cooked or raw fish or vegetables, usually combined with rice that has been perfectly seasoned with vinegar. Whilst you could easily spend a small fortune on a Michelin-starred experience, there is sushi for every type of budget.
Where to try Sushi:
Manten Sushi, Tokyo
Manten Sushi is a mid/high range restaurant that is a great way to try excellent sushi without blowing your budget. We had the Omakase (chef’s menu), which consisted of around 20 “courses” covering different styles of sushi and various delicious cuts of fish. We loved the fatty tuna, mackerel and monkfish.
Price: Around ¥15,000 for 2, plus drinks (€128.85). Address: 2 Chome-3-1 Nihonbashimuromachi, Chuo City, Tokyo 103-0027, Japan
Ginki Sushi, Tokyo
A chain restaurant that is more of a budget-friendly establishment, but still has good quality sushi. It is also a fun place to try as you order your dishes on a screen and the food is delivered via conveyor belt, directly to you! You get 45 minutes to scoff down all the sushi you and your wallet can handle.
Price: As much as you want to spend. Address: 24-8 Udagawacho, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0042, Japan
This deliciously satisfying and affordable dish can be found on almost every street. It consists of Chinese wheat noodles in a broth that is made using chicken bones, pork bones, fish or vegetables. This is then usually flavoured with miso or soy sauce, but can vary depending on the chef. Long cooking times are needed to make the broths so damn tasty. Typical toppings include chashu (melt in the mouth slices of pork), creamy eggs and sheets of nori. However, the star of the show is the broth. Portions are big, and remember to slurp up those noodles! It’s a compliment to the chef!
Where to try Ramen:
Michelin-starred restaurant serving incredible value ramen. Although it is known for its spicy tantanmen noodles, you can get other dishes such as soy sauce based ramen. Whatever you choose, just make sure you get the deluxe toppings and a side order of slow cooked pork with wasabi mayo. Get there early and expect to queue!
Price: ¥3,200 for two (€27.48). Address: Japan, 〒170-0005 Tokyo, Toshima City, Minamiotsuka, 2 Chome−34−4
Ramen Kikuhan, Osaka
Located in the hipster neighbourhood of Nakazakinishi, Ramen Kikuhan offers diners delicious ramen using a combination of pork and chicken bone broth, creating a creamy, frothy bowl of goodness. Friendly staff and a local vibe make this a great option.
Price: ¥2,000 for two (€17.18). Address: 1 Chome-9-11 Nakazakinishi, Kita Ward, Osaka, 530-0015, Japan
If there is one way to make anything tastier, it’s to deep fry it. Enter Tonkatsu. Pork cutlets coated in panko breadcrumbs are expertly fried, producing a crisp, flaky exterior surrounding succulent meat. These wonderful golden slabs are typically served alongside Tonkatsu sauce (a kind of thick, fruity and acidic sauce), shredded cabbage (for digestion apparently), rice, pickles and miso soup.
Where to try Tonkatsu:
This upscale Tonkatsu restaurant offers an extensive range of premium Japanese pork to choose from. The menu can be a little overwhelming, but the most important thing you need to know is that fillet is lean, and loin is fatty. The cutlets are cooked perfectly, with a light and crispy coating and juicy tender meat. In addition to the usual sides, you get a lovely amuse bouche consisting of juicy roasted cherry tomatoes and crispy shredded pork on crackers. The traditional Japanese setting caps off this fantastic restaurant.
Price: ¥7,100 for two, plus drinks (€61). Address: Japan, 〒106-0032 Tokyo, Minato City, Roppongi, 6 Chome−4−1 ヒルズ メトロハット B2F
Tonkatsu Maisen, Tokyo
With numerous branches, Maisen is one of Japan’s most well-known Tonkatsu establishments. In addition to its cutlets, it is famous for its tasty Katsu-sando (Tonkatsu sandwiches). These are small, crustless sandwiches with pork cutlets and katsu sauce that can be bought to eat on the go.
Price: ¥842 for one katsu-sando (€7.23). Address: 4 Chome-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0001, Japan
It’s a fun word to say isn’t it? Roughly translated it means “what you like, cooked”.
This cabbage and batter based “pancake” is hugely popular in the Kansai region, and although you can have a wide range of fillings, popular ingredients include octopus, shrimp, and thin pork slices.
Once cooked, they are slathered in a delicious brown sauce (similar to HP sauce), a smear of mayo and a sprinkling of aonori seaweed powder. Depending on the restaurant, your food will be either cooked by a chef or, if you are feeling brave, by yourself!
Where to try Okonomiyaki:
Located near the buzzing Dotomburi district, this popular restaurant is great for anyone new to Okinomiyaki. Not only is the food delicious, it is also a fun experience. You sit around a long griddle counter and watch the chefs cook up a storm right in front of you. Once the pancake is cooked and the toppings added, they slide it to you and give you a little spade to cut it up with. We got ours with seafood and pork belly and it was lovely, stodgy and comforting. Expect to queue!
Price: Around ¥1,450 for one (€12.45). Address: 1 Chome-4-15 Dotonbori, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 542-0071, Japan
Nishiki Warai, Kyoto
This Okonomyaki restaurant is located near the famous Nishiki Market. In addition to its servings of Okonomiyaki, you can also order some pretty tasty Yakisoba. Here you get to cook the food yourself at a personal table griddle. A good place to try if you can’t be doing with Kyoto’s busy food market.
Price: ¥1,400 for two (€12.02). Address: Japan, 〒604-8142 Kyoto, Nakagyo Ward, Nishiuoyacho, 597 ミズコートビル 1F
Before going to Japan, I hadn’t actually heard of these tasty deep fried skewers, but am certainly glad I discovered them. You can find all kind of things on kushikatsu skewers, including prawns, quail eggs, vegetables such as lotus flowers and okra, sausages and so on, all deep fried in a breadcrumb coating. They are surprisingly light and you will be back for more. Served with a tasty dip, these go great with an ice cold beer.
Where to try Kushikatsu:
Kushikatsu Daruma, Osaka
These are located all over the place, so you will eventually find one just strolling around. You can order individual skewers here, but it’s fun to get a set menu of around 15 or so, especially if it’s your first time and are sharing. Some of the skewers you can identify quite easily, such as the lotus roots, but others you just have to take a bite. A deep-fried Russian Roulette if you will.
It also has a “no double dip” rule for the communal sauce. If you need more, just dab some on with the cabbage leaves provided. Partnered with lots of beer, this a great place to start a night out, especially if you go to the Shinsekai branch.
Price: ¥4,000 for 15 skewers and drinks (€34.36). Address: 2 Chome-3-9 Ebisuhigashi, Naniwa Ward, Osaka, 556-0002, Japan
(6) Tempura & Tendon
Continuing on the theme of delicious, deep fried food is tempura. Seafood, fish, vegetables, even eggs are coated in a light, airy batter and deep fried. If cooked to perfection, you will be rewarded with a light, crispy, non-greasy treat.
Tendon is slightly different, in that each bit of tempura is assembled on top of a bowl of rice (Ten = tempura, don = donburi/rice bowl). Toppings vary, but you will usually get shrimp, white fish, and vegetables such as pumpkin and aubergine. This mountain of deep-fried naughtiness is finished off with a drizzle of sauce consisting of mirin, dashi, sake, sugar and soy sauce.
Where to try Tempura and Tendon:
Tempura Makino, various locations
With our seats around the counter, we watched the chefs perfectly fry tempura and plate our food right in front of us. We chose a set menu which came with, amongst other things, shrimp, oysters, egg (which was so damn good!), and a big slice of aubergine. These were served alongside a bowl of rice, miso soup and condiments such as pickled ginger. They also serve delicious Tendon.
Price: ¥3,000 for two (€25.77). Address: Japan, 〒542-0076 Osaka, Chuo Ward, Nanba, 3 Chome−3−4 難波日大ビル １F
Tenya, various locations
This chain restaurant is a more casual establishment and better for those on a budget. It also has English menus which are useful in Japan. Though the tempura was not as perfectly cooked as at Makino, it was still a tasty and filling meal. Wash down with an ice cold glass of Asahi.
Price: ¥1,700 for two and drinks (€14.60)
These funny little fried round balls are an incredibly popular street food snack in Osaka. Made from a wheat-flour batter, small pieces of octopus are placed in the centre and then cooked in a special mould until puffy. Watching the vendors cook them is pretty entertaining as they use lightning quick speed to flip them round with long chopsticks to get an even fry on them. Once they are ready, it’s time for the toppings. This usually involves a tangy sauce, mayo, spring onions, seaweed powder and bonito flakes (which move around giving the eerie illusion that they’re alive). Takoyaki are super soft and melt in your mouth. A great little snack.
Where to try Takoyaki:
Takoyaki Wanaka, Osaka
There is seemingly an endless supply of vendors serving up Takoyaki in Osaka, so it’s hard to really narrow down favourites. However, we liked this place as they were well-cooked and had a generous amount of spring onions which was nice. But you can’t really go wrong wherever you go. Dotomburi is littered with them, each with a cool and eye-catching display outside such as a giant mechanical octopus. One even has a theme tune! So why not do a Takoyaki crawl?
Price: ¥450 for 6 (€3.86). Address: 1 Chome-6-7 Dotonbori, Chuo Ward, Osaka, 542-0086, Japan
(8) Udon noodles
Made from wheat-flour, udon are a thick and pleasantly chewy noodle that can either have round or squared edges. Strangely enough, the dough is traditionally kneaded by feet and is still prepared this way in many places across Japan! They are served in a number of ways, such as in a warm dashi based broth, coated in a curry sauce or served cold with a dipping sauce. Although not as popular as ramen, you should definitely seek some out.
Where to try Udon noodles:
Udon Shin, Tokyo
Located down a narrow road, you will spot this place by the long queue outside. This tiny restaurant has a decent-sized menu offering numerous cold and warm dishes. However, there is one that stands out and that’s the carbonara. Yep, they do a carbonara with udon noodles. In addition to the usual ingredients of parmesan, egg and black pepper, you also get a long, thin slice of bacon fried in tempura batter. Oh my…
Price: ¥2,650 for two (€22.76). Address: Japan, 〒151-0053 Tokyo, Shibuya City, Yoyogi, 2 Chome−20−16 相馬ビル １F
(9) Convenience store egg salad sandwich
Japan may be bursting with amazing dishes and fine dining establishments but no trip would be complete without visiting a convenience store and picking up a moreish egg salad sandwich! The standard of food in these stores is very high, but the egg sarnie trumps everything else on offer. Trust me, I sampled a lot of Japanese sandwiches in the name of research. The egg ones are creamy, airy, buttery and simply delicious. They are available at 7-11, Lawson and Family Mart.
(10) Melonpan ice cream
After trying many of the delicious savoury food on offer, you will probably be ready for dessert. Japan has some great treats for those with a sweet tooth, but melonpan with ice cream was my favourite. Despite its name, it doesn’t taste like melon. They are in fact warm, crispy, sweet brioche buns, split open and filled with ice cream such as green tea or vanilla. Once inside, the warmth of the bun gradually melts the ice cream, creating a messy, delicious and deeply satisfying dessert. Bring tissues – things are going to get messy!
Where to try Melonpan:
Unlike other places we tried, the ice cream at this interestingly-named parlour was thick blocks instead of ready-made Mr Whippy style. This definitely helped with the overall texture and meant it took a little longer to melt. The buns were also fresh from the oven, so nice and crunchy. In addition to green tea and vanilla, they also have a warming apple and cinnamon sauce. In case you’re wondering, I am still searching for the world’s number one freshly baked melonpan ice cream shop!
Price: ¥400 to ¥450 each (€3.43 – €3.86). Address: Japan, 〒542-0086 Osaka, Chuo Ward, Nishishinsaibashi, 2 Chome−11−9 RE-011 1F
So that’s it, folks! Ten absolutely delicious, moreish treats that you have to try when you are in Japan. If you have any other favourite dishes or restaurants that I haven’t mentioned, please share them in the comments below.
Ciao for now
The Curious Sparrow