There’s more to Japanese food than Sushi and Ramen…
Japanese cuisine is not easy to describe; they use a variety of vegetables, meats and broths. It’s a more savory palate but each item is made to it’s fullest potential and produced with care.
So what should you eat in Japan and Where can you find it?
Here are 9 things you must try in Japan!
(and find out what was the most surprising food I ate)
Start with the basics, duh!
You’ll find little ramen shops on any corner. It’s a cheap and filling meal; try them all, but if you’re going to hold out for something special:
Ichiran-located in Dotonbori in Osaka. You may have to wait in line for this place, but its well worth the wait. There are two entrances here with seating on two levels. If you have a big party, plan to sit separately.
You’ll be seated traditionally with a partition between you and the next person. Don’t worry, you can collapse them to see your friends! Before going in, you will select your order at the “vending” machine in the front. Here is where you will pay for your meal items and receive a ticket for each. If there is something you are not sure about, go ahead and get it because you will not have a chance to come back and pay for additional items once you’ve been seated (especially during peak hours).
Eating here is an experience, staff is prepping and serving your food behind the small bamboo blinds. You will see a short time-lapse of this below:
2. Rice Balls
Rice balls can be found as street food, the best ones are wrapped in bacon and served with your choice of side. Pick kimchi! If you aren’t into a little spice, I’m sorry. The rice balls found in Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine are the best!
You’ve see me mention them previously in Chasing Hanami
You can find rice balls elsewhere, sometimes shaped in triangles and fried in restaurants. They will not be the same or even hold a candle to the bacon wrapped street version ones.
Plan to drop some money honey! If you are a vegetarian, this is worth skipping that for a meal… When I said earlier that the Japanese take special care and make meals to their fullest potential, here is no exception.
Waygu Beef is the most expensive beef in the world, that is because the cows are treated to massages daily and fed a particular diet. Unlike in other countries where cows are fed grains and grass, these Waygu ones are delicate. Yes, the meat is very fatty. Yes, it is expensive. And Yes, it will be served in small portions.
Just do it!
I do not eat lots of beef and I am a native Texan. I did however, make an exception for this meal, in fact I have not eaten so much beef in my life like I did in Japan! There is something about the way it is prepared that sits well with my stomach. American beef sits heavily on most people and tends to hang out for several days. Maybe it’s the smaller portions or the cut of meat? Who knows. All I know is that its delicious and worth eating atleast once. You may be a little underwhelmed by the portions, but again this is premium meat!
If you want to try it, check out Kobe Beef Toei Ken in Osaka. This place is a little tricky to find as its inside a building and located on the 2nd floor. You’ll need to call and make reservations first, but don’t hesitate to call if you get lost. They’ll gladly help you find them!
4. Napoletana Pizza
I could go on about this category, but I’ll spare you the lengthy story. The long & short of it: Napoletana or Naples (Italy) style pizza has long been held by the Italians and their certification process is tedious, but the Japanese have a nack for perfection. The Japanese have been driving their perfection for pizza dough for many years now and have brought it to the Italians attention that they will be better than them when it comes to making pizza and pizza dough.
Though this is all “pizza politics,” it says a lot when the certification association blatantly says they will no longer give Japanese pizzerias certifications to ensure that their pizzas are not better than the Italians!
Needless to say, find a place that serves Napoletana pizza. There are several around in Japan and often not listed as a “certified” pizzeria, but if the sign states Napoletana then you ‘re likely in great shape. Just check for the wood fired oven to verify some authenticity.
Check out Black Cat (not VPN certified) & Capoli (Certified VPN) both in Tokyo (Shinjuku)
5. Vending Machine Coffee
Why on earth would you want to have coffee from a vending machine when there are clearly plenty on Starbucks around Japan?
And secondly, why would you want cold coffee? You wouldn’t. Which is why the vending machine coffee is so oddly satisfying.
If you haven’t heard, there are vending machines everywhere in Japan. You can find them randomly on a street corner…
Inside of these machines you will see the pricing labels have colors: Blue & Red, this is no mistake. Blue labels will indicate a cold beverage, while Red labels will indicate a hot beverage. Yeah, you read that right HOT! How the hell does a drink come out hot from a vending machine? IDK either, but let me tell you what… a hot coffee on a chilly morning. YES. Just yes!
Ah, we’ve reached the apex of “Japanese Cuisine,” sushi! While many believe they will eat nothing but sushi when they arrive to japan, it is actually not that simple. Sure there are millions of sushi places around and you can basically eat your weight in it, but why have ordinary sushi?
Surprisingly, we had sushi once. A singular time, yes. It was the best sushi we could have stopped to eat too. In fact, this place is one of the top sushi places in Shibuya (Tokyo). We knew we’d come to the right place after waiting close to an hour for a seat at the bar. Sushizanami is located on the 6th floor inside a building along basket ball street and is a short walk from Shibuya 109.
The menu is rather lengthy but covers a nice gamut of sushi options. The clam miso is so flavorful! You must try this, along with the crab and lettuce roll. We also took a more traditional approach with Nigiri: salmon, tuna, eel and snapper. Unfortunately, Brad is highly allergic to shellfish so options like shrimp and scallop were not on the table for him. Don’t worry, I didn’t make him taste the clam miso soup!
If you can snag a seat at the bar, it is highly suggested. You get to watch the chefs make your rolls right in front of you and watching their knife skills can be intense! You’ll be impressed by the speed of shaping the rice and delicately placing ginger on each dish.
If you only eat sushi once, let it be here!
Japanese BBQ is often cooked at the table on a small round coal/gas fired pit. Meat comes to the table raw and typically served in several rounds or courses or as an all-you-can-eat style.
After coming up to the 4th floor and realizing that they were booked for the evening, we made reservations for Rokkasen the following night. It was well worth the second trip. This place is voted #1 on Trip Advisor out of 7,490 restaurants in Shinjuku. It was a short 10 minute walk from our hotel and offers private seating. We got a lovely view of Shinjuku. Keep in mind it is going to be a little warm in the restaurant as each table has a pit in the table, not to mention space is a little tighter here in Japan!
We opted to dine for the all-you-can-eat option with beverages for around $50 USD/person. For that amount, I would say we ate more than $50 worth! You pick the meats you want, any veggies and additional sides (all included in the price). We even had beef tongue, which I was rather impressed I liked… again, something about the way the Japanese prepare it vs. US is very different!
When you’ve had enough, they will also bring you a little desert to finish your meal. Which leads me to the next food…
Mochi is (not my favorite. I don’t like it, I’m sorry. It’s just not for me) made from rice. It’s mostly flavorless unless, obviously, it’s flavored. Hints why there is pink mochi and green mochi. If you have seen the cute little emoji with a pink, green and white ball on a stick, that is mochi.
The texture is soft and chewy with a lot of elasticity. Sometimes, like the desert we had at Rokkasen they will wrap ice cream in mochi. It will be a very thin layer and will taste sweeter than a mochi ball. There is also the more savory option covered in a soy glaze. It looks very tasty, but still lacks in flavor for me.
And lastly, there are mochi truffles. Chocolate “taffy” like consistency nugget covered with mochi and dusted with a light powder to reduce the stickiness. Again, very flavorless and not a “sweet” treat we expected.
Give it a go, and let me know what you think!
I strategically left Strawberries last on the list. Why?
These were the most unexpected thing I ate in Japan. Never in a million years would I have thought about strawberries being so delicious in Japan; I like strawberries, in fact it’s probably the only berry I truly enjoy. In Japan the strawberries are bigger, juicier and much more expensive!
I have fallen in love with strawberries since visiting.
At first I was super irritated that brad spent $20 USD on 6 strawberries. 6! (granted, if you have ever tried to buy strawberries around Valentine’s day then you would probably expect this amount but of course they would be covered in some kind of chocolate) Not here in Japan, No.
Strawberries are apparently grown very delicately. The weak and ugly ones get discarded or shipped off for export. Most strawberries are grown at a single rate per stem to allow for maximum nutrients to enter the berry. This is no easy feat. You will likely find the most beautiful strawberries inside a grocery store (in Japan) as well along the streets as vendors sell them by the smaller batches.
We picked up some in Osaka near the Osaka Castle and then another package of 12 when we arrived in Kyoto near the train station. We found more in Tokyo in Shibuya and also feasted on all the strawberries treats imaginable at the Psychedelic Tea Party hosted in the main dining area of the Hilton Tokyo.
If I could, I would have smuggled some back home. There are not strawberries like these in Texas. Trust me, I’ve looked! I’ve even plucked my own from local farms near by.
I will never be the same.
If there is one thing to try in Japan, it is the Strawberries!
Additional foods and places to try in Japan:
- Wander down Piss Alley (in Tokyo), you will find an array of vendors with tiny stalls that people are crammed into to eat some delicious street foods
- Get yourself a Tokyo Banana, which can be found in most train stations. They are basically twinkles with banana filling. YUM!
- Octopus balls can be found anywhere, but the best ones are found in Osaka along the streets of Dotonbori.
- In Harajuku, you’ll want to keep your eyes open for the crepe stands and also the cotton candy stands, which serve cotton candy the size of your head!
- If you are a thrill seeker, try some blowfish at the sushi bars. Be careful with this one, one bad move and things could go very, very wrong!
- There’s a small stand inside the train station just below the Sheraton Miako Hotel in Osaka that serves the most delicious Belgian waffles! Opt for the Strawberry flavor.
- Give a traditional Japanese breakfast a go. You will be very surprised at what you might enjoy. Most hotels offer a buffet style breakfast, so you can always cherry pick your options from the Traditional Japanese options.
- If you get a chance to visit a Cold Stone Creamery, take the opportunity to have some. The staff is amazing, they give you a little sing-song while they prepare your ice-cream. Try the Strawberry Shortcake!
Other items to keep an eye out for to try: Yakitori, Takoyaki, Wantons, and Pancakes.
Have you eaten anything amazing in Japan? Tell me what it was the changed your life.
Until next time,