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No visit to Japan is complete without experiencing Japanese food the way the locals do. In Japan there is no way to separate eating from the atmosphere and experience. Food in Japan touches all of the senses from the minimalistic elegance of sashimi to the visual gourmet versions of hamburger patties. There’s more to Japanese food than sushi but let’s face it, navigating the difficult menus in a New York Japanese restaurant can be daunting enough, let alone tackling lesser known dishes on their home turf.  With Fall in full swing, and November Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan tackling the topic of Fall foods in Japan, I started to think about what I love to eat in Japan this time of the year. This made me hungry and ruined all objectivity, displaced Fall and set me down the path to the 5 foods I love to eat during the Fall and every other season :) To help you follow in my footsteps and guide you through this culinary and cultural experience I’ve created a list of 5 dishes that are a must for any visitor to Japan.

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Hungry yet?

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The Japanese are famous for specializing and defining. It’s no different with food as each of these dishes will usually be served in its own specialized restaurant complete with accompanying unique atmosphere. Warning, if you are a vegetarian this menu is probably not for you, but there are always ways to substitute fish and vegetables for the meat dishes. But be careful, sometimes pork is not considered meat!

1) Donburimono

Japanese Donburi rice bowl

So much goodness all in one bowl.

Donburi is a large rice bowl and the “mono” (lit. things) refers to the delicious toppings laid over the bed of rice. There is a large variety of Donburi from comfort food, such as chicken and egg oyako-don, stewed beef and onions gyu-don, and fried pork and egg katsu-don, to the more refined variations like tempura ten-don, marinated eel unagi-don, or even sea urchin una-don.

All of these are a great value, even the more expensive fish dishes, as you can eat out with just one dish. Finding a quality local shop may take a bit of work but it will be worth it. If you are looking to only experience gyu-don visit the chain shops Yoshinoya or Matsuya. You’ll have to decide for yourself which is better as its one of those questions that divides the nation. If you’re by the sea or a fish market look for the seafood versions as they’ll be the freshest.

2) Okonomiyaki

Japanese Okonomikayi

Usually called a Japanese pancake, but so differnet this should stop as its nothing like a pancake other than being flat and fried.

It’s not really a pancake, or a pizza, definitely not a crepe but it’s certainly delicious. Made with batter, egg, and your choice of vegetables, beef, pork, seafood and even noodles, you have to do the work here. The ingredients usually come out raw and you have to cook them on the large teppan (hotplate) that you sit around. There’s a variety of ways to make it depending if you are in Tokyo, Osaka or Hiroshima (my favorite) but the basics are: cook the fillings, pour on the batter and beaten egg, flatten the mixture on the teppan with the metal spatula provided, and flip over after five minutes. Aim for a browned outside keeping the inside soft. Finally, add the sauce with the brush provided and/or mayonnaise, and sprinkle on the fish flakes…if you’re into that sort of thing.

3) Yakitori

Japanese Yakitori

Grab a beer and enjoy.

Literally grilled chicken, there is so much more to these skewers that can contain the full range of chicken bits, meat, liver, heart, cartilage and skin. Prices are usually by the skewer, even if more than one arrives, so be careful. They are cooked to order over charcoal and come with either sauce (tare) or salt (shio) seasoning. Nothing goes better with it than a large cold beer and good company. Yakotori can be found everywhere, from specialized restaurants to street stalls. In either case pull a seat up to the bar and be prepared for your orders to be yelled around the room, repeated by everyone from the server to the cook.

4) Ramen

Japanese Ramen

Feel free to slurp all you want. How else are you supposed to eat noodles with chopsticks!

These long Chinese noodles have become the staple of the Japanese fast food industry. Pop in for a quick and inexpensive bite during lunch or after a long night drinking on the town. Ramen shops are on just about every corner in Japan and you’ll be able to find one easily. More difficult will be trying to decide what type you want, from curry to miso to chicken broth, topped with marinated pork to an extra helping of spring onions. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any choice, it’s all delicious. Add in a plate of gyoza, Japanese fried pot stickers, and you have one great meal.

5) Izakaya

Japanese Izakaya

Ok, technically it's not a food, but it IS an experience with plenty to delicious food.

This is the ultimate Japanese communal eating experience that can only be described as Japanese tapas. They are a great way to experience a wide variety of Japanese food, and drink copious amounts of beer, sake or chu-hai (shochu with flavored carbonated water. I like ume-chuhai, plum flavored. Yum!

These are friendly places that are like the local pub on the corner. Japanese come after work to share food, stories, and bond with each other. The portions are usually small and the variety of foods can be staggering, as will be your bill if you try to have a proper meal. Use your time in an Izakaya to sample different dishes, get to know those you are with, or even sitting next to, and then decide on a cheaper option for the next stop in the night.

What are you favorite Japanese foods? Need more suggestions or help reading the menu? Comment away below.

November Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan

(Photo credits in order: singingbeagle, Smaku, TenSafeFrogs, wonderferret, SpirosK, nicolacassa)

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45 Responses to “Top 5 Foods to Eat and Experience in Japan”

  1. Oh man, Japanese food… where to start?

    I guess the fried stuff!
    Tonkatsu, kushikatsu, tempura, karaage etc etc. Who said Japanese food was healthy? :-)

    Then there’s noodles; ramen is my favourite, followed by udon and soba. I generally give their take on spaghetti a miss. Fish egg pasta? No thanks!

    Japanese curry is good, although I still prefer Indian.

    The soul foods in Osaka would certainly be Okonomiya and Takoyaki. Even if you don’t like the thought of octopus, you should give it a try.

    That shot of the okonomiyaki and flying mayo is awesome btw!
    Tim Wilkinson´s recent [type] ..Rainy Osaka

  2. toshiroNo Gravatar says:

    “No visit to Japan is complete without experiencing Japanese food the way the locals do.”

    From a vending machine?

  3. Your warning is spot-on: Japan is not the best country for vegetarians! They put fish in everything, and most of the great eats are grilled meat. Surprisingly, it was among the most challenging countries I’ve visited as a non-meat eater (including my RTW trip). Still, it’s beautiful and I would visit again in a heartbeat!
    Leslie (Downtown Traveler)´s recent [type] ..Society page- NYC bloggers at Social Media Week and tweetups

  4. Alex LopNo Gravatar says:

    Nothing…NOTHING better than steaming Yakisoba and piping hot sake outside of a Shinto shrine during the holiday season. Headed back to Tokyo in 20 days, and I am euphorically counting down the days.

  5. AshleyNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Todd, I’m just finishing up the blog matsuri post and came to grab yours but not sure where the link to Fall is here? I keep reading it – am I missing it?


    Ashley´s recent [type] ..a guide to heaters in Japan

  6. Delicious and totally starving now! I’ve had them all. I love shabu shabu and yakiniku and cold soba. Nato, not so much!
    Financial Samurai´s recent [type] ..Living Vicariously Through You

  7. RebeccaNo Gravatar says:

    Oh am getting hungry and wanting to go back to Japan (where I spent most of my time eating, and planning the day around meals)!!

  8. Hello!

    I am from the Yakezie (welcome by the way:)).

    You just made me homesick for Japan! I lived there for awhile (met my husband there–he is from Texas, but was a cryptologist in the Navy while I was studying abroad).

    I absolutely LOVE katsudon–my favorite Japanese dish. Yakitori is great as well.

    I also have a degree in International Studies and Environmental Studies, so I find your work to be very interesting.

    Where in the world are you right now?

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Amanda, great to meet and be apart of Yakezie. Where in Japan did you live? At the moment I live in Kosovo and am working for the UN while doing the travel writing in my “free” time…whatever that really means :)

      Luckily I’m heading back to Tokyo over new years to see my wife’s family so I’ll get to eat all these. When was the last time you were there?
      Todd Wassel´s recent [type] ..The Happiness Chart psst It’s really simple

      • Hello Todd!

        I lived in between Tokyo and Yokohama. The last time I was there was in 2005 (oooohhh do I miss it!). I met my husband in 2003, then came back for 2004 and 2005 twice a year for a few weeks at a time.

        Good luck with your work! I can’t wait to read more.

  9. I love Asian food! Haven’t ate a lot of Japanese but so far I’ve enjoyed what I have eaten. From everything I have read and learned they have the healthiest diet and longest life span in the world. Would you consider this still to be true? and do you notice an increase in your health and vibrancy from their diet?
    Caz Makepeace´s recent [type] ..Meet Jools Stone…Our “Facebook Fan of the Month”

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hey Caz, the food in Japan is very healthy and despite eating A LOT you tend to eat small portions of many different things. They are supposedly the longest lived in the world but there has been a recent scandal where something like half the 250,000 people over 100 years old are actually not alive, they were just never reported dead! Most would be 150 years old at this point :)

      I’m not sure how this affects the math, but they are still healthy and live long. My wife’s grandmother is in her 90′s. Interestingly the Okinawan’s are even longer lived than the mainland Japanese (also a different ethnicity). They like to drink a strong liqueur called Aomori, dance late into their gray years, and relax in the tropical air. Sounds like a nice life to me :)

      I always loose weight when I go to Japan, but its also because people ride bikes and walk more as things are closer and cars are expensive. Of course I’m not in Japan any more and I can say the Balkan food definitely is heavier and adds the pounds.

  10. Jen LacedaNo Gravatar says:

    What about kaiseki? That’s a food experience in Japan worth mentioning, although it comes with a huge price tag :(
    Jen Laceda´s recent [type] ..Trivia Thursdays- Where in the World

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hi Jen, that is certainly true! For those who don’t know, kaiseki is a course menu that is very well prepared. Usually delicious, and usually very expensive. I tried to keep this list a moderate to cheap budget. But now I might have to do a more expensive list :) Thanks Jen

  11. devinNo Gravatar says:

    Hey Todd,

    I am a fan of traditional Japanese food, but I could not name a single morsel. It was all delicious and/or interestingly different. What stood out was when a guide had told me that the Japanese care not only about flavor but about looks, sound and texture.
    devin´s recent [type] ..Paid for Travel Writing — All Those Dollars

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hey Devin,

      This list is so small and only touches the most popular, cheapish and my own comfort foods. The number and variety of foods in Japan is truly staggering and difficult for most foreigners to keep up with. And the guide was correct the presentation and experience of food is just as (if not more) important than the taste. its one of the reasons I used “experience” in the title of this article.

      Lucky for me I have a Japanese Mother-in law who cooks amazing food and imparted her passion onto my wife :)

  12. Oh Todd, you’re making me miss Japan BIG time! I never did ask you but what camera are you using for your pics?

    David @ Malaysia Asia´s recent [type] ..8 Shopping Malls in Bukit Bintang Kuala Lumpur

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hey David. I’m missing Japan more and more each day. Luckily I be back this winter for some quality time with the food :) As for camera I don’t use anything special as I prefer light and always with me to large SLR (although my wife does have one that use sometimes).

      So, I use a…..Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H10. It is a nice balance between lense and size. I am thinking I may have to upgrade as I get more serious about my photos, but in general I think it takes great shots.

      Although, while I usually only use my own images, in this article I did delve into the Flick Creative Commons :)

  13. RickyNo Gravatar says:

    I like all the foods mentioned above. I also like inari and takoyaki. Gyoza is also nice.
    Ricky´s recent [type] ..Project until October 2011

  14. HerbNo Gravatar says:

    I’m such a savage, only last month enjoyed my first Japanese restaurant, (not counting Benihanas about 30 years ago). It was in Seattle and was a great experience. Really should do more investigation. Curious, What is a sample price of your recs? Would love to visit Japan, but I think it is the cost factor that stops us. Love your info about hiking the temples, need to go back and reread me thinks.
    Have to laugh at the cook your own meal! Might as well stay home. That made me smile, Thanks.
    Herb´s recent [type] ..Moving on the Sunshine

  15. EarlNo Gravatar says:

    I’ll admit that I really didn’t know my Japanese food too well (and didn’t care for it either) until a few months ago when a friend took me for some Okonomiyaki at a small place in NYC. Now I’m hooked and can only imagine that the same food in Japan would be on an entirely different level of yummyness!
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  16. Despite the fact that it is 5:30 in the morning, you have made me extremely hungry. Thanks!
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  17. The Japanese pancake photo was nice.
    thesoulofjapan´s recent [type] ..Senso-Ji Temple of Asakusa

  18. I’m hungry now ;-) . Thanks, Todd.
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  19. inkaNo Gravatar says:

    I need to keep this comment short: you made me HUNGRY. If I ever visit Japan, I know to go back to todd and look before making my food choice. Lovely pictures too.
    inka´s recent [type] ..Discovering two sides of glamour in Beirut

  20. AmyNo Gravatar says:

    Great article! I’m in Japan at the moment and my absolute favorite is Okonomiyaki – but the ramen is also great on a cold day. I’m a little nervous about the Yakitori. We went to one place where their Yakotoria specialties were penis, ‘choice’ uterus and rectum. Not so much my thing…
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  21. AdventureRobNo Gravatar says:

    I need some donburimono, right now! How dare you put photo’s up like that making my mouth water!
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  22. Sarah WuNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful pictures. Donburimono looks so yummy and delicious. It’s making me hungry right now. In new York there’s a lot Japanese restaurant but I bet Japan’s food are much more authentic for sure!

  23. veweNo Gravatar says:

    Ramen!! How I love it!
    I braved the snow and cold weather (almost midnight) in Sapporo during the snowstorm, it was chilling and walked to the Ramen Street, but it all truly worth it. I’m drooling as I type :)

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Sounds good, and well worth it vewe :) Nothing is better than ramen on a cold snowy day. Throw in some gyoza and I’m in heaven.

      • veweNo Gravatar says:

        LOL I didn’t say anything about gyoza to save myself from drooling even more, but thanks to you Todd, now I’m drooling all over haha

  24. AlNo Gravatar says:

    I’m a big fan of donburi and ramen, not a big fan of okonomiyaki. Sukiyaki is my favorite though. Although I’m not a big seafood fan, I’m surprised you didn’t include sushi, especially the kaiten variety.
    Al´s recent [type] ..Ramen Ichiran – Part 2

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hey Al, I agree, Sukiyak is delicious. I was torn about kaiten sushi as its very well know these days and I thought I’d highlight the some popular dishes in Japan but which might be lesser known to visitors.

  25. NicoleNo Gravatar says:

    Love the photos of the cooks making food! Visiting izakayas and sampling lots of things is my favorite. Had a memorable dish of steamed green tea chicken. And cucumber pounded with salted plums and nori. Yum.
    Nicole´s recent [type] ..A Japanese inn

  26. What about Udon? and Unagi?
    Those are my favorites (along with Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki and Izakaya (the experience more than the actual food as you mentioned)
    David @ Ogijima´s recent [type] ..Encounters on Abundance Island

    • Todd WasselNo Gravatar says:

      Hey David. I love both Udon and Unagi but with any list I have to draw the line somewhere :) I would put chukaman, yakisoba, takikomi gohan and sukiyaki up there was well! Truth is there are just too many good foods, but the ones above bring something special in terms of atmosphere.

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