To say that Japan is undeniably a food lover’s paradise would be a gross understatement. From seasonal dishes to prefectural specialties, there are almost as many variations on Japanese food as there are people in Japan.
The only real downside to eating in Japan is the sometimes overwhelming choice – oh, and maybe the limited capacity of your stomach. So what should you eat and where? To help give you some culinary guidance we’ve put together a little food map on some of the must-try dishes from the country’s diverse regions. From north to south, it’s a resounding いただきます！
Baked cheese tart
A crispy, golden buttery pastry shell almost overflowing with soft and slightly sweet warm cheese, Hokkaido’s internationally famous desserts are the product of your wildest cheese-based fantasies.
Originally a frozen blueberry and cheese confectionary, the modern cheese tart was born in the snowy city of Sapporo. One day working without access to a fridge the creators accidently realised that in fact the unfrozen version of the tart was more popular. They perfected the little pies of happiness to give us what we have today.
Also popular in China and Thailand, Jingisukan is a grilled mutton dish cooked barbecue style on a dome griddle, often served alongside fresh local vegetables like onions, bell peppers and leeks.
The name of the dish is a nod to the Mongolian Emperor, Genghis Khan, thanks to the Japanese habit of associating sheep with Mongolian soldiers. Though the exact origins of the dish are debatable, these days Japan is widely considered its official home.
Rokkatei Marusei Butter Sandwich
“Butter” and “Sandwich” – is there any other combination of words that could fill you with such simultaneous delight and guilt?
Technically more biscuit than sandwich, the Rokkatei Marusei Butter Sandwich is a nationally-loved Sapporo sweet. Two sweet biscuits sandwich a sweet and creamy filling of raisins, white chocolate, and butter made with Hokkaido sourced milk (and they’re very strict about that).
It’s a classic omiyage from Hokkaido but who said you can’t give a gift to yourself?!
Ramen – one of Japan’s most iconic dishes. Every region, prefecture, and even store has its own take on this iconic meal but it’s difficult to talk about Hokkaido without mentioning its ramen.
A perfect way to brave the cold months up north is a rich warm bowl of comforting miso based soup with a very Sapporo-style sweet corn topping. Sapporo ramen usually features thick, hearty noodles that perfectly balance with the deep broth. In Sapporo, head to the Susukino district to either Ganso Ramen Yokocho or Shin Ramen Yokocho – the city’s legendary ramen alleyways – and choose the restaurant that has the longest queue out front.
In the local dialect “wanko” means bowl and it’s a direct reference to the tiny bowls in which this soba is served.
Eating wanko-soba is a seriously committed affair. In a traditional wanko-soba restaurant, your dedicated server patiently waits for you to finish your tiny mouthful of soba before refilling your bowl with fresh warm noodles. Be sure to cover your bowl with its lid once you’re full to signify your defeat.
One bowl is roughly – depending on the restaurant and how generous the chef is feeling – one-fifteenth of a regular bowl of soba. There are a number of theories around how this style of soba eating came into creation. From hungry festivals goers, to greedy emperors, the origin is anyone’s guess. What we do know is just how much fun this is to eat.
Only available from September to the beginning of December, this exclusively available dish is a must-taste for anyone who has the opportunity when traveling around Tohoku.
Originally from Miyagi and literally translating to “salmon child rice”, harako meshi is a simple combination of melt-in-your-mouth salmon with cod roe cooked on a bed of rice. The key to perfect harako meshi is the freshly-caught and locally-sourced salmon. Understated and delicate, this is Japanese cuisine at its minimal and understated best.
Monjayaki –”monja” to locals – potentially takes the crown as one of the country’s ugliest foods but it is also one of the tastiest.
A cousin of the internationally recognised okonomiyaki, this Tokyo dish features similar ingredients to the Japanese pancake but is much runnier in texture.
With a consistency that can only be described as a hybrid between melted cheese, scrambled eggs and pancake batter, using chopsticks to devour this runny mess is a true exercise in patience. Monja is usually eaten straight from the grill using a small spatula.
Many okonomiyaki places will have monja on their menu, however if you want to get specific, visit the Tsukishima neighborhood in Tokyo which boasts an entire strip of restaurants dedicated to this underrated culinary and visual delight.
It may be a little bit of a stretch but perhaps yaki manju could be considered the Japanese version of roasted marshmallows. Both have crispy fire-toasted outsides covering their deliciously soft core.
Yaki manju are steamed doughy balls filled with anko, a red bean paste, and covered in a spicy, salty-sweet miso paste. Yaki manju stands can be found on street corners all over Gunma prefecture – just follow the toasted cinnamon aroma.
Best described as fish crackers, tatami iwashi consists of processed baby sardines known in Japanese as “shirasu” (another regional food you should try if you’re in Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture). This beer snack-soup garnish hybrid delicacy gets its name from its resemblance to Japanese tatami mats. Traditionally the sardines are entwined to create a thin sheet which is then left out in the sun to dry on bamboo frames.
These days there are many ways to create the addictive, salty treat; a common method is to toast them over open flames. Pick them up from any grocery store or konbini across the country.
An izakaya favourite, takoyaki are golf ball-sized, doughy snacks usually filled with a single octopus piece or a tasty minced octopus concoction.
Topped with a special takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise and bonito (fish flakes) the only real downside to them is that they’re almost impossible to stop eating.
Originating from the booze-loving city of Osaka in the mid 1930s, the hunger for takoyaki is now national. Now ubiquitous, you can find takoyaki almost anywhere from festival stalls, street vendors, and konbinis. The best way to try them would be with a drink at your local izakaya.
Yuba is colloquially known as ‘tofu skin’, though technically not a tofu product, yuba is the skin that is created when boiling soy milk in a pan.
Silky-smooth, dried and crunchy, chewy and rubbery, by itself or as part of an udon dish; there are many ways to make – and more importantly eat – yuba.
Make the trip out to gorgeous Nikko to sample yuba in its many forms. We recommend yuba-topped soba in any one of the restaurants leading up to the famous Shinkyo bridge, or a yaki yuba manju (fried sweet bean cake wrapped in yuba) at one of the stalls opposite Tobu-Nikko train station.
Japan loves pancakes, so much so that you can find different kinds of pancake restaurants all over the country as a result of the recent pancake boom. However the original will always be okonomiyaki.
Known globally as a Japanese pancake, this incredibly versatile and undeniably delicious dish was born in the iconic city of Hiroshima. Made from a mixture of eggs, cheese, flour and fillings tailored to your taste – pork, seafood, beef, okonomiyaki must be one of Japan’s most versatile foods.
First timers don’t be scared when left to cook okonomiyaki, as pancake flipping takes a level of confidence and grace that will come over time.
These chewy flat-sided noodles are so well loved in Kagawa prefecture that there are even taxi services dedicated to personalized udon tours! Each driver has passed written and practical tests to become a certified udon expert. Grab an udon ride and sample one (or more) of the 800 speciality restaurants across the prefecture. There are many different varieties of sanuki udon; try it with hot or bold broth, topped with tempura, or served by itself.
(C)Kagawa Prefecture Tourism Association / Udon noodle and cooked beans as a side dish. That dish(shouyu-name) is a local specialty of Kagawa. It cooked with soy sauce-based sauce and not too sweet. (Japanese cooked beans are always sweet) Local police dog’s name is shouyu-mame / #beans #local #food #soysauce #foods #japan #japanesefood #noodle #udon #kagawa #shoyumame #shouyumame #bean #japanesefood #dish #sauce #yummy #tasty #travel #tourism #tourist #trip
If you want to experience Japan’s love of soy and beans but natto is a little difficult to stomach, maybe shoyu mame is your gateway into the world of bean appreciation.
Salty and sweet, shoyu mame is a traditional sugar, soy sauce and paprika-based, stewed bean dish usually eaten in celebration or as a sign of good harvest. In the past shoyu mame was produced with broad beans but these days modern interpretations of the recipe include peanuts and lupine beans.
Ikinari Dango (いきなり団子) – a specialty from Kumamoto. 🍡 Recipe on http://bento-daisuki.de 😊 #bentodaisuki #japan #japanese #japanisch #nihon #japanesefood #foodie #foodstagram #food #foodporn #instafood #recipe #delicious #tasty #lecker #yummy #oishii #nofilter #cooljapan #lovejapan #ikinaridango #いきなり団子 #dango #団子 #sweetpotato #anko #kumamoto #wagashi #japanesesweets #japanesecandy
A post shared by Bento Daisuki (@bentodaisuki) on Jan 21, 2017 at 2:41pm PST
Sweet and soft ikinari dango is one of Kyushu prefecture’s most popular treats. Traditionally from Kumamoto, ikinari dango is made from sweet potato and anko rolled into a doughy skin, and translates loosely to “easy to make dumplings.” They’re also easy to eat. As in, really, really easy.
Potentially the most well-loved variety of ramen, tonkotsu ramen is a hearty pork-based interpretation of this iconic Japanese dish. The broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours until the bone collagen, fat and marrow produces a creamy white liquid. Still, there are as many ways to make tonkotsu as there are people who love it. And that’s a lotta’ people.
Originating from Kyushu prefecture, the love of tonkotsu is now international thanks to its warm, thick ‘soul food-esque’ quality. Due to its undeniable popularity, tonkotsu is a staple at most ramen stores throughout Japan. So there’s no excuse not to tuck in.
Unique to Okinawa, awamori sake is one of the most popular drinks on the islands. Made from a long grain rice, the clear liquor is mainly enjoyed by locals simply with water and ice. These days however there are many new interpretations on how to enjoy awamori, from cocktails to ume (plum) and coffee-infused recipes.
Though it’s often referred to as “island sake“, awamori is technically more of a shochu than sake due to its brewing technique. Like a good red wine though, the older the awamori, the more flavourful it becomes.
The best way to experience it? Straight from a distillery in the tropical paradise of Okinawa of course!
Sea grapes, green caviar, caulerpa lentillifera – this unique Okinawa speciality has as number of monikers. A type of slightly salty seaweed which features tiny bubbles growing on its stems, it’s a fascinating and fun to eat healthy snack.
Beyond its health benefits (which include high protein, calcium and polyunsaturated fatty acid content), one of the best things about eating umi budo is enjoying the “puchi-puchi” which is Japanese for the pop, pop, popping of the little seaweed bubbles.
What did we miss on this list? Got any regional favorites that people should know about? Let us know in the comments!