Living in Japan all this time has really changed me at my core, especially if you subscribe to the idea of “you are what you eat.” I’m sure if you asked me when I was twenty if I would eat fish eggs, cold noodles, whole baby octopus, raw anemone, or even seaweed the answer would have been a resounding “No,” coupled with disbelief that anyone would eat these things.
However, I have always been interested in food and traveling, and I tend to think that if someone else likes something then there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy it too. So it went with at least the most popular Japanese food. I’ve eaten it all, and decided to share what I’ve learned in this Japan Food Guide.
In this guide, we share the fantastic foods and some of the restaurants we’ve enjoyed.
In Japan you’ll see everyone very obviously enjoying everything they eat. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone eating cold soba noodles: the loud, sloppy slurping of the soba noodles followed with that contented sigh as the last of it disappears into a mouth that slowly turns into a contented smile.
I can’t say I’ve become a fan of all Japanese food, there are a few things that just didn’t work on my palate, but there is more than enough that I love that when we moved away it didn’t take long to really miss the food of Japan.
Caution – Continue On An Empty Stomach at Your Own Risk!
I love ramen. All ramen. But some of it is better than others. You can really tell the difference when it is made by a master. The broth is a labor of love, concocted over hours and hours in a massive stew pot.
The broth should be rich, salty and packed with layer upon layer of flavor, the meat must be tender enough to pull apart with your chopsticks and melt in your mouth. The noodles need to be just right, not too soft and not too hard. Really, a great bowl of ramen is spiritual!
Tempura is always good, but there are some seasonal variations that are so much better than others. You can almost always get peppers, onion, sweet potato, eggplant, mushroom, shrimp, or fish, but I really love the pumpkin but it is usually only available during the fall and early winter.
Please, don’t get me started on miso soup, mmm, I could have it with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh wait, that’s exactly how you’ll get it in Japan. The first time I realized I didn’t mind tofu was in miso soup.
It seems like everyone is familiar with that Seinfeld episode with the tiny little soup restaurant. It’s too bad the guy who ran the joint was such a jerk, because he was really on to something. Something the Japanese have been doing for ages. Perfect something, become a master at it, and then do nothing but that one thing as best you can, always striving to do it even better each time.
The best places to eat in Japan are just like this. They make one thing, maybe with a couple of variations but not many, and that’s it; but, that one thing they make is perfection on a plate. This gyoza restaurant, Harajuku Gyoza-ro, had a line out the door and six or seven guys making gyoza and plating it as fast as was humanly possible. You want ramen instead of gyoza? Forget it! Rice? What? With gyoza? No way. Find the line, wait in it, eat the gyoza!
This was a new one for me. I’ve had the Viking all you can eat, cook it at your table over hot coals, or on a hot grill, but this was the first time I’d seen a deep fryer set in a recess smack dab in the middle of the table. How does it work?
Easy enough, get seated, get a small bowl of batter and a bowl of bread crumbs, and then head to the buffet. Meats, vegetables, breads, potatoes, sweets, you can’t imagine what all you can deep fry until you’ve worked your way through the buffet. Oh yeah, don’t forget the sauces!
Sure, we’ve all had baby octopus, right? But I’ll bet you’ve never had it with a cooked egg stuffed in its head. That’s OK, neither had I. It was chewy and tasty, and…weird. These are a specialty of Kyoto, and that’s the only place I’ve seen them. But they are very popular.
Would I buy a ten pack like everyone else? No, but the one I ate was pretty good. I certainly wouldn’t turn down a free sample in Costco. In fact, we found them in the Kyoto market which is someplace you need to add to your Kyoto itinerary along with visiting all the amazing sites such as the Fushimi Inari Shrine or the Otagi Nenbutsu Temple.
Yes, America does produce some great beef, and the Argentians are no slouches in the steak department either. However, the best steak I’ve had anywhere, was in Kobe. Beer fed, hand massaged, these cows live the life. Until they don’t.
Then they get cut up into thick steaks and grilled to perfection by a master teppenyaki chef, right there in front of your mouth watering eyes! Expensive? Perhaps, but worth every yen! There are many great Kobe beef restaurants sprinkled all over the city, but right in the center is Steakland. It was amazing, and you can make reservations. Just have your hotel call for you.
Yes, both of those photographs go together. Again, this was one of those “We do one thing, and we do it perfectly” restaurants. The thing they did here was soba. Homemade, buckwheat noodles that carry the flavors and tastes of the broth or sauce they are paired with like nothing else on Earth.
I didn’t think I liked them cold so I ordered the hot soba soup in a miso broth with fresh grated horseradish. It was unbelievable! The best noodle dish or soup I’ve ever had. Then the cold soba came out and I tried it.
Wait, can I eat half this bowl of soup and then get a half order of cold soba? When you go to Nara, feed the deer, visit the shrines and temples, then find this tiny little soba restaurant. Please, do it for me.
What’s okonomiyaki? It’s a pile of fried noodles, with meat and vegetables topped with an omelette and, of course, a secret sauce. When you go to Hiroshima you have to eat it. It’s a law or something. Seriously, it doesn’t sound, look, or seem like a good idea, but it really is delicious.
Where do you find it? Surely you’ve learned this lesson by now, but just in case, you’ll find it at an Okonomiyaki restaurant. There were a few different options on the limited menu but they all had some form of fried noodle, vegetables, meat, and egg.
Just south of Hiroshima, on a little island with the name of Miyajima, you’ll find a stunning, golden torii gate floating majestically in in the water of the small cove. You’ll also find these succulent barbecued oysters.
This wasn’t really a meal, you’d need to eat quite a few oysters to get full, but they made for a great snack after taking several hundred photographs of the torii and the ancient temples and shrines on the island. There were a few different sauces to try so we had a few of each; the miso and the garlic with butter were the best of the best.
Wait, you can get sushi in Japan? Who knew? There are some truly epic sushi restaurants in every corner of the country. The best ones I’ve been at were all right smack dab in the middle of the fish markets. It just doesn’t get any fresher than ocean to boat to auction to table all within a tightly packed square kilometer.
Don’t worry if there’s no market nearby, it’s no problem. There will certainly be a sushi restaurant or ten just around the next corner (unless everyone in the car is really hangry, then they can be harder to spot).
I love a good conveyor belt sushi, but even better than that is the shinkansen express. Order your plates and wait a few minutes for the chef to prepare and set them on the train. The your plates of fresh sushi are whisked out of the kitchen and directly to your table.
Sushi isn’t just about the raw fish sitting on rice. It’s also about the maki, or rolls. A plain cucumber, rice, and seaweed roll is the perfect palate cleanser. Of course, so is a big dab of wasabi!
Dessert – Japanese Style
Always save room for dessert, I always say, and while you may not find the best choices in the restaurant, there is almost always a bakery around the corner. Beard Papa is a Japanese cream puff franchise that has gone global.
The French may have invented the cream puff, but Japan has brought them to the world in a big way. Super fresh, super rich, and super delicious. You can find a store in just about every major city, especially in the malls.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been salivating and dying of hunger the whole time I’ve been writing this article. Time to go find a quick cup noodle to fill my cravings. While I’m doing that, did you know that Japan loves their Kit Kat candy bars and creates new flavors all the time? Check out our video where we try a bunch of them.