12 Traditional Dishes to Try on Your Next Trip to Japan

Japan’s world-renowned cuisine is a reflection of its storied history—don’t leave the country without trying these foods.

A Guide to Traditional Japanese Food: 10 Essential Dishes to Try From Japan

Not just what to eat in Japan—but where, too.

Photo by VTT Studio/Shutterstock

Japan has a proud and rich history surrounding its cuisine. Kyōdo ryōri, or regional dishes, dominate menus as you move throughout the island nation, where a rotating showcase of plates is powered by a bounty of shun no mono (seasonal ingredients). And then there’s always the regional take on sake to accompany it—which is referred to as jizake when brewed locally.

Traditional Japanese cuisine even has a special name, washoku, which has been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. That complex and diverse gastronomy is owed, in part, to the geography of the country, which affords it access to edible riches from both the land and the sea. Seafood—and sea vegetables—are readily plucked from the ocean, while the earth is cultivated for staples like rice and soybeans. Incorporating a wide variety of seafood and vegetables, as well as fermented foods like pickles or miso soup (known for their probiotic health benefits), Japanese cuisine is traditionally low in fat and high in nutrition.

In Japan, the cuisine is about not only what’s on the plate but also how it’s presented. It’s often said that Japanese people eat with their eyes, and a traditional meal will often include five colors; it’s believed this magic number guarantees that the body will get a nutritious meal.

The history of Japanese cuisine

In 675 B.C.E., the Japanese emperor, Temmu, passed a law that prohibited the consumption of mammalian meat for religious reasons. For 12 centuries, the island nation enjoyed a pescatarian diet rich with vegetable dishes. During the Kamakura period (1192–1333 A.D.) shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) became popular with the general public. As a result of both these historical events, the modern Japanese diet is rich in vegetables, tofu, and soy products, which can include everything from fried tofu to yuba, aka gossamer-thin sheets of soy milk.

However, the most important part of Japanese cuisine (and any meal) is gohan, or rice. (Fun fact: The word “gohan” can also mean “a meal,” which reflects how integral rice is.) Modern Japanese cuisine as we know it can trace its roots back to the Muromachi period (1392–1573) when the principles of ichiju sansai (the common meal presentation of one entrée, one soup, and three side dishes) were established. Ichiju sansai is still considered a common framework for a balanced and nutritious meal to this day.
During the late Edo period (1603–1867), restaurants that specialize in one dish also became popular. Tokyo in particular is known for senmon ryori ten—restaurants that serve one dish such as soba, tonkatsu, ramen, yakitori, and sushi. The owner of the shop becomes a shokunin or specialist in the cuisine.

For the most part, the Japanese did not eat meat until 1872, when Emperor Meiji rescinded the prohibition. (The emperor himself ate meat, and that helped to relax society’s view.) But it wasn’t until after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, when foreign countries sent emergency rations, including canned corned beef, that the consumption of meat became accepted by the masses.
Other influences on Japanese cuisine were also imported from overseas. Chopsticks, advanced pottery techniques, tofu, tea, sushi, noodles, and much more arrived from China and Korea. Tempura is an import from Portugal, and curry from the British Royal Navy. Western Europe introduced beef and pork, and thus began the Westernization of the Japanese diet.
The Japanese pantry is based on fermented foods that are made with a mold called koji, such as soy sauce, sake, rice vinegar, and miso. Umami, the delicious fifth flavor of the palate, is an integral part of Japanese cuisine. It is naturally found in kombu (kelp, a sea vegetable) and katsuobushi (smoked and dried skipjack tuna flakes). The two are used for making dashi stock, which is the base for many dishes.

Here are 10 traditional Japanese foods to try on your next trip to Japan (or at least on your next outing to the neighborhood Japanese restaurant).

A plate of soba noodles with shredded nori on top

Soba is traditionally served with shredded nori as a garnish.

Photo by Piyato/Shutterstock

1. Soba

Buckwheat has been harvested in Japan for more than a thousand years, and it was transformed into noodles, known as soba, in the 16th century. Soba is best enjoyed cold, known as zaru soba, rather than hot, kake soba, to fully appreciate its aroma and texture. Zaru soba is often served with a dipping sauce called tsuyu, which is primarily made of dashi, a popular Japanese soup stock. Don’t throw away any unfinished sauce: You can mix it with some of the hot water that the soba was cooked in (called soba-yu) to create a commonly offered savory soup to finish the meal.
Look for sobaya (soba shop) signs that say teuchi soba for handmade noodles, and keep in mind that 100 percent buckwheat noodles (jūwari) are not as common as ni-hachi, which are noodles made of 20 percent flour and 80 percent buckwheat.

Where to eat soba in Japan

  • Honmura An, in the Roppongi quarter of Tokyo, offers a nice list of small plates as well as handmade soba noodles, featuring toppings like uni or yuba
  • Honke Owariya has been serving soba in Kyoto for more than 500 years. Try its signature dish, hourai soba, which incorporates eight toppings, including shrimp tempura, nori, shiitake mushrooms, wasabi, and grated daikon.
A bowl of tendon tempura with soba noodles and miso soup

Though tempura is now well-known as a Japanese dish, it has Spanish and Portuguese roots.

Photo by bady abbas/Unsplash

2. Tempura

Tempura is a style of cooking in which vegetables, shrimp, and white fish are dipped into an egg and flour batter and then deep fried. It was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the mid-16th century, but the Japanese put their own twist on the dish by adding a special dipping sauce: a blend of soy sauce and dashi that’s often enhanced by grated daikon. The meal is usually rounded out with rice, miso soup, and pickles.

Where to Eat Tempura in Japan

  • Tenko, located in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district, is housed in a former geisha house, and its excellent selection of tempura is popular with chefs from around the world, including chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa.
A serving of okonomiyaki sitting on a griddle

Osaka is known for its plethora of okonomiyaki restaurants.

Photo by SubstanceTProductions/Shutterstock

3. Okonomiyaki

Savory pancakes, called okonomiyaki, are primarily made of flour mixed with egg and chopped cabbage and are often enhanced with optional fillings like squid, bacon, or shrimp. At restaurants, the waitstaff will mix the customer-selected ingredients and pour them onto a teppan, a tabletop iron grill, in front of the diner. Just before it is ready to eat, the pancake is seasoned with a savory brown sauce and mayonnaise and garnished with smoky katsuobushi and aonori seaweed.

Since this dish is prepared communal-style, it’s a popular meal to share with friends and family. The dish has cultivated an especially strong following in the city of Osaka, where okonomiyaki is prominently featured on many restaurant menus. Tip: It’s hot near the iron grill, so an ice-cold beer is recommended.

Where to Eat Okonomiyaki in Japan

  • Mizuno, in the Dotonbori neighborhood of Osaka, is one of the best of the many okonomiyaki-specialized local eateries in a city where the pancakes are a sort of soul food for its denizens. Mizuno is a popular eatery, so be prepared to queue.
A plate of tonkatsu on a plate with cabbage, parsley, lemon, and mustard

Tonkatsu is so popular in Japan that it’s considered to be a national dish.

Photo by sasazawa/Shutterstock

4. Tonkatsu

Breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets, tonkatsu (the word comes from ton for “pork” and katsu for “cutlets”) is similar to German-style schnitzel, except instead of being cooked in butter à la Germany, they’re deep-fried in oil. Many culinary historians believe that Tokyo’s Rengatei restaurant was the first place to ever serve tonkatsu, in 1895. Tonkatsu is traditionally served with julienned cabbage, white rice, and miso soup. (Bonus: Many restaurants will offer free refills of the cabbage and rice.) Not a fan of pork? Swap it out for variations of other ingredients that can be similarly breaded and deep-fried, like shrimp (ebi furai) or chicken (chikin katsu).

Where to Eat Tonkatsu in Japan

  • Maisen is housed in a former Tokyo bathhouse, affording a unique space in which to sample tonkatsu. Five brands of pork are on the menu, each affording a signature flavor: We recommend the Tokyo X, which has marbled and tender meat.
Three pieces of seared rare Wagyu beef being placed on a rectangular plate

Wagyu beef is known for its characteristic marbling.

Photo by FFFILMS.IT/Shutterstock

5. Wagyu

Marbled Japanese beef, called wagyu (wa means “Japanese” and gyu is “beef”), comes from four cattle breeds that are raised throughout Japan, with popular breeds like Kobe beef, Matsuzaka-gyu, and Hida-gyu. The marbling itself is called shimofuri and makes for tender cuts of beef that melt in your mouth.

Sukiyaki, created in the late 1900s, is one popular dish that features wagyu, sliced thin and cooked in a cast-iron pan on a portable tabletop grill, along with vegetables and tofu, in a sweet soy broth. The finishing touch is a coating of raw egg, which is brushed on just before being served.

Where to Eat Wagyu in Japan

  • New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is one of the largest purchasers of Kobe beef in Japan (the dinner menu includes wagyu steaks from five Japanese regions), and its marbled beef is as memorable as the fabulous views of the city from the lauded hotel eatery’s 52nd floor (which was immortalized in the film Lost in Translation).
A kaiseki set served with a glass of green tea

Kaiseki is a traditional multicourse Japanese dinner made using seasonal ingredients.

Photo by julianne.hide/Shutterstock

6. Kaiseki

Kaiseki, a multicourse meal of seasonal dishes, is influenced by several ancient traditions, including elements of Japanese imperial court cuisine that date back 1,000 years. Modern-day kaiseki feasts typically feature 10 courses like sashimi, a grilled dish, and a soup, rounded out with rice, pickles, and something sweet, like sliced fresh fruit. Kyoto, where kaiseki is believed to have originated, is especially notable for having many kaiseki-specialized restaurants.

Keep in mind that evening kaiseki meals can run upwards of several hundred dollars. If you’re watching your budget, look for kaiseki restaurants that offer a shorter and more wallet-friendly menu at lunchtime. Be sure to let the restaurant know ahead of time if you have any allergies or dietary restrictions.

Where to Eat Kaiseki in Japan

  • Seiwasou, in Kyoto’s Fushimi District, is helmed by the restaurant’s third-generation chef Tetsuo Takenaka. Pair an outstanding kaiseki experience with neighborhood-sourced sake and views of the eatery’s manicured Japanese garden.
A person's two hands holding yakitori sticks with chicken pieces over hot coals

Traditional yakitori uses almost every part of the chicken.

Photo by Artit Wongpradu/Shutterstock

7. Yakitori

Grilled chicken skewers cooked over charcoal and seasoned with salt or a sweet soy sauce, yakitori (yaki means “grilled” and tori means “chicken”) is a classic after-work Japanese meal and is typically served with ice-cold mugs of beer. Traditional yakitori uses almost every part of the chicken: thigh, breast, liver, gizzard, heart, and skin. (Some unique skewers include cartilage, tsukune (ground chicken balls), or bonjiri, the fatty part near the tail of the chicken.) Yakitori is all about experiencing different textures: crunchy cartilage, fatty chicken skin, rich gizzard, and the chewiness of tsukune chicken balls.

Empty skewers are placed in large cups available on your table, and shichimi (seven-spice) and kona zansho, or powdered sansho (prickly ash peppercorns), can be used to further season the yakitori. Consider rounding out your meal with pickles, edamame, grilled onigiri, and chicken soup. When you order the skewers, most shops will ask if you want each skewer salted or with the tare sweet soy sauce. To make it easy, say omakase and leave it up to the grill master to season each skewer as the shop recommends.
Yakitori restaurants run the gamut from casual standing bars under the train tracks to upscale wooden counters overlooking an open kitchen. Higher-end restaurants will use a smokeless binchotan charcoal. Some yakitori restaurants will also serve yakiton, grilled pork skewers.

Where to Eat Yakitori in Japan

  • The omakase course menu at Ginza Birdland includes popular skewers and the signature house-made chicken liver pâté. Birdland has an excellent wine list and Riedel glasses to elevate the meal. Fun fact: The basement restaurant is next door to the world’s most famous sushi shop, Sukiyabashi Jiro, and fifth-generation Nodaiwa unagi restaurant.
  • Kyobashi Isehiro, a short walk from Tokyo Station, has been serving yakitori for 100 years. The shop is famous for its tsukune.
A bowl of ramen from Chūka Soba Ginza Hachigo

Though Ichiran Ramen is by far one of the most places to get ramen in Japan, try branching out to local mom-and-pop restaurants.

Photo by Frank from 5 AM Ramen/Unsplash

8. Ramen

One of Japan’s most iconic dishes, ramen has Chinese roots. Ramenya (ramen shops) began popping up around Tokyo in the early 1900s and were originally run by Chinese chefs. However, compared to Chinese noodle soups, Japanese ramen typically has a lighter and more delicate broth, though it’s still quite meaty. The broth is usually made with pork bones, but chicken and seafood ramen is not uncommon. Ramen noodles are made with flour and baking soda, which give it a chewy texture. These days there are many ways to enjoy ramen: with soup, without soup, hot, cold, with a dipping sauce, and with a variety of toppings. Regional variations often introduce local ingredients and flavorings as well.

Where to Eat Ramen in Japan

  • Kagari Honten, in Tokyo’s Ginza quarter, specializes in a creamy chicken ramen that features thin noodles, topped with seasonal vegetables. (Note: The shop is cashless, so bring a credit card.)
  • Menya Kaijin offers a unique menu of seafood-based ramen in Tokyo (at Shinjuku), with a broth that’s determined each morning depending on what’s available at the fish market.
A sushi chef holds sushi topped with uni in their hand.

Japan has no shortage of excellent sushi restaurants.

Photo by Moiz K. Malik/Unsplash

9. Sushi

Dating back to 8th-century Japan, when fish used to be preserved in fermented rice, sushi is likely the country’s most popular culinary export today, although few people are familiar with its many variations. Modern sushi is often equated with nigirizushi, the Tokyo-style sushi that tops off bite-sized vinegar-marinated white rice with seasonal seafood. But there are other types of sushi, too, including chirashizushi, or “scattered sushi,” a dish popularly prepared in the home, with ingredients (like seafood, sweet omelet, and vegetables) “scattered” atop the rice, or oshizushi, an Osaka-style pressed sushi that’s often topped with pickled Pacific mackerel.

Sushi styles are greatly influenced by the available local seafood throughout the country. In Tokyo, for instance, the menu is driven by seasonal seafood caught in Tokyo Bay (like anago, a saltwater eel, or kohada, gizzard shad). Often, the fish is served raw, but it can also be pickled, cured, or cooked. Commonplace everywhere, though, is the dish’s base of Japanese-sourced rice that’s mixed with vinegar (and sometimes sugar), along with a garnish of wasabi and soy sauce (with sauce flavors that change throughout the country—the soy sauce used in Kyushu, an island in southern Japan, for instance, is sweet).
Sample sushi at a sushiya—a traditional restaurant that specializes in the cuisine, where you’ll get the freshest flavors by asking for shun no mono (seasonal ingredients) and jizakana (local seafood).

Where to Eat Sushi in Japan

  • Ginza Kyubey—a third-generation sushiya—is an excellent spot to experience top-quality sushi in Tokyo. The founder created gunkanzushi, sushi wrapped in a long strip of nori seaweed that can hold delicate ingredients like uni (sea urchin) or ikura (salmon roe).
  • Maimon Sushi is a high-end kaitenzushi in the city of Kanazawa, offering conveyor-belt sushi, where twice-daily seafood deliveries ensure optimal freshness. Kanazawa is famed for its sushi dishes thanks to its location on the Sea of Japan, which comes stocked with seafood like shiro ebi (white shrimp) and nodoguro (black throat, which is a rich, fatty fish).
A person picking meat up from a shabu-shabu pot

Shabu-shabu is usually enjoyed as a communal meal.

Photo by Eak.Temwanich/Shutterstock

10. Shabu-Shabu

In 1938, Dr. Shoya Yoshida traveled to Beijing, where he tried shuan yang rou, a Mongolian hot pot made with lamb and served with a dipping sauce. Upon returning to Kyoto a few years later, he taught the dish to a restaurant. The dish was then adapted for a Japanese palate, and beef replaced the lamb.

In the original dish, called gyuniku no mizudaki, beef was dragged through a hot kombu broth until just cooked. Later, once an Osaka restaurant began serving the dish, the name was shortened to shabu-shabu, which imitates the sound of meat swishing through the hot broth.
Wagyu beef is often sliced one to two millimeters thin so that it cooks in seconds. After the color of the beef changes, it can be dipped in an aromatic ponzu sauce or a creamy sesame gomadare. After the meat is cooked, vegetables are added to the hot pot. Traditional ingredients include shiitake, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, leeks, carrots, and tofu. The meal often ends with either udon noodles or rice being added to the hot pot.
Shabu-shabu hot pots are served throughout Japan, and regional variations showcase local proteins to replace the wagyu beef, such as crab, octopus, salmon, shirako (cod milt), or buri (yellowtail).

Where to Eat Shabu-Shabu in Japan

  • Imahan Honten, in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district, is a sixth-generation shop specializing in wagyu beef dishes such as shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. In the multistory building, popular with locals, the shabu-shabu is served at low tables.
  • Roppongi Seryna Honten specializes in serving the famed marbled Kobe beef and crab shabu-shabu. The Tokyo Roppongi honten (main shop) has a luxurious Western interior.
Chicken karaage plated with cabbage, parsley, a plum tomato, and a slice of lemon

Karaage is one of Japan’s favorite snack foods, and regional variations can be found across the country.

Photo by ibmoon Kim/Unsplash

11. Karaage

Karaage is a Japanese cooking technique that refers to the process of soaking a protein—items like tofu or fish, but more often than not, chicken—in a soy sauce–based marinade, lightly coating it in potato or wheat flour, and then lightly deep-frying it. The resulting dish should have a crisp, crunchy exterior and a moist, savory interior. Fun fact: The late chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain was a huge karaage fan, specifically the ones from the Japanese convenience-store chain Lawson’s. But Bourdain was certainly not alone in his love for karaage. It’s considered to be one of Japan’s most beloved snacks, and there’s even a competition held each year to determine the best karaage shop in the country, the Karaage Grand Prix.

Where to Eat Karaage in Japan

  • For serious karaage fans, consider traveling to the small city of Nakatsu, located in the Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu, which bills itself as the Karaage Capital of the World. It’s home to more than 50 karaage shops, and Moriyama’s Karaage, a local favorite, is best known for its tender boneless thighs.
A traditionally dressed woman kneels in the center of a room before the items for a tea ceremony.

Tea ceremonies are a time for quiet and reflection.

Courtesy Camellia Kyoto

12. Japanese Tea Ceremonies

In the 1300s, the tea ceremony was popular among Zen monks and samurai warriors for social and political purposes. By the 1400s, the Japanese tea ceremony became a form of artistic expression based on codified procedures that were established by Zen priest Murata Shuko. He pioneered the traditional setting in a small tatami mat room with simple aesthetics. The most important elements of a tea ceremony are the interactions between the host serving the tea and the recipient, as well as the tea utensils, including the chawan (tea bowl) and the sweet wagashi (Japanese confections) served with matcha.

Sen no Rikyu was one of Japan’s most influential tea masters. In the late 1500s he built 40 new teahouses and adopted Murata’s principles of a simple setting. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), the government recognized the tea ceremony as an important cultural heritage, and tea began to be enjoyed by commoners more often.
Chado, meaning literally the “way of tea,” is rooted in Buddhism. It is meant to be a time for meditation and quiet reflection on the local environment and current season. Practitioners of the art will dress in kimonos and source wagashi from specialty shops that incorporate seasonal motifs into the sweets. Chawan bowls are collected by hosts to serve bright green matcha to guests. Part of the ritual is taking in the loveliness of the large bowls after drinking the tea. Guests will traditionally sit on straw mats on the floor. These days, there are also modern tea shops that offer larger spaces with Western-style seating in chairs and a more relaxed environment.

Where to Experience a Tea Ceremony in Japan

  • A traditional Japanese garden is a photogenic background to the tea ceremony at Camellia Kyoto, which has English-speaking staff. Chikiriya matcha from Kyoto’s famed Uji district is paired with seasonal wagashi from the reputable Oimatsu confectionery shop.
  • Experience a modern tea ceremony in Tokyo at Sakurai Tea, which has a room filled with cool copper and warm wood. The master sits behind the counter preparing the tea in front of you, whisking matcha, roasting hojicha green tea, or even making cocktails from boozy tea-infused spirits.

This article was originally published in 2019. It was updated with new information by Mae Hamilton on Tuesday, February 12, 2024.

Yukari Sakamoto immersed herself in the food and beverage world in Tokyo working at Takashimaya department store’s sake section and at the Park Hyatt Tokyo’s New York Grill and Bar as a sommelier. She is the author of Food Sake Tokyo and offers tours to markets in Tokyo.
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