A Guide to Traditional Japanese Food: 10 Essential Dishes to Try From Japan
Japanese cuisine is popular the world over and for good reason. Whether you’re looking for the best foods in Japan, or at your neighborhood Japanese restaurants, this guide to traditional Japanese food has you covered.
Japan proudly claims a rich and varied culture surrounding its cuisine. Kyōdo ryōri, or regional dishes, dominate menus as you move throughout the island nation, where a rotating showcase of plates are powered by the 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 it’s locally brewed.
The overall traditional culinary culture of the Japanese even has a 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, more predominantly, 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.
But in a culture driven by ritual and presentation, there are elements that go beyond what is plated, too. As it is said that the Japanese eat with their eyes, a traditional meal will include five colors—it’s believed this magic number guarantees that the body is getting a nutritious meal.
History of Japanese Cuisine
In 675 B.C.E., the Japanese Emperor Tenmu set a law prohibiting the consumption of meat from mammals largely due to religious reasons. For 12 centuries, the island nation enjoyed a diet rich in seafood and vegetable dishes. During the Kamakura period (1192–1333) shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) became popular with the general public; as a result, the Japanese diet today is rich in a variety of vegetables, tofu, and soy prepared in a number of forms including fried tofu and yuba, or gossamer thin sheets of soy milk. Shojin ryori also practices using every part of ingredients, so that nothing goes to waste. This belief is still adhered to in traditional kitchens to this day.
Central to Japanese cuisine is gohan, or rice. (Gohan also refers to a meal, which reflects how integral rice is to the diet.) When the cuisine takes form as we now know it is during the Muromachi period (1392–1573) when the roots of ichiju sansai, one soup and three side dishes, are established. Many set meals at restaurants and homes follow this model: three side dishes, soup, rice, and pickles. It is considered a framework for a balanced and nutritious meal.
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 the 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 to Japan 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 (aspergillus oryzae), such as soy sauce, sake, rice vinegar, and miso. Umami, the delicious fifth flavor of the palate, is also an integral part of the 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).
The nutritious buckwheat grain has been harvested in Japan for over a thousand years, and in the 16th century, it was first transformed into noodles, or soba. Soba aficionados tend to prefer cold noodles, zaru soba, rather than hot, kake soba, to best appreciate their aroma and texture. This style of cold noodle is served with a dipping sauce called tsuyu that’s based on dashi, a popular Japanese soup stock. Just don’t toss whatever sauce you don’t finish—you can mix it in later with some of the hot water that the soba was cooked in (called soba-yu), which is commonly offered by restaurants as a 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, soy milk skin.
Honke Owariya has been serving soba in Kyoto for over 500 years. Try its signature dish, Hourai soba, which incorporates eight different toppings, including shrimp tempura, nori, shiitake mushrooms, wasabi, and grated daikon. Pair it with soba shōchū, a distilled spirit made with buckwheat and served mixed in with the hot water that the soba noodles were cooked in.
Tempura, a style of deep-fried foods—including seasonal vegetables, shrimp, and white fish that are first dipped into an egg and flour batter—was introduced to Japan by Portuguese missionaries in the mid-16th century. The Japanese twist on the dish is its dipping sauce, a blend of soy sauce and other seasonings that’s enhanced by grated daikon radish. The meal is rounded out with rice, miso soup, and pickles.
Where to Eat Tempura in Japan
Tenko, 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.
Savory pancakes, called okonomiyaki, are based on flour that’s mixed with egg and chopped cabbage and enhanced by optional fillings like squid, bacon, or shrimp. At restaurants, the waitstaff will mix the customer-selected ingredients and pour it 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 flakes (made of dried and smoked skipjack tuna) and aonori seaweed. Tip: It’s hot near the iron grill—an ice-cold beer is recommended.
This communal-style meal is popular with friends and family who sit around the hot plate, sharing the pancakes. The dish has cultivated an especially strong following in the city of Osaka, where okonomiyaki is prominently featured on many restaurant menus.
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; it’s a popular eatery, so be prepared to queue.
Breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets, tonkatsu (the word comes from ton for pork and katsu from cutlets) is similar to German-style schnitzel, except that the German version is cooked in butter and in Japan it’s deep-fried in oil. Many culinary historians believe that Tokyo’s Rengatei restaurant first served tonkatsu back in 1895 (while the restaurant is still up and running, it’s not as good as Maisen, our recommendation below). 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: Try the marbled and tender Tokyo X, or the Chamiton, which has an inherent sweetness.
Marbled Japanese beef, called wagyu (wa means Japanese and gyu is beef), comes from four cattle breeds that are raised throughout Japan, with popular brands 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, layered on just before eating.
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).
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.
Keep in mind that evening kaiseki meals can run 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 of any allergies or dietary restrictions.
Kyoto, where kaiseki originated, is especially notable for having many kaiseki-specialized restaurants.
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.
Grilled chicken skewers cooked over charcoal and seasoned with salt or a sweet soy sauce, yakitori is a classic after-work meal for the Japanese—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.) The pleasure of yakitori is experiencing the different textures: crunchy cartilage, chewy chicken skin, rich gizzard, and the resistance of tsukune chicken balls with minced cartilage.
Diners put empty skewers into large cups. Shichimi seven-spice and kona zansho powdered sansho prickly ash peppercorns are on the counter to season the yakitori. A meal will be rounded out with pickles, edamame, grilled onigiri rice balls, 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 from casual standing bars under the train tracks to upscale wooden counters overlooking an open kitchen. The higher-end restaurants will use a smokeless binchotan charcoal. (Yaki means grilled and tori means chicken.) Some yakitori restaurants will also serve yakiton, grilled pork skewers.
Where to Eat Yakitori in Japan
The omakase course menu at Ginza Bird Land 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 tsukune, balls of ground chicken and minced cartilage, that have a rich texture like firm matzo balls.
A Chinese import, ramen shops (ramenya), staffed by cooks from China, began to operate in Tokyo in the early 1900s. Compared to the Chinese version, however, Japanese ramen claims a lighter and more delicate broth, though its meatiness—it’s usually infused with pork, but also chicken, and sometimes, seafood—is still more potent than the soup served with soba or udon noodle dishes. The thin noodles, meanwhile, are made with flour and baking soda, giving it a chewy texture. Nowadays, ramen is served in a variety of styles: with soup, without soup, hot, cold, with a dipping sauce, and with a variety of toppings. Regional variations will introduce local ingredients and flavorings, too.
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 along 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.
Dating back to 8th-century Japan, when fish was preserved in fermented rice, sushi is likely the country’s most popular culinary export today, although few are familiar with its many varied forms. It 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 crowned with pickled Pacific mackerel.
Throughout the country, sushi styles are greatly influenced by the available local seafood. 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 garnishing of wasabi (a spicy plant-based condiment) 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).
In 1938, Dr. Shoya Yoshida traveled to Beijing, where he tried shuan yan rou, a hot pot made with lamb and served with a sauce to dip the cooked meat. Upon returning to Kyoto a few years later, he taught the dish to a restaurant. The dish was adapted for the Japanese palate and beef replaced the lamb. Thin slices of beef are dragged through a hot kombu broth until just cooked. The hot pot was called gyuniku no mizudaki, beef hot pot. Later, an Osaka restaurant served the dish and shortened the name to shabu-shabu, which describes the sound of the meat swishing in the hot broth.
The wagyu beef is 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 and tart soy sauce and citrus ponzu or a creamy sesame gomadare. Grated daikon with chile pepper can be added to the ponzu. 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 ends with either udon noodles or rice being added to the hot pot.
Shabu-shabu hot pots are served throughout Japan, and regional differences showcase local ingredients to replace the wagyu beef, such as crab, octopus, salmon, shirako (cod milt), or buri (yellowtail), a fatty fish in winter.
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 multi-story 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.
All About Japanese Tea Ceremonies
In the 1300s, the tea ceremony was popular with Zen monks and samurai warriors for social and political purposes. By the 1400s, the Japanese tea ceremony was an artistic experience based on codified procedures that were established by Zen priest Shukou Murata. He pioneered the traditional setting in a small tatami mat room with simple aesthetics. Then as now, the focus was on the interaction between the host serving the tea, the recipient, and the tea utensils including the chawan (tea bowl) and the sweet wagashi (Japanese confectionery) served with the powdered bitter green tea.
Sen no Rikyu was one of Japan’s most influential tea masters. In the late 1500s he built 40 new teahouses and established 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, literally the way of tea, is rooted in Buddhism. It is a time for meditation and for quiet reflection of the environment and the season. Practitioners of the art will dress in kimonos and will source wagashi from specialty shops that incorporate seasonal motifs into the sweets. Chawan bowls are collected by hosts to serve the 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. In contrast to the traditional tea ceremony are modern tea shops that are larger spaces with Western-style seating in chairs and a more relaxed environment than the traditional ceremony.
Where to Experience a Tea Ceremony in Japan
A traditional Japanese garden is a photogenic background to the tea ceremony at Camellia Kyoto with English-speaking staff. Chikiriya matcha from Kyoto’s famed Uji district is partnered with seasonal wagashi from the reputable Oimatsu confectionery shop.
For a modern tea ceremony in Tokyo, the room at Sakurai Tea is 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 has been updated with new information.