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A Guide to Traditional Japanese Food: 8 Essential Dishes to Try From Japan

By Yukari Sakamoto

May 13, 2019

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Soba noodles have been pleasing palates in Japan since the 16th century. Today, you can sample some of the best at Honke Owariya, a restaurant that has been serving soba in Kyoto for more than 500 years.

Courtesy of City Foodsters

Soba noodles have been pleasing palates in Japan since the 16th century. Today, you can sample some of the best at Honke Owariya, a restaurant that has been serving soba in Kyoto for more than 500 years.

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.

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

Sushi may be Japan’s most famous culinary export. In Tokyo, try it at the top-rated “sushiya” Ginza Kyubey.

1. Sushi

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).

Veggies and seafood take to the deep fryer for the popular Japanese dish tempura.

2. Tempura

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.

Tonkatsu is a pork dish that comes breaded and deep fried; sample one of its best iterations at Tokyo’s Maisen restaurant.

3. Tonkatsu

Breaded and deep-fried pork, 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.

4. Soba

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.

Osaka is known for its plethora of okonomiyaki restaurants, including the top-rated Mizuno eatery.

5. Okonomiyaki

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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.

At the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the marbled beef is as memorable as the city views offered from its 52nd-floor perch.

6. 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 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).

7. 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.

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.

Ramen is served in a variety of styles in Japan. At Kagari Honten in Tokyo, the house specialty is a creamy chicken version.

8. Ramen

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.

>> Next: Tips for Translating the Japanese Art of Hospitality Into Your Daily Life

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