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The Ultimate Guide to Food in Japan

Author: Charlotte Boswell

Sip sake, slurp soba and gorge on sushi. Japanese food, now one of the most popular and sought-after cuisines in the world, offers an abundance of gastronomical delights and local delicacies. From the traditional to the modern, the high-end to the street and the quick to the drawn-out, Japanese cuisine presents the freshest ingredients, most exquisite flavours and beautiful presentation. A trip to Japan would not be complete without embracing the country’s incredible food scene and culture and here are our favourite Japanese must-try food experiences.

1. Sample sushi at Tokyo’s fish market

Sushi, one of Japan’s most recognised and celebrated dishes, is now a worldwide phenomenon where sushi bars and high-end Japanese restaurants can be found in most major cities across the globe. However, nothing compares to sampling fresh sushi in Tokyo’s famous fish market, Toyosu. Most visitors opt to arrive at the market early to experience the hustle and bustle of sellers and local chefs bartering for the freshest seafood, plus don’t miss out on the famous tuna auction that takes place very early every morning. After exploring, head to one of the market’s excellent sushi restaurants where you can sample exquisite and fresh sushi including sashimi, nigiri, maki, gunkan and temaki. Contrary to popular belief, sushi doesn’t mean raw fish, in fact it means rice seasoned with rice vinegar, sugar and salt. The sushi is topped or rolled with various ingredients including yellowtail tuna, salmon, octopus, eel, fish roe and sweet egg and are generally accompanied by ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. Sushi etiquette is also important in Japan; eat all of what you order, you can use your hands as well as chopsticks, don’t mix ginger and sushi – the ginger should be used as a palate cleanser and only dip fish in the soy sauce, not the rice.

Sushi selection, nigiri, sashimi, make in Toyko

2. Take part in a traditional tea ceremony

Tea has been consumed in Japan for over 1,000 years, however it wasn’t until the 16th century that the highly ritualised tea ceremony started when wealthy merchants, warlords and academics would compete to lay on the most lavish and sophisticated offering. Nowadays, visitors are able to experience an authentic tea ceremony in the cultural city of Kyoto where its purpose is to create a bond between the host and guest and to develop a peaceful mind within busy daily lives. The tea ceremony consists of drinking green matcha tea in a ritualistic way, eating Japanese sweets and behaving in a relaxed and meditative manner. The tea served comes from ground matcha leaves, which are mainly produced in Uji, and have a beautifully bright green colour when brewed.

Tradional Matcha Tea Ceremony in Kyoto

3. Discover takoyaki - Osaka’s favourite street food

The king of Japanese street food has to be Osaka’s most celebrated dish, takoyaki. This delicious spherical snack consists of a small batter dumpling stuffed with octopus and spring onion and is topped with teriyaki sauce, spicy mayonnaise, seaweed flakes and cheese. The word takoyaki comes from tako which translates to octopus and yaki which means ‘fried or grilled’ in Japanese. Ubiquitous throughout the city, takoyaki stalls are dotted throughout Osaka and are open day and night for those takoyaki cravings. Easy to spot, vendors often have giant octopus mascots mounted over their carts and restaurant fronts which are impossible to miss – just choose the spot where the locals are queuing.

Takoyaki fried octopus balls, Kyoto delicacy

4. Slurp on a bowl of ramen

The noodle soup dish of ramen is one of Japan’s most popular and well-known dishes. Originating from China, Japanese ramen is an adaptation of Chinese wheat noodles that were likely introduced by immigrants coming to Japan in the late 19th century. Today, there are countless versions of ramen available and a number of soup bases to choose from. The typical four bases range from shoyu - a soy sauce clear broth, tonkotsu – a pork bone broth, shio – a light broth made from chicken stock seasoned with salt and miso – a broth flavoured with soybean paste. The second key aspect of ramen are the noodles, made from wheat and varying in shape from thin and straight to thick and wavy. The ramen is then topped with a range of ingredients including sliced roast pork, shredded leeks, bean sprouts, boiled eggs, seaweed and fishcakes. Ramen is to be eaten with chopsticks and a Chinese-style spoon and slurping the soup is encouraged – the louder the better!

Bowl of ramen noodle soup in Japan

5. Experience Osaka’s Dotonbori food district

Osaka is Japan’s culinary capital and one of the greatest food cities in the world. According to locals, in Osaka it is possible for one to ‘kuidaore’; eat yourself bankrupt! Within Osaka, the vibrant district of Dotonbori is the best place to experience the spectacular Japanese food culture thanks to its array of restaurants, culinary shops and street vendors. Famous for its neon billboards and eye-catching signage such as giant octopus, crab and puffer fish, these restaurants are all vying for your attention, and choosing can be a difficult decision. Why not take part in your own food safari, hopping between vendors, izakayas and restaurants trying local delicacies such as takoyaki, kushikatsu, negiaki and classics such as tempura, tonkatsu and udon, all followed by some sake or an ice-cold beer.

Dotonbori food district in Osaka, Japan
Aussie Assualt
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6. Enjoy sake tasting

Sake, Japan’s national drink, is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. Often referred to as nihonshu in Japanese, this clear rice wine has a high alcohol content and holds a rather sweet taste, however flavours can range from light and crisp to richer and more fruity notes. Served in most restaurants and izakayas across the country, sake can be served either hot or cold and is usually presented in a small porcelain bottle decanted into a matching porcelain cup. The foundations of a good sake are high quality rice, clean water, yeast and koji mould which are all combined and fermented in a precise process that has been perfected over the centuries. One of the best places to sample sake is in Takayama, a beautiful and small city in the Japanese Alps, which is famous for sake production and home to many micro-breweries. Spend an afternoon sampling different variations of sake visiting the many breweries and pairing it with the light and delicate Japanese dishes such as sushi and ramen.

Different types of sake in Japan

7. Cook your own okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki is a popular pan-fried dish served throughout Japan that literally translates to ‘to one’s liking, grilled’. The okonomiyaki, that resembles an omelette or pizza, consists of fried batter and cabbage stuffed with various ingredients such as pork, shrimp, octopus, cheese or kimchi. It is then topped with a sweet Japanese sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes. In Japan, locals usually eat okonomiyaki at specialist restaurants where you are able to cook your own version on a table-top iron grill, or tepan, which is especially popular in Hiroshima. Enjoy the experience of mixing the ingredients and attempting to griddle and flip the mix, just like you would a pancake, all washed down with a glass of ice-cold beer.

Tradtional okonomiyaki grill in Hiroshima, Japan

8. Try the delicacy tako tamago

One of the more unusual and eccentric delicacies to try whilst in Japan is a famous street snack found in the food markets of Kyoto and Osaka – tako tamago. Tako tamago consists of a baby octopus, simmered and glazed in soy sauce, with a hard-boiled quail’s egg stuffed into its head, served on a stick. The textures and flavours you will experience include chewy, sticky, salty and sweet, and although the thought of a baby octopus stuffed and impaled on a stick may put you off, tako tamago are a delicious street food snack and definitely worth a try. If in Kyoto, sample these delicacies from Nishiki Market, or buy off the vendors at the wonderful Kuromon Ichiba Market in Osaka.

Tako Tamago stuffed octopus, Osaka Japan
Tjeerd Wiersma

9. Eat the exquisite Kobe beef

Kobe beef, one of Japan’s most prized delicacies, is a luxurious cut of meat that is famed for its tenderness, flavour and signature texture. It is a breed of Wagyu, or Japanese cattle, bought up in and around Kobe and is raised under strict standards, although the myths of the cows being massaged with sake or fed beer are not true! The meat is well marbled with fat which makes it tender and flavourful and it is easy to see why Kobe beef is the height of Japanese cuisine. The beef is usually served as a steak, sukiyaki style - sliced beef simmered in a hot pot, or shabu shabu style – very think slices quickly boiled in a flavourful broth. However, one of the best ways to enjoy Kobe beef is at a teppanyaki restaurant where your chef will cook the meat in front of you on an iron grill. Either way, trying Kobe beef is a must when in Japan.

Speciality kobe beef in Japan

10. Make soba noodles in Matsumoto

The popular Japanese soba noodles are noodles made from buckwheat flour (wheat flour is sometimes added for softness too) and they are usually about the same thickness as spaghetti. Popular and easily available throughout Japan, soba noodles are prepared in both hot and cold dishes. The most basic soba dish is mori soba which consists of boiled and then chilled noodles that are eaten with a soya-based dipping. Other variations include kake soba, a bowl of noodles in a hot, clear broth, kitsune soba which consists of soba, a hot broth and sliced tofu and nanban soba, noodles in a chicken and leek clear soup. Originating from the Japanese Alps, one of the best places to enjoy soba is the alpine town of Matsumoto on Honshu Island. For those who would like to experience making the noodles, there are a number of excellent soba shops who offer interactive soba-making classes where you can eat your creations at the end.

Soba noodle dish in Japan

11. Sample crab in Hokkaido

If travelling to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, you will have the chance to sample one of the country’s finest species of crab, the hairy crab. The hairy crab, which is only available during the winter, gets it name from the spikey hairs that cover its shell. It is a rather small crab that can be difficult to eat, however the sweet flavour of the meat makes the effort worthwhile. The famous Japanese delicacy the snow crab, can be eaten throughout the Shimane Prefecture on Honshu, again only in winter. The popular and tasty snow crab has a bumpy shell and long thin legs and produces a decent amount of tender, soft meat. Finally the blooming flower crab is quite large in size and red in colour, the meat is beautifully sweet and the females’ eggs are particularly delicious.

Snow crab dish in Japan

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