For many people, food is one of the main reasons to visit Japan. While its unique and diverse cuisine can be intimidating if you’re a first-time visitor, don’t let it put you off.
If you’re unfamiliar with Japanese food culture, eating at a restaurant might feel daunting. What should you order? How do you order? Should you tip the staff? These questions and more can make the experience confusing before you’ve walked through the door.
Thankfully, it won’t take long for you to feel comfortable. Start by sampling a few items in the following list. There will likely be food photos on the menu, so you’ll be fine even if you can’t understand Japanese.
When you’ve found some favorites, visit a Japanese online store when you get home and try to recreate the experience.
Most Popular Foods in Japan for Tourists
Sushi is the most famous food in Japan, particularly for tourists, but we’re not going to feature it in this list. Instead, you’ll find some more unusual dishes you really should try.
Let’s start the list with sashimi. It’s similar to sushi but is made from thinly sliced raw meat or fish that’s served without rice or other accompaniments. You dip the raw fish or meat in soy sauce. Some types of sashimi are served with a spicy sauce on top.
If you want to ease yourself into eating Japanese food, tempura is a good place to start. It’s a very simple dish consisting of battered and then deep-fried meat, seafood, or vegetables. Tempura is typically served with a special dipping sauce called Tentsuyu.
The batter is lighter than you might be used to which makes this dish so unique. It can be served as an appetizer, side dish, or as a stand-alone entree. It’s typically made with prawns and vegetables, such as yams, butternut squash, sweet potato, eggplant, and green beans.
This is another popular dish considered a good introduction to Japanese food. You’ll find it served in various ways with a variety of ingredients. Most commonly, it’s served in noodle soup.
Udon noodle soup is simple. Each flavorful savory bowl will come loaded with soft thick noodles, sliced chicken or beef, fresh vegetables, and various garnishes such as roasted seaweed slices, green onion, sesame seeds, Nora, and dried garlic.
Ramen is another noodle dish consisting of thinly sliced wheat noodles, protein, and vegetables, all served in a rich savory broth.
The flavor and texture of this dish can be changed in many ways simply by making a different type of broth and adding different ingredients and garnishes. There are four main ramen broth bases: soy, miso, salt, and tonkatsu.
There is also the option of adding your own items. Typical garnishes include menma (bamboo shoots), chashu pork, narutomaki (fish cake), scallion, marinated soft-boiled egg, and shiraga nagi (Japanese long green onion).
Soba is the Japanese name for thin noodles. They are made from buckwheat flour or a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour. This dish is very similar to udon and ramen. Soba noodles are often found in savory soup broth. However, they can also be served cold with a dipping sauce or as a hot stir-fry dish.
There are many versions of this dish, ranging from spicy peanut soba noodle salad to beef and vegetable stir fry soba noodles.
This dish consists of cubes of soft or silken tofu coated with potato starch and deep-fried so that the outside is crispy. Typically, you’ll find it served as an appetizer or side dish. However, it can also be the main item in a bento box or served as an entree.
Agedashi tofu is a great alternative if you’re a vegetarian or don’t like to eat meat or fish.
Tonkatsu (Deep Fried Pork Cutlet)
This dish is very similar to the German schnitzel. It is a breaded, deep-fried/tempura pork cutlet traditionally served with rice and sliced cabbage.
Various versions of tonkatsu can be found all over Japan. One is katsudon, which consists of tonkatsu served on a bowl of rice. Another is katsu sando. This is a sandwich with tonkatsu between two slices of plain white bread.
This is Japan’s version of chicken skewers. There are many versions. The skewers are made with bamboo and seasoned with tare sauce and/or salt and spice.
Versions of this dish include:
- White chicken skewers
- Chicken and spring onion
- Chicken meatballs
- Chicken small intestines
- Gizzard and chicken heart
Gyoza is popularly served as an appetizer or side dish at sushi restaurants. It is Japan’s version of the dumpling. The dumplings are typically filled with minced pork, cabbage, scallions, garlic, and ginger. Vegetarian options are typically available too.
Gyozas are typically fried in sesame oil on one side until they have a crispy bottom. The top of the gyoza is steamed which gives it a soft texture. Gyozas are served with a dipping sauce of rice vinegar, soy sauce, and chili oil.
Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed this beginner’s guide to Japanese food and are looking forward to trying some during your visit.