I can’t say I’ve always been a huge fan of Japanese food, there is only so much fish I can take! Sorry seafood lovers. But when I visited Japan I was pleasantly surprised at the array of food on offer. So with fellow travel foodies, I share some of the best and favourite Japanese foods to enjoy while visiting Japan – and it’s not all Sushi!

 

Onigiri

Favourite Japanese food of Mackenzie of A Wondering Scribbler

 

Onigiri - Japanese food.

Onigiri, sometimes called Japanese rice balls, are a quintessential part of Japanese cuisine.  Essentially, onigiri is rice shaped into a triangle or oval with a filling and wrapped in nori (seaweed). These portable snacks are widely available across Japan. Found in convenience stores, supermarkets, train stations, and specialized shops known as onigiri-ya. Meaning “to grab” or “to hold,” they’re the perfect portable snack.

While onigiri can be found everywhere in Japan, certain regions boast unique variations. In Hokkaido you might find onigiri filled with salmon or crab, reflecting the region’s abundant seafood. While in Okinawa, onigiri might incorporate local ingredients like pork belly or bitter melon.

Fillings and flavors of onigiri are diverse. Ranging from traditional options like salmon, tuna mayo, and pickled plum to more modern twists like teriyaki chicken and spicy cod roe. Even unconventional fillings like bacon and cheese.

When I lived in Japan, onigiri was one of my favorite snacks to grab from a conbini like 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart. I would get one typically filled with tuna mayo or salmon and bring it on the train or eat while I was out in Tokyo. I even make them at home, either hand-shaping them or using s special mold.

 

Uiro

Favourite Japanese food of Danielle of The Amazing Traveler 

 

Uiro is a traditional Japanese sweet mostly found in and around Nagoya. When I first saw this cake, I didn’t know if it was edible or just a decoration made out of some form of rubber. There were so many different shapes and colors on the table that I seriously thought I should not touch them and spoil the arrangement. After I saw others eating those jelly-looking flowers, bears, and whatnot, I had to try it, and it was phenomenal. It was like being a kid who tasted sugar for the first time in their life. I could not stop.

The sweet itself is made from rice flour and sugar, which gives it a unique texture – it’s chewy, a bit like mochi, if you’re familiar with that. There are dozens of flavors to choose from: cherry blossom, green tea, red bean, yuzu (a type of citrus), you name it, they have it. Since Uiro is essentially a jelly, it can be made into different shapes, from flowers and animals to even fruit replications.

 

Firefly Squid

Favourite Japanese food of Sarah of A Social Nomad

 

Dried firefly squid.

Dried Firefly Squid

Firefly SQuid Sashimi.

Firefly Squid Sashimi

Japan’s Hotaru-ika are squid with bioluminescent organs found in parts of their body.  That’s how they get the name firefly squid as they glow in the dark.  These tiny creatures live only in the central Japan Sea, in Toyama Bay, north of Kanazawa.  They are a seafood that is fished only between March and the end of May.  And it’s even possible to take a trip out on the boats in the middle of the night to observe the catch.  You won’t see the blue glow of the firefly during the day, only at night.  And so when you eat firefly squid, they taste just like other squid, but you have the unique experience that this is the only place in Japan to see them, and to eat them this fresh.

One of the easiest ways to eat firefly squid is in a bento box that you can buy at Toyama train station. But any decent sushi bar or restaurant will serve then.  Only, however, during the season.  The best way to eat firefly squid is as sashimi. And the best place for this is at Kajiyabashi in Namerikawa, that’s the port from where the fishing boats leave and land during Hotaru-ika season.

Firefly squid are also dried (and you can buy them at the Firefly Squid Museum in Namerikawa.

 

Matsuba Crab

Favourite Japanese dish of Kay of Tiny Tot in Tokyo

 

Matsuba Crab Sashimi

Matsuba crab

 

Matsuba crab is a type of male snow crab caught in the Sea of Japan surrounding Kyoto Prefecture and other nearby prefectures. They are in season from November to March, which is also the only time this crab is allowed to be caught.

There are two theories regarding where the name “matsuba” came from. Matsuba means “pine needles” in Japanese. Some people believe the crab was given this name due to its long legs that look like pine needles. Another reason may be that fishermen ate the crab with boiled pine needles.

Matsuba crab has a more delicate and sweeter taste than other types of crab. The meat is also incredibly tender. This is why it’s considered one of the most popular types of crab in Japan.

This crab is particularly famous in Kinosaki Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture. Here, many ryokan and restaurants serve it to the point that the town is called “Crab Kingdom”. Tottori Prefecture also has a day in November dedicated to Matsuba crab.

There are many ways to enjoy Matsuba crab. Boiled, steamed, grilled, or as sashimi. The crab is also typically never frozen so you can usually enjoy it fresh. Every part of the crab tends to be used when preparing a meal. If you are able to enjoy a kaiseki dinner featuring Matsuba crab, you’ll find that the entire crab will be served in different ways, from the legs down to the brains (called kanimiso).

 

Natto

A favourite Japanese food of Vanessa of Traveling Cats

 

Natto in a packet bought from a shop in Japan.
Natto is a soy bean, a favourite dish in Japan.

Mmmmmmm….natto

 

Natto is a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. The name is believed to come from the Japanese verb “natsu,” which means “to ferment” or “to rot.”

To make natto, soybeans are cooked and then fermented with “bacillus subtilis var. natto,” a type of bacteria. This process gives natto its characteristic sticky, slimy texture and extremely strong aroma, which can be off-putting to many unfamiliar with it. Western palates are just not accustomed to the unique flavor profile of natto. But in Japan, a lot of people are addicted to this weird little dish.

It’s often eaten with soy sauce, mustard, or other condiments to balance its strong taste. Some people enjoy it plain, as a breakfast food, while others use it as an ingredient in sushi, salads, or stir-fry dishes.

Natto offers health benefits. It’s a good source of protein, containing probiotics for gut health, providing vitamin K2 for bone and cardiovascular health, and supplying fiber and other essential nutrients.

Are you brave enough to try natto? While it’s a popular dish in Japan and readily available in supermarkets and convenience stores, it’s less common to find it served in restaurants and cafés across Japan. Outside of Asia, it can mainly be found in specialty Asian markets and some health food stores.

 

Mochi

Favourite food of Ketki of Explore With Ecokats

 

Mochi, a Japanese dessert, are cute round buns made of soft and chewy rice. Mochi with a filling are called Daifuku and Daifuku literally translates to “great luck”. Iin traditional Japanese culture, mochi is considered a “food of the Gods” and a symbol of good fortune and happy marriages. One small piece of mochi is almost the equivalent of eating an entire bowl of rice, so in addition to being a treat, it was also used to provide much-needed sustenance.

Mochi is often served as a central part of the Japanese New Year celebration and is used in religious rituals in the Shinto religion. However, nowadays it is available as a snack on streets of most Japanese cities. Also available in convenience stores making it a perfect Tokyo Food Souvenir.

Mochi is made by first steaming the rice which is later pounded and mashed. The resulting sticky rice mass is then formed into the final mochi shape and baked or boiled. Watching the Mochi pounding is also an experience in itself

In its traditional form, Daifuku Mochi is filled with sweet red bean paste. But nowadays, Mochi dough is often tinted with green tea powder (matcha) or other food colorings and wrapped around a sweet center to form a small, bite-sized confection. In a more modernized version, pastel-colored mochi dough is wrapped around mini scoops of ice cream to make some of the prettiest frozen treats in town. Flavors include chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, mango, coffee, green tea, and sweet lychee.

Price (approx): From JPY1000 (approx. US$10) per pack.

 

Yuba

Favourite Japanese dish of Joey of Joey is a Traveler

 

Yuba - Japanese dish.

Yuba

 

“When I visited Japan in May 2023, one of the yummiest and most nutritious foods I had was yuba. Yuba is a soy bean curd skin that’s formed as the “film” on the surface while boiling soy milk. After taking it out by hand or with a bamboo skewer, it’s hung on a long stick for air drying into sheets.

Fun fact: Yuba comes from the Japanese word uba (old woman), because it looks like wrinkled skin, lol! Yuba is chewy with a nutty taste, is high in iron and protein, and low in cholesterol. Yuba can be eaten fresh, dried, or frozen.

While yuba doesn’t have much of a taste, it can absorb any flavour (similar to tofu). So the possibilities to use it in the kitchen are endless. Some people eat it like sashimi, or marinate and add it to a stir-fry, ramen, wrap, or a soup, or use it as a meat replacement.

Although it was invented in China in the 16th century, yuba is one of the local specialties of the Nikko region. Nikko has many Buddhist temples, and the monks who lived there decided to add yuba to their strictly vegetarian diet. So it quickly became a popular local dish.

Today, there are tons of restaurants in Nikko that offer yuba dishes. I tried a vegetarian yuba dish at the Bell Café. It featured rolled yuba, yuba cooked in soy sauce, yuba with a sweet miso topping, and yuba-flavoured konyaku (sashimi).”

If you click on “Nikko region”, you’ll get to my Nikko post that I’d like to include.

 

Konjac jelly

A favourite of Zhou of Greedy Girl Gourmet

 

Konjac Jelly a Japanese favourite.

Konjac jelly, also known an konnyaku jelly, is a traditional Japanese jelly made from the konjac plant, which is also known as Devil’s Tongue Yam, Voodoo Plant and Elephant Foot Yam (so yes it’s usually vegan, and a good substitute for gelatine.) It made its way to Japan from China, where it’s a native plant, in the 6th century. Since then, it has been used to make healthy food in Japan for centuries: it’s mainly water, and high in fibre (so super filling but low in calories!) 

By itself, the jelly has no taste, but is often added to savory soups (such as oden) and sauces for its unique bouncy texture. Sometimes it’s added as a block, and other times it’s shredded into noodles (shirataki noodles.) It’s also made into sweet treats: fruit flavouring is added, and it is made into a sweet jelly, such as this yuzu konnyaku jelly. In the US, these sweet jellies are known as lychee cups or konjac candy.

Unfortunately, because it doesn’t dissolve in the mouth, children have actually chosen to death on these jellies, so it’s banned in some countries such as Australia and the EU. Please chew carefully!

 

Tonkatsu Ramen

Favourite Japanese dish of Jared of Good Travel Days

 

Tonkotsu Ramen a Japanese favourite food.

Rich and flavoursome Tonkatsu

 

Tonkatsu ramen is a rich and flavorful dish and a must-try for anyone exploring Japan! It is a creamy, savory broth that’s made from pork bones that have been simmered for hours, often overnight. This is where the name “Tonkotsu” ramen comes from. In Japanese, “ton” means pork, and “kotsu” means bones.

The noodles in tonkatsu ramen are typically thick and chewy, allowing them to hold the broth. Toppings vary but often include slices of braised pork, mushrooms, and “Ajitsuke Tamago,” which is a soft-boiled egg marinated in soy sauce.

Tonkatsu ramen was originally invented in 1937 in Fukuoka, on the Kyushu island of Japan. Although, nowadays it offers the delicious taste of Japanese culinary tradition all throughout Japan.

If you’re in Tokyo, there are two spots I can recommend you try. Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Harajuku is a favourite of mine. Located right near Harajuku Station, they serve up some of the best tonkotsu ramen that I’ve tried. The broth is rich and flavorful, the egg is perfect, and the noodles are just right.

There’s also Hakata Furyu in Takadanobaba, Shinjuku. This place offers a unique experience with its vending machine-style ordering system. You simply click the image of the dish you want, pay, and then hand your ticket to a waiter. It’s fun and eliminates any language barrier issues. Plus, their ramen is fairly good.

 

Shojin Ryori

Favourite Japanese dish of Cassie of Cassie the Hag

 

Shojin ryori a Japanese favourite food.

A Buddhist Monks Favourite Japanese Food

 

Shojin Ryori is a traditional Japanese food and the key diet of Buddhist monks in Japan since the 13th century and is therefore fully vegetarian (usually vegan).

The name very roughly translates to focus (sho), move forward (jin) and cuisine (ryori). Shojin, therefore, is the devotion towards pursuing a clear state of mind, with the adjacent cuisine emphasising harmony, devotion and connection between our body and mind with the environment. 

The average traveller may not come across this cultural dish even once on their travels. However, vegan and vegetarian travellers will likely spend much of their trip eating variations of it, as it’s served in Buddhist vegetarian cafes across the country.

However, the most famous destination for Shojin Ryori is the spiritual mountains in the Wakayama prefecture. Here, visitors trace the steps of Buddhists, emperors, and samurai to hike the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail and stay at the Koyasan temple, where the dish is served. 

A typical Shojin Ryori meal consists of a few small dishes – a bit like tapas – which is a good way of trying a few different flavours. Dishes may include items such as sesame tofu or other soy-bean-based proteins, vegetable tempura, root vegetables, rice, pumpkin soup, and miso-glazed, deep-fried eggplant. 

Meals are prepared to be in balance – both in taste and aesthetics – presenting the perfect blend of colours and flavours. They are also designed to reduce waste, using seasonal vegetables and mountain plants, and with the principle of not harming animals.

 

Takoyaki

Favourite Japanese food of Shreya of Where is Shreya 

 

A favourite Japanese food - Takoyaki.

Any trip to Japan is incomplete without trying the popular Osakan dish, takoyaki. Takoyaki is a delicious mix of diced octopus, tempura bits, ginger, and green onions shaped into a ball, coated in batter and fried. It is served with a rich takoyaki sauce pulling together the final dish. 

Originating from Osaka in 1935, takoyaki is now found all over the world and is often eaten as a snack or a side dish with meals. You won’t be surprised to see several street stalls in cities all around Japan cooking this delicious treat. 

Definitely hang around the stalls to check out how takoyaki is made, it’s a fantastic show. A batter is poured into cast iron pans with half sphere molds. The octopus, ginger, green onions and tempura bits are then added to the batter. Once the bottom half of the sphere is cooked, the mixture is flipped to form and cook the other side of the sphere, creating a perfectly cooked ball. It’s amazing to watch this in person, and to see how fast the chefs are able to make this. 

Takoyaki is then served in a small paper tray with toothpicks for eating. As a popular Japanese snack, you cannot miss this when visiting Japan.

 

Herring Soba

Favourite Japanese Dish of Sophie of Delightful Travel Notes

 

Herring Soba is a Japanese favourite dish.

Soba herring

 

Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, has always had a unique and sophisticated culinary scene. Although herring soba may not be well-known outside of Japan, it is one of the local specialties of the city. The dish consists of soba noodles served in a hot broth with a piece of simmered herring (nishin) on top.

Soba is a traditional Japanese noodle made primarily from buckwheat flour, giving it a distinctive nutty flavor. The noodle can be served chilled with a dipping sauce or in a hot broth as a noodle soup (such as in herring soba).

Due to the inland location of Kyoto, fresh seafood was less accessible in the past. As a result, preserved fish was an essential part of Kyoto cuisine. In herring soba noodle soup, a slab of dried herring is simmered in a sweet and savory sauce made from mirin and soy sauce. I find that the deep flavor of the fish pairs very well with the nutty soba and light dashi-based broth.

This simple yet interesting dish is said to be created in the late 19th century by Matsuba, a longstanding soba noodle shop of Kyoto. Today, it continues to be one of the must-try foods in Kyoto for all visitors. You can find it at many soba shops in the city.

 

Sukiyaki

Popular Japanese Dish of Sophie of Delightful Travel Notes

 

Sukiyaki - a Japanese favourite food.

Sukiyaki is a popular Japanese hot pot dish with a deep savory and sweet flavor. It is traditionally cooked at the table in a shallow iron pot. The word “yaki” in the name means “grill” in Japanese. Due to its communal cooking and dining style, sukiyaki is a favorite for family gatherings and social meals.

Thinly sliced beef is the star of sukiyaki. The beef is cooked at the table together with vegetables, tofu, and noodles, all simmered in a rich soy sauce-based broth sweetened with sugar and mirin. Common vegetable additions include napa cabbage, onions, and mushrooms. Diners then dip the cooked beef and vegetables into a small bowl of raw, beaten egg before eating. The egg adds a smooth mouthfeel and mellows the sweetness of the broth. I was a little concerned about eating raw eggs, but it is considered safe in Japan. The country has very strict regulations regarding the handling and selling of eggs to ensure they are fresh and safe for consumption.

There are regional variations of sukiyaki across Japan, with the Kanto (Tokyo area) and Kansai (Osaka area) regions being the most distinct styles. Regardless of the regional styles, sukiyaki is an excellent dish for trying high-quality Japanese wagyu, such as Kobe beef, which is famous for their flavor and tenderness. Premium beef is one of the best things to splurge on when visiting Japan.

 

Are You Ready to Enjoy Some Japanese Foods?

 

I hope you enjoyed this selection of Japanese Foods and are keen to try them while in Japan.

 

Japanese dishes PIN - Soba, Miso Soup, Sashimi.

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