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30 Things to Eat in Japan: From Weird to Wonderful

Learn about what to eat in Japan. Find out about food to try in Japan. Read about things to eat in Japan. Explore Japanese food on a trip to Japan.
What to eat in Japan? Japan offers some of the best cuisine in the world. People love Japanese food everywhere in the world but a visit to Japan can feel overwhelming, particularly when you're hungry. 

Food memories always linger the longest for us and the foods of Japan were no exception. Explore 30 Japanese food experiences that we discovered over the course of two trips: 

1. Japan in the Fall: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in the Autumn
2. Japan in the Spring: Tokyo, Nikko, Matsumoto, and Kanazawa in the Spring

Read on a helpful food guide covering the weird and wonderful things to eat that you'll find throughout Japan plus reasons why these particular experiences were culturally interesting, unusual, or just plain tasty.

Japan food: Okonomiyaki

Categories of Food to Try in Japan

There are a lot of foods to try in Japan covered in this post. Click on the links below to jump directly to a section of interest or read from top to bottom to get a more complete picture of what to eat in Japan.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: The easiest way to experience traditional Japanese foods and some modern interpretations is to travel around Japan by train

What to Eat in Japan: Department Store, Supermarket, and Convenience Store Finds

1. Fancy Fruit 

Japan has a gift-giving culture that is both subtle and over-the-top.  In terms of subtlety, there are rules that govern gifts to give that are dependent on the occasion, status of the gift giver, and whether you are reciprocating.  

If you are new to Japan, the etiquette can be baffling.  At the same time, the gifts themselves can be totally over-the-top and this is all too apparent if you take a stroll through the produce section of the local department store.

My jaw dropped when I saw a price tag of nearly 5000 yen (~40 USD at the time of writing) for a package of 6 apples.  I was even more stunned to see a single melon priced at 12800 yen which translates to over 100 USD. 

Apparently, it's not about the fruit but about the status and honor bestowed upon the recipient and the favor curried for the gift giver.

We were curious and tried a single nice looking apple that cost the equivalent of about 5 USD.  It felt so fancy that we ate it with a knife and fork.  

It was good but then again, the ones we get in the US and Ireland for less than a couple dollars a pound are fine by me.  I have to keep reminding myself that it's not about the fruit.
Gift Fruit in Japan

2. Depāto Treats

Japanese department stores (depāto) are a treasure trove of decadent treats.  Tying in with the gift giving theme, there are many options for packaged sweets and savories. 

Even if you don't have someone to buy a gift for, buy a gift for yourself and surprise yourself with a variety of different foods to try in Japan.
Japan Food: Depāto Treats

3. Japan Supermarket Finds

We love visiting supermarkets whenever we travel.  We typically find interesting, unusual, and sometimes downright weird items to try and they are way cheaper when not bought at a tourist trap.  

We visited a grocery store in Osaka and the place itself was a bit overstimulating with all manner of neon and blinking lights.  We quickly got beyond this though and picked up some treats including savory soy crackers, salted peas, gummy mango cubes, and corn candy.
Japanese Supermarket food

4. O-Bento 

A bento box is ideal for lunch on the go.  Various meats and side dishes sit in little compartments on a tray.  Bento can be found in all the major supermarkets and department stores. 

Known locally as o-bento (the 'o' is honorific), you can see just how much value the Japanese places on these super convenient and super tasty meals on the run.
Japanese cuisine: O-Bento

5. Snack on Onigiri 

Onigiri are a "must try" food in Japan. Onigiri are really handy for long train rides and can be found in all manner of flavors in the convenience stores at the train station.  Onigiri are hand-held rice snacks optionally coated in a seaweed wrapper.  

Flavors range from egg to bean paste to salmon and shrimp.  They are a filling snack to take on the road and are acceptable as breakfast or lunch.
Japanese food: Onigiri

6. Cup of Noodles

In the U.S., instant cup of noodles is an inexpensive dinner that you eat in the dorm in college. In Japan, there are literally dozens of varieties of instant ramen bowls lining the supermarket shelves. 

Hotels in Japan don't always offer breakfast so pick some instant noodles that catch your fancy and you have an easy and fast breakfast in your hotel room. Beware, some of the instant noodles are very spicy.
What to eat in Japan: cup of noodles

What to Eat in Japan: High Tech Ordering Options

7. Feast from a Vending Machine

There are vending machines everywhere in Japan featuring everything from soda to snacks to hot and cold coffee to ice cream and beer.  

We heard that in some neighborhoods you can find more exotic vending machines featuring used undergarments and the like but those are much more hidden from prying tourist eyes.  

We found that the vending machines were a nice way to peruse various products and inevitably used them to secure breakfast in the morning (hot or cold coffee in a can) and to have a drink in the evening  

Many bars have a pricey cover charge so if you want a single beer, the vending machine in your hotel is the most cost effective way to go. Take a chance on something that catches your eye, nothing in the vending machine is that expensive and if you wait, you may not find the thing again. 

I discovered grape-flavored water in a vending machine in Kanazawa. I loved it and kept looking for it everywhere we went in Japan but I never found that grape water again.
What to eat in Japan: Japanese Vending Machines

8. Ticket Machine Restaurant

Japan can feel a bit intimidating to the first time visitor and the pressure of being greeted at a restaurant by an over-eager waiter and then struggling to read the menu and communicate an order can be quite stressful.  

That's why I loved Japanese ticket machine restaurants.  The first time we saw one, we were able to observe a local at a distance to understand the protocol.

Here's how to order at a Japanese ticket machine restaurant:
  1. Decide what you'd like to order based on the numbers and pictures. 
  2. Feed money into the machine to cover the cost of what you plan to order. 
  3. Press the items that you want (usually there are helpful photos so you know approximately what you'll be getting).
  4. Take the ticket that the machine spits out.
  5. Go inside and hand the ticket to the waiter/waitress who will show you to a table.  
  6. The food magically appears less than 10 minutes later.  
When you're finished, there is no awkward process of asking for the bill because you've already paid.

Make sure to experience the best of Japanese fast food at a ticket machine restaurant! 

What to Eat in Japan: Regional Japanese Dishes

9. Soba Noodles

Soba is another fantastic food to try in Japan particularly if you visit Kanazawa and Matsumoto. Soba is a Japanese buckwheat noodle dish. 

Soba can also be prepared using a mixture of buckwheat and wheat flour. Soba can be served hot in a soup or more traditionally cold in a basket. We enjoyed both styles of soba. 

The hot version requires no instruction: slurp away. A bowl of hot soba was offered as a free evening snack at UAN hotel in Kanazawa.  
What to eat in Japan: Soba noodles

We tried the cold version of these local specialty noodles for lunch at tiny Soba Nomugi in Matsumoto. Cold soba requires a bit more instruction which we were thankful that Soba Nomugi provided on a laminated card in English. How do you eat cold soba? 
  1. Pour some soup from the little teapot into the soba cup. 
  2. Pick up a bite of noodles with your chopsticks.
  3. Dip the noodles into the soup. 
  4. Slurp the noodles.
  5. Repeat... :-)
  6. When you finish the noodles pour soba-yu (hot water that was used to boil the soba) into the soup residue that you used for dipping your soba.
  7. Drink the mixture as a soup.
I see soba as the ultimate Japanese comfort food.

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Looking for other great places in Asia for a food focused trip? Read about all the delicious things to eat in Taiwan.

10. Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki was absolutely our favorite Japanese food experience in Osaka.  We sat down in front of a grill and a large menu was placed in front of us.  

We selected the picture of the one that looked best to us.  Okonomiyaki is kind of like an omelette, kind of like a pancake.  It features all manner of ingredients from eggs to noodles, to cubes of meat and seafood.  

This popular Japanese dish is then topped with something like mayonnaise and a soy based barbecue sauce.  The whole thing is then smothered in bonito (fish) flakes.  It tastes way better than it sounds. 
What to eat in Japan: Okonomiyaki

11. Takoyaki 

Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) are an Osaka specialty.  They are made with utmost care and attention along the street with the 'chef' painstakingly swirling and flipping the batter with a toothpick until it goes from flat to a perfectly round shape. 

The whole thing is then smothered in a barbecue sauce and topped with bonito (fish) flakes.  Takoyaki are worth the wait.
What to eat in Japan: Takoyaki - Octopus Dumplings

12. Okinawan Cuisine 

We discovered Okinawan Cuisine at a restaurant in Roppongi Hills in Tokyo.  Okinawa belongs to Japan but is more similar to Hawaii in its culture and influences.  

We pointed to an item on the menu and didn't quite get what we expected.  A plate of ground meat, cheese, and lettuce served over rice arrived in front of us.  I

 thought, 'hmm...this looks more like a taco than something Japanese'.  We whipped out out our Google Translate App and learned that it was actually Taco Rice.  I thought that we might have accidentally ordered a dish for squeamish western tourists.  

A quick Google search later confirmed that this was indeed actual Okinawan Cuisine.  The dish was invented in the mid 1980s and is popular among U.S.military personnel stationed in Okinawa.  

Looks like a bit of cross-cultural pollination going on. Taco rice rates high on my list of what to eat in Japan if you don't like fish.
What to eat in Japan: Okinawan Cuisine

What to Eat in Japan: Dishes Prepared Tableside

13. Sukiyaki 

We tried just one 'upscale' traditional Japanese meal on a mindful visit to Kyoto.  The restaurant served several courses but focused on Sukiyaki which is comprised of meat or tofu in broth with a raw egg on the side.  

The whole dish sits atop a flame that cooks everything and keeps it hot.  Beware, this dish is extremely hot and there is a serious risk of burning the roof of your mouth if you let your impatience to sample the deliciousness get the better of you.
Japanese cuisine: Sukiyaki

14. Conveyor Belt Sushi

You'll find sushi all over Japan, of course. In fact, sushi might be the most famous Japanese food in the world. We aren't huge sushi aficionados and don't often crave raw fish, so going to a really expensive place would be lost on us.  The 'Sushi Go-Round' experience was perfect for us instead. 

You basically sidle up to a station equipped with soy sauce, hot water spigot, and green tea power.  The sushi comes around on a conveyor belt with the price denoted by the color of the plate.  

The sushi chef stands in the center presiding over the whole affair.  You simply pick whatever sushi looks interesting pick it up with your chopsticks, flavor with a dipping sauce made from soy sauce, ginger, and optionally wasabi, and pop it into your mouth. 

At the end, the waiter tallies up your stack of plates and presents you with a bill.

Where to eat in Japan: Sushi Go-Round Restaurant

15. High End Sushi

Of course, sushi is considered the thing to eat in Japan but if you are not a regular sushi eater back home and don't know exactly what to try, what can you do? If you want higher quality seafood than what you get at the sushi go-round, find a highly rated sushi restaurant on Google Maps and order a sushi set. 

We went to Takasakiya Sushi, a small "mom and pop" run place in Kanazawa Japan. We tried a set of about 8 sushi pieces (you can order with or without wasabi) that showcased the range of sushi options that the chef creates. 

Ordering the set means you are forced out of your comfort zone. I tried uni (sea urchin) and salmon roe which I would not have ordered otherwise but was glad I tried them. 

Beware that nicer sushi restaurants have Japanese-style seating. Takasakiya Sushi had a counter and low tables off to the side. You take your shoes off and sit cross-legged at the table. 

I realized that night that sitting on the floor Japanese-style at dinner is not my super-power. Ow! Fortunately, we were able to move to the sushi counter when a space freed up.

What to eat in Japan: sushi

What to Eat in Japan: Cuteness Overload

16. Cute Cakes

Japan definitely has an eye for all things cute. Keep an eye out in the major train stations and department stores for eye-catching sweets. 

We spotted doughnuts topped with little decorated donut holes. All I can say is: totes adorbs! 

You'll pay a premium for these delicious desserts but eating something cute should definitely be on your must list of food to try in Japan.

What to eat in Japan: cute cakesJapan food: sugar colored to look like a panda

17. Artsy Sugar

Is this the cutest or what?! I think it's sugar? Or maybe salt? A gourmet store at Ueno Station in Tokyo was selling these adorable little pandas to sweeten up your day. 

If you are taking the train on your trip to Japan, definitely take some time to at least do some window shopping at the many shops and restaurants you'll find in the stations.

18. Momiji Manju 

We definitely have a major sweet tooth.  In Japan, we sated it with momiji manju, steamed buns stamped in different shapes and filled with cream, green tea paste, red bean paste and more.  

On Miyajima Island, they took momiji manju to a whole new level.  We found the maple leaf shaped treats in at least ten different flavors.  

I am a bit of a collector by nature so had to buy them all to try.  Fortunately, they cost less than the equivalent of $1.00 USD apiece.

What to Eat in Japan: At the Bar

19. Izakaya 

An Izakaya is a Japanese bar where people often go after work.  Beware that the places tend to be smoky and there is typically a cover charge for drinking beer.  

However, it's worth it to go once for the more local experience.  Have a beer and a snack and do a bit of people watching. 
An Itzakaya in Japan

20. Tempura 

Everything tastes better coated in batter and deep fried.  The Japanese must believe this, otherwise, how can one explain tempura.  

Battered deep fried vegetables or seafood are a must-try side dish with your meal. We tried tempura made to order at a tempura-focused restaurant in Tokyo. 

You can order a variety of vegetables by the piece. I decided to try the pumpkin and lotus root.
What to eat in Japan: freshly prepared tempura

21. Japanese Craft Beer

The Japanese craft beer scene simply exploded between our first and second trips to Japan. Our favorite Japanese craft beer bar was Murmur Biiru stand, a tiny one man operation in Nikko Japan. 

We tried Murmur Stout and Cinnamon Brown Ale. Ask the proprietor to take a polaroid and add you to the wall of fame of visitors. Matsumoto Awesome! 

Pale Ale and Matsumoto Castle Stout at the super-chill Matsumoto Brewery Bar were also highlights of our trip. Yuwaku Yuzu Ale from Oriental Brewing in Kanazawa was citrusy and a little spicy. We even found craft beer at a stall at the Omicho Market in Kanazawa. 

We tried a sampler of fruit beers from Johana Beer. The blood orange fruit beer was my favorite. As you can see, the Japanese craft beer scene offers a wide range of choices for every beer drinker's palate.

What to drink in Japan: Oriental Brewing craft beer in KanazawaWhat to drink in Japan: Japanese craft beer at Matsumoto Brewery

22. Sake

Sake, fermented rice wine, is a must-try on a visit to Japan. If you visit Kanazawa, you'll be centered in a sake producing region. 

Unlike red and white wine that you might find in Europe of California, sake is very dry with very subtle differences in taste. The UAN Hotel in Kanazawa offers sake tastings so you can sample the wide range of flavors and qualities.

What to drink in Japan: sake

What to Eat in Japan: Street Food

23. Japanese Street Food 

Nearly everywhere we went, we indulged in street food treats from corn fritters near the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, to steamed pork buns to octopus on a stick to mochi filled with red bean paste and green tea ice cream. 

Freshly fried crab cakes at Omicho Market in Kanazawa are a must try street food in Japan. Definitely a Japanese street food stand-out. We were spoiled for choice with so many temptations when we were out and about.

What to Eat in Japan: Noodles

24. Slurp a Bowl of Ramen

Japanese noodles were my favorite dish and we sampled spicy, savory soups again and again on our trips to Japan.  From thin ramen noodles to thick udon, we slurped away with satisfaction everywhere we went. For recommendations on the best udon in Tokyo, check out this post on The Social Travel Experiment.
Lots of small, fast, no fuss restaurants exist for the businessperson lunch crowd. We discovered a place in Matsumoto specializing in Japanese curry. 

We sampled a bowl anchored with a thick spicy curry sauce filled with fried pork cutlet and udon noodles for lunch. Delicious! I definitely felt like I needed a bib to protect my shirt.

What to eat in Japan: Japanese curry
Click here to go back to the "what to eat in Japan" table of contents

What to Eat in Japan: Zen Experiences

26. Fast Food Tea House 

In Nara we were wandering through a forest dotted with temples.  The Autumn foliage was at its peak around us.  We were starting to get hungry when a small tea house appeared in front of us.  

We sat down inside for a bowl of noodles and free green tea from a self-service vending machine.  It was an idyllic and charming place and the food wasn't bad either!  The surroundings make all the difference.

What to Eat in Japan: Unusual Options

27. Yakitori 

Yakitori is a popular Japanese food in Tokyo, specifically in the Shinjuku neighborhood. Yakitori is formally skewered chicken but can also refer to a wide range of other skewered dishes.  

There are laneways in Shinjuku that specialize in Yakitori.  Not many places have English menus so watch out if you are squeamish.  One place had translated their menu and we realized we could be snacking on womb or a variety of other body parts I wouldn't normally consume.  Needless to say, we stuck with the chicken ;-)
What to eat in Japan: Yakitori and Yakitori menu

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: Tokyo is a city of neighborhoods. Explore what to eat in Tokyo by taking the train to neighborhoods like Shinjuku, Shibuya, Asakusa, and Tsukiji.

28. Kit Kat in Surprising Flavors

The Japanese seem to be obsessed with Kit Kat candy bars.  They come in all sorts of limited edition flavors like wasabi and kobe pudding with prices to match.  

I've mentioned before that I have the 'collector gene'.  In this case, I managed to resist the temptation to buy one of each kind mainly because the small packages were the equivalent of about 3-4 USD each and the large ones more than 8 USD.
What to eat in Japan: Kobe Pudding Kit Kat

29. Grape Mint Tabs

I'm a big fan of Listerine Tabs, the super-strong minty tabs that melt in your mouth and freshen your breath. We were browsing in a drugstore in Tokyo when I came across the Japanese version of Listerine Tabs. 

I'm used to the tabs coming in peppermint or spearmint varieties. The package of mints that I found in Tokyo was purple. This I've got to try! 

It turns out that the tabs were grape-flavored. In fact, they were somehow both grape and minty. Despite the seeming weird flavor profile, it turns out that it just works. Would buy again.

30. Peanut Cream

We've seen earlier in this post that I enjoy seeking out local food finds at the supermarket. One thing that I've noticed is that the Japanese like to put their own spin on foods that I would normally associate with the United States. 

On our most recent trip to Japan, we discovered Peanut Cream. I anticipated that Japanese Peanut Cream would be just like American Peanut Butter. I was wrong. 

Peanut cream has a much lighter and airier whipped texture. In fact, it's almost like peanut-flavored whipped cream. I recommend picking up a tub of Japanese peanut cream and spreading it on bread, cakes, or crackers at breakfast.
What to eat in Japan: Peanut Cream

I hope you've enjoyed reading about the wide range of food experiences available in Japan.  Are there any that we've missed in your opinion?  It's always good to have an excuse to go back and visit  Japan again!

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What to eat in Japan: soba noodlesWhat to eat in Japan: Sugar that looks like a panda.

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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: 30 Things to Eat in Japan: From Weird to Wonderful
30 Things to Eat in Japan: From Weird to Wonderful
Learn about what to eat in Japan. Find out about food to try in Japan. Read about things to eat in Japan. Explore Japanese food on a trip to Japan.
Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog