In this section I provide a short description of the many amazing facets of the Japanese cuisine, based on our direct experience. It is therefore very limited to the places and the food we tasted while we were traveling there, but I hope it gives you an idea of the phenomenal range of Japanese dishes, normally identified with their ingredients or styles of cooking, and the many different places where you can taste them – which are incredibly varied, also depending on where you are.
One thing I can tell you for sure: Japan is not only sushi or tempura: it is so much, much more!!
Konbini are small convenience store that may be mistaken for Seven Elevens but they are much more! Their main characteristic is that they're always open 24/7and they are literally on every street corner in major cities, and a little more scattered in villages and rural areas. It is said that there is one for every 2000 inhabitants. The three largest distributors are Family Mart, 7 Eleven and Lawson, but there are other smaller ones such as Ministop.
The primary purpose of a konbini is selling food items of rapid consumption, which Japanese people do a lot. The most popular food you can buy there are the bento (lunch box), instant ramen (they always have hot water to eat them on the spot) and onigiri (rice balls), but they also have of course sushi, fried chicken, sandwiches, salads, and vegetables. We went there primary to buy food for breakfast (since many ryokans don't serve one - and the choice of sweets/cookies is very good) but for fast lunches as well, as many of them have also tables and stools where you can eat in. Lastly, they also sell basic bandages, medicines, and shampoo/detergents so sooner or later you will end up there during your trip to Japan!
An izakaya is a drinking establishment (similar to a pub), serving tapas style food that's meant to be shared among friends. Some are casual, 'divey' looking bars with small wooden tables and chairs, while others are more traditional – shoes must be removed as you sit on tatami floors. You also have the option to sit by the bar. Once seated, you'll be offered an oshibori (hot or cold towel depending on the season) to wipe your hands with, as you order a first round of drinks. You'll notice that the menu is very extensive though easy to navigate, as every dish has its own picture.
Every izakaya menu is different, however a majority of them offer popular items like sashimi, edamame, tofu dishes and various salads; heavier dishes such as korokke (meat and potato croquettes), mini pizzas and sausages; and of course classic izakaya favorites like grilled squid, gyoza (dumplings), okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and yakisoba (stir fried noodles). The options are vast and you'll find yourself wanting to order more as each dish tantalizes your taste buds. You'll be asking for one additional perfect bite of savory and umami. The protocol once inside is to have fun: These places were created to unwind after a hard day's work, so avoid going there if you're looking for a quiet, romantic dinner. These places can get very loud!
As I already said, when you are hungry in Japan you have infinite options for food. Most Japanese people buy ready-food or eat out every day, but if you want to eat at a more traditional restaurant though, you should chose in advance the type of food, ingredients or type of preparation you are up to, as there are many different and specialized options. Sometimes it's hard to figure out from the signs (most of them are in Japanese) but very often restaurants have menus outside with pictures on it, or plastic food models - which form a whole business, given the wide range of dishes! The most popular ones are sushi restaurants, ramen, soba or udon houses, yakitori or gyoza bars, fried food like tenpura or tokatsu places and many more. I will go over our favorite types of food in the section below. Be careful of prices though, as many specialized restaurants can be quite expensive like wagyu (Kobe beef) houses!.
Here you can find a pretty extensive list of different restaurants.
Depachika are markets located on the basement level of department stores. These popular shopping destinations offer a wide variety of ready-to-eat foods like side dishes, bentō, and sweets, along with fresh ingredients such as meat and fish. They tend to be rather expensive but I suggest going to take a look at least once, also because some shops are even directly connected by underground passages to train and subway stations or public parking facilities, making them attractive to busy commuters or shoppers looking to avoid carrying their purchases through rain or hot weather on their way home.
Markets are very popular in Japan, as everywhere in Asia. You will find fish markets in basically any coastal town, but also covered streets markets which are a mix of a traditional market (selling fruit and vegetable), concentration of food stands (our favorite were the fried food ones), shopping streets (selling usually also tourist stuff), and food alleys (with bars, izakayas and restaurants). Here is a list of the most famous ones.
These can be included in the specialized restaurants, but I put them aside because they are really fun to visit. Kaiten-zushi (that's the name in Japanese) is a sushi restaurant where the plates with the sushi are placed on a rotating conveyor belt or moat that winds through the restaurant and moves past every table, counter and seat. Customers may place special orders. The final bill is based on the number and type of plates of the consumed sushi. Some restaurants use a fancier presentation such as miniature wooden "sushi boats" traveling small canals or miniature locomotive cars.
Kaiseki ryori may be called "Japanese haute cuisine". It is a refined multi-course cooking style which emphasizes seasonality, simplicity and elegance. It can be enjoyed at special kaiseki ryori restaurants or at ryotei, expensive and exclusive Japanese restaurants. Many ryokans also serve kaiseki ryori - like the one we slept in Unzen - and it's an experience we will never forget!
(Again, this list is very limited to our own food experience in Japan, and also biased by my taste... so don't take it as a comprehensive guide to Japanese dishes!)
Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup. It consists of Chinese wheat noodles served in a meat or (occasionally) fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and uses toppings such as sliced pork, nori (dried seaweed), menma, and scallions.
There are usually four main types of ramen, depending on the ingredients: Shōyu ramen Shio ramen, Miso ramen and Tonkhotsu ramen, ramen. You can find a detailed description of them here. If you are in japan you cannot miss the experience of eating in a ramen restaurants, especially those with a vending machine (called Ichiran) for ordering!
Made from buckwheat flour, Soba is a traditional noodle dish in Japan and is considered to represent Japanese cuisine along with sushi and tempura. Soba is served in a hot soup, or is cooled and served on a strainer along with dipping sauce.
Udon instead, is a type of thick, wheat-flour noodle. It is often served hot as a noodle soup in its simplest form, as kake udon, in a mildly flavoured broth called kakejiru, which is made of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. Yakisoba is prepared by frying ramen-style wheat noodles with bite-sized pork and finely chopped vegetables like cabbage, onions, bean sprouts and carrots. Then flavored with yakisoba sauce, salt and pepper. Sometimes udon is used as a replacement for the Chinese-style soba and called yakiudon.
Yakitori is a dish of bite-sized pieces of chicken that are skewered and roasted over a grill, typically a charcoal grill. Yakitori is commonly eaten as a snack with drinks, or as a whole meal, and is very popular in Japan given the rich and diverse flavor of the meat, and the casual dining style. For this reason most izakayas would have them. There are many different types of yakitori types, read this before ordering. I would say that this is one of my favorite things to eat in Japan (together with gyoza)!
Tonkatsu is breaded deep-fried pork and Katsudon is a popular Japanese bowl dish with it and eggs cooked in a sweet and salty broth and placed over rice. Katsu, or "cutlet" in Japanese, refers to meat that’s been pounded thin before being cooked. Don, or donburi, identifies this as a bowl dish. In Japanese culture, katsudon is considered soul food, the symbol of a tasty warm meal that can melt even the coldest part of your heart. Katsudon is a typical lunch dish in Japan and it is available at many casual restaurants.
Gyoza are dumplings filled with ground meat and vegetables and wrapped in a thin dough. Also known as pot stickers, gyoza originated in China (where they are called jiaozi), but have become a very popular dish in Japan. The typical gyoza filling consists of ground pork, nira chives, green onion, cabbage, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil, but some creative gyoza shops have also come up with a range of other fillings. They are often served in ramen restaurants or at specific gyoza shops and they are usually eaten with a dipping sauce made at the table of equal amounts of soy sauce and vinegar.
Japanese curry (more commonly called karē) is commonly served in four main forms: curry rice (karē raisu, curry over rice), curry udon (curry over noodles), katsu karē (curry rice served with a breaded pork cutlet on top) and curry bread (a curry-filled pastry). It is one of the most popular dishes in Japan and it's found everywhere!
Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients in a wheat-flour-based batter; it is an example of konamon (flour-based Japanese cuisine) and it's particularly famous in Osaka, where we had it (they make it right in front of you, on a griddle that is usually in the center of the table), but there is also a Hiroshima version that is very popular. You can read about it here.
Sukiyaki is a dish that is prepared and served in the nabemono (Japanese hot pot) style. It consists of meat (usually thinly sliced beef) which is slowly cooked or simmered at the table, alongside vegetables and other ingredients, in a shallow iron pot in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. The ingredients are usually dipped in a small bowl of raw, beaten eggs after being cooked in the pot, and then eaten. We were introduced to this fantastic dish by our dear Japanese friend Tamako and her brother, who took us to a wonderful sukiyaki restaurant in Asakusa in Tokyo!
Kamameshi literally translates to "kettle rice" and is a traditional rice dish cooked in an iron pot called a kama. Later, similar to takikomi gohan, kamameshi came to refer to a type of Japanese pilaf cooked with various types of meat, seafood, and vegetables, and flavored with soy sauce, sake, or mirin. We discovered this with Tamako as well, in a cute little restaurant in Nippori, Tokyo.
Korokke is a delicious fried food made from panko-crumbed mashed potato with carrot, onion, and mince. In Japan, these are tasty street food (we ate them in Ueno Park, with Tamako!) but are also one of those Japanese home-style dishes that can easily be made from scratch.
Japanese people are very into sweets and there are many different traditional treats, the most famous of them probably being the dorayaki -that are mainly made with mochi and red bean paste, azuki, that you will at first confuse with chocolate- but many other cakes and pastry as well! This section is too big and I don't know enough about it (besides eating them) so I direct you here. My favorite sweets to eat there in the morning were Castella cakes, a fluffly sponge cake original from Nagasaki.
I also don't know enough about all the wonderful varieties of Japanese tea, so I direct you here. We were lucky to be taken to an old traditional Tea shop in Ueno by Tamako and it was incredible, especially with the added experience of tasting Wagashi (gelatine sweets). You may also want to learn something about the Tea Ceremony, which is an incredible experience to have while in Japan (we only had one taste of it the first time we went to Japan in 1999).
Sushi is a dish of prepared vinegared rice (sushi-meshi), usually with some sugar and salt, accompanying a variety of ingredients (neta), such as seafood, vegetables, and occasionally tropical fruits. Styles of sushi and its presentation vary widely, but the one key ingredient is "sushi rice", also referred to as shari, or sumeshi. Sushi is traditionally made with medium-grain white rice, though it can be prepared with brown rice or short-grain rice. It is very often prepared with seafood, such as squid, eel, yellowtail, salmon, tuna or imitation crab meat. Many types of sushi are vegetarian. It is often served with pickled ginger (gari), wasabi, and soy sauce. Daikon radish or pickled daikon (takuan) are popular garnishes for the dish. Sushi is sometimes confused with sashimi (see next section). For a complete list of different sushi types, check this page and don't forget to try at least once a sushi conveyor belt restaurant (see above!)
Sashimi is a consisting of fresh raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces and often eaten with soy sauce. Sashimi is often the first course in a formal Japanese meal, but it can also be the main course, presented with rice and miso soup in separate bowls. Japanese chefs consider sashimi the finest dish in Japanese formal dining and recommend that it be eaten before other strong flavors affect the palate. This is a list of all the different types of fish that you can have as sashimi.
(On the picture above you see also a bowl containing shiokara, which Luigi highly recommends, if you are the daring type!)
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