Why did you come to Japan?
I have 1001 reasons why I came to Japan, including the language, the art, my friends, and Sailor Moon; and I could list them all out for you but it’s easier just to tell you that I came here because I love Japan.
But that alone doesn’t tell you much of anything.
Everyone will tell you to come and experience its rich culture and tradition, or its quirks and crazy antics, but I’m a foodie at heart; so today, I will share with you only one reason to come to Japan, and fifteen foods to back that reason up.
#1 Reason Why You Should Come to Japan: The Food
Oh. My. God. When I was a kid, I thought ramen was only the stuff that came in those Styrofoam. Boy, was I wrong. Every chef in Japan seems to have their own recipe for ramen. They’re alllll good. Most places will offer a standard bowl of ramen with one of four soup bases: shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso, or tonkotsu. Then there are all the fun variations. In the photo above, one of my favorites: Miso Butter Corn Ramen from Sapporo, Hokkaido. Some others interesting ones I’ve tried include burnt miso ramen, clam shio ramen, tsukemen with a truffle blueberry based broth, and spicy miso ramen from the Yamagata region, which you can try at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum!
2. Soft Cream
It’s a very popular dessert that is offered in most cafés, restaurants, and izakayas. You can find seasonal and regional flavors as you travel, and you can find specialty flavors also offered during festivals (matsuri). My personal favorites? Sakura (cherry blossom) flavor, which is only available during the hanabi (cherry blossom viewing) season, and Matcha (green tea). Even better if the two are swirled together!! If you can find Gyuunyuu (牛乳 , “milk”) flavor, then you are in for a real treat! My brother-in-law described it as eating a cow. Dairy products in Japan are produced in Hokkaido, and the milk products taste very, very rich.
3. Sushi! Sashimi! Chirashi!
This fish is so fresh. That’s a fun phrase to say. Sushi, sashimi, and chirashi-don are generally cheaper and fresher in Japan. Though salmon is my favorite fish, it’s hard to turn down a bowl of Toro-don when you are in Tsukiji, the fish markets of Tokyo, and a bowl overflowing with fresh fatty tuna costs you about $15 USD. I used to pay $10~20 for a plate of two slices back home. It was ridiculous. Kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) shops can be found all over Japan. My husband and I eat at one maybe once a week, and we can enjoy various sushi, a bowl of chawan-mushi or udon, and dessert for under 2,500 yen.
4. Mochi Cream
A lot of people outside of Japan may already know of Mochi Ice Cream, because it’s sold in supermarkets and specialty stores, like Trader Joe’s. But if you’re in Japan, be sure to try the Japanese sweets deli Mochi Cream. Mochi Cream is similar to mochi ice cream, except that it’s not ice cream inside. It’s actually just flavored cream, but chilled at a very cold temperature. You are supposed to wait just a little bit for the Mochi Cream to thaw just slightly before eating. They offer a wide variety of regular flavors, plus seasonal flavors. My favorites include Raspberry Mille-feuille, Cafe Au Lait, Caramel Pudding, Caramel Macchiato, and the most recent addition, Zunda, which is a flavor from the Tohoku region of smashed soy beans.
5. Kaiseki Ryōri
Kaiseki Ryōri is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, but these days you can also get kaiseki for lunch. Kaiseki is considered an art form, where the taste, texture, appearance, and colors of the food are carefully selected, and often include local, seasonal, and/or organic ingredients. One of the best ways to enjoy a kaiseki dinner is to spend one night in a traditional ryōkan, or Japanese inn. Usually, hotels offer a kaiseki dinner as part of the overnight plan, which may be served privately in your room (as in the photo above), or in a shared dining hall. Some plans also include a traditional Japanese breakfast consisting of various small dishes. You can also enjoy kaiseki in Kyoto, though lunch alone can easily run up to 10,000 yen (~$130) per person. My favorite place to eat in Kyoto serves kaiseki set meals for about 4,000 yen, which you can read about here.
Japanese parfaits are another popular dessert. You can often find parfaits offered as dessert in cafés and family restaurants, but there are also many sweets shops that specialize in parfaits. For example, I came across a shop once in Kyoto that sold very strange parfaits: a fried shrimp parfait, a french fry parfait, and a corn dog parfait. No, I didn’t try them! They were almost 1,000 yen and I was too scared!
Parfaits are usually served in tall glasses and consist of layers of ice cream, whipped cream, and fruits. Many places also include a layer of cereal such as corn flakes or rice puffs. Green tea parfaits often are layered with azuki beans. I’ve even had parfaits layered with waffles, cookies, cake, and macarons. One of my favorite parfaits was one served in Cinderella’s glass slipper.
7. Kobe Beef (Teppanyaki)
For the beef lovers. Need I say more?
Kobe beef basically refers to cuts of beef from Wagyu cattle raised in Hyogo Prefecture. The cattle are raised according to “strict tradition”, which includes massaging the animals’ backsides to improve the meat quality. The meat is generally very flavorful, tender, and fatty. Having Kobe beef for dinner can be very expensive; our teppanyaki course dinner at Mouriya cost about 12,500 yen per person. It was totally worth it though.
Yakitori generally refers to skewed, grilled chicken; however, the term may also refer to other non-poultry dishes which are grilled on sticks. There are many kinds of chicken yakitori. I prefer to stick with momo (もも) which is chicken thich, sasami (ささみ) which is chicken breast, and negima (ねぎま) which is chicken with spring onions. But for the more adventurous, you can order things like hatsu (ハツ) or kokoro (こころ) which is chicken heart, or rebaa (レバー) which is chicken liver. These parts of the chicken are sometimes referred to as You can also order torikawa (とりかわ) which is chicken skin; it is grilled until it gets crispy. It’s quite good, but it’s very oily.
As for the non-poultry dishes, I really enjoy buta bara (pork belly)! I usually don’t order this at restaurants, but it’s really good when you are at a matsuri because you can get one stick for about 500 yen and they are very filling since they are made with unusually large slices of meat. The chicken yakitori are also larger than usual at festivals, and you can also buy horumon (ホルモン), or “hormone” meat, which usually refers to the intestines and other weird bits.
9. Soup Curry
Soup Curry is a fairly new local specialty from Sapporo, Hokkaido. Its taste is similar to the curry in a Japanese curry rice dish, but because of the addition of vegetables, chicken, spices, and in some cases, fried cheese, the dish has its own original flavor. The curry itself is a liquid curry, much more watery and broth-like than that of curry udon. There are no noodles in the dish, but it can be enjoyed with a side of saffron rice. When I traveled to Hokkaido, this was by far the best thing I ate when I was there. In fact, just writing this is making me have a craving. I really gotta learn how to make this!
Someone asked me once to describe what okonomiyaki was, and I described it as a “seafood.. meat.. cabbage.. thing.” Some people call it a Japanese pizza, because it’s a batter with various toppings; others call it a savory pancake. I think of it as its own thing. The word okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) includes the kanji characters for “to like” 好 and “to grill” 焼, so the word literally means “grill what you like” or “cook what you want”. Because of this, there are so many kinds of okonomiyaki, and variations of okonomiyaki!
My favorite style is Osaka-style, which is the standard style in most areas of Japan. Usually you cook it yourself at the table. You are given a bowl of ingredients which must first be mixed together before grilling on the teppan (hot plate). It’s really fun! After cooking, you can also put toppings such as bonito fish flakes, okonomiyaki sauce, and nori (seaweed).
In Tokyo, a sticky variation called Monjayaki can be found. The batter is more runny and has a consistency similar to melted cheese. You can also have Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, in which the dish is cooked in layers, rather than being mixed together. It is also cooked with soba or udon noodles. This one is Nick’s favorite style! Then there are the okonomiyaki which can be found at festivals. These ones are gigantic and I usually can’t eat them because they’re bigger than my face.
If you do make it out to Osaka to try their okonomiyaki, don’t forget to also try takoyaki while you’re there, too! Takoyaki is grilled octopus with batter, similar to that of okonomiyaki. It too comes in many variations. There are shops that sell plain takoyaki, with just octopus and batter, and others which mix the batter with cabbage, ginger, and even cheese. This is one of my favorite foods in Japan, and I always have to eat it when I’m at a festival. Always.
12. Shabu Shabu
Literally meaning “swish swish”, shabu shabu is another dish which you cook at the table. You can order various thin slices of meat, tofu, and vegetables, and cook them in a hot pot of broth. Usually it’s a konbu broth (kelp), but some restaurants also offer sukiyaki, kimchi, miso and other flavors. Additionally, after cooking your meat and vegatables, you can dip them into a ponzu, goma (sesame) or miso sauce.
Shabu shabu is really fun to do with a group of friends. I sometimes ate shabu shabu in California, but it would cost about $50 USD at lunch, so I didn’t get to do it often. It’s very cheap to cook it at home, but restaurants are also cheap, usually offering courses between 1,500 to 3,000 yen.
Personally, I enjoy zarusoba (ざるそば), which is a cold soba noodle dish served on bamboo strainers. Even moreso, I enjoy ten-zarusoba which is the same thing but served with a dish of tempura on the side. The best soba is when its made fresh, rather than from dried noodles. But some regions also offer a variety of dried soba noodles which you can cook at home. During the cherry blossom season, you can buy noodles made with sakura petals. I’ve also had cherry noodles from the Yamagata region. The taste was subtly sweet, and I enjoyed it very much.
14. Shaka Shaka Chicken
McDonald’s in Japan is interesting. While they also offer the Big Mac, the Quarter Pounder, and other familiar burgers, McDonald’s Japan also includes things on their menu such as an Ebi Fry Burger (fried shrimp) and Shaka Shaka Chicken, which is basically just a really big fried chicken fillet which you shake with a flavor packet (cheese, lemon, and black pepper are the regular flavor options available). If you’re lucky, you’ll arrive while McDonald’s is running a limited edition burger promotion, in which you can try some really unique stuff! I dedicated an entirely separate blog post to McDonald’s in Japan here.
15. Vending Machine Foods
While not gourmet, you can find some interesting food options from vending machines across the country. The most common places to find a food vending machine are rest stops, manga/internet cafés, and some train stations. The most interesting ones I’ve seen include a 24hr. Hot Menu machine which offers hot yaki-onigiri (grilled riceballs), fried chicken, and french fries; a hot coffee vending machine; and my favorite kind, an ice cream vending machine! Most of the ice cream vending machines offer a Japanese dessert called ice monaka. Monaka is a thin, crisp wafer made from mochi which is filled with a sweet, such as azuki bean or ice cream.
And don’t forget!
I wanted to limit myself to 15 foods, but there are sooooo many other foods I didn’t even get to talk about!!
And if you do come here, do try to also eat other ethnic cuisine, as well. Indian curry is especially good in Japan, and some Italian restaurants cater to Japanese taste so you can find some interesting seafood pasta and pizza options. French patisseries are also very popular, so you can often find shops which sell macarons, and delicious cakes and other sweets.
So are you hungry yet?
I hope so!
Come to Japan! Let’s eat! Everything is delicious!
This post was submitted to the 2011 Special Edition of J∙Festa!