Food in Japan: 10 Japanese Dishes You Have to Try

There's so much more to Japanese food than sushi and ramen. Local resident Selena Hoy rounds up her favorite Japanese dishes.


Eat Like a Local in Japan Photo © iStock/fotoVoyager

One of the best things about Japan is tasting all the mouthwatering dishes. Sure, you might be able to find sushi in Detroit, but it’s just not the same as the real thing.

1. Kaiseki

Kaiseki dish. Photo credit: Selena/Flickr

Kaiseki is traditional, seasonal, local, multi-course Japanese cuisine. Special attention is always given to color, texture, and presentation in kaiseki, and the meal is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

Though it’s totally possible to eat it in high-end restaurants such as Rokusantei, many prefer to enjoy kaiseki as part of a ryokan, or traditional inn, stay, many of which are famous for their cuisine.  

2. Temakizushi

Tamaki. Photo credit: iStock/MARCELOKRELLING

Sushi hand rolls are homestyle sushi, generally made at home with love but less precision than you would find in a sushi restaurant. Fillings might include tuna, salmon, egg, cucumber, or greens, but anything goes. Not usually found in restaurants, but you may find these in convenience stores, or you could take a class and make your own

3. Unagi

Unagi don. Photo credit: iStock/moomusician

Unagi, or freshwater eel, is an acquired taste, but one that has a lot of fans in Japan. Usually served broiled with a sweet and salty soy sauce based glaze, over rice, unagi is most often found in specialty restaurants that are dedicated to the dish. 

4. Zaru Soba or Cold Soba

Cold Soba Noodles. Photo credit: Selena/Flickr

At its most basic, zaru soba is cooked buckwheat noodles served on a bamboo dish, with a bowl of cold soy-based dipping sauce (our favorite part), and accompanied by toppings like chopped green onions, wasabi, and sesame.

It can often be found at stand-up noodle joints on train platforms for a quick slurp during your commute. 

5. Shabu-shabu and Sukiyaki

Pork shabu shabu. Photo credit: iStock/SuradechK

These hotpot dishes are especially sought after in winter, where the warming combination of tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, and thinly sliced meat and seafood is heated over a small burner at the table.

Best shared with friends and paired with a crisp Japanese beer, you can try this at a specialty restaurant like Nabe-zo. The most convivial way though, is to go to a nabe (hotpot) party where everyone crams into someone’s apartment and cooks together. 

6. Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu served with sliced cabbage. Photo credit: iStock/nenever

Another Japanese soul food, tonkatsu is a breaded, fried pork cutlet, cut into slices and served on top of rice with a side of cabbage and a sweet, salty sauce.

A real stick-to-your-ribs dish, it can be easily found in chain restaurants like Katsukura or in the school or company cafeteria. 

7. Nomihodai

Meaning all-you-can-drink, nomihodai is a popular way to go out and have a good time with friends or coworkers. For a set price, you can go to an izakaya (dining pub) and drink all you want for a few hours.

The drink menu usually includes beer, wine, cocktails, and nihonshu or shochu, and it’s offered at most chain izakayaDoma Doma is a favorite. 

8. Tempura

Shrimp tempura. Photo credit: iStock/Yaii1254

Vegetables and seafood are coated in panko and fried to a light, perfect crisp. These are dipped in salt or shochu and eaten with a satisfying crunch. Common items are shrimp, mushrooms, eggplant, onion, and kabocha squash.

One cheap and cheerful chain that’s popular for a quick lunch is Tenya.

9. Red bean, or an, sweets

A Japanese fish-shaped pancake. Photo credit: iStock/crystaltmc

Sweet red bean paste is ubiquitous in traditional Japanese desserts, finding its way into mochi, ice cream, and pastries.

You can grab some fancy confections at an upscale shop like Toraya, or satisfy your sweet tooth on any street foods store serving traditional Taiyaki (pictured), like those on the way up to Sensoji.

10. Daifuku

The popular Japanese dessert. Photo credit: iStock/MosayMay

This sweet morsel’s name means "big luck" in Japanese, so eating one might just bring good fortune! A light, sweet, chewy mochi coating surrounds a filling of an, or sometimes strawberry or even chocolate. Find these in department store basements that offer specialty food counters. 

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1 Comment

  • NihonScope said

    I love the pictures, I created an izakaya article awhile back and this one really shines! I'm serious the pictures really make this all come to life. The tonkatsu actually looks pretty awesome and I'm not one for pork. One thing I'd say you could add with the nomihodai is to be prepared to either order X amount of plates while drinking, and to ask if it's nama biiru / draft beer. Otherwise you could be getting happoshu beer, which is not really beer, it's pretty much 'discounted' 'light' beer. Anything that is %67 or less malt falls into happoshu and it's designed to avoid beer tax in Japan. - I wrote a bit about it, but there's a Japanese blogger named Tokyo Desu that has a pretty funny page about when and why you would ever want to drink these beers - here's the link for that too: (really is funny)

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