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Traditional Japanese Food – 12 Must-Try Japanese Dishes in Japan

Looking for traditional Japanese food? This is your ultimate food list for must-try Japanese dishes in Japan!

As a travelling foodie, I love trying the local cuisine and traditional dishes when visiting destinations.

Japan is not just one of the best countries for food in Asia but in the world.

I love Japanese food! And it’s among my go-to cuisine when I want to eat something.

When I visited Japan in 2019, I made sure to try a lot of traditional dishes during my time in Tokyo and Osaka.

This guide will give you a tour of traditional Japanese food so you have a handy list for your trip to Japan, when visiting Japanese restaurants, or if you want to make them at home.


Traditional Japanese Food - Best Japanese Dishes To Try - Food Guide on TravellingFoodie.net

Japanese Food Culture

Known as “Washoku,” the traditional Japanese cuisine contains small simple dishes using fresh and seasonal ingredients.

Aside from taste, traditional Japanese diet is based on a whole foods diet focused on unprocessed fish, seafood, and plant-based foods with minimal amounts of animal protein, added sugars, and fat.

Japanese cuisine and diet is rich in nutrients and provides numerous health benefits, weight loss, better digestion, life expectancy, and overall health.

Tempura Chef in Tokyo

This is why Japanese people have always been considered among the healthiest people and having highest longevity in the world.

Japan is 2nd to France in the most Michelin-starred restaurants, which speak volumes about Japanese cuisine on a professional and fine dining level.

Most food and travel bloggers often visit almost every prefecture in Japan as it presents an opportunity for them to show their viewers the traditional Japanese food culture.

Chef preparing steak

Also Read: Traditional Filipino Food – 18 Best Filipino Dishes To Try in the Philippines


12 Traditional Japanese Foods

Whether you already love Japanese cuisine or curious about Japanese food for beginners, here’s a list of 11 popular traditional Japanese food to love that aren’t Japanese desserts!

Curry

When people think of curry, most of the times they think of Indian curry or Thai curry.

But Japan has their own version of curry too!

Amongst the other popular dishes from Japanese cuisines, Japanese curry is also hugely popular, which is why you’ll see it often in anime and manga.

This traditional Japanese food can easily be found at at various restaurants and street food stalls, enjoyed as curry rice, curry udon or curry bread.

It’s also a staple in Japanese households since it’s easy to make in bulk.

Did you know? The curry emoji is actually Japanese curry rice (kare-raisu)!

Japanese Curry is usually made with potatoes, carrots, onions and served with meat and rice.

Since curry was brought to Japan from India, Japanese curry uses some Indian spices as part of it.

Unlike Indian curry, Japanese curry is sweeter and less spicy, and also has a thicker gravy-like texture.

Japanese Curry at CoCo Ichibanya in Tokyo, Japan
Tejikomi-zanmai Curry at Coco Ichibanya in Tokyo

Gyoza

Gyoza are Japanese dumplings filled with minced pork, cabbage and garlic, and usually served with dipping sauce.

You can enjoy this traditional Japanese food steamed and boiled, but it commonly enjoyed pan-fried to make the skin crispier.

Gyoza is widely available as appetizers in restaurants, or as street food snacks from food stalls and vendors.

Aside from the thickness of the gyoza skin, garlic is a key component so a strong garlicky flavour sets it apart of Chinese dumplings.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a pan-fried Japanese savoury pancake dish prepared with egg, batter and cabbage.

Okonomiyaki is particularly popular in the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima in which they have their own variations.

With “okonomi” meaning “whatever you like,” this traditional Japanese food usually has various toppings to your liking including meat, seafood, wasabi, and cheese.

The batter is cooked on a teppanyaki grill, which is why there’s “yaki” in the name.

Popular okonomiyaki toppings are octopus, shrimp, pork, yam, or kimchi (Korean fusion).

The best okonomiyaki I’ve had so far was at Okonomiyaki Kiji in Osaka.

Traditional Japanese Food Okonomiyaki at Okonomiyaki Kiji in Osaka, Japan
Okonomiyaki Kiji in Osaka, Japan

Ramen

Originating from China, Ramen is a noodle soup dish that was brought to Japan in 1859 and became one of the most popular dishes in Japan.

Ramen became extremely popular due to Japanese manga, anime and pop culture.

This traditional Japanese food is one of the most budget-friendly foods for students and travelers, not just in Japan but in the entire world.

Ramen restaurants or stalls, called Ramen-ya, can be found all over Japan, and each region has their own version of this famous noodle soup.

Traditional Japanese Ramen at Ichiran Ramen in Tokyo, Japan
Ramen at Ichiran Ramen in Tokyo

Sashimi

Perhaps the most simple of all Japanese food, Sashimi is thinly sliced raw meat, usually seafood.

Though it sounds simple, the preparation is meticulous and the freshness of the fish paramount.

The art of sashimi (and also sushi) takes very long to master usually up to 20 years!

You’ll also often find sashimi in traditional Japanese set course meal, especially kaiseki in which there’s a specific sashimi course called Otsukuri.

Sashimi is often served with soy sauce for dipping and wasabi to enhance the taste.

It is also typically served with pickled ginger on the side to cleanse the palate, and some luxury sashimi plates would serve sea grapes as well.

Traditional Japanese Food Sashimi at Soy Sushi in Sandals Montego Bay
Hamachi and Tuna Sashimi at Sandals Montego Bay

Soba

Soba is also a noodle dish made of buckwheat flour.

This traditional Japanese food is like the Japanese version of spaghetti and can be enjoyed in either hot or cold dishes.

Though it’s usually overshadowed by Ramen and Udon, Soba dishes can be easily be found all over Japan.

Much like other Japanese dishes, Soba has regional variations as well, but the most common one is enjoying it as cold noodles with Tsuyu sauce.

While soba is enjoyed all year long, there are specific soba dishes that are only available on special occasions.

An example is the Toshikoshi Soba, which is typically served on New Year’s Eve as a symbol of longevity.

Sushi

If there’s a dish that most people associate Japanese food with, it’s sushi!

In its simplest form, Sushi is basically vinegar rice with toppings, usually raw fish.

Sushi is perhaps the most popular Japanese food not only in Japan but the rest of the world.

It’s interesting to note that, like Nova Scotia lobster, sushi was considered poor man’s food, usually for the fishermen, and the use of vinegar and rice was meant to preserve the fish.

Bluefin Tuna Belly Sushi at Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan in Tokyo, Japan
O-toro Sushi at Tsukiji Sushidai Honkan in Tokyo, Japan

Though sushi can still be cheap, it can also be very luxurious and one of the most expensive culinary experiences with some sushi omakase experiences costing over $500 per person!

This traditional Japanese food comes in many forms, and here are some of the popular ones:

  1. Chirashizushi (ちらし寿司) – Chirashi, also known as scattered sushi, is a bed of sushi rice and with sashimi “scattered” over the top in a decorative manner.
  2. Inarizushi (いなり寿司) – Inari is sushi rice stuffed in fried tofu pouches.
  3. Oshizushi – Oshizushi, also known as pressed sushi, is basically like your classic sushi that’s pressed in a box mold so the sushi has a rectangular box shape.
  4. Temaki  – Temaki is hand roll sushi where the fish, sushi rice and toppings are served in a single serve seaweed that’s rolled into a cone.
  5. Norimaki (海苔巻) – Norimake is sushi maki rolls, which is sushi fillings rolled into roasted seaweed and then sliced into bite-sized pieces.
  6. Nigiri – Nigiri sushi is the most classic form of sushi where rice is formed by hand into an oval shape then topped with sashimi and other garnishes.
  7. Gunkan – Small boat type sushi where a small ball of sushi rice is wrapped in seaweed then topped with fish and toppings.
Sushi Platter at Sushi Bar Zipang in Calgary, Alberta
Nigiri Sushi, Norimaki Sushi and Gunkan Sushi at Sushi Bar Zipang in Calgary

Takoyaki

Takoyaki literally translates to “grilled octopus.”

This traditional Japanese food is a savory snack or street food that originated in Osaka.

Tokyaki are grilled balls made from wheat batter filled with octopus bits (or other fillings), and usually topped with katsuobushi (shaved bonito flakes), seaweed flakes, mayonnaise, and takoyaki sauce dressing.

Original Takoyaki at Takoyaki Wanaka Dotonbori in Osaka, Japan
Takoyaki at Takoyaki Wanaka Dotonbori in Osaka, Japan

Tempura

Tempura is the most popular Japanese deep-fried food.

Portuguese travelers introduced the fritter-cooking technique to Japan in the 16th century, which paved way to the creation of tempura.

This traditional Japanese dish consists of lightly battered pieces of seafood or vegetables that’s deep-fried.

Traditional Japanese Food Tempura at Akimitsu Tendon in Manila
Akimitsu Tendon in Manila

Tempura can be easily found all over Japan, and there are specific restaurants and food vendors that specialize and only serve tempura.

Though you can enjoy tempura on its own like a snack, it is also enjoyed as a main dish served with rice, udon, ramen or soba noodles.

I had the best tempura in Tokyo at Kushi-Tempura Dandan-ya, and I also loved the award-winning tempura from Tendon Akimitsu in Manila, which hails from Tokyo.

Dandan'ya Shinjuku Kushi-tempura in Tokyo, Japan
Tendon at Dandan’ya Shinjuku Kushi-tempura in Tokyo, Japan

Udon

The next popular noodle dish after ramen, Udon is thick noodle made from wheat flour.

This traditional Japanese food is typically served as a hot soup in a delicate dashi broth with sliced scallions, but can also be enjoyed on its own as hot or cold noodles.

The basic udon noodle soup is one of the most popular vegetarian dishes in Japan and is considered much healthier than ramen.

You can also enjoy udon with toppings like prawn tempura and fried tofu.

Pork Belly Udon Noodle Soup at Zen Sanuki Udon in Toronto
Pork Belly Udon Noodle Soup at Zen Sanuki Udon in Toronto

Wagyu

When you go to a steakhouse or restaurants serving beef or steak, the most expensive one you’ll find on the menu is usually Japanese wagyu.

Wagyu is beef from special type of Japanese beef cattle that have been raised with specific diet and standards.

Different prefectures in Japan have their own type of wagyu like Kobe, Matsusaka, Miyazaki, Ohmi, Joshu, Sendai, Akaushi, Hida, Kumamoto, Kagoshima, Kuroge and more.

Traditional Japanese Food A5 Wagyu at Ginza Steak in Tokyo, Japan
A5 Kuroge Wagyu at Ginza Steak in Tokyo

And wagyu beef has a specific grading on quality as well: a letter A to C (A being the best) and a number from 1 to 5 (5 being the best).

So you want to look for A5 Wagyu!

This traditional Japanese food is famous for its distinct tenderness and marbling, making it melt-in-your-mouth.

A5 Miyazaki Wagyu at Sandaime Hormonya in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
A5 Miyazaki Wagyu at Sandaime Hormonya in Tokyo, Japan

Yakiniku

Yakiniku literally means “grilled meat” and basically refers to Japanese barbecue.

Similar to the Korean BBQ, this traditional Japanese food is usually enjoyed at Yakiniku restaurants where you’re served raw slices of meat, seafood and vegetables.

Then you have a charcoal grill at the table to cook the meats yourself.

Yakiniku at Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Toronto
Yakiniku at Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ in Toronto

Much of Japanese food revolves around simplicity and bringing out the best of the ingredient.

Unlike Korean BBQ, yakiniku meats usually don’t come pre-seasoned or pre-marinated so you can taste the full flavour of the meat once grilled.

They do typically provide seasoning and dipping sauces (called tare) on the side should you wish to add more flavour on top.

Traditional Japanese Food Yakiniku at Shinjuku Sandaime Hormonya in Tokyo, Japan
Yakiniku at Shinjuku Sandaime Hormonya in Tokyo, Japan

Yakitori

Yakitori is bite-sized chicken pieces on a skewer grilled over open charcoal flame and one of the most popular Japanese barbecue dishes.

This traditional Japanese food is a staple in izakayas where you have it with some cold beer or you can also find it as street food.

Different parts of the chicken are used for yakitori: mune (chicken breast), tsukune (chicken meatball), bonjiri (chicken tail), kawa (chicken skin) and others.

Traditional Japanese Food Yakitori at Sumiyaki Yakitori Don Tanimachi in Osaka, Japan
Yakitori at Sumiyaki Yakitori Don Tanimachi in Osaka, Japan

VIDEO: Most Popular and Traditional Japanese Food Video

Here’s a great video highlighting the Top 50 Most Popular Japanese Foods.


Traditional Japanese cuisine features some of the best foods in the world from raw fish like sushi to the best beef, wagyu!

One thing I love about Japanese food is, despite the onset of westernization and popularity of fusion dishes, Japan still manages to preserve its local cuisine and culinary techniques and traditions.


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