The easiest way to really get into a culture of a country is to eat their foods. Japanese foods are famous all around the world for their healthy appearance, use of fish, and well… being really weird sometimes. In Japan I ate school lunch on a daily basis, and this was probably the single best decision I made while living in the country. Seriously. I got to try so many new Japanese foods that I never knew existed, and it expanded my eating habits tremendously. I’ve talked before about my anxiety issues with food, if you’re curious.
Since coming back to America, food has been a blessing and curse. The variety, cheapness, and comfort of the foods back in my home country is great to have. But I miss the simplicity and natural flavors of Japanese cuisine. I often find myself laying awake at night with visions of Japanese foods lingering over my head. I can make a number of the dishes I miss, but there’s just something missing from them.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan and you’re looking for more than just… sushi… I hope this list can give you some ideas of things to try! Because, they’re awesome. Japanese foods are awesome. And I hate sushi. With fish. The fried tofu kind is okay. And the egg ones. Mmmm….
If you find yourself in a Lawson’s convenience store in Japan, please pick one of this up for me. Throw it in the microwave for approximately 20 seconds and enjoy the wonders of curry pan. It’s a finely ground curry mixture (usually pork or beef with vegetables) tucked into a fried bread home. If you’re Hokkaido, don’t even bother getting one from Serico Mart because they’re awful and disappointing, but the Lawson ones…. I lived off of these my last few days because I knew I would never get them again. 7-Eleven also has really good ones. Boston Bake’s are divine. They’re cheap and filling and… well.. probably not good for you at all. Please send boxes and boxes please.
The wonderful Buta-Don. It is Japanese food at its finest, to me. Pork seasoned in traditional Japanese flavors, served over a bowl of steaming rice. Occasionally it will be garnished with some green peas or setting on shredded cabbage. It is the best hangover food, hands down, and it is just so perfect. You can easily find little restaurants selling this stuff for under 1,000 yen (~$10) a bowl. I prefer the thinner slices, personally, but really you can’t go wrong with getting it. I don’t really care for most convenience store versions, aside from Seico Mart’s Hot Chef kind. Which I also lived off of in my last days. I can make a fairly decent version of this at home, but it’s just not the same!
This is a Hokkaido specialty. And boy, is it special! Japan made me fall in love with curry, or that distinct cumin, cardamom, turmeric flavor. Something in my brain is telling me that this is from a Thai dish originally, but don’t quote me on that. It’s pretty much only found in Hokkaido, I’m sure there may be some places in Tokyo that have it, but if you’re waiting the joy of soup curry you must travel to the Great White North – Hokkaido.
There are loads of shop in Sapporo, my favorite is GARAKU, though it is usually super crowded so get there early! Soup Curry Samurai is also a popular bunch of shops. Their coconut soup base is amazing and what you see pictured above! You really can’t go wrong with the pork belly kind. You get a ton of food, usually, plus a side of rice. It’ll cost you between 1,000 and 1,5000 yen usually.
The Japanese like to call this food their version of a “savory pancake”. I like to call it the “Japanese pizza” because pizza in Japan sucks and don’t even bother with ever ordering it, ever. This was the first Japanese food I had in Japan way back when, I had no idea what this could even be, and when we sat down at the huge table with a big ol’ slab of hot metal in the middle I was more scared than intrigued. And then when they served us a bunch of raw chicken I recoiled, thinking, “Why do they let us cook CHICKEN? Aren’t they afraid we’re idiots and will poison ourselves?!”
If anything, eating in Japan has made me realize what a bunch of babies Americans are when it comes to food in not only adventurous eating but also sanitation. Okonomiyaki is the food I would tell students is my favorite when asked. And it is. It’s made by mixing special okonomiyaki flour, eggs, cabbage, etc. together and dumping it on a huge hot plate and cooking it much like you would a pancake. The “etc” but is usually meat, cheese, or seafood. Once the sucker is cooked, you put a load of mayo, a soy-based okonomiyaki sauce on it, and then some fish flakes (which I don’t usually put on because I feel the taste overpowers everything). And lastly sprinkle some green seaweed flakes on top. There’s a rather popular chain shop that I liked called Fuugetsu (風月) that is really cheap and good quality, but you can usually find shops all over the place in Japan.
When I first moved to Japan I hated the chips. I tried to buy the same ones I was used to eating back home, and was face with the sad reality of the weird sweetness in Cheetos and cheesy Doritos. The lack of Cooler Ranch haunted my dreams. Not to mention all the weird flavors… plum???? Cherry blossom???? But, once I stopped trying to make American Chips happen I realized… these chips are so much better!
Now, I can barely eat Doritos State-side because I feel like I’m just dumping sodium into my mouth, and I discovered my perfect potato chip flavor, consommé. Yes, the soup. For over a year I refused to eat these “chicken” flavored chips, and then one day at a friend’s house I was starving and… the rest is history. Lawson’s, again, has a fantastic variety of these consommé chips in crinkle-cut chips. But the Calbee “Consommé Punch” (コンソメパンチ) is a classic. But really, you gotta try all the weird chip flavors. The ones up there are Keema Curry flavored. I swear this post isn’t just for curry. Or is it?
This Japanese dish is made at home or eaten at restaurants. You can get a huge variety of flavors from it, from traditional dashi/soy/sake combo, to Italian tomato, or Korean kimchi (my favorite). If you get it at a restaurant, you’ll have a big fire source in the center of the table which the restaurant will put a huge pot full of broth, veggies and meat on. You’ll cook it at the table and you can usually add more of what you want to it. Everyone then spoons portions of the soup into small bowls and eats with with chopsticks and sipping. There’s another similar style dish to this, sukiyaki, which is usually a more condensed broth that you cook in for a shorter amount of time. I like nabe better, but they’re both great choices. Usually the restaurant will bring out rice at the end which you can dump into the leftover broth. This is the best part.
Udon is a great, simple Japanese food. It may be my favorite of the Japanese noodles. It’s a thick, chewy guy who really has no flavor at all. That may all sound like a bad eating experience but, believe you me, it’s not! At all! Where udon shines is in its simplicity, and kitsune udon is my favorite of the udon dishes. Usually made with a light stock (generally fish-based without all that fish taste), it consists of nothing more than noodles, fried tofu, and green onions. That’s it. Another great food to eat after you’ve drank a bit too much, but it’s really just a great comfort food. The chain “Marukame Seimen” (丸亀製麺) is fantastic. This guy is actually all over Asia, so if you see it outside of Japan be sure to stop in!
Soba is my second favorite noodle. Soba is made from buckwheat, which is the filler crop for rice in Japan. Summer is soba season over there because… that’s when the buckwheat comes in. Rice is fall and buckwheat is spring. In America we don’t really eat this crop, but rather feed it to animals. It definitely has a bit of gummy texture in noodle form, but I love that! It’s also usually light gray in color, which I also really like. In summer, you will usually be served cold noodle dishes. When I was first served this at a school I recoiled a bit at the idea of cold noodles, but it’s super nice and refreshing, the soba noodles are the perfect cold noodle! It’s usually a pile of cooked soba with a side of a heavy soy based sauce, all chilled. You can usually find these “Zarusoba” sets at convenience store for a few hundred yen, and I would usually pick up one of these with a couple beers and sit in a park. Amazing! Most soba shops sell them as well, so be sure to try them out while trying to survive Japanese summer heat!
Okay, I know the name is weird. Okay, I know it’s basically ice cream. But it’s NOT. It’s not, okay? I swear it’s special and unique and Japanese. They don’t call it “ice cream” in Japan, but rather “soft cream”. Which, really, it’s more the latter than the former if you think about it. There’s not ice in ice cream. It’s icy cream. But it’s actually quite soft… Linguistics aside, there’s just something better about Japanese ice cream. They don’t use all that sugar and artificial flavor that you find in America. It’s smoother, richer, thicker. And you get some really unique flavors. Usually, an area that you’re visiting will be famous for a soft cream flavor and you have to try it, even if “bean” is in the name. Get it! The picture above is some lavender and cantaloupe (melon) soft cream I got in Furano. And it was so freaking food. JUST LOOK AT IT.
This translates literally to “grilled meat” and yakiniku is less about the food and more the experience. Though the food is really good. You’ll usually get to select from beef, pork, and chicken with vegetables. You can find these “yakiniku” shops literally all over the place. You’ll have a little grill in the middle of your table, and they’ll give you raw meat that you then cook yourself, try to avoid burning off all the hair on your hands and burning your food to a crisp. I suggest getting a ride of rice to eat the cooked meat over, and order it with sauce or “tare”. Getting the meat with just salt is fine, but the sauce is so much better. You’ll also have soy sauce to dip the meat in.
“Karubi” (カルビ) is my favorite cut of meat to get, which is actually from the Korean “galbi”. I think it’s rib meat. Still not 100% sure on that one… Getting the roast cut is also good, that’s “roosu” (ロース). I shy away from “hormone” (ホルモン) because it’s intestines and takes ages and ages to chew. I mean ages. I don’t even think it’s possible to really chew it. The check is generally split between the group, and you can expect to pay between 1,500 and 2,500 yen a person depending on how fancy you go and how much you all eat.
That’s my top 10 of Japanese foods! I miss all of these guys dearly and I think everyone needs to eat them if you happen to find yourself in Japan, or at a Japanese restaurant that serves them. Have you had any of these dishes? What are your favorite Japanese foods? Let me know in the comments! Let’s talk about Japanese foods. Japanese foods. Japanese foods. Japanese foods.