15 Weird and Wonderful Things to Eat in Japan


Takoyaki from Gindaco in Tokyo

At the end of every trip I take, I like to sit down and take stock of my experiences.

As I write this now, I’m beaming from ear to ear. I’ve just completed an epic six-month jaunt through Asia and Oceania and, despite a few hiccups, my brain is overloaded with the wonderful memories the world has thrown my way. Last week, I attempted to process some of them.

Dave and I ventured out for dinner and made our way through a list of questions; questions so familiar that we barely have to think about what to ask next.

“What were your top five moments from the entire trip?”

“What about your lowlights?”

“Tell me your five greatest travel disasters.”

“What were your favourite and least favourite places we stayed in?”

“Your five scariest moments?”

“What about your best five meals?”

Ah. Now that one was easy to answer. 

As I began to count my way through the meals that, months later, still have to power to make my stomach rumble, I wasn’t surprised that every single one came from Japan.

Yes, it’s true: You can’t travel to Japan and not fall in love with the food. And while I didn’t love Japan as much as I’d expected, the country fast became my single best food destination in the world. When I look back on my two weeks in the country, it’s the meals more than anything else that stand out for me.

After running a poll on Twitter to see which country you guys most wanted me to write about, I set about putting together a list of potential blog post titles for my time Japan. And, as I looked through my photos, all I could think about was the food.

Today, I want to try something different and share with you my food highlights from my two weeks in Japan. I’ve never done something like this before — mostly because I don’t really know how to write about food in a non-awkward manner — but if you guys like it, I can make it a regular series.

Get ready to get hungry, because this is what it’s like to eat in Japan.

Ichiran ramen in Tokyo Japan

Tonkotsu ramen from Ichiran Ramen in Tokyo

A Japanese institution, Ichiran Ramen can be found throughout the country, and you should endeavour to visit at least once while you’re there. Ichiran specialises in tonkotsu ramen, which means you’re in for a pork-based broth, along with a ridiculous number of customisations to help you design your perfect bowl. You order from a vending machine, which felt very Japanese, and because Dave and I had no idea what we were doing, we chose to press a few random buttons and hope for the best. Next, we were led to our booths.

Yes, at Ichiran, you eat solo, in your own little booth, with little walls surrounding your bowl as you eat. On the table in front of you, you’ll find a sheet of paper and a pencil, which allows you to modify your dish, specifying how strong you want your broth to be, the level of richness you enjoy, how firm you prefer your noodles to be, and which toppings make you happiest. Once you’ve slid your order to the waiting hand in front of you, you’re left to stare at the walls of your booth.

The idea behind Ichiran is that by having diners eat alone, they’ll be able to focus on the flavours of the ramen instead of being distracted by phones and humans. This makes it a great dining option for solo travellers to Japan who are nervous about eating alone. At Ichiran, it’s expected that you’ll be slurping solo, so you won’t attract any unwanted attention by doing so.

Ordinarily, the fact that Ichiran is a chain would put me off and have me rolling my eyes at every article declaring it the best ramen in Japan, but I had to try it, and when I did, I understood. I personally wouldn’t call it the best-best — that accolade is reserved for the ramen I had in Osaka, but as a first meal in Japan, it was mind-blowing. Yes, it’s a chain, but yes, it’s amazing. Make sure you don’t skip out on eating here once while you’re in town. It’s popular with locals, too, which is always a good sign!

Yakitori on Piss Alley in Tokyo Japan

Yakitori from Piss Alley in Tokyo

Speaking of experiences you have to have while you’re in Tokyo, my night on Piss Alley was one of the highlights from my time in the city. Specifically, eating yakitori in a cramped stall on Piss Alley. It doesn’t sound glamorous because it wasn’t, but it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Memory Lane (or Piss Alley if you’re speaking to locals) is in Shinjuku, and it’s the place to come if you’re a fan of meat on a stick. After sunset, wander down the atmospheric street lined with lanterns and tiny restaurants, snapping dozens of photos, and then duck into a random spot for dinner.

We picked a place that looked good and was overflowing with locals, and squeezed our way to a small table. We stared blankly at the menu, listing dozens of animal body parts I’d never sampled before.

“Just pick a bunch of random stuff?” I asked Dave.

“You bet.”

We worked our way through almost 20 skewers of meat over the hour we spent in the restaurant, downing our selection with cold beers and exchanging shy smiles with the locals.

If you’ve always wanted to try weird foods, Piss Alley is the place to come. While they had plenty of regular meat and vegetarian-friendly eats, too, we opted for chicken hearts, chicken anus, chicken gizzards, pork cartilage, pork intestines, pork tongue, and a dozen other skewers filled with strange and delicious eats. They may sound like the least appetising snacks in the world, but Dave and I were smitten.

Takoyaki from Gindaco in Tokyo

Takoyaki from Gindaco in Tokyo

Takoyaki is one of my favourite snacks of all time. I first discovered it in Taipei, have rarely found it anywhere else in the world, and have been itching to try it in Japan, where it originated.

Takoyakis are spherical dumplings, made from wheat and filled with diced octopus, tempura pieces, pickled ginger, and green onion, which is essentially my idea of food perfection. A generous helping of takoyaki sauce (sort of like Worcestershire sauce) is swept across the dumplings, along with a squirt of mayonnaise, and then it’s topped with a seaweed paste and dried bonito flakes. Or, at least, that’s what the classic version of takoyaki is like.

At Gindaco, there are four options to choose from, from the original to negidako (topped with white radish, green onions, dried seaweed, and bonito flakes), cheese mentaiko (topped with spicy cod roe, mozzarella, parsley, and parmesan), and teritama (topped with teriyaki and mayonnaise, egg salad, green seaweed and bonito flakes), and they’re all fantastic.

We grabbed a couple of servings and waited for them to cool. Pro tip: You’re going to want to wait several minutes before eating takoyaki, as they always come out piping hot and will burn your tongue! These balls of heaven were even more delicious than I’d expected. They were crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside, and coated in so many flavours that I immediately ordered another round to sample.

I ate a lot of takoyaki while I was in Japan, and the ones from Gindaco were the best I encountered.

Gyozas in Harajuku Tokyo

Gyozas from Gyoza Lou in Tokyo

Simplicity is the name of the game at Gyoza Lou, in Harajuku, as there are just two options on the menu: steamed or fried.

Obviously, we chose both. Multiple times over.

These were so worth the half an hour we had spent queueing in the cold to get in, and I’m fairly certain we had made our way through six rounds of pillowy dumplings by the time we got up to leave. Whether they were delicately steamed or perfectly crisped, every single parcel was thin, juicy, and light, and I couldn’t stop ordering more. Simple but beautiful, and less than $3 for a round of six.

The restaurant itself was lively and fun, as you could eat on stools surrounding the kitchen or at a separate table to get away from the smokers. Unfortunately, the one downside to this restaurant is that you can smoke inside, although it wasn’t too bad while we were there.

sulphuric egg in Hakone Japan

Sulphuric eggs in Hakone

My time in Japan was all about trying new foods, so when I arrived in Hakone and discovered you could buy a bag of jet black eggs, I was already in the queue.

The eggs take on their black colour after being boiled in a sulfur-filled hot spring that’s just outside of Hakone. They’re not dangerous to eat, and aside from a very slight sulphuric smell and taste, were exactly the same as eating regular chicken eggs. They made for a fun mid-morning snack, especially as we got to eat them while gazing up at beautiful Mount Fuji.

Meal in Yudanaka

A kaiseki in Yudanaka

Time for another new experience! The ryokan we stayed at in Yudanaka offered a kaiseki meal — a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner — for a relatively reasonable price. After checking the reviews were excellent (as this was likely to be something I only did once, due to high costs), we emailed the owner to book.

We spent the afternoon bathing in the guesthouse’s private onsen, then entered the tatami mat room and took our seats on the floor. There was a ridiculously drinkable plum wine waiting for us — handmade by the owner — and as we raved about it to each other, the courses began to arrive. One by one, we were presented with local, seasonal dishes — far too many for me to eat and many of them entirely unrecognisable. It was all fantastic, though, and a fun cultural experience on top of it.

My one recommendation would be to not to eat beforehand, as I don’t think I’ve ever been so full before in my life! When we turned up for breakfast and found ourselves greeted by another multi-course meal, I was just about ready to burst.

Pork ramen in Kanazawa

Pork shoyu ramen at Wakadaisho in Kanazawa

It was raining in Kanazawa, so we ducked into the first restaurant we came across, and were gobsmacked to discover it offered some of the best ramen I’ve ever had. And I essentially bathed in ramen while I was in Japan, so I did a lot of research.

Wakadaisho gave me the type of Japanese food experience I had been hoping for from the moment I first booked my tickets. There was limited seating, the walls were adorned with hundreds of polaroid photos of customers who had been visiting for decades, and there was a distinct lack of English spoken.

Fortunately, there was an English menu, and as soon as I spotted pork shoyu, I couldn’t consider anything else. The thick slices of pork were tender and juicy, with just the right amount of fat, the broth was rich with soy, and the noodles soft. Throw in a generous helping of beansprouts for texture, and I found myself with the perfect bowl of ramen.

Simple, delicious, and cheap, with a friendly owner and locals lining the bar — this is exactly what ramen should be.

We spent two nights in Kanazawa and ate at Wakadaisho both evenings because we were convinced we wouldn’t find anything better in the city.

Sushi in Kanazawa

Kaisen don at Omicho Market in Kanazawa

If you’re a fish-eater, you’ll already know that you can’t go to Japan and not have the sushi! Even as someone who’s never really been into all things raw fish, I was excited to see how it would compare to the versions I’ve tried before.

I waited until I reached Omicho Market in Kanazawa before delving mouth-first into an overflowing bowl of sashimi. Popular with locals and tourists alike, Omicho Market is a fresh fish market that’s less touristy, busy, and expensive than its equivalents in Tokyo and Kyoto.

After an hour spent lingering over the different stalls in search of the weirdest-looking fish I could find, I ventured into a restaurant at random, placed my order at the vending machine with more difficulty than I had anticipated, and sat down for a kaisen-don that completely changed my mind about sushi being a bland type of food, especially when I dumped fresh wasabi over the fish.

The next time I eat sushi, it will mostly likely be on my next trip to Japan. I don’t want to have it anywhere else!

Curry in Takayama

Curry in Jakson, Takayama

If you’re looking for a cosy curry shop that feels like home, Jakson is the restaurant for you. While the roads outside played host to sleet and snow, Jakson provided locals and tourists with warm shelter and excellent music from the turntable in the corner.

We’d read in advance that English was rarely spoken and that curry was the only option, so we weren’t surprised when we were handed a menu that was entirely in Japanese. A staff member asked if we wanted beef, pork, chicken, or vegetables, then followed that up with a “spicy or no?” We both opted for the Hida beef — often voted some of the best in the world — and decided to both have it spicy. While we waited for our food, we took off as many layers as possible in an attempt to dry our soaking wet clothes.

Simple restaurants with simple menus are often the best when it comes to local food experiences, and this was no different. The curry was rich, dark, and almost like a thick barbecue sauce that was less sweet and slightly richer. It was unlike any curry I’ve ever had from Southeast Asia or India, but with so much flavour that I was an instant convert.

Takayama isn’t a big food destination, but this restaurant is a definite hit.

Mulled wine in Kyoto

Spiced mulled wine in Kyoto

Yep, I’m including mulled wine on my list, because it was a highlight of a chilly day spent exploring Kyoto.

I mentioned above that I unexpectedly didn’t fall in love with Japan, and a huge part of that was due to the weather. I’m a warm-weather type of human and being in the cold stresses me out and makes me want to hibernate. Japan in December, then, was not my smartest idea.

That’s where the mulled wine comes in

When I was wandering around Kyoto wearing thermal underwear, leggings, jeans, two pairs of socks, three T-shirts, two sweaters, and two coats, a hat, scarf, and gloves, I stumbled across a stall offering cups of mulled wine.

As the warmth gradually swept through my body, I smiled. A warm drink was exactly what I needed to start enjoying my time in Japan. I grabbed Dave’s hand and pulled him towards the nearest temple.

Street snack in Nara, Japan

Senbei from Nakatanidou in Nara

After an hour spent feeding the deer in Nara rice crackers, it was only fair for me to do exactly the same.

Senbei is a Japanese street cracker made from toasted rice, and you can pick one up all across the country, in different shapes, sizes and flavours. We went to Nakatanidou, which is more famous for its mochi but I don’t like mochi, so we asked for two senbeis without fully knowing what they were. We both went for savoury over sweet, with me picking out a sesame cracker, while Dave opted for the one that had a thick coating of chilli.

They had a crispy, crunchy texture, were full of flavour, and the chilli one was far too hot for me to handle more than a mouthful.

Momiji manju in Miyajima

Momiji manju on Miyajima Island

We day-tripped out to Miyajima Island while we were in Hiroshima, and stumbled across momiji manju, a small, maple leaf-shaped cake, while we were there.

They’re traditionally filled with a red bean paste, but since red bean is the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, I went with a custard-filled flavour instead. It was so good! The sponge was moist and sweet, and the custard creamy. I was glad it was small and that you can’t usually find them outside of this prefecture, because otherwise I would have eaten them every day.

Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

If you haven’t tried okonomiyaki before, you really should. It’s a Japanese savoury pancake that tastes far better than my photo makes it look.

Okonomiyaki varies from region to region across the country, but if you eat it outside of Japan, it’s likely you’ll be tackling the Osakan version. It’s usually referred to as Japanese pizza (which is weird, because it’s nothing like it), and it contains flour, cabbage, egg, pork, and squid/shrimp/octopus. Throw a dollop of mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce on top and you’ve got yourself the perfect comfort food for a rainy day.

While the Osakan version will have all of the ingredients mixed up together, the Hiroshima version is layered, and has noodles (either yakisoba or udon) and a fried egg throw in, too.. Having had the Osakan version many times before, I knew I had to try the Hiroshima version on this trip. My verdict: As long as you only have half the dish, you’ll love every mouthful. Eat too much and you’ll be feeling full for days.

Pork rib ramen in Osaka

Pork rib ramen from Hanamaruken Namba Houzenji in Osaka

This is hands down the best meal I have ever had.

In my life.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to top this bowl of pork rib ramen. Dave agrees: This is best thing he’s ever eaten, too. We still talk about it on a near-daily basis.

If you go to Osaka, you must, must, must eat at Hanamaruken Namba Houzenji and go for a bowl of pork rib ramen. It’s out-of-this-world delicious!

The pork rib was enormous, tender, falling apart, and with the perfect amount of fat. This was one of only a handful of times where I’ve experienced meat melting in my mouth. The broth was rich as hell and the noodles were just the right amount of chewy. I’m salivating as I type this out.

I’m still dreaming about this bowl, five months later.

Bento boxes in Japan

All the bento boxes

One of my greatest food joys (aside from all the ramen) in Japan was picking out a weird and wonderful bento box for every train journey I took.

Known as ekiben (eki meaning station, and ben being an abbreviation of bento: a Japanese lunch box), these boxes can be found in practically every train station around the country, and choosing one from a wide array of options was always a fun cultural experience. Most of the time, I had no idea what was in any of them, even though the contents were clearly on display. Check out the top-right section of the bento box above: What even is all that stuff?! Whatever it was, I loved it.

I want to tell you what my favourite bento boxes contained, but I honestly had no idea most of the time. But I can share that they were nearly always delicious, full of unusual flavours and textures, and one of the highlights of every one of my train rides.

Egg yolk and beef in Kanazawa
A roast beef bowl in Kanazawa

I Want to Eat in Japan Forever

Hopefully you can tell from this post that I was utterly obsessed with the food in Japan. It now joins the ranks of Mexico, Vietnam, Greece, and Portugal as one of my top five countries in the world in which to eat.

Go to Japan, eat everything, and it’ll be impossible to have a bad trip.

 

Have you been to Japan before?

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43 Comments

  1. Ryan Biddulph
    May 9, 2018
    Reply

    I’d love to enjoy any food on Piss Alley Lauren LOL. Japan is so wonderfully weird as my wife likes to say. She taught English in Hiroshima for a year and really dug the place. I’d dig a high end bowl of ramen for sure. Better than the 20 cent package joints in the USA. Thanks for sharing :)

    Ryan

    • Lauren
      May 15, 2018
      Reply

      I can’t believe how much ramen I dove into on this trip! As you say, far superior to the Pot Noodles I used to eat when trying to prepare for *travel to Asia* before I left!

  2. Kate
    May 9, 2018
    Reply

    This post! I had to make two snacks just to get through it. Everything sounds amazing – I’ve taken so many notes and can’t wait to try some (most) of these delicious foods when I visit Japan!

    • Lauren
      May 15, 2018
      Reply

      Hahahaha! I love that.

  3. Kaitlyn
    May 9, 2018
    Reply

    Oh my goodness.. you guys are brave and have strong stomachs!! I would never try more than half of that stuff :p haha Good for you guys thats awesome!!!!!!!!

    • Lauren
      May 10, 2018
      Reply

      Ha! Thank you! I had never eaten rice when I first started travelling, so I’ve definitely come a long way.

  4. Abigail
    May 9, 2018
    Reply

    Hi Lauren, I’ve been reading your posts for a while now and love how you take me along on your journey. I’m pretty similar to you in the fact that things don’t always go right for me haha. I guess it’s part of the adventure…well that’s what I put it down to. I love your stories, so thanks for sharing. I write a blog called http://www.onelittlebackpacker.com and I also write about things that have gone wrong on the road (quite literally actually) I struggled with anxiety after a car accident and travel was the thing that changed my life. It’s nice to know there are other people who have managed to overcome this as well. Can’t wait to hear more stories xx

  5. John
    May 9, 2018
    Reply

    Omg, those skewers look so delicious!!!!!!! Haven’t been to Japan yet but thinking it might be my next trip.

    • Lauren
      May 10, 2018
      Reply

      Yes! It should be! Go when in spring or autumn and eat, eat, eat!

  6. Andrea
    May 9, 2018
    Reply

    So glad you made it to Kanazawa! It’s is beautiful? I love love love Japan and all its culinary delights. So happy you enjoyed yourself!

    • Lauren
      May 13, 2018
      Reply

      It’s so lovely! I loved wandering around all the green spaces :-)

  7. Clazz
    May 10, 2018
    Reply

    Oh my God. As if I needed more reasons to visit Japan haha. Adding allllll of these to my list, especially that pork rib ramen! Except the chicken butt. No chicken butt for me, thanks!!

    • Lauren
      May 10, 2018
      Reply

      Hahaha! Somehow I managed to end up eating chicken butt on three separate occasions on this trip and I have no idea how. It’s not so bad, though! Just a bit, um, tubular, haha.

  8. Geoff Joab
    May 10, 2018
    Reply

    Mmmm all looks nice.When yourback home don’t forget dixieland fried chicken shop , Tottenham. 1 piece chicken and chips £1.70 lol.

    • Lauren
      May 13, 2018
      Reply

      Ha! Does it include the anus?

  9. Shannon
    May 11, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve just recently come back from a trip to Japan and the food was definitely one of my favourite parts of the trip. So many different flavours! I had my favourite meal at this tiny ramen place that seated only about 8 people, not a bad way to spend my first night in Kyoto!

    • Lauren
      May 13, 2018
      Reply

      Sounds amazing! You’d have to try really hard to have a terrible meal in Japan.

  10. Markus
    May 15, 2018
    Reply

    Mouth-watering! Had no clue that Japan offers such variety of food. Amazing.

    • Lauren
      June 4, 2018
      Reply

      It’s one of my favourite cuisines, purely because of the diversity and, um, the ramen, obviously :-)

  11. Simon
    May 16, 2018
    Reply

    I love Japan mainly for its cuisine. So amazing to see some of my favorites on the list.

    • Lauren
      June 4, 2018
      Reply

      It was easily my highlight of the country!

  12. Dee
    May 16, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve never been to Japan, but it’s one of my dream destinations! This all looks insanely good, especially the Ramen.

    • Lauren
      May 26, 2018
      Reply

      I could live on ramen! It’s on a whole other level in Japan :-)

  13. Duy Hoang
    May 16, 2018
    Reply

    Hi, Lauren.
    Your post of Japanese food makes me so hungry during the night. The food in Vietnam is amazing too. Looking forward to seeing you in Vietnam.

    • Lauren
      May 19, 2018
      Reply

      I’ve spent six months in Vietnam and love the food there. I keep returning because I can’t get enough of the soups :-)

  14. Sarah Cummings
    May 17, 2018
    Reply

    Woah, there are some seriously strange foods on that list! Japan is on my list of places to visit this year.

    I just need to save up a little more money first as I was surprised to hear how expensive it is there.

    Thanks for the great guide :)

    • Lauren
      May 19, 2018
      Reply

      It wasn’t as expensive as I was expecting, but it’s still on a par with Western Europe. I’ll have a detailed budget breakdown coming next week!

      • Sarah Cummings
        May 22, 2018
        Reply

        Oh nice, I’ll make sure I give that a read.

  15. Jason Hughes
    May 18, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve heard so much about the food in Japan. In fact I was just showing my mum some videos on them eating live octopus!

    I’m going to China come June! Hope they have some really weird stuff there too! :P

    • Lauren
      May 19, 2018
      Reply

      Ah, I thought that was more of a South Korean thing than a Japanese one. I believe they’re dead when eaten, and it’s the nerves in the tentacles that keep them moving as you eat them.

      There’ll be plenty of unusual stuff to eat in China!

  16. Dominique
    May 23, 2018
    Reply

    I am drooling. I have bookmarked this page and some of the locations on Google Maps to ensure I can check them out when I’m in Japan!

    • Lauren
      May 24, 2018
      Reply

      Yay! You’re going to have such a delicious trip :-)

  17. Helena
    May 29, 2018
    Reply

    Oh gosh this brings me back to Tokyo, I’m like you and every time I think about my trip I think of the food. The ramen omg and the kaisendon was soooo good. I seriously want to go back just for the noodles!! Thanks for the trip down memory lane :) Oh, and if you go back in summer you should try the different ice cream flavours, purple sweet potato is pretty good :P

  18. Mrs Smith
    May 30, 2018
    Reply

    I’m dreaming of the hida beef from Takayama, so delicious!!

    • Lauren
      June 6, 2018
      Reply

      So. freaking. good! Argh! I could eat in Japan forever.

  19. Joana
    June 5, 2018
    Reply

    I can’t believe some of the meats you eat these days. I know you’ve said you were a picky eater in the past, so to read this post is amazing. You’re on the opposite end of the spectrum now! Thanks for the great post.

  20. Harriet
    June 6, 2018
    Reply

    Oh damnnnnnnnn, they look delicious! I haven’t been to Japan yet but I’ve been obsessed with their food for years. Have you ever read Rice, Noodle, Fish yet? I recommend it if not!

    • Lauren
      June 6, 2018
      Reply

      I haven’t yet! It’s on my list of books to buy now that I’ve landed myself a base from which to travel from. I can finally buy books again! Yay!

  21. Sarah
    September 2, 2018
    Reply

    I’ve had this post bookmarked since you posted it as I wanted to try the pork rib ramen for when I end up in Osaka. After checking into the hostel today I went straight to the restaurant and I’m pretty sure that bowl of ramen was in my top five plates of food I’ve ever eaten.

    • Lauren
      September 2, 2018
      Reply

      Right?! LIFE-CHANGING! Haha. I’m so happy you loved it as much as I did! :-)

  22. amelie
    October 11, 2018
    Reply

    Great article! congrats! And good that with Japanese namings :) it is much more easier :) We had in Japan something called Hot-Dog Gyoza – gyoza sandwiched in bread – that was a strange thing – sandwiched dumplings with wasabi and yakisoba! We wrote about it http://eatinasia.blog/countries/japan/gyoza

  23. Domen
    November 19, 2019
    Reply

    Hi, Lauren. You did an excellet job by writing this article. I like every part of it and i can’t stop drolling while reading the article :P. In few months i will be able to try every food you did. I only have one question. Since you bought bentos for the long train trips, did you ate them on the train ? Is it allowed ?

    • Lauren
      November 19, 2019
      Reply

      Yes! You can eat them on the trains — we did :-)

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