Japan Food Essentials

Japan is an incredible country for food, probably the best in the world. It has so many delicacies, you’ll have a hard time deciding what to eat next. The best part, the prices in Japan will fit any traveler’s budget. Below is my run down of some of the highlights and lowlights of food I’ve sampled throughout my travels in Japan.

1. Okonomiyaki

Cost: 1350 Yen.  Bought From: Nagataya in Hiroshima.

What is it: Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning “what you like” or “what you want”, and yaki meaning “grilled” or “cooked”.

Review: While I was in Hiroshima I just stumbled across a restaurant called Nagataya. The restaurant was packed and being a single patron I was placed at the teppanyaki bar where all the food was being cooked. Best seat in the house!

This is a massive dish with a ton of ingredients. It had eggs, noddles, meat of your choice and it was topped off with an incredible sauce. When my order was done it was served to me with a spatula. Puny knives and forks won’t cut it here, you need a spatula to cut into this Frankenstein dish.  Hands down, one of the best things I tasted in Japan. 

2. Curried Meat Noodle

Cost: Don’t remember.  Bought From: back alley restaurant near Tokyo Station.

Review: It was my first week in Tokyo and I got lost. I ended up in a back alley somewhere in the city that was lined with small hole in the wall restaurants. I passed by one noodle bar that attracted me in. The place was mostly empty, only a salary man (Japanese worker) sitting at the bar having his lunch. I decided this was a good place to grab some food.

I ordered the spicy curried meat noodles. Actually, everything was in Japanese, the waitress didn’t speak English, so I just pointed to the salary man’s plate and said I’ll have that. I didn’t know it was spicy or curried. Two things my stomach does not handle well.

Dismayed at first, and not able to communicate with the waitress, I gave in and tucked into my plate. My first slurp of the dish was a revelation. The noodles where just perfect and that spicy sauce made my taste buds tingle in the best possible way. I sat up and looked at the plate in shock. I never suspected I would get such an amazing dish in a place like this. Greedily I went back to eating my noodles and at the end I picked up the bowel and gulped down the last drops of that incredible spicy soup.

3. Panju

Cost: 80 Yen per piece.  Bought From: Small stall in Ise town center.

What is it: Panju is a custard filled pastry.

Review: I came across a a small mom & pop stall just at the outskirts of Ise shrine. They were selling this small curious pastry that looked like a nespresso capsule. It’s not the most striking dessert or the prettiest. But when I took a bite of it, the custard poured into my mouth, it was very smooth and very sweet. I was hit with an immediate dose of endorphins. Food really can bring you joy, I felt like I just taken one massive bite of happiness.

4. Sukiyaki

Cost: $60+.  Bought From: restaurant in Kyoto.

What is it: Thinly sliced meat that’s cooked at the table with vegetables and soy sauce.

Review: While traveling in Kyoto I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner. This was my first experience with Sukiyaki and with having my food cooked in front of me at the table.

When I first sat down I was confused why all the tables had gas burners installed in them. It became clear when I ordered that my food was to be cooked in front of me. Added bonus: I got my own personal chef who prepared the food and served me throughout the meal. I felt like a king.

The meal itself was incredible and the meat just melted in my mouth. I absolutely loved it.

1. Takoyaki

Cost: 550 – 750 Yen for 8 pieces.  Bought From: stand outside of Akihabara Train Station).

What is it: This is a ball shaped snack that’s filled with minced or diced octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onions. These balls are cooked in a special takoyaki pan and are prepared in front of you. It’s actually quite an impressive show; the cook will form and flip dozens of balls in the tray very quickly using picks.

Review: Hands down this was the worst thing I tried in in Japan. The first bite is not terrible as the outside has a crispy/crunchy taste. The problem is the batter and stuffing are not appetizing. How can I properly describe it? The stuffing is like the gooey snot that comes out of your nose when you have a cold, except it probably tastes worse.  Sorry for the visual. The octopus was not edible, they were like rubber bullets.

2. Dango

Cost: 150 Yen for 8 pieces.  Bought From: street vendor in Gion district in Kyoto.

What is it: This is a sweet Japanese dumpling that’s made of rice flour and formed in the shape of cute small balls and served on a stick. They can come in different colors/flavors and might be topped with a sweet sauce.

Review: While I was exploring Kyoto I noticed a long line of people in front of a street vendor. When you see locals waiting in long lines in Japan, it’s usually for something really really good. So I go to the front of the line to see what all the fuss is about. That’s when I laid eyes on my first Dangos. It was love at first sight. They were these tiny balls smothered in thick brown sauce and they looked unabashedly delectable.

I was hooked. I quickly scurried to the back of the long line and waited. As I stood in the queue my anticipation and excitement grew. I really wanted to taste this new delicacy. When I finally got my hands on a stick I just tore a ball right off it.

I’m not sure I can really describe it. The ball had a pasty mealy quality that put me off from the first bite. My tongue recoiled from the overpowering sweetness of the sauce that smothered the Dango. Also, I didn’t know what to make of the blandness of the pasty ball.

3. Grilled Unagi On A Stick

Cost: 200 Yen per skewer.  Bought From: outer markets surrounding Tsukiji Fish Market.

What is it: Grilled eels on a stick.

Review: OK, this one is on me. I’ve tried eel in the past and didn’t like it. So I knew I didn’t have the palette to enjoy this dish. I just got caught up in the excitement of being in Tsukiji Market I forgot that I don’t like eel.

I bought it, took one bite of it and then promptly found a bin (which is really hard in Japan) and dumped it.

4. Hiroshima Raw Oysters

Cost:  3 oysters for 700 yen.  Bought From: popup store in Ginza.

What is it: Raw Oysters.

Review: Hiroshima Oysters have a reputation for being the best in Japan. The conditions around Hiroshima are considered to be optimal and these oysters are characterized as having large meaty textures.

I’ve never tried raw oysters before and was curious to give it a go. After tasting the raw oysters, I can say it’s not my thing.

1. Onigiri

Cost: 100 – 130 Yen.  Bought From: Any convenience store.

What is it: Rice balls stuffed with salmon, tuna mayonnaise, umeboshi plums, and other fillings wrapped in savory nori (dried seaweed).

Review: 7/11’s in Japan are a magical and beautiful place. Much nicer than anything you’ll find in the States. These convenience stores not only sell the standard fare, they also sell high quality food at reasonable prices. My go to meal for breakfast or when I’m out and about was onigiri. These are surprisingly filling and nutritious meals that sell for a very cheap price, I loved them.

2. Lotteria or Freshness Burger

Cost: Meals under $10.  Bought From: Around Tokyo.

What is it: Local burger joints.

Review: Below are my experiences from different places I visited.

  • Lotteria: This is a Japanese burger chain that has expanded past its local shores and is now the biggest burger chain in South Korea. I ordered their cheese burger. What I got was a greasy and dry cheese/meat sandwich (no lettuce, tomatoes or onions). While it didn’t look appetizing, the meat was pretty good quality. The other thing I noticed was the portion size was small. Much smaller than what you’d get in the States: Grade: C+
  • Freshness Burger: I ordered the regular burger (pictured). It was big (like – you need two hands to hold it – big) with generous portions of lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Good value for money. Grade: B+

3. Yakatori

Cost: 500 Yen.  Bought From: Akihabara.

What is it: meat skewers.

Review:  This was one of the favorite things I tasted in Japan. Very simple, very good. Barbecued pork on a stick. Delicious and savory. I wolfed it down and then promptly went back for seconds.

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