If all the world’s a kitchen, Japan dishes out the most fascinating culinary experiences.
People may ask, what to eat in Japan? To which I respond, what NOT to eat in Japan? Japan has its own unique food culture, photogenic and share-worthy. Anytime I see a viral video about unique food, I correctly assume it originated in the Far East. From lifelike food displays to zany themed cafes to bento boxes, it’s difficult to narrow down my favorite Japanese food experiences, especially when all of Japan’s food tastes like a new adventure.
My absolute favorite Japanese food experience, which deserved a post of its own, was attending a Japanese cooking class where we learned how to make sushi. A sushi making class in Japan? Nothing can top that. Despite the many culinary adventures we had, the following rank as my top food experiences in Japan.
Sushi for Breakfast at the Fish Market
The sun had barely risen and our stomachs already roared with hunger. An early morning of witnessing the famous Japanese tuna auction will incite an appetite that can only be satisfied by dining at one of the sushi restaurants in the Tsujiki Fish Market. Little trolleys beeped around the industrial fishing area, as an alley crowded with hungry people queued up at various entrances. We weren’t picky about which restaurant to eat at; we simply picked one with a manageable queue. It’s sushi in the fish market in Japan… would it even be possible to go wrong? We entered the sushi restaurant, more like a galley with ten stools at a bar. I squeezed to my seat, barely enough room for both me and my backpack.
Proper manners are recommended to eat sushi. Fortunately my intimidation was relieved by my seatmate: an American business traveler well versed in sushi etiquette. Behind the sushi chef, a board with handwritten sushi options displayed the menu of the day. We selected some sort of tasting menu then ordered more sushi a la carte. Eating sushi is an experience with a front row seat to watch the chef’s artistry and precision to craft the perfect sushi.
Sushi in Japan is much different from the Americanized sushi back home. I generally enjoy all food, but my palate of ‘texture sensitivity” put fatty tuna, sea urchin, and fish eggs on my “no-go” list. Those textures nearly made me retch. I was particularly impressed when Eric ate glow-in-the-dark squid. What a man.
$300 to feast upon some of the best beef in the world? Worth it. Some food experiences come with a hefty price tag, but after the meal is long digested and merely a memory, such food experiences become priceless. A reputation for superior beef, Japan’s most elite bovine is called wagyu, which branches into different breeds: Kobe beef, Matsusaka beef, and Ohmi beef (or, as I’ve also seen it written, Omi beef). The names reflect their place of origination.
Why does wagyu beef reign supreme? It has everything to do with the incredible marbling and ratio of fat. This makeup results in the most delicious, buttery, melt-in-your mouth steak.
And yes, it was divine. Delicious, buttery, melt-in-your mouth divine.
We ate at a restaurant that served Ohmi beef. Presented with the nose print of poor Bessie, seeing her paperwork and reviewing her pedigree was part of the process. Her name was Satonaga. The chef made a dramatic spectacle of his cooking as we bellied up to the hibachi.
P.S. – If you think wagyu beef is ubiquitous because kobe beef sliders were listed on your local upscale diner menu, consider that false advertising. It’s not the same beef you would eat in Japan. Wagyu beef would never be that accessible nor inexpensive and dear god, not served as a slider.
Oh my, what a FUN dining experience! I easily laughed as much as I ate during our shabu shabu experience. Remember, our first impressions of Japan revealed our oblivion about the country, so every turn and every encounter became a moment of discovery and learning. Our first laugh happened when the receptionist at our hotel recommended shabu shabu for our meal. Shabu shabu, ha, fun to say, right?
Hotel reception made the reservation and scribbled directions on a map, circling the final destination. With the JR station and Kyoto Tower as our landmarks, we did our best to navigate our way around a foreign land while we stared illiterate at the map. Aimlessness set, as our sense of direction withered from confidence to confusion. Where – Is – Shabu Shabu?!?
On the verge of giving up, we somehow found the building and took the elevator to the third floor. We were met with thick curtains accompanied by a sign in Japanese we couldn’t read (except for “5”). Uhhh…. We knew what the number 5 meant, made our way to the fifth floor and to our relief, were greeted and led down a staircase back to the third floor. SHEESH! What an adventure just to get shabu shabu!
FINALLY at the right place, we removed our shoes as we snaked through the humid restaurant into a small private room for the two of us. Equipped with a button to summon the waitstaff, our interactions relied heavily on pointing to photos on the menu due to our language barrier.
So what’s shabu shabu? Japanese style hot pot: a simmering bowl of broth and vegetables served with a tray of thinly sliced raw meat. Pick up the meat with your chopsticks, wave it around in the simmering broth for a few seconds to cook, dip in sauce, eat, and repeat.
Also pricey (but not wagyu pricey), shabu shabu is worth the cost because it’s all you can eat and drink. That button was frequently exercised during our visit. More beer! More sake! More meat!
We left the restaurant drunk on Japanese beers, stuffed from meat, and rosy-cheeked from the steam of the hot pot. So. Much. Fun.
Along the Kamo River in Kyoto, terrace-style restaurants stand atop stilts for outdoor dining overlooking the water and cityscape. This balcony-style restaurant is known as kawayuka. We were led outside to an outdoor eating area and sat on the floor, cross-legged, on cushions. The summer evening carried a chilled breeze, which was quickly overcome with warm sake.
Here we ordered sukiyaki, another Japanese hot pot style dish. With sukiyaki, slowly simmering vegetables and meat cook in a sweet broth seasoned with soy and sugar in a deep skillet. Our waitress broke two eggs, whisked with chopsticks, and set small bowls of yellow raw egg close to the table’s edge, meant to be used as a dipping “sauce” for the meat.
Savory with a touch of sweet, I truly fell in love with sukiyaki, despite the raw egg initially throwing me off. Ignorant to sukiyaki before this dining experience, everything about this meal was delicious and unexpected. I believe the name of the restaurant we dined at was Izumoyo, if you wanted to check out the same place.
Japanese Street Food
Overwhelm the senses with a simple walk down a busy street full of food vendors. After climbing the Level 10 Stairmaster known as Fushimi Inari Shrine, our bellies ached with insatiable hunger. Lucky for us, the foot of the shrine bustled with street food vendors whose smells could tease even the smallest appetite.
Having no shame, we indulged in as much Japanese street food that our stomachs would allow. It’s not only the food itself that makes Japanese street food such a beloved experience, it’s the entire adventure of meandering by the vendor’s stalls, wondering what each makes, finding something interesting (and usually having no idea what it is), taking that chance to purchase something you hope tastes good while you continue to meander down the streets of Japan, engaging ALL the senses.
Here is some of the Japanese street food we tried:
- Takoyaki — those famous dough balls stuffed with octopus
- Yakitori — chicken skewers
- Dango — sweet “dumpling”.. that famous emoji IRL!
- Senbei — rice crackers, like Quaker rice cakes but the real thing
- Taiyaki – fish shaped waffle-like dough stuffed with sweetness
Honorable Mentions: Favorite Culinary Experiences in Japan
There were so many other Japanese food experiences that deserve a shout out but didn’t make it on my top five favorite Japanese dining experiences. Like the one restaurant we visited in Hakone, that had the tastiest dish I tried in Japan (but I still have no idea what it was).
Then, of course, there was the okinamiyaki.— a delicious Japanese pancake that’s nothing like your American pancake. And the tempura veggies somehow tasted a little fresher than regular deep fried vegetables.
Prior to visiting Japan, I had no idea that ornately decorated parfaits were a “thing.” When in Kyoto and Nara, photos and displays or the most picturesque and drool-worthy parfaits I’d EVER seen in my life beckoned us to indulge. There were a few times we stopped to enjoy this Japanese food masterpiece, but my favorite was the matcha parfait we tried in Kyoto.
Even eating the famed black egg in Hakone was it’s own unique experience (an experience which I hope will help me live forever).
And the ramen restaurants, bento boxes at train stations, hotel breakfast buffets, simply strolling through the food markets…
Japan is definitely a destination where the food is an adventure.
Have you been to Japan? What were your favorite food experiences in Japan? If you were to visit, what would you want to try?