When you are visiting Japan, you obviously want to try the well known Japanese cuisine staples including sushi, ramen, udon, and kobe beef. The food is generally amazing throughout the country and way better than most Japanese food you can get in the United States, even in the Bay Area where the standard is pretty high. Nothing beats the freshness and flavors in Japan.
In addition to those usual dishes, I wanted to recommend a variety of lesser known food and drinks that I had on my recent trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. In no particular order, these are my favorite dishes and snacks I had never tried before this trip, and in some cases had never even heard of.
Ok, this is one of those obvious must-haves in Japan, but Kobe beef actually blew me away. I totally underestimated Kobe beef since in general I’m not a huge beef fan, but this was absolute melt in your mouth deliciousness. Believe the hype and if you get a chance, try it! This was also one of the most affordable samples of certified Kobe beef we could find. This was from a stall in Kuromon Market in Osaka where they sell cuts of beef, but can also grill it there in front of you and serve it. This small plate of about 10 bites was only ¥2000 or $20 USD. We saw others ordering bigger steaks for about ¥6000, which is FAR less than what it would be in any restaurant.
Another one of the obvious ones — ramen — but I wanted to recommend Ichiran specifically. This was my favorite ramen spot. There are many locations (including one that just opened in NYC!) but this one was Ichiran Dotonbori in Osaka. You order at the vending machine at the front and they give you a form (see upper right in photo) to fill out to choose how rich/spicy/large you want your ramen. So delicious.
The seating is unique, each person sits at their own station with dividers between like you’re taking a serious ramen exam. The waiters serve you from behind that bamboo curtain you see, so all you can see are their hands serving your food. If you need anything, just press the button and hand them the form. There’s even a faucet at each station for water. An introvert’s dream — you don’t need to interact with anyone!
A famous dish in Osaka — Octopus-filled balls covered in sauce, bonito flakes, and green onions. They make it right in front of you. We got this one from Atchichi Honpo Dotonbori shop.
Street-side soba with tempura
Found this soba stand in an alleyway in Tokyo and it was one of my favorite meals. Counter space for about 6 people to eat at a time. Put down your cash, order a dish, and the cook has it ready for you in seconds. This stand is called Kameya Shinjuku in Tokyo.
This dish doesn’t photograph that well since it’s slathered in sauce, but it’s another specialty of Osaka. It’s a savory grilled pancake of batter made with shredded cabbage, egg, meat, and a bunch of other toppings you can choose. There’s a pile of Japanese mayo and sauce on top of this one, which was a little much for me but still delicious. This was from Fugetsu in Osaka. Fugetsu just opened its first US location in the Bay Area, right near where I live, but I have yet to try it here!
A fish-shaped sweet snack, usually filled with red bean paste. The outside is almost like a thin waffle batter and this one happens to be filled with sweet potato. One of our favorite things we tried! This one was from a street stand near Namba in Osaka. I’ve also seen Taiyaki gaining popularity in the US and being filled with ice cream, which sounds AMAZING.
Umeshu (Plum wine)
Umeshu became the only drink I ordered after trying it the first time. Just the right amount of sweetness and very refreshing. This particular bar was a memorable one because it is a secret bar in a quiet temple in a Kyoto suburb. We were the only two in the entire place and the one woman at the temple actually opened up the bar for us after she found us wandering the garden aimlessly. Super peaceful and beautiful.
Pan-fried dumplings, like potstickers. So good. These are from Ippudo Ramen in Kyoto.
In addition to having awesome gyoza, Ippudo Ramen is also well-known for their ramen. I have friends who swear by Ippudo. Very good but I personally preferred Ichiran.
Tofu Soft Cream
This ice cream/soft serve is made from soy! It is creamy and delicious, definitely has a soy milk kind of flavor, but I love soy. I saw soy ice cream all over Kyoto, this particular one is from a stand in Arashiyama.
Breaded chicken fillet served over a mountain of rice and curry. Tasty and really filling. This was from GoGo Curry, a chain across Japan.
Grilled meats on a stick! We went to Torikizoku, a chain restaurant where everything, including beer, is ¥280 or about $2.50 USD. Each dish comes with 2 skewers and there’s a huge menu with pictures to choose from. Unfortunately there was no English on the menu and although we did our best with Google translate, we ended up just pointing at pictures on the menu. Ordered some strange chicken parts but also found some delicious meats!
Ramune soda flavored soft serve
Ramune soda is the Japanese soda that comes in the bottle with the marble that you have to dislodge to open. This is from Tsukiji Outer Markets in Tokyo, where the soft serve comes in flavors ranging from Vanilla to Ramune to Whale (yes, Whale like the animal). I didn’t try whale.
Grilled Salmon meal
I’m one of those crazy people that doesn’t like raw fish (I know, I know, sushi is great, blah blah blah. I’ve had it, it’s not for me), so I got a grilled salmon and for something so simple, it was just perfectly cooked and very fresh. Also from Tsukiji Outer Markets.
Different cuts of tuna nigiri from Tsukiji Outer Markets. Not sure how the sushi in the outer markets compare to the ones inside Tsukiji Fish Market, but the lines for sushi inside the market are insane and begin in the wee hours of the morning. If you don’t have time to wait in a line, the outer market has lots of fresh sushi as well.
Black Sesame Mochi
Delicious mochi in a ton of different flavors including red bean, black sesame, strawberry, mango, peach, etc. Also Tsukiji Outer Markets.
Lots of fresh seafood are grilled in the market — eel, swordfish, tuna, clams, crabs, etc. This was delicious and only ¥200. I regret not getting a few more. Also from Tsukiji outer markets.
Melon Pan ice cream
The actual name of this place: World’s second best freshly baked Melon-pan Icecream. I have no idea where the world’s best melon-pan is, but this was darn good for second best. It is a freshly baked sweet bun ice cream sandwich. Simple idea but well executed!
Just discovered my new favorite soda. Calpis soda is the fizzy version of Calpis Water, or the diluted version of regular Calpis which is a concentrate, so don’t drink that straight. Apparently available in the US but renamed to Calpico because Calpis sounds like… you know.
Genki Sushi – conveyor belt sushi bar
This is more about the experience than the food. Every seat at this restaurant has this tablet where you browse the menu and order items. After ordering a dish, in a few minutes a plate will come zooming along the conveyor belt behind the tablet. There are 3 tracks and the screen tells you which track (top, middle, bottom) your dish has arrived on. Continue ordering until you have a tower of plates and then use the screen to get your bill. Sushi is definitely not at the same level as Tsukiji market, but it’s a fun experience!
All photos are my own and were first posted here.