What to eat in Japan? Traditional Japanese foods to try

Japanese cuisine is one of the most famous and popular in the world. There are so many iconic dishes, but also various unknown ones. So, this article will analyze typical dishes and explore what to eat in Japan. We will also explain everything about Japanese cuisine: street food, main dishes, soups and stews, and desserts.

You have probably already tried sushi or ramen, but Japanese cuisine offers much more to explore, from kaiseki haute cuisine to street food or curry. Japanese food is a delight to the senses – it is even classified as a UNESCO Intangible Heritage.

We gathered a list of dishes we ate in Japan that were either our favorite or very interesting to guide you during a trip to Japan.

What should you know about Japanese food?

Japanese have high standards regarding food. Well, about anything really, but particularly about their food. Their cuisine emphasizes high-quality ingredients, precise culinary techniques, and presentation. Food is always (or almost) fantastic, even in simple restaurants around the corner or fast-food chains.

Eating in an Izakaya (a typical Japanese pub) is one of Japan’s coolest and delicious experiences. It is also the most common restaurant type in Japan. It is a place where the locals gather after work to grab a bite or socialize with friends. It has an informal and casual environment. You eat at the counter, and frequently, the food is to be shared.

Another culinary experience you shouldn’t miss in Japan is eating sushi. Nothing beats the experience of eating sushi in Japan, even if you don’t appreciate it much. The fish is perfectly prepared, and watching the chef prepare a piece or going to a sushi belt is so much fun.

Another important piece of information is that eating in Japan is affordable. Two people can easily eat for 15-20 Euros, and it can be cheaper if you eat in convenience stores, street food, or Izakayas. Even sushi, which is a more expensive meal, can be on the more affordable end, depending on the restaurant. On the other hand, having a Kaiseki is much more costly, but it is well worth the experience.

What to eat in Japan - Bento box
A bento box restaurant in Japan

Japanese Ingredients

The base of Japanese food is rice and miso soup. Fish and seafood also play an essential role in Japanese gastronomy, especially tuna, which they love. While raw fish is commonly associated with sushi, it’s not a requirement. There are vegetarian and cooked variations of sushi and versions featuring meat.

Japanese love curry. It may seem strange, but it is very typical in Japan. Curry or Karé isn’t your standard Indian curry but an adaptation of English curry. It is a frequent dish and very satisfying. Like curry, Japan adapted many other international dishes after WWII. They are called Yoshoku, which means Western-style cooking. They are adaptations of European and American dishes like Ebi gratin, Potato salad, Macaroni salad, Donia, Humburg, wafu pasta, and Neapolitan spaghetti.

Another curious aspect of Japanese cuisine is that they love fluffy ingredients. You have things like Japanese cheesecake, Japanese pancakes, and mochi. They are a must in Japan. The Japanese are perfectionists and master everything they do, including cuisine. Everything is so detailed and thought-out. Japanese cuisine is fascinating and luscious.

Best Japanese food - fluffy japanese pancakes
Fluffy and delicious Japanese pancakes

Traditional Japanese haute cuisine – Kaiseki

Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dining experience that involves a multi-course meal. The food is beautifully prepared and arranged in bite-size proportions, a feast for the eyes and taste buds.

It’s a style of cuisine in which every detail is essential and praises the aesthetic and flavors. More than food, it is a culinary experience. A meal comprises several dishes determined by the chef. Seasonal and local ingredients are preferred. Although the dishes vary, they usually include appetizers, sashimi, grilled dishes, boiled dishes, deep-fried dishes, miso soup, rice, and, for dessert, seasonal fresh fruit.

Traditionally, Kaiseki was related to the tea ceremony called cha-Kaiseki. When it is served at high-end Japanese restaurants and a ryokan, it is called Kaiseki Ryori. It is a pricy meal, but it is worth every penny. We advise you to try it in a Ryokan, besides the onsen, you will have a memorable meal.

Kaiseki traditional Japanese dishes
Traditional Japanese haute cuisine – Kaiseki

Typical Japanese Street food

Korokke

Korokke is a Japanese croquette. It may not seem so at first sight, but this is the phonetic pronunciation of the European word croquette. It is a frequent street food and a delicious snack to eat on the go.

It is made with various ingredients, such as chopped meat or seafood vegetables, eggs, flour, sugar, and heavy cream, coated in panko crumbs, and deep-fried. The crispy panko crumbs and soft interior make it a perfect bite.

We ate a Korokke made with minced meat cutlet and a melty yolk on the inside in a street-food joint in Kyoto, which was to die for. The running egg yolk combined with the pork and panko crumbs was delicious.

Japanese street food - Korokke
Korokke is made with minced meat cutlet and a melty yolk, so tasty

Takoyaki

Takoyaki are small balls of batter filled with pieces of octopus. They are a popular Japanese street food, especially in Osaka. You can find them everywhere.

They are made with flour, eggs, dashi, sesame oil, and pre-cooked octopus, and topped with mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, and pickled ginger. They are grilled in special round molds. And you eat them with a toothpick or chopsticks.

Be careful and let them cool before eating, or else you will burn your mouth and be unable to savor their taste, as has happened to us several times.

Famous Japanese street food - Takoyaki
Takoyaki are small balls of batter filled with pieces of octopus

Onigiri

Onigiri are rice balls filled with various ingredients, such as salmon, tuna, chicken, pickled fruits, and vegetables. They are made with white rice formed into a triangular or cylindrical shape and wrapped in nori.

Onigiri can be found in all convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, etc. It is suitable food to eat when you are on the road and hungry. It is practical, tasty, and satisfies your appetite.

There is an onigiri variation that is covered with soy sauce and grilled. They are the best hot, freshly made, and popular street food.

When we traveled through Japan, we ate onigiri for breakfast. It was the ideal breakfast snack as it keeps you fed through the morning; it is more or less a healthy option and easily accessible.

Fast food in Japan - Onigiri
Onigiri are rice balls filled with various ingredients – a good option for breakfast in Japan.

Typical Japanese Pub food

Gyoza

Gyoza is one of Japan’s most famous foods. These crescent-shaped dumplings are simply a delight. Although they are based on Chinese dumplings, the filling and preparation differ.

A classic Gyoza is filled with ground pork, cabbage, garlic, and chives. To cook it, you must toast the skin on one side while steaming it tender on the other. Then, dip it in soy sauce, rice vinegar, and flavored chili oil. You will find them in nearly all pub restaurants. They are a good pairing with ramen.

Of course, there are different fillings and other ways to do them. But these are the most traditional and iconic. Try to eat as much as you can.

Typical Japanese Pub food - Gyoza
Gyoza is crunchy and soft and filled with different ingredients

Tempura

Tempura is an iconic Japanese food. The dish consists of vegetables and seafood (meat and poultry are not cooked this way) covered with a deep-fried light, airy, crunchy crust. It is served with light soy sauce mixed with grated daikon and ginger, called tentsuyu. You will need the dipping sauce, as the tempura itself is unseasoned.

You can eat tempura as a side dish or as the main dish for lunch, dinner, or breakfast with hot soba. It is a simple dish to cook. You need to dip your ingredients into a batter of flour, water, and egg yolk and deep-fry them in vegetable oil.

A curious fact is that Portuguese traders were at the origin of this dish in the 1600s. The Japanese adapted and evolved it, making it one of the most famous dishes of Japan. There are even chefs and shops dedicated only to tempura.

You have probably already tried this dish, but there is nothing like eating it in Japan. You can find it everywhere, even served as a street food. In Japan, we usually eat it with ramen or miso soup.

Best food of Japan - Tempura
Tempura of vegetables and seafood – a good side dish or as a main meal

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is originally from Osaka and Hiroshima. It is a pancake made mainly with Napa cabbage but can be done with any desired ingredient. As its name means “what you like cooked”.

It is usually made with cabbage, flour, dashi (stock), eggs, sugar, sesame oil, and other ingredients like thinly sliced pork belly, bean sprouts, noodles, etc. When done, toppings like okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, Aonori (powdered nori seaweed), and dried shaved bonito are added.

In the past, okonomiyaki was a frugal dish, and its popularity expanded during the difficult days of reconstruction after the war. Although a humble dish, it is one of our favorites; it is addicting, tasty, humid, and soft inside. Going to a typical Japanese restaurant and doing or seeing an okonomiyaki being done is a fun experience.

It is also a simple Japanese dish to make at home, and you can use whatever ingredients you have in your pantry.

Hiroshima okonomiyaki is slightly different from Osaka’s. It is a much bigger, layered pancake with wheat noodles and fried eggs. We haven’t tried Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki, but it really sounds delicious.

What to eat in Japan - Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a must-eat in Osaka

Yakisoba

Yakisoba is fried noodles cooked on a flat-top griddle. It is usually found in the same restaurants as okonomiyaki. And like okonomiyaki, yakisoba is a tasty and fun dish to cook on the griddle.

Yakisoba is made of a thicker wheat noodle called yakisoba. The noodles are steamed and then fried with onions, cabbage, mung bean sprouts, pork belly, Worcestershire sauce, and okonomiyaki sauce, which gives them a punch of flavor.

It is a good and satisfying dish. We found it a delight. The noodles mixed with the vegetables and sauce are a great combination.

traditional Japanese dish - Yakisoba
Traditional pub food – Yakisoba, fried rice

Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu consists of pork fillets coated with panko crumbs, which make it crunchy and humid. It is like a schnitzel or a Milanese, but Japanese style. The pork fillet is coated with panko crumbs instead of European bread crumbs.

Tonkatsu was invented by the chef Kida Motojiro in 1899 and became popular, especially in Tokyo. It is served with thinly sliced raw cabbage and tonkatsu sauce, called bulldog sauce. This sauce is a sweet version of Worcestershire sauce and can be a side dip or poured on top of the Tonkatsu.

There are other variations of Tonkatsu made with Chicken (chikinkatsu), beef (gyukatsu), ham (hamukatsu), and ground meat (menchikatsu). Tonkatsu is also as popular as katsu, as we explained above.

As Portuguese, we are used to eating pork fillets coated in bread crumbs called panados, but Tonkatsu is crunchier than the European version. So, we approve the Japanese version.

Tonkatsu - What to eat in Japan
One of Japan’s most popular dishes, Tonkatsu

Curry

You may not think about curry when discussing Japanese cuisine, but it is one of the most loved dishes in Japan. Curry was introduced in Japan by the British in the 1870s. However, it only became popular when the Navy and Japanese army used it. It was adapted to the Japanese taste using local ingredients. This curry doesn’t resemble the Indian curry.

Curry, called Karé in Japanese, is a thicker curry eaten with rice and a spoon. It can be made with various ingredients like pork, chicken, lamb, or vegetables. A typical curry in Japan has onions, carrots, potatoes, and beef. But you can find curry with nearly everything: curry udon, curry sobe, bread curry, fish, etc. And each region has its specialty.

Katsu is the most popular Japanese curry, which is made with tonkatsu (pork coated with panko crumbs) and rice. You will find this dish everywhere. It is a satisfying quick lunch.

One of the places we tried Katsu was the Curry Shop C&C restaurant, and we loved it. It was so comforting and enjoyable. There are several C&C curry shops all over Japan; they serve quick, good, and cheap curry. Usually, they are in working areas with several offices nearby.

Popular dish in Japan - Curry
Katsu made with tonkatsu (pork coated with panko crumbs) and rice

Kushikatsu

Kushikatsu or kushiage are deep-fried skewered meat, fish, or vegetables. They can be made with various ingredients, such as chicken, pork, shrimp, squid, onions, shiitake mushrooms, and green peppers. The ingredients are skewed, coated in egg, flour, and panko, and deep-fried in hot oil.

They are a frequent street and pub food originating in Osaka, where they are very typical. This is especially true in the Shinsekai neighborhood, packed with pub restaurants serving this delicacy. This is a no-fuss dish, normally eaten on the counter side, served with cabbage between skews and Tonkatsu sauce (a Japanese take on Worcestershire sauce). Be aware that you can only dip the skew in the sauce once, as the sauce is for everyone.

We tried Kushikatsu in a pub in Osaka, and it was a thrilling experience. You can choose the skews you want or order a set. They are crunchy and soft. We particularly liked the aubergine skews.

best food in Japan - Kushikatsu
Kushikatsu – deep-fried skewered meat, fish, or vegetables, traditional in Osaka

Omuraisu or Omu Rice

Omuraisu is another simple but irresistible dish. It is an omelet stuffed with fried rice, usually cooked with chicken and topped with ketchup. It is a staple dish in restaurants and popular with children. It is also easy to cook at home and doesn’t need many ingredients.

A recent, even more delicious version called tampopo omuraisu was created for a movie and then adapted into restaurants. In this version, the rice is covered with a half-cooked omelet cut open to spread and cover the rice. The egg is still silky and runny, mixed with rice and cheese, it is paradise.

This is a no-fuss dish. And if you love eggs, you will love it. We like it so much that we try to do it every Sunday.

Omuraisu delicious Japanese street food
Omuraisu omelet stuffed with fried rice and topped with ketchup

Donburi

Donburi is a Japanese rice bowl that can be made with any ingredient. It consists of cooked, cured, or raw meat, fish, or vegetables piled on top of a big rice bowl. Any dish can be turned into a donburi. Typically, it is served with miso soup and Japanese pickles on the side.

It is ideal for a quick meal. It is cheap, easy, comforting, and fast. What else can you ask for in a dish?

Some of the most popular donburi are:

  • Oyakodon – made with egg and chicken
  • Gyudon – made with beef and onion
  • Butadon – made with pork and onion
  • Tendon – made with tempura
Typical Japanese food - Donburi
Butadon rice bowl with pork and onion

Traditional Japanese Soups and Noodles

Miso Soup

Miso soup is a staple of Japanese cuisine. The Japanese eat it in nearly all meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Usually, it is a side dish, and you eat it with or before your main meal. They call it soup for the soul. And it really is something so simple but packed with flavor.

Miso soup is made with dashi (a stock usually made with dried fish), miso paste (a paste made by fermenting soybeans and grains like rice or barley), and any ingredient you choose, traditionally tofu and wakame seaweed. In Japan, it is frequently served without ingredients, and you drink it with your food.

Before going to Japan, we never thought much of miso soup but gained a new perspective after traveling there. It was so comforting and flavorful.

Traditional Japanse soup - Miso
Typical bowl of Miso Soup

Ramen

Ramen is Japan’s most famous dish, alongside Shushi, and it deserves its spot on the podium. It is incredible how a simple soup with noodles, meat, and an egg can become an act of mastery. Everything exists for a reason, has its role, complements each other perfectly, and is all cooked to excellence.

It is made with a rich broth, which is called soup. A perfect broth is made with pork bones, chicken bones, kombu, or dried bonito and cooked for hours until it has a strong umami flavor. You need to combine a seasoning called tare with the soup; it can be soy sauce or miso. Add the wheat noodles, which can be thin, thick, or wavy. And last, the toppings, which can be many, like slices of braised pork or chicken, thinly sliced scallion, nori seaweed, and a slow-cooked egg steeped in soy sauce marinade.

There are at least 20 distinct regions of Ramen, but the most famous ones are:

  • Tokyo soy sauce ramen (shoyo -soy sauce- ramen): tare is based on soy sauce, noodles are wavy and thin, topped with spinach, chasu, eggs, scallions, bamboo shoots, and nori.
  • Sapporo or miso ramen: tare is miso, noodles wavy, and it includes ground pork, cabbage, bean sprouts, and butter corn – from Sapporo
  • Hakata ramen: soup made with pork bone, noodles thin and straight. It doesn’t use a tare and has chasu and scallions. Comes from the south of Japan

This may all seem complex, but if you know the Japanese, they practice and improve something until it is nearly perfect. But at the end of the day, it is simple: just a bowl of soup with noodles and fine ingredients. Based on our experience traveling in Japan, you can’t go wrong with ramen. Even in a small town, in an ordinary restaurant, the ramen is usually delicious.

However, you will find specialized chefs and restaurants that serve ramen. Our main recommendation? Eat as much ramen as possible.

Famous Japaneses dishes - Ramen
Iconic Japanese dish – Ramen with pork and boiled egg

Soba noodles

Soba noodles are an ancient ingredient in Japan, as people have eaten them since before the Edo period. It is a dish associated with Tokyo and is referred to as “Tokyo’s noodle.”

It is made with buckwheat flour, water, and a little wheat flour to give it more elasticity. It can be served hot or cold in a broth (dashi – a Japanese word for stock, made with kombu seaweed and dried shaved bonito) or with a dipping sauce (kaeshi- soba dipping sauce and soba broth). It is paired with other ingredients like tempura, duck, pork, shrimp, etc.

Soba noodles are appetizing, with a delightful toothsome texture and a nutty flavor. In our experience when traveling in Japan, we had some difficulties finding those noodles in restaurants. Maybe we we were unlucky, or they aren’t that common nowadays.

A fun curiosity: Soba noodles are traditional in the New Year. Japanese people eat soba for good fortune and long life, which is an even better reason to eat soba noodles besides being delicious.

What to eat in Japan - Soba noodles
Cold Soba noodles with a source to dip the noodles

Udon noodles

Udon is thick, chewy, and flavorful wheat flour noodles. Like soba noodles, they have been around for a long time. They were introduced in Japan by Chinese Buddhist priests in the 8th century. These noodles are associated with the city of Osaka and its environs. But they are a staple in Japanese cuisine; you will find them everywhere.

Udon noodles can be served hot or cold and with various ingredients. Some of the most famous dishes with udon are Kitsune Udon (with deep-fried tofu slices), Curry Udon, Tempura Udon, and many more.

We ate udon several times in Japan. It is a popular dish that is always delicious and tastes different depending on the combined ingredients.

One cool thing you will find in Japan is the Udon Taxi, which has enormous plastic replicas of udon balls on top of the car. They take you on a tour through some of the best udon restaurants in Takamatsu, the capital of Udon in Japan. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit this region during our trip to Japan.

Best noodles in Japan - Udon noodles
Delicious Udon noodles with vegetables and chicken are a must-eat in Japan

Japanese Fish and Seafood Dishes

Sushi

Sushi is the most famous Japanese dish in the world. It is made with rice prepared with sushi vinegar and raw or cooked fish, meat, or vegetables. The most common seafood in sushi are tuna, salmon, eel, yellowtail, shrimp, and squid. It can be wrapped in seaweed called nori. It is served with pickled ginger, soy sauce, and wasabi. Usually, the chef uses a bit of wasabi to make the piece, but you opt without wasabi.

There are different types of sushi:

  • Nigiri – small rice balls with fish and shellfish on top;
  • Gunkan – small cup made of sushi rice and dried seaweed filled with seafood;
  • Norimak – sushi rice and seafood rolled in dried seaweed sheets;
  • Inari – sushi rice is filled into small bags of deep-fried tofu;

Sushi in Japan can be cheap or expensive, depending on the restaurant. Eating in one of the Conveyor belt sushi is inexpensive; you pay according to the number of plates you order. The counters transport the sushi you order on a screen.

In some Japanese sushi restaurants, you eat at the counter and watch the chef prepare your sushi. It is a fun and delightful experience.

Nothing beats the experience of sushi in Japan. And even if you don’t want to spend lots of money, you can eat good quality sushi at affordable prices.

Japanese Fish and Seafood Dishes - Sushi
Nothing beats the experience of sushi in Japan – sushi with miso and matcha.

Sashimi

Sashimi is thinly sliced raw seafood or meat. The most common ingredients are tuna, salmon, seabream, mackerel, bonito, shrimp, and octopus. Unlike sushi, sashimi does not contain rice or rice vinegar. Instead, it is seasoned with soy sauce, wasabi, or ground ginger.

Sashimi is best when the fish is of good quality and fresh. We ate sashimi in Kanazawa and Kii Katsura, an important fish market with tuna. A large quantity of tuna is fished and sold daily, and you can watch the tuna auction early in the morning.

This makes Kii-Katsura the ideal place to eat tuna sashimi. We ate it in a local restaurant called Mehari Sushi Nidaime, and it was one of the best meals we had in Japan.

Traditional fish dish in Japan - Sashimi
Tuna Sashimi with miso soup and fried vegetables that we ate in a local restaurant in Kii-Katsura

Unagi

Unagi is a freshwater eel beloved in Japan due to its rich flavor and health benefits. It can be cooked in various ways, but the most appreciated is grilled and greased with a savory sweet sauce served on a skew called Kabayaki. Another popular unagi dish, which is grilled and served over rice, is called unadon.

Unagi can be found in specialized restaurants or even in street food stalls. Unfortunately, it is an expensive dish, but well worth it.

Typical Japanese fish - Unagi
Street food vendors selling Unagi in Japan

Japanese Meat Dishes

Wagyu Beef

Wagyu beef is a type of beef known for its high-quality fat marbling. It comes from the four primary breeds of Japanese beef cattle and is the most expensive beef in the world. Due to the high ratio of intramuscular fat, it has a unique taste and tenderness.

The meat is highly regulated, and there are grades to indicate the quality of the beef. You have to measure the Yield Grade (A, B, C) and the meat quality grade (from 1 to 5) to evaluate the meat. The best quality meat is A5. The cattle also have to be created according to some standards. And each prefecture has its own brands. The most famous brands are:

  • Kobe Beef is the most famous Wagyu beef produced in the Hyogo Prefecture. The best place to eat is in the town of Kobe, which is home to several specialized restaurants;
  • Omi Beef – From the Gifu Prefecture;
  • Matsusaka beef – from the Mie Prefecture;
  • Hida Beef – from the Gifu prefecture, the town of Takayama has several good restaurants that serve Hida Beef.

When eating high-grade wagyu, you feel it melting in your mouth, leaving a pleasant taste. The meat can be served as a steak, or you can eat the beef as Sushi, just lightly cooked, enough to kill the bacteria without altering the taste. We ate Hida Beef in the town of Takayama and adored it. If you are conscious of the amount you order, it is expensive but won’t break your wallet.

Japanese Meat Dishes - Wagyu Beef
Meat sushi made with Hida Beef in Takayama

Yakiniku – Japanese BBQ

Yakiniku means grilled meat, and it’s the Japanese take on barbeque. This dish is based on Korea’s famous BBQ. It comprises bite-sized meat and vegetables grilled on a net or iron plate over a wood charcoal flame. Various cuts of the beef can be grilled, from primer cuts like loin to innards like tongue and intestine.

In restaurants, you grill your own meat on a grill built into the table. The ingredients are raw, and you grill the meat at your desired pace. You can eat the meat on top of rice or roll it in lettuce, like in South Korea. It is a fun experience. The meat is delicious, has a smoky flavor, and is slightly crispy.

There are several yakiniku restaurants in Japan. We had the opportunity to eat it in a restaurant in Tokyo, and it was toothsome.

Yakiniku - Japanese BBQ What to eat in Japan
Yakiniku – Japanese BBQ

Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is a widespread Japanese dish. It is a hot pot made with thinly sliced beef with vegetables, tofu, and glass noodles cooked in a sweet and salty dashi. There are different kinds of sukiyaki, and each region has its own way of cooking. The most popular types are Kansai-style sukiyaki (eastern Japan) and Kanto-style sukiyaki (western Japan).

The ingredients are grilled and boiled in an iron pot in a sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. When cooked, they are dipped in a raw egg before being eaten.

In Japanese restaurants, you cook your sukiyaki on a portable boil on your table. You eat your meal hot and freshly done. We ate this dish with Hida beef in a fantastic restaurant in Takayama, but you can find it all over Japan.

Traditional meat dishes in Japan - Sukiyaki
Japanese hot pot – Sukiyaki

Traditional Japanese foods – Desserts

Mochi

Mochi is the most famous sweet in Japan. It is a rice cake made by pounding steamed glutinous rice with a large wooden mallet into a stretchy dough consistency. It has a long tradition in Japan, and it used to be thought of as a sacred food, used as a religious tribute to the Gods. Traditionally, it is eaten during the Japanese New Year and symbolizes good luck.

Mochi has various shapes and varieties. The classic version is a round bun with different tastes covered with roasted soybean or rice flour. Other types of mochi are:

  • Daifuku – mochi stuffed with a filling like sweet bean paste or a strawberry (Ichigo daifuku)
  • Yashihara – a thin layer of mochi filled with a sweet filling and folded in a triangle shape
  • Dango – made with rice flour instead of glutinous, served with 3-5 rice balls on sticks and covered in sugar-soy sauce.
  • Bota mochi – covered with a coating of red bean paste
  • Ice Cream Mochi – mochi is filled with ice cream

You can find mochi everywhere in Japan, from convenience stores to street vendors to specialized shops. In Nara, there is a renowned mochi store called Nakatanidou, where we eat delicious yomogi mochi filled with red bean paste and covered with roasted soybean flour. If you are lucky, you can even see the famous mochi pounding (called mochitsuki). It was so soft and chewy that it melted in your mouth.

Traditional Japanese Desserts - mochi
Renowned mochi store called Nakatanidou in Nara

Japanese cheesecake

Japanese cheesecake, also known as cotton cheesecake or soufflé-style cheesecake, has a lighter texture and is less sweet than other cheesecakes. It is fluffy, soft, and cheesy, though it has no strong flavor. It is so good and jiggly.

It is made with cream cheese, butter, sugar, and eggs. The trick is to incorporate whisked egg whites into the cake mixture. This makes it airy and similar to a soufllé. Tomotaro Kuzuno created it in the ’60s inspired by the German Cheesecake käsekuchen. It has since become popular in Japan and the rest of the world.

We ate cheesecake at Rikuro’s bakery chain in Osaka. It was exquisite, fluffy, light, and melted in your mouth with a few raisins at the bottom and a cute stamp on the cake. Be aware that I may be biased, but I really love Japanese cheesecake. It is one of my favorite desserts worldwide, and I have tested plenty.

Sweet dishes of Japan - Japanese cheescake
Best dessert in Japan – Japanese cheesecake

Taiyaki

Taiyaki is an iconic dessert and street food. You will find it everywhere, and it is adored. It has the format of a fish, specifically a sea beam. It is made with pancake dough and filled traditionally with red bean paste, but it can have other fillings like custard, chocolate, cheese, sweet potato, matcha, and ice cream. It is fluffy, crispy, and delectable.

This dessert is best eaten hot and freshly made out of mold. It is the quintessential Japanese street food, so it is a must in Japan.

Best sweets of Japan - Taiyaki
Taiyaki is an iconic dessert and street food.

Castella Cake

Castella Cake, or Kasutera, is a specialty of Nagasaki. It is a sponge-like cake made with flour, eggs, and butter, with a brown crust on top. It is rectangular or square. It is simple, comforting, and the ideal sweet to eat with tea.

As Portuguese, we couldn’t make this list without talking about Castella Cake and pointing out that we Portuguese introduced it to Japan. You are welcome.

Portuguese merchants brought it to Japan, particularly Nagasaki, in the 16th century. The original Portuguese Pão-de-ló is a bit different because, as usual, its taste was changed slightly to suit Japanese palates. There are different variations of chocolate, red beans, and matcha.

We were dying to try Castella Cake in Japan, but we found it difficult to find it in Tokyo, and the ones we found out were expensive. According to what we heard, the best place to eat this cake is in Nagasaki, in the Fukasaya bakery.

Best desserts of Japan - Castella Cake
Catella Cake, or Kasutera, is a specialty of Nagasaki – a Japanese Dessert

Typical Japanese Drinks you need to try

Sake

Sake is Japan’s national beverage, also known as rice wine. It is a drink with 15- 22% alcohol made from fermenting rice. It has a long tradition in Japan and is used in Shinto purifications.

Be aware that in Japanese, sake means alcohol, so when referring to rice wine, it is called nihonshu. Traditionally, sake is drank from small porcelain cups called ochoko. In a group, you should always serve other group members first. Sake can be drunk cold, at room temperature, or warm. It can have different characteristics and flavors, such as sweet or dry. Overall, sake pairs well with all Japanese food.

One fun activity in Japan is tasting different types of sake in breweries or specialized shops. In Takayama, there are several breweries where you can drink sake and keep a small porcelain cup from tasting sake as a souvenir.

Typical Japanese Drinks - Sake
A specialized sake in Takayama, Japan

Amazake

Amazake, which means sweet sake in Japanese, is a fermented sweet rice drink. It can be non-alcoholic or alcoholic and served hot. It is creamy, sweet, and comforting.

It is a traditional Japanese drink that can be found in tea houses or at festivals. It is drunk in the Japanese New Year and on Hiramatsuri (girls’ day). It is especially good on a cold day.

We tried this specialty at Amasake Tea House on our way to Hakone, and it was delicious. Paired with a chikara-mochi, it was such an incredible experience.

Best beverages of Japan - Amzake
Amzake with chikara-mochi from Amasake Tea House in Hakone, Japan

Matcha

Matcha is made by steaming, drying, and grinding young tea leaves (plant Camellia Sinensis) into a fine powder. Matcha powder is dissolved in hot water, producing a rich green beverage with an intense flavor. It may have a hint of bitterness in the end. As the entire tea leaf is dissolved in the water, it has a more intense flavor than steeping a tea bag in water.

Matcha is much more than just green tea. It is part of Japan’s cultural identity and is used in tea ceremonies (chanoyu), which used to be religious ceremonies or a way to honor guests. Matcha is paired with a sweet Wagashi like mochi or nerikiri during the tea ceremony.

Matcha is also a standard beverage in Japan and is frequently served with meals in restaurants. To make matcha, you add one or two teaspoons of hot water and voilà – it’s done.

We strongly advise trying a tea ceremony. It is a memorable activity in which you can witness a Japanese tradition. It isn’t complicated or expensive. We recommend the Souju-an tea ceremony house in the Kokoen garden of the Himeji Castle. The garden was stunning, with a tranquil atmosphere, and we didn’t have to wait long. Kyoto also has several tea houses.

What to drink in Japan - Matcha
Matcha with Wagashi from the tea house Kokoen Garden of the Himeji Castle
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Our recommendation

Some of the information in this article was based on the cooking book Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More from the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond. We really like it, it is very informative and has delicious recipes.

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