Food lovers will be more than satisfied with the variety and quality of Japanese cuisine. With a focus on fresh, seasonal produce that is prepared meticulously and presented beautifully, dining in Japan is a memorable experience. So, you're fresh off the plane, you're hungry and you're in Japan – here are some essentials to get you started.
Must-try dishes in Japan
This tasty, salty broth of noodles and meat comes in many different flavours and regional varieties. Sit and indulge at a ramen restaurant or slurp down a bowl at a market or karaoke hall.
The savoury pancake known as okonomiyaki may well end up being your new favourite dish. Delicious batter layered with cabbage, cheese, sauce and other toppings is grilled to perfection – making the perfect hangover food.
As a nation of islands (6852, to be exact), Japan has an abundance of seafood to sample. Even if you're not usually a fan of raw fish, while you're in Japan you've got to give sashimi a try. Sashimi is made with seafood caught using a special fishing method that keeps it fresh for longer than normal, then sliced very thin and served raw. Best enjoyed with soy, ginger and wasabi, this is the ideal way to savour the delicate flavour profiles of the diverse seafood that fills Japan's waters.
Unlike the thick, juicy udon or the hardy ramen, soba noodles are a decidedly delicate affair. Made from buckwheat, the subtle and nutty flavour of fresh soba noodles makes them delicious on their own or with just a bit of pickled ginger to cut through the sweetness. Soba noodles are also delicious cold with a bit of soy sauce on a hot day.
Even if you identify as a carnivore, the vegetarian (sometimes vegan) lunches and dinners served in temples are an experience you don’t want to miss. Buddhist cuisine (Shojin ryori locally) is often just as refined as the meals served in restaurants, with multiple courses made by monks as part of their spiritual practice. You can really taste the devotion.
Vending machine munchies
Munching a vending machine snack (or meal) in Japan is just as essential as sampling sashimi. Japan has more vending machines per capita than anywhere else in the world, with ice cream, instant ramen, cold beer, sake and hot meals all available. You can’t leave Tokyo without trying at least one vending machine snack.
Vegetarian and vegan options in Japan
Vegetarian and vegan options are available in Japan but can be a little tricky to figure out as an English-speaking visitor. Dishes are sometimes seasoned with dried fish or egg that isn’t listed in the menu, and broth made from pork bones or fish is the base of many a bowl of ramen. It's certainly not impossible, but travelling as a vegetarian (particularly as a vegan) takes soome planning in Japan.
Tokyo has a variety of great vegan and vegetarian restaurants, so travellers should have no problems there. Outside of Tokyo, some (generally) vegetarian dishes to look out for in standard restaurants are eggplant or bamboo nigiri, tempura vegetables, natto rolls, kappa maki (cucumber rolls), oshinko maki (Kyoto-style pickled vegetable rolls) and mushroom nigiri.
You should also keep an eye out for shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine). Prepared by monks as part of their contemplative and devotional practises, these meals are always vegetarian and very often vegan.
Travelling with a local who speaks the language makes this all a lot easier. If you travel with Intrepid, you’ll have a local leader who can help you decipher menus and recommend good plant-based options.
Read more about vegan and vegetarian dining in Japan
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