Earlier this year in January, Will and I embarked on an exciting 2-week adventure across Japan. It was his very first time in Japan and my third time, though funnily enough I always feel like I’m visiting for the first time again when I visit Japan. The part I was most excited about was–not surprisingly–the food, and my goal on this trip was to eat as locally and authentically as possible (sooo, no French or American food on this trip!) From sushi in Tokyo and izakaya bar food in Takayama, to matcha parfaits in Kyoto, it proved to be a deliciously diverse challenge! For the food-focused travelers out there, here’s my guide to eating like a local in Japan (you might be surprised that people don’t eat sushi every day!).🍜
Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market:
Fresh sushi + sashimi + Sapporo beer
The Tsukiji Fish Market was right around the corner from our hotel in Tokyo, and it was bustling with tourists and locals alike on the Sunday afternoon we ate there. We met with my Japanese friends, Eriko & Shun, who took us to a little sushi restaurant on the 2nd floor in one of the alleyways. Everything was packed with flavor and crazy fresh, with just the right amount of wasabi.
Cold buckwheat noodles + dipping sauce + grated white radish (daikon) + nori
A popular summer-time dish (I love soba all year round though), zaru soba is delightfully light and refreshing in flavor. It’s made from buckwheat, so it’s gluten-free yet still satisfying! One of my favorite food moments is packing a big mouthful of soba noodles straight from the dipping sauce bowl, mixed with white radish and fresh sliced green onions. Gah, I love food.
Powdered green tea
Made from grinding green tea leaves into a fine powder, Japan’s famous matcha tea can be consumed in various forms including cakes, mochi, desserts, and even noodles! If it’s your first time trying it though, I recommend having it in its purest form–as an unsweetened tea. The flavor may be very foreign and bizarre to unaccustomed palates, but matcha has a plethora of super health benefits, from its detoxifying properties to lowering cholesterol and blood sugar! For an unforgettable matcha experience, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as sipping matcha tea while gazing upon a quiet bamboo forest of a Japanese temple.
“Chinese Style” Noodles:
Egg noodles / bamboo shoot / bone broth / green onion / chasu pork
+ pickled radish + ginger soup + squash
Japanese, Taiwanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc…these cultures all love their noodle soups! In the small town of Takayama, we found this spot packed with locals, serving delicious and affordable noodle soup, complete with side ginger soup and small dishes. Tasted like a light broth ramen!
Teishoku (Set Meals):
First Pic (dinner): Chirashi (sashimi rice bowl) + udon noodles + tempura + pickled side dishes
Second Pic (breakfast): Homegrown purple rice + tofu miso soup + sweet squash +pickled side dishes
If I could eat like this everyday, I would in a heartbeat. This is the kind of Japanese cuisine that I think is the most difficult to find outside of the country (though Taiwan does have a super diverse offering!) and the style of Japanese food that I miss the most when living in Paris. Thank god for ChopChicks in Paris lol *shameless plug*. I love eating a lot of different savory flavors and textures at once, but in petite quantities. That’s also why I love Spanish tapas and Korean banchan so much 😉 Not only is it a great way to taste a wide variety of fresh dishes, it’s also healthy and perfectly portioned so that you’re not left feeling K.O.ed with food coma!
Izakaya Bar Food:
Ochazuke (green tea rice soup) + Hida beef + bacon n’ cheesy potatoes + chicken ball yakitori
In Takayama, we went in search of this tiny izakaya bar in the middle of the evening during the worst blizzard of the season. I was craving ochazuke like mad (it’s one of my favorite comfort foods) and we asked our hostel if they had any idea where we could find some in town. This experience was one of our favorite meals in Japan, despite it not being fancy or glamorous. Everything about it was cozy, greasy, and super authentic. From the outside, hidden under all the snow, it looked as if the bar wasn’t open. We trudged in with our snowy boots, and were greeted by a stuffy warm scene of Japanese locals seated at the bar and around floor tables drinking beer, chuhai (alcoholic soda) and eating delicious food. Will was the only non-Asian guy in the establishment (in maybe the whole town, to be honest lol), so we stood out quite a bit. Every wall was decorated with vintage Japanese antiques and memorabilia, as it turns out the owner is also an antiques dealer! We ordered my beloved ochazuke rice soup, some of the town’s famous “Hida” beef, bacon n’ cheesy potatoes (maybe the closest I came to eating western food on this trip!), and some chicken meatball yakitori (kind of like simple kebabs). It was all soooo delicious, comforting, and filling, especially on a freezing cold night like it was. A Japanese man who was sitting next to us saw that we were visitors and politely explained to us how to eat ochazuke, which was funny because I’ve eaten it so many times–but it was so sweet of him and we loved that he was so friendly!
Noodles + soup broth + assorted toppings
Slurpy, slurpy goodness. If you visit Japan, you can’t leave before you’ve tried good ramen. I consider it the national dish of Japan…even before sushi, because most people don’t eat sushi everyday lol. There’s a bunch of different kinds and flavors to choose from, but if you’re not quite sure, tonkotsu (pork broth) and shoyu (soy sauce base) ramen are delicious favorites that are great for first and hundredth-timers alike. There’s even an official Ramen Museum in Yokohama that I’ve added to my bucket list for my next trip to Japan.
A final note on table manners: Japanese people say itadakimasu! (頂きます) right before they dig in, which means “I humbly receive” and is their version of bon appetit! I think it’s nice to say it even if you’re not Japanese, because it’s polite and shows respect for their traditions.
So there you have it! A tasty food adventure list that you can make sure to check off on your first, or fifth, trip to Japan 🙂 For my fellow Japanese food lovers out there, what are some of your favorite Japanese foods or snacks?? And what do you miss most about Japanese cuisine when you’re away? Tell me in the comments!😘