Japan was absolutely amazing! This summer we spent over three weeks there, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, up to Hokkaido (Otaru, Kutchan, and Sapporo), and back down to Tokyo and Fuji – shout out to the JR Rail Pass for all that travel! During our trip, there were so many interesting tidbits that I wanted to share, but I think what I most want everyone to know about Japan is how incredibly unique and delicious the food is! As a non-seafood eater my expectations going in were a little low. Prior to our trip when I thought about Japanese food, I thought of things like sushi, tempura fried shrimp, and wriggling octopus tentacles…so I was a little afraid that I’d be spending the three weeks eating chicken teriyaki while everyone else sampled the bounty from the sea. However, after only a few days I began to realize that the Japanese cuisine in my mind was seriously off the mark. Here are some of the abundant, delicious, not-so-seafood-in-your-face meals we enjoyed on our latest trip:
Omurice – As you might have guessed, omurice is a combination of the words “omelet” and “rice”, and that’s exactly what this dish consists of. Fried rice wrapped in a fluffy omelet covered in sauce. What’s not to love about that?! The original version is covered in ketchup, but more commonly in restaurants they’ll have demi-glace or cream sauces – the ultimate comfort food.
Katsu – Pork katsu is a Japanese dish I had heard of but didn’t really try until moving to China (where it became one of my favorites at a nearby Japanese chain). In Japan though, it was easily ten times better! Crispy breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice and a crisp cabbage salad – so good! Plus, of course, Tucker loved all the dipping sauce options. In addition to the traditional katsu dishes, we also loved the katsu sandwiches that often came in the ekiben (boxed meals sold on the go). These were great for train rides and baseball games, and although they look quite simple, the sauce is so delicious!
All that Yaki – Yaki means “grilled” in Japanese, and there are a lot of variations beyond the teppanyaki that we know in the States. Okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and yakitori were probably my three favorites (although the takoyaki “grilled octopus” might have been the most popular). Okonomiyaki roughly translates to something like “everything you like grilled”. Basically you choose all your favorite ingredients and fry them up in a thick pancake/hashbrown thing on a griddle that’s set into the table in front of you. Think Waffle House meets Hibachi – truly a one of a kind combination! Yakiniku is more like what I always call Korean BBQ. Lots of meats and veggies all grilled to perfection right at your table! Yakitori (or grilled skewers), on the other hand, don’t require any table-side cooking. Typically the skewers are ordered in sets and come covered in the most delicious sauces. Chicken is the most popular yakitori, but we also had beef, quail eggs, okra, mushrooms, etc.
Gyudon – Gyudon means “beef bowl” in Japanese, and while it is incredibly simple, it might be my favorite thing I ate while in Japan. A pile of beef and onions simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and dashi sitting atop a mound of sticky white rice served with fresh cabbage: as a lover of plain, simple foods, I was in heaven! I stumbled into this dish when we first ate at Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, after which I subsequently ordered it three times at various restaurants and eateries!
Karaage – Karaage is a Japanese style fried chicken that pretty much blew my mind. Unlike the fried chicken I know, which really only comes in two flavors: spicy and regular, karaage has a plethora of options. Some of my favorites included soy sauce, ginger, and spicy garlic. And the absolute best part? No bones! A popular spot to enjoy karaage is at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub. Cheap beer paired with fried chicken, always a great combination!
Curry – Tucker and I love curry. Thai curries, Indian curries, homemade curries: we eat them fairly often, but we had definitely never had Japanese curry before. It’s usually dark brown and served with either chicken or pork katsu, and although it looks similar to other curries, it’s really quite a bit different. Japanese curry is much sweeter and thicker than the typical renditions, and aside from the katsu addition, it also occasionally comes with a hard boiled egg.
Ramen – Ah, my favorite type of men…ramen! Before our trip, this is one of the dishes Tucker and I were most excited about. We really love ramen in all its forms abroad, so surely in Japan it would be amazing! Well, I’m happy to say that it absolutely was! All the bowls we had were massive, and the broth was literally worth licking out of the bowl. I was surprised with how many variations of ramen there are though, from a more traditional soy sauce base to the sweet corn miso broth famous in Sapporo – they were all delicious!
Sushi – Of course I can’t write about eating in Japan without mentioning sushi. Surprisingly, even as someone who doesn’t enjoy eating anything from the water, eating sushi in Japan was a highlight for me. We went to one of the sushi conveyor belt restaurants, which are always fun, and we blindly let Tucker do the ordering – the insane number of possibilities of ingredients, preparations, pairings, etc. was really quite impressive. Ultimately, the food was beautiful, and with enough wasabi, I tasted nothing seafood-y. Haha!
Bento – Train food is always a guilty pleasure of mine. In Poland, we got little ham sandwiches, in China, instant noodles, and in Japan: bento boxes. Bento boxes are pre-packaged meals, that are typically quite beautiful as well as delicious! Each little compartment in the box has a different dish, which also gives a lot of variety even when cooped up on a train/plane all day. We paired our bentos with some bīru (beer), and had a wonderful train ride along the coast of Hokkaido.
Otaru Cheesecake – Sometimes you run into a “famous” dish or cuisine on accident, and that’s what happened to us with the cheesecake in Otaru. We stayed in the small port city of Otaru towards the beginning of our trip, and as we were walking around the city, there were signs everywhere for a local cheesecake. Of course, we tried it, and were blown away by how good it was! We never associated Japan with cheesecake before, but it was clear that other tourists did because we then saw this brand of cheesecake for sale all over Tokyo, in the airport, as gift-wrapped souvenirs, etc. I like to think it was much better at the source though.
Other Snacks and Experiences:
Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori
KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar
Shabu Shabu – Japanese hotpot or fondue, usually all you can eat
Croquettes – creative new take on the fried food classic, I loved the green tea ones
Gyoza – Japanese fried dumplings
Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)
Matcha – green tea power, which can be found in anything and everything
Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes
Cheese Dogs – corn dog plus, especially since we had ours in colorful Harajuku
Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup