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Japan Travel Tips: Local Cuisine

One of the major reasons tourists flock to Japan is because of the local cuisine and it was no different for our trip in 2016. Over the 14 days we were in Japan we tried numerous types meals and barely scratched the surface on what Japanese cuisine had to offer. We had a couple of places that we knew we absolutely wanted to try but picking where we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner each day was usually an adventure in its own right.

Below are some of the most delicious and/or interesting dishes we had while we were in Japan:

Sushi

Sushi is probably the prototypical example of Japanese cuisine in the western world and it was hands down my favourite thing to eat while we were in Japan for two main reasons:

First, I had never eaten such high quality fish in my entire life. It was always extremely fresh and the variety was out of this world. I ate several kinds of fish that I didn't even know existed. If you have sushi in Japan I highly recommend you step outside your comfort zone and do not hesitate to try fish you've never had before.

Second, the preparation was top notch. The sushi chefs in Japan are really in a league of their own. The amount of care that went into each piece of sushi we ate was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Little things like varying the ratio of fish to rice, to the amount of wasabi that was added (if any), to the the number of brush strokes of soy sauce made such amazing differences to the taste. Over the trip I started to see these subtle differences in every chef that we ate from.

If you go to Japan you must absolutely try sushi at a restaurant where the chef literally makes it in front of you and hands you the pieces. I do not care if you are not a fan of sushi, you haven't really tried sushi until you've tried it in Japan.

Ramen

Ramen was hands down my second favourite dish to eat in Japan. It consists of noodles served in (or sometimes alongside) a hot broth seasoned with a number of toppings, usually chāshū (braised pork), scallions, a boiled egg, bean sprouts, nori (dried seaweed) among other things. The types of noodles and the stock for the broth vary so radically across Japan that not only does every region usually have its own ramen speciality, it isn't uncommon for ramen shops inside the same city to have their own unique variations.

Check out this video to get an idea of what owning a ramen restaurant is like and to see how much effort goes into every bowl. This will be a recurring theme throughout your time in Japan. The amount of figurative blood, sweat and tears that goes into the preparation of every piece of food is really beyond anything you've probably experienced before.

Yakiniku

If you are a beef lover than you absolutely must try yakiniku while you are in Japan. Yakiniku means "grilled meat" in Japanese and nowadays refers to a cooking style where bite-sized pieces of meat (usually beef) and vegetables are grilled over gridirons. The catch is that the meat is given to you raw and you cook it for as long as you want.

I would recommend watching this Mark Wiens video to see yakiniku in action or read about our meat pilgrimage to Kobe where we did yakiniku at one of the greatest restaurants I have ever been to.

Tonkatsu

My favourite meal in the whole wide world is schnitzel, especially pork schnitzel. A pork cutlet that has been perfectly tenderized, breaded and fried is impossible to beat.

That being said, Japan made a very worthy attempt with tonkatsu which is a pork cutlet that is salted, peppered and breaded with panko before being deep fried. It is much thicker than schnitzel, because the pork cutlet is not tenderized, and therefore retains so much more moisture and juices. The incredibly light panko bread crumbs also create a more airy, crispy texture on the outside of the cutlet which really lets the meat shine through. All of that combined with the typical tonkatsu sauce makes this dish incredibly appetizing.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is basically a pancake (or omelette) full of whatever ingredients you like. Its name literally translates into okonomi, meaning "how you like" or "what you like", and yaki meaning "grill". It was the first truly unknown dish we stumbled upon during our second day in Japan.

The batter consists of flour, eggs, nagaimo (a type of yam), dashi (stock), cheese, green onions, shredded cabbage and then your choice of protein like beef, pork, squid, etc. It is then grilled up, usually right in front of you, and then topped with condiments such as bonito flakes, Japanese mayonnaise or okonomiyaki sauce.

Like most old recipes in Japan this one has a lot of variations from region to region so what I described above may not match exactly what you eat but I ensure you it will be tasty nonetheless.

Taiyaki

Taiyaki is a delicious little Japanese snack that you will find for sale at dozens if not hundreds of street food stands during your stay.

It is made using pancake or waffle batter that is poured into fish-shaped molds for each side. The filling is added to one side and then the mold is closed and cooked until golden brown. The filling is usually sweet with the most common being red bean paste but sometimes custard, chocolate, mochi, etc are used instead. However, some shops will put more savory fillings like cheese, sweet potato, gyoza, sausage, etc.

Onigiri

Onigiri is the quintessential conbini (convenience store) food you will find in Japan. It is boiled white rice formed into a triangular or cylindrical shape, stuffed with some filling and wrapped in seaweed.

It is not worth listing all of the possible fillings for onigiri because there is just far too many. Simply keep your eyes peeled while you are out and about in Japan and if you find yourself a bit peckish pop into your nearest conbini and pick up whatever onigiri catches your eye.

Many, many more

Even after taking over 6000 words to write about seven different dishes I am still barely into the list of all the food I ate while in Japan.

There is karaage (deep fried bite-sized pieces of protein), tempura (deep fried vegetables), gyozas (dumplings), takoyaki (deep fried balls of octopus), yakitori (skewered grilled chicken that you'll find from both street vendors and izakaya pubs) and shabu-shabu (hotpot). Not to mention Japanese snacks like pocky or hi-chew and their delicious whiskies or sweet sake wine. You could even see the Japanese's take on the hamburger by going to a place like MOS Burger or McDonald's which is actually amazing in Japan.

The main takeaway from this article shouldn't be that you have to try what we tried, but that the cuisine in Japan is so amazing and varied that you owe it to yourself to constantly be taking risks while you are here. I don't wanna hear any stories of what the food was like at American Town.

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