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10 Food Experiences to Try in Japan

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

If you have a trip planned to Japan in your future, you need start working on your food itinerary now! With Japan boasting the most cities with Michelin Star restaurants, their food service is unparalleled. But you don’t have to drop big bucks to have some awesome (and a little crazy) food. Here are 10 food experiences you can try in Japan:

1. Sushi Train- Sushi is one of the first entrees that comes to mind when you think of Japanese cuisine. And what cooler way to experience it than by having multiple selections come by on a conveyor belt aka “sushi train.” But prepare yourself- American sushi is quite different from traditional Japanese sushi. For one thing, most options are raw and you won’t find any kind of crunchy, spicy rolls. But it is all really good (and some places offer a grilled or smoked option.)

The one we tried was Himawari Sushi, right in the heart of Shinjuku. At only several dollars per plate, you can order lots of varieties straight from the train or order something fresh. 

2. Noodles- Whether you choose ramen, udon or soba, you can find some delicious, all-in-one bowls to slurp up. And yes, slurping is totally allowed and even encouraged! Most places even provide a bib! Make sure to track down some of these cafes that serve up warm, brothy bowls featuring these noodles. (The Ramen bowls were our favorite and have forever disenchanted us with the cheap ramen noodle packs. Their ramen broth is cooked down from pork bones for up to a week (!) to create a rich flavor like no other.)

3. Tempera- You've probably had tempura before but the chefs in Japan have a way of making it even lighter and crispier! You can get almost any meat or vegetable tempura-style. Dipped into a savory broth, it is a delicious medley of crunch and succulence that you have to try.

4. Japanese Tea Ceremony (Matcha)- A practice that is thousands of years old, the Japanese tea ceremony is a beautiful display of heritage. We had the unique privilege to have Japanese friends lead us through a very authentic tea ceremony in Gora Park in Hakone. The matcha (green tea) is ceremoniously served with little wagashi (sweet treats).

<<Trip Tip>> The Japanese Tea Ceremony is a special ritual so you will need to educate yourself on the proper etiquette. Many places offer English instructions but I suggest doing some research prior to attending so you feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the process (notice in the picture that ladies sit differently than men!) Check out more info HERE.

5. Cotton Candy & Sweets- The Harajuku area is known for its pop culture and wild, sweet treats! After watching a video in preparation for our trip, Rayna picked the giant cotton candy from Totti Candy Company as one of her "must-dos". This place is so popular that you request a ticketed time hours before you can actually purchase your cotton candy. Luckily our Airbnb (the beautiful Sakura Room by Moshi Moshi Rooms) wasn't far so we were able to head back to the room during our 6 hour wait, but we think Rayna enjoyed it enough to justify it! They create the enormous, rainbow of spun sugar right in front of you and it is super light and airy. It didn't last long! :)

6. Chanko Pot- Used by sumo wrestlers to achieve weight gain, this dish surprisingly does not feel heavy or unhealthy. A combination of meat, vegetables and mushrooms are freshly cooked in a little pot on your table by a small flame. The added rice cake is what packs in the calories that is desired by wrestlers.

7. Food to-go at a 7-11- I know, you're probably thinking why I would suggest getting food at a convenience store when there are so many great restaurants in Japan but hear me out! The 7-11 stores in Japan are tiny, quick-stop stores packed with delicious and fresh entrees! You can purchase whole meals-- noodle bowls, pre-cooked fish and vegetables-- for mere dollars and the food is super fresh. Most options are refrigerated but there are some hot options too.

This is an excellent place to grab a quick bite or cheap, healthy meal. I have found myself, more than once, wishing for the healthy and convenient options from the Japanese 7-11s after a busy day at work!

8. Animal Cafe- If you're looking for a place to grab a coffee or tea in the afternoon, you might want to consider an animal cafe. Owning a pet can be difficult in the city so the idea of the animal cafe was born. There are an array of options- cat, dog, owl, rabbit, hedgehog, reptile- but our crazy cat lady (AKA Rayna) picked the feline option. The Cat Cafe Mocha that we visited on Takeshita Street (Shibuya) was super clean and cutely decorated and offered drinks via a drink machine inside. You pay by the minute, so don't plan to tarry too long but it was a memorable experience for our daughter.

9. Agemanju & Taiyaki- If you visit the Asakusa area to see the Senso-Ji temple, then you will see these little baked treats everywhere. Taiyaki are traditionally shaped like a fish and have a waffle-like outside filled with a sweet, red bean paste called anko. The cute ones got eaten before I could snap a picture!

You also have to try agemanju, pictured. This is a crunchy, deep-fried treat, similar to a fresh donut dough that is filled with a variety of fillings such as red bean paste, sweet potato, green tea or sesame paste.

10. Washoku & Kaiseki Ryori (Traditional Japanese Meal)- Hopefully during your trip to Japan, you will have the opportunity to stay at a ryoken which is a very traditional style hotel with tatami straw mats, futon beds and typically have hot spring baths (onsen). When you stay at one of these ryokens, most include breakfast and dinner which allow you to experience "Washoku"- the Japanese Traditional Food Culture” which is registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. We were able to try some very unique dishes that were hundreds of years old that you might not typically find at a regular restaurant. The most memorable part was the beautiful presentation.

<<Trip Tip>> We had the amazing opportunity to experience a lot of Japan with our dear friends, the Matsuo family, who served as our personal tour guides. One of our absolute favorite experiences from the trip was just going to their house, shopping at their local market and then making lunch together (gyoza and sushi!).

While you may not always have personal contacts while visiting another country, you can take a cooking class or attend a locally hosted dinner by booking "experiences" via sites such as Airbnb Experiences or Get Your Guide. Adding an experience with a local is sure to contribute to a more memorable trip!

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