The ultimate guide to the best food experiences in Japan

From authentic markets and restaurants to cultural delicacies, culinary classics and unique foodie experiences, these are our top tips, tricks and advice for finding and eating the best food in Japan. 

While walking the well-worn path of tourist traps and chain restaurants may undoubtedly be the one of least resistance, it’s rarely the most authentic. One of the best ways to experience a new culture is through food, and by engaging with the locals in their usual haunts. From Tokyo and Fukuoka to Kyoto and Kanazawa, this is the ultimate guide to finding, experiencing and eating the best food in Japan.

Eat with the locals at Fukuoka’s Yatai Stalls 

Tucked away in the neighbourhoods of Nakasu, Tenjin and Nagahama are little food stalls selling cheap and flavoursome casual dishes such as ramen, mizutaki chicken stew, gyoza and yakitori. 

How to pick the best yatai stall

The easiest way to identify the best shop in the market is by looking for the busiest stall with the biggest crowd. Yatai stalls are not a place where people sit and linger over a meal, so if there’s a queue and a whole lot of customers, this is a sure sign the food is fresh and delicious. 

people eating at a yatai stall in Japan
© Unsplash/ Nichika Yoshida

Shop for seafood at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market

Widely regarded as one of the best locations for raw and cooked seafood in Tokyo, Tsukiji Market is a labyrinth of tiny streets lined with vendors selling some of the best food in Japan. This market is where foodies can indulge in dishes such as oysters, scallops, unagi (grilled eel) and gesu (squid arm) tempura. 

The best meals to eat at Tsukiji Market

  • Kaisendon: A seafood donburi dish that can include slices of tuna, salmon, and whitefish sashimi or shellfish, served over rice.
  • Satsuma-age: Fish cakes seasoned with sake, shochu and brown sugar before being deep-fried.
  • Uni: Uni is the edible portion inside a sea urchin and is usually served natural, or with sushi rice. 
seafood on sale at a market in Japan
© Unsplash/ Redd F & Unsplash/ AXP Photography

Visit Tokyo’s Monjayaki Street 

Monjayaki is very similar to okonomiyaki (savoury teppanyaki pancakes), and there’s an entire street in Tokyo dedicated to monjayaki restaurants. Tsukishima Monja Street has more than 75 restaurants serving monjayaki, and these venues allow you to get in on the action yourself, with self-serve griddles, sauces and spices all supplied on your table. 

Where to find the best monjayaki restaurant

Kura is one of the most popular restaurants on Tsukishima Monja Street and is famous for its Kura Special Monja. Here, you can choose from more than 35 monja toppings. Established in 1955, Iroha is another local favourite and has two restaurants on the street serving unique dishes such as yuzu monja and curry monja.

okonomiyaki pancake on a plate
© Unsplash/ Guillaume Coue

Discover a world of flavour at Kyoto’s kitchen

Located in Kyoto, Nishiki Market is a long and narrow street filled with more than one hundred shops and restaurants, colloquially known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’. With a history spanning more than 400 years, Nishiki Market has some of the best food in Japan, from crackers and sweets to sushi and seafood. The market is also well known for its excellent selection of dried food purveyors, such as fish, vegetables and seaweed. 

The best food to eat at Nishiki Market: 

  • Senbei: Flavoured with salt, chilli, spices or even wrapped in seaweed, senbei are rice crackers seasoned to order – and even come in sweet varieties. 
  • Tako-tamago: Baby octopus marinated and cooked in a sauce of sugar, mirin and soy sauce, with a quail egg inserted in the head of the octopus prior to cooking.
  • Beef sushi: A tasty snack of warm thin beef slices served on a sushi rice ball, often with wasabi. 
  • Tamagoyaki: A Japanese omelette filled with cabbage, carrot, onions and pickled ginger, topped with dried seaweed.
  • Matcha sweets: From sweet jelly treats to ice cream, matcha can be found in a range of confectionery products around the market.
food market stalls in Japan
Both © Unsplash/ Romeo A

Slurp noodles on Sapporo’s famous Ramen Alley

Established in the late 1940s, the narrow Ganso Ramen Yokocho, or Ramen Alley, in Sapporo, is home to a large selection of ramen restaurants, each with their own unique flavour. Look for a ramen house serving up classic sapporo miso ramen; many of the shops here source their toppings, such as seafood, beef, pork and marinated eggs, from local producers in Hokkaido. 

Journey into Kanazawa’s largest and oldest fresh food market 

Omicho Market is the largest and oldest fresh food market in Kanazawa and has a history that dates back centuries. A maze of busy streets lined with shops, restaurants and stalls that specialise in local dishes and seafood, Omichi Market is an excellent opportunity to sample some of the most authentic food in Japan. 

What to buy at Omicho Market: 

  • Seafood croquette: taking inspiration from traditional French croquettes, these deep-fried parcels are typically handmade and stuffed with octopus, crab or shrimp.
  • Sushi: There are three Kanazawa sushi specialities to find at Omicho Market: rosy seabass sushi, sweet shrimp sushi, and snow crab sushi. 
  • Kaisendon: This sashimi rice bowl is topped with some of the best seafood you’ll find around the market. 
  • Kanazawa curry: This unique Japanese curry originates from Kanazawa, and is characterised by a thick sauce topping – containing secret ingredients! – over rice. 
  • Jiro Ame ice cream: A soft serve ice cream made with a typical Kanazawa treat – jiro ame – a lightly flavoured candy made with barley and rice.
market in Japan
© Shutterstock/ Peter Adams

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Tackle a parmigiana that wants to be ramen inside a Gucci store

Tokyo’s prestigious Gucci Osteria da Massimo Bottura finally opened in Ginza after years-long, pandemic-induced delays. The restaurant offers a fusion of refined Italian cuisine and local Japanese produce, including a “parmigiana that wants to become a ramen” – according to the menu.

Eat your heart out at the world’s biggest conveyor belt sushi restaurant

Nothing beats a high-quality yet affordable conveyor belt sushi experience, offering plates of nigiri and maki rolls from as low as ¥110 (just over AU$1). Near Tokyo Skytree in Oshiage, the Kura Sushi restaurant is said to be the world’s most enormous, seating up to 277 people. 

sushi restaurant
© Kura Sushi

Visit one of the best restaurants in Asia 

When Tokyo’s Den, known for its contemporary Japanese cuisine, was named the Best Restaurant in Asia for 2022, it was the first time in nine years that a restaurant in Japan had snagged the title. Book yourself a table on your next trip to Tokyo and sample the menu for yourself. 

Gorge on truffle-laced bread and baked goods

Japan is home to some outstanding bakeries and patisseries, there’s even a distinctive bakeshop whipping up baked goods made with luxurious truffles. Truffle Bakery originally launched in Tokyo, but can now be found in Karuizawa and Nagano, too.

inside of a bakery
© Truffle Bakery

Dine at a Michelin-star restaurant in Tokyo 

Yamazaki serves a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner known as Kaiseki, and is owned and operated by renowned chef, Shiro Yamazaki. Started in 2018, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star within three months of opening and is known for its colourful Japanese dishes made with seasonal produce, and paired with high-grade sake.

japanese vegetable tempura
© Yamazaki

What are Japan’s most famous foods? 

  • Sushi: Sushi takes several forms, such as hand-pressed nigiri or rolled maki.
  • Ramen: Egg noodles in a soup made from chicken or pork-bone broth, often with toppings such as chashu pork, nori seaweed, egg and vegetables. 
  • Udon: Thick wheat noodles served hot or cold – depending on the season  – with or without soup and toppings such as tofu, tempura shrimp or vegetables.  
  • Soba: Hailing from Japan’s mountainous regions, Soba is a buckwheat noodle served in a soy-based broth, and topped with vegetables, egg, temperature or meat. 
  • Yakitori: You can find almost any part of a chicken on a yakitori skewer, often flavoured with salty shio or a sweet barbecue tare sauce. 
  • Yakiniku: Diners are invited to barbecue slices of meat and vegetables over a hot plate on the table. 
  • Okonomiyaki: Best described as a savoury pancake, okonomiyaki is usually made with seafood, pork or cabbage and once grilled, topped with aonori seaweed, bonito fish flakes, a dark sweet sauce and mayonnaise. 
  • Gyoza: Often found in street stalls or around train stations, gyoza is a steamed or pan-friend dumpling usually filled with pork, chives, onion, cabbage, ginger and garlic. 
  • Tonkatsu: This deep-friend breaded pork cutlet is typically served with shredded cabbage, boiled rice, and miso soup, and sometimes offered with Japanese curry (katsukare) and egg (katsudon).

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