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Around Japan in 15 Dishes

chefs at a Japanese food stall
Hi, I'm Selena!

Selena Takigawa Hoy is a Tokyo-based writer focusing on travel, food, and culture. She has written for Atlas Obscura, BBC Travel, and The Japan Times, Travel+Leisure, Kinfolk Magazine, and more. She loves rural Japan, cafés, and folk tales.

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Hi, I'm Selena!

Selena Takigawa Hoy is a Tokyo-based writer focusing on travel, food, and culture. She has written for Atlas Obscura, BBC Travel, and The Japan Times, Travel+Leisure, Kinfolk Magazine, and more. She loves rural Japan, cafés, and folk tales.

see more

For domestic travelers in Japan, tourism and food tourism is synonymous. Every region has its meibutsu, or famous or signature local products, and sampling them is a quintessential part of any local trip. On an island nation built on a chain of volcanoes, it’s easy to always have “something from the ocean and something from the hills” in every meal, alongside the country’s favorite grain: rice. Here are 15 Japanese dishes—well-known for their fresh, high-quality ingredients and visually pleasing presentation—you won’t want to miss.


a diner eating sushi
Sushi is one of Japan's most famous dishes. | Photo Credit: Stockmelnyk / Shutterstock

Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Hakodate

Japanese food fans know by now that sushi doesn’t just mean raw fish. In fact, the word “sushi” actually means vinegared rice, which is the vehicle for every succulent morsel, from fatty tuna belly (otoro) and broth-infused omelet (tamago) to fresh, palate-cleansing cucumber (kappa). If you skip the rice and go straight for the expertly sliced cuts of raw fish, that’s sashimi. Sushi can be found all over Japan, but some of the most famous sushi locations are Tokyo (home of Edo-mae sushi), Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture (for catch from the Sea of Japan), and Hakodate in Hokkaido.


a chef prepares soba noodles
A Japanese chef prepares soba noodles. | Photo Credit: gorosan / Shutterstock

Nagano Prefecture

Soba, the popular buckwheat noodle, has a place in various sectors of Japanese food, from haute cuisine to rustic mountain village restaurants in Nagano Prefecture. It’s served cold with dipping sauce in summer and in steaming hot broth in winter. Toppings vary by season, but zaru soba (plain noodles with a side of tsuyu dipping sauce) may be served with grated daikon, chopped scallions, and a dab of wasabi. Hot soba might come topped with a raw egg that silkily integrates into the noodles and broth; a slab of thin, golden-fried and seasoned tofu; or boiled or sauteed wild mountain vegetables.

Onigiri or omusubi

a hand holds a piece of onigiri
Onigiri is the perfect on-the-go Japanese snack. | Photo Credit: oley / Shutterstock


A lunchbox staple, the onigiri or omusubi is Japan’s original portable snack. A rice ball at base, it can be as simple as plain rice with a sprinkle of salt. More often, however, it’s wrapped in a sheet of nori seaweed, and holds a hidden treasure of fillings like umeboshi (pickled plums), tuna and mayonnaise, or flaked salmon, to name but a few. Onigiri can be found in any convenience store for around ¥100, but the best ones are, of course, made with love by hand from leftover rice and tucked snugly into a bento box for a meal on the go.


a chef heats up okonomiyaki on a grill
Okonomiyaki makes for a hearty meal. | Photo Credit: tarin chiarakul / Shutterstock


Literally meaning “cook what you like,” this dish is especially fun to eat in restaurants, where you can mix and match toppings to your heart’s content before frying the whole thing on a tabletop griddle. Most well known in Osaka, the savory pancake is made from a thin, wheat flour batter, and then mixed with cabbage, vegetables, meat, and seafood, before being fried to a crispy perfection and topped with savory okonomiyaki sauce, drizzles of mayonnaise, and flakes of aonori seaweed. In Hiroshima, you’ll find noodles mixed into the batter as well.


a diner enjoys ramen noodles with a boiled egg
Ramen is one of the most quintessentially Japanese dishes, but it originated in China. | Photo Credit: Torjrtrx / Shutterstock


Originally a Chinese dish, Japanese chefs have made ramen their own since it came to Japan more than 100 years ago. Consisting of thin wheat noodles in a complex broth, a steaming bowl of ramen is the ultimate way to cap off a boozy night, or a quick meal to slurp at the train station during a commute, or a reward at the end of a long queue in a popular shop. Sliced pork, bamboo shoots, and seaweed are common toppings, but every region has its own take: try corn butter ramen in Hokkaido or scallions, fish cake, and a soy sauce base in Fukushima’s Kitakata ramen.


a bento box with grilled mackerel
Japan knows how to create a delicious lunchbox. | Photo Credit: PJjaruwan / Shutterstock


In Japan, the humble lunchbox has been elevated to a work of art. Freshly made boxes are packed with variety and sold in convenience stores, supermarkets, and restaurants nationwide, from just a few hundred yen. Perhaps the most famous are ekiben, or lunchboxes sold in train stations. It’s customary to buy one before a long train journey, to be tucked into while enjoying the passing scenery. All major shinkansen stations sell them, and they’re a popular way to sample local specialties even when passing through. In Yokohama, for example, the country’s largest Chinatown is represented by popular shumai bentos.


A woman performs a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in a pink outfit.
Japanese tea ceremonies are highly choreographed affairs. | Photo Credit: Toa55 / Shutterstock

Kyoto, Shizuoka, and Kagoshima

Green tea has been the caffeinated beverage of choice in Japan for over a millennium, since the Buddhist monks Kukai and Saicho first brought it to the country from China. Today, it’s ubiquitous as a daily drink made by the pot and served at every meal, purchased in plastic bottles from vending machines on street corners, and drunk as part of the highly formal and choreographed tea ceremony. By and large, Japanese people prefer to drink tea grown in Japan, and the country’s most famous tea regions are Kyoto, Shizuoka, and Kagoshima.

Shojin ryori

Plates of Shojin Ryori served up in red bowls and plates in a restaurant in Japan.
Shojin ryori is traditionally served in red lacquer dishes. | Photo Credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock

Buddhist temples

While much of Japan eschews vegetarian food in favor of a diet liberally laced with fish and meat, shojin ryori, or Buddhist devotional cuisine, is still eaten by monks and nuns in temples all over Japan. This simple, highly seasonal food focuses on vegetables, tofu, and rice, and is usually served on red lacquer trays. The prayerful and the peckish, the vegan and the voracious can sample a shojin meal at a number of temples that serve the public, such as Yakuoin on Mt. Takao in western Tokyo, or the temple complex on Mt. Koya in Wakayama Prefecture.


Kakigori, a shaved ice dish served in Japan in summer.
Japanese shaved ice is ideal for that summertime heat. | Photo Credit: Mongta Studio / Shutterstock


An essential summer treat, kakigori is a mound of shaved ice drizzled with sweet syrup. A mainstay of summer festivals, vendors sell a basic version with artificially flavored strawberry, lemon, or “Blue Hawaii” (a kind of fruit punch) for a few coins, but higher-end versions can be found at cafés and specialty shops, doused in house-made natural fruit syrups and sweetened condensed milk. Try the yuzu-milk at Yuki Usagi in Tokyo or the shirokuma (polar bear) ice, with condensed milk and jewels of fruit and jelly at Tenmonkan Mujaki in Kagoshima.


A chef chops up a dish of fresh udon noodles in Japan.
Thick udon noodles are a mainstay of Japanese cuisine. | Photo Credit: oley / Shutterstock

Kagawa Prefecture

Udon is another noodle favorite across Japan, with fat, slippery, wheat-based noodles that are satisfying to slurp. Udon, like soba, can be served both cold with dipping sauce or immersed in hot broth seasoned with soy sauce, mirin (cooking sake), and fish or seaweed stock. A famous variety is Sanuki udon, from Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku. Sanuki udon is characterized by flat, chewy noodles, broth based on sardine stock, a ginger and scallion garnish, and often a twist of sudachi, a local lime-like citrus.

Goya champuru

An Okinawa dish of goya champuru served up to a restaurant customer in Japan.
Okinawa is known for its unique cuisine. | Photo Credit: Wichawon Lowroongroj / Shutterstock

Okinawa Prefecture

Japan’s southernmost prefecture, Okinawa, was the last to join the country and is just as close to Taiwan as mainland Japan. With a unique culture, indigenous language, and distinct local ingredients, Okinawa’s cuisine is markedly different from the rest of the country. One notable dish is goya champuru. “Champuru” is Okinawan for “mixed” and the stir fry’s star is goya, a bumpy, bitter gourd resembling the cucumber’s stepsister. The goya is thinly sliced and sauteed with firm tofu, bean sprouts, meat (often pork or Spam) or fish, egg, and other vegetables such as carrots.

Miso dengaku

Miso Dengaku, glazed in a sauce, in Japan.
Miso dengaku can be used to top a variety of vegetables. | Photo Credit: lydiarei / Shutterstock


Fermented foods are central to Japanese cuisine, and miso is no exception. A flavored paste made from fermented soybeans, salt, rice or barley, and culture, it’s used in everything from daily miso soup to a marinade for fish or meat; incorporated into salad dressing; or as a flavor base for ramen. One way to eat it for a concentrated, punchy flavor is in dengaku, a thick sweet and savory glaze that is typically painted on grilled eggplant, tofu, and daikon. Though it can be made with any kind of miso, red miso from Nagoya is often used for dengaku.


A man holds up a can of Shochu cocktail to enjoy by a river in Japan.
Canned shochu cocktails are wildly popular in Japan. | Photo Credit: Phurinee Chinakathum / Shutterstock


Though sake, or Nihonshu in Japanese, is probably Japan’s most famous alcoholic export, shochu actually has higher sales domestically. A clear spirit of around 25 percent alcohol, shochu can be made from various ingredients. In Kyushu, where the majority of honkaku (authentic, singly distilled) shochu is made, the primary ingredient is sweet potatoes; other base ingredients include rice, barley, and brown sugar. Versatile shochu can be drunk hot or cold; neat or on the rocks; as part of a cocktail (canned chuhai, shochu cocktails, are the most popular alcoholic beverages sold after beer); and as part of a meal.


A bowl of chicken nabe being enjoyed by a diner in winter in Japan.
There's nothing quite as comforting as nabe. | Photo Credit: Jirasin Snap / Shutterstock

Akita Prefecture

There’s nothing quite like a nabe on a cold winter day. Meaning hotpot, a nabe is a stew-filled ceramic pot that’s heated on a tabletop burner and served out in steaming ladlefuls while still boiling. There are countless variations around the country, but in the frigid Tohoku region of northern Japan, winter experts in Akita Prefecture like their nabe with chicken, earthy burdock root, savory negi, and kiritanpo, rice pounded into cylinders and roasted before being boiled in the stew for a chewy, broth-infused dumpling.


A box of wagashi sweet treats, which are often served as a dish with green tea in Japan.
Wagashi are as beautiful as they are delicious. | Photo Credit: Sann von Mai / Shutterstock


Served alongside a cup of tea, wagashi, or Japanese sweets, are small works of art meant to offset the bitter and astringent notes of green tea or matcha. Often incorporating mochi (pounded rice), sweetened bean paste, and fruit, wagashi are particularly famous in Kyoto. One beautiful bite is the daifuku, which means “great luck.” The sweet pillow of mochi is most often filled with bean paste, but might also contain mugwort, chestnut paste, strawberry, or even chocolate.

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See all Japan tours
3,732 tours & tickets
View of Itsukushima shrine in Miyajima, Hiroshima
See all things to do in Japan
A woman walks through a Shinto shrine in Tokyo
Top 6 Spots for Culture Lovers in Tokyo