Japanese cuisine is very popular throughout the world. As an island nation surrounded by the ocean, it’s widely known for its seafood. Aside from the freshness and high quality of food, what I like the most about Japan is how beautiful everything, including their food, is presented. No matter how many elements there are in a dish, everything always looks so neat and organized. Japanese food really reflects the culture.
Japan’s traditional cuisine is based on combining rice with several main dishes and side dishes, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients. Side dishes often consist of miso soup, fish, pickled vegetables, and vegetables cooked in broth. Grilled fish is very common, but it’s also served raw, such as sashimi or sushi. Seafood and vegetables are usually deep-fried in a light batter.
While many of the Japanese dishes in this list are available in restaurants around the world, including here in the Philippines, nothing beats the authentic experience. If you’re traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun, here are just a few of the must-try dishes (and the beers) you can enjoy there!
1. Sushi & Sashimi
Sushi & sashimi are among Japan’s most well-known dishes. Sushi consists of cooked vinegared rice combined with other ingredients like seafood, meat, vegetables and sometimes tropical fruits. Sashimi is a Japanese delicacy of very fresh raw fish or meat sliced into thin pieces.
Sushi restaurants can be found all over Japan, though Tokyo is said to have some of the best sushi restaurants in the world. Sushi train restaurants (where you pick them off a conveyor belt) are very popular. Even the ones sold in convenience stores are top quality!
Where to try it: Everywhere in Japan. For cheap sushi and sashimi, buy from Japanese supermarkets
Ramen is no doubt the most popular Japanese soup dish. Ramen consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat or (occasionally) fish-based broth, and flavored with soy sauce or miso. Common toppings include sliced pork, dried seaweed, and green onions. Almost every region in Japan has their own version of ramen, from the tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen of Kyushu to the miso ramen of Hokkaido. Though we had ramen several times during our trip in different restos, the best was in Yatai Marutoku Ramen in Osaka on our first night there.
This makes a great late night meal especially when you pair it with gyoza or steamed dumplings, which come in different kinds of filling including pork, beef, chicken, vegetables and bean, and ice-cold beer.
Where to try it: Yatai Marutoku Ramen, 1-6-18 Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Osaka
Yakitori is Japanese-style chicken barbecue. These skewered pieces of meat are served with either shio (salt) or tare (a sweet soy-sauce based sauce) and charcoal grilled. You can usually find yakitori at Japanese bar/restaurants, known as izakaya. You can also find skewered pork, or yakiton, which is also pretty good. This is another great dish to pair with an ice cold beer and edamame beans.
Where to try it: Shamo (闘鶏 福島店) Izakaya Restaurant, 2-7-24 Fukushima Fukushima-ku Osaka
Tempura is another iconic Japanese dish that consists of seafood or vegetables that have been battered and deep fried. The most popular seafood tempura is ebi (shrimp) tempura, though other ingredients like fish, scallop and crab can be used. Types of vegetable tempura include carrot, eggplant, sweet potato, onion and pumpkin. Tempura is normally eaten together with rice and cabbage.
Katsu refers to a breaded deep-fried cutlet. Most Pinoys are very familiar with typical chicken katsu or tonkatsu (pork) since it became a craze here in the country last year.
For a more unique experience, try kushikatsu or kushiage, deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. Smaller pieces of chicken, beef, pork, seafood, shrimp on skewers are served with cabbage, rice and a savory sauce that’s meant to be shared within a group. For foodies, eating kushikatsi is a must-try in Osaka!
Ganso Kushikatsu Daruma in Dotonburi is a good place to try out kushikatsu. If you’re in a big group, be prepared to wait a bit since it gets pretty crowded during peak dining times. What makes the deep-fried treats really good is the savory sauce that comes along with it. Take note that double dipping is frowned upon when you eat in kushikatsu restaurants!
Where to try it: Ganso Kushikatsu Daruma, 1-6-4 Dotombori, Chuo-ku, Osaka
Japanese street food deserves a whole different article. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake which is a regional specialty fast food of the Kansai or Hiroshima region. Imagine a savory crepe filled with a heaps of cabbage, meat and seafood, topped with a slice of ham and an egg. Some variants include noodles or udon (yakisoba) and piled high in a layered effect. Okonomiyaki is starting to become popular in the Philippines, with specialty Japanese restaurants serving this starting to open.
7. Yakiniku & Sukiyaki
For meat-lovers, Japanese beef is probably the best meat you’ll ever have in your life. Kobe beef and Matsusaka beef are famous around the world, but there are other excellent first-class Japanese beef like Hida Beef from the Gifu Prefecture and Omi beef from the Shiga prefecture.
Yakiniku is the Japanese style of grilling beef, typically where you grill the meat yourself on a tabletop charcoal grill in the middle of your table, which just adds to the anticipation. The meat has a fine, fatty texture that just melts in your mouth.
Sukiyaki consists of meat (usually thinly sliced beef) which is slowly cooked or simmered at the table, alongside vegetables and other ingredients, in a shallow iron pot in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin.
Where to try it: Jiku Kappo Sara, 940 Koshinohara, Yasu, Shiga Prefecture
8. Vending Machine Meals
Not exactly a specific dish, but when in Japan, it’s pretty fun to order a meal via a vending machine. In ramen joints and some restaurants in train stations, you can order your food from a high-tech touch screen machine, insert your payment, and get a ticket that you hand over to the server when you get seated to a table. There’s a whole row of ramen restaurants that serve it this style in Ramen Todai in the Kyoto Station.
Marky of Nomadic Experiences
Crispy Octopus & Kirin beer
Where to try it: Ramen Todai, Kyoto Station Building, 901 Higashishiokojicho, Shimogyo-ku , Kyoto Station
9. Japanese sweets
Traditional Japanese sweets, which contain ingredients like red bean paste and mochi, are known as wagashi. Another extremely popular dessert is ice cream. For a Japanese flavor, opt for matcha or Green Tea ice cream, which can be found throughout Japan and other parts of East Asia.
10. Japanese Beer
The four major beer producers in Japan are Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory, most of which produce pale-colored light lagers or pilsner style lagers. These are the beers most widely available in restaurants, convenience stores and even vending machines!
Interestingly, there are a lot of microbreweries and craft beers now supplying distinct tasting beers in a variety of styles around Japan. Last year in Nagoya, the most interesting beer finds I came across were Kinshachi Nagoya Red Miso Lager or Akamiso (Red Miso) Beer and Suiyobi No Neko by Yo-Ho Brewing in Nagano, Japan, a Belgian White Beer Style.
This time, the most interesting beers included the green mint beer at Finnegan’s, an Irish bar hosted by Suntory Liquors in Universal Studios Japan.
While walking through the stalls lining the path going to Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto, I came across cans of Kyoto, an original beer from Kizakura, and branded as “Kyoto’s first craft beer.” The brown ale contains roasted malts and has a sweet, mellow and slightly bitter taste.
One of the best beers of the trip was Yona Yona Ale from Yo-Ho Brewing Company. The beer means “Night after Night” and is very fruity, smooth and easy to drink. I spotted this several times in convenience stores and groceries around Japan. Highly recommended!
BONUS: Japanese Buffet
If you want to sample a variety of Japanese dishes in one place, head to buffet restaurants. All-Day Dining Remone, one of the many in-house restaurants of Rihga Royal Hotel, is known for their wide buffet, a la carte, café menu, and Japanese buffets for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They even serve beer on tap! They are open from morning to late at night.
Where to try it: All-Day Dining Remone, Righa Royal Hotel, 5-3-68 Nakanoshima, Kita Ward, Osaka, Osaka
NOTE: This trip was made possible by Cebu Pacific, JG Summit Holdings Inc. and Universal Studios Japan.
Cebu Pacific is the only Philippine low-cost carrier flying between Manila and Osaka. Flights are five times weekly with lowest year-round fares starting from PHP6,399. Cebu Pacific also flies from Manila to Tokyo (Narita), Nagoya and Fukuoka, as well as from Cebu to Tokyo (Narita). Book through http://bit.ly/CEBOsakaflights or (+632)7020888, or follow its Facebook or Twitter pages for the latest seat sales.