16 must-do Japanese food culture you must experience when in Japan


16 must-do Japanese food culture you must experience when in Japan
Among the many cultures in Japan, the culture of food is especially popular. This time we will introduce some Japanese food you must taste when you are touring Japan.

The history of Japanese food you should know

The history of Japanese food you should know
Since the Yayoi period (around 10th century BC to mid-3rd century) when rice cultivation was introduced, Japan has developed its own food culture centered on rice. It is very different from European food culture where wheat is the staple food and food culture is centered on wheat and meat.

The foundation of “Japanese food” that many people image was created in the Heian period (794 - 1185), and by the Edo period (1603 - 1868), the soy sauce, an essential seasoning in Japanese food, was used in food.

Since the Meiji era (1868-1912), Western cuisine permeated mainly in the upper class, and the Japanese arranged meat dishes and fried food into more Japanese-style food. Further, in the Taisho era (1912-1926), Western-style food such as sukiyaki, curry on rice, omelet rice, and pork cutlet began to spread mainly in the urban areas, but home-cooked meals were “ Japanese-style,” based on “one soup, three dishes” which were soup, rice, one main dish, and two side dishes.

After the food shortage of post-WWII, eating habits were still rice-centered, but Japanese food culture diversified year after year, as the country went through high economic growth and the bubble economy. Today, a mainly Japanese-style meal of “rice (staple food), miso soup, and main dish” is still eaten in households, but when eating out, you can have a wide variety of food that is said to be rarely seen in other parts of the world.

Japan’s food culture today

Japan’s food culture today
There are specialty restaurants all over the country, of Japanese-style food such as sushi, tempura, and shabu-shabu which go without saying, and there are other kinds of food that also have many passionate fans like ramen, soba/udon, yakiniku (grilled meat), and Chinese food.

There is also a recent trend of genres of food such as French, Italian, and ethnic being subdivide into regions.

Also, it has become common for internationally popular food such as sushi and tempura to be eaten in places that offer them at reasonable prices as well as in high-priced restaurants.

16 Food cultures you must experience when in Japan

The Japanese food culture has been diversifying partly because of its recent worldwide popularity. Among the many genres of food, you can taste in Japan, we would like to show you food that are especially recommended. They are 16 popular Japanese food that have become familiar and have been loved for long by the Japanese people.

1. Sushi / Sashimi

16 Food cultures you must experience when in Japan
It is a well-known fact that sushi, which has its origin in “nare-zushi,” a kind of food that is salt-preserved fish and rice that are pickled together such as Shiga Prefecture’s specialty “funa-zushi,” is a representative Japanese culture. The word “Nare-zushi,” can already be seen in documents of the Heian period, and it is still loved as the local cuisine of various areas of Japan, today.

Unlike sashimi, it is chopped up fish that are pickled (or lactic acid fermented), so it can be said that this cooking method is the origin of sushi.

“Nigiri-zushi” that is mainstream today, started during the Edo period.

The sushi that is said to have been created by Hanaya Yohei, who established “Yohei-zushi,” spread during the Edo period along with the “oshi-zushi” of the Kansai area.

Today, when it comes to sushi, the “Edomae-zushi (originally, they used fish caught in Tokyo Bay as the topping) is well-known, but there are also many local sushi all over Japan.

Toyama Prefecture’s “Buri no sushi,” which is vinegared rice with pickled turnip, yellowtail, etc. as topping and then wrapped in bamboo leaf. Osaka’s “Hako (box)-zushi” that is vinegared rice with conger-eel, thick omelet, etc. as topping and then pressed in with a box.

These are just a few examples. When you visit rural areas of Japan, we hope you will enjoy the various unique local sushi and sashimi.

2. Ramen

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It is said that Mitsukuni Tokugawa of the Mito Domain was the first Japanese to eat ramen, which is now said to be a national comfort food.

The much widely loved ramen is said to have its origin in a noodle dish which was introduced to Japan from China, and the first ramen shop in Japan started the business in Asakusa, Tokyo in 1910. It became popular during the turbulent period of post WWII. When returnees from China served ramen in black markets and the like, ramen became widely popular in a short period of time.

The much widely loved ramen is said to have its origin in a noodle dish which was introduced to Japan from China, and the first ramen shop in Japan started business in Asakusa, Tokyo in 1910. It became popular during the turbulent period of post WWII. When returnees from China served ramen in black markets and the like, ramen became widely popular in a short period of time.

When ramen became popular soy sauce ramen was the common flavor. Then, salt, miso, pork bone broth, etc. were also created. Today, it has greatly evolved, as there are myriads of different soup and ingredients. Let us now introduce you to some unique local ramen.

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“Hakata ramen,” with extremely thin fine noodles in pork bone broth soup. It is a local specialty of Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture. We have heard that it is quite difficult to find this kind of fine noodle in any other place than Fukuoka City, even if you are in Fukuoka Prefecture.

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Sano City, Tochigi Prefecture’s “Sano ramen” is a characteristic for its chewy noodles, which are made by a method of stretching them with green bamboo. Its soup is a simple soy sauce flavor, and the ramen popular for its addictive deliciousness.

3. Curry on rice

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“Curry on rice” is, along with ramen, loved by men and women of all ages. It is said that its origin was when it was introduced in the late Edo period from Britain as, unlike the Indian curry, stew that uses roux, which was already popular in Britain.

In the Meiji period, curry on rice started to appear, but it became popular in Japan when the Japanese Army was served “rice curry.” However, curry on rice started to become a part of daily home cooking when the solid type roux and boil‐in-the-bag curry was sold after WWII.

There are also local curry that has taken root in various areas.

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Sapporo City, Hokkaido has “soup curry,” which has large pieces of ingredients such as vegetables and meat in watery curry soup. Today, you can find over 250 curry specialty eateries within the city.


4. Soba / Udon

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Along with ramen, soba and udon are representative noodle dishes of Japan. Soba that is said to have been cultivated since the Jomon period (around 131 B.C. to 4 B.C.), is mentioned and something encouraged to be cultivated in the Chronicles of Japan Continued (published 797). However, it began to be eaten in noodle form as we do today, during the Edo period. In the beginning, soba was not boiled, but steamed and served.

On the other hand, udon is said to have become popular during the Kamakura period (1185-1333) when a Buddhist monk who came back from training in China brought back flour milling technology, and udon became widely popular form there. But there are various theories. Like soba, udon became a popular food among commoners during the Edo period.

There are various specialties of both soba and udon all over Japan. Let us show you some representative ones.


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The unique “wanko soba” that is eaten as the server keeps filling in mouthfuls of noodles in your bowl as she yells, is a specialty of the Morioka area of Iwate Prefecture. It is the rule to keep on having refills until you are full.

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The “Sanuki udon” of Kagawa Prefecture is extremely well-known even among the many famous udon in Japan. The major characteristic is its hard chewiness of the noodles, and the soup is based on dried young sardines.

5. Okonomiyaki (savory pancake)

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It is said that “okonomiyaki” has its roots in “funoyaki,” which Sen no Rikyu had people make for him. This funoyaki evolved during the Edo period and became “sukesoyaki.” Then, it is believed that it eventually developed into okonomiyaki.

After WWII, food called “issen yoshoku” that was made for the very hungry, garnered attention, as it was flour mixed with water and then fried in a thin form and topped with green onion and the like. Later, the kind of okonomiyaki we see today, using various ingredients, was eaten during the high economic growth age and beyond.

There are a variety of okonomiyaki, which is also called “konamono (general term for food made from flour),” and it became established in Hiroshima and Osaka.


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A thinly fried batter is topped with a large amount of cabbage, meat, and the like, and then yakisoba and a thin omelet goes on top of it all. It is the famous “Hiroshima yaki” of Hiroshima Prefecture.

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Let’s not forget the unique “konamono” found in the downtown area of Tokyo named “monja.” First, you fry various ingredients of your liking, then build a sort of round “wall” with a large opening in the middle. Then, pour in a runny flour mixed with water into the middle of the circle, and mix everything. When all is cooked, scooping with a small spatula and eat.

6. Miso-shiru (miso soup)

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During the Heian period, miso was put on the food and eaten. It is said that miso began to be served as soup during the Kamakura period. As miso soup began to be served to samurai, the concept of the basic Japanese-style food of “one soup, one side dish” was established during this period.

Miso soup is made from soup stock, ingredients, and miso, and they are usually eaten at home. But you can also have them at Japanese-style restaurants and sushi shops served with rice, konomono (Japanese-style pickles), and the like.

7. Yakitori (grilled chicken)

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Today, it is common to call chicken meat put on skewers “yakitori,” but it is said that until the Meiji period, skewered sparrow and quail meat were called yakitori. From the Meiji period and beyond, poultry farming became popular, and thus chicken became yakitori. However, before WWII, most of them seemed to be skewered wild birds. Today, yakitori is established as chicken meat put on skewers, but it became popular after WWII with the arrival of broilers.

Yakitori, popular among tourists from abroad as well, can be eaten all over the country.

However, please take note that even if you want to eat “yakitori (skewered chicken meat),” in some cases, they do not serve chicken.

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“Yakitori lunch box” is popular among the locals of Hakodate, Hokkaido, and the meat they use is pork. So for those in Hokkaido, it is common knowledge that yakitori means pork.

Further, “motsu yaki” is the same skewered meat, but it is skewered pieces of pork innards.


8. Shabu-shabu (meat parboiled in hot soup)

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“Shabu-shabu” are hot pot dishes that are thinly sliced meat stirred and cooked in a pot of soup stock and then eaten by dipping them in sesame sauce, ponzu vinegar, etc. It is said that it originated from the Chinese hot pot. The name “shabu-shabu (splashing sound)” comes from a meat dish restaurant owner in Osaka City who thought that “stirring meat in hot water looked like washing towels in a washtub,” and this name became used all over Japan.

Shabu-shabu is popular for its simple way of cooking and seasoning, but a while back, it used to be a dish reserved for high-class restaurants. Now, it can be enjoyed at a reasonable price since there are now all-you-can-eat chain restaurants. So today, there is a variety to choose from, from the high-priced fancy restaurants to reasonable eateries.

9. Yakiniku (grilled meat)

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Yakiniku is extremely popular as there are reasonable all-you-can-eat restaurants to high-class restaurants. Of course, you can also enjoy them at home, too. There are different theories as to how yakiniku became so popular in Japan. It is said that there was already a culture of eating grilled meat in the mountain areas during the Edo period.

It is said that yakiniku truly became popular in Japan after WWII, and the first yakiniku restaurant is said to be “Meigetsu-kan” which started business in Shinjuku, Tokyo in 1946.

Since the high economic growth period, yakiniku garnered popularity, and at first, the standard kinds were sirloin, ribs, and beef tongue. But nowadays, because diners are more particular about their food, and in order to set themselves apart from other restaurants, more yakiniku eateries serve rare meat parts, and there are various dishes.

From reasonably priced restaurants to high-priced ones that offer expensive branded beef, it is good that there are many eateries to choose from, depending on what kind of meat you want to eat, and which brand.

10. Tofu

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“Tofu” is said to have been introduced from China by Japanese envoys during the Nara period (710-794). It was during the Edo period when tofu was eaten by commoners, and a tofu cookbook called “Tofu Hyakuchin” garnered tremendous popularity, becoming a best seller at the time. However, it is said that at the beginning of the Edo period, tofu was considered luxury food, and farmers were banned from eating them.

Tofu is essential food for Japanese, and there are many unique kinds of locally famous tofu all over Japan

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Tottori Prefecture’s “Tottori Tofu Chikuwa” is a kind of chikuwa that is made from 70% firm tofu, and 30% whitefish paste. It has been loved by the people since the Edo period, and it is a local specialty served at ceremonial occasions as well.

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Okinawa’s local favorite, “Jimami-tofu” is juice from crushed peanuts that is solidified by starch of sweet potatoes called “imokuzu.” The ingredients used and manufacturing method is different from ordinary tofu, and it is popular for its fragrance and flavor unique to peanuts.

11. Fugu (puffer fish)

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Fugu dishes have been eaten in Japan since the Jomon period, but for a long time, it was difficult to have them, as Hideyoshi Toyotomi gave a prohibition order that banned people from eating fugu, and also during the Edo period, people were prohibited from eating them.

The fugu eating culture blossomed when Hirobumi Ito, the prime minister during Meiji era, removed Hideyoshi’s ban. But this was only for limited parts of the country. After WWII, the ban was lifted for the whole country, and it developed into a high-class dish.

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A representative fugu dish would be “fugu sashi (sliced raw fugu).” Especially the fugu sashi of “Shimonoseki fugu” caught in the Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture area is prized as a high-class dish. The “Genkai torafugu” caught in Fukuoka Prefecture is also famous.

Further, aside from fugu shashi, there are processed fugu food, such as Ishikawa Prefecture’s local dish “fugu no ranso no nukazuke (detoxed blowfish ovary in rice- bran).”


12. Tempura

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“Tempura” is well-known by foreign tourists. It is one of the representative food in Japan, and it is said to have been introduced, along with firearms, by Portugal.

As production of oil increased since the Edo period, tempura became popular among commoners, but it originally developed as high-class food. Until the start of WWII, it was expensive food, only eaten on special occasions, but after the war, as Japan entered the age of rapid growth, tempura changed into food enjoyed at home.

Today, from chain eateries that serve food at reasonable prices to high-quality restaurants, tempura can be eaten in a wide range of places. However, if you would like to taste tempura that uses traditional Edo-mae ingredients, you should go to tempura specialty restaurants in Tokyo.

13. Onigiri / Omusubi (rice balls)

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“onigiri” that is rice formed into a shape in the hands, and can be eaten by grasping it, without utensils, is mentioned in documents from the Nara period. The onigiri became popular in the Edo period as it became eaten in packed lunches, and today, it is classic food for boxed lunches and in convenience stores.

You can find various kinds of onigiri in convenience stores, and there are many kinds of famous onigiri in each area of Japan.

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“tenmusu,” a local specialty of Tsu City, Mie Prefecture and Nagoya City of Aichi Prefecture is especially famous. Inside the onigiri is a shrimp tempura, and is also popular as souvenirs.

14. Gyu-don (steamed rice topped with beef)

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“Gyu-nabe” that is simmered beef, was a big hit during the Meiji era. Then, this popular dish evolved into “gyu-meshi,” which made it easier and faster to eat. This gyu-meshi is said to be the origin of today’s gyu-don, and it was a very popular dish during the Meiji era.

The “gyu-meshi” was seasoned with miso in the beginning, but after the Great Kanto Earthquake, it changed to a Kansai-type soy sauce flavor, and then developed into “gyu- don.”

The original restaurant of one of the “three top gyu-don chain shops,” “Yoshinoya” started business in 1899. After WWII, the motto of gyu-don was “fast and delicious,” and became the cuisine of the commoners. Including Yoshinoya, you can taste gyu-don in several chain restaurants.

15. Sake

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Rice is the ingredient of sake, and it is said that production began in the Yayoi period, and words of sake is written in documents from the Nara period. Its manufacturing method was already established in the Heian period, and it developed into an industry in the Edo period. It is said that pasteurization was implemented for a longer shelf life.

Today, contemporary sake is offered in a variety such as junmai, ginjo, daiginjo, and junmai-daiginjo. Rice suitable for sake also gives variety to sake. From Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south, sake suited to each climate and soil are being created.

16. Green Tea

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Japanese tea is said to have been introduced to Japan by Japanese missions to Tang China and study abroad monks during the Nara and Heian period. Today, most of the tea produced in Japan is green tea. Green tea is unfermented tea, steamed to stop the function of oxidase right after they are picked.

Today, the area which produces the most green tea is Shizuoka Prefecture. The Fukamushi sencha (deep-steamed green tea) is a representative of Shizuoka Prefecture, and it is very popular among health-conscious people since you can take in the active ingredients themselves.

Summary of Japanese food cultures:

How did you like the Japanese food cultures this time? Each has a different characteristic and fascination, so if you have the chance to visit the various locations, we hope you will enjoy the unique local tastes and popular dishes of Japan!

*The above information was last updated September 17, 2018. For further information, please contact the facilities directly.

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