You are visiting Japan soon and want to try a few types of good Japanese food. There are so many blog posts and YouTube videos about what to eat in Japan out there, that you are totally lost and do not know which ones to try. You say to yourself, “I know sushi already and I just want to know a few other must-try Japanese food!” I hear you.
When you come to Japan, you’d want to avoid “Food for tourists”, and instead, you want to eat what locals eat.
So here is our top 5 good Japanese food you should try and won’t regret doing so while traveling in Japan. As the title suggests, it’s a totally biased ranking of Japanese food by me, a 47-year-old native Japanese who grew up in Yokohama and Tokyo. These are top 5 Japanese food that my Japanese friends and I eat all the time. Disclaimer: No fancy food or restaurants are listed here – I’ll definitely cover that in near future, but this post is all about delicious/cheap Japanese food locals eat!
No. 5: Onigiri
Onigiri is as traditional as it gets – it’s a triangle rice ball with different types of fillings inside and Japanese have cherished this simple good Japanese food for centuries. Onigiri is also a big business in Japan – believe it or not, every year a ranking of popular onigiri fillings come out. In 2019, the most popular filling was tsuna mayonnaise, followed by grilled salmon and umeboshi (pickled plum – very sour).
Where to buy/eat onigiri
It is so popular that you can get onigiri from anywhere. As it’s normally individually wrapped, you can buy a few, put them in your bag and eat them on the go. Or simply visit convenience stores when you get hungry. There are a number of high-end onigiri shops, too. Try ‘depachika’, or a basement food section at major department stores, such as Isetan and Takashimaya, and you’ll find a high quality (i.e. expensive) onigiri shops. Well, onigiri from convenience stores and super markets are cheap and delicious, but some Japanese are concerned with preservatives in them. If you are one of these discerning customers, try the high-end onigiri shops.
No. 4: Oden
Oden is an extremely popular winter food in Japan. Personally, it’s one of the best traditional Japanese food Japan has to offer, and if you are on a diet or health conscious, Oden is it for you. It consists of several ingredients such as vegetables, tofu, eggs, fishcakes, konjac, seafood and meat cooked stewed in a flavoured dashi broth. In Japan, it’s one of the cheapest and healthiest street food, and no Japanese spends an entire winter without ever eating oden. Karashi, Japanese yellow mustard, is a typical condiment.
Where to eat Oden:
You can get take-away Oden from any convenience stores in Japan (and you know they are everywhere). Personally, Seven Eleven offers the best ones, and if you fancy more sophisticated Oden, just google on oden in Japan and you’ll see hundreds of high-end oden restaurants.
No. 3: Yakiniku
Yakiniku is Japanese BBQ. Obviously it originally comes from Korean BBQ, but it’s so different from the Korean version that it’s become one of the most popular food Japan has to offer. Unlike in Korea, you are going to cook yakiniku at your own table by yourself, and I can gruntee you that you’ll have a lot of fun doing it:-)
Where to eat yakiniku
Many yakiniku chain restaurants, such as Anrakutei, Gyukaku, Yakiniku King, Gyushige, Sutamina Taro and so on, offer all-you-can-eat deals (tabehodai) anywhere from 1980yen. Non-all-you-can-eat yakiniku restaurants are rather pricy, although they normally offer much better quality meat.
If you have one evening free in Tokyo, you must try Min Min. Min Min’s yakiniku is out of this world, super delicious and chea. It’s totally not on the radar of foreign visitors because all Min Min shops are located in western Tokyo. Min Min is one of those legendary restaurants that locals know:-)
No. 2: Teishoku
Never heard from Teishoku? Don’t worry, it just refers to a set menu. Teishoku is one of Japanese traditional serving formats. You pick a main dish, such as tonkatsu, and make it a ‘teishoku’, then you’ll receive the tonkatsu and a whole small dishes, such as a bowl of rice, miso soup, pickles and so on, all on a tray. Teishoku is almost always relatively cheap, helping you with your wallet when traveling in Japan.
Where to eat teishoku
My personal recommendation is definitely Otoya. It’s a chain restaurant mainly serving Japanese food in a teishoku format. They have a few shops overseas, too, in countries such as the US, Thailand and Taiwan. While in Japan, try Kaasan teishoku and/or Chicken miso katsu teishoku, which are so delicious you’ll want to cry. When I go to Harajuku where food is ridiculously expensive, Otoya is my No.1 choice!
No. 1: Soba and Udon
Soba and udon are two different types of traditional Japanese noodles. Some Japanese people like soba better and others prefer udon, so you should try them both and see which type you prefer. I’m on a diet, so I usually go for soba, less calories, than udon.
Where to eat soba
If you go to a proper soba or udon shop, expect to pay from 800yen to 3000yen. I love handmade soba at Tanzaburo in Nishi-Tama, Tokyo, but oh, well they are rather expensive. My recommendation for tourists in a hurry is Yomogida Soba in Ginza and Sagatani in Shibuya. Both shops are extremely delicious and cheap like a burger shop, but they make their noodles in-house. They are chain restaurants, but much, much better than other chains, such as Fuji Soba and Yudetaro, which are actually quite good for the price.
Both Yomogida in Ginza and Sagatani in Shibuya are also extremely small and packed all the time. So I guarantee that you’ll have delicious traditional Japanese noodle while having fun squeezing yourself among Japanese locals!
Where to eat udon
The same deal with soba – you eat in a proper shop, udon is rather expensive. If you are on a budget, try udon chain restaurant Marugame Seimen. But actually, udon culture is really interesting as there are many different types of udon being offered in different prefectures in Japan. My personal preference is udon produced in Saitama Prefecture. It’s a trivia no one in Japan cares (lol), but Saitama produces the largest amount of flour and guess how udon is made;-)
If you are really into udon, and have one day free in Tokyo, try Udon Kichi in Saitama. Their udon is out of this world.