If you asked a Japanese person what foods they think you should eat, you’re likely to be flooded with recommendations of natto, shirako, or some other variety of foods sporting a neba neba (gooey) consistency.
Not because they genuinely think it’s the peak of Japanese cuisine, but because they know the tastes and textures tend to be disagreeable to foreigners (many locals, too), and the’re curious what you personally think about them. Nice to know that they’re interested in your opinions. Not so nice if you’re just looking for something good to eat.
So we reached out to our community of travelers, both present and past, in our weekly newsletter to hear what their favorite Japanese foods were and what they’d recommend first and foremost to future visitors.
Here are their responses, along with some information of each food item!
First Place: Sapporo Style Ramen (49 votes)
This is the ramen from the north, and it was a highly popular choice from past travelers. This rich miso-based ramen only developed after World War Two in 1955 so, like practically all ramen, it is a fairly recent addition to Japanese cuisine.
Since it’s a miso-based broth, it differs from your typical ramen which typically has a pork broth. If you’re a pork lover, fear not – Sapporo ramen is usually topped with slivers of pork too, and that rich and fatty broth that people come to expect also includes pork fat. That, along with a hearty helping of sprouts, vegetables and spices, this a great meal to get you through an icy Japanese winter.
Do you need to be in the north to try out this regional dish? Absolutely not. You can find it in practically all regions of Japan, due to its national popularity, though you’re highly unlikely to find it in just any ramen store. You’ll need to poke around a bit, but you’re sure to find it. If you’re planning on using Doot on your trip, simply book a “regional cuisines” experience and ask your host for Sapporo ramen. They’ll take you to their favorite restauarant for this – makes life easy!
Second Place: Hiroshima Style Okonomiyaki (43 votes)
Beating out the standard Kansai style okonomiyaki, we have the Hiroshima style (HS) okonomiyaki in second place!
What’s the difference between the standard, better-known okonomiyaki and the HS? Well, first of all, the HS is mostly only found in Hiroshima – it’s simply not a restaurant standard around the entire country! It’s Hiroshima’s and Hiroshima’s alone, and the other regions tend to respect this. When you’re in Hiroshima, however, it’ll be found on every corner. The best place to try it in our opinion is in Okonomimura. It’s a 4 story building filled with HS okonomiyaki restaurants. It’s a vibe you cannot describe.
So, what’s different? Well, this style of okonomiyaki is made on a bed of either soba or udon noodles, which is grilled and cooked together with the rest of the batter and typical okonomiyaki ingredients. Often a slice of bacon or an egg is added. The noodles add a super crispy texture and fills you up way more than a regular okonomiyaki.
Would you be crazy not to try it while you’re there? We’ll go with yes.
Third Place: Monjayaki (27 votes)
We’re swinging over to the Kanto region and focusing in on Tokyo, for a delight known as monjayaki!
It’s a more liquidy-form of okonomiyaki that’s popular among Tokyoites, although it’s popularity is so wide-spread that it is often eating in Japanese homes. There’s a street in Tokyo called Monjadori that has over 100 restaurants serving monja. It’s one of the top 10 most visited streets in Tokyo by non-Tokyoite Japanese locals. Clear evidence of its national popularity.
The ingredients are relatively simple, and cooking monja is a full-blown activity itself – which is what makes it so popular for locals and travellers alike. Poured onto a grill, left to simmer and occasionally stirred. Intermittently add some extra broth to the mix to keep the moisture, and the ingredients start to become loosely held together, but has some especially sticky grilled bits from the heated broth.
You use a small spatula to scrape away the part you want to eat, and then collect all the sticky goodness on the grill top. What do you use to eat it?…If you guessed chopsticks, you guessed wrong. You eat it with the tiny spatula! Monja is not just about the taste – it’s about the experience with cooking and eating communally with your friends. That’s what makes it so popular.
Since there are over 100 restaurants in Monjadori, we recommend linking up with a host on Doot for another – you guessed it – regional cuisine experience, so they can take you out for the best experience, navigate the language barriers, and dodge the inevitable tourist traps.
Fourth Place: Miso Pork Cutlet (25 votes)
We were honestly surprised that this came in fourth place and not higher, simply because it’s so delicious and it’s a variation of a super popular, worldwide favorite of Japanese cuisine. After a bit of probing, we realized that it’s because it’s from Nagoya – a city that’s not always first choice on travelers’ itineraries.
What many people don’t know, is that Nagoya has an exceptional regional cuisine and it’s worth visiting for just the food. So although it’s lower down on the list, it’s actually impressive that it comes in at fourth, considering it’s a much less popular travel destination.
This pork cutlet, or katsu as it’s known in Japan, has a thick basting of miso sauce. It’s a rich and warming flavor that complements the fried crispiness of the cutlet in a way that’s hard to describe. Since Nagoya is just a hop and a skip away from Osaka, it may be worth your while as a foodie to head over to enjoy a day or two diving into the Nagoyan cuisine, before making your way to Kyoto or Tokyo.
Fifth Place: Spicy Mentaiko (18 votes)
The fact that this is even featured as a top five was hilarious to us, pulling in more votes than takoyaki, since it’s really an ingredient rather than a meal. However, it is a food that originated in Fukuoka, a city on the south island of Japan, so it’s regional for sure.
What started off as a regional food item gained so much popularity that it’s now found in practically any grocery store in Japan. It’s a common ingredient in pastas, monjayaki, onigiri, mayonnaise and more.
So, what is it exactly…? It’s tiny eggs from the pollack fish! Sounds adventurous, but it’s pretty low down on the list of “wild things you can eat in Japan”, let’s just be a honest for a second.
Why is it so loved by travelers? It’s easy to get a hold of and easy to sample, so it finds its way into the bellies of visitors quite easily. It’s got a unique spiciness and flavor that, again, is hard to describe. It just tastes like mentaiko, but it’s such an excellent condiment that you find yourself finding certain dishes just lacking without it.
If you want a quick fix to see if this is the kind of food you want to enjoy consistently in Japan, just grab a ‘spicy pollack roe’ onigiri from the convenience store. If it’s something you enjoy, great, keep a lookout for it!
So what do you think deserves a feature on this list? What was one of your favorite foods you tried while travelling in Japan?