20 Best Japanese Dishes To Try (Besides Sushi)

Box containing bright coloured sushi

Before I visited the land of the rising sun, my knowledge of Japanese food could be summed up in one word: sushi.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan and I dined out like sushi was in short supply during my month in Japan, but I spent half of that month with my dad who, after trying sushi for the first time, promptly declared (with a scrunched up face), “mmm, not for me,”.

That turned out to be a good thing because it left us searching for other Japanese food to try.

I have to say I was surprised – pleasantly so – with what we found and Japan quickly rocketed into my top 5 favourite food countries (joining Mexico, Italy, India and France).

In no particular order, here’s my run down of 20 dishes to try in Japan.

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1. Kobe Beef

3 slices of rare kobe beef in Japan

If you’re after a life-changing beef moment, get to Kobe, near Kyoto and put some of this spectacularly marbled beef in your mouth. Yes, these are the famous cows that are reputed to have a lavish beer-sipping, massage riddled life. You can read more about eating Kobe beef in my related post here.

2. Bento Boxes

Bento Boxes with beef, egg and rice

A portable buffet for one, what’s not to love about the bento box? Usually containing rice, fish or meat and vegetables, you’re going to get simplicity and variety all in one meal. Plus, the boxes score high on the cute scale.

3. Donburi Bowls

donburi bowl of rice and raw fish
It’s not sushi…technically speaking.

Aside from the shape of the serving receptacle, don’t ask me to explain the difference between a bento box and a donburi bowl, which also comprises rice, meat or fish and vegetables. You do get more rice in the donburi bown (in my experience). Either way, both taste amazing, so that’s the important fact to focus on. Above is a donburi bowl with sashimi. I also tried one with salmon…

donburi bowl of cooked salmon and rice

….and another with pork. Don’t make me choose a favourite – they all won in their own way…

donburi bowl with pork and shredded onion

…ok, the sashimi was my favourite, but don’t tell the others.

4. Noodles

udon noodles in broth

After sushi, your next best guess is probably going to be noodles and it’s a solid choice because this carb-based food is ubiquitous in Japan. But don’t let that fool you into thinking all noodle dishes are the same – you’ll most likely find yourself facing too many options more than once when you’re shopping for noodles in Japan.

vending machine showing food plate examples in Japan
Don’t worry about interpreting Japanese – many places have these handy, very realistic, yet plastic representations of what’s on offer.

Want to understand your noodle choices? Check out this article – Japanese Noodles for Beginners by Lonely Planet.

5. Okonomiyaki

Okonomitaki japanese pizza

Oh my word – I became so addicted to Okonomiyaki that I travelled 200 miles within the UK (from Liverpool to London), just to be able to sink my teeth into one of these. What is it? Hmmm, that’s a bit hard to say. Some call it a Japanese pizza. Others refer to it as an omelete. And if I tell you it’s got a lot of cabbage in it, some of you will scroll right on. Don’t. This is perhaps one of the best food inventions in Japan, so I’d recommend trying at least one.

Okonomiyaki topped with dried fish flakes

There’s quite a performance that goes into the preparation of Okonomiyaki and, if you’re lucky (or unlucky?!), you’ll be given the ingredients and told to cook it yourself. The picture above is okonomiyaki dressed with all the trimmings (fish flakes, barbecue sauce and mayonnaise – trust me, it works). To find out more, read my related post on Okonomiyaki: One of Japan’s Best Food Inventions.

6. Rice Porridge

japanese rice porridge with egg

Ignore the fact that this dish is often reserved for those feeling under the weather, the comfort provided by this bowl of gooey rice and egg is off the charts.

7. Tempura

Tempura prawns

Deep fried but in ‘light’ batter and often covering otherwise healthy foods (vegetables, prawns, for example), if there was ever license to get stuck into greasy food, tempura is that ‘go nuts’ card.

Indiana Jo in sumo suit cardboard cut out
What I look like after eating too much tempura. Step away from the chopsticks.

And if your noodle soup is feeling a little lacklustre – chuck some tempura in there. I’m sure there’s more etiquette to it than that, but hey.

queue of people at restaurant in Japan
How do you know which places are good to eat in Japan…?

8. Katsu

breaded Japan chicken Katsu with sauce

I’m that rare person who doesn’t like breaded and fried foods, so katsu (breaded meat – usually pork or chicken) was lost on me but most people can’t get enough of it. Have it on its own or with curry and rice.

9. Edamame

green edamame beans with spice

Best served with a cold glass of beer, edamame is the ultimate healthy booze snack. If you haven’t tried it before, beware: the goal is to squeeze the beans out of the flesh with your teeth. You’ll be a long time chewing if you try to eat the whole thing. Oh, and I’m a big, fat fraud because this picture above is from Mexico (believe it or not) – the edamame in Japan didn’t last long enough for me to take a snap.

10. Takoyaki

Takoyaki small puff pastry balls in dish

I was pretty excited when I spied takoyaki in Kyoto – they look good, don’t they? And then, as is so commonly the case with food that looks good, I was met with disappointment – in fact, disgust, when I put this in my mouth. In theory, these battered octopus bites should have been great but it was the explosion of octopus sauce that made me want to vom. IMO: TakoYAKI – the clue was in the name. Still, don’t take my word for it, you should try it yourself.

Environmentally conscious dining: You’ll go through a lot of disposable chopsticks in Japan. If that bothers you, why not pack your own. I bought a set with a carry box which I kept in my bag. Here’s a similar set.

11. Japanese Snacks

Snack box from Japan with many treats.

Who doesn’t love a salty or sugary snack? And in Japan the snacks offer a food experience you won’t have you’ve tasted anywhere else. From curious flavoured Kit-Kats to jelly Mochi to soy sauce corn snacks, you could spend your entire time in Japan dining out on snacks alone. And when you get home and are craving a little taste of Japan, check out Sakurako. They’ll post a box of Japanese snacks and candy treats right to your door (international delivery included). I tried a box and it took my tastebuds straight back to Tokyo. Fortunately, there was a cute cultural guide which explained everything I was about to eat. The white chocolate covered dried strawberries were my absolute favourite. The Mochi didn’t last long, either.

12. Shabu-shabu

Japanese BBQ Shabu Shabu with meat and broth

Let’s talk about something nice to eat in Japan…ahhh, shabu-shabu fits the bill perfectly. Strips of meat and vegetables seared in a bowl of hot water, this is a very social meal and you can’t beat the simplicity of the flavours.

13. Oysters

cooked oiled oysters

I know, I was surprised too but on the island of Miyajima, oysters are a thing – and they were some of the best I’ve tasted in the whole, wide world (true story). I started with the oiled oysters, shown above before moving on to the barbecued ones, shown below.

single large barbecued oyster

Not a cheap treat but most certainly a delicious one.

oysters on the flaming barbeque

Even if you’ve tried and hated raw oysters (I’m not a huge fan), give them a go cooked – it’s an entirely different experience. Promise.

If you’re travelling around Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is going to be an expensive but ultimately money-saving purchase. You can only buy it outside Japan so you need to decide before you arrive. You can find out more about the pass and how to buy it in my Guide to the Japan Rail Pass.

14. Tofu

silken tofu with decorative garnish

Speaking of take it or leave it food types: tofu. I’d personally rather eat earth than put tofu in my mouth but if you’re going to give it a go anywhere, Japan, the reputed motherland, is the place to do it. Now to just decide between the types of tofu: soft, firm, deep-fried, fermented (known as stinky tofu, if that helps you decide). Being in Japan, I forced myself and had tofu ice-cream. Not bad as tofu goes. But not something I’d ever crave, either.

15. Miso Soup

red bowl with miso soup

Ok, this is the one occasion when I will permit tofu within arm’s reach of my chopsticks – when it’s in miso soup. But that’s only because a) I love soup and b) have you ever tried to pick every piece of tofu out of a bowl of miso (I have. Not easy).

Miso soup often comes as a side bowl with set menu meals so you don’t usually have to go far out of your way to try it. Also, it’s not like those versions you get at home, which are just salty, sad and disappointing.

16. Curry Rice

bowl of curry sauce topping rice with green garnish

For someone who could eat curry professionally (I’m looking into it), the prevalence of curry rice in Japan made every mealtime a real challenge – do I have [insert name of some new dish] or have curry rice. The new foods didn’t always win.

In case you’re not good with spice, the Japanese curries were more flavourful and aromatic than scorchy hot.

17. Fugu

plate of fresh raw fugu and vegetables

This falls into the ‘when in Rome’ category. Fugu or pufferfish is most well known as the deadly fish that can kill you if it’s not prepared properly and if you’re up for an adventure, Japan (where they have properly trained fugu chefs), is the place to try it. Just whatever you do, don’t buy this fish, watch a YouTube vid and think you’ve got it covered. Also don’t expect this to taste good – it’s by far the most disgusting fish I’ve had the displeasure of consuming (beating cuttlefish by a long shot).

You can read about my experience in my related post: I Ate Fugu in Japan and Lived to Tell the Tale.

Where to stay: You might want to check out my related post: Where to stay in Japan on a Budget.

18. Teriyaki

Teriyaki mackarel on bed of rice

You’ve probably at least heard of teriyaki, if not tried it. The main attraction for me is the sugary soy-sauce glaze. Although meat teriyaki might be the norm at home, in Japan it’s all about the fish – give the mackerel, eel or at least the salmon a try.

19. Teppanyaki

chef knife blurred with speed chopping Teppanyaki beef
This Japanese chef had some speed going on.

I put this one after teriyaki as I always get these two words (and foods) confused. So, what’s the difference? It largely comes down to two things – teriyaki is coated in the sweet sauce before it’s grilled or barbecued while teppanyaki is more about the style of grilling/barbecuing – on a teppan (a special kind of grill plate). Mental note: teppan, teppan – think, grill pan.

Any food can be cooked teppanyaki style (noodles, vegetables, meat, fish). Also, teppanyaki doesn’t have the sauce (sob). In both cases, I’d urge caution – read the menu carefully or you might end up consuming something you don’t want to.

Japanese menu listing pork rectum
Anything on there you wouldn’t eat…I can spot at least one thing…and it’s not the mushrooms.

20. Green tea sweets

green tea kit kat in Japan

I would challenge you to get through an entire trip to Japan without eating anything with green tea in, on, or near it, but why would I suggest that when there are so many green-tea goodies to try?

vanilla ice cream with green tea jelly
Ice cream with a green tea jelly accompaniment. If you want to go completely crazy, try the green tea ice cream with a green tea side something.

21. Baked Goods

japanese bread cake

Stereotypes will have you believe that the Japanese never let a bread-based item pass their lips but that simply isn’t true. In fact, the bakeries in Japan are enough to make you pack your stretchiest pants.

thick slice of japanese toasted bread
The bread based products in Japan are so good that they even served up what was probably the best toast I’ve ever eat. On cold winter days I still dream of this doorstop wedge of hot buttered toast.
banana shaped sponge cake with giraffe print
And look at this. Is it a banana? Is it a giraffe? Who cares. It’s edible. It’s in Japan. It’s going to taste phenomenal.

22. Desserts of Art

collage of decorative Japanese cakes

Ok, this is supposed to be a list of 20 and I guess dessert shouldn’t technically be a substitute for a main meal (though sometimes it is in my world). But I simply couldn’t send this post out into the interwebbyworld without mentioning the desserts in Japan.

If there is one food space where the Japanese excel, it’s the presentation of thier cakes. I make no apology for the volume of cake shots above. They were almost too good to eat.

Almost.

cheesecake on a plate
Contrary to assumptions, cheesecake is on the menu in Japan.
Cute wafer with cartoon character on it

Even this sugary street-food snack was served with a(n imprinted) smile, which pretty much sums up how my stomach felt after spending a month eating my way around Japan.

Being Vegetarian in Japan

Menu note saying no dishes for vegetarians

If you’re vegetarian, you’ve probably been scrolling through this list and getting frantic at the apparent lack of choice for veggies. The bad news is that Japan isn’t as vegetarian friendly as you might think (photo above pretty much sums up the attitude). The good news: you’re not the first veggie to travel to Japan and there’s a wealth of information online to help you navigate the carnviorous ways of this country. Check out this survival guide as a good starting point.

What’s your favourite food in Japan? And what have I missed – let me know in the comments below.

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what to eat in japan alternatives to sushi

Photo credit: Tempura, Katsu, Takoyaki, Shabu-Shabu, tofu, teriyaki. Tokyo Treats: Sponsored.

Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.