What Is Yakiniku? The Ultimate Guide to Japanese BBQ

By Dana Kohut
Updated: May 29, 2024

Everyone loves a good BBQ — delicious meat sizzling on a hot grill, waiting patiently while the smokey goodness tickles your senses as you pair each bite with an array of condiments. Japan is no different in its enjoyment of BBQ. Called yakiniku, this Japanese BBQ style is more hands-on and is a food experience everyone should try.

What is yakiniku? 


So, what is yakiniku? Yakiniku is a Japanese grilling style in which bite-sized pieces of meat are cooked over a charcoal grill or electric gas griddle on mesh or iron plates. Both meat and vegetables are cooked on the same grill.

The fun part about yakiniku is that the meat is served raw, and you cook it yourself to your liking. Be sure to pay attention, though. There have been many times when I’ve placed a piece of meat on the grill, got distracted, and by the time I remembered, it ended up very… crispy. 

The history of yakiniku

Yakiniku has an interesting history in Japan. Originally, the term referred more to Western-style BBQ, but in the early Showa Era (1926–1989), the meaning shifted to something that’s closer to the Korean BQQ you might be familiar with today.

Some believe that it’s actually when Korean BBQ was first introduced to Japan that the meaning of the word “yakiniku” changed. Around 1945, Korean immigrants in Osaka and Tokyo introduced this style of restaurant to locals and even popularized the consumption of offal and other animal parts that would often be thrown away. And thus, this style of grilling meat, often in groups of 3 or more, became a quintessential aspect of the food scene in Japan. 

Yakiniku today is still considered something like a social activity. I have many fond memories of being invited to yakiniku bbq parties and leaving them feeling full and happy after great conversation. Since you have to wait a bit for the meat to cook, it gives everyone time to chat and catch up.

Wait, so what’s the difference between Korean BBQ and Japanese BBQ?

Unlike Korean BBQ, Japanese BBQ meat is not often marinated and is cooked in bite-sized pieces that are dipped in Japanese BBQ sauce, lemon juice, or simply salted. However, you can find Korean-style meat like kalbi and bulgogi in many yakiniku restaurants in Japan.

Types of meat used for yakiniku


Many different types and cuts of meat are used for yakiniku, and even though the word meat (niku) is in the name, yakiniku can also include fish, shellfish, and vegetables. Every restaurant will have its signature cuts, marinades, and ingredients, so this list is by no means exhaustive! These are just some of the most common items you can order at yakiniku restaurants in Japan. 


  • Kalbi, short ribs usually served without the bone and marinated
  • Harami, a meat from around the diaphragm, usually quite tender
  • Misuji, shoulder meat
  • Rosu, beef loin
  • Tan, beef tongue 


  • Butabara, pork belly, very fatty
  • Tontoro, meat from the neck and cheek


  • Momo, chicken thigh
  • Bonjiri, chicken tail

Horumon or Motsu (Offal)

  • Gatsu, pork stomach
  • Hachinosu, tripe
  • Beef liver
  • Hatsu, heart
  • Horumon, intestines


  • Shellfish
  • Squid
  • Shrimp


  • Mushrooms
  • Bell pepper
  • Pumpkin
  • Onion
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic
  • Eggplant
  • Bean sprouts

How to eat yakiniku


Once you sit down at a yakinuku restaurant, you’ll be presented with quite a few choices. You can order things a la carte in some cases, but the most efficient and cost-effective way is to order a course. How big of a course depends on the number of people in your party, but menus usually state how many people each one feeds. Some places may even offer a tabehoudai aka an all-you-can-eat course.

Pro tip: Don’t feel like you can commit to a course? Most yakiniku restaurants have “plater” options (盛り合わせ; moriawase), which allow you to order a wide range of grilling ingredients without overcrowding the table (or ordering more than you can eat). 

Still a bit intimidated? This Kyoto BQQ experience is all about yakiniku dining. 

Places to eat yakiniku in Tokyo

1. YAKINIKU 37west NY


For a truly exceptional experience, reserve one of the course meals at YAKINIKU 37west NYt. The trendy atmosphere and presentation of the food is perfect for insta-worthy photos, and the beef is high quality and juicy!

Before you know it an array of juicy meats and colorful vegetables will be brought out to you, but how do you go about eating it? First, let the grill heat up before you put anything on it. Then, choose a few pieces you would like to get started with. Usually, there will be tongs and chopsticks provided to use only for placing the meat on the grill, so be sure to use those instead of the utensils you will be eating with.

Everyone has their own method. Personally, I like to place a few thick cuts along with some cuts that will cook a bit quicker, so I have an ongoing rotation of different meats ready to eat. You can also place a few vegetables on the grill, but be mindful that some cook quicker than others. The center of the grill is usually the hottest and where things will cook the quickest. The mesh grill will sometimes need to be replaced mid-meal, but just ask the staff, and they will bring you a new mesh.

Reserve YAKINIKU 37west NY.

2. Nikutei Futago Shinjuku


Nikutei Futago offers an intimate yakiniku experience so that visitors can savor the menu at its fullest potential. While located in the busy district of Shinjuku, customers can choose to reserve a private dining room, a semi-private one, or sit in their cozy table area. 

The extensive 80-dish menu uses carefully selected wagyu, which are Ota beef sourced from Hyogo prefecture and Sendai beef from Miyagi prefecture. The sizeable list of cut meat allows visitors to embark on a culinary venture or choose familiar dishes — or do both. 

Of course, yakiniku cannot be fully enjoyed without rice. Nikutei Futago uses pot-cooked Funakubo Shoten rice, which is the same kind commonly selected by Michelin-starred restaurants.  

Reserve Nikutei Futago Shinjuku.

3. Yakiniku Hatagaya


Touches of freshness are conveyed in the polite greenery, framed moss hangings, and entryway plants. Callbacks to the vivid red of muscle against pure white marbling are found in the scribbles of black-board menus and cow-themed art. Yakiniku Hatagaya takes little measures to provide guests with an experience that satisfies all the senses.

Each table’s built-in grill allows the enthroned roasting meat to envelop diners in hazy fragrance. Ribbons of fresh vegetables, zucchini, onions, and more, curl and pucker as flames lick from below. The crown of the menu is perhaps the restaurant’s original invention, unikura meshi: a rice bowl topped with juicy wagyu, premium sea urchin, and ikura salmon eggs, bursting with flavor.

Reserve Yakiniku Hatagaya.

4. Yakiniku Kokutoan


Tucked away in Tokyo's vibrant Azabu-Juban district, Yakiniku Kokutoan offers a sophisticated escape for friends and family. Savor delectable wagyu while enjoying good conversation in this refined setting.

What truly elevates Kokutoan is their coveted raw meat handling license. This ensures exceptional food safety regardless of your preferred steak doneness. It also unlocks a unique menu featuring dishes unavailable elsewhere, like their signature yukhoe (marinated Wagyu with raw egg) and melt-in-your-mouth beef tongue sashimi.

Reserve Yakiniku Kokutoan.

After a while, flip the meat to cook the other side, check on your vegetables, and when you think it’s done, take it off the grill and dip it into your sauce of choice before eating it. Some meats, like kalbi or bulgogi, do not need any sauce as they are pre-marinated. For meats like tongue, a bit of salt and some lemon juice is enough to draw out the best flavor. For other meats, a Japanese barbecue sauce is ideal - usually a mix of soy sauce, sugar, mirin (rice wine), and maybe some sesame oil and garlic. If you are feeling creative, you can try out your own original combination of meat and sauce — it’s up to you!

Whether it’s expensive or cheap, at a restaurant or at the beach, fire up the grill and give yakiniku a try. It’s a hands-on, social dining experience you won’t forget.

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Dana Kohut
Dana is a freelance writer who recently moved to the Netherlands after spending ten years in Japan (Fukuoka and Tokyo). She still keeps up with Japanese food trends, and can’t resist a limited edition or seasonal snack. Her hobbies include trying new foods and going to various eateries. She sometimes does a ‘happy food dance’ when the food is particularly good.
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