Traditional Japanese food, known as washoku, is one of the most diverse and fascinating world cuisines. This seasonally-sensitive cuisine, developed over centuries behind the closed doors of this formerly isolationist nation, is now celebrated on the global gourmet scene for its inventiveness, healthiness, and heritage.
But do you know about the sheer variety of traditional Japanese foods available in the country itself? Once you scratch the surface of authentic Japanese food, you’ll find that there’s a wealth of dishes to discover that you might never have heard of before.
50 Japanese Traditional Foods to Try
Here is our list of the 50 Japanese traditional foods you must try in Japan:
- Miso Soup
- Shabu Shabu
- Kappo Ryori
- Shojin Ryori
- Osechi Ryori
- Zenzai / Oshiruko
- Shirasu / Shirasudon
- Hiyashi chuka
The quintessential Japanese food; in its homeland the craft of sushi is taken to religious extremes, with renowned chefs training for decades and going to insane lengths to create the perfect (usually very expensive) bite. It wasn’t always such an elite craft. Japanese sushi has its roots in the street food culture of medieval Tokyo, with pieces of nigiri (a rectangular bed of vinegar-seasoned rice topped with a slice of raw fish) served up from stalls and eaten by hand.
Of all the types of fish on the menu, fatty tuna is the gold standard. These melt-in-your-mouth fish are so coveted that the first giant maguro (bluefin tuna) of the year from Toyosu Market sold for almost $1.8 million in 2020! You read correctly — one point eight million USD.
The Japanese will often tell you that this griddle-fried dish is a “Japanese savory pancake,” or something along those lines, but that doesn’t quite fully describe it. Okonomiyaki is made from an egg-and-flour batter mixed with cabbage and fried. Other ingredients can also be added according to regional recipes and your personal taste (in fact, okonomi literally translates to "preference"). These can include pork belly, kimchi, various vegetables, and usually a topping of dried bonito fish flakes, mayonnaise, and special okonomiyaki sauce.
3. Miso Soup
A firm staple in the Japanese diet, you can find this thin soup on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Miso soup is made from dashi stock and miso: a salty-tasting paste made from fermented soybeans and rice koji. There are four main categories of miso — white miso, red miso, blended, and barley — and dozens of regional varieties, each of which produces a distinctive soup.
These reasonably-priced grilled chicken skewers are a favorite among after-work diners looking for a cheap and relaxed meal with a few beers. Step inside a yakitori restaurant and you’ll be met with the heat of burning charcoals, with chefs busy fanning away at them and arranging skewers with pretty much every piece of the chicken imaginable; from the breast and thigh to the heart, gizzard, and cartilage!
These thick wheat-flour noodles are thought to have been introduced to Japan from China around 800 years ago. Nowadays, udon is a hearty and inexpensive lunch option, usually boiled and then served with a simple broth. Kake udon features those two ingredients alone, and although it might look basic, it actually makes for a very hearty meal by itself. If you want a bit more bite, udon shops usually offer a wide range of toppings such as raw egg, tempura bits, and spring onion.
These octopus-filled wheat batter balls hail from Osaka, where they were invented by a street vendor in the 1930s. The distinctive takoyaki ball shape is achieved by using a specialized pan with half-sphere indents across its surface. Flipping the batter at the right time to get the perfect ball shape takes some skill. If you think flipping pancakes is tough, try doing it two dozen times in a row — with chopsticks! The traditional style of takoyaki is topped with dried bonito flakes, dried seaweed flakes, and a special takoyaki sauce.
This is without a doubt one of the oldest dishes on the list, thought to have been first made in China over 6000 years ago. However, these buckwheat noodles were only popularized in Japan during the Edo period. Much more healthy and nutritious than many of the other noodle varieties, it was found that eating soba could prevent nutritional deficiencies.
This Japanese hot pot dish is perfect for social dining, with raw beef, noodles, and vegetables cooked at your table in a shallow iron pot of boiling broth made from soy sauce, sugar, and a type of rice wine for cooking called mirin. The thin strips of beef are usually dipped in raw, beaten egg after cooking.
It was invented during the Edo period, but failed to fully catch on due to strict Buddhist restrictions around meat consumption, meaning beef could only be eaten on special occasions or if you were recovering from illness. These restrictions were eventually lifted, but sukiyaki maintained its status as a treat dish for celebrations, popular for end-of-year parties among coworkers and families.
Some of the more obnoxious Japanophiles will delight in pointing out the technical difference between sushi and sashimi if you fall into the trap of assuming they’re the same thing. Don’t let that intimidate you! Basically, sashimi is sushi without the rice. You’ll usually find it as a dish in fancy set-course meals, or as an appetizer at izakaya gastropubs.
From the early 17th century onwards, unagi was an inexpensive and common meal among the people of Japan due to the abundance of eel in the rivers and streams. Its status as a delicacy nowadays can be blamed on Japan’s insatiable appetite for this delicious fish, traditionally eaten grilled and coated with sweet and salty tare sauce. Unagi is said to give energy and vitality, so it has long been eaten on the Day of the Ox as a remedy for midsummer fatigue, and as an aphrodisiac for men.
The history of this soybean curd ingredient, now a popular vegan staple, stretches back to ancient China. It’s said to have been discovered by a Chinese chef who accidentally curdled his soy milk with seaweed. There are many different types of tofu eaten across Asia, from thin noodle-like strips to huge yellow sheets, but the most common types in Japan are the white block varieties; mainly the firmly-pressed momen (literally meaning "cotton"), the unpressed and incredibly smooth kinu (meaning "silk"), and yuba ("hot water leaf"): thin sheets of skin formed on top of boiled soy milk.
The savior of many a famished salaryman, these rice balls (the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich) can be found on the shelves of every convenience store — far and away the most convenient choice for a meal on the go. This has been the case as far back as 2000 years ago when laborers and fishermen carried pressed rice balls around in their packs. The current form of onigiri can be traced back to the Edo period when the edible seaweed wrapping was introduced. Inside, you’ll usually find salty fish fillings, pickled plum, or more modern additions like teriyaki chicken. See our Beginner's Guide to Common Onigiri Fillings for more classic and adventurous flavors.
These traditional sweets are the jewels of Japanese food culture. The wagashi (Japanese sweets) category is incredibly broad, basically referring to all regional, seasonal, and commonplace traditional Japanese sweets. Starting off in ancient times as very basic creations of mochi rice cakes (a sticky dough made from steamed and crushed rice) that were filled with nuts, these sweets evolved into ornate delicacies made to accompany the traditional matcha green tea ceremonies of the Edo period.
Common types of wagashi include taiyaki (a fish-shaped pancake filled with anko or custard), dorayaki (an anko pancake sandwich), daifuku (mochi bites with various fillings), and namagashi (beautifully hand-molded rice flour and anko sweets). Browse wagashi cooking classes and learn to make your own!
Legend has it that this divisive dish was invented by accident in the 11th century when the samurai Minamoto no Yoshiie left cooked soybeans in a straw bag on his horse’s back which had fermented by the time he got around to eating them. Many people would say he just should’ve thrown them away.
Natto is the Japanese equivalent of marmite — you’ll either love it or hate it. Despite its pungent smell, natto is a popular breakfast food. It’s also incredibly healthy due to the effect the bacteria has on the boiled soybeans, said to benefit heart health, digestive health, and bone strength.
This popular winter comfort food started out in the Muromachi period as a stewed tofu dish. Nowadays, other ingredients are added to the bone-warming oden broth, such as fish cakes, potatoes, boiled eggs, daikon radish, and other assorted vegetables. They’re usually simmered for several hours to infuse the ingredients with the flavor fully. The rich-yet-mild broth itself typically consists of dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes and dried kombu (kelp).
16. Shabu Shabu
This is far and away the most modern dish on the list, invented in 1952 at a restaurant in Osaka. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for sukiyaki. After all, both are hot pot dishes in which you cook thinly-cut beef strips alongside vegetables.
There are a few key differences though. Shabu shabu is cooked in a deeper pot with a milder and more savory broth. It’s also common practice to only partially cook the meat in a shabu shabu hot pot, and raw egg isn’t used as a dipping sauce.
One of the pillars of Japanese cuisine, tempura consists of pieces of fish and vegetables coated in a light egg and flour batter, and then deep-fried. The technique actually found its way to Japan via Portuguese traders who were permitted to do business with the country in the 1500s. In fact, the name even comes from the Latin tempora — a word related to the Christian fasting weeks of Lent. It quickly caught on in Japan, becoming the favorite food of the first Edo shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
The premise for ramen is deceptively simple: soup stock, flavorings, seasonings, wheat noodles, and toppings (usually fatty pork and vegetables such as bamboo shoots). However, within this simple formula, there’s massive room for interpretation.
You’ll find instant ramen packets in supermarkets worldwide, but if you’re really serious about trying this dish, head along to any of the ten-thousand-plus local eateries across Japan that prepare it with fresh noodles, rich broths (miso, salt, soy, and tonkotsu being the main types), and generous helpings of toppings.
As with many of the things we consider to be quintessentially Japanese, that’s only half the story of this breaded pork cutlet dish. Tonkatsu was invented at a Tokyo restaurant called Rengatei in 1899, served with rice and shredded cabbage. It was originally considered a Western-style dish due to the use of pork, which the Japanese rarely ate. On top of that, the Japanese curry sauce added to make the popular katsu curry was introduced to Japan by the British via India.
A type of cuisine, rather than a food, this style of fine dining has its roots in the courtly culture of imperial Kyoto in the 16th century, when visiting samurai and dignitaries were treated to a series of small dishes to accompany traditional tea ceremonies. Today, anywhere from around 12 to 20 dishes feature in a typical kaiseki meal, with the exact offerings varying according to the season, the chef’s expertise, and how strictly they adhere to orthodoxy.
21. Kappo Ryori
Following the theme of Japanese cuisines, kappo ryori is a style of dining that originated in Osaka, offering a more casual counterpart to Kyoto’s kaiseki cuisine. Like kaiseki cuisine, kappo ryori utilizes seasonal and fresh ingredients; but whereas kaiseki dishes are generally prepared in a kitchen and then brought to your private room, kappo ryori is cooked by the chef right in front of their guests.
22. Shojin Ryori
Ever wondered how Buddhist monks eat? Their diet consists of mainly vegetarian cuisine (think lots of beans and bean-based products), and in Japan, even laypeople can enjoy a sophisticated Buddhist cuisine feast called shojin ryori. With subtle flavors, the meal features fresh mountain vegetables and nutty-tasting goma (sesame) tofu, among other dishes. Rice, soup, pickled vegetables, tofu, and a variety of sides form a well-balanced shojin ryori feast.
23. Osechi Ryori
Osechi ryori, symbolic Japanese New Year dishes, rolls around like clockwork every year, a feast for the first of January. It comes in a multi-tiered jubako (lacquerware box) and is filled with a variety of foods, each with its own special meaning. For example, the gold-colored kuri-kinton (mashed sweet potatoes with chestnuts) promises wealth, while the hunchbacked boiled shrimp represent old age and longevity. This array of dishes is often enjoyed through the first, second, and third of January, until every last bite is gone–allowing the usual cook of the household to relax for the first few days of the new year.
24. Zenzai / Oshiruko
Another typical fare during the Japanese New Year, zenzai (also known as oshiruko) is a sweet Japanese red bean soup with mochi. Usually served warm with toasted squares of mochi submerged in the broth, it’s a tasty wintertime sweet that’s also easy to make at home, this oshiruko recipe is a testament to that!
Wagyu (literally “Japanese beef) is famed worldwide for its meticulous high standards, beautiful marbling of fat, and rich flavor. It can be cooked as a slab of steak, thinly sliced and swish-swished through hot shabu-shabu broth, or boiled in a sukiyaki hotpot and coated in a sauce of raw egg. The Japanese Beef Association strictly regulates all wagyu beef, and grades every cut of beef according to its marbling and yield. There are particular regional brands of wagyu in Japan that are highly coveted, like Matsusaka beef and Kobe beef.
Creativity, convenience, and color merge in the homemade Japanese bento. In recent years, this classic Japanese packed lunch has gained recognition for its adorable aesthetics, oftentimes featuring rice molded into cute characters and ingredients cut out into cute shapes.
Learn how to make your own colorful bento during this kyaraben (character bento) cooking class in Tokyo! Or if you’re unable to join us in Tokyo at the moment, this online character bento-making class welcomes you for a virtual lesson.
A Japanese home cooking staple, omurice is a comfort food that evokes childhood. Made with ketchup fried rice blanketed in an eggy omelet and decorated with a cute ketchup message or design, omurice is a favorite among children and nostalgic adults alike. Check out our omurice recipe to learn how to make it for yourself!
A traditional Japanese food that hails from Akita prefecture, kiritanpo is made of pounded rice that is shaped around wooden cylinders and toasted over a hearth. It can be slathered in a sweet miso sauce and eaten right off the skewer; or removed from the cylinder, chopped, and placed into soups.
If you know anything about traditional Japanese foods, you’re definitely familiar with the chewy, bouncy, stretchy mochi. It’s a type of rice cake that takes seemingly infinite forms: from red bean-filled daifuku mochi to toasty soybean powder-dusted kinako mochi, to savory applications like pillowy mochi dumplings in ozoni (Japanese New Year soup).
Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Mochi for a run-down of some of the tastiest and most popular types of mochi or try out our mochi cake recipe or mochi donut recipe for some fun modern twists on the ingredient.
The perfect side dish at a ramen restaurant, gyoza is the crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside pan-fried dumplings with Chinese origins. In Japanese, gyoza usually contains pork, finely-chopped cabbage, and mushrooms, though anything can be gyoza-ified by simply wrapping it in the thin potsticker skin.
Ginger pork, or shogayaki, is an easy homestyle Japanese dish that’s made with thin slices of pork, ginger, and a variety of aromatics such as garlic and onion. It is served alongside rice, great for soaking up the extra gingery sauce.
The infamous fugu pufferfish is regarded with a balance of fear and respect, but in Japan licensed chefs have mastered the art and science of preparing it, rendering the ingredient harmless. The preparation of pufferfish in Japan is extremely well-regulated, so only qualified chefs may serve it. It is often prepared as paper-thin sashimi, fried as fugu karaage, or cooked in a stew.
The Japanese beef-and-rice bowl, gyudon, is a classic Japanese fast food that’s both comforting and hearty, with several gyudon chains vying for first place in Japan (Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya are the main players). Consisting of thin slices of beef, tender and sweet onions, and a garnish of bright-tasting benishoga (pickled red ginger) all atop a bowl of steamed white rice, gyudon is a crowd-pleaser.
A staple of izakaya (Japanese gastropubs), karaage are morsels of twice-fried Japanese fried chicken. Marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, and ginger, every bite of karaage is juicy and packed with flavor, while the use of potato starch in the dredge makes Japanese fried chicken extra crispy.
Another donburi (rice bowl) dish like gyudon, oyakodon is a Japanese comfort food that’s the perfect dish to whip up on weekdays. Literally translating to “parent and child rice bowl,” oyakodon features both chicken and egg. In one pan, onions, chicken, and beaten egg are simmered in dashi (Japanese soup stock) to make a saucy topping for a bowl of steaming rice.
Craving a theatrical meal? Robatayaki or “fireside cooking” is the perfect Japanese dining experience for you. This style of cooking originated post-WWII among the fishing communities in Hokkaido and Miyagi in northern Japan, before gas became a common cooking medium. The food (often seafood) is cooked over binchotan (white charcoal), which imparts a lovely smoky flavor; and the finished dishes are passed to diners on a long wooden paddle.
37. Shirasu / Shirasudon
A type of seafood that’s popular in Tokyo’s neighboring Kanagawa prefecture, shirasu are immature whitebait fishes that are served either raw or flash-boiled. These tiny little whitebait fish may look intimidating, but we demystify this staple Japanese ingredient (and provide some tasty ways to eat shirasu) in our post, What is Shirasu? Recipes for the Entire School of Fish in Your Rice Bowl.
A traditional Japanese food that’s a favorite during the sweltering and humid summertime, somen are extremely thin (think vermicelli) wheat flour noodles. Somen is enjoyed chilled, with a side of dipping sauce, often mentsuyu (a soup base made with soy sauce, mirin, sake, and dashi).
For a fun summertime tradition, nagashi somen is served by channeling the noodles down a bamboo chute flowing with water, where eager diners await with their chopsticks to snatch up a mouthful of the noodles.
Imagawayaki is a traditional Japanese food, often found at festivals or food stalls outside of temples and shrines. It’s a round, cake-like dessert that’s filled with red bean paste or custard. A perfect portable snack, they’re great for a quick bite.
The name melonpan (melon bread) can be a little deceiving, as these buns are designed to resemble the fruit, not necessarily taste like it. A fluffy bread with a sugar-cookie-like topping that’s cross-hatched to resemble a melon, these buns come in different flavors like hojicha (roasted tea) and sweet potato. You can even find variations with ice cream!
While it has “mochi” in the name, warabimochi is not, in fact, made with rice, but instead with bracken starch (warabiko). It has a jiggly texture that’s more akin to jelly than a chewy mochi, and is dusted in kinako (roasted soybean powder) and drizzled with kuromitsu (black sugar syrup). A perfect Japanese wagashi for summertime, warabimochi is a refreshing sweet treat.
The sweet-and-savory Japanese rolled omelet is another traditional Japanese food you can’t miss! It’s a staple in bento lunch boxes and at breakfast in Japan, a fluffy golden pillow that’s made of many layers of egg wrapped around itself, and sliced into bite-sized pieces. Every family makes tamagoyaki slightly differently, and you might find it on the sweeter or savory side depending on the chef’s preferences.
The classic ichijiu-sansai Japanese meal layout that consists of one soup and three side dishes, would not be complete without tsukemono, or “pickled things.” Japanese pickles are an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine and are served during just about every meal in Japan, in some form or other. From umeboshi (pickled plums) to takuan (pickled daikon) to benishoga (pickled red ginger), tsukemono provide an extra zing to any meal, acting as a refreshing pick-me-up in between bites.
A traditional Japanese food that falls under the category of sweets, yokan is as classic as it gets. The history of yokan goes back centuries, coming to Japan sometime during the Kamakura or Muromachi periods. It is made of sweet red bean paste, the gelatinous agar-agar, and sugar, and is packaged in blocks that can be cut and served in bite-sized pieces alongside a cup of tea. Yokan is very sweet and very dense, so just a couple of bites will leave you satisfied.
Sendai in Miyagi prefecture is the proud home of gyutan, thin slices of beef tongue cooked over hot charcoals. It originally was flavored with just a pinch of salt, but these days you can get it with tare sauce.
The fuel of sumo wrestlers, chankonabe is an immense stew of protein and veggies that’s designed to help pack on the pounds. The hot pot is often made with a dashi or chicken soup base, and whatever proteins and vegetables are available. The main criteria for chankonabe (or “sumo stew”) is that it must be hearty, served with a side of rice and beer to increase the calories. Finally, when just the broth is left, udon noodles can be added to sop up all the flavorful goodness.
A classic Japanese summertime dessert, anmitsu is made with sweet red bean paste, cubes of kanten jelly, fruits, and dango. Just before eating, drizzle it with the mitsu dark sugar syrup and dig in! There are several variations of this dish, including versions with ice cream.
48. Hiyashi Chuka
In the mood for noodles, but too hot for ramen? Hiyashi chuka, chilled Chinese-style noodles, are the answer. The bouncy ramen noodles are topped with matchstick-size slices of cucumber, ham, and omelet, as well as other ingredients like bean sprouts and tomato, then drizzled with a dressing. The veggies provide a refreshing crunch, and the chilled noodles are satisfyingly slurpable, coated in a tangy sauce.
Kushiage (a.k.a. kushikatsu), are battered, deep-fried skewers of meat and vegetables. While their hometown is considered to be Osaka (play the video to watch Shizuka try these skewers for herself!), this soul food is available at eateries and izakayas across Japan; and it’s no wonder–fried foods are universally-loved.
If you’ve ever been to Kyoto, you’ve likely come across some form of yatsuhashi. A popular souvenir from Japan’s ancient capital, yatsuhashi comes in two main varieties: the half-cylindrical hard-baked cinnamon-cookie type, and the “raw” yatsuhashi that’s made with steamed mochi that’s flattened and wrapped around an anko filling. The classic flavor is cinnamon, but there are other variations–we go more in-depth in our post on Kyoto’s most popular souvenir sweet.
Interested in what regional souvenirs to get from other areas of Japan? Check out our blog post, 47 Prefectures, 47 Japanese Food Souvenirs: Japan’s Regional Omiyage.
You could spend a decade touring Japan and never fully discover the nation’s cuisine, but the twenty Japanese traditional foods mentioned above are a good starting point. Try them all and you’re sure to discover a new favorite!
Feeling hungry? Browse food experiences across Japan and book your next food adventure.