9 Foods to Try In Japan
1. Tsukamen Noodles
These noodles are currently our new favorite food, we went back for the same exact dinner two nights in a row. Tsukamen noodles are similar to ramen noodles but a bit thicker and more gooey. They are served in a bowl by themselves and you are given a separate bowl with your broth and various other toppings (ours included pulled pork, mushrooms, green onions, seaweed and a soft boiled egg but there are many variations). The broth is used almost like a dipping sauce for the noodles, you pile some into the bowl and let them marinate before slurping them up as loudly as possible. Once you finish the noodles you then have permission to sip your broth using a spoon. One thing we liked most about tsukamen and ramen noodle restaurants was the experience of having your chefs right in front of you, only separated by a thin wooden counter so that you could marvel at the perfect art/science that they had this cuisine down to. We also found that the process of eating this meal and having to focus on preparing each bite really made us appreciate and enjoy it that much more.
2. Soba Noodles
Soba noodles are buckwheat noodles, chopped very thinly and precisely and served cold with a dipping sauce, similarly to tsukamen noodles. The soba restaurant we experienced had eggs sitting on the counter which you would crack into your dipping sauce raw and mix in. While at first the whole raw egg thing feels totally against everyth no you’ve ever been told, the eggs in Japan are considerably more healthy and safe and we decided to fully embrace their traditions and ended up really enjoying the added flavor/texture (just don’t over think it).
You may think that you’ve had ramen, and heck I’m sure some American imitations are pretty good at $30 a bowl, but what makes ramen so special in Japan is the experience. Ramen is their staple food in Japan, they eat it at any and all times of the day and there are small ramen bars on almost every corner each serving it up a bit differently, adding their own unique flare. Many of the best ramen shops we went to were under $10/bowl and cash only, you would place your order on a vending machine outside and it would shoot you out a ticket to give to your server.
4. Automated/Conveyor Belt Sushi
Think all you can eat sushi tapas. We experienced this type of dining at a restaurant called Genki Sushi in Tokyo. You ordered small sushi plates from an iPad and they would speedily arrive on an automated cart that came by on a track in front of the bar. You would eat your fill and then take your check to the front. Each plate was around $1 and we each ended up eating between 11-13 plates, definitely affordable and delicious.
Kabobs, meat on a stick, whatever you what to call it, it is delicious and the Japanese do it well. There are plenty of yakatori masters where you can sit and spend a fortune to get the best of the best (often not knowing what part of the animal or even what animal you are eating) but we kept it simple and went to a popular yakatori chain where again you order from an ipad and small plates of kabobs are brought out as you order. We ended up spending under $20/person with drinks.
Japan is paradise for matcha fiends like me, they not only have the highest quality traditional matcha tea, but also a multitude of delicious matcha flavored products ranging from soft serve ice cream, chocolate, rice balls (mochi) and many more. If you are in to tea I would definitely recommend doing a traditional ceremony or a tasting (we did a three course tasting in Tokyo at Uogashi Gina tea shop). I also stocked up on Ipoddo matcha tea while I was there because it is half the price in local markets than it is back in the states.
7. Traditional Shabu Shabu Beef Dinner Experience
We splurged one night to experience a traditional Shaubu Shabu beef dinner with friends at an intimate restaurant in Kyoto. We sat on the floor in our own private room and were first served traditional green tea and the chef’s special appetizer of raw octopus before our server, dressed in traditional geisha attire, prepared our main course in front of us on our table top grill. They didn’t speak a lick of English but this experience really revealed the core values of the Japanese culture: refinement, beauty and precision.
8. Fish Balls From 7/11
Ballet on a budget? These $1 triangular palm sized sushi balls were our lifelines, they are made fresh hourly and can be found at almost every corner. We didn’t get around to trying every flavor because there were just too many, but we loved the double pack with one salmon mixed ball and one filled with tuna/mayo.
This is a traditional soft dough made with rice paste, typically found in ball form and often stuffed with a sweet bean filling. There are many different flavors and forms, but I for one enjoyed the texture and loved the smaller matcha flavored balls, definitely worth a shot.