Every year, millions of people from all over the world flock to Japan to explore the many wonders of this archipelagic nation, and one of the biggest draws is the wide selection of foods that can be found there. Whether it is the winter, spring, summer, or autumn, many Japanese restaurants and eateries are crowded with both locals and foreigners who want to satisfy their cravings for some inviting and mouth-watering Japanese cuisine.
With Japan’s extensive selection of dishes, there are quite a few that are locally popular but consistently rank low in most tourists’ popularity palate lists, choices that only the courageous, valiant, and adventurous in constant pursuit of bizarre exploits, can appreciate.
Japan is a haven for odd and polarizing foods so it should be a paradise for visitors who are in the hunt for some good, stomach-churning challenges. Anyone who would not mind chowing down something raw, slimy, sticky, and made from animal internal organs or sea creatures with unusual names, and seriously wants to expand and diversify their international food resume should check out the following 13 foods, when in Japan, to find out how far they can go:
Believed to have been discovered a thousand years ago, natto is a Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. To make it, natto soybeans are cleaned and soaked in water for up to 20 hours, steamed, and then combined with Bacillus subtilis to start the fermentation process. After 24 hours, the mixture is set aside to cool for several days until it becomes stringy.
Its brown color, slimy texture, distinctive odor, and powerful flavor are what make natto an acquired taste. It has that pungent-cheese-like smell and phlegm-like consistency that not a lot of foreigners may be fond of.
In various regions of Japan, particularly in eastern Kanto, natto is actually a popular delicacy. This dish is known for its nutritional benefits and is usually served over rice during breakfast, as a soba or udon topping, sushi and rice ball filling, side dish, and snack.
Anko is a traditional Japanese red bean paste that is frequently used to make Japanese sweets. To make anko, adzuki beans are boiled, mashed, and mixed with honey or sugar to enhance the sweetness.
Because of its thick, smooth, paste-like texture, anko is not on top of many tourists’ list of must-try foods in Japan. It has a different type of sweetness that may take some time getting used to.
The popularity of anko among the locals, however, is another story. It is quite well-loved that there are many different anko sweets available all over the country, such as:
- Anpan – Sweet buns with anko filling
- Manju – Steam cakes with anko filling
- Taiyaki – Cakes shaped like a fish and filled with anko
- Dorayaki – Two castella pancakes with anko filling in between
- Oshiruko – A type of soup made from azduki beans and served with rice cake
- Anmitsu – A type of dessert served with fruit, agar jelly cubes, and syrup
Commonly served as a dessert and confectionery, mochi are small, dough-like rice cakes made either from pounded mochigome (a type of sticky Japanese rice) or from mochiko (a type of sweet rice flour), through a traditional production process known as Mochitsuki, wherein the glutinous rice is soaked in water overnight, cooked, pounded, and formed into cubes, spheres, and other shapes.
Because of its high polysaccharide content, mochi have a viscous and elastic texture, rendering it quite sticky, rigid, and chewy when eaten. As a matter of fact, several cases of choking cases and suffocation deaths due to mochi are reported in Japan every year, so authorities advise everyone to cut up mochi into smaller portions prior to eating to prevent these accidents.
Mochi food is sold and eaten in Japan all year and are a regular component of Japanese New Year celebrations. Some of the most popular mochi specialties prepared during this holiday are:
- Kagami mochi – mochi that are prepared as a decoration and are then consumed in a traditional ritual known as Kagami biraki
- Kinako mochi – this dish is made of fire-roasted mochi coated with sugar and soy flour and is said to bring good luck
- Zoni- a type of soup that contains mochi, carrot, taro, and other ingredients
Kanten, or agar, is a traditional Japanese food that is said to have been discovered in Japan in the 1600s by an innkeeper named Mino Torozaemon after noticing the jelly-like substance that had formed out of some seaweed soup he had thrown out one winter night.
Semi-translucent in appearance with a gelatinous texture, kanten can be a bit of a challenge to some tourists who have an aversion to that soft, squishy consistency.
Obtained from certain varieties of algae, kanten is loaded with iron, calcium, iodine, and fiber. It is a particularly popular ingredient used to make jellies, custards, pie fillings, puddings, cakes, jams, and many other different kinds of dessert typically served during the hot and humid Japanese summer. One of the most well-known kanten cuisines in Japan is the anmitsu, which is a mixture of agar jelly cubes and various fruits, served in a dessert bowl.
5. Greasy beef
Japan is world-renowned for its scrumptious and flavorful beef dishes. In fact, there are tourists from the other side of the planet that literally travel to Japan just to get that first-hand experience of feasting on authentic, homegrown Japanese cattle. Some of the most famous varieties are Kobe, Omi, Mishima, Sanda, and Matsusaka beef.
With the development of various effective breeding and feeding methods by the local beef industry, meat from their cattle significantly contain higher percentages of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids in comparison to regular beef, making it greasier but more tender and savory to the palate, resulting to some serious cravings. And so, it commands such steep prices, costing up to 10,000 yen per serving in some restaurants.
Despite the flavor boost due to the extra grease, there is a downside that is often stated when eating this dish. Some people find the oily and slippery texture revolting, describing eating greasy beef as like eating one big slab of fat.
However, not all greasy beef is unhealthy. In Japan, it comes in hearty and healthy servings, including:
- Shabu shabu
Gyudon, a rice bowl dish topped with thin slices of beef and a special type of sweet and salty sauce, and served alongside miso soup, is one popular beef cuisine that is affordable and well-received not only by locals but by foreigners as well. It can be found in most food stalls and restaurants all over the country.
In certain Japanese regions, basashi, or horse meat, is considered a local specialty, particularly in Kumamoto, where it has been deemed as the prefecture’s representative dish.
Usually served raw, the meat is sliced into thin strips and served in different ways, such as:
- Sashimi – Comes with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, onions, and ginger
- Sushi – Used as topping on vinegared sushi rice
- Ice cream – There is a local manufacturer that makes out-of-the-ordinary flavors
- including a basashi one
- Banuku – A kind of horse meat barbecue
- Bagushi – Skewered horse meat
Because eating horse meat is an uncommon practice in most parts of the world, tourists that come to Japan and encounter this Japanese cuisine find it difficult to wrap their heads around the idea of trying this local delicacy made from an animal that is treated differently from where they are from.
Authentic, home-grown horse meat is a rare commodity in Japan, so if you want to get a taste of it, you have to go to places that have built a solid food culture around it. Aside from Kumamoto, izakaya bars in Yamagata, Nagano, Fukushima, Aomori, and Yamanashi have basashi on the menu.
Dubbed as a “stamina enhancer,” horumon, also sometimes called horumonyaki, is a type of Japanese dish made from animal internal organs and entrails. Its name is said to have been derived from a couple of words:
From the Kansai dialect “horumon”, which literally means “discarded goods”
From the Greek word “hormone,” which means “stimulation”
The belief that horumon could build and increase the body’s stamina originates from the Meiji Era, when animal intestines and other innards were cooked to build and boost endurance and power, thanks to their high-nutrient content.
The thought of a meal of cow or pig small intestines, large intestines, stomachs, genitals, and spleen may not be very appetizing to a lot of people, but anyone out on a quest for some seriously unusual cuisine has to give horumon a try.
There are many different ways to prepare horumon, depending on where you are in Japan. Some of the most frequently used methods in Japanese restaurants are:
- Kushi-yaki – Skewered and served with a dipping sauce
- Yakiniku – Barbecued on metal grid and grilled over fire
- Teppan-yaki – Marinated and then grilled on a cast-iron pan
A type of edible seaweed, nori is a very common product used as a sushi and onigiri wrap. It belongs to the red algae genus Porphyra and is frequently utilized not only in Japan, but in other countries as well.
The earliest documentation of nori is traced back to around the 8th century, when it was mentioned to had been dried and harvested in the Hitachi and Izumo provinces. By the 10th century, nori had become a more familiar ingredient in food production.
Because nori sheets can easily absorb water and moisture, they become wilted and saltier when eaten — two characteristics that not a lot of foreigners are drawn to when it comes to food. Their stale, sea-like smell can also be too much.
In addition to being used as a wrap, nori is also used as a flavoring or garnish in soups and noodles. It can also be toasted (known as yaki-nori); toasted and flavored with soy sauce, mirin, sugar, sake, and others (known as ajitsuke-nori); and made into a paste seasoned with soy sauce.
Thick and viscous, mozuku is a seaweed variety that is widely popular in Japan. It is a low-calorie, nutritious food that is frequently added as an ingredient to different types of dishes for flavor-enhancement purposes.
Mozuku can be served as:
- Dried – mozuku is dried and is either directly put in or soaked in water first before added to soup
- Fresh – Newly-harvested mozuku is washed lightly and then either eaten raw or cooked
- Salted – mozuku is salted and served with vinegar sauce or as side dishThe sticky, gooey, and gelatinous feel of mozuku when chewed, as well as its distinct saltiness, may be quite unpleasant for the untrained, but if prepared properly, it can contribute to a satisfying dining experience.
Mozuku can also be added as an ingredient when making miso soup, tempura, pizza (as a topping), and scrambled eggs.
Made from different marine animal viscera that have been chopped up into small pieces, shiokara is a Japanese cuisine that even many locals consider an acquired taste. The preparation process consists of salting raw innards, mixing them with malted rice, and packing them in a tightly-shut container to allow a month-long fermentation.
The apparent fishy and salty flavor of shiokara is frequently compared to that of cured anchovies. It comes in a paste-like form and can be very strong to the palate, so it is popularly consumed in one gulp and followed with a whiskey shot.
Some notable types of shiokara are:
- Ika no shiokara – Ingredients are made from cuttlefish squid and is the most available type found in restaurants and eateries
- Kaki no shiokara – Made from oyster viscera
- Katsuo no shiokara – Made from skipjack tuna innards
- Uni no shiokara – Made from sea urchin roe
- Konowata – Made from sea cucumber
The Japanese eat about 150,000 tons of a variety of octopus species caught in the Japanese waters on a yearly basis. Known as tako in the local language, it is a popular special ingredient in Japanese food culture, and can be prepared in different ways for human consumption.
Two of the most common octopi eaten in the country are the “madako,” a species that grows up to 24 inches long and weighs up to 11 pounds, and exported to Japan from Africa; and the “iidako,” which is smaller in size and abundant in Japan and the surroundings.
Raw octopus is rarely consumed in Japan because the texture is too rubbery or chewy. When boiled, it becomes softer and has a hint of sweetness.
One widely-recognizable octopus dish is the takoyaki, which is a type of ball-shaped snack that is filled with tako, pickled ginger, green ionion, and tempura scraps. It can be served with mayonnaise, Worcester sauce, and other dippings, and topped with daikon (radish) and other ingredients. It is sold in many street food stalls and specialty restaurants all over the country.
12. Salmon roe
Known as ikura in Japanese, salmon roe is a fairly common local cuisine made of the egg masses of salmon. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is used as an ingredient in the preparation of various dishes.
There are different ways to serve salmon roe, such as:
- As a rice bowl topping for ikuradon
- When making sushi
- As appetizer by marinating salmon roe in soy sauce
- On bread with butter or other ingredients
Just like caviar, which is made of roe from sturgeon, salmon roe is an acquired taste as it has that dominant briny, fishy, seawater taste, with a bubble type of consistency, which many people may find unappealing.
While some types of roe are considered a luxury item and a social status symbol in other parts of the world, ikura is available in convenience stores and supermarkets all over Japan at affordable prices.
Uni is an internationally-renowned Japanese food that comes from sea urchin. It is taken from the marine animal’s roe-producing body part, and has two primary types: murasaki-uni, or naked sea urchin, and bafun-uri, or intermediate sea urchin.
Because of uni’s distinct and unusual blend of smell (which is sea-like and fishy), taste (salty but creamy at the same time), and texture (can be firm or soft, depending on the grade type and preparation method used), some wonder why it is a popular culinary choice of many people.
Supermarkets and stores sell uni in various forms, including:
- Salted – shio uni
- Fresh – nama uni
- Steamed – mushi uni
- Baked and frozen – yaki uni
- Lumpy paste – tsubu uni
- Blended paste – neri uni
In Japanese restaurants in the country and around the world, uni is commonly used as a sushi filling and a sashimi ingredient. In some instances, it is also served alongside a raw quail egg, and as a rice topping (known as uni-don).