What brings many visitors to Tokyo are its efficient trains, the bright lights of Shinjuku, and the prevalent anime and manga scenes, but what keeps people there is the food.
Japan is famous for having some of the best food in the world, and it owes this distinction to the Japanese art of shokunin, or the mastery of one’s profession. Japanese chefs commonly apprentice for years before taking command in the kitchen, and this attention to detail is reflected in the fare, particularly in Tokyo, where culinary traditions have been simmering for hundreds of years.
Surely you’ve already heard of sushi – vinegared rice paired with seafood, vegetables, and seaweed – but the options in Tokyo go far beyond that one dish. Here are 13 other foods you must try before you leave.
There are a few different ways to prepare this Japanese omelet, but all of the varieties share the same basic ingredients: fried rice inside a delicate wrapper of precisely prepared egg. An example of Japanese cuisine called yoshoku (dishes with a western origin), this dish is commonly served with ketchup, and as you might imagine, is beloved by Japanese children. The easiest place to find omurice in Tokyo is in Akihabara, at one of its many maid cafés.
Though karaage is actually a style of deep-frying rather than a particular dish, the word most commonly refers to Japanese fried chicken. Karaage is typically made from boneless thigh that’s been marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, sake, garlic, and ginger, then dredged in finely-milled flour and dropped in a hot deep fryer. It is usually served with lemon and Japanese mayonnaise, though you may sometimes find vinegar or tartar sauce alongside your meal. You’ll find karaage at many izakayas (Japanese pubs) around Tokyo.
Rather than referring to a specific dish, wagashi is the name of an array of Japanese sweets that are usually served alongside green tea. The most common variety, called namagashi, is made from rice flour and filled with anko (a sweet paste made from azuki beans) which is then fashioned into different shapes and colors seasonally. Other classic varieties you’ll find in Japanese bakeries and at street stalls around Tokyo are manju – a small steamed bun with filling, dango – skewered rice dumplings, and dorayaki – a mini pancakes sandwich filled with sweet red bean paste.
A popular Japanese street food, takoyaki is most common in Osaka, though you’ll find it all over Tokyo, too. They are essentially a savory fried ball of batter with small chunks of octopus, topped with dried bonito flakes and mayonnaise.
Watching your takoyaki chef cook your meal is part of the fun! You’ll get to see them swiftly pour a measured amount of batter into each hemispherical divet in the grill, then rotate them with a bamboo skewer until they resemble a golf ball in both size and shape. If you’re a fanatic, don’t miss the Odaiba Takoyaki Museum, which houses several stalls serving up fresh takoyaki, as well as shops to buy souvenirs and supplies to make it yourself.
A simple preparation of raw seafood, and less commonly other meats like beef or venison, sashimi can be ordered in most places that serve sushi. While you may be already familiar with some of the most popular varieties like maguro (bluefin tuna) and hamachi (yellowtail), you would be remiss to not try at least a piece or two of some of the types considered Japanese delicacies. Ikura, tai, and uni (salmon roe, sea bream, and sea urchin, respectively) should not be missed.
A catch-all term that refers to a bowl of steamed rice topped with another prepared food, this humble meal is plentiful and popular in Tokyo. The most common type is probably gyudon (marinated beef with scallions), which can be found at fast-food joints, chain restaurants, and even pre-prepared at convenience stores.
Another Tokyo favorite is unadon, which is topped with unagi (freshwater eel) that’s been cooked in a slightly sweet, thick soy-based sauce. If you’re looking for more elegant fare, you can search out a place serving kaisendon, a type of donburi garnished with an assortment of fresh, raw seafood. Crab, tuna, and octopus are common toppings for kaisendon, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a few fresh ebi (shrimp) and hotate (scallop).
Literally meaning rice ball, onigiri comes in many different varieties, though they all share the same slightly sticky medium-grain rice and salt. They are usually wrapped in nori (dried seaweed paper) and can be filled with a number of different ingredients, like pickled vegetables, tuna, or fish roe. You can find onigiri pre-made at food courts and convenience stores.
Not to be confused with brewed tea, matcha is made from only the highest quality green tea leaves that have been ground to an ultra-fine powder, then whisked into boiling water to create a suspension. It is the traditional drink of Japanese tea ceremonies but has entered into a bit of a renaissance as of late as it’s been adopted by the western world. While you can definitely find a well-prepared matcha tea or latte in Tokyo, matcha desserts are also exceedingly popular. Tokyo abounds with matcha-flavored sweets, from cakes to ice cream, and even Kit Kat.
In the most basic version, these thick, chewy wheat noodles are covered with a simple, clear broth of chicken or vegetables and topped with chopped scallion, but from here the options are seemingly endless.
Brothless varieties of udon are commonly served with a dipping sauce made from a base of ponzu (citrus-flavored soy sauce) or sesame oil, while udon soups generally have all of the ingredients incorporated into the bowl. They come with a myriad of add-ons, most commonly, pieces of tempura, steamed vegetables, or a slice of kamaboko – a pink and white fish cake.
Similar to Germany’s schnitzel, tonkatsu is an immaculately prepared breaded and fried pork cutlet. They are usually sliced and served with rice, miso soup, and shredded cabbage, but you can also find tonkatsu atop ramen, donburi, and prepared as a curry. If you’re looking for something on the go, try a tonkatsu sando or katsu sando (pork cutlet sandwich), which you can find in most convenience stores or on the food court of shopping centers.
Possibly the perfect food for late nights in Tokyo, these bite-sized, skewered pieces of grilled meat are best enjoyed with a cold glass of dry Japanese beer. Typically served at yakitori-ya (shops that specialize in yakitori), you can also find these popular Japanese delicacies at many izakaya and street food stalls. They are intended to be shared among a group of friends, which is helpful when you’re attempting to try all the different kinds. While boneless chicken thigh is most common, try to also find tsukune (minced chicken meatball) and torikawa (crispy chicken skin).
These thin buckwheat noodles are a Japanese staple, particularly in Tokyo, where some soba restaurants have been operated by the same family for several generations. The style you are most likely to encounter is mori soba, where the cold noodles are served plain alongside a simple dipping sauce. While you can find the dried variety in any Japanese supermarket, they are best when made fresh, ideally by hand, in the traditional manner.
A far cry from the instant noodles in a styrofoam cup you may have grabbed from your grocers’ shelf, real Japanese ramen takes hours to prepare properly and has as many iterations as there are prefectures in Japan and more.
In Tokyo, be sure to try tonkatsu ramen, where the broth is made from slowly simmering pork bones until the cartilage has rendered it creamy and opaque. To this, the addition of noodles is a must, and may also come topped with a slice of tenderly fried pork belly or maybe a halved soft-boiled egg. Ramen shops are ubiquitous in Tokyo, so you’re going to want to try a few.