Japanese food isn’t just sushi.
There’s one major thing foreigners tend to agree on after visiting Japan.
The diversity of food you find there is to die for.
Close your eyes for a moment and imagine: you’re in the busy streets of Tokyo. It’s a complete whirlwind: food stalls, bakeries, restaurants, and little cafes are all selling tons of mysterious food you’ve never seen before. Before you can ask “what is that?” you hear shouting in the distance. Fishermen from Tsukiji Market, Tsukiji uo ichiba ( 築地魚市場 / つきじうおいちば) are hauling in their latest catch of fresh tuna. Pleasant aromas are drifting by from the nearby food stalls. One of the stalls has opened for the day, and the morning’s first fresh batch of fish-shaped cakes, known as taiyaki (たい焼き / たいやき), is ready to sell.
You may be surprised to find that your favorite dish from Nagasaki is suddenly nonexistent in Kyoto. Even common cuisine that is well-known and well-loved by all Japanese is not necessarily prepared the same way in one region as it is in another. One of my favorite places to get curry rice (a popular dish nationwide) is in Hokkaido, where it’s creamier thanks to the region’s specialty: fresh, local milk.
Hokkaido (北海道 / ほっかいどう)
Hokkaido is a northern prefecture that covers Japan’s second largest island. Hokkaido is known for its beautiful winters, national parks and best of all: fresh seafood! Throughout Hokkaido, there are many diverse local specialties from Genghis Khan barbecue to tribal plates like ruibe (るいべ) which is similar to salmon sashimi.
Ishikari Hot Pot – Ishikari Nabe (石狩鍋 / いしかりなべ)
Named after the Ishikari-gawa River, Ishikari nabe is a miso-based hotpot filled with a generous amount of salmon, stewed vegetables, and tofu. The dish was originally popular among fishermen but has made it to the tables of many restaurants and households — especially on a cold winter day!
Genghis Khan Barbecue – Jingisukan (じんぎすかん / ジンギスカン)
Jingisukan also known as “Genghis Khan barbecue” is a specialty in Hokkaido. After being marinated in a special sauce, thin slices of lamb or mutton are broiled with vegetables on top of a helmet-shaped grill. Jingisukan makes for a great social meal, as diners can cook the dish themselves.
Squid Noodles – Ika Soumen (いか素麺 / いかそうめん)
Ika soumen, or “squid noodles,” are made from — you guessed it — squid! Raw squid is cut into thin strips that resemble soumen which is a type of noodle. Grated ginger and soy sauce often accompany the dish. Although it’s a specialty in Hakodate, Hokkaido, ika soumen has become popular nation-wide.
Tohoku (東北 / とうほく)
Tohoku sits on the northern edge of Japan’s largest island, Honshuu. The region is popular for its scenic landscape that consists of mountains, lakes, and hot springs. What’s more is that lots of high quality rice, apples and pears are produced in Tohoku’s prefectures.
Soba noodles in small bowls – Wanko Soba (わんこ蕎麦 / わんこそば）
Be ready to put another knot in your belt! Wanko soba is both a specialty dish and a major attraction in Tohoku’s Iwate prefecture! Soba noodles are served in a small wanko (わんこ) bowl with side dishes such as mushrooms and radishes set aside. What makes wanko soba so special is that it’s served as an all-you-can-eat. After slurping down your noodles, another bowl of soba is placed in front of you to consume. It’s great fun to see how many bowls you can consume in one sitting. One of the first questions your friends may ask you after you return from Iwate is, “How many bowls did you eat?!”
Kirotanpo Rice Cakes – Kiritanpo (きりたんぽ)
Originating in Akita, kiritanpo is made from cooked rice that’s pounded into a paste. The paste is then molded into a hallow cylinder shape and skewered. The dumpling can be served in a variety of ways. Vegetarians may enjoy the dish when it’s served alone with sweet miso. Kiritanpo is also used in hot pots called kiritanpo nabe, where a local breed of fowl called hinai (比内地鶏 / ひないぢどり) mushrooms, scallions, herbs, and soy sauce are main ingredients.
Rice cakes with sweet mashed soybeans – Zunda Mochi (ずんだ餅 / ずんだもち)
Another popular treat made from pounded rice is mochi (餅 / もち)! Mochi is a popular chewy dessert made from pounded rice. Rather than rice, zunda mochi is made from young soybeans, called edamame (枝豆 / えだまめ). Boiled edamame pods are is mashed into a paste and sweetened with sugar. There are a number of ways zunda mochi can be prepared and enjoyed. One popular way is by using the paste to cover mochi made from rice. Another way is to simply enjoy it by itself.
Kanto (関東 / かんとう)
Sitting on the east side of Japan, the Kanto region hosts many populated prefectures such as Tokyo and Kanagawa. With two of Japan’s largest cities, views of Mount Fuji, and highly rated food from international guides, the Kanto region is a hottest tourist destination.
Pan-fired Batter – Monjayaki（もんじゃ焼き / もんじゃやき)
Monjayaki is so popular in Tokyo that there’s a dedicated Monjayaki street called Tsukishima Monjya Street, or Tsukishima Monja Sutoriito (月島もんじゃストリート / つきしまもんじゃすとりーと) in Japanese, where special monjayaki restaurants are all lined up and waiting to dish it out. The batter of monjayaki is usually made from water, flour, and Worcestershire sauce. Although the dish is often compared to okonimiyaki, monjayaki has more of a liquid base. Other ingredients such as cabbage, meat and seafood, and anything else you’d like, are mixed into the batter as it cooks on top of a tabletop grill. After becoming crispy on the bottom, friends and family eat monjayaki directly off the grill with small spatulas.
Grilled Skewered Chicken, Yakitori (焼き鳥 / やきとり), and Grilled Skewered Sweet Buns, Yakimanju (焼き饅頭 / やきまんじゅう)
Yakitori is a crowd-pleaser. Yakitori is a skewed chicken, dipped in barbecue sauce, and then grilled. You can find yakitori in a number of places from restaurants and food courts to outdoor stands. Yakitori shops or yakitoriya (焼き鳥屋 / やきとりや ) can be easily be identified by red lanterns hung on the outside. In the evening, the usual shop is filled with crowds of salary workers, college students, and couples who’d like a quick bite and a drink.
Not to be confused with monjayaki, yakimanju is a traditional dish in Gunma Prefecture. Its dough is made with a wheat flour that’s been fermented in sake. After, the dumpling-like pastry is skewed and coated with a special miso sauce, then grilled.
Chanko Hot Pot – Chanko Nabe (鍋ちゃんこなべ / ちゃんこ)
Nicknamed “sumo stew,” chanko nabe is a Japanese stew that is popular among sumo wrestlers or sumou tori (相撲取り, すもうとり) as a weight-gain method thanks to its protein-rich ingredients. Chanko nabe contains a fish or chicken broth. There are no rules as to what goes into the stew, but common ingredients are chicken or fish, tofu, and vegetables.
Chubu (中部 / ちゅうぶ)
The Chubu region stretches from coast to coast and sits between the Kanto and Kansai regions. Many leading ski resorts sit inside of Chubu. When you’re not skiing or hiking in the Japanese alps, travelers can dine on firefly squid sushi, or some of Japan’s best sake.
Pork Cutlet with Miso Sauce – Miso Katsu (味噌カツ/ みそかつ)
You may have already heard of the deep-fried pork cutlet dish known as tonkatsu (とんかつ) which is served in a sweet and sour sauce and topped with shredded cabbage. Miso katsu is similar, and uses deep-fried pork cutlet as its main ingredient. Miso katsu uses its own unique sauce made from – you got it, you’re really on the ball today! — a miso base. The sauce uses a special Aichi miso known as hacchou-miso (八丁味噌 / はっちょうみそ) and is sweetened with bonito stock and sugar. This dish is famous to Nagoya, and comes in many shapes and forms – including buckwheat noodles, udon (うどん).
Grilled Filleted Eel – Unagi no Kabayaki (鰻の蒲焼 / うなぎのかばやき)
Unagi means eel, and unagi no kabayaki is grilled freshwater eel seasoned with a soy-based sauce. Unlike most eel that’s prepared in Japan, unagi no kabayaki is grilled right after its been cleaned and boned, giving it more of a firm texture. It’s said that because of its protein and vitamins, unagi gives one good stamina. For that reason, eel is a popular summer dish. It’s even a custom to eat eel on the widely-celebrated Day of the Ox, doyou no ushi no hi (土用の丑の日 / どようのうしのひ).
Pickled Blowfish Roe – Fugu no Ko Nukazuke (河豚の子糠漬け / ふぐのこぬかづけ)
Fugu no ko nukazuke, or “pickled blowfish roe” is a delicacy from the Ishikawa Prefecture. The dish is hard to find elsewhere, and since few can prepare the poisonous fish so that it’s edible, it can be challenging to find fugu no ko nukazuke even within Ishikawa. The blowfish roe are pickled in a special mix where the roe are first salted, then kept in rice bran – nuka (糠, ぬか) – for two to three years. During the fermenting process, the poison vanishes so you can feel free to enjoy as much fugu no ko nakuzuke as your belt can handle.
Kansai (関西, かんさい)
The Kansai region is home to some of Japan’s most popular cities including Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara. Rural towns, famous castles, and old temples can be found within its borders. The Kansai region is also known as sake country, sake no kuni (酒の国 / さけのくに) and is a great place to tour visitor-friendly sake breweries.
Kansai-style Pancakes – Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き / おこのみやき)
Okonomiyaki has spread from the Kansai area to all over Japan and has two distinct varieties: The Kansai version, and the Hiroshima version. The version you’ll find in Osaka (and many other places in the nation) is the Kansai version. Many diners choose the option to make their own okonomiyaki on a tabletop grill, teppan (鉄板 / てっぱん). There are many different ways to make okonomiyaki. Generally, you mix the batter consisting of flour, eggs, cabbage, and broth. The batter is placed on the grill until it looks somewhat like a pancake. Toppings of choice like meat, seafood, cheese, and bonito flakes are added along with okonomiyaki sauce and mayonnaise. The result is rewarding and delicious.
Grilled Octopus Balls, Takoyaki (たこ焼き / たこやき) and Grilled Octopus Balls with Egg Batter, Akashiyaki (明石焼き / あかしやき)
Another delicious Osaka dish is takoyaki. You can find this tasty treat in parks, along the street, in restaurants — almost anywhere your heart desires. And for good reason, it’s delicious! Takoyaki is made from a batter with diced octopus – tako (たこ) – pickled ginger, green onion, and tenpura scapes known as tenkasu (天かす / てんかす). It’s cooked in a special pan with circular molds, then skewered or served in a bowl, covered in takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with green laver, aonori (青のり / あおのり), and dried bonito, katsuo bushi (鰹節 / かつおぶし).
Akashiyaki is said to be takoyaki’s inspiration. Akashi yaki is a type of dumpling that’s also cooked round. The dish is famous in Akashi and said to be a bit more eggy than takoyaki. The batter is made from eggs and octopus, and before eating, diners dip each dumpling in a fish broth.
Soy Marinated Fish and Sushi Rice – Tekone Zushi（手こね寿司 / てこねずし）
Nicknamed “fisherman’s sushi,” tekone-zushi is made from cuts of shipjack or bluefin tuna. The cuts are placed in a soy-flavored marinade, then placed on top of vinegared rice, and garnished with dried laver seaweed, nori (のり), ginger root, shouga (生姜 / しょうが), and shiso leaf (しそ). Tekone-zushi is famous in the Ise Shima region, Mie prefecture, which boards the Pacific Ocean. It’s well worth the try if you’re in the area. Make sure to buy seconds, as one helping (though filling) just isn’t enough.
Chugoku (中国 / ちゅうごく)
Home to historic canals and capitals, and famous gardens and shrines, the Chugoku region offers something to everyone. Chugoku also hosts foods for serious foodies, ranging from locally grown peaches to sake produced with poisonous blowfish fins.
Blowfish Dishes – Fugu Ryouri (河豚料理 / ふぐりょうり）
Blowfish, known as fuku (ふく) or fugu (ふぐ) is popular in the Yamaguchi region. The poisonous fish can be prepared in a number of different ways. As with sashimi, it is sliced into pieces that are so thin, they’re see-through. Those who prepare the fish are required to have a special training and a license before they can serve any fugu dishes. Other ways to enjoy fugu are in hot pots, and rice porridge.
Hiroshima-style Pancakes – Hiroshima Okonomiyaki (広島お好み焼き, ひろしまおこのみやき)
As mentioned before, there are two main variants of okonomiyaki: Kansai-style (that you’ll find in Osaka and most regions of Japan) and Hiroshima-style. Popular ingredients include cabbage and pork or seafood. Rather than mixing the ingredients into a batter, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki tends to layer ingredients on top of the batter before topping the mixture off with a layer of noodles, cheese, and okonomiyaki sauce.
Crab Soup – Kani Jiru (カニ汁 / かにじる)
Fresh and affordable, kani jiru is not a dish to be passed up by any seafood lover. Kani jiru are snow crabs that have been cleaned, cut in halves, and boiled along with daikon (大根 / だいこん) radish. The crab is served in a broth made from miso paste and garnished with leeks.
Shikoku (四国 / しこく)
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s main islands and is broken into four prefectures. Shikoku can be a bit underrated but houses lots of modern art attractions, beautiful castles, and peaceful shrines. By the seaside are widespread plantations of olive, oriibu (オリーブ / おりーぶ-), red bean, azuki (小豆 / あずき), and soy bean, daizu (大豆 / だいず).
Whole Butterfish with Sushi Rice – Bouze no Sugata Zushi (ぼうぜの姿寿司 / ぼうぜのすがたずし)
Sushi-lovers will definitely enjoy this Tokushima dish! A staple in autumn festivals, bouze no sugata zushi is a whole fish (such as Japanese butterfish, mackerel, and freshwater trout) that’s cleaned, then soaked in vinegar. It’s then stuffed with vinegared sushi rice and is often accompanied with a splash of citrus juice.
Sanuki Udon Noodles – Sanuki Udon (讃岐うどん / さぬきうどん)
Sanuki udon is a wheat-flour noodle that’s been kneaded to create a firm noodle with a notably smooth texture. There are many different ways to eat sanuki udon. It’s commonly served in a kelp-based soup with a separate dipping sauce. The soup can be enjoyed with a variety of toppings and many shops in the Kagawa prefecture specialize in the noodle alone.
Glowbelly fish cakes – Jakoten (じゃこ天 / じゃこてん)
Jakoten comes from the Ehime Prefecture. The dish is made from a small local fish, usually glowbelly fish, hotarujako (蛍じゃこ / ほたるじゃこ), that’s pounded and made into a paste, bones and gills included. The paste is then deep-fried and served. Jakoten can be found in round, oval shapes or thin square pieces. It’s often served in noodle dishes or alone as a snack.
Kyushu (九州 / きゅうしゅう)
Kyushu is Japan’s third largest island. It’s known for its pleasant climate, delicious alcohol called shouchu ( 焼酎 / しょうちゅう), and beautiful cities and scenery. Many historical sights with both foreign and traditional Japanese influence can be found throughout Kyushu.
Spicy Cod/Pollock Roe – Karashi Mentaiko（辛子明太子 / からしめんたいこ）
Mentaiko is marinated cod and pollock roe. Karashi mentaiko is spicy roe that’s famous in Fukuoka City. The roe is marinated in chili pepper, tougarashi (唐辛子 / とうがらし), sauce and served in a number of dishes that include rice balls, spaghetti, and even pizza.
Champon Ramen Noodles – Champon (ちゃんぽん)
Champon uses pork, seasonal seafood and vegetable ingredients – all pan-fried in lard. After the ingredients become tender, the mixture is added to a special broth (made from chicken and pig bones). Special ramen noodles are cooked in a unique style, where they’re cooked together in the same pan as the mixture.
Berkshire Pork Hot Pot – Kurobuta Shabu-Shabu (黒豚しゃぶしゃぶ / くろぶたしゃぶしゃぶ)
Shabu-shabu is a dish that uses thinly sliced beef that’s boiled by diners in a cooking pot. Kurobuto is Kagoshima’s specialty Berkshire pork that’s said to have a sweet and delicate taste. Kurobuto shabu-shabu is unique because it uses Berkshire pork rather than beef. The dish is usually served with tofu and vegetables.
Okinawa (沖縄 / おきなわ)
Crystal clear water, beautiful beaches, and a rich history, Okinawa is the perfect getaway for just about anyone. Okinawa is made up of dozens of small islands, and a variety of amazing local dishes. You can try anything from snorkeling with sea turtles to munching on the local dish called mimigaa (みみがあ), which is crunchy pig ears in vinegar.
Stir Fry with Bitter Melon – Gooya Chanpuruu（ゴーヤチャンプルー / ごーやちゃんぷるー）
Gooya Chanpuruu may just be Okinawa’s most notorious dish. It’s a stir-fry that usually combines tofu, egg, pork, and ゴーヤ, ごーや- gooya also known as 苦瓜, にがうり– nigauri (bitter melon) . For those of you who aren’t familiar with bitter melon, its popularity among children is roughly equivalent to brussel sprouts. The bitterness, however, is regulated by marinating the gooya in salt before it’s added to the dish.
Squid Ink Soup – Ikasumi Jiru （イカスミ汁 / いかすみじる)
Okinawa is also famous for ikasumi jiru, a thick black soup that gets its color from squid ink. The main ingredients consist of squid, leafy greens called nigana (苦菜 /にがな ) and three pieces of chicken or pork. Just remember to have a toothbrush handy after you’re done with this dish — the ink will dye your mouth black.
Taco Rice – Tako raisu（タコライス / たこらいす)
Taco rice is among one of the many unique specialties in Okinawa. The dish was created from the influence of other nations. As its name indicates, taco rice consists of common taco ingredients such as ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese, all topped over a steaming dish of Japanese rice. The dish is well-liked by tourists and locals, and is so popular that even KFC has added it to their menu in Okinawa.
Prefectures, cities, and even city sub-districts have many different kinds of local cuisine waiting to be discovered! To make the most out of your next trip, make sure to do your kyoudo ryouri research so you don’t miss out on the best of the best!
If you’re stuck at home and longing to experience all of this, then you can treat yourself to a subscription to Kawaii Box, which provides a delicious dose of Japanese cuteness. You’ll usually get a snack or two in every box, and possibly some adorable regional items from Japan as well.
Good luck, and happy eating!
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