Food in Japan

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“The food” is a popular reason to visit Japan. It was one of my teen’s biggest reasons for wanting to take this Japan trip. He’s a foodie kid and invests a lot of time in watching food videos, when he’s not in the kitchen creating fabulous things. He wanted to visit Japan because he believed the food to be good. He’d seen it on YouTube, he thought he’d like it. He’s eaten a lot of sushi and soup noodles in his life, but what he really wanted, was all that plastic-wrapped goodness from the Japanese convenience stores with a side order of cake. He wasn’t disappointed!

Food in Japan deep fried things
Food street in Osaka Japan. This shop front is advertising deep-fried foods on sticks (kushiage – I think), there’s lotus there, a prawn, and some veg, fried stuff is not our cup of tea, other than fish and chips maybe once per year, so we didn’t try it. I think the long thing up top may be a deep-fried cucumber, we saw cucumber on sticks as snacks often. Is this Japanese junk food or is it considered real food? I have no idea, but there were always huge queues.

In this post, we’ll share photos of food in Japan and show you what we ate in Japan, both in restaurants and in the famous food markets of Kyoto and Osaka, plus some things from the 7-11 or Family Mart.

Both destinations were fabulous by the way, we loved both cities and all of the side-trips we made. Japan was incredibly beautiful and fascinating. Something really different. and not expensive!

Neither the child, nor his mum, had much experience with Japanese food. We’d never visited a Japanese restaurant, but we’ve eaten plenty of sushi, as I’m sure everyone has. It’s common in supermarkets just about everywhere in the world now.

We like sushi, we’re not wild about it, but it’s nice, and we love raw fish, wasabi, and soy sauce, no problems there.

So off we went to Japan to try all the foods he thought he’d enjoy. We planned our trip around the food markets, booking hotels just a short walk away, aiming to spend a lot of time tasting Japanese dishes. This dinosaur hotel in Osaka, and this cute guest house in Kyoto, they were both good and well-located.

Nishiki Market Kyoto interior
Nishiki Market in Kyoto. It’s undercover and very long and narrow. It gets packed. A few food stalls have seating, but mostly you stand at the food stall to eat. Walking and eating are frowned upon.

This post covers our food experiences in Japan, we give you photos, and, where we can, costs. There will be a lot of photos of food in Japan.

Kuromon food market osaka
The entrance to Kuromon Market in Osaka. This market was much bigger than Nishiki, it reminded me of Borough Market a bit.

As with all destinations, it takes time to find the good places to eat, and we only had 10 days, but we will be back in Japan to further our explorations into Japanese food. We aim to do better and learn more.

Japanese fish shaped cakes
The Japanese fish-shaped cakes (Taiyaki) filled with custard were a big hit with my son. He didn’t like the red bean filling, but the custard was good. You’ll find these in both markets. They’re kind of like a filled waffle. But, this is not a meal, meals were harder to find.

One thing we found very easily everywhere in Japan was Western-style cakes and bakeries. They make delicious croissants and muffins in Japan, better than anything I’ve ever had in Australia. There was a good bakery in both Nishiki and Kuromon Markets. When you’re travelling with a teen and in dire need of coffee, bakeries are a Godsend.

Kuromon market bakery croissants
Fantastic croissants in Kuromon Market. These are plastic replicas for display. The real thing was delicious.

Somebody may be getting a Japanese cookbook for Christmas. (He did, this one, and has made Gioza perfection multiple times since, from scratch)

What We Ate in Japan, and What We Didn’t

Pizzette Japanese
This is “pizzette” a Japanese pizza from a Japanese/Italian restaurant. It was quite nice, despite the owner telling me not to order it because it was designed for the Japanese market. It had pasta on it, which was a bit odd, but otherwise, it was pizza-y.

We often struggled to find meals in Japan, it just wasn’t easy. But we did take photos of just about everywhere and everything we ate, so let’s get into it.

I think our difficulties were partly because we wanted to eat breakfast (around 7 am or thereabouts) and an early (4-6 pm) dinner. And most places were shut at those times. We also didn’t really know what we were supposed to eat or what most things were called, we were total Japan novices.

The Two Worst Meals in Japan

Let’s start with the bad food to get the uproar going.

Worst food in Japan
This was a “lunch plate” in a cafe in a mall. We were starving, we’d had no breakfast, this is all we could find. It maybe doesn’t look too bad, but everything was cold, even the fish rissole, fried aubergine and lump of pumpkin, and we couldn’t identify the white liquid in the teacup. It was a strange combination of foods. My son ordered this one, my “lunch plate” is below. They were both terrible, to us. Maybe it’s good if you’re Japanese, I have no clue.
Lunch plate in Osaka
My “lunch plate”, again , all cold. We just couldn’t figure out what was going on here. But it had a few vegetables!

The first was in a cafe in Osaka, we were really hungry, it was lunchtime, We’d had no breakfast, and we’d failed to find anywhere else to eat so we were both resigned to just eating whatever we could find. These “lunch plates” looked kind of OK on the photo menu and the cafe was fairly busy.

They were one of the worst meals we’d ever been presented with anywhere in the world.

Our second big food mistake in Japan was ordering the hotel buffet breakfast in quite a nice hotel at Universal Studios Osaka.It wasn’t included in the price so we thought we’d treat ourselves on our final morning. It was so bad it was funny.

The breakfast buffet menu featured pizza, bad pizza, it tasted rather like a store-bought pasta sauce, very synthetic and with artificial flavours. Then there was a hot dish called “curry rice with cheese in furnace”. I tried it. I wish I hadn’t. The egg on the top was raw other than the top part that had seen the “furnace”, the curry sauce was out of a packet and other than that, it was just rice.

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE curry for breakfast, and anything spicy, as seen by my love affair with Sri Lankan breakfasts, but packet curry over rice, no.

There was an abundance of lurid-coloured sodas, a lot of synthetic cake, and miso soup and rice. That was pretty much it. The scrambled eggs were liquid, as I would expect in Japan. In Japan they eat their eggs only just starting to cook, mostly raw. We don’t. You’ll see this in Malaysia too. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just the way it is.

We don’t eat raw egg. If you do, fine, you’ll do great, but we don’t, it gives us the ick.

Being married to a former executive chef I know a thing or two about buffet breakfast eggs, these eggs in Japan are raw. They’re liquid-ish in Western hotels because they’re loaded with cream, but the egg is cooked through. Japanese people are probably horrified by our cooked eggs, and they’re entitled to be, it’s just a cultural difference.

scrambled egg is raw in Japan
Scrambled egg on the breakfast buffet, mostly raw, yeah, nah. We don’t do raw egg, but the Japanese do.

I have to say the coffee was very nice. I nibbled on a pain au chocolat while my son demolished doughnuts, green fizzy pop, and cereal, as only a child can.

The Best Food We Had in Japan

The best meal we had in Japan is in the photo below, it was beef, gyukatsu, which we had to cook ourselves on a little burner. We had a side of cabbage salad and seeing a vegetable made me very happy. Veg was a bit thin on the ground.

We ordered one to share, because on the menu the serving looked enormous, it wasn’t, but it was still very nice indeed. We (he) grabbed one of those fluffy air pancakes on the street for desert.

japanese food gyukatsu

The other best meals we had in Japan were all noodle soups and in Osaka we found a few places that were open at breakfast time. 10/10 for the noodle soups, ramen and udon.

Beef udon noodle soup in Aroshiyama
Beef udon noodle soup in Arashiyama. Pretty good!

The only problem with trying to get a meal like this, is ordering. Luckily, the one noodle place we used for breakfast in Osaka, twice, had friendly staff who came outside to help us order when they saw us struggling.

Often we had no clue what was on offer nor what we’d ordered. Learn to use photo translate on your phone. We got better at it as the 10 days rolled on.

ramen pork soup osaka
A breakfast of champions. Pork ramen in Osaka.
Breakfast noodle shop osaka
This is where we found noodle soup for breakfast in Osaka. It’s just off “food street” and there were 2 or 3 noodle shops open around here at breakfast time, they were all busy. You order and pay at the machine outside, take a ticket and go inside. This was the place where the staff kindly helped us order. We were very grateful!
This is the sign outside this ramen shop in Osaka, it said that this was the place to eat traditional Osaka tonkotsu ramen. This dish originated in this tiny restaurant. So we thought we’d better try. tonkotsu means pork bone (the stock). We think. I’m not a huge fan of pork but I really liked the ramen here.

The tonkotsu ramen shop had seating for about 8 people inside and we tried their tonkotsu ramen, spicy, with uzu, with egg (hard boiled), they were all great.

Tonkotsu ramen Osaka
Tonkotsu ramen for breakfast in Osaka. I think I could eat this every day and be happy, with lots of extra chillies and ginger from the condiments selection.

There was one place in Nishiki Market, Kyoto, where we could sit and order from a waiter rather than a machine, they also had a menu partially in English, so we tried a few things there, it was good.

I’d done a bit of research on local speciality foods and Kyoto-style tofu is one, so that’s what I ordered.

Fried beancurd kyoto
Kyoto fried beancurd. We must try that!
kyoto fried beancurd noodle soup
My Kyoto fried beancurd noodle soup. I wasn’t so keen on this because fried things, plus soup, makes for greasy soup. Boo ordered a tempura seafood soup and had the same problem, soggy batter and cooking oil in the soup. But it wasn’t terrible. We just know now not to order fried things in soups. This is how you learn!

The other favourite place we ate in Japan was at a Nepalese restaurant near Nishiki Market. We’re suckers for a dal bhat!

Convenience-Store Foods in Japan

Japan has a 7-11, Family Mart, or Lawson convenience store every few paces, it seems. Not only are these home to very convenient ATMs, they sell an incredible variety of packaged fast foods, sweets, and snacks.

You can get microwave meals, crustless sandwiches heavy on sweet mayo, cup noodles, onigiri, sushi, and hot snacks, plus cakes and sweet things. It’s all very highly processed.

Convenience store food in Japan
Onigiri, our convenience store fall-back food. They’re cheap, about 220 YEN , $1.50 US. If you’re on a tight budget in Japan you’ll be fine, food like this is cheap.

We did eat a lot of convenience-store onigiri, it was our fall-back food when we couldn’t find anything else. And yes, I tried most types of Asahi beer, it was excellent!

Onigiri is a chunky triangle of rice, wrapped in seaweed with a bit of stuff in the middle, a smear of stuff. We quite liked some of the “spicy” ones. Japanese “spicy” isn’t very spicy.

My son really likes Onigiri, but he lives for carbs. I’d usually just have the bite with the smear of flavour in it. I don’t live for carbs.

I guess if you bought Onigiri somewhere that wasn’t the 7-11 they may have more stuff in the middle, but we never saw it outside the convenience stores. Next time we’ll look for a special restaurant or store making Onigiri, because I have seen this online and it looks good.

Sandwiches in Japan, fruit and cream
Japanese sandwiches in a convenience store, fruit, milk, and cream. This isn’t as strange to me as it is to some, I was raised on apple sandwiches and banana sandwiches. I think they were a war-time food in the UK. You’ll find tuna sandwiches, egg sandwiches, all the usual (to us) fillings. Fruit is very expensive in Japan and I think that’s because it’s very good. But we didn’t buy any, it was too expensive.

They also sell beer, saki, and wine very cheaply in these convenience stores. All the Japanese beers I tried were very good, no complaints there, and we really liked the rice crackers wrapped in seaweed as an alternative to Twigglets. I’d buy those willingly at home occasionally if I could get them. I buy a bag of Twigletts roughly once every 2 years, for reference.

Sakura box Japan
A sakura box, a lovely way to get a taste of Japan delivered to your door.

Which brings us to the amazing sakura box we just had delivered. While we didn’t like everything in the box, it was really interesting to try all these little Japanese snacks. The flavour of sakura (cherry blossom) is delicate and divine, and if you want to try these things (similar to a 7-11 shopping spree) order one here. We did have sakura flavour soft serve ice cream in Japan, it was nice.

What was great about this box was the little booklet you can see on the left in the photo. It explained what each treat was and how and where it was traditionally made. So we learned a bit more, ready for next time. I can knowledgeably write about, for instance, Thai food, having been to Thailand 30 + times, taken countless food tours and cooking classes and after cooking Thai food at home for at least 3 decades (with help from Keith Floyd), but Japanese food – it’s all new. We’re still learning.

So, as I said, neither of us are experts on Japanese foods, this is just our experience after only 10 days in Japan. We got better at finding food as time progressed, but you’d need much longer to really get a feel for it, we think.

My son, the wannabe Japanese foodophile, was a little disappointed in the food we found, other than the sweets, cakes, and noodle soups. Japanese food was as I expected, not my favourite, but OK. My favourite foods are Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and British and I don’t eat processed food at all, if I can avoid it. I’m also very fond of the food in Nepal, where they have momos, very similar to gyoza, so gyoza are OK by me. They just need more kick!

Food Markets in Japan (Photos)

On this trip we stayed in Osaka and Kyoto, and loved both cities, they’re amazing destinations. Our #1 big draws in both cities were the food markets and we spent a lot of time in both Kuromon Market (Osaka) and Nishiki Market (Kyoto).

We even found the famous Kichi Kichi Omurice in Kyoto, and were really excited about it. Unfortunately, chef Motokichi Yukimura was away due to an omurice convention in Korea. I don’t think I could have eated it (more raw egg) but I would have paid just to try it. You need to book.

Kish Kishi Omurice
Kichi Kichi Omurice is on this tiny street in Kyoto, it’s down towards the river.

The other places we visited in Japan were Nara and Arashiyama, from Kyoto, for the bamboo grove and “polite deer”. Both places were fabulous. Universal Osaka for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was a must do too. We also flew by Osaka Aquarium.

Polite deer ice cream nara japan with antlers
Of course we had to have a “polite deer” soft serve icecream in Nara.

We grazed the food stalls of the markets trying whatever took our fancy and mostly, what we tried was great, but it was pretty junky. Let’s get into some Japanese food market photos, it’s an amazing experience.

As I already mentioned in my “things to know before visiting Japan” post, you can’t walk and eat. If you buy food at a market stall you sit, or you stand outside the stall to consume your purchase. It’s bad manners to walk and eat. That’s OK, I don’t mind.

The markets do get absolutely packed, so be ready for that.

Japanese beef
Waygu and Kobe beef, both food markets we visited had a lot of premium beef on offer, at different grades.

You will see a lot of Waygu and Kobe beef. Kobe is just up the road from both Osaka and Kyoto. This kind of beef comes in different grades with different price tags to match. We did try the wagyu, it cost a lot, it was OK, but I don’t know what grade it was because I can’t read Japanese and I’m an ignorant foreigner.

I do like good beef, we buy grass-fed at home, I wouldn’t say the Waygu was better. But somebody will attack me over that. I’m just waiting for the hate comments.

Japanese seafood
Fresh seafood at the market
Japanese seafood stall
Seafood, seared with a blow torch, a very typical sight in Japan’s food markets. The baby octopus with a quail egg in the head are everywhere. Not for me, I like octopuses too much.

You’ll see every kind of fish and shellfish fresh, and sometimes alive in the markets. We saw live puffer fish a few times (fugu), sea urchins, but in particular giant king crab legs. Octopus seemed to be the most ubiquitous sea creature, everywhere. I have so many more photos but this page will never load if I keep adding more.

Beef sushi Japan
Beef sushi at Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
Gyoza at a market stall in Kyoto Japan
Waygu beef gyoza at a food stall in Nishiki Market, Kyoto, these were pretty good, but my son’s homemade gyoza are better. He says gyoza are his favourite Japanese food, followed by ramen. Which is probably why he’s constantly making “pot stickers” at home.
Gyoza stall nishiki market david beckham
This gyoza stall (I’m pretty sure it was the only gyoza stall) in Nishiki Market Kyoto, had been visited by David Beckham.
Takoyaki octopus balls osaka
Octopus dough balls, famous in Osaka but also available in Kyoto. Nope, didn’t like them, sorry. You’ll see these being made fresh almost everywhere and they will burn the skin off the roof of your mouth. Let them cool!
Takoyaki octopus balls
Making takoyaki on the streetsa in Japan. We’ve also seen these as street food in Thailand and Sydney.

Other Street Food in Japan

We tried just about every tasty-looking street food we found in Japan. And that was mostly sweet things. Our favourite was the fish shaped (Taiyaki) (or Snoopy shaped) (Snoopy-yaki?) waffle-type snacks with a custard filling. My son loves sweet things.

Japanese street food. Rice balls in syrup.
These were rice balls in syrup. They weren’t good.

The strawberry mochi were a surprise, the strawberries were some of the best-flavoured that I’d had for a long time, really, really good strawberries. But the rice paste was like wallpaper paste stodge and the sweet bean filling was overly sweet. I wouldn’t ever buy another one and even my teen struggled to finish the paste ball. But 10/10 for the strawberry!

Japanese strawberry mochi
Strawberry mochi at a street food stall in Japan.
Strawberry mochi
Strawberry mochi. The strawberries were amazing but we weren’t keen on the rice dough ball or sweet bean filling. We bought this in Arashiyama but you should see them everywhere.
Match ice cream in Japan
Green tea flavour (matcha) soft serve ice cream. It was nice. We also tried the sakura flavour (cherry blossom), both were pretty good!
Oolong Tea Japan
Oolong tea. I drink my tea (Earl Grey) hot, black, without sugar. So I thought I’d be OK with this iced cold oolong tea in Arashiyama when I was so dehydrated I’d drink anything. Never again, I was tasting it for hours afterwards.
snoopy cakes
Snoopy cakes were another hit with the teen.

I should also say that Kyoto is also famous for sweets, candy to our US friends, often really cute tiny replicas, like rock in the UK. We bought a set of sweet sushi replicas to bring home as a gift for the other child, they were amazing. There were also a few in our Sakura box. Find them at Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

In conclusion I should say that I lost a couple of Kg during our 10 days in Japan, despite trying all these sweet treats. We walked a lot, up to 30,000 steps per day, and we missed a lot of meals because we just couldn’t find anywhere open. Also, choices were pretty limited if you didn’t want to eat very processed junk food. We did like the noodle soups we found, they were tasty, but we could have used more veg and meat. So all in all our food tour of Japan was interesting. That said, we’ll be back. We absolutely loved Japan, much more than I expected. Next time we’ll fly to Tokyo, and we’ll be making a point of finding the best food we possibly can. I’m sure we missed out somewhere along the way. But that’s just how it goes sometimes.

Resources, Order a Sakura Box here (with free gift in early April), Order Boo’s Japanese Cookbook on Amazon, Check out the dinosaur hotel in Osaka, the guest house in Kyoto, and at Universal Studios, Book Your Universal Studios entry in advance (this is normally essential, and this is how we did it, no problems.)

If you'd like to hire a car during your stay, use this car rental comparison tool to find the best deal!

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About the author
Alyson Long
Alyson Long is a British medical scientist who jumped ship to chase dreams. A former Chief Biomedical Scientist at London's West Middlesex Hospital she started in website creation and travel writing in 2011. Alyson is a full-time blogger and travel writer, a published author, and owns several websites. World Travel Family is the biggest. A lifetime of wanderlust and over 6 years of full-time travel, plus a separate 12 month gap year, has given Alyson and the family some travel expert smarts to share with you on this world travel site. Today Alyson still travels extensively to update this site and continue her mission to visit every country, but she's often at home on her farm in Australia.

2 thoughts on “Food in Japan”

  1. Great post, Alyson! Japan is definitely on our bucket-list, though it’s far away (from France). I wanted to offer it as a surprise-trip for my hubby’s 60th birthday, but it seems that February isn’t a nice period to visit the country (we love sun and warmth…). But we’ll get there!!!

    • Hi Talitha!. We were there at the end of October and we loved having “autumn” after years in the tropics. I know Japan does get horribly hot in summer sometimes, so hot that people won’t go. So check that out. It was so refreshing to be able to wear a jacket. (the one I wore up Everest, dusted off) I think it would be very worth going for sakura (cherry blossom) season or the autumn leaves, we were about a week too early, they were just changing. What we saw was very impressive and I’m not somebody who gets excited about leaves but Japan just has such an eye for beauty. It was phenomenally beautiful, an incredible place. Bring your walking legs. Japan is now as cheap for us to visit as Bali, and those two places are really the only two destinations we can fly to direct from Cairns, Japan is becoming “the new Bali” for some Australians. The two are very different obviously. I need to write a post about that!


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