From tuna in Tokyo to tempura in Kyoto, get ready to book the next flight to Japan.
There are so many great reasons to visit Japan: cherry blossoms, historic temples, energetic nightlife, high-tech toilets. A good foodie, however, knows that the Japanese food is an experience on its own. Vibrant and fresh, with a huge emphasis on seasonal ingredients, people in Japan take enormous pride in their cuisine. Here are some experiences that go far beyond the California Roll.
Fresh Seafood at Tsukiji Market
Everyone knows that when it comes to seafood, fresh is best. If Japan is a food-lover’s paradise, then Tsukiji Market is its Garden of Eden. One of the biggest fish markets on Earth, Tsukiji has become synonymous with the freshest fish available in any country. The sheer amount of seafood available at this 80-year-old market is unparalleled in the world. A tour is a great way to make sure you don’t miss any of the good stuff (and don’t get too lost).
The Prized White Strawberry Inside the Produce Market at Tsukiji
The smaller, less popular fruit and vegetable market within Tsukiji is absolutely worth a visit. These elusive white strawberries can go for $10 a berry. They may look unripe, but these delectable fruits taste sweet and are supposed to remind you of your first love.
Handmade Beef Buns
These beef manju buns can be found all over Kyoto. Soft, steamed buns combined with braised wagyu beef and burdock root is an interesting and delicious combination. At Nishiki Market in Kyoto, the delicious wafting smell makes these sweet buns hard to miss.
Fresh Wasabi Root at Tsukiji Market
Ever wonder where that spicy dollop of green next to your sushi comes from? It’s actually a plant in the same family as mustard and horseradish. It can be found growing naturally along streams and rivers in Japan as well as farmed. The sinus-clearing paste is made by grating the root of the wasabi plant and combining with water, and is a monumentally important part of Japanese cuisine.
Soy Milk Donuts
Get these soy milk donuts right off the fryer at Konna Monja in Nishiki Market for a light, fluffy snack. Choose from plain, cinnamon sugar, or chocolate drizzle, and pair with their signature soybean milk ice cream.
Red King Crab Legs at Tsukiji Market
Japanese cuisine uses these succulent, sweet crab legs in everything from sashimi, sushi rolls, soups, and tempura, or just plain steamed or boiled out of the shell. The latter being the most popular, as the deliciously tender meat doesn’t need a lot of help. Hokkaido is known for having the highest quantity and quality of crabs in Japan and has been home to the Nemuro Crab Festival for almost 50 years.
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Skewered Freshwater Eel (Grilled to Order) Outside of Fushimi Inari Shrine
WHERE: Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Freshwater eel, or unagi, has a very distinctive, sweet flavor. When prepared correctly, this delicate fish can be melt-in-your-mouth tender and very rich. Fushimi Inari Shrine, at the base of sacred Mount Inari, offers a spiritual hike through thousands of bright red Japanese torii gates. Your reward continues at the end of the beautiful wooded hike with an array of food stands, restaurants, and shops.
Bonito Flakes at Tsukiji Market
Another distinctive part of Japanese cuisine is the bonito flake. A high-quality type of tuna is cut and aged until it becomes hard and rock-like, then shaved into light, salty flakes, adding depth of flavor to any dish. The shavings are so thin that they often appear to move about and dance when placed on top of hot food.
Unique Treats at Tokyo DisneySea
Tokyo Disney is unlike any other Disney experience, with the ocean/port theme at Tokyo DisneySea being completely unique to Japan. Disney fanatics travel from around the world to try the exclusive snacks only available at Tokyo Disney Resorts: shrimp buns in the shape of buoys, gyoza hotdogs, and spicy smoked chicken legs are just a few. Adorable mochi (Japanese rice dumplings) aliens are filled with three different flavors: custard, strawberry, and chocolate.
INSIDER TIPStay at a Tokyo Disney partner hotel for free shuttle service to and from the park.
Tonkotsu Pork Ramen at Ichiran
Ichiran Ramen Restaurants are found all over Japan. They specialize in tonkotsu ramen, a slow-simmered natural pork bone broth with handmade noodles. Their signature red chili sauce boasts 30 different ingredients and blended peppers, aged to bring out the favor and compliment the soup. Even their soup bowls are individually hand-crafted in the Arita region of Japan. Each seat has its own individually enclosed booth, meant to encourage the eater to concentrate on the flavor of the ramen in a relaxed state (don’t worry, you can take the dividers down to talk to your date if you’d like).
INSIDER TIPBecoming familiar with the Japanese ramen ordering system before you go will make your experience less confusing and more enjoyable. Many Japanese ramen restaurants, including Ichiran, use a type of vending machine where you print out a ticket, fill out a form, and a faceless cook presents your ramen through a screen at your seat.
Homemade Pickles at Nishiki Market
Nishiki Market in Kyoto is known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” and for good reason. Locals and tourists alike flock to this semi-outdoor market to purchase everything from fresh seafood and local vegetables to cookware and Japanese candy. Most of the shops specialize in something specific, such as tsukemono, or Japanese pickles. Expertly-pickled young ginger root, daikon, Asian plums, and of course, Japanese cucumber come in a variety of brilliant colors and textures.
INSIDER TIPMany of the vendors here offer free samples.
Personalized Chef Knives for Sale
Japan is a food-lover’s paradise not just for what you put in your belly. Want an awesome souvenir that will still be useful for years to come? Japanese knives are known for their superior quality by chefs all over the world. Aritsugu knife brand dates back all the way to 1560, and the knife specialists at their shop in Nishiki Shijo in Kyoto will even personalize the blade for you. If a foodie is going to splurge on any souvenir in Japan, this is the place to do it.
All Photos Courtesy Of Katherine Gallagher