Japanese cuisine is enjoyed around the world for its fresh ingredients and careful preparation. This Japan food guide covers what to eat in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo from street food bites to meals that qualify as full experiences, sweet indulgences to drinks and everything in between.
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Table of Contents
What to Eat in Kyoto
The number one thing you must eat in Kyoto is tonkatsu, a juicy pork cutlet coated in flaky panko bread crumbs. A tonkatsu dinner is as much an experience as it is a meal, and a great option for solo diners. (In fact, Japan is not only one of the safest places in the world for solo female travelers, but also one of the friendliest to solo diners.)
At a proper tonkatsu restaurant, like Katsukura in Kyoto, you’ll crush toasted sesame seeds with a mortar to mix with a thick, sweet and tangy sauce to accompany your dish. The meat will also come with rice, soup and a pile of thinly shredded cabbage to douse in a sour yuzu dressing.
Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit you’ll find as a flavoring in a number of Japanese foodstuffs, like the dressing that comes with your tonkatsu. Nishiki Market in Kyoto is a great place to pick up foodie souvenirs like dried yuzu or yuzu kosho, a spicy condiment paste that blends the fruit with hot chile peppers.
Japanese Street Food
Nishiki Market in Kyoto is also a great place to sample Japanese street foods and get a fantastic meal on a budget. A few bites worth trying:
- roasted chestnuts
- sesame dumplings
- tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet)
- fish cakes
- asasuke (lightly pickled cucumber)
- senbei (rice crackers with countless flavorings)
- tako tamago (baby octopus with quail egg)
- matcha daifuku (rice cake filled with green tea and cream)
- soy milk doughnuts
- chocolate croquettes
The market is open seven days a week and is free to enter. Spanning five blocks, it contains over a hundred shops, stalls and restaurants selling ingredients, prepared foods and kitchen wares. Join a Kyoto food tour to explore with a guide, or go DIY.
Before you leave Nishiki Market, there’s one quintessential Japanese sweet you have to taste: the iconic mochi. Mochi is a sweetened glutinous rice pounded smooth and shaped into a ball, often flavored and filled. Some of the flavors you might find in Kyoto include tangerine, strawberry and sakura or cherry blossom.
A bit of an acquired taste for some, matcha is Japan’s beloved green tea powder. You can order matcha in many forms all over Japan, but one of the best things to do in Kyoto is attend a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
En is a small teahouse in the Gion District that hosts authentic tea ceremonies for travelers and it is a mesmerizing experience. The hostess demonstrates the sacred rituals of preparing tea and then you’ll use a small bamboo whisk to whip up matcha powder to a froth. A seat in a group ceremony costs 2500 yen or $22.71 USD.
Want an expert guide on what to eat in Kyoto? Try one of these Kyoto food tours.
What to Eat in Osaka
Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake that can come with a variety of toppings and fillings and it alone is worth the trip to Osaka. At Mizuno restaurant in Dotonbori – Osaka’s downtown tourist district packed with neon colors and foodie attractions galore – you’ll have a long wait in line before chefs prepare your dish in front of you. This is a perfect dinner for solo diners in Japan.
Also in Dotonbori are a number of places to try Osaka’s best street food. Takoyaki are bites of battered octopus cooked in a unique spherical pan. Try Kukuru or Atchichi restaurants.
Want an expert guide on what to eat in Osaka? Try one of these Osaka food tours.
What to Eat in Tokyo
You’ll find offerings of this classic noodle dish all over Japan, but the best place to get your ramen fix is Ramen Street in Tokyo Station – a stretch of eight high quality ramen restaurants.
Place your order with the vending machine at the entrance. Most do not have English menus but will have pictures. You might choose a miso or soy flavored broth and some shops even take customization to the next level, letting you choose the thickness of the broth and the firmness of the noodles. Some popular toppings include braised pork, green onions, egg, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, dried seaweed and fish cakes. If you aren’t sure what to get, look for any menu items labeled #1 or select one of the top left options on the vending machine.
Soba Noodles and Tempura
What’s the difference between ramen, udon and soba noodles? Soba noodles are make with buckwheat flour, so they are softer and darker in color. The above soba meal from a restaurant in Narita Airport came with shrimp and vegetables tempura – a super crispy Japanese frying technique – so was like trying two dishes in one. Both Narita and Haneda Airport in Tokyo have good restaurants, so if you wind up with long waits, delayed flights or overnight airport stays you’ll have great meal options.
Udon noodles are thicker than soba and ramen noodles, and made with wheat flour. There are tons of places to try udon in Tokyo, including Maruka and Shin Udon.
Who can go to Japan and not try sushi? You’ll find excellent options in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, but one of the most enjoyable places to try sushi is at the old Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. While the famous early morning live tuna auction has moved to a new location – Toyosu Fish Market – the original location of Tsukiji Fish Market is still home to many shops and restaurants. The above picture is a good example of what many Tsukiji Fish Market menus look like, offering pictures and English translations for a wide selection of tuna and salmon rolls and sashimi, plus prawns, squid, eel, roe and more. If you are new to sushi or used to California rolls, Savored Journeys has an excellent primer on the different types of sushi, how to order, and etiquette for Japanese sushi restaurants.
Sakura is Japanese for cherry blossom and you’ll find it as a flavoring in many Japanese dishes, particularly in the spring when the delicate pink blooms are on everyone’s mind. Starbucks in Japan even serve a sakura latte during cherry blossom season. You can find sakura jellies, cakes, mochi, Kit Kats… you name it. My favorite sakura treat is a sakura filled deep fried mochi on Nakamise Street in Tokyo.
Sweet Street Food
Nakamise Street has many more street foods to satisfy your sweet tooth. Try:
- dango (skewered mochi balls)
- imo yokan (sweet potato jelly)
- doll cakes (elaborately shaped cakes)
- dorayaki (sweet pancake wrapped around red bean paste)
- melon pan (sweet bread with a distinctive textured top)
- taiyaki (fish shaped pancake filled with chocolate, custard or matcha)
You can’t visit Harajuku without indulging in an ultra-Instagrammable crepe. There are three shops on Takeshita Dori where you can get your choice of fillings: Santa Monica Crepes, Angel’s Heart and Marion Crepes.
Though it’s often called a rice wine, sake is actually brewed similarly to beer. There are a wide range of styles from sweet to dry, filtered to cloudy, simple to flavored. Good quality sake is best served cold. Get to know your tastes in Tokyo at the Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center, try a sake cocktail at Sake Hall Hibiya Bar in Ginza, or tour Ishikawa Sake Brewery just west of the city.
Learn more about Ishikawa brewery’s free tours and tastings in my 4-day itinerary to Tokyo.
Want an expert guide on what to eat in Tokyo? Try one of these Tokyo food tours.