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The 10 Best Meals I Ate in Japan (That weren’t Sushi)

I went to Japan for one major reason: to eat.

As I admitted before, last time I visited Japan I didn’t have quite the appreciation for food that I do now. This time around both Mike and I were ready to eat allll of the things.

First of all thank you everyone for not yelling at me about eating sushi while pregnant in my last post. I was hesitant to put that out there but so far everyone has held their cool admirably.

It’s funny though, because when I think of the best stuff I ate in Japan, sushi wasn’t even near the top. I mean the sushi is great, don’t get me wrong, but there is so so so much more to Japanese food than sushi.

Here are some of the most amazing meals we ate during three weeks in Japan, in no particular order:

Ramen in Kanazawa

It’s hard to pick the best bowl of ramen we ate in Japan, partly because we ate so much of it and partly because it was ALL so damn good. Even fast food vending machine ramen in Japan tastes better than most of what you can find in the states. I’m not exaggerating. Still,, I’ll give my top ramen spot to the first bowl we enjoyed on the trip, at a small no-name place down a sidestreet in Kanazawa. The kind of place where there are only two things on the menu (ramen and a bigger bowl of ramen), the noodles are chewy and the broth is beyond savory. Nothing fancy, nothing out there, just really good ramen.

Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima

Okonomiyaki is such a strange mishmash of a dish. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is made with layers of cabbage, eggs, pork belly and batter cooked on a grill and topped with a thick sweet sauce. Mike was very eager to try it so our first night in town we headed to Okonomi-mura, a literal shopping mall featuring floors of different okonomiyaki restaurants. It was impossible to tell one from another but we ended up at a brightly lit counter on the third floor where an older woman grilled us the most perfect okonomiyaki, with a sunny yellow egg on top and a side of grilled gyoza. It was cheap, filling and just so so so delicious.

Japanese BBQ in Fukuoka

The neighborhood where we stayed in the city of Fukuoka was a warren of hip little shops and restaurants, crawling with young hip urbanites. It also seemed to be a hotspot for BBQ joints, and Mike was immediately taken with the idea of grilling our own meat tableside (Japanese BBQ is quite similar to it’s more popular cousin Korean bbq). As usual we picks this spot more or less at random and ordered a set meal involving some VERY buttery steak, sausage, pork and veggies and a little charcoal grill. We had to overcook everything a little for the baby but maaan it was still so so so tasty.

Tonkatsu in Nagasaki

Nagasaki was truly a gem of a city- beautiful, interesting and really terrific food. We found Bunjirou on recommendation from our hostel, and it was SO good we ended up eating their twice! Bunjirou specializes in tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlets, although they also made terrific ebi-furai (breaded, fried prawns)l The lunch set was a terrific deal: unlimited rice and miso soup, salad, one or two pork cutlets and a prawn. Plus home made dipping sauce. So filling, so delicious.

Chinese street food in Nagasaki

 

Nagasaki has such an interesting history. As the only open port in Japan for many years, it absorbed quite a bit of international influence, and developed it’s own unique brand of “chinese food.” We weren’t crazy about the area’s iconic dish, Champon, which is a fishy, noodly stew. We did however LOVE the street food we found in Nagasaki’s chinatown, particularly the kakuni-manju, braised pork belly on a steamed bun. Super fatty, super tasty, I could eat half a dozen right now (I would probably die though).

Kaiseki in Kyoto

Kyoto is a hotspot of fine dining and Mike really wanted us to have a nice kaiseki meal while we were in town. Kaiseki is simply an elegant, multi-course meal, served in a traditional setting. They can be simple or really quite elaborate and can cost hundreds of dollars. Some need to be reserved months in advance. We are not nearly so organized, so we found our kaiseki meal while wandering the long alleys of Pontocho. We simply found a place with a reasonably price, english menu and went for it.

What followed was about 8 courses of artistic and delicate feasting. Some courses were presented in small laquer boxes, others with artful decorations. There was a sashimi plate, cold soba noodles in broth, elegant tempura vegetables and more. The centerpiece was a simple but flavorful tofu stew. The meal ended with some green tea ice cream.

Bar Food in Kyoto

We were in Kyoto for a wedding, and one of my very favorite meals of the whole trip was the very casual rehearsal dinner at Hanatanuki near Kyoto Station. The bride’s parents organized the whole menu which meant we were treated to all sorts of dishes we would have never thought to order otherwise: yakiudon, juicy fried chicken, and more okonomiyaki. My favorite dish was a simple plate of fried lotus root, topped with cheese and oregano. It tasted like pizza!

Udon in Tokyo

I’m almost embarrased to list this because it was essentially fast food, but I’m still thinking about the thick chewy udon we got at Marukame Seimen near Shibuya station. They specialize in sanuki udon, with very thick noodles, made in house. You pick what kind of broth you would like, hot or cold, then select from a buffet of tempura fried toppings. It’s super easy, even for non-Japanese speakers, super cheap, and most importantly, super delicious.

Did I mention the tempura fried egg? I still dream about it.

Soba in Tokyo

One of the most simple meals we had all trip turned out to be one of the most memorable. TripAdvisor actually led me to this quiet neighborhood shop, just a few blocks from the lights and noise of Akihabara. Once inside, the owner’s 8 year old son helped us decipher the menu, and recommended the most basic dish- handmade soba noodles, served cold with a salty, umami infused dipping sauce. Nothing too it, but when the ingredients are this good, what else do you need?

Yakitori in Shibuya

One of my major frustrations with Japan is the smoking inside of restaurants! Even if I wasn’t pregnant, the idea of enjoying a delicate meal surrounded by air pollution is pretty unappealing. Unfortunately avoiding the smoke meant cutting out pretty much all bars, izakayas and yakitori joints.

For our last dinner in Japan I was determined to sample some decent yakitori. We decided to investigate a tiny place in the base of our apartment building that didn’t look too smoky, and we were beyond surprised. A lively staff served us all sorts of treats on a stick- from your basic chicken to grilled avocados wrapped in bacon.

Of course that doesn’t even begin to touch on the many many bakeries, vending machine restaurants, bento boxes and street snacks we sampled during our time in Japan. It really is a food paradise, where it’s genuinely difficult to have a bad meal. Still these 10 were all memorable enough that I’ll be thinking about them for a really, really long time.

23 Responses to The 10 Best Meals I Ate in Japan (That weren’t Sushi)

  1. Jess Carey May 25, 2016 at 8:28 PM #

    I LOVED the cold noodles with dipping sauce in Tokyo… when the noodles are that good, you really don’t need to do anything to them!! And ramen… and okonomiyaki… oooo I’m ready to go back!!

  2. Minh Nguyen May 25, 2016 at 10:34 PM #

    hiroshima okonomiyaki is the bomb. always spot on!

  3. Michelle May 25, 2016 at 11:25 PM #

    YUUMMMM! That stinks about the smoking, though.

  4. Kate May 26, 2016 at 3:37 AM #

    Ohmigosh, everything looks soooo delicious!

  5. With Husband in Tow May 26, 2016 at 4:09 AM #

    Did you go to Osaka? Doesn’t look like it from above. They have the best food culture in the country! Definitely check Osaka out next time, with baby in tow 😉

    • Steph May 26, 2016 at 11:05 AM #

      We skipped Osaka this time around sadly. Even with 3 weeks there just somehow wasn’t enough time! I went there on my first trip, and really liked it. We will definitely be back with baby and hit it up.

  6. Katie May 26, 2016 at 2:02 PM #

    Ahhh this all looks amazing! I used to think that I wasn’t a big fan of Japanese food but I just didn’t know much about it. There is so much to try and I can’t wait to get to Japan to eat it all

  7. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family May 26, 2016 at 7:03 PM #

    Avocado and bacon yakitori??!? I die. I die.

  8. Brittany from Boston May 27, 2016 at 3:45 PM #

    I agree! So much more to Japanese food than sushi! I didn’t get to try all of these but hopefully next time I’m in town I will!

  9. Andrea Anastasiou May 27, 2016 at 3:59 PM #

    I’m salivating here! Can’t wait to get to Japan later this year – thanks for sharing!

  10. Swapna May 30, 2016 at 6:28 AM #

    Looks delicious !!

  11. Izy berry May 30, 2016 at 4:50 PM #

    I need to say this the street food in Japan it seems so different

  12. Liz || Poulet s'il vous plaît May 31, 2016 at 4:28 AM #

    All of these dishes look so delicious to me. Add it to my list of reasons to get to Japan as soon as possible. Hopefully in 2017!

  13. Jack Crowe May 31, 2016 at 4:28 AM #

    Ramen in kanakazawaka. Or whatever it is. I JUST WANT TO DEVOUR IT. the soup seems too delicious. And the things that look like egg. Save me, o lord.

  14. Liz May 31, 2016 at 4:31 AM #

    PS. I can’t believe how good some of the “fast food” looks. Good to know for keeping to a budget!

    • Steph May 31, 2016 at 12:36 PM #

      I think I’m going to write a whole post about eating on a budget in Japan. The options are so much better quality than you’d expect!

      • Liz June 2, 2016 at 2:32 AM #

        Great idea, I’ll look forward to reading it!

  15. Xplorato May 31, 2016 at 5:13 AM #

    …so i had to make reservations for Japanese tonight after seeing those beautiful pictures 🙂 yum, the foodie in me is craving a trip to Japan now lol great read

  16. Allie Davies May 31, 2016 at 4:03 PM #

    This looks so cool! I’m heading to Tokyo in September and I’m a bit nervous about finding stuff to eat being a vegetarian (who also can’t stand egg or mushrooms..) as I had a nightmare in Shanghai, where apparently pork is a vegetable! If you have any advice please share haha

    • Steph May 31, 2016 at 4:59 PM #

      They are definitely pretty into meat in Japan as well but I don’t think you should have many problems, especially in Tokyo which is just a massive food mecca. I think there should be a much better understanding of vegetarianism than in China. Definitely do some research first and you can probably get a list of good restaurants.
      The one thing to watch out for is dashi broth, which is made from grated fish, and is used as a base for a lot of food (and is usually the base for miso soup etc).

  17. Eula July 25, 2016 at 9:26 AM #

    Do you remember the name of the yakitori and soba place you went to?

  18. Kathy November 10, 2016 at 4:12 AM #

    I was in Japan last month and your post has seriously made me crave the wonderful food from there! I think ramen and okonomiyaki were some of my favourites, but if you do go back to Japan definitely try takoyaki in Osaka! It’s basically ball-shaped batter filled with octopus and fish flakes, mayonnaise and a brown sauce (not sure what exactly it was). Absolutely delicious!!!

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