You can pretty much find something that is both delicious and intriguing anywhere on the island of Japan. All of the meals and snacks are wonderfully flavorful and it is worth to try everything. The following list includes mustr-try foods in Japan that are not just full entrees but separate ingredients that you can find in any grocery store and eat by itself.
I think I should start this list off with something most delicious: imokenpi. This is my favorite Japanese snack and, as a tourist, you can buy it pretty much anywhere, including a supermarket (supa スパ) or a convenience store (conbini コンビニ). This small plastic bag carries enchanting sweet potato chips, shaped like french fries, with a shine that reveals a sugary glaze coating each one of them. Because of the immense amount of sweetness, I can eat one bag of imokenpi throughout the day (or even week), just reaching into it occasionally.
Do not let the natto offend you. I cannot deny that the smell is rather… unappealing, but the taste is much better! These fermented soy beans can often be found in sushi but is a popular breakfast topping for rice. Because it has the sticky texture of warm Silly Putty or a freshly made s’more, when eaten with chopsticks you must spin your chopsticks very quickly in order to make a bundle of natto into a coherent bite. However, I must say that this is not my favorite kind of food and definitely the type that maybe only half of Japan likes. But that (along with the smell) is no reason to avoid it! It is worth one bite!
Maybe I shouldn’t have listed two questionable foods in a row, but they are certainly the most interesting in this list. Ume is dried fermented plums. You can buy this in sushi at the supermarket or convenience store, and also in the candy aisle (ume is used to flavour many things). Unlike a prune’s, ume’s taste begins with a tart, yet sweet flavor, but then leaves a salty and bitter taste on your tongue. Although this is not my favorite, again, maybe half of Japan enjoys the flavor. So, if you do, there are many food items which embrace the taste of ume. However, I do love the sweetness of ume shu, plum flavored wine. Now, that is the way to consume ume.
Uni is sea urchin. I am sure that this is available in supermarkets, but I first tasted it in a kaiten sushi-ya (restaurants that serve plates of sushi on conveyor belts which come around to every table). Despite the dark purple spiky image of the sea urchins exterior, uni is prepared as a smooth, bright orange piece of meat, precariously placed on top of rice. Perhaps the closest description of uni I can give you is a pleasantly sour flavor that leaves your mouth curiously wanting more. For the foodie adventurers out there, you should write that on your must taste list and follow the best foodie Instagrammers in Tokyo.
Sticky, like heated up peanut butter, you mustn’t confuse tororo’s name with the popular fluffy character Totoro. Tororo is the gooey result of grated yam and they often serve it as a side or added to noodles. However, my first encounter involved me adding a large bowl of it to rice and then stirring it around. This dish was wonderfully plain tasting with a hint of savory. Tororo is one of my favorite meals.
Chanko Nabe (ちゃんこ鍋)
TAKEAWAY: Sumo wrestlers have consumed this hardy meal daily for centuries in Japan. Nowadays, Chanko Nabe is served by restaurants hosted by retired sumo wrestlers. In the Ryōgoku district of Tokyo you can find the Kawasaki Chanko, the first place of this kind that was founded in 1937. It is located there due to the abundance of prominent sumo stables in the area.
Within this stew-like dish is commonly cabbage, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, strips of tofu, green onions, shrimp, meatballs and anything else high in protein. After attending my friend’s sumo practice, I was able to indulge in this traditional meal. Nonetheless, if you don’t have a sumo friend, do not worry! This traditional dish is spreading into the public and there are many restaurants that serve Chanko Nabe in Tokyo.
Ikura is salmon eggs. And like capelin eggs (masagoまさご) or flying fish eggs (tobikoとびこ,) ikura are the orange equivalent to caviar. These orange eggs are often a garnish or main topping to sushi, but can also be found in many other Japanese dishes. The subtle taste of this food is amazing.
If you are in a hurry and don’t have time for a lunch break, grab a nikuman! Staying warm and fresh at any convenience store, nikuman is a bun filled with (usually) meat. I have seen some filled with beef, pork, chicken, sweet potato, a pizza flavored filling, teriyaki mixture and several other kinds. At about $2, these meat buns are the perfect to-go food!
Tempura is fried anything. In a Japanese tempura restaurant, one can order fried shrimp, mushrooms, squid (delicious!), fish and several types of vegetables. Often served over rice, a sweet shoyu sauce accompanies the dish. That way, you can dip or pour it on top of your delicious fried meal.
Now that you have eaten all kinds of salty, bitter and savory foods, it is time for dessert! Daifuku is a great handheld sweet that easily fits into your lunch and is only about $0.70! It is a mochi (soft, pounded rice) filled with a sweet red bean paste. Almost every time I went to the store, I bought one. If you enjoy red bean, there is also a sweet called momiji manjyu（もみじ饅頭）. It has the image of a maple leaf pressed into an exterior of pancake-like bread.
Ice Cream (アイスクリーム)
When I say “ice cream,” I don’t mean the cups of hard ice cream sold in convenience stores; just find a food vendor in Japan that has a rainbow display of soft serve. Luckily for tourists, almost all places that sell food have a 3D menu of what the food looks like, along with the name. For soft serve ice creams, these menus display the green cream of match flavor, the pink rose-flavored dessert, the vibrant yellow of mango flavor, and even the black color of sesame.
All of the choices I have listed so far are intriguingly delicious! But if you happen to stumble upon one of these vendors and you liked the imokenpi, I highly suggest the sweet potato ice cream. It’s the best!
If you are curious about more of the flavors that any visitor can find throughout Japan, check Japanese Ice Cream! This blog lists dozens of different tastes with short descriptions that will make you want to buy a towering scoop with every flavor. Whether you are an adventurous eater or a selective one, while you tour Japan in your next visit, let your taste buds enjoy with this 11 must try foods!