by J. Michael Beza
Everybody has those bucket list items that they’re planning to try when they travel abroad. The ubiquity of foodie travel content ranging from the Bourdains (RIP) to the Weins has been a salient resource in that regard, leading to incredible restaurant roadmaps for travelers to follow. Nearly everywhere you go in the world, you’re going to want to eat something special, and no matter where you go in the world, you can find advice on where to do so.
Perhaps you’re going to Europe? Not a problem, there’s a book called the Michelin Guide. Ever heard of it? Maybe Southeast Asia is more your speed. No sweat! A quick YouTube deep dive into quirky travel vlog channels will yield excellent recommendations. Planning a trip across the continental U.S? Well, you’re in luck…Guy Fieri literally built the entire flavor-railroad network singlehandedly to transport your taste buds across America’s greatest Diner’s, Drive-in’s and Dives. For the record, I love you, Guy. You carried the Food Network’s sorry asses for a good half decade there.
Japan is obviously no different. There are tons of heavy-hitter foods over there that should be consumed by tourists no matter what the circumstances. It wouldn’t matter if there were an extinction-level epidemic wiping out tuna en masse, if you’re traveling to Japan for the first time, you better be getting your hands on some sushi. Failing to do so would be like bringing your child to Disneyland for the first time and not getting a picture with Mickey Mouse. Like, why even go?
The point is, you don’t need somebody to tell you that you have to take a picture with Mickey Mouse or ride the Pirates of the Caribbean. Even E.T. would know he (she?) is supposed to ride Big Thunder Mountain at some point during a first time visit to the Disney vortex. Instead, what I want to offer you, is a list of what I think are some of Japan’s greatest sleeper picks for must-try foods. For those of you haven’t been following along at home, I lived there for five years, and thoroughly enjoyed hemorrhaging my money on a quest to eat the country.
I’ve selected 7 things in honor of my little niece in Japan whose name, Nana, can literally mean 7. She’s only two and already loves food and who could blame her? She lives in a place that’s full of more edible delights than Willy Wonka’s treacherous chocolate factory. This list is no particular order since I believe each pick to be equally vital. No matter what, you can’t go wrong with any of these recommendations, and if you only have time to try a few while you’re there, that’s okay, there’s always the second visit! So, without any further ado, I present to you, my 7 under the radar foods that you have to try when you travel to Japan.
1. Convenience Store Food
It’s no exaggeration to say that Japan is the land of the “conbini,” or convenience stores. To give you an idea, let’s take a look at 7-Eleven. The U.S. has between 8,500-9,000 locations around the country, serving us the slushies and sketchy hot food we need in a pinch. Japan, meanwhile, has more than double that with 20,000 storefronts crammed into a landmass smaller than California. Tokyo alone has more than 2000 7-Elevens. That’s right, one city has a quarter of the 7-Elevens of the country the company was founded in. Keep in mind, that’s just taking into account one company. On the whole, Japan has more than 55,000 convenient stores nationwide when you factor in Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, etc. For scale, there are only 24,000 Subway sandwich shops in the U.S. Yeah, they take their convenience very seriously over there.
Suffice it to say that “conbini” culture never would have gone this supernova if the products they were selling were no good. Just like when I talked about Japanese craftsmanship in the last post, convenience stores have proven to be yet another brilliant beacon of how something can be perfected through obsessive dedication. Add in a pinch of capitalism and suddenly you’ve got a bunch of different stores competing to out-do each other. The end result is cheap and delicious food (with a few nudie mags thrown in if you’re into that) no more than a football field’s distance away from you no matter where you’re at!
I mentioned that these rankings were not going to be in any notable order, but admittedly I wanted to do this one first because when you’re traveling abroad, inevitably you’re going to want to cut costs somewhere. Well, there is no better thing to subsist on in a country that can end up being quite expensive than food that tastes at least twice as good as the price you’re paying. Trust me, I’m speaking from a lot of firsthand experience. For the first two months I was living there, I essentially had zero income. I probably ate more $1 onigiri in that stretch of time than I did the subsequent two years. And if you’re imagining what I’m talking about is something comparable to the revolting California rolls you can get at your local 7-Eleven, rest assured, they are as different as shredded cheese from Dollar Tree and shredded cheese from Eataly.
Whatever quantum formula that exists that allows mass produced convenience store food to taste delicious, the Japanese have cracked it. Here’s a quick tasting menu of some of my personal favorites I’ve eaten over the years. Take note of the store names I’ve listed as well. Do a compare and contrast from other stores and let me know which ones you ended up liking best! But if you don’t think Family Mart makes the best karaage we’re going to have some words with one another.
- Tuna Mayo Onigiri – Lawson
- Jam Koppe Pan – Family Mart
- All fried chicken products – Family Mart
- Corn Dog – 7-Eleven
- Mochi Chocolate Bun – Lawson
- Bento Lunch – 7-Eleven
Full disclaimer, these foods are by no means healthy, but you can count on them to give you life whether you’re running late for a train or if you’ve been out drinking for a few hours and you already puked out what you ate for dinner on the street.
If you were playing a word association game where someone told you to say the first thing you could think of when they said the words “noodle” and “Japan,” you’d probably say ramen first. You wouldn’t be in the wrong for doing so, since ramen has been catapulted into the national spotlight thanks to names like Ichiran, Maruchan, and David Chang-san. It’s accessible, it’s cheap and it’s really freaking delicious. But you already know that, don’t you? What you probably don’t know much about, is one of the other big noodle types in Japan: soba. And unless you’re blessed to live in a place with some Japanese nationals who were so homesick for a taste of something authentic and crucial to their culinary identity that they took a chance and opened a small, local soba shop, chances are you’ve never had the real stuff, either.
The big three in the Japanese noodle pantheon are ramen, udon, and soba—probably in that order according to their global popularity. In my opinion, though, soba is on the short list of foods that best define Japan. Let me explain. Firstly, it’s culturally and historically significant. It’s a food often associated with celebratory events, such as weddings, or even New Year’s Eve. The noodles which are thin and long represent an expression: nagaku hosoku ikiru (long, thin, live). What does it mean to live a long and thin life? Well, I could tell you what I think it means, but it’d be more fun for you to interpret it how you please. If I’m making it sound like soba is the Japanese equivalent to tamales or eggnog, rest assured that is not the case. It’s a very casual food that is quite readily available; so readily available in fact that you can find it a…you guessed it…convenience store!
Secondly, it’s a food that encompasses frugality. Long ago, when the majority of people lived in poverty, everything edible was as valuable gold. There is a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude in Japanese culture for the things they eat. The pre-meal words “itadakimasu” are a way for the consumer to express thankfulness from the animal or crop all the way up to the one who prepared it. My favorite way to eat soba is “zaru soba,” which is a cold noodle that is dipped into a cup of chilled sauce seasoned with green onions and wasabi. After you finish slurping those noodles to an obscene degree (as is par for the course), all you’re left with is that cup of sauce. Well, to the Japanese of long ago, not drinking it would have been criminally wasteful, despite the fact that the sauce is unpalatably salty and spicy due to the soy sauce and wasabi. So, you’ll never guess what they did. Go ahead. Guess. Nope, you’re wrong. They decided to serve the water in which the noodles were boiled at the end of the meal so that you can pour it into the cup of chilled sauce, thus watering it down and imbuing it with the essence of the noodle so that you may then drink it all up. It’s beautiful what destitution can do for food culture.
Lastly, it’s incredibly simple. Soba is really ever only two things: buckwheat flour (sometimes blended with wheat flour) and water. That’s it! Many would call it tasteless, but I would call it subtle. The beauty is in its ability to shine no matter the preparation. It can be served hot or cold. It comes in simple dashi broths or in refreshing citrus. It can be made completely from scratch and served to you in just fifteen minutes! I dare you to tell me that you wouldn’t want to eat the noodles served to you by this man. Eat your soba, folks.
3. Matsuri Food
I don’t care where you grew up in this world, wherever it was, there were festivals. For me, it was church festivals in the spring and fall, or the great OC Fair held every summer near where I grew up. The celebrations might be different throughout the year, but the food is always there. It’s something you can look forward to and something you can count on. Although, in the case of the OC Fair, I don’t know if people were looking forward to deep fried oreos on their second visits.
My point is everyone can relate to going to festivals when they’re young. Even the most reclusive kids have had the pleasure of eating cotton candy while getting ripped off for all their quarters trying to win a stuffed animal on a rigged game. It’s an essential part of community, making it a vital expression of culture. Japan is no different. When you’re over there, keep your ears open for any local “matsuri” that might be taking place. If you had plans, shuffle them around. Make it a point to go where the locals go, even if only to try the food while getting ripped off for all your yen trying to win stuffed animals on rigged games.
Here are some of the bangers I implore you to eat while you’re there:
Not to be confused with soba from the previous passage, it literally translates to grilled noodles. Think of it like the Japanese chow Mein. Every other booth at a matsuri is cooking it up on flattop griddles trying to outdo each other with slight variations like fried eggs on top, different kinds of meat, or which middle-aged woman behind the booth gives you the warmest smile as you walk by. Find the one that gives you the biggest hunger erection, smother it in kewpie mayo, and wash it down with an ice-cold Asahi.
Foods on a stick
Fact: everything tastes better when it’s skewered by wood and thrown on top of a fire. Also fact: vegetables on sticks taste twice as good because you feel like you’re eating healthy lollipops. Last fact: bananas on sticks dipped in chocolate are to caramel apples what Led Zeppelin is to Greta Van Fleet.
If the only taiyaki you’ve ever had is from Somi Somi, please delete it from your mental hard drive so your first taiyaki experience can be in Japan. If you’ve had real taiyaki and you still like Somi Somi better, then please tell me why so that I can revisit it whenever I’m feeling like life can’t get any worse.
4. Teriyaki Chicken
If I did a spontaneous poll of randomly selected Americans asking them the first three foods that came to mind when they thought about “Japanese Food,” I think a not insignificant percentage of answers would be teriyaki chicken. Of all the possible answers that could be given, this one by far makes me the saddest. It’s not because it’s a vanilla dish, but because they actually don’t eat this in Japan. Let me repeat that. JAPANESE PEOPLE DO NOT EAT TERIYAKI CHICKEN.
Okay, wait. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to drop that condescending bombshell on you so harshly. Let’s take a step back and reflect. It’s not that people in Japan don’t eat teriyaki chicken, rather the context of its consumption is different there. For instance, when you go to a bowl-themed restaurant in this country, what do you often find at the top of the menu? Teriyaki chicken. When you go to a bowl-themed restaurant over there, that’s either at the bottom of the list, or not on the menu at all. As a matter of fact, I can count the number of times I saw teriyaki chicken on a menu on one hand.
So why in the name of all that is delicious would I recommend that you try something that isn’t that special, popular, or accessible? Well, I can sum it up with a personal story. At the time of writing this, I am working for a Japanese restaurant that primarily specializes in noodles. Since the restaurant originated in Japan, the menu was catered toward their palates, and to what they would be used to eating. As you can imagine, when brainstorming new items to put on the menu for an American audience, one of the first things they landed on was chicken/beef teriyaki. When I heard about this, I was skeptical, but I thought it would be a great opportunity to teach Americans about what teriyaki should really taste like. For crying out loud, the head of our culinary development is Japanese and barely speaks English! Well, as you can also imagine, that didn’t end up being the case.
The result of all their “culinary development” was just a fancier version of teriyaki sauce that comes from a supermarket squeeze bottle because it has ground sesame powder and garlic cooked with it. The cloying sweetness drowns your palette in sugar and my soul in disappointment. This is not Japanese flavor, balance, or food for that matter. When customers ask me if it’s good, I die a little inside. Even Voldermort’s horcruxes wouldn’t be able to withstand the soul-shattering guilt in lying so blatantly.
If you travel to Japan, and the best you can do is a teriyaki chicken burger from Mos Burger, so be it. At least it’s a start. Truthfully, to get the authentic taste, you’d have to know someone. If you make a friend who blesses you with a meal at their home, ask them to make teriyaki chicken for you. Your world will either be illuminated, or shattered, but one thing is for sure: at least you’ll be able to say you’ve had authentic teriyaki.
5. Kyōdo Ryōri
What food is unique to where you live? I’m from Southern California, so for me one example would be the California Burrito. Imagine taking a tummy-tingling carne asada burrito and stuffing it with French fries and guacamole (you’re welcome for the visual). Anywhere you go in this world, there is a dish that has evolved out of the local community that is done unequivocally better than anywhere else on Earth—that is “kyōdo ryōri.”
Luckily for us, Japan relishes highlighting its micro-cultures across the island nation. Whenever I tried watching local network news to try and improve my listening skills, it seemed like there was some feature about a regional dish, or celebration, or old person valiantly preserving a thousand-year-old tradition that is rapidly dying out. On top of nearly every prefecture having their own local specialty dish, they have a unique mascot and souvenir snack to go along with them. These things are usually robustly advertised in the train stations, so you can’t miss them.
I lived in Yamanashi Prefecture for five years, which is a small, mountainous region a few hours west of Tokyo. It’s a place packed full of history, tradition, and people who wish they lived in the big city instead. I guess if you grew up that close to one of the greatest metropolises on the planet, you’d become a little envious of the people who didn’t have to make the train ride back through the mountains after an exciting day of big city adventure. But you know what? I never felt that way. Not even once. I was proud to be living where I was, and I was genuinely impacted by the things that made Yamanashi special.
One of the things I feel made us special, was our kyōdo ryōri: hōtō. It’s a very humble dish, with some holy-shit-level history. Essentially, it’s a hearty stew boiled in cast-iron pots with wheat noodles (sometimes considered technically to be dumplings). The base is a dashi flavored by niboshi, simmered chiefly with kabocha squash for sweetness, but also various other seasonal vegetables like roots in the winter or mushrooms in the fall. The noodles, like soba, are just basic wheat and flour cut into thick strips like a cross between tagliatelle and udon. It’s nutrient rich, it’s rustic, and it’s great when it’s served piping hot on a cold evening.
The thing that makes it special, and synonymous with the region, is its historical association with one of the greatest warlord’s in Japanese history: Takeda Shingen. Think of every samurai stereotype you can, and you get this guy. He was a titan of his era, and when you actually dig into the history, come to realize that there is an alternate reality where this dude unified the country under his banner and altered the course of the nation’s history. He had a first-class military mind, and a formidable army composed of thousands of the ancestors who once walked on the same land I was living on. You know what he and his soldiers used to eat before battle to get the energy necessary to wax their enemies? Yeah…hōtō, baby.
I love stuff like this. Every time I ate it, I could feel the entire history of Yamanashi, and I would let myself be transported back in time into a military camp dressed in battle armor. Imagine if George Washington and his soldiers had an important pre-battle food/tradition like this. I guarantee you the Union Army from then until eternity would be upholding that same tradition.
When you try local food, try to look deeper than just what’s in front of you. Whether it’s something that’s got hundreds of years of history behind it, or something that was just made up in an unknown Cali-Mex restaurant a couple decades ago, the story behind the food is worth understanding. Think of it like the DNA of a dish. The blueprints of where it came from and where it is going are provided within. How lucky we are that we get to taste it.
I can’t lie to you; I was really disgusted by natto when I first moved to Japan. I can’t lie to you twice; you’re also going to be really disgusted by natto when you first try it. However, it is my mission to ease your trepidations. After all, I am basically daring you to eat fermented soybeans that are teeming with micro bacteria whose aroma can most aptly be compared to feet that have been walking around in moist socks for several hours.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten through the prevailing stigma around natto, we can get into the scrumptious core buried inside. I’m including natto on this list for two main reasons. The first reason is that it’s ridiculously healthy. For those who can’t be bothered to follow the link, it’s basically rich in vitamins, nutrients, and bacteria that stimulate your body’s ability to absorb more vitamins and nutrients from food. It’s effectively a positive feedback loop of deliciousness.
Eating natto almost daily became a habit of mine for nearly a year because I took on two jobs and didn’t have that much time to cook anymore. An underrated part about these little beans is that they are mind-blowingly cheap, clocking in at around three servings for $1. I needed something quick that I could throw on some warm rice in between jobs so that I wasn’t withering away from starvation through the night. You know what? I’d never felt healthier in my life. I was only getting moderate exercise, but I was leaner, and my body felt great. I’ve since stopped eating it as frequently because after I moved back to California it became more inconvenient to buy, and it’s more expensive due to importation. As I’m writing this, though, I feel more and more that I should just say screw it and start eating it regularly again. It’s that impactful of a food.
The second reason I’m recommending it is it’s actually not that bad once you get used to it. I’m not a picky person, but I’m human. I get grossed out by things that aren’t normal to me. I’m not saying I would never eat fried bugs, but I would say that the thought of eating insects makes me feel like doing shots of bleach. But there’s a vital lesson in overcoming preconceptions about foreign foods. Believe it or not, it’s a lot like overcoming preconceptions about foreign people. One of the worst things we can do is allow ourselves to succumb to biases. It’s dangerously dismissive, and we’re all guilty of it.
Food is one of the strongest bastions of unity left in this polarized world. Despite historical bad blood between groups of people that is too easily exacerbated by things like politics, religion, and even sports, food must be remain a sanctum of purity and neutrality. Every time we let ourselves grow judgmental or hateful towards others based on what they eat, we corrupt that sanctum. Over the course of this blog, I may drop a hot take or two about how eating Del Taco is like skydiving without a parachute, or how over-using hot sauce is analogous to cutting heroine with fentanyl, but I promise it will never be from a place of genuine prejudice of people or culture. I’m writing this in 2020. Believe me, we could use a lot more love in our lives these days, and lot more natto in our bellies.
At long last, we’ve reached my final recommendation for you to eat when you travel to Japan. Honestly, I saved my favorite for last. Teishoku! It is the most complete representation of what, how, and why Japanese people eat. You might be looking at the photograph above and not really get what I mean. Don’t worry, I will explain. The first thing you must understand is that teishoku is not a dish. I wouldn’t even classify it as a category of food like some of my previous recommendations like “matsuri food” or “kyōdo ryōri” either. Teishoku is a way of eating food.
In the simplest sense of the word, it’s a set. You have your protein, bowl of rice, miso soup, pickles, and vegetables all served together at the same time. Think of some of the classic staples of Japanese cuisine that you might now: tonkatsu, grilled fish, katsu-don, karaage. They can all come in teishoku form. The beautiful thing about it is each part is very customizable. It’s up to the restaurant to curate the best combinations of vegetable to protein, or what kind of miso best compliments the overall flavor profile of the meal. Nearly every teishoku has the same blueprint but is executed in myriad different ways.
I think most Japanese restaurants in the states try to emulate this to varying degrees of success. If you ordered something like a “Teriyaki Chicken Plate” in a sit-down restaurant it would almost certainly come with some of the staple teishoku components. You’d get some rice—that’s a given. You’d get a salad, probably composed of iceberg and shredded carrots—very lazy. Most egregiously of all, you’d get one kind of miso soup (white miso) and it’d come before the rest of the food. BEFORE THE REST OF THE FOOD. Miso soup is not supposed to be treated like soup in the Western world. It’s never a starter, it’s a component of the entrée. Do yourself a favor and request that it be sent out with the rest of your meal the next time you find yourself in a Japanese American restaurant.
But so what, right? I can kick and scream all day about how this isn’t done right, and it’s supposed to be done like this, but that’s not a good reason for you to change how you do something. Why should you give a rip whether miso soup is eaten with the entrée or not? Well, when you eat teishoku in Japan it’s a lot like those old Carl’s Jr. commercials, the premise being that the combination of a burger, French fries and a Coke were so synergistic that they would put the eater into a state of complete nirvana. This is the absolute closest comparison I can think of to help you understand. The things that make a burger combo meal so surreally delicious are almost indescribable. The savory qualities of the burger are supported by the warm salty crunch from the fries and it’s all washed down by an ice-cold beverage elevated by a bit of carbonation. It’s not a satisfaction words can adequately summate. It’s just an alchemic miracle. That’s teishoku, and that’s why you should try it.