10 must-try dishes after moving to Japan

Whether you’re planning a vacation or considering a relocation with Kokusai Express Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun is renowned for its rich culture and culinary delights. One of the joys of living in or visiting Japan is the opportunity to try the country’s unique cuisine. Sampling the local fare isn’t just a culinary adventure; it’s a cultural exploration. Once you’ve settled down after your relocation, these are the 10 must-try dishes after moving to Japan that you should explore to genuinely immerse yourself in the culinary heritage of your new home.

Exploring Japanese culinary delights

As you settle into your new home, tasting local cuisine should be on your to-do list as well as preparing for some cultural differences. Here are some dishes that offer a real taste of Japan’s diverse and delicious food culture:

  • Sushi
  • Ramen
  • Tempura
  • Okonomiyaki
  • Gyoza
  • Tonkatsu
  • Yakitori
  • Sukiyaki
  • Miso Soup
  • Matcha

Savoring authentic sushi in your new home

Recognized worldwide, sushi stands as a symbol of Japanese cuisine. This delectable dish, often composed of fresh raw fish or seafood, is expertly placed on top of vinegared rice. Different forms of sushi cater to varied palates. Nigiri, for example, features thinly sliced seafood like tuna or salmon gently pressed onto a mound of rice. Maki rolls, another variety, are rice and fillings rolled in seaweed sheets. Sashimi, although technically not sushi, often accompanies sushi dishes. It consists of ultra-fresh, raw seafood slices. Quality and freshness remain the cornerstone of sushi’s flavor, echoing Japan’s commitment to respect nature’s produce. If you’re considering relocating to Japan, tasting sushi is non-negotiable. The dish offers not just a meal, but a cultural experience, showcasing Japanese precision and artistry in every bite.

sushi on in a Japanese restaurant is one of the must-try dishes after moving to Japan
Sushi is one of the iconic must-try dishes after moving to Japan.

Ramen – a comforting noodle soup worth the slurp

If you’ve fallen into the trap of common misconceptions about Japan and think the food here is unusual and hard to get used to – think again. Ramen, a cherished noodle soup, is an integral part of Japanese food culture. Each bowl typically contains wheat noodles swimming in a rich, savory broth. The country brims with regional variations of this dish. Tonkotsu ramen, famous in Kyushu region, boasts a creamy, collagen-rich pork bone broth. Miso ramen, a staple in Hokkaido, offers a robust and nutty flavor from fermented soybean paste. Shoyu ramen, the oldest type, has a clear, soy sauce-based broth. These bowls get their distinct personalities from a variety of toppings. Chashu, or braised pork belly, adds a melt-in-your-mouth texture. A soft-boiled egg lends a creamy touch, and nori (seaweed) imparts a subtle oceanic flavor.

ramen noodles in a bowl
You’ve surely tried ramen even before moving to Japan, but the authentic Japanese version is a must-try.

Tempura – Japan’s crispy, deep-fried delight

Tempura, a popular Japanese dish, is an absolute must-try after moving to Japan. The dish originated in the 16th century from Portuguese influence, and over time, it has been adapted into a quintessential part of Japanese cuisine. Tempura involves coating ingredients like shrimp, eggplant, or sweet potato in a light batter, then deep-frying them to golden perfection. The process results in a crispy outer layer encapsulating the ingredient’s natural taste and juiciness. For seafood lovers, ebi (shrimp) tempura offers a sweet, succulent bite. Yasai (vegetable) tempura, with ingredients like nasubi (eggplant) and satsumaimo (sweet potato), is a textural delight, combining a crunchy exterior with a soft interior. You can even find amezaiku tempura, where artisans create intricate candy sculptures, later tempura-fried for a sweet, unexpected treat. So, as part of your young couple’s guide to moving to Japan, ensure to put trying tempura on your culinary bucket list.

tempura dish in a restaurant
Tempura is another iconic Japanese dish you will surely love.

Okonomiyaki – a savory pancake tailored to your taste

Okonomiyaki, literally meaning “grilled as you like it,” offers a testament to Japanese culinary innovation. At its core, this dish is a savory pancake that harmoniously melds a cabbage-loaded batter with a plethora of other ingredients. However, the beauty of okonomiyaki lies in its malleable nature. It welcomes a range of fillings, from proteins like pork, octopus, or shrimp, to vegetables such as green onions or bean sprouts, allowing you to experiment with different combinations.

Moreover, the taste of okonomiyaki can vary significantly depending on where in Japan you try it. The Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, for instance, is characterized by distinct layers of ingredients, with noodles playing a starring role. Meanwhile, the Osaka-style okonomiyaki, arguably the most prevalent, blends all the ingredients into a batter before grilling. After grilling to a golden perfection, the pancake gets a generous drizzle of okonomiyaki sauce — a sweet and tangy condiment akin to Worcestershire sauce. A swirl of mayo adds a creamy contrast, while a shower of bonito flakes (dried and fermented tuna flakes) and a sprinkle of seaweed on top complete the dish. The bonito flakes, in particular, are a spectacle in themselves, dancing with the heat emanating from the pancake.

Gyoza – bite-sized Japanese dumplings bursting with flavor

Originating from China but impeccably adapted to Japanese tastes, Gyoza holds a special place in the Japanese culinary landscape. These crescent-shaped dumplings encase a filling typically made from finely chopped vegetables like cabbage and chives, mixed with ground pork or chicken. What sets Gyoza apart is the cooking technique. They are first pan-fried to create a crispy, golden bottom, then steamed to ensure a juicy and tender interior. This dual cooking method brings out an enticing contrast of textures in each bite.

Gyoza can be enjoyed in many ways. They are commonly served as a side dish in ramen shops, but they also make for a delicious main dish or a casual snack at izakaya, Japanese-style pubs. Gyoza also goes hand-in-hand with beer, making them a popular choice for social gatherings. A must-have accompaniment for Gyoza is the dipping sauce. A blend of soy sauce for saltiness, vinegar for a tangy kick, and chili oil for a hint of spice, this sauce enhances the flavors of the dumplings, making them even more enjoyable.

a man making gyoza dumplings
Gyoza is a favorite Japanese dish for many people.

Tonkatsu – the crispy, juicy cutlet worth craving

Tonkatsu, a signature Japanese dish, is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. This isn’t just any ordinary fried cutlet — it’s a culinary delight known for its contrasting textures. It starts with a choice cut of pork loin or tenderloin, which is tenderized, seasoned, then coated in a light layer of flour, dipped in beaten egg, and finally covered in panko breadcrumbs. The result, after deep-frying, is a cutlet with a crunchy shell encasing a tender, juicy interior. For those moving internationally, tonkatsu is a hearty meal that’s hard to forget. The dish is typically served with a robust tonkatsu sauce, reminiscent of Worcestershire but thicker and sweeter. A side of refreshing cabbage salad and a bowl of rice often complete the meal, making every bite a memorable part of your Japanese gastronomic journey.

Yakitori – grilled skewers perfect for casual dining

Yakitori, literally meaning ‘grilled chicken,’ is a must-try street food in Japan. The dish showcases the Japanese mastery of grilling, transforming simple skewers of chicken into a culinary experience. However, yakitori isn’t confined to chicken alone. Variations of this dish utilize all parts of the chicken, from thigh to liver, heart, and even skin, each part offering its unique texture and taste.

When preparing yakitori, chefs thread bite-sized pieces onto bamboo skewers, seasoning them with either a sweet and savory glaze (tare) or simple salt before grilling over hot charcoal. The end result is a smoky, tender morsel of chicken with a slightly caramelized exterior. For those looking for moving tips, be sure to include ‘try yakitori’ on your list. You’ll find yakitori stalls or yatai scattered throughout Japanese cities, especially near busy train stations. The stalls’ inviting aromas and the sight of skewers lined up over glowing coals are irresistible to both locals and tourists alike. Additionally, yakitori is more than just a quick bite. It’s an integral part of Japanese izakaya (gastropub) culture, commonly enjoyed with a glass of beer or sake.

Sukiyaki – a communal hot pot feast for the senses

Sukiyaki is more than just a dish; it’s a communal experience that symbolizes Japanese hospitality. It’s a classic hot pot dish that involves cooking thinly sliced beef, tofu, vegetables, and noodles right at your table, in a savory and sweet soy-based broth. Each ingredient adds its unique flavor, creating a harmonic and hearty stew. Beef, being the centerpiece, is typically of a high-grade variety, ensuring tenderness and flavor in every bite. But what truly sets sukiyaki apart is the interactive dining experience it offers. Gathering around a bubbling pot, everyone at the table gets involved in the cooking process, taking turns adding ingredients and filling their bowls. It’s a shared moment of togetherness, infused with laughter and conversation.

Accompanying sukiyaki is a raw beaten egg, used as a dipping sauce. This might seem unusual, but it’s a traditional touch that adds a layer of richness and smoothness to the flavors. You dip the hot, cooked ingredients into the egg, and it immediately cools them down and gives them a creamy coating. Another crucial aspect of sukiyaki is the noodles used in the dish. Shirataki noodles, made from konjac root, are a popular choice. These thin, translucent, gelatinous noodles absorb the broth well, adding yet another dimension to the mix of textures and flavors in the pot.

A well-cooked sukiyaki dish has a balanced sweetness that offsets the savory elements, a quality derived from the soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (a type of rice wine) in the broth. The vegetables, typically mushrooms, cabbage, and onions, provide a refreshing crunch, contrasting with the tender beef and soft tofu.

Miso soup – a nourishing staple in every Japanese meal

Miso soup, a traditional Japanese dish, is a culinary symbol of Japan’s deep appreciation for simplicity and natural flavors. It begins with a basic stock, known as dashi, typically made from dried kelp (kombu) and bonito fish flakes. The miso paste, made from fermented soybeans, gives the soup its name and signature flavor. This paste comes in several types, with the most common ones being white, red, and mixed miso, each offering a unique taste profile.

miso soup - one of the must-try dishes after moving to Japan
Miso soup is one of the must-try dishes after moving to Japan for a true Japanese food experience.

The addition of tofu and wakame seaweed makes it a classic version of miso soup. However, Japanese cuisine’s versatility shines through with the various other ingredients that can be added. You might find slices of daikon, mushrooms, green onions, clams, or even tiny shrimp floating in different versions of miso soup, which keep every serving an exciting exploration of flavors.

Despite its simplicity, miso soup is profoundly nutritious. It’s rich in protein from the tofu and miso, iodine from the seaweed, and plenty of vitamins and minerals from any added vegetables. Its comforting warmth and nutritional balance make it a popular breakfast dish in Japan, though it’s also common for lunch and dinner. Served in a lidded lacquer bowl, the act of lifting the lid and being greeted by the steam and aroma of the miso soup is part of the Japanese dining experience. The soup is often drunk straight from the bowl, with the larger ingredients picked out with chopsticks.

Matcha – a taste of tradition in every sip and bite

Matcha, a finely ground powder of special green tea leaves, is a cornerstone of Japanese tradition. Its vibrant green color and slightly bitter taste are distinct and cherished features. Consumed as a drink, it offers a unique, calming experience. Beyond beverages, matcha’s unique flavor profile is also featured in various sweets. It enhances mochi, a type of chewy rice cake, and adds an intriguing note to ice cream. It’s also common in cakes, providing a subtle yet distinct flavor. But matcha isn’t just about taste. The traditional tea ceremony, where matcha is meticulously prepared and appreciated, is an important cultural practice.

mactha tea - one of the must-try dishes after moving to Japan
Matcha is definitely one of the most famous Japanese food items in the world.

Continuing the culinary adventure with must-try dishes after moving to Japan

Savoring these 10 must-try dishes after moving to Japan is an immersive way to understand and appreciate the country’s culture and lifestyle. From the fresh and delicate sushi to the comforting ramen, the crispy tempura to the customizable okonomiyaki, the juicy gyoza to the crispy tonkatsu, the smoky yakitori to the communal sukiyaki, the nourishing miso soup to the culturally significant matcha — each dish offers a unique taste of Japan’s culinary heritage. Whether you’re a newcomer or a long-time resident, taking the time to appreciate these delights will surely enhance your life in Japan. To learn more about Japanese cuisine, check out this comprehensive guide by Japan-guide.com.

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