Nine days. Four cities. Two people. A lot of food. This September, my boyfriend I traveled to the land of ramen and sushi for our five-year anniversary. Japan was an obvious choice for the two of us. He loves anime and video games. I love Japanese food and clean places. This country really suits us.
When I say I love Japanese food, I mean I love the Japanese food I’ve been exposed to here in the states. Delicious, yet Americanized, sushi; mouthwatering ramen with that unforgettable and oozy soft-boiled egg; and salty, chewy gyoza are among my favorite Japanese foods to grab where I live, but I knew my experience was limited having never been to the birthplace of some of these foods. From our first meal of soba noodles and tempura eel, enjoyed in an intimate neighborhood eatery, to the last, an unbelievable Osaka seafood delicacy that I’m going to talk about in a bit, I was introduced to a whole new world that is in an entirely different league than the unagi roll I get on my lunch break in downtown San Antonio, Texas.
As with any foreign country, we encountered some bizarre foods, as well. The great thing about Japan, though: Even the weird food is delicious! I ate every meal with fascination, and like any true millennial foodie, with my iPhone in hand capturing every moment.
Here are my top rated foods I ate while in Japan, categorized by the delicious and the downright unique.
#3. Oyakodon – chicken and egg over rice bowl
While driving from the Mt. Fuji area to Kyoto with our tour group, we stopped at an amazing food court off the gorgeous highway (yep, even highways are beautiful and food courts are awe-inspiring in Japan). We were in a hurry to arrive to our destination and only got a measly 30 minutes to explore all the unique options and sit down to savor the meal. After doing at least three rounds around the food court, I settled on a fast food spot in which I couldn’t understand the name or anything on the menu. Thankfully, they offered photos of all their meals, so I pointed to a cheesy rice dish that was exactly the comfort food I was hoping for.
A few minutes later, I was handed a tray with two bowls and a small plate. On the small plate was a lone meatball (I think?). In the smaller bowl was miso soup, which I’ve grown to love at sushi spots back home. And in the larger bowl was the main entree. Served on a bed of rice was breaded chicken, egg, cheese, and a tangy sauce smothered across. My only regret of this meal was that I didn’t have enough time to finish it. This quick dish was so simple, yet so delicious. In my opinion, we don’t mix egg and rice nearly enough in America, and I’m on a mission to incorporate it into my own meals from now on.
#2. Gyoza – fried pork dumplings, or potstickers
If I’m ordering an appetizer at a Japanese restaurant back home, then I’m ordering gyoza, which is why I could not pass up the chance to go to the famous Harajuku Gyoza-ro in, you guessed it, the Harajuku district of Tokyo. After a short wait in line, we were taken to our seats at the wrap-around bar and handed a menu. Apart from a few side dishes like pickled cabbage and cucumber salad, the only entrees these chefs served were steamed or fried gyoza.
We weren’t starving, so we only asked for one order of the fried dumplings, but once we took our first bite, I knew we’d need a second order. The dough wrapping was perfectly moist and chewy on one side, yet crunchy and crisp on the other. The filling of ground pork, garlic, leek and seasonings was salty in all the right ways.
Watching the chefs cook the gyoza was half the fun. Dozens and dozens of pot stickers were prepared before our eyes, so methodical and organized. These men and women could’ve served dumplings in their sleep.
#1. Yakiniki – Japanese grill-at-your-table BBQ
It had been a very long day in Kyoto. After touring the city, my boyfriend and I got back to our hotel, rested for a moment, and got dressed up to go out on a date night. We took the hotel shuttle to the Pontocho street, which is buzzing with restaurants, shops, and bars. I was on a hunt for conveyor belt sushi and found a highly rated spot online. We got off the shuttle and headed down tiny alleyways full of hungry people also looking for a place to settle down for the night. We followed the GPS to the sushi restaurant and…nothing. There was nothing there. We backtracked, tried a different app, a different phone…nothing. This place just didn’t exist. And we were hungry. Very hungry.
We set out to find a new place to eat, but it’s much harder than back home where it’s obvious what every restaurant offers. The combination of not understanding the language and not being familiar with the food options was a recipe for disaster for our date night. We wandered and our hanger increased. After poking our head into a handful of places and deciding it wasn’t what we wanted, we finally settled on a yakiniki restaurant. This restaurant is basically a teppanyaki-style restaurant (like Benihana), but you cook the meat at your own personal grill.
Upon looking at us, our server brought us an English menu and explained to us how the process works. We promptly ordered some chicken, bacon, and Wagyu beef. If our hanger threatened to destroy our date night, it was the Wagyu beef that saved it all in the end. That beef was incredible. The few thin strips we ordered and grilled to medium rare were not enough. No amount would have been enough. It tasted as if it had been marinating in a magical blend of seasonings since…well, since it was still a cow.
#3. Conveyor belt sushi
Remember when I wanted conveyor belt sushi in Kyoto but the place just didn’t exist? Well, I still wanted it. And to my dismay, these places weren’t as commonplace as McDonald’s is in the states. Call me ignorant, but I expected to see sushi restaurants everywhere in Japan, but quickly learned it’s not nearly as prevalent as I envisioned.
So, you can imagine, once I found a conveyor belt sushi restaurant in a Kyoto train station, I didn’t even mind that the wait was more than 30 minutes. I was getting my conveyor belt sushi, darnit! It worked just like you’d imagine. Guests sit at the wrap-around bar with sushi chefs in the middle. The chefs prepare the sushi and place the plates on the conveyor belt that runs along the bar in front of your plate. You see a piece of sushi you want, you grab the plate, you eat it, then you stack up your plates, and pay at the end. Easy, and most importantly: delicious.
My favorite pieces had to be the fatty tuna, eel, or salmon. Since we were in Japan, you couldn’t help but notice how incredibly fresh the fish was. The sushi chefs are artists at their craft, but the fresh-out-of-the-sea fish certainly makes their job easier.
#2. Rainbow cotton candy
On our one full free day in Tokyo, we laid in our hotel trying to plan out how to spend our time, but it was just so overwhelming. There are a million things to do in the largest city in Japan and we didn’t even know where to start. Just then, our friend back home tagged us in a Buzzfeed video about a candy store in Tokyo that makes bigger-than-your-head rainbow cotton candy. It was immediately added to our to-do list for the day.
Hidden within the neon color explosion of Harajuku was Totti Candy Factory, where you can grab a bag and fill it with candy, treat yourself to a kawaii cake pop, or go big with the cotton candy. You can guess what I did. Can’t you just feel my excitement through the screen?
#1. Takoyaki – octopus balls
Before you ask, no, these are not balls that belong to octopus. These were balls made of octopus and they were incredible. The last city we visited was Osaka and we quickly learned that Osaka is famous for takoyaki. I love octopus, so I was 100% down to try this local delicacy. We found a stand-up takoyaki place in (another) train station — they seem to have the best food — where you order at a counter, eat at the counter, then get the heck out of the way of the counter so the next person can eat.
Now: to the balls. Scalding hot and fresh off the fryer, we had to summon all our patience to wait for it to cool down. When you take a bite of takoyaki, the first thing you experience is squishiness. Then, once you bite down harder: chewiness. Covering the top is mayonnaise and another sauce that tasted much like barbecue sauce. The squishy breading was incredibly juicy and bursting with flavor, then the nugget of octopus in the middle was the chewy cherry on top. With so much flavor packed into one little ball, we went through our six-pack in no time.
Brooke is the founder and writer of As One Loves, a relationship blog that provides a space for all types of love. Join the conversation at AsOneLoves.com. When she’s not writing for her blog, Brooke loves to travel with her boyfriend, spend time with her family, and cuddle with her cats.