Once upon a time, most visitors flocked to Japan to admire the beauty of Mount Fuji or to witness sumo wrestling in Osaka. Today, many are drawn to the Land of the Rising Sun to experience Japan’s unique cuisine.
Across Japan, each major city boasts its own specialties that are now becoming popular across the world. The local food in each location typically reflects the regional geography and history of the city. Often the ceremonies surrounding the preparation and consumption of traditional Japanese dishes are as important as the food itself.
By joining food tours in those cities, visitors can experience the authentic taste of famous Japanese dishes created using locally sourced, fresh ingredients that are often substituted for cheaper alternatives elsewhere. So, pack your backpack for an adventure where you step back in time and immerse yourself in the rich culture that surrounds Japanese food.
For over a millennium, Kyoto served as Japan’s capital city. It is the cultural heart of the nation and the best place to enjoy an authentic food tour. In fact, Kyoto has a long history of serving special food dishes to wandering travelers.
Pilgrims visiting Buddhist temples in ancient times could expect a warm welcome that included vegetarian meals prepared by the monks. These Buddhist dishes were called shojin ryori (devotion food). Many of the dishes served in Kyoto today can trace their roots back to the temples.
If you stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel), you don’t even have to leave the building to experience one of Japan’s most amazing culinary experiences. Kaiseki-ryori is a sequence of small dishes presented to guests in a ceremonial manner akin to the Japanese tea ceremony. Only locally sourced and seasonal ingredients are used to create the aesthetically pleasing dishes where the pattern and color of the food are as important as its texture and taste.
When you get out into Kyoto’s historic streets, watch out for yudofu. This soft-boiled tofu served with a dip is Kyoto’s signature dish. The most renowned yudofu restaurants surround Nanzenji Temple.
Check out the local food markets for tsukemono. While Kyoto was the capital, merchants imported vegetables and fruits from around the nation and neighboring countries to delight the imperial court. To preserve these for transportation over long distances, they were pickled using a special technique that is now known as tsukemono. The three most popular varieties are shibazuke (eggplant and cucumber), senmaizuke (kelp and turnip), and sugizuke (turnip).
Tokyo has dominated Japan for over four hundred years. Over that time, the capital city’s local dishes have become Japanese favorites. If you want to eat Japanese dishes you’ve heard of in the heart of modern Japan, a food tour in Tokyo is for you.
Tokyo is the modern name for the city, meaning “Eastern Capital”. Originally, Tokyo was called Edo. Local dishes are called Edomae, meaning “in front of Edo”.
You can’t visit Japan and not sample genuine local sushi. Around Tokyo, nigirizushi (hand-pressed sushi) is a popular fast food. It takes the form of a small rice ball coated with salmon or tuna and served with wasabi. Many of the best nigirizushi outlets are located around the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.
Around Tokyo, you’ll find many tempura-ya. These small traditional restaurants specialize in serving delicious battered and deep-fried seafood and vegetables called tempura. Surprisingly, this renowned Tokyo dish was inspired by early European contact. The Portuguese who came to Tokyo in the 16th century only ate fish or vegetables during the fast of “quatuor anni tempora”, hence the name tempura.
Another dish every foodie visiting Tokyo must taste is soba. Soba is made from thin buckwheat-flour noodles served in a hot broth. Alternatively, soba may be chilled and served alongside a dip. Look out for soba-ya where you can try these gray, green, or yellow-colored noodles. Beware the dip. It tastes stronger than you expect, so apply sparingly.
If you ask a Japanese person where to go for the best food tours in Japan, they will suggest Osaka. The Japanese say, “Kyoto’s citizens are bankrupted from buying fine clothes while Osaka’s citizens are bankrupted by spending all their money on food.”
Teppanyaki is one of the most popular Japanese dishes because it’s so entertaining to watch a chef juggling the ingredients while he griddles the food at your table. Typical main ingredients of teppanyaki are beef or high-quality seafood. It may shock you to learn that teppanyaki only dates back to the late 1940s and was inspired by the many Westerners who came to live in Japan following WWII. It originated in Kobe, just 19 miles west of Osaka, but is now enjoyed worldwide.
On the streets of Osaka, watch out for street vendors frying octopus coated in batter to make the popular local dish of Takoyaki. They use a distinctive Takoyaki pan and serve the octopus with pickled ginger and green onion.
If you tried soba in Tokyo, sample kitsune udon in Osaka. This traditional dish contains thick wheat-flour udon noodles served in a spicy broth. Kitsune means fox, and foxes are said to love kitsune udon!