Five ‘Must Have’ Foodie Experiences in Japan


Japanese food – the first dishes that spring to mind are usually ramen, sake and of course the global phenomenon that is sushi. Like not seeing honey chicken in China, sushi also infrequently crops up in Japan. Every dish is more interesting and delicious than the next. It is pretty difficult to choose just one favourite – amongst travelling companions, there can be lively discussions about each travellers favourite meal of the trip.

Dining in Japan is an art form. There are no rushed meals, food is an experience and one to be enjoyed slowly and with a huge array of sides.

Typically, a meal begins with some starters of salad or vegetables, perhaps some seafood, before a collection of small bowls appears in front of you, filled with sides. There will be fresh pickled ginger, more vegetables, perhaps some sliced bamboo and of course small plates of sauces (including wasabi if you wish). From here, the main dishes of meats and seafood are served. Towards the end of the meal, rice is served. Rice is the finishing touch to a meal – to be eaten if you still have room left!

Japan dining - Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass
Japan dining – Photo credit: Martin Cummings, Elite Cruising and Tours, an independent affiliate of MTA Travel, Crooked Compass

Here are our top five foodie experiences in Japan:

1. Kobe beef in Kobe

As any lover of steak around the world will know, Wagyu beef is one of the most highly regarded (and most expensive!) cuts of beef. So when it comes to cooking a Wagyu beef steak, it is almost an art form and one that the masters in Kobe have perfected.

Sitting in a row with my fellow travellers in front of a long hotplate, we’re wondering what is about to happen. First, we’re served a salad, and the chef begins to fry some garlic. Then, the unexpected continues to appear, and fresh vegetables are grilled and served to us to enjoy before the real show begins.

Handling a large cut of wagyu beef like a delicate child, our expert chef begins to slice the cut  into smaller pieces, cooking it to perfection on the hotplate before slicing it up further and serving it up to each of us in turn. The delicious morsels can be enjoyed with an array of sauces, the fried vegetables, fresh ginger, and fried garlic. The flavour is exceptional and the sides are the perfect complement to the rich, juicy steak flavours.

Just as we’re about full, the chef pries up some rice using garlic and the fatty juices still on the hotplate from the steaks to create a flavourful rice to top off the meal.

Perfection - Kobe Beef - Photo Credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass
Perfection – Kobe Beef – Photo Credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass

2. Sake tasting

While sake is known around the world as an alcoholic beverage originating in Japan, most people know very little beyond that. Much like wine though, sake consists of a huge variety of blends and flavours, each type of sake differing tor the next. With that comes a certain way of serving sake in order to bring out the best flavours, and also the perfect pairing with food to complement any dish.

Our tasting experience was experienced at Fukuju sake brewery in Kobe, a world renowned award-winning brewery. In fact, this sake brewery produces the sake that is enjoyed at Nobel Prize dinners!

You can even enjoy an incredible degustation lunch at their traditional restaurant Sakabayashi, where each course is paired with the perfect sake to compliment the flavours of the food.

Sake tasting - Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass
Sake tasting – Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass

3. Eel in Nagoya

Unadon (Grilled Eel Rice Bowl), is a traditional meal enjoyed throughout Japanese history and considered to be culturally significant, especially to the people of Nagoya where this dish originates.

This type of eel is considered to be endangered in the wild and enjoying this dish is a delicacy and privilege.

These days, most eels used in Unadon are farmed and heavily regulated as to quantities to ensure that the species is not only protected from extinction but is aiming to eventually recover the population enough to remove them from the endangered species list.

You are served your customary starters and array of side dishes before a bowl of hot grilled eel, marinated in special sauces is placed in front of you. Underneath the top layer of eel is a large portion of rice.

There is a special way of eating this dish, where the bowl is divided into quarters and each quarter is mixed with a succession of different sides so that you can enjoy the perfectly cooked eel with the different flavours of each quarter. The final quarter is reserved for your favourite combination of sides from the previous three.

Nagoya Eel - quartered in a bowl - Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass
Nagoya Eel – quartered in a bowl – Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass

4. Teppanyaki

Teppanyaki in Japan is nothing like we know it back home in the humorous and acrobatic performance experienced in Western countries.

Here, teppanyaki is a culinary ballet, where watching the chefs perform is almost hypnotic. Each movement of the chef is slow and delicate, choreographed for each perfectly cooked piece to be delivered your plate. At the end of their performance (your meal), you may find yourself giving the chefs a round of applause. The meal can take up to two hours as the process is slow and graceful, allowing you to taste every bite fully and there is no rush to eat. You’re unlikely to leave the teppanyaki grill still hungry!

Teppanyaki - different to what it is at home for us! Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass
Teppanyaki – different to what it is at home for us! Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass

5. Lunch with the Ama divers

The Ama divers are a group of women who have learned the craft of freediving in the ocean with nothing more than their swimsuit, traditional cap, a pair of goggles and a lot of courage. These fisherwomen dive to the sea floor to collect seafood to sell to locals and markets, which provides income for the Ama community’s living expenses.

This traditional way of life is slowly fading away as fewer divers join the community each year.

The Ama divers of Ine have created a program where local and international visitors to the area can enjoy a meal of freshly caught seafood, expertly barbecued over an open fire by one of the divers. Over the course of an hour, you will be served an array of seafood, from scallops and prawns to lobster and even trying sea snail!

This is a fantastic opportunity during your meal to learn as much as you can about your Ama diver host, as well as their way of life.
When did she join the order? Why did she join? When will she retire? Can she even retire? How do they earn enough income to support the community? How long can you hold your breath for?

The Ama divers are very welcoming and enthusiastic about educating visitors about their way of life. Being hosted by the Ama divers of Ine is not only a delicious meal, but a cultural experience to remember.

Fresh seafood - caught and prepared by the Ama divers - Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass
Fresh seafood – caught and prepared by the Ama divers – Photo credit: Sarah Arane, Crooked Compass

No matter where you travel in Japan, unique and interesting dining experiences are sure to be just around the corner- be sure to take a step outside your comfort zone and give it a try! To make these experiences yours, check out our range of small group touring in Japan.