Before I came to Japan, all I could think about in terms of "Japanese food" was really just sushi and Benihana. Since arriving here in March, I've found a huge variety of foods that I never knew existed. What follows is a selection of my favorites.
When most Americans hear ramen they think Cup Noodle, the cheap, pretty crappy and microwaveable quick meal. But similar to TV dinners, Cup Noodle is just a crappy knock off of the real thing. Ramen is noodles in a broth with a wide variety of ingredients, typically onions and slices of pork, and eating it fresh from a restaurant is absolutely delicious and bowls of it are extremely popular here in Japan. Every city has huge amount of ramen restaurants, which range from hip and modern chains to being sold out out of the back of an old van. The bowl above a a regional variety originating from Hokkaido, a large northern Japanese island , notable for its use of miso broth. That chunk of butter on top is not a standard topping, but damn was it a good one.
Without a doubt my favorite Japanese food, but this one is the most difficult to describe. Often called a Japanese pancake or omelet, but it isn't really like either and at the same time somewhere in between. Basically, it's a mix of cabbage and flour along with anything else you want, then traditionally covered in a special okonomiyaki sauce (which I liken to sweet BBQ sauce), seaweed flakes, and a ton of mayonaise (whatever you may consider to be a lot of mayonaise to put on something that isn't a sandwich, triple it). Even those standards are often substituted out for something else, making it a food that I think that anyone can enjoy.
Fondue with a lot more ingredients. Usually shabu-shabu restaurants are an all-you-can-eat fare with a time limit. You get a lot of raw ingredients such as beef, chicken, pork and vegetables; your choice of broths, which can placed together in a specialized pot (above), and sauces. You throw in what you want, in the broth you want, dip it in the sauce you want and enjoy. It's fun, easy and simple.
Tonkatsu is breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets, usually served over rice with some egg topping, not much else to it. Often sold at convenience stores for a quick, cheap meal, but it's best had at dedicated katsu restaurants, where it's delicious and still quite cheap.
Japanese cuisine has a lot of noodles, and Udon is one of mainstays in this category. White, thick and soft, they can be eaten either hot or cold, but I prefer them hot. Like ramen, they are good for a quick meal, but tend to be presented much more simply with few toppings. The bowl of Udon above was bought at a small train station restaurant counter. Designed with people in a hurry in mind, you order what you want, within 30 seconds your meals is presented to you, you consume it at a small counter standing up, and off you go.
One of the more unique Japanese dishes is takoyaki, or octopus balls. Simply batter with octopus meat inside that is cooked using a specialized pan (seen above) and topped with the same toppings as Okonomiyaki (special sauce, mayo, seaweed and anything else you'd like). They make great finger food and because of this can always be found at food stalls at Japanese festivals. It's also not uncommon to see specialized takoyaki cooking vans that pop up late into the evening around busy night life areas all over Japan.
Photo credit: Loozrboy
Like shabu-shabu, nabe is a hot pot, but unlike shabu-shabu, nabe is a slow cooking meal. Meant for cold winters during which your dinner party huddles around the burner and your meals comes in due time as you bond. You are essentially making a large stew, with a wide array of vegetables, meats and other nice foods. Here we have cabbage, mushrooms, tofu, chicken balls, Korean kimchi (pickled/fermented cabbage) all in a miso broth.
If I had to pin down one food as "Japanese Fast Food" this would be it, despite the fact that the Japanese love McDonald's. Gyudon means "beef over rice" and it is just that. Of all the meals listed here, this is the cheapest. In the summer the gyudon chain restaurants go on a price war, seeing who can lay claim on the cheapest bowl in Japan, prices can drop to the mid-200 yen range and lines start stretching out the door. This dish isn't for everyone, the quality of meat they use isn't the best, but I really enjoy the mix of beef and onions, especially the varieties with cheese. Above you can see the 3-cheese gyudon from the Sukiya chain.
Every traditional style Japanese meal you have will come with tsukemono, which are tasty pickled vegetables. Not just cucumbers get pickled, but radish, turnips, ginger, onion and probably whatever else is laying around. If you like western style pickled cucumbers, you'll enjoy these.
Photo credit: Jose Wolff
Another extremely common side dish, miso soup. I don't love nor hate miso soup, but I do get tired of it from time to time.
Photo credit: mroach
Made from buckwheat flour, soba is a noodle that can be on both the cheap and gourmet sides of the spectrum. Making soba is often done with great care by someone who has been in the craft for decades, or at least learned from someone that was. I has a subtle taste and really shows how the Japanese take pride in perfecting their craft, no matter what it may be.
Photo credit: avlxyz
Despite the name, yakisoba is not made from buckwheat soba noodles. They are fairly typical noodles, but are fried, similar to lo mein. It definitely one of my favorites and can always be found at Japanese festivals. It is also the only one of these dishes that is so easy to make I can do it in my own, tiny, crippled kitchen.
Photo credit: Jeremy Keith
These fermented beans are without a doubt the most controversial of all Japanese foods. Most Japanese people love them and most foreigners don't, and those that don't find it completely revolting. It has an extremely strong taste and an equally strong smell that even the fans will tell you is a bit offensive. When I first arrived in the country, I was often asked by my new co-workers if I had tried it yet, so when the opportunity came during school lunch to try it I went for it.
It's pretty disgusting, gag inducing disgusting, and not something I'd recommend anyone eat. There are plenty of people that really enjoy it, but I'm just not one of them, but it is absolutely something that everyone should try when in Japan (honestly!). The Japanese recognize that most people find it revolting and praise anyone that gives it a shot, just be sure to have something to get the taste out of your mouth handy in case you have the same reaction that I did.
Photo credit: Tom Magliery
Almost all of the foods above have restaurants that exclusively serve different varieties of the dish, except maybe natto, tsukemono and miso soup. So, if there's ever an urge for any of them, I know exactly where to go. Now, a lot these are not a part your typical Japanese meal, just as hamburgers and BBQ aren't in America. Typical meals more often than not include some variation of white rice, fish and miso soup, sometimes even for all three meals of the day. A fairly healthy choice, there's no doubt that the Japanese diet is one of the contributing factors to the country's overall life expectancy of 82.6 years, the highest in the world.