If the Japanese are known for anything other than their gadget wizardry, immaculate gardens, and super-fast shinkansen (bullet trains), it’s their food, and by god are they masters at satisfying the taste buds!
Japanese food is much more than just something to eat – it’s an art form in itself that has been perfected and refined for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Using only locally sourced fresh seasonal ingredients combined with the highest standards in quality and presentation, the Japanese are the undisputed masters in the culinary arts.
If you’re about to set off to the Land of the Rising Sun (perhaps on the Golden Route), here’s what you need to know about Japanese food, and what you need to taste whilst there.
UMAMI: The other flavour
Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami?
The world’s culinary conventions were shattered in the 1900s when the Japanese discovered another dimension of taste made through the interaction of the amino acid glutamate and a person’s taste buds.
This extra dimension is now a cornerstone of Japanese cuisine, and you’ll taste it in such ingredients as soy sauce, miso (fermented soybean paste), niboshi (dried sardines), nori (seaweed) and dashi (a stock made from dried ingredients including fish and kelp).
Experience the highest level of Japanese dining
Kaiseki is the pinnacle of Japanese dining, a multi-course (typically between 7 to 14 dishes) dining experience expertly prepared and presented by a master chef using only local ingredients that are in season.
Common kaiseki courses include nimono (simmered dishes), mukozuke (sashimi dishes), hassun (an expression of the season) and often dessert and tea to conclude the course.
Japanese vegetarian Buddhist cuisine
Experience shojin ryori at a temple and be introduced to the traditional vegetarian dining style of Japanese Buddhist cuisine.
In shojin ryori, each dish is prepared and cooked according to the “rule of five” (five different colours and flavours – see umami above) which is believed to restore balance and alignment to the body and mind. Some temples also offer lodging to travellers, called shukubo. You can experience this at places like Koyasan in Wakayama Prefecture.
Take part in a Japanese tea ceremony
Quintessentially Japanese, this ritual with a centuries-long history of preparing and serving powdered green tea, called matcha, is not just about the tea per se. It’s all about the art of preparing the perfect brew too and staying in the moment as the master performs the delicate movements which are choreographed to show respect and friendship.
A full-length ceremony can take up to four hours, and includes a meal and two servings of tea.
Try these traditional Japanese dishes
We all know (and most love) sushi, that iconic Japanese dish made of white rice seasoned with vinegar and topped with a variety of fish, seafood and/or vegetables. Common types of sushi include nigiri (hand-formed sushi) and maki (seaweed-wrapped roll sushi).
Ramen is another of those iconic Japanese dishes, a steaming hot bowl of noodles swimming in a delicious broth and topped with slices of braised pork, green onion, dried seaweed and egg. Tonkotsu ramen (made up of pork bones that are boiled until they dissolve into a cloudy thick broth) is a specialty of Fukuoka in the Kyushu region, so make sure you tuck into a bowl or two when travelling in Japan’s south. Other Japanese noodles you must try are soba (made of buckwheat flour) and udon (made of wheat flour).
Sample Shochu, the Japanese Vokda
Made from sweet potato, barley, rice and other ingredients, shochu – aka Japanese vodka – is a distilled liquor that is extremely popular in Japan. Kyushu is considered to have the best quality shochu in the country.
Dine at a themed restaurant
The Japanese know how to inject a dose of fun and entertainment into their restaurants, exemplified by the range of themed restaurants that can be found all throughout the country.
In Tokyo, make a reservation at the Robot Restaurant, where robots and dancers put on a multi-sensory show you’ll never, ever, forget.
In Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, check out Alice’s Fantasy Restaurant, taking diners down through the rabbit hole with its Alice in Wonderland themed decor, meals and costumed staff.