Japan is a country that is rich with traditions. From its architecture to its customs, there’s a wonderful uniqueness to this multi-island nation. There’s also a commitment to craft here, one that can easily be found in many of Japan’s greatest exports—and tasted in its cuisine.
The Japanese people take their food very seriously. From preparation to presentation, everything is carefully thought out and created to the highest standards. And this dedication has paid off. In 2011, Japan became the country with the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants in the world (29 in total). Considering there are only 121 restaurants with 3 Michelin stars, that means over 20% of what may be considered the greatest dining options on Earth are found in Japan.
Simply put, if you have an appetite for incredible food, Japan should be at the top of your dream destinations list.
Today, we’re taking a look at Japanese cuisine, it’s history, and the regional varieties that make each port a unique dining destination. Whether you’re planning to join us for delicious Japanese culinary experiences or embracing your sense of adventure and exploring on your own, this guide is sure to whet your appetite. Ready? Itadakimasu (the traditional Japanese expression often said before a meal)!
Washoku: The Roots of Japanese Cuisine
To understand Japanese cuisine, one must first understand Washoku. Literally meaning “food of Japan,” Washoku is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is a rare honor. In fact, Washoku was only the second culinary tradition bestowed with this designation.
As a culinary style, Washoku is heralded for its captivating harmony of simplicity and sophistication. It is known for its balance, aesthetics, and blending of the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. If you’re unfamiliar with umami, it’s a savory taste, one that is common in broths, fish and fish sauces, tomatoes, and soy sauces, among others. Because Washoku attempts to highlight the textures and flavors of each ingredient (rather than disguise them), traditional japanese cooking does not rely on a wealth of spices. Instead, the natural flavors of your dish wash over your taste buds. Think of your quintessential comfort food—this is similar to what Washoku represents in Japan. It is food that nourishes using fresh, seasonal ingredients, and according to many of the Japanese people, it feeds the body, as well as the soul.
Japan is a country with four very distinct seasons, and Washoku dishes reflect each of them. When fruits and vegetables reach their peak season (known as its shun), it can be a joyous occasion, one that is celebrated by including them in traditional dishes. In Japan, this is sometimes referred to as yama no sachi (taking advantage of the fruit of the bounty of the mountains). In the spring, you may see an abundance of tasty green peas, flavorful shishito peppers in the summer, chestnuts and matsutake mushrooms in the fall, and root vegetables in the winter. As the seasons change, so to do the recipes, meaning the dishes are constantly adapting depending on what’s available.
Not to be outdone, rice (an absolute staple in Japanese cuisine) also has its own shun. This is typically in the early fall. If you’re fortunate enough to enjoy a rice-based dish during this time, you’ll notice a moist and tender texture that becomes less common as the seasons continue to change.
Seasonality also impacts the seafood you’ll find in Japan, though no matter the time of year, you’re always sure to find a wonderful assortment to choose from. Considering Japan’s geography, it should come as no surprise to find buri yellowtail, pike eel, hamaguri clams, Japanese whiting, and more on the menu.
An Evolving Palate
In the mid 19th-century, Japan slowly began opening its doors to more Western influence by way of trade. Of course, this influence had an impact on the Japanese cuisine (and, depending on who you ask, this was either a positive or negative development). In 1872, Japanese people were allowed to consume meat again in public (ending a thousand year ban). While today, we think of Japanese beef to be among the best in the world, it’s interesting to think that consuming it is still a relatively new concept for the country.
Over time, Japanese chefs have embraced more western culinary techniques, though these chapters of free-flowing ideas are often interspersed with periods of closing their doors to outside influence. The results of these patterns of embracing, assimilating, and refining have allowed an amazing food identity to flourish in Japan.
A Regional Look at Japanese Cuisine
While Washoku is a useful framework for understanding Japanese cuisine, it doesn’t tell the entire story. That’s because Japan is divided up into 8 regions, with a variety of prefectures in each. These regions all bring something unique to the table and are a joy to explore. Let’s take a closer look at some of the regions and prefectures of Japan, and learn more about the culinary delights you’ll discover while traveling through the country with us.
Remember when we mentioned that Japan is the country to the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants in the world? Well, Kantō’s largest city, Tokyo, is the city with the most 3-starred Michelin restaurants in the world. Simply put, the people of this region are obsessed with food. That’s good news, as Kantō in general, and Tokyo specifically, have earned reputations as places where you can get anything you want to eat—and it’s always prepared to perfection.
Because of this, the Kantō region is less known for its specialty dishes, and more for its sheer variety. You may find yourself sampling grilled chicken skewers (yakitori) served from a street vendor or dining at an elite French establishment like Quintessence—perhaps both on the same day. However, if you are looking for a Kantō original, this is the birthplace of nigiri-zushi. Sometimes called Edo-mae sushi, this is arguably the most popular style of sushi in the world. It involves slices of raw fish sitting on hand-pressed mounds of rice—generally with a drop of wasabi.
Regardless of where you choose to dine while you’re here, one thing you’re sure to notice is that elaborate menus aren’t so commonplace. Instead, you’re more than likely to find yourself in restaurants that only make a few dishes, or perhaps only one! While this may take some getting used to, the reasoning is sound—many of these restaurants have chefs that have been honing their craft for multiple generations. They do one thing, and they do it exceptionally well.
You can’t mention Kantō cuisine without mentioning Kansai. There’s always been a bit of a friendly rivalry between these two regions. It’s East versus West, and the battlefield is often found in their many restaurants. In general, the eastern region of Kantō is known for food with a stronger flavor, while Kansai, in the west, offers flavors that are more subtle and light.
In Kyoto, you can try Obanzai, a traditional cooking style native to the region. Why is Obanzai a uniquely-Kyoto experience? Because in order for a meal to be considered Obanzai, at least half of its ingredients must be produced or prepared in Kyoto, and they must be in season too. An Obanzai meal will typically rely heavily on seafood and vegetables and incorporates mottainai principals—meaning everything is put to good use. Restaurants such as Mukadeya and Hokkoriya (a Michelin-starred establishment) are well known for the Obanzai style in Kyoto, and are two of our favorites.
Elsewhere in Kansai, you’ll find the city of Osaka, where it’s been said locals spend more on food than anything else. In fact, there’s a common expression used to describe food culture here, kuidaore, meaning “Eat until you drop”. Takoyaki (grilled octopus), kitson udon (thick wheat noodles served in hot soup) and teppanyaki are all local favorites in Osaka, many of which can be found in Kuromon Market (lovingly known as “Osaka’s Kitchen”) in the Dotonbori district.
Japan’s central alpine region, Chubu is an agricultural paradise. This has a lot to do with the water streaming down from the Japanese alps to the ground below—creating fertile soil that is perfect for growing fruits and vegetables. We make two stops in this region, Kanazawa and Shimizu.
This entire area is heavily influenced by the cuisine coming out of Nagoya—its largest city. In turn, Nagoyan cuisine draws a lot of inspiration from the dishes of many foreign countries, including Italy, Taiwan, mainland China, and India. These influences, combined with its distinct climate, vegetation, and culture, have resulted in Chubu earning a reputation as a culinary destination unlike any other in the country.
Here, locals love hearty comfort foods like misonikomi (a hotpot dish with extra thick noodles) and hitsumabushi (a traditional grilled eel dish), and often flavor their meals with mame miso (made with fermented soybeans grown in the region) or tamari soy sauce. You’ll also find a smorgasbord of spaghetti dishes here—often made with Taiwanese noodles.
If you’re feeling adventurous, we recommend trying inago no tsukudani—stewed grasshopper in sweet soy sauce. Crunchy and richly flavored, inago no tsukudani is a delicacy not to be missed when traveling through this region with us.
Japan’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido is known for its rugged mountains, wide open countryside, natural hot springs, and incredible culinary culture. Over time, dishes crafted by the region’s indigenous Ainu people merged with foods introduced by mainland settlers. Mix in a bit of Western influence, and the result is a delicious assortment of local specialties you may not see anywhere else.
Hokkaido’s cold northern waters are a fisherman’s paradise. Thriving with vegetation and fish, the seafood pulled from these waters is among the world’s best. Make your way to Hakodate's Morning Market to sample it for yourself as part of a donburi breakfast. This is a rice bowl topped with ikura (salmon roe), ika (squid), or uni (sea urchin). Mix and match your seafood toppings to enjoy a local treat and start your day off on the right foot.
Hokkaido is also well known for its dairy industry. In fact, about half of Japan’s milk is produced in the region. This means you can expect to find dairy products used in the dishes and desserts you eat here more than anywhere else in Japan. Perhaps most notably, ramen—a specialty of the region—is often served with a slice of butter on top.
Hokkaido also has a thriving beer culture (this region is home to Sapporo, after all), so be sure to raise a glass, say “kanpai!” and enjoy a drink with your meal.
During Japan’s Edo Period (1603 - 1868), Tohoku gave rise to what is known as samurai cuisine. These warriors were known for eating a basic diet of miso soup and rice, often paired with pickled vegetables, nattō (fermented soybeans), or seaweed. The simple, filling principles of this diet continue to guide culinary traditions in Tohoku to this day. Baked rice cakes are common, as are buckwheat soba noodles.
Because the winters in this region can be chilly, many consider comfort foods and hotpots to be kings in Japan’s northeast. Imoni is a popular Tohoku soup made with green onions, taro roots, and beef slices. Sasa kamaboko—a colorful roasted mix of fish and bamboo leaves topped with mirin (a Japanese rice-wine condiment)—is also a must-try dish when you visit the region’s cities like Akita and Aomori.
Tohoku’s most well-known contribution to the Japanese culinary scene, however, is wanko-soba. This dish, a serving of soba noodles in a small bowl, is famous for how it’s served. A wanko-soba serving is quite small, with about a mouth full of noodles in each bowl. But once you finish that bowl, another one arrives in an expression of otebachi (a form of gratitude). This is followed by another, then another, and another—continuing until you find yourself full. It’s not uncommon to see 50 or more bowls stacked on a table by the time a meal is finished.
Legend has it that once a wealthy man held a party at his home and more guests arrived than anticipated. In order to accommodate all these guests, everyone was served in a small bowl, and encouraged to refill them until they were satisfied. And with that, a culinary tradition was born.
In the region of Chugoku, healthy, hearty dishes reign supreme. In the wake of World War II, the people of this region put an emphasis on nutritional value, meaning a visit here should result in meals that are both good and good for you.
Seafood is the culinary catch of the day for most. In Hiroshima, expect to sample plenty of oysters, often called “the milk of the sea” for their high nutritional value. This southern city is the leading oyster producer in Japan. What sets the oysters you’ll have here apart from other regions? It’s their higher levels of glycogen and phosphorus. While you’re in port, be sure to try dotenabe—a delicious miso-based soup topped with expertly-cooked oysters.
Chugoku is also the best region to sample fugu, more commonly known as puffer fish. Whether carefully arranged on a plate, as part of a hire-zake drink, or served in a hotpot with fuguchiri, puffer fish have proved themselves to have an enduring place at the table. Be warned, however, puffer fish are delicious, but some types contain a particularly potent poison called tetrodotoxin. A special licence is required to cook puffer fish, and only the most skilled chefs serve it. Ask many locals and they’ll tell you it’s worth the (small) risk to enjoy this favorite delicacy.
And don’t forget to sample the region’s famous savory pancakes, known as okonomiyaki. Much different than western pancakes, an okonomiyaki is stacked and layered with egg, oysters, squid, cabbage, noodles, and cheese before being topped off with flakes of bonito and your choice of local specialty sauces.
They say you’ll find more restaurants per person in Kyushu than nearly any other place in Japan—and we believe it. Food is taken very seriously here, and the culinary scene is definitely vibrant. This has a lot to do with Kyushu’s close-proximity to mainland Asia and the influences it offers, as well as a history of interactions with the British, Dutch, and Portuguese. In fact, Kyushu was one of the only regions of the country that remained open to foreign trade during Japan’s self-imposed isolation period.
Many of Japan’s greatest culinary traditions were born out of Kyushu’s connections with outside influencers, including tempura, which was first introduced by the Portuguese during their missionary work here. There’s also distinct Chinese and Korean influence in their ramen soups, particularly their pork bone ramen—a rich soup with broth made by boiling pork bone.
In Nagasaki, try kakuni manju, the city’s iconic pork buns, as well as the castella cakes (again, inspired by the Portuguese). Seafood is also popular here, and you’ll find menus filled with takezaki crab and tiger prawns. If you’re feeling brave, seek out ikizukuri, a live-squid sashimi that is not for the faint of heart.
You’ll also find some of the best wagyu beef in Kyushu. Specifically, Saga beef, which is one of the top three brands of wagyu in Japan. You’ve probably heard the rumors about wagyu cows—they’re raised like emperors, regularly massaged, and fed only the best food. We can’t confirm or deny these rumors, but we’ll simply say the proof is in the pudding (or, in this case, the cut of beef).
The Okinawa prefecture is located within the Kyushu region, but it offers a unique dining experience all its own. An independent kingdom (the Ryukyu Kingdom) between the 15th and 19th centuries, Okinawa was an important trading hub between Japan, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. As merchants made their way on trading missions, they brought a unique culinary hodgepodge of styles that remain at the heart of Okinawa’s food to this day.
There’s a saying in Okinawa that roughly translates to "cuisine begins with pig and ends with pig," so expect to enjoy a lot of pork during your visit. You may even find yourself trying parts of a pig you had no idea existed. After all, there’s another saying that is common among Okinanwans, “Every part of the pig, except for its squeal." Goya champura (a pork and goya-based stir fry) and soki soba (a soba noodle dish served with soft boiled pork) are both popular here, and should be considered must-try meals.
Interestingly, Okinawa also features a great deal of American influence when it comes to their gastronomy—especially in the wake of World War II. You’ll find a surprising amount of love for “canned pork” here, and one of the region’s most popular “everyday” meals is taco rice, which is exactly what it sounds like—the typical ingredients of a taco served over rice. Put the chopsticks down for this meal, it’s eaten with a spoon.
The smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the country's larger regions. The geography here is mountainous at its core, with vast plains and fertile river valleys slinking along its coastlines. While this geography has served to isolate Shikoku’s four prefectures, it’s also helped each area develop its own distinct cuisine.
Kagawa has come to be known by locals and visitors alike as the “Udon Prefecture” due to its love of udon noodles. The prefecture is home to more than 900 udon shops, where these thick white noodles are slurped down daily. What makes Kagawa’s udon so special? It’s a distinct flavor and texture achieved by using the protein-rich wheat that grows here during preparation. When visiting Takamatsu with us, be sure to sample a bowl of sanuki udon.
We’ll also be visiting Kōchi—a prefecture that is routinely named the top spot for specialty foods in Japan on nationwide surveys. The signature dish here is katsuo tataki, which is sliced bonito (sometimes called skipjack tuna) seared over a straw fire until the outer layer is a perfect golden brown. Then, it’s topped with ponzu (a citrus and soy sauce dressing) or salt and garlic. Stop into nearly any izakaya (Japan’s equivalent to a tapas bar) while visiting, and you’ll find katsuo tataki on the menu.
A Note on Slurping
When traveling in Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself slurping down a lot of noodles. And we really want to emphasize the slurping here. Unlike in many Western cultures, where slurping can be seen as a sign of bad manners, in Japan it’s not only expected, it’s highly valued! Slurping is an appreciative gesture here, one that expresses how much you’re enjoying your meal. Not only that, it’s also a way of cooling your noodles before eating them, as well as enhancing the flavor. So go ahead, remember when in Rome (or in this case, Japan) and embrace the slurp!
A common expression of gratitude at the end of a Japanese meal, oishii is a way to tell the chef your food really hit the spot. We can’t wait to use this expression after an order of ramen, a sampling of sushi, or an unforgettable cut of wagyu beef. Will you be joining us at the table? Browse our upcoming menu of cruises to Japan today, and don’t forget to pack your appetite.