Unique Dishes in Japan [Updated 2020]

February 16, 2014

Are the unique dishes in Japan delicious….or horrible? Will the food have you clamoring for more…or send scampering to find one of Japan’s unique and weird toilets?

Remember this jump rope song (okay, I know I’m dating myself!): “Apple on a stick. Makes me sick.”

I have a better one:  Squid on a skewer. Put it in the sewer.

unique food in japan

Squid-on-a-stick, Kyoto

Not gonna lie, most of the food I tried to eat in Japan evoked a strong gag reflex…

About that sushi…

First of all, I do not like sushi. Sorry, I just don’t.  Aside from the disgusting texture, “bite-sized” is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.  It’s impossible to cut those suckers with chopsticks; I once tried to put a whole piece of sushi and its rice base in my mouth, but it filled up all available space and I was unable to get any traction to chew it.  To avoid gagging, I spit the whole thing out in my napkin.  Admittedly, not a pretty picture, but far more desirable than retching in public.

unique food in japan

Sashimi (sushi without rice) — looks beautiful, tastes terrible

Other things I did not like

  • Slimy squid on a stick, the skin so tough your teeth can sink into it.
  • Sukiyaki – thin-sliced, fatty, tough beef drowning in a sea of mucus-like raw egg.
  • Mystery soup, accompanied by funky tasting molded eggs, and bland white rice for breakfast.  No thank you, I’ll just surreptitiously eat this protein bar I squirreled away in my purse

Here are 25 traditional dishes to try in Japan that you might like.

The redeeming value

Luckily there is a lot more to like in Japan, like super-friendly people, stunning historical palaces, shogun castles, exquisite gardens, great shopping venues, and my favorite – a geisha makeover in Kyoto.

avoiding horrendous food japan

Guess who? My Geisha makeover…

To avoid committing a faux pas eating disaster, head for these places:

Nishiki Market

Lots of choices in the Nishiki Market, Kyoto

Open-air markets

Variety abounds, and along with grub you may have never seen before (and hope you never see again), you can assuredly find something that you can get past your eyes and into your mouth.  At the Nishiki Market in Kyoto, I found Japanese candy that was almost too cute to eat.

unique food in japan

Japanese candy — aesthetically beautiful


There were quite a few restaurants in the Shinjuku District of Tokyo that cater to tourists.  And don’t let any of those travel snobs tell you that you’re not “authentically” experiencing Japan!  Travel is what you make of it.  (See A Word About Travel Snobs) You can still visit venues with some unique dishes in Japan (the photo ops are priceless!), but you don’t have to eat there.  However, don’t miss the delicious desserts in Tokyo — some of the best in Japan!

Lucky for me, in Narita, I found tempura – small portions of meat, shrimp, or vegetables covered in a light batter and deep-fried to crisp perfection.  I’m pretty sure that saved me from total starvation!

And on the road to Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, I discovered green tea ice cream… so I ordered two cones.  For myself.  Like everywhere else in the world that I’ve traveled to, the ice cream in Japan was my favorite thing to eat!

“Ice cream is exquisite.  What a pity it isn’t illegal.”  ~Voltaire

avoiding horrendous food japan

Green tea ice cream… can’t get enough!

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About the Author

Patti MorrowPatti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.”  Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal.  She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.


  1. Comment by Donna Janke

    Donna Janke Reply February 17, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    At least you gave the food a try before finding out you didn’t like it. I’m usually game to try any food, but I’ve never been to Japan and don’t know how I’d react. The green tea ice cream looks yummy though.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 24, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      If I can get it past my eyes, I’m usually game to try it. If it’s too hideous, I’m out.

  2. Comment by Irene S. Levine

    Irene S. Levine Reply February 17, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    What about noodles? I’m sure I could find a way to make do:-)

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 17, 2014 at 8:41 pm

      Noodles weren’t as plentiful as I had thought. I did eat a lot of rice, though! Yes, I made do…. it was worth it because the sights were great, and I’m really not a foodie. 🙂

  3. Comment by noelmorata

    noelmorata Reply February 17, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    That’s funny, I think sweets is always a universal yummy for everyone, i love sushi so it was a good experience for me…but the soups, noodles and bento boxes where also great along with the bbq joints

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 17, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      Everyone else in our group loved the sushi, too. I was so looking forward to the bento boxes, but they had a lot of mushy, unidentifiable stuff too. It’s me, I have an issue with consistency! But sometimes these things make better stories than the same-old, same-old, don’t you think? One of my favorite blog posts about this trip was the day we were delayed at the Osaka train station: https://luggageandlipstick.com/girls-gone-bored/

  4. Comment by santafetraveler

    santafetraveler Reply February 17, 2014 at 9:06 pm

    I like squid. I’m a sushi fan, too- thought preferred cooked fish- no sashimi for me. For years I only ate tempura and teriiaki and sukiaki, it had to be real cooked food- then I discovered sushi and fell in love.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 17, 2014 at 9:13 pm

      I wish I could like it, I really do. Even here in the US, there are a lot of sushi fans. Alas, I’ll never be one!

  5. Comment by Patti

    Patti Reply February 17, 2014 at 11:59 pm

    I don’t eat sushi either, so I’m with ya and green tea ice cream sounds ridiculously good! Love the geisha photo, that must have been a fun experience.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 18, 2014 at 9:21 am

      I didn’t let the food stop me from enjoying the trip. The Geisha makeover was the highlight of the trip! Two girlfriends did it with me, and we had a blast!

  6. Comment by Mike

    Mike Reply February 18, 2014 at 1:03 am

    I love sushi but there are a few of the selections I draw the line at, Patti. Squid, it has to be cooked but I admit I have never tried it raw. Oh lordy those old fermented eggs….no, no, no!! And soups…most of the Asian soups have not worked for me so far. I was told that most all of the places in Japan now offer forks and spoons if you are unable to use chopsticks? Not the case? Good read and yes on the ice cream! 🙂

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 18, 2014 at 9:24 am

      I’m with ya, Mike. I ate a lot of rice, but luckily with a little research I was able to find some edible things to keep me going. I don’t chopsticks and actually prefer to use them when possible, just to keep my skills sharp. 🙂

  7. Comment by Suzanne Fluhr

    Suzanne Fluhr Reply February 18, 2014 at 4:19 am

    I’m afraid I had a very similar reaction to real Japanese food in Japan which made me feel a little like a gastronomic Ugly American. In fact, I was moved to write a post very similar to this, “Would you like salted fish guts with that?” I also ate quite a bit of rice and cold noodles with teryaki sauce when I could find them in corner stores. Like you, we discovered soft serve green tea ice cream. Did you “get” that you’re not supposed to walk around eating food–even when you buy it from a street stand? Anyway, if you don’t mind me sharing it, here’s the link to my Japanese food post:

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 18, 2014 at 9:35 am

      I’m so relieved to learn that I’m not the only person in the world that doesn’t love raw fish. I, too, made an effort not to be an “ugly American” by not complaining (too much) and pushing my food around my plate, just like I when I was a child. I liked the “fish guts” story — you nailed it when you said slimy is a big part of Japanese food prep. I just can’t do slimy.

  8. Comment by Cathy Sweeney

    Cathy Sweeney Reply February 18, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    Don’t tell anyone….. but I’m not a big fan of sushi either. And the thought of “slimy squid” does not appeal to me at all. Green tea ice cream sounds very good to me. I agree that the authenticity of the travel experience is never dependent on one aspect. It’s a very personal thing.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 18, 2014 at 8:36 pm

      Your secret is safe with me, Cathy! You can sometimes find green tea ice cream here in the states, at Japanese restaurants. Give it a try!

  9. Comment by Nancie

    Nancie Reply February 18, 2014 at 5:38 pm

    We can’t all like the same thing 🙂 I have eaten some great food when in Japan. Real ramen (not the stuff in a bag or box), sushi (I like it), bento boxes are nice. Squid on a stick is good too. I actually got to like this when I was in Taiwan.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 18, 2014 at 8:38 pm

      That is so true, Nancy. What a boring world it would be if we all liked the same food, adventures, climate, etc.! It’s wonderful to travel to faraway places to try new things. That fact that we may or may not like everything we taste is irrelevant — it’s the experience that counts.

  10. Comment by Jackie Smith

    Jackie Smith Reply February 18, 2014 at 8:27 pm

    I do love sushi and could do it over and over again, but if it gets too abstract (guts, and other disgusting parts) count me out. Now that ice cream cone. . ..

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 24, 2014 at 8:21 pm

      I agree. I don’t know how anyone can get the “guts” past their eyes and into their mouths!

  11. Comment by Catherine

    Catherine Reply February 20, 2014 at 6:09 am

    I’m not a fan of fish or rice, so sushi has never appealed to me! Glad you found some food to like though, the ice cream sounds amazing 🙂

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 20, 2014 at 9:44 am

      Couldn’t get enough of that green tea ice cream!

  12. Comment by Terry

    Terry Reply April 29, 2014 at 5:57 am

    For me the Japanese candy is out of this world. Every one should try it! It will blow your mind 😉

  13. Comment by Kat C

    Kat C Reply September 30, 2017 at 1:27 pm


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