It might be famed for its sushi and its oh-so-careful preparation of the poisonous blowfish in particular but Japanese cuisine has a lot more to offer. Fish is plentiful in this area and in many varied forms, but regional varieties deliver tastes feasts across the country. Michelin stars are hidden in backstreets of Tokyo – for the brave and the well-briefed to find. The gastronomy of Japan is so much more than just ‘raw fish’.
Japan for foodies
Dabble with seafood in Tokyo
Fish is at the heart of Japanese cuisine and the fresh fish markets have to be experienced. In Tokyo, start at the outer limits of the Tsukiji Fish Market where ready-to-eat bite such as taiyaki (fish-shaped bites) are in sight and the freshest catch of the day is on display to be bartered over and bought. From the inner market, you can see the tuna auction take place and this vibrant, lively event will show you the daily life of traditional Tokyo. From here, it’s possible to undertake sushi-making lessons from the professionals or extend your market exploration at Toba Seafood Market or Omi-cho Market in Kanazawa.
Regional specialities make fish a treat everywhere. In Hokkaido, try ruibe, which will remind you of salmon sashimi. Or in Ishikari, the nabe or miso-based hotpot of salmon, vegetables and tofu will warm you up on a cold day. If you are feeling brave in Okinawa and have your toothbrush close by, ikasumi jiru is a thick black soup, coloured by squid ink. Try fugu no ko nukazuke (pickled blowfish roe) is a delicacy from the Ishikawa Prefecture but make sure your chef is an expert in handling this poisonous fish.
With 1,800 sake breweries across Japan, most notably in Niigata, Kobe and Kyoto, drinking this fermented short-grain rice liquid is a national treasure – at familiar and formal occasions alike.
Sake is often enjoyed during appetisers, or tapas-style dining and sipped while tasting light dishes such as sashimi. It is not rarely included as part of a large meal though may be in more informal settings. The drink is still associated with ceremonious or formal occasions such as weddings where a sake ceremony is held to symbolise the unity of two families.
Small cups and a larger serving flask allow for frequent refill opportunities, each of which is a mini-ritual of social bonding. In formal situations, the flask is held with two hands when pouring. Likewise, the person receiving should lift his or her glass off the table, holding it with one hand and supporting it with the other. The more formal the situation the more such etiquette is observed.
Eat with Etiquette
Tokyo has a staggering number of Michelin-starred restaurants, which has increased from 227 in 2017 to 234 in 2018. The Mandarin Oriental hotel is home to three restaurants which grace the list alone. With our guide you can know the Japanese food dishes you’re eating and the correct Japanese etiquette.
Step 1 - Never leave your chopsticks standing vertically
Step 2 - Don’t pass food between chopsticks
Step 3 - Avoid placing your chopsticks over the top of your bowl
Step 4 - Be careful not to wave those chopsticks around if you like to talk and gesticulate
Step 5 - They are not weapons – don’t stab the food
Step 6 - Use them for food – not for scratching your head, or for chewing
Step 7 - Don’t hover over dishes – be decisive
Step 8 - Use the right utensils for shared dishes – don’t double dip
Step 9 - Avoid moving your bowl with your chopsticks
Step 10 - Don’t wash or rub your chopsticks together
There are some must-taste gastronomies in Japan – here is just a small round-up:
Okonomiyaki – there are two versions of this Japanese pancake, and both are amazing. Whether you prefer the Kansai or Hiroshima (which is more of a main meal in itself) version, you are in for a treat. Often made on a teppan, the Kansai batter of flour, eggs, cabbage and broth is then topped with a choice of meat, seafood, cheese and bonito flakes for a taste you should truly savour.
Takoyaki – grilled octopus balls might sound less appealing, but this delicious dish is found all over Japan with good reason. Batter filled with diced octopus, pickled ginger, green onion and tenkasu are covered in takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise. Be careful, once you’ve tried these, you’ll be seeking them out everywhere.
Wanko Soba – In Tohoku’s Iwate prefecture, try soba noodles in small bowls (or wanko), with radish and mushrooms to add to taste. This is an all you can eat experience so wear loose fitting clothes and enjoy the competition, ready to wow your friends with your capability.
Tonkatsu – This pork cutlet with Miso sauce incorporates a special Aichi miso known as hacchou-miso which is sweetened with bonito stock and sugar. This dish is famous to Nagoya and comes in many shapes and forms – including buckwheat noodles and udon. You may think you’ve tried it before but here the original is definitely the best.
Find more inspiration to start planning your luxury holiday to Japan.