Like much of Japanese society, Japanese food is heavily influenced by custom. In Tokyo, an adorable bento box or skillfully sliced sashimi is just another day’s lunch. At the counter of a dimly lit ramen bar, you’ll probably be consuming the chef’s seven thousandth bowl, and the guy flipping yakitori skewers has definitely got it down to an art. Nothing is so haphazardly made as you’ve come to permit from American fast food. Hell, even the shelves of 7/11 are stocked with food you’d cross the Pacific for.
Sushi has championed Japanese food to taste buds everywhere, but there’s a whole lot more to Japanese food than that. On a Tokyo stopover to Vietnam, Daniel and I had approximately 96 hours to consume the alarmingly long list of foods we knew we must eat in Tokyo. We figured with 4 meals a day, we might just be able to pull it off. I even ditched my pork fast to be sure I got to eat every last one of the best things to eat in Tokyo. Over the next few days, we flitted from bar to restaurant to vending machine to street food stall, to eat everything we possibly could.
By the end, we were broke and bloated, but guys — worth it. Hungry?
8 Foods You Must Eat in Tokyo
Tokyo style ramen starts with a soy-based broth with a touch of dashi. Filled with curly noodles and topped scallions, menma, sliced pork, kamaboko, egg, nori, and spinach, Cup Noodles ought step aside — ramen in Japan is a noodle soup of a much higher caliber. We opted for the miso-based ramen, which originated in Northern Japan. It is slightly spicier and will make you want nothing but to drink the broth.
While commonly associated with fish, the key characteristic to sushi is, in fact, rice. Lightly vinegared and slightly sticky, perfectly made rice can elevate just about any half decent fish to greatness. Japanese sushi is served as nigiri (fish with rice) or sashimi (fish without rice) rather than the rolls popularized around the world. There’s a whole etiquette to eating sushi in Japan down to the soy sauce, making sushi a definite must eat in Tokyo. While most of it is delicious and vaguely familiar, we recommend you first practice swallowing sushi squid in the comfort of your home so you don’t gag it back up like I did.
While sushi is the best known of Japanese fish artistry, donburi definitely earns its own spot on this list. Donburi is sushi rice in served oversized bowl, often served with cooked meats or raw fish. As we experienced this dish outside of the Tsukiji Fish Market, we’d say raw fish is the only way to go. Select from an extensive menu of options and enjoy a bowl seasoned with soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled daikon.
Ready? Fugu (a.k.a. pufferfish) is a Japanese delicacy, consumed primarily by thrill seekers and true food connoisseurs. The pufferfish contains lethal amounts a poison called tetrodotoxin, carried in its liver, ovaries, and eyes. If you’re looking for a bit of culinary adventure, order a plate of fugu, and let the alarming numb take over your mouth. Ok, so maybe this is more of a brave option than a true “must eat in Tokyo”!
Onigilli is a Japanese rice ball that makes for an easy and healthier-than-chips snack. It’s a handheld triangle of packed rice, filled with meat, seafood, or sauce, and wrapped with seaweed. Sold in an abundance of flavors at 7/11s across Japan, we’d love to know how much hanger (hunger + anger) onigilli has singlehandedly squashed.
If you ask Daniel (or Anthony Bourdain) Japanese soba is it. If you ask me? Well, I’ll just defer and let you just try it for yourself. Soba is a nutritious buckwheat noodle, served cold with dipping sauce or hot broth. You can either procure it cheaply at train stations or expensively at a soba restaurant, but it is definitely a unique dish worth eating.
If there’s one thing that can make Japanese curry even better, it’s most likely (definitely) a fried pork cutlet. It is first breaded with panko and then deep fried. Katsu is not only delicious on it’s own, but the perfect, crunchy supplement to a sweet curry.
It seems in all countries you can find some variation of skewered meat, so what makes yakitori special? Cooked over a coal fire and seasoned with the thick, soy flavored tare sauce, Yakitori is chicken that only barely tastes like chicken. You can order just about every chicken part (hearts included) to snack on over cold Sapporos. Yum!
Food Tours in Tokyo
If you’d like to get a better idea of the best sneaky spots for street food in Tokyo, check out the Tokyo After 5 tour! We missed it on our trip, but we’ve had incredible local experiences with Urban Adventures in cities around the world. Find this list helpful? Click below to get to the Urban Adventures site. It will help support our blog at no cost to you!
5 Cheap Places You Must Eat in Tokyo
Alright, ready to experience all the must eat foods in Tokyo? We’re years (and $$) away from fine dining, so here are 5 of our favorite cheap places around Tokyo where you can indulge in local food:
1. Tonkotsu Ramen Hakata Furyu: With locations scattered around Tokyo, you can order from Hakata Furyu with the click of a vending machine and still get the perfect bowl. Head to Shinjuku station and eat at the shop located at 1-17-7 Hyakunincho, Shinjuku 169-0073, Tokyo Prefecture.
2. Tsukiji Fish Market: This one’s easy! At the Tsukiji Fish Market, you can sample the best catch of the day in the nearby outer market. Grab a bowl of donburi at Tsukiji Donburi Ichiba — we swear it’s one of the very best things to eat in Tokyo. located at 4-9-5 Tsukiji, Chuo, Tokyo Prefecture.
3. CURRY HOUSE CoCo ICHIBANYA: While Coco is kinda like Japanese McDonald’s, its accessible menu makes it a great place to scope out all of the fried offerings and decide just how you like your curry topped. Hop into one of the many locations around Tokyo for your first taste of the dish. Locations throughout Tokyo.
4. Isehiro Kyobashi: If you’re venturing for perfectly cooked Yakitori, head no further than Isehiro Kyobashi. For less than $15, you can sample a variety of chicken parts located at 1-5-4 Kyobashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo.
5. Nakameguro Onigily Cafe: Bite into the perfect onigilly at Nakmeguro Cafe. With prices on par with convenience stores, this is a good place to stop to fill up between meals. Located at Meguro-ku, Nakameguro 3-1-4 目黒区中目黒3-1-4.
BONUS: We bet you’ve heard that Japan has a whole lot of cute food too? Don’t forget to check out this post on Cute + Weird Places to Eat in Tokyo!
Headed to Tokyo? Don’t miss our Tokyo Travel Video + Fun Things to Do in Tokyo!