Traditional Food in Japan

Traditional Food in Japan

There’s food, and then there’s Japanese food. Officially recognised by UNESCO in its Intangible Cultural Heritage collection, traditional food in Japan – or washoku as it’s known locally – is more than a meal, it’s a way of life. From artful multi-course kaiseki dinners, where shokunin or ‘the pursuit of perfection’ is continually striven for, to the expressions, vocabulary and rules that accompany them, Japanese food is tradition incarnate. Forget itsu and Wasabi too, Japanese delicacies are way more than just spicy salmon rolls and chicken katsu curries. In fact, they only skim the surface of the country’s silky sobas, beef barbecue and delightfully crispy karage. Follow crowds of clocked-off salarymen to Kyoto’s sake-soaked markets where stalls of steaming sukiyaki await or join the back of queues in Takayama where locals wait patiently for Hida beef sushi. Wherever you find yourself, we have no doubt that you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the variety of traditional dishes Japan offer…



While it’s not ‘the state of total awareness’ Friends’ Ross would have you believe, unagi, or freshwater eel, is one of Japan’s most popular dishes. Rich, sweet and fresh, it usually comes grilled – kabayaki-style (fileted) – steamed and then grilled again, flavoured with a sticky soy sauce and served atop fluffy white rice. While its popularity means it is now regarded as an opulent menu option (due to dwindling eel populations surrounding Tokyo’s coast), this traditional food in Japan remains a firm favourite among natives. Jam-packed full of minerals, vitamins and oils, unagi is believed to relieve menstrual pain, reduce wrinkles and improve memory. So, it makes sense that the dish has been around since the Edo period and has its own dedicated day of celebration.


Not strictly a food, we know, but where Japanese culinary traditions are concerned, kaiseki deserves a mention. Considered the haute cuisine of Japan, it is a simple multi-course meal that features up to 15 different plates. All defined by specific culinary techniques, you can expect to be served carefully curated sashimi and miso soup courses, as well as grilled meats, simmered vegetables and Japanese sweets. Kaiseki is much more than a meal though. Deep rooted in the philosophy and respect of the changing seasons and local produce, where ingredients are revered for their aroma, vibrancy, flavour and nutritional value, this traditional meal brings a whole new meaning to the term farm to fork.



Most travellers give a firm (yet polite) no to natto. Its ammonia-like smell and sticky consistency is enough to see why. However, if you’re craving a truly authentic Japanese adventure, you ought to give this historic helping a go. Made from fermented soya beans and topped with a raw egg and spring onions, it is Japan’s marmite – found in all cupboards and fridges but used sparingly. Natto has, however, long been hailed a superfood due to its high nutritional value – which is said to protect against strokes and relieve stress. It may be worthwhile taking note too, especially as Japan boasts the oldest population in the world… 



Despite being one of the most colourful components of a bento box, tsukemono, or Japanese pickles, are often neglected when talking about traditional food in Japan. Like tomato ketchup and mayonnaise are to chips, pickled vegetables are to washoku – always needed but never given enough credit. Colourful and tangy, they boast over 400 varieties and numerous methods – yet knowing which one goes with which dish is reserved for only the most experienced and knowledgeable shokunins (chefs). Pickling vegetables was originally developed in Japan out of pure necessity as the only ways to preserve fruit and vegetables. Now, however, there is nothing more ubiquitously Japanese than slurping down bowls of brothy udon topped with tsukemono under paper lantern-strewn Osakan side streets.



You know (and we know) that sushi couldn’t be left off the list of the most traditional food in Japan. Despite originating in China (yes – really) Japan’s adoption of the salty fish and fermented rice snack has become synonymous with its culture – and for good reason. Whether it be at one of Tokyo’s Michelin-star restaurants where live botan prawns are served with karasumi mullet roe or under the neon lights of one of the city’s famed conveyor-belt kaiten-sushi bars, you are guaranteed to be bawled over by their authentic rice rolls. From gunkan cups filled with sea urchin and salmon nigiri topped with tsukemono to oshizushi (which involves pressing the fish onto the rice in a wooden box), you’ll most definitely be putting the term itadakimasu (‘I humbly receive’) to good use.