While ramen and sushi have become ubiquitous with Japanese cuisine in most parts of the world, the 2677-year-old country has had a lot of time and history to develop many, many other culinary delights that remain a mystery to anyone outside of Japan. And even if you're someone who has oden for breakfast and takoyaki balls for a midnight snack, there are always hidden gems that you haven't heard about, nevermind eaten.
It may not be easy or possible to find anything beyond a California roll in your neighborhood, but traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun will open up a whole new world of foodie possibilities that might overwhelm you. Worry not – we have made an ultimate list of the top seven edible experiences you need to have in the country. So say goodbye to uni and yakiudon, and hello to an authentic taste of Japan:
A specialty of the Kanto region, monjayaki is a thinner, softer cousin of the famous okonomiyaki dish. A hearty mix of seafood, veggies, and/or meat is mixed into a savory pancake-like batter, then poured directly onto hot plates built into your table. Monjayaki restaurants are mostly causal, rowdy hole-in-the-wall establishments filled with loud and slightly tipsy patrons cooking their meals with friends.
A stew that originated with the practice of Japan's national sport, chankonabe is also known as "sumo stew" due to the fact that it was designed to help sumo wrestlers gain weight. Containing at least three types of protein, usually beef, chicken and either tofu or seafood, the rich dish is actually quite healthy and not too heavy in taste when consumed in non-sumo amounts. Many chankonabe restaurants are owned and operated by ex-wrestlers, with Chanko Nabe Ryokoku Shinjuku Gyoen-Mae being one of the most popular spots in Tokyo.
A dish that's been eaten for thousands of years in the seaside regions of Japan, harako meshi is essentially a bowl of rice tossed and steamed with flakes of fresh salmon, and topped with a spoonful of caviar. Translated as "salmon child rice", the simple dish is traditionally served at family gatherings, with each household adding their own variation. In restaurants today, you'll be able to select options with raw salmon sashimi garnished with seaweed flakes.
It may be surprising to hear that certain parts of Japan would be famous for their walnuts, but the northern region of Tohoku produces some of the richest and most aromatic ones around. The locals consume the nut by roasting and grinding them, then mixing it with flavorful red miso paste before wrapping the concoction up in lightly-toasted shiso leaves. The skewered snack is often enjoyed with a cold glass of beer or a hot green tea.
A local delicacy on the island of Miyajima, just off of Hiroshima (which is also known for their fresh oysters), pettara pottara are grilled sticky rice balls stuffed with either oyster or salt-water eel. The crunchy outside texture contrasts beautifully with the succulent filling, making this street-side snack a perfect piece of seafood heaven.
Literally translated as "tea cup steam", chawanmushi is an egg custard cooked and served in an adorably small cup and eaten as a side dish within a meal. Although it looks quite similar to sweet pudding, the beaten egg is mixed with a few dashes of savory soy sauce, dashi, and mirin, and often topped with shiitake mushrooms and shrimp. Alternatively, you can order an odamaki mushi – a hot and soft chawanmushi with udon noodles.
While mochi is a relatively well-known treat in the West, the traditional dish of kuzumochi isn't. The subtly-sweet and sticky mochi rice cakes are made of a firm mixture of kuzu powder, sugar and water, which is then cut up into squares, sometimes roasted, and topped with black sugar syrup and kinako (toasted and ground soybeans). You may also find them made with matcha, red bean paste, or even rose concentrate.
Looking for more eats? VIVA visited Amsterdam's first all-avocado cafe, The Avocado Show: