In a country where every town has their own specialty dish, there’s no shortage of unique meals to try and what better way to see the country than following your appetite?
Japan has an incredible culinary scene with a heavy focus on seasonal produce and locally sourced fruit and vegetables making for unique dishes from one town to the next. With 47 prefectures—including 43 traditional, two urban (Osaka and Kyoto), one territory (Hokkaido) and the Metropolis of Tokyo—each has a strong and independent identity, with food forming a strong part. Whether you have a sweet tooth, love trying something new or have heard of an unusual dish you’re keen to sample, our guide has Japanese specialities from each prefecture, so dive in!
Japan’s northernmost region, the island of Hokkaido has plenty of farming land and is well known for dairy and potatoes. The prefectures of Tohoku (on the mainland) embrace the cooler temperatures and are known for fruit and some unusual dishes including beef tongue—along with noodle competitions.
Hokkaido ramen is the ideal winter-warmer and uses a tonkotsu base (rich pork broth) seasoned with salt, miso or soy sauce. The island is also the birthplace of miso ramen so be sure to try it *with added butter and corn toppings!) when you’re exploring Ramen Alley in Sapporo!
Be sure to try the potatoes and any dairy you can get your hands on; the island is Japan’s main milk and potato supplier, so ice cream, butter and milk are all delicious.
Aomori is famous for apples and produces half of the country’s supply.
For a more savory option, however, be sure to try grilled scallops with miso. The fresh scallops are marinated in miso before being grilled and topped with beaten egg—simple but delicious.
Like an all-you-can-eat for noodles, wanko soba is served in small bowls as a nod to a time when they once ran out at a festival. You can stack the bowls up as you go and when you’re done, place a lid on top to signal you’re done.
In summer, try Morioka ramen, a cold take on the warm original that’s filling and refreshing.
If you’re visiting Sendai, then beef tongue is the dish to sample. Called gyutan, it is grilled after being aged, so it is rich in flavor and soft to the bite.
In autumn, look out for Sendai imoni—large pots of stew with pork, miso and taro roots cooked outside, often by the river.
Thriving in the winter months, Japanese sandfish is a feature of old folklore and was included in an ancient food guide to Japan from the 17th century. Mainly used on sushi, it is salted, unsalted and then marinated with winter veg, rice and kombu (seaweed).
Keeping things simple, Yamagata offers niku soba, served cold to help you cool off in summer. The area is known for high-quality soba thanks to the local water supply, and the dish is unusual as it features chicken rather than pork or beef (which are more common on cold noodle dishes).
Served on special occasions like New Year, kozuyu is a clear soup made with dried scallops, konyaku jelly and noodles. Each family has their own recipe, which is passed down through the generations.
Tokyo’s the Michelin capital of the world and has more than enough restaurants to keep you fed for five lifetimes over, but the surrounding Kanto-region prefectures have some charms of their own. From traditional Edo-period sweets to natto nightmares/fantasies, there’s plenty to explore with your taste buds leading the way.
The Marmite of Japan, natto is a speciality in Ibaraki and the sticky, smelly fermented soybeans are everywhere. You can tour the Tengu Natto Factory, try a natto-based course meal at local restaurants and bring plenty of themed souvenirs home when you leave.
Yaki manju is a local soul food with its own event held every January. Manju are sweet balls made with flour and rice powder, filled with red bean paste. Here, they are skewered, roasted and then basted in a sweet and spicy miso sauce for a unique flavor.
Known as Little Edo, Saitama’s most famous treat is fukashi—a long stick of Styrofoam-like wheat bran coated in brown sugar; sold especially in Kawagoe’s candy alley.
You can also try hiyagiru udon—a cold udon soup served with cucumber and sesame seeds.
Peanuts are the unlikely star of Chiba, steamed and best served simple, they’re a popular snack. For a heartier dish try namerou, a fish dish including horse mackerel and sardines seasoned with miso, basil, leeks and ginger.
Tough to pick, but monjayaki is a definite Tokyo specialty although it may not be the most instantly appealing. Cooked on a griddle like okonomiyaki, this version is more liquidy and eaten with tiny spatulas as it cooks. You can try it at the dedicated Monja Street in Tsukushima, which has dozens of restaurants to choose from.
Or try the two Michelin-star ramen restaurants, Nakiryu and Tsuta.
A shirasu rice bowl is a simple but deliciously fresh dish which puts tiny whitebait on top of white rice. The fish are freshly caught (most likely the morning you eat it), then served raw or kettle cooked. Outside of whitebait season (April to December), they are served in dried form.
Chubu is a real mix of prefectures, with everything from snow-topped mountain retreats calling for warming noodle dishes to bays of glowing squid filled with seafood (not all glowing, don’t worry). Sandwiched between Kansai and Kanto, the area is a produce haven so look out for unusual ramen, not-quite udon and really good steak.
Sasadango is a traditional sweet made with mugwort-flavored mochi (Japanese rice cake) and red beans wrapped in bamboo leaves.
For a savory treat, try noppe—a seasonal vegetable stew that features shiitake mushrooms, burdock root and carrots in a soy-sauce–based broth.
The must-try specialty here is Toyama black ramen. Made with chicken and fish stock and strong black soy sauce, it is surprisingly light and is a three-time winner at the Tokyo Ramen Show.
A speciality from the Noto area of the prefecture, Ishiru hotpot is made with a local fish-based soy sauce refined over generations.
The Kaga area is renowned for its dishes including jibuni—a duck dish served with regional vegetables.
Well known for its buckwheat noodles, a good place to start is oroshi soba from Echizen. Topping the noodles with grated daikon radish and a soy-sauce based soup, it’s one of the top 100 rural culinary dishes in Japan.
Hoto is a filling dish of flat udon noodles in vegetable soup which is especially tasty when you opt for the seasonal pumpkin version. Slightly more dumpling-like than udon, the locals don’t consider them udon as such, but they’re delicious by any name.
Nagano is another spot famous for buckwheat noodles (specifically the Togakushi kind), as well as oyaki dumplings. The latter are stuffed with vegetables, seasoned with miso and soy, and you can try making your own in Ogawa Village—the largest producer in the world.
Hida beef is a famous specialty—which can be pricey, but is well worth it. Known for its tenderness, it is best served as a steak, but is also found grilled on skewers or added to hotpots. Head to a shabu-shabu restaurant for some good options.
As a prefecture that prides itself on seafood, one of the top dishes in Shizuoka is definitely sakuraebi. The small pink shrimp are laid out to dry by the river and served in a whole host of ways. Bonus: here they are caught ethically with self-imposed fishing limits and release of all other creatures caught in the nets. Alternatively try Shizuoka’s oden—it’s got soy sauce and dark beef so it’s richer, heavier and more filling.
Kansai is home to some of Japan’s most well-known cities and their famous dishes, but there’s more to try than the obvious options. Osaka is Japan’s Kitchen and Kyoto is the center of refined cuisine, plus you’ll find high-quality beef, incredible oysters and the home of soy sauce in Japan. All wrapped up in this fantastic region, it’s no wonder the area is known for the phrase kuidaore: to eat yourself into bankruptcy.
A narrow prefecture along the sea, the two seafood stars here are Ise ebi (Japanese spiny lobster) and oysters. While Ise is a good spot for the former, neighboring Toba is the place to go for the latter—especially if you can make the seasonal festivals for both. You can also try Matsusaka beef and Ise udon—a bowl of thick noodles in a slightly sweet, concentrated soy broth that’s unique to the area.
Known for Omi beef (up there with Kobe and Matsusaka), Omi rice and somen noodles—a traditional noodle dish. Somen noodles are dried for three years before being boiled, left to rest overnight and then placed in broth with simmered mackerel on top.
Kaiseki ryouri is a traditional multi-course meal likened to tea ceremony for its tradition and etiquette. It is strongly seasonal and uses local ingredients, similar to Shojin ryouri, which is the ancient Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. Both can be pretty pricey, but as always lunch is your best bet, and sometimes you just have to treat yourself.
Nicknamed Japan’s Kitchen, Osaka has a whole host of dishes to try—from the well known okonomiyaki (grilled pancake-like savory meal) and takoyaki (squid balls), to the lesser-known kushikatsu (deep-fried things on sticks) and hakozushi (box sushi). Kitsune udon was also invented here and is a lighter meal of noodles in a thin broth topped with tofu.
Kobe beef is a well-known treat in these parts, with the cows’ beer-fed and massaged lifestyle adding to the tender meat’s melt-in-the-mouth reputation. Alternatively, try akashiyaki, squid balls similar to takoyaki, that are dipped in miso before you eat them!
Nyumen is an unusual dish in that it uses Miwa somen (noodles which are normally served cold with a dipping sauce), but places them in light, warm broth. Be sure to try Narazuke—pickled vegetables, which are stored for two years and flavored with mirin for a unique sweet flavor.
Ideal for picnics, two great options in Wakayama are hayazushi (rice wrapped in mackerel) and meharizushi (rice wrapped in a pickled mustard leaf).
The area is also the birthplace of soy sauce in Japan, as well as an ancient area for ume (known as plums, but actually from the apricot family, so be sure to bring a bottle of umeshu to your picnic too).
Another selection of seafood loving prefectures, the Chugoku region is home to famous spots like Tottori’s sand dunes and Miyajima as well as some infamous dishes like pufferfish which are usually all part of a Japan bucket list. The local delicacies may be lesser known, but they’re pretty delicious and include some unusual sushi traditions, beef-soup ramen and soba with a twist.
The Spider crab is a long-time specialty of this area, along with rock oysters and white squid. You can try gyukotsu ramen—a ramen made with beef-bone broth, rich from tallow, but surprisingly light and a sideline of the Tottori wagyu beef which is also very popular.
If you’re making the Izumo Pilgrimage (or not), you can try the unique Izumo soba. Made using the full grain (the husks are usually discarded), it has an earthier flavor than regular soba and is served with a sauce poured over the top, rather than dipped into.
Created long ago to avoid a thrift ordinance which allowed for a single soup and side dish per meal, barazushi has plenty of fish and vegetables served on rice (bara meaning scattered). Counting as a single dish but loaded with food, this is the original cheat meal and is popular at special occasions.
Although better known in Osaka, okonomiyaki has had a Hiroshima makeover. A bulkier affair, it features noodles and a fried egg, and there are plenty of spots to try it—most famously Okonomimura which is a tall tower filled with independent restaurants.
Shimonoseki is famous for fugu—the pufferfish that’s poisonous if prepared incorrectly.
Nearby Iwakuni has another unusual specialty: Iwakuni sushi involves layers of rice made in large squares and cut up for individual servings.
The smallest of Japan’s main islands, Shikoku is a traditional region with a long history of simple but hearty dishes. As the land is better for growing buckwheat than rice, there’s plenty of soba to choose from and udon that’s famous across Japan as well as plenty of seafood (of course).
As buckwheat is the local crop rather than rice, soba is always sure bet. Sobagome zosui is a thick porridge/gratin-style dish made by boiling the soba seeds and won’t be found anywhere else in Japan.
Known throughout Japan for Sanuki udon, (Sanuki being the region’s original name), Kagawa has a long tradition of serving these chewy, firm noodles made using a specific local wheat. The area has over 700 specialized restaurants to choose from.
A brighter affair than most regional dishes, goshiki somen are noodles colored with eggs, green tea, buckwheat flower, plums and shiso. It’s often served with sea bream which is Ehime’s prefectural fish.
Kochi’s most traditional dish is katsuo tataki which grills bonito tuna (not endangered) over a straw fire to give it a smoky flavour. Once seared, it is dunked in cold water to stop it cooking further and cut into thick slices to be served with plenty of garlic and a soy-sauce or citrus dressing.
Kyushu and Okinawa
A top holiday destination and home to a mix of traditional dishes and foreign-influenced foods, Kyushu has some surprises in store. There are famous ramen bowls to savor, plenty of fried chicken (Japanese style) and plenty of pineapples and bitter melon to love and hate, as you see fit.
The name Hakata should be ringing some bells for foodies in Japan already. The area is famous for inventing tonkotsu ramen—a rich pork broth with curly noodles. Served in street stalls around the city, this is a cultural treat unusual in Japan (there’s less of a street food culture here than the rest of this part of Asia) and a delicious one at that!
On the seafood front, Yobiko is a small town famed for squid catching (not endangered). There’s also plenty of charcoaled mudskipper to try.
Dagojiru is a popular noodle soup with chicken and veg, which makes for a great restorative meal after hiking.
Heavily influenced by its history as an international trading port, Nagasaki has some delicious foods to try including champon, a Chinese soup dish with bamboo shoots and noodles. Sara udon is another option if you prefer your noodles fried.
If you’ve got a little room left, try the castella—a throwback to the cakes brought by Portuguese sailors.
For the brave (or the realistic), basashi, aka raw horsemeat is a great favorite here.
Alternatively, Kumamoto ramen evolved from Chinese tantanmen and goes heavy on the garlic.
For special occasions try honmaru gozen—a traditional samurai course meal recreated from sketches and served at Honmaru Palace.
If you need to rehydrate, be sure to grab some kabosu juice, a Japanese citrus it’s similar to yuzu and great for a post-onsen perk-up. Dango-jiru is a dumpling soup and you can also feast on the specialty of tempura chicken which is served with a kabosu dipping sauce.
A prefecture in love with chicken, you can try a couple of different dishes here. Miyazaki no sumibiyaki involves grilled chicken over charcoal until it’s blackened and chicken nanban, which is Kyushu-style fried chicken with a sauce similar to tartar.
Sweet potatoes are a popular option, with gane being a great way to try them (tempura style).
The silver fish kibinago is served most often as sashimi and has a delicate but addictive flavor you’ll soon be obsessed with.
Everyone’s (least) favorite summer dish, goya chanpuru is a mix of goya (bitter melon) with pork, tofu and noodles. Supposedly refreshing in the summer heat, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of meal that’s definitely worth a try.
For a sure-fire treat, the island is also known for pineapples!
Ishigaki (a far-flug island close to Taiwan) is known for making brown sugar which goes especially well on kakigori (shaved ice) in summer.