5 Must-Try Dining Experiences in Japan

Often heralded as one of the greatest foodie capitals, Japan has a robust and lively culinary scene with more Michelin stars than any other country in the world. Tokyo alone has more than 100,000 restaurants. I knew when booking a last-minute trip to Tokyo & Kyoto that it would be a challenge figuring out where to eat, especially since my only knowledge about Japanese food I gleaned from Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Instead of completely stressing out about securing reservations at the most exclusive restaurants, I focused on crafting an itinerary to include a varied representation of the different types of cuisine that Japan has to offer. And after eating more food than I even imagined I could, I’ve concluded that there are 5 must-try dining experiences in Japan for a well-rounded introduction to Japanese cuisine.

1. Sushi

Sushi Iwa
Dinner at Sushi Iwa
This one is obvious. Sushi is the most well-known Japanese food, and it is served all over the country. With the plethora of sushi restaurants, deciding where to dine can be overwhelming. Luckily, with all of the competition, you’ll have no shortage of quality choices.

I recommend that at least once during your stay you splurge for a high-end omakase experience, a meal consisting of dishes selected by the chef. Although meals like these can cost several hundreds of dollars per person, some may argue the combination of master sushi chefs, the freshest ingredients, and an intimate dining setting is priceless.

Make reservations in advance for most, if not all, of these top establishments. Contact your hotel concierge (or if you have an Amex Platinum card, the Amex concierge) if you need assistance.

One of the most memorable sushi meals I had during my recent stay in Tokyo was at Sushi Iwa. Located on a small street in the Ginza district, this intimate Michelin-star sushi bar style restaurant seats only 6 guests. The chef carefully prepares all courses directly in front of you and instructs you on how to eat each piece (“soy sauce,” “no soy sauce,” “use fingers”, “wasabi”). The food was amazing, and the sake flowed freely. I could not have had a better experience.

Sushi Iwa
8-5-25 Ginza
Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Tel: 03-3572-0955 (+81-3-3572-0955)

2. Kaiseki

Gion Nanba dinner courseGion Nanba dinner course
Gion Nanba dinner course
Gion Nanba dinner course
Gion Nanba dinner course
Gion Nanba dinner course
Dinner at Gion Nanba
Kaiseki refers to traditional multi-course meals whose origins can be traced back to simple meals served at tea ceremonies that evolved into elaborate dining experiences favored by the aristocrats. These days, you can find kaiseki meals served at specialty restaurants around Japan.

For an exemplary kaiseki experience in Kyoto, I recommend Gion Nanba. Tucked away in a small alley in the Gion district of Kyoto, Gion Nanba is a one Michelin star restaurant serving fresh, seasonal courses. We were greeted by an adorable older lady in a kimono who subsequently guided us through our entire meal, carefully explaining each dish and its ingredients, as we dined in a private tatami room.

Gion Nanba
Higashiyama-ku, Hanami-koji Higashi-Hairu
(In front of APA Kyoto Gion Hotel, near Yasaka Shrine)
(075) 525-0768

3. Yakitori

Sushi Iwa
High-end yakitori at Bird Land
Sushi Iwa
Yakitori in Omoide Yokocho
For an insanely tasty Japanese specialty, try some yakitori, referring to skewered chicken meat grilled over charcoal flames. While we were in Japan, we dined a high-end restaurant and several casual yakitori-ya.

At Bird Land, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo, we opted for the prix fixe menu for approximately 6,000 yen per person where we sampled various parts of the chicken. The atmosphere was buzzing, and the chefs were gracious and accommodating. I recommend this for those who prefer a more refined dining experience, but I founding eating my yakitori at the yakitori-ya to be more authentic and enjoyable.

Traditionally, yakitori-ya are small restaurants that serve yakitori to be consumed with alcohol. In Shinjuku, where we stayed for several nights, we found a number of yakitori-ya in Omoide Yokocho, a small network of streets lined with these hole-in-the-wall shops that we could pop in and out of as we pleased.

Whether consumed as part of a fancy meal or during a night out of drinking, yakitori is one type of cuisine that can’t be missed in Japan.

Bird Land
Tsukamoto Building B1F, 4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku,
+81 3 5250 1081

4. Ramen

Ippudo Tokyo JapanIppudo Tokyo Japan ramen
Ramen at Ippudo
Living in New York, I feel like I have plenty of good ramen restaurants to choose from, but ramen in Japan blows it out of the water. One of our favorite stops on the trip was to the Ippudo in Tokyo. Located in Ginza, Ippudo was the perfect spot for us to grab lunch after a long day of shopping. The restaurant staff was friendly, and the ramen was delicious. Check out Japan Guide for a great overview of the different types of ramen to choose from.

4-10-3 Ginza | 1F Central Bldg.
Chuo 104-0061, Tokyo Prefecture

5. Gyoza

Gyoza Tokyo JapanGyozaGyoza
Gyoza at Harajuku Gyozaro
Popular all around Japan, gyoza is sold ubiquitously at ramen restaurants, izakayas, and specialty shops. These dumplings filled with ground meat and vegetables make for a tasty, inexpensive meal.

My favorite spot in Tokyo for gyoza is Harajuku Gyozaro, a lively and casual establishment located in the Shibuya district. Order one of two types of gyoza, fried or steamed, and watch the chefs cook them before your eyes. Enjoy with a glass of beer and some bean sprouts too.

Harajuku Gyozaro
6-2-4 Jingumae, Shibuya, Tokyo Prefecture
+81 3-3406-4743

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Comments 2

  1. Kelly Krenshaw

    If I were ever able to get over to Japan, the food would be the best part about my trip! Sushi right from Japan sounds like a great idea!

  2. Toby Hollands

    This is a great post! I once traveled to Japan for work and it was just amazing. The food, the views, the nightlife and you could never get enough. It was too bad that I was only there a weekend. Would love to go back!

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