Japan Food Guide: Everything But Seafood
By Brittany Zerr
During my trip to Japan, I visited beautiful gardens, hiked mountains, explored cities, and of course, ate delicious food. Japan is known for its amazing sushi and sashimi, but they have so much more to offer! As someone who isn’t a huge seafood fan, I want to show you that it is possible to survive in Japan very easily without eating fish. (And not just survive, but be stuffed 24/7.)
Important: If you have an allergy, always ask the restaurant to ensure that your meal does not contain seafood or shellfish. If you don't speak fluent Japanese, an allergy card can help you communicate with staff.
Vending machines are probably one of the first things you’ll see when you arrive in Japan. With a variety of hot or cold drinks, Japan’s vending machines are something I envy. They’re conveniently located and are never out-of-stock. Whether you want pop, hot coffee, green tea, or my favourite, Pocari Sweat, you won’t have to walk far until you find a vending machine with what you want. They also have ice cream vending machines — it's wonderful!
Convenience Store Food
The convenience stores that I frequented most often for a quick breakfast or late night snacks were 7-11, Lawson, and Family Mart. I also saw a few Daily Yamazaki and Mini Stop stores, but they seemed to be less common. When I think of convenience store food at home I think “ew”. But Japanese convenience store food is cheap and tasty! There are plenty of non-seafood items you can buy including sandwiches, pasta, salads, and of course, snacks!
My favourite sandwiches were the egg salad sandwich (Lawson makes the best one) and the strawberry sandwich from 7-11. For breakfast I often ate assorted bread products — I absolutely loved the little peanut butter sandwiches they had. Family Mart also has a great meat and cheese pack which pairs nicely with Ritz crackers (classy). While in Japan, you absolutely have to try the limited edition drinks. When I was there, they were selling Peach Coca-Cola!
I’m also classifying the bento boxes (boxed meals) that I bought at the train station as convenience store food. All of the Shinkansen (bullet train) platforms had stores where you could buy snacks or bento boxes to enjoy on the train. Super convenient!
Street food can be found at the major temples in Japan when there are festivals or celebrations, in markets, and in small street-side stores (less so in Tokyo, more so in Kyoto and Osaka). There is a lot of seafood, but there are a lot of other options as well — from soft serve ice cream, to anything on a stick (chicken, beef, corn), sweet potatoes (delicious), and candied fruit (yum). When you go to Japan, you have to experience the street food!
Places where there are street food vendors are probably the only place you’ll see Japanese people eat in public (it’s rude to walk and eat in Japan) and one of the rare times you’ll see garbage cans (yet Japan is a very clean country!)
I went to two markets while I was in Japan — Nishiki Market in Kyoto and Kuromon Ichiba in Osaka. While these markets are super busy (expect to be walking slowly behind people) it's really cool to see what each vendor is selling. While there is a lot of seafood at these markets (both fresh and dried, cooked and raw), there are a lot of treats for those who are seafood averse! Yakitori, croquettes, fresh fruit, and handmade candy are just a few of the delicious things that you’ll find when you’re there.
Unfortunately I didn't take a lot of photos in the markets because of the crowds, so my pictures don't do it justice. Whether you love seafood or not, the markets are fun to explore. If you love seafood (why are you reading this?!) check out Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.
Character cafes are a ton of fun! I went to the Pokemon Cafe (requires a reservation) and the Gudetama Cafe, but there were a bunch of other cafes that I wish I had time to visit like the Rilakkuma Cafe or the Peanuts Cafe. Both looked super cute!
I also went to Artnia, a Square Enix cafe that sells Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest goodies. If you like either of those series, I highly recommend that you check it out!
My main critique of character cafes is that the food is overpriced for what it is. I never had a bad meal in Japan, but the worst food I had was at character cafes. Instead of shelling out a ton of money and food and drinks at these cafes, I recommend opting for just buying a drink and enjoying the atmosphere.
While Japan is known for its tasty seafood, it also offers delicious beef, chicken, and pork! Japan takes pride and care of its livestock, and as a result, their meat is delicious. While in Japan I had my fair share of yakitori (meat on a stick), yakiniku (japanese BBQ), shabu shabu (hot pot), tonkatsu (pork cutlet) and Japanese beef — and I loved it all.
My favourite (and most expensive) meal that I had in Japan is when I went to Kobe to eat Kobe beef. Now, you don’t have to go to Kobe for Kobe beef, but I wanted to. I went to Steak Aoyama and highly recommend it — but make a reservation and don’t hope that someone cancels so you can get a seat. (Pro tip: you can make a reservation by messaging them on Facebook!) There are only 8 seats, so your chances of getting in are low if you don’t book. It’s very intimate, you watch the chef cook in front of you, and he entertains you as you wait for your food. Our chef had a good sense of humour!
We wanted to see the difference between A5 Kobe beef and Japanese beef, so we decided to get one portion of each. And boy, was there a difference. As soon as you take a bite, the fat bursts and melts in your mouth. (Which sounds gross, but it’s not.) It was absolutely delicious. I often dream about this meal and wonder when I’ll have Kobe beef again... But alas, it’s not widely available outside of Japan, and it's even more pricey.
Here is a list of restaurants outside of Japan that offer real Kobe beef if you don't have the opportunity to go to Japan!
Japan has many noodle dishes… Udon… Soba… Yakisoba… But my heart belongs to ramen, so let’s talk about ramen! I went to Ichiran and Kamukura when I was in Japan, and both offer very different types of ramen. Ichiran uses a savory tonkotsu (pork) broth for their ramen, while Kamukura uses a shoyu (soy sauce) broth and includes cabbage! Both are very different, but I loved them both — I don’t think I can choose a winner.
Love ramen? Go to the Ramen Museum in Yokohama. (Have an an empty stomach!)
If you ever go to Japan you must eat a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner (kaiseki). I had the chance to eat a delicious kaiseki meal at Miyajima Seaside Hotel, a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel). Note that there is a 99.9% chance that your kaiseki will have multiple dishes that feature fish. I really enjoyed my meal even though it had fish! I tried new things I never had before (deep fried oysters being one) and was stuffed by the end of it.
Kaiseki is definitely an experience! The plating, the variety of flavours, the seasonal ingredients… You can tell how much thought and care is put into the menu.
Now let’s talk snacks, and not convenience store snacks (we already talked about those). There are so many interesting and different snacks to try in Japan! I’ll touch on a few that stood out to me:
Calbee — I’m a huge fan of Calbee chips. If you like their chips, visiting one of their stores where they can serve you freshly made chips is a must. I was craving sweet and salty one day, and their chips with chocolate drizzle hit the spot!
Crêpes — Crêpes can be found everywhere in Japan, but the most crêpe shops within a 5 minute walk can be found along Takeshita Street in Tokyo. While not a must-try snack, they make a great quick bite to eat when you want to optimize your time exploring the shops in Harajuku.
Rainbow Cotton Candy — This is totally one of those things that you overpay for (¥900) but it’s very Instagrammable. Don’t care about Instagram? Skip this. However, it’s very cool to watch them layer the different flavours/colours of cotton candy!
Momiji Manju — This treat can only be found at Miyajima island. Although it looks like a maple leaf, I am sad to report that it does not taste like maple… But it does come in a variety of flavours! Manju means bun, but they are really more like soft cookies that aren’t sweet. I’m not a huge fan, but they are interesting to say the least.
Popcorn at Disney Sea — This one is pretty specific, but I’m mentioning it because it stood out. If you’re ever at Disney Sea, do a popcorn tour and try all of the different flavours of popcorn. Depending on where you are in the park, the popcorn stands will sell a different flavour (blueberry, shrimp, and curry, to name a few). I tried the blueberry popcorn — it was a nice sweet treat!
Rikuro’s Cheesecake — Ever seen those videos of jiggly cheesecake online? They’re most likely from Rikuro’s Cheesecake in Osaka! For only ¥685, one of these jiggly delights can be yours. Even if you don’t like cheesecake, I recommend that you try it because *spoilers* it doesn’t taste a lot like New York Style cheesecake. It’s very different — I want to call it an egg cake because it was so light and fluffy, and didn’t taste very much like cream cheese at all.
Kit Kats — In Japan there are a ton of crazy Kit Kat flavours, some of them good, some of them bad, but all of them fun to try. (My two favourites are the banana and melon Kit Kats).
American Fast Food Chains
When you’re in a foreign country, as much as their food is amazing, you’re going to crave the taste of home. To get my quick fix, I visited a few American fast food chains including McDonalds, Wendy’s, Denny’s, and Starbucks.
It’s always interesting to see what new menu items are at familiar fast food chains in foreign countries. At McDonald's, they offered a ginger pork burger, a teriyaki burger (pictured above), as well as a filet-o-shrimp. The main difference at Wendy’s was that they offer pasta — something I wish we had back home (fast food pasta = genius). Starbuck's always has seasonal menu items as well so check it out! (Sakura Strawberry Milk Latte pictured above.)
If you’re ever craving burgers while you’re in Japan, I also recommend checking out Freshness Burger and Mos Burger — two Japanese burger chains that make great burgers! (My personal preference is Freshness Burger.)
Fast food is a bit expensive in Japan compared to other options that are available — you can’t beat a ¥500 bowl of gyudon (meat and rice) from Sukiya or picking up a couple of onigiri (rice balls) from 7-11 for lunch. Curry and ramen are also really cheap!
Oh, sushi. I couldn’t go to Japan and not get sushi at least once, even though I am not a huge seafood fan. As someone who doesn’t live close to the ocean, the sushi quality where I live is subpar to say the least. The sushi in Japan though is the best of the best, the crème de la crème — so I had to have some. I recommend going to a sushi train or a conveyor belt sushi place.
Sushi train: order items on a touch screen, and watch them come out on a train.
Conveyor belt: watch sushi items rotate around, and take what you want to eat off the belt.
I went to a sushi train and was filled with joy every time our tablet notified us that our order was coming, and anxiously waited for the sushi train to appear.
Even if you don’t like seafood, if you go to a sushi train, they have a few non-seafood things you can order such as tamago (egg), roast beef (very yum), cheeseburger sushi (just okay), kappa maki (cucumber rolls), and more. So if your friends want to go for sushi — and you don’t — you’ll survive!
There is so much food that I didn't get to mention in this post that still deserves a shout-out for being non-seafood friendly:
Curry — Japanese curry is my favourite type of curry. Go to CoCo Ichibanya. It's cheap and delicious. You won't regret it!
Chicken Karaage — Delicious deep fried chicken. That is all.
Kushiyaki — Skewered meat and vegetables! Can't go wrong here.
Garlic Rice — If you see this on the menu GET IT. It's so good.
Pasta — There is surprisingly a lot of Italian food in Japan, and it's done well!