japanese restaurant scene with outdoor seating

Japan offers such fantastic breadth and depth when it comes to incredible eats that it can almost feel overwhelming. How, exactly, does one begin? It’s a matter of designing your own personal hit list, and there are no wrong answers here — as long as you plan on sampling as much as you can.

This is no time nor place for restraint. Pin every sushi shop and ramen counter your heart desires on that city map. Seek out Japanese curry and omurice, unagi, udon, and soba, oh my, to say nothing of tea ceremonies, confectionery sweets and souffle pancakes, and fruit so perfect and pristine it’ll set you back a month’s rent. And we haven’t even gotten to yakitori, karaage, katsu sandos, tonkatsu plates, Japanese breakfast sets, and any number of tantalizing regional specialties.

Hone those chopstick skills, come hungry, and embrace not only the scheduled stops and pre-planned reservations, but the unexpected pleasures found along the way. A trip to Japan is a culinary choose-your-own-adventure story, and while no two journeys will ever be written the same, they’ll always end with satisfaction and delight.

Take a Tokyo Ramen Crawl

bowl of noodles and other japanese dishes
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Ramen is to Tokyo what pizza is to New York City: ubiquitous and eternally satisfying, offered up on every corner of the city at all times of the day, and coming with an endless array of flavors and styles. Trying to pin down “the best” of either is an exercise in futility, though unlocking your newfound personal preferences and perhaps a few favorite vendors is a worthy endeavor.

Consider this your starting point, then. Line up for a spot at the Michelin-starred Chuka Soba Ginza Hachigou. You’ll have to devote a full morning to the queue, but within, you’ll find the most precise and delicate, yet deeply flavored, bowls of ramen on the planet. Visit Fuunji in Shinjuku for its stellar tsukemen, or dipping noodles well-suited to sop up bowls of thick, hearty broth. Golden Gai’s Nagi Ramen, featuring a fish-broth flavored with sardines, is a classic after a night of drinking. In Ikebukuro, head to Kikanbo for a rich bowl of miso-based ramen with customized levels of chili spice and sansho powder. Afuri, with multiple locations around the city, is renowned for its chicken and yuzu broth base. At Ramen Takahashi, sip on a mug of dashi as you await your bowl of either shio or shoyu.

Half a dozen stops, half a dozen varieties, and the fun is just getting underway.

Indulge in Omakase

japanese cuisine on the grill
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A proper omakase sushi meal is a rite of passage in Japan, and it’s one that you can indulge in across the country, from northern Hokkaido all the way down to Okinawa. In the former, reserve a space at the 7-seat Sushi Nagi within the Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. The meal pulls in from Hokkaido’s bountiful waters, offering a lineup that can only be experienced at its freshest when visiting the island. For the latter, head to the Halekulani Okinawa‘s AOMI, where the 8-seat sushi counter isn’t to be missed, and offers the same type of intensive, local sourcing from the opposite tip of the Japanese islands.

Tokyo has boundless options as well, whether you know a guy who knows a guy who can score you a reservation at Jiro Ono, or you find any number of the city’s unmarked, hidden gems. A few memorable options I’ve had in the capital include Musashi by Aman, where the chef serves rice he cultivated in his hometown, and The Sushi on the 52nd story rooftop of the Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills.

Visit Okonomimura

osaka style okonomiyaki
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No place on the planet expresses its love for individual dishes and delicacies the way that Japan does, and in Hiroshima, that singular obsession takes the form of Okonomimura, a multi-story food hall comprising an entire office building that features nothing but okonomiyaki vendors. Commonly referred to as cabbage pancakes, okonomiyaki are savory treats loaded with customizable toppings, sauces, and seasonings, all griddled up to order in front of patrons.

The dish became popularized after World War II, and roughly translates to whatever you like grilled. As opposed to the more well known Osaka rendition, Hiroshima’s version of the dish is constructed with distinct layers more akin to a stuffed crepe than a pancake, including a layer of noodles in the middle. Within Okonomimura, there are two dozen shops to choose from, though if you’re like me, you might just find a favorite and continue returning time and again; I visited Ron Okonomiyaki three times in three days.

Explore Tsukiji Market

silver and red fish ready to be sold
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Tokyo’s famous tuna auction has moved from its historic city home within Tsukiji Market to the larger, more modernized Toyosu Fish Market. It’s now a few miles outside of city center, making for an accessible early morning trip if you’d like to observe the action as the world’s most prized fish is divvied up for record prices.

Tsukiji itself remains a bustling hub of activity from morning to night even in the absence of the auctions, and the Tsukiji Outer Market includes hundreds of vendors, shops, and restaurants featuring Japan’s freshest and finest wares. Whether you end your night in the wee hours of the morning with a replenishing plate of sashimi or you wake up and begin a new day in the same fashion, strolling these crowded alleys is sure to offer an unforgettable sensorial experience.

Sample a Kaiseki Menu

nigiri in a black bowl with other japanese dishes
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Kaiseki cuisine is an art form to itself. Dishes are intricate and ornate, highly reflective of the seasons, and offer a precise progression, each bite elevating one another while playing its own particular role. This style of dining is most closely associated with Kyoto, and a meal at an establishment such as the Michelin-starred Sanso Kyoyamato, a historic property now housed within the grounds of the Park Hyatt Kyoto, exemplifies the food, service, and transportive experience that kaiseki is capable of delivering.

That doesn’t mean that Kyoto is the only place where you can find excellent kaiseki, however. The cuisine is designed to reflect and showcase its local region, and when practiced with the proper level of care, shines in many places across the country.

Consider the signature restaurant at the Hoshinoya Karuizawa, located in Japan’s mountainous interior, a locale surrounded by dense forests and flowing rivers. The restaurant serves what it calls alpine kaiseki, representing the abundance sourced from the undisturbed nature around them. At The Ritz-Carlton, Nikko‘s The Japanese Restaurant, the region’s unique local staples, alongside vegetables from its fertile soil, are put front and center in expert fashion, shining a light on why this quaint lakeside village was once a retreat for a who’s who of Tokyo’s ruling class circa the late 19th and early 20th century.

Of course, this is but scratching the surface. When in doubt, you can never go wrong with a few slices of A5 wagyu sizzling away atop a teppanyaki griddle, or, well, another half a dozen bowls of ramen. In Japan the choice, and the journey, is yours.

Featured image courtesy of Natsuki via Unsplash