Unique Japanese Food: Cuisine You’ll Only Find in Japan

Unique Japanese Food: Cuisine You’ll Only Find in Japan

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Picture: I / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Do you know shirako, konnyaku, and chankonabe? Go beyond ramen and learn about a host of unique Japanese ingredients and food prep styles.

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you know one of the greatest pleasures of the trip is enjoying unique Japanese food. If you haven’t, you’ve probably enjoyed a meal or two at the local Japanese restaurant. Regardless, it goes without saying: Japanese food has become quite popular in the Western world.

However, as we’ve discussed before, there is so much more to Japanese food than the classics like sushi and ramen. Many of these foods and preparation styles are things you may never have heard of. And while all of them are delicious treasures, depending on where in the world you’re from, some of them may take some getting used to.

Unique Japanese Food Textures

Neba Have I Ever…

If you’ve ever tried natto, then you know some Japanese foods come with pretty unique smells and textures. Slimy foods are not uncommon. In fact, they are really healthy for you! They even have their own name: “neba-neba,” which means sticky. There are plenty of healthy neba-neba foods[1] to try besides natto. Here are a few:


Tororo[2] is a famous, neba-neba food of Japan. It is made of grated yams (usually nagaimo or yamaimo). It is a common cold side dish in Japanese restaurants. You can enjoy it with condiments, or as a topping on salads, soups, and more!

Mekabu & Mozuku

Many people are familiar with wakame, the little seaweed pieces floating around your miso soup. However, you can also eat the budding part of the seaweed, or the ‘mekabu’. Mekabu[3] is very slippery, and often served as a side dish. Mozuku[4] is another kind of slippery seaweed, and a specialty and superfood of Okinawa.


You’ve probably heard of Japanese mushrooms such as shiitake and enoki. But have you ever tried nameko?


These little mushrooms have a slimy coating, and are one of the most popular mushrooms in Japan. (You’ve probably seen Japan’s famous nameko character[5]!) You can find nameko mushrooms in miso soups and nabe (hot-pots). They are super healthy, too!

Neba-neba Don

Neba-neba don
Picture: karins / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

If you’re keen to try several of these at once, Neba-neba Don is a combination of several of these sticky ingredients. Neba-neba don is a popular summer rice bowl, topped with several of the above ingredients. It also often includes other neba-neba foods such as okra and raw egg.

It may sound strange at first to the uninitiated. However, this dish is not only good, but good FOR you! If you have the chance, try a bowl at least once. If it suits your taste, you can even learn how to make it at home[6]!


マーボー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Konnyaku[7] is not exactly “neba-neba,” as it isn’t slimy. However, this unique Japanese food also has a rather unusual texture. Also known as konjac, this very popular diet food comes from a kind of yam. It is very thick and jelly-like, yet despite this, is extremely low in calories. It also has no flavor, so while you may not want to eat it on its own, you can easily flavor it to your liking. 

If eating a whole block of konnyaku is not for you, there are other forms! Shirataki noodles are zero-calorie noodles from the konjac root. They make great substitutes for pasta and soup noodles for those watching what they eat. Even if calories are not your main concern, they are an interesting and delicious food to try, and I recommend trying it out at least once!

Unique Japanese Food: Vegetables Edition

Japan is also famous for including lots of vegetables in their meals. However, there are a number of interesting, lesser-known vegetables as well. Here are a couple:


Goya chanpuru - a unique Japanese food

Goya[8] is a type of bitter gourd, and looks more like a bumpy cucumber than anything else. It a specialty of Okinawa, and you will find it in many Okinawan dishes, such as Okinawa’s famous goya champloo. It has a really bitter taste, though, so people don’t usually eat it on its own.


Another interesting sea vegetable is umi-budo (literally “sea grapes”)[9], which is a popular seaweed from Okinawa. Umi-budo are a common Okinawan side dish, which you can enjoy with soy sauce. They have a unique texture, and pop like little bubbles in your mouth when you eat them!

Unique Japanese Food: Gutsy Meat & Seafood Dishes

If there’s one thing about Japanese food culture, is that it really makes use of the concept of “mottainai” (not creating waste). As a result, many meat and seafood dishes make use of the entire animal.

Tarako, Mentaiko & Shirako

Mentaiko with hot chili powder on rice.
Mentaiko with chili powder on rice. (Picture: ぱぱ〜ん / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Fish eggs are a regular sight in Japanese cuisine. For example, there’s ikura, a popular sushi roll ingredient.

Tarako and mentaiko[10] are two other popular fish-egg dishes. But don’t confuse them for caviar. Tarako, or cod roe, is the egg sac of the female cod fish. Tarako is often served salted, and originally a Japanese dish. Mentaiko, however, is said to have originated in Korea, and is flavored with more spicy seasonings than typical Japanese tarako. Either are common as side dishes, a rice accompaniments, and even as onigiri fillings.

Lesser known is shirako[11], which is the sperm sac of the male cod fish. Shirako is more of a delicacy than mentaiko, but another interesting seafood dish for the daring. While shirako is typically from cod, it can also be taken from salmon, pufferfish, and anglerfish. Shirako has plenty of protein, and is supposedly more flavorful than the fish meat itself. It is often served as sashimi.


Motsunabe. (Picture: shige hattori / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Feeling gutsy? Try some horumon!

Horumon is a type of Japanese dish in which the main ingredients are the innards of pork, and beef. Motsu, or tripe, is another popular gutsy ingredient. Horumon and motsu[12] can be eaten grilled (as horumonyaki or motsuyaki), or as a nabe stew (motsu nabe is a popular dish)!


Odorigui[13] is another uniquely Japanese dish. The word translates to ‘dance-eating’. This is somewhat of a controversial topic in many Western countries, where veganism and animal rights are more widely accepted than in Japan. This is because of what the dish entails.

Odorigui is a seafood dish, usually consisting of squid, octopus, or another type of fish. The main point is that it is served and eaten live. You can even feel it moving (or dancing) in your mouth, hence the name. Another type of odorigui is shirouo, a type of small fish[14] served (yes, live) in a glass of alcohol.

Unique Japanese Food: Raw!

It’s no secret or surprise that Japan is very famous for raw foods (sushi and sashimi, anyone?) However, sashimi doesn’t limit itself to just fish. 


Horse sashimi (basashi).
Horse sashimi (Basashi). (Picture: keiphoto / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

This dish, basashi, is another controversial food, specifically regarding the safety concerns around eating it.

Basashi translates to ‘horse sashimi’. Yes, this means raw horse meat. It’s a specialty of Kumamoto Prefecture, though many other places in Japan serve it. Luckily, all places that handle this meat are required to adhere to certain preparation protocols to prevent bacteria and food illness.


That’s right – chicken sashimi, or torisashi[15], is also a thing. Most places sear the edges for texture. However for the most part, the chicken is raw. But just as above, cooks must adhere to certain rules in order to prevent food poisoning.

Both basashi and torisashi can be eaten the same way as regular sashimi: dipped in soy sauce and wasabi, together with rice.

Lesser Known Unique Japanese Food

Now that we have shared some interesting delicacies of Japan, let’s have a look at some of the lesser known (but likely more palatable!) unique Japanese food dishes that just about anyone will enjoy!

No “acquired taste” is required, just your appetite!


Oden: unique Japanese food
Oden. (Picture: ykokamoto / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Oden[16] is a traditional Japanese hot-pot, with over 1000 years of history. Different ingredients have been added throughout the years of its evolution. However the most common ones today are tofu, fish cakes, and konnyaku. You can find oden in shops and even in convenience stores, and you can even make it at home[17]. 

When buying in a shop, you can select the ingredients you would like individually, and pay per ingredient. It is a very popular food in the winter, though plenty of places sell it in the summer time as well.


Ochazuke - a unique Japanese food
Chatsuke. (Picture: shige hattori / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Ochazuke[18] is an interesting yet delicious dish of green tea over cooked rice. This dish also has a long history in Japan. It is believed to have been eaten as early as the Jomon Period (approx. 14,000-300 BCE). You can season it in many ways, including with broths, soy sauce, wasabi, pickled vegetables, and furikake flakes. 

Though you can prepare this dish can with water, ochazuke refers to the preparation method using tea. (When using water, it is simply called “ozuke”). You can use a variety of teas, including sencha, hojicha, and of course, matcha. 


Chankonabe[19] (pictured at the top of this article), also known as “sumo stew,” is a hearty Japanese hot pot. As the name suggests, it is a staple of the Japanese sumo wrestler’s diet. Its original purpose was to provide all the protein and nutrition that the wrestlers needed to build and maintain strength. But the good news is, you don’t have to be a sumo wrestler to enjoy this dish!

Originally, the concept of this dish was to simply throw as many ingredients as one could into the pot. Because of this, there is no set way to make chankonabe. Even today there is a lot of variation in recipes. However, the typical ingredients in this hot pot include not just vegetables, but plenty of protein, such as beef, chicken, fish, tofu, and even meatballs!

There are some shops where you can try chankonabe. However, you can also prep this dish yourself at home[20].

Shojin Ryori

Shojin Ryouri - unique Japanese vegetarian dishes
Shojin Ryouri. (Picture: june. / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

One common criticism of Japanese food is that there are few vegetarian options. However, this doesn’t mean Japan is completely lacking. There are many delicious dishes that are vegan and vegetarian friendly. Here is one of my personal favorite:

Shojin ryori, or Buddhist cuisine, is Japan’s own vegan dish. It is the traditional diet of Buddhist monks, and other devout followers of Buddhism. Preparation and mindfulness are important when it comes to shojin ryori. The foods are simple but by no means plain. They can be very delicious with their delicate flavorings. 

Shojin ryori consists of rice, plenty of vegetables, and tofu. This type of food is more of a specialty, so you will not find it in a regular izakaya. However, you can find shojin ryori in some specialty restaurants, especially around places with many temples.

Unique Japanese Food: Conclusion

As you can see, there is way more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and yakiniku. Though some may require a bit of courage to try, others may work their way into your regular diet. Next time you find yourself in Japan or in a good Japanese restaurant, why not be a little daring and try some unique Japanese food?

Looks Like Chicken: My First Time Accidentally Eating Horse in Japan


[1] 今日から取り入れたいネバネバ野菜の効能&おすすめの食べ方. Link

[2] 和食のプロが教える「とろろ」の作り方とおすすめの味付け. Ama no Shokudo

[3] ヌメリ海藻「めかぶ」と「もずく」の違い。天ぷらや汁物にすると絶品. Olive Hitomawashi

[4] もずくの栄養と効能がすごい!沖縄もずく特集. Okifuru

[5] Nameko Paradise. Link

[6] Slimy slimy goodness all together in a bowl. Just Hungry

[7] こんにゃく・しらたきについて. Kan-etsu

[8] Goya Champuru (Video) ゴーヤチャンプルー. Just One Cookbook

[9] Link no longer active

[10] 今更聞けない…「たらこ」と「明太子」の違い. Tabi Labo

[11] 白子は魚の精巣のこと. ふるさと産直村

[12] ホルモンとモツの違いって何?Issho

[13] 踊り食い. Wikipedia JP

[14] 全国「白魚の踊り食い」徹底調査!シロ魚?シラ魚?産地で異なる食べ方も解説!Kurashii No

[15] 新鮮な鳥肉をヘルシーに食す!鳥刺しのカロリーと糖質. Olive Hitomawashi

[16] おでんの歴史. Kibun

[17] Oden. Just One Cookbook

[18] お茶漬けの意味と定義とは?Japan Culture Lab

[19] ちゃんこ鍋についての雑学・豆知識. ふるさと産直村

[20] Chanko nabe sumo stew. Just One Cookbook

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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