When you think of Japanese cuisine, more often than not sushi will be your first thought. And while it’s definitely up there as a foodie highlight, there are plenty of alternative Japanese seafood dishes for you to discover. With the average Japanese person eating around 150 pounds of fish every year, they can’t just be having sushi all the time, can they?
Forget crepes in Harajuku, it’s all about savory pancakes now. Okonomiyaki is a must for any first-time traveler in Japan (particularly famous in the Kansai region, but there’s plenty to be had in the Tokyo/Kanto area). The name okonomiyaki loosely translates to ‘whatever you like, grilled’—and that, my fellow budget traveler, is exactly what you get. Inside the batter is a heap of ingredients: cabbage (being the main ingredient), bean sprouts, spring onions, an egg and of course seafood (shrimp, octopus). Oftentimes okonomiyaki will also have meat, such as pork or beef. Expect reams of Japanese mayonnaise and Worcestershire-style sauce on top and bonito (fish flakes). Okonomiyaki is that different Japanese dish that you maybe didn’t know about before you arrived. Get your fix of it now.
3-20-1 Jingumae, Shibuya 150-0001
JR Yamonote Line to Harajuku, Takeshita exit
Go here to grill your own okonomiyaki. A good social meal. It’s a cool location being inside the Design Festa gallery. Lunch time is your best shot (11am-3pm), with all-you-can-eat on offer plus a drink for just 1,060 yen. Bargain.
And be sure to check our guide for more cheapo-friendly okonomiyaki spots in Tokyo.
2. Bento box
Bento boxes are basically a fancy Japanese lunchbox. No white sliced bread like back home here, that’s for sure. There are different sections of the lunchbox containing different foods. Ingredients can vary, but a traditional bento box will contain either fish or meat, pickled or cooked vegetables and, of course, rice. We are talking about Japan after all.
You can find prepared bento boxes at grocery stores or specialty shops in bigger/busier stations (as they are usually eaten as a meal on the bullet train). And the convenience factor of a bento box means you can chow down just about anywhere—at the office, at a picnic, on the go, and even at Kabuki! They are quite a sweet little Japanese tradition, if I may say so myself.
Matsuri Station Bento (Tokyo Station)
Tokyo Station 1F Central Street, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
JR Yamonote Line to Tokyo Station
Right inside the ticket gates at Tokyo station, this place offers around 170 different kinds of bento boxes. It also specializes in regional variations. A perfect spot for when you use the bullet train.
This is one of those dishes that should be at the top of your must-try foods while in Japan. You might need to look hard for good-quality tempura, but boy is it worth it. Tempura is a range of foods such as shrimp or vegetables (zucchini and eggplant are popular), battered and deep fried to light and crispy perfection. That is the trick with finding a good-quality tempura though—the batter. Avoid all-greasy, over-cooked coatings and look for the fine, succulent and crispy ones. It might be hard to find a decent meal of it outside of Japan too, so get your tempura overload while you can.
1-38-10 Asakusa, Taito-ku
Mon-Fri: 11am-8.30pm, Sat: to 9pm
Ginza Line to Asakusa, exit 1
Hit this little joint in Asakusa for a fantastic tempura meal. The tempura is fried in pure sesame oil, which is a specialty of the area. The restaurant is in a white building with a tiled roof. Expect queues.
Feeling fancier? Try Michelin-star tempura at Kyourakutei.
4. Seafood Donburi
Donburi or “rice bowl meal” is another dish perfect for featuring seafood. The bowls are often topped with tuna, salmon, octopus, shrimp and roe, to name but a few. These seafood-rice bowls are particularly popular and present around the Tsukiji market.
It’s a delicious and filling meal that is comforting for when you are traveling around on a budget. Winner.
4-1-9 Ueno, Taito, Tokyo
11am – 7pm
Yamanote Line to Okachimachi Station
Check out Minatoya for your perfect donburi number. The ingredients come fresh from the Tsukiji market and are priced at about 500 yen. There are English descriptions on their menus, which is always a plus.
Cheapo shout out: Yanmo
For a simple fish meal, we highly recommend Yanmo. They specialize in grilling fish from the Izu Peninsula—caught fresh daily. Lunch sets in this upscale-looking restaurant range from 1,100 yen to 1,400 yen. Definitely the place to dine if you’re looking to be impressed for less.
Read our full Yanmo review here.
Who said Japan was just sushi? That’s the great thing about Japanese cuisine, you’re always finding something new and different to add to the list. Have your 150 pounds of seafood in your two-week holiday, is what I say—or try and come close to it at least.
Our video guide to the tuna auctions at the shiny new Toyosu Fish Market