Seasons are Japan’s specialty, and there are plenty of delicious ways to appreciate this one—from nourishing hotpots to traditional New Year’s dishes, here are the top winter eats.
If you’re visiting Tokyo in winter there’s no denying it’ll be cold, but there are plenty of great ways to warm up with delicious food. While every season has its perks, this one is particularly fruitful, and definitely varied. It’s the perfect time to try unique Japanese specialties like yuzu, tofu and the risky dinner option of puffer fish—as well as enjoying celebratory dishes to ring in the New Year. Here are our top ten Japanese winter foods to try on your trip.
1. Oden (with daikon and renkon)
A sure sign that winter is here, the familiar smell of oden is drifting through convenience stores far and wide, but don’t let the grey ponds put you off. Like a savory pick and mix, the dish is a little intimidating and quite unappealing when seen at first, but definitely worth a try, at least once. With a light soy-based broth, oden features a mixture of jellies, root vegetables and seasonal treats that can be selected to make up an easy and warming dinner. Some of the regular pieces include:
- Konnyaku – A jelly made from the root of konjac which is meant to be great for digestion, usually served in triangles it sometimes comes as noodles called shirataki.
- Yude-tamago – A boiled egg soaked in the salty broth for a very long time.
- Tofu – It comes in a few forms in oden, but is a great addition as it soaks up flavor and adds some bite. Keep an eye out for ganmo, a disc of fried tofu with vegetables, and atsu-age, which is deep-fried slices of the bean curd.
- Konbu – Kelp shaped like a ribbon and very healthy.
- Cabbage roll – Steamed cabbage leaves wrapped around beef.
- Daikon – A winter radish sliced into circles and perfect if you want a bit of crunch.
- Fish cakes – Hanpen is a fish cake piece, kamaboko is a white and pink fishcake you’ll recognize instantly, and chikuwa is a tube of fish cake.
Once you’ve identified your pieces, go ahead and give it a go! It’s a great chance to try other winter specialities like daikon and renkon (root vegetables). You can pick it up at almost any convenience store, or check out our full article for specialized spots to try it!
2. Tofu specialties
Although it is available throughout the year, tofu is thought to be at its best during the winter months as they come at the end of the soybean harvest. A great source of protein and available in a huge variety of formats, from soft to firm, freeze dried, fermented or fried in slices—there’s something for everyone. Tofu is incredibly easy to find and cheap too, so you can sample a few kinds until you find the one that floats your boat—especially in izakayas.
Yudofu is a Kyoto specialty popular in winter that’s made up of a mild soup with soft tofu pieces which are then dipped into a soy or ponzu sauce. Agedashidofu is also popular winter option; it is a deep-fried tofu served in a hot soy sauce broth topped with green onion and grated daikon (pictured above). Another way to try it is in kitsune udon—a light brother with udon noodles and a slice of fried tofu floating in the warming soup.
Where to find them: Head to an izakaya for some great affordable options, but for the freshest and most delicious tofu find your local tofuyasan (tofu specialty shop) which will have unbeatable taste and quality.
One for the daredevils among us, fugu is the winter specialty that could leave you begging for more, or dead at the first bite. More likely the first of course, since the puffer fish delicacy can only be prepared by highly trained chefs with licenses to prove it.
A pale and mild flavored fish, it is served in thin slices often with yuzu or sudachi, a small green citrus fruit (pictured above), another winter favorite.
Where to find it: Kikuchi (1-12-2 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo) is an affordable fugu restaurant in Tokyo that offers set menus starting at around ¥3,000. While it’s not exactly a cheapo lunch, it’s a great-value place to try this daredevil dish!
A general term meaning pot, nabe covers a whole range of delicious dishes that are stews or soups cooked in an iron or clay pot.
There are quite a few varieties to try, from the sumo-specialty chanko-nabe, which has plenty of protein, to the simple all-rounder yosenabe, which is any mix of vegetables and meats in a dashi broth. For meat lovers make sure you try motsunabe, which has beef and/or pork offal, while sukiyaki is made with thin slices of beef and cubes of tofu. Shabu-shabu is one of the most popular kinds, named after the swishing sound of the thinly sliced meat as you cook it quickly in the hot broth.
The best thing about nabe is that it’s a great group dish; there’s nothing better than sharing a steaming pot with friends, picking and choosing your favorite bits and combining skills for tricky chopstick maneuvers.
Where to find it: There are plenty of great restaurants offering all-you-can-eat nabe sets—we have a full cheapo guide to help you find the one that suits you best!
5. (O)Shiruko and zenzai
A sweet treat that just has to make the list, shiruko is a soup made with sweet adzuki beans and those familiar mochi balls you might have seen at tea houses on your travels. There are two different forms: one is made with crushed beans, semi crushed ones or a mix of the two textures, and the other is made with a condensed paste (zenzai).
Perfect if you want to combine your winter food tour with some green tea, shiruko is often served at confectionery shops and tea houses. This is also a great chance to try mochi which is a new year specialty, so you can kill two delicious birds with one stone!
Where to find it: Asakusa Umezono (1-31-12 Asakusa Taito Tokyo) specializes in zenzai and is a sweet shop that’s been in business since 1854, so they definitely know what they’re doing!
A street-food staple brought over from China, nikuman is steamed bun filled with meat and is the perfect pick-me-up on a cold day. Usually filled with pork but sometimes beef, they are simple but filling and give a hearty satisfaction as the steam rises from the first bite. With prices starting at ¥100 in most stores, they are a very cheapo-friendly filler.
Where to find them: Convenience stores have a variety of flavors including pizza(!) or you can find them at festivals and events and keep your eyes out in any food markets or old-fashioned shopping areas. Or there’s the Gyokuran restaurant in Shinjuku.
While they might scream summer to most of us, strawberries in Japan are a special part of winter as they take center stage on the Japanese version of a Christmas cake. The familiar red fruit are grown in specially raised poly-tunnels in Japan and are therefore harvested earlier than most countries and ready in winter rather than spring.Whether you fancy them wrapped in mochi or dipped in chocolate, they are always delicious, so what excuse do you need?
Where to find them: Any supermarket or fruit and veg shop will have plenty, and keep an eye out at festivals for candied ones and chocolate-covered treats. Strawberry cakes can be found in department stores and supermarkets if you would like to try Christmas Japan style!
8. Yuzu, mikan and kaki
Nothing says winter like being huddled up under your kotatsu while you enjoy some fresh mikan (above)—the easily peeled, seedless mandarin oranges you’ll soon see everywhere. Mikan are one of the few fruits exported from Japan in large quantities and are a real favorite across the country.
Yuzu are a kind of citrus fruit with little pulp that are often used as a seasoning in broths and toppings: you can enjoy them in your food, or float them in your bath to release delicious scents as you soak.
Kaki, the final of the three winter fruits are best eaten dried for a chewy, fruity snack. A kind of persimmon, they are in season from late autumn and you’ll no doubt see them hanging from strings in villages and shops as they will last much longer that way!
Where to find them: These fruits are actually pretty cheap compared to imported fruits in Japan, so you’ll have no trouble finding them at markets, supermarkets and greengrocers. Keep an eye out for seasonal desserts in restaurants as they will often feature kaki and mikan, as well as themed drinks in cafes for a more modern twist.
Despite being the cause of death of quite a few pensioners at New Year’s, mochi—a rice cake made from pounding glutinous rice—is a tradition that will live on for the foreseeable future. You might be lucky enough to see mochi-pounding festivals at your local community event, or see boxed offerings in local shops.
Named kagami mochi and meaning mirror rice cake, the decorative displays (as seen above) are made of two balls of mochi topped with a daidai (a bitter orange) and a leaf. There are more display options including folded sheets of paper similar to those worn by sumo wrestlers as well as dried persimmons and a sheet of konbu. The tradition dates back to the Muromachi period, and it is often placed in the shrine within the home.
10. Osechi ryori
A New Year special, osechi ryori is the name for a variety of dishes eaten to celebrate new years in Japan, with different elements representing different hopes for the new year. They are served in traditional compartmentalized tray-like bento boxes called jubako which can be stacked when finished. Having started as a Heian-era practice, it is still followed today and is a really fun tradition to try yourself.
Some examples include: tazukuri, small sardines cooked in soy sauce which symbolize an abundant harvest; kuro-mame, black soybeans that are a wish for health; and kazunoko, herring roe that symbolizes a wish to be gifted with children in the coming year. While it can be pretty expensive to try, we have some affordable options to try in Tokyo too.
Where to find it: Often pre-ordered, osechi can be acquired from specialist shops or department stores, but are never exactly cheap. The most affordable option is to make your own—recipes are simple and you can make the ones you like, rather than picking through unwanted sardines!