Japanese cuisine is known for its exquisite flavors and unique culinary traditions. For some, the standouts are what might be referred to socially as ‘weird Japanese foods!’ And there certainly are some dishes that may surprise and even shock those who are not familiar with Japanese food culture. From fermented soybeans to raw horse meat, Japan has a reputation for serving up some of the weirdest and most unusual foods in the world, at least to those unused to them. Yet despite their reputation as bizarre and even off-putting, these dishes continue to captivate the imaginations of adventurous eaters and culinary enthusiasts from around the world. So we use the term “weird” here as an invite to try these amazing, unique, and delicious cultural dishes that you won’t get a chance to try in most other corners of the world.
This article will specifically explore some of the more peculiar examples of weird Japanese foods and cuisine, particularly their cultural significance and the reasons behind their everlasting popularity. We’ll also recommend a few places to try these dishes! No matter the “weird” or unusual, these are some of the most fascinating and delicious dishes you’ll be able to explore in Japan.
This article is a part of our extensive series on Learning about Japan through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.
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Must-Try Weird Japanese Foods
Natto is the first of the weird Japanese foods on our list. It is a traditional Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans. It is most well-identified by its sticky, slimy texture (there’s really no other word for it but slimy). It’s a popular breakfast food and is most often served with rice or noodles, and eaten with mustard, soy sauce, and/or chives. It’s nutritionally very healthy, containing a lot of protein, fiber, and vitamins. Fermented foods such as natto are closely associated with gut health, as well.
Traditionally, it was prepared by wrapping soybeans in rice straw, which modern day science tells us created a bacteria that reacted with the sugars in the soybeans. Today, that bacteria, called B. subtilis, can be made without the rice straw and thus makes natto more easily available.
In Japan, natto is associated with longevity and a healthy lifestyle. Although it can be a bit of an acquired taste, it is one that is a must-try food amongst Japanese cuisine, no matter that it might be categorized as one of the weird Japanese foods, as well.
Where to try natto?
Generally, natto can be enjoyed from your local conbini or supermarket, but there are the occasional restaurants out there that specialize in it. Some soba restaurants will offer natto soba, for instance. In this restaurant’s case, they offer over seventy different natto dishes, based on various cuisines. They even have some Italian-inspired dishes, such as natto carbonara!
Fugu, or pufferfish, is categorized as one of our weird Japanese foods only inasmuch that it is rare. It is, after all, just another fish. It is so rare, however, because of its notoriously dangerous preparation. The fish contains a deadly neurotoxin, so only highly trained (and licensed) chefs are allowed to prepare it. The preparation process involves skinning the pufferfish, washing it with salt, and very delicately cutting it without puncturing the ovaries or liver. It is then generally served as sashimi or nabemono (foods served in a pot).
Although potentially deadly, fugu has been consumed in Japan for centuries and is considered a delicacy. It has a delicate flavor and texture that is prized by food enthusiasts. For some, the risk factor also gives the dish a certain allure, so it continues to be popular among those seeking a thrill or a unique culinary experience.
Where to try fugu?
This was the first publicly licensed restaurant to offer fugu in Japan, all the way back in 1888. It is certified, safe, and an absolutely stunning place to start off your journey into this risky cuisine.
Basashi is another cuisine that might be categorized as one of our weird Japanese foods only for its rarity and unique meat. Basashi is also known as horse sashimi, and it is a popular dish in the Kumamoto prefecture. Similar to any kind of fish sashimi, this dish is made by thinly slicing raw horse meat. It is often served with soy sauce, ginger, and other condiments. While the thought of eating raw horse meat may be unappealing to some, basashi is considered a delicacy in Japan and is enjoyed by many.
The flavor of basashi is often described as sweet and tender, with a slightly gamey taste. Horse meat is low in fat and high in protein, making it a nutritious alternative to beef or pork. While some occasionally have concerns about the consumption of raw meat, raw meat is often served world-wide in a variety of dishes. In Japan specifically, basashi is served very fresh and prepared by skilled chefs in order to limit the safety risks. In Japan, horse meat has a long history as a food source and is considered a cultural delicacy. While basashi may not be to everyone's taste, it is a unique and fascinating example of Japanese cuisine that offers a glimpse into the country's culinary traditions.
Where to try basashi?
Basashi Kenzo (Kumamoto)
This restaurant offers not only basashi, but also other horse meat delicacies that you won’t find in many places in Japan. It’s a great place to try any cultural dish particular to the Kumamoto region. The meat is carefully selected daily, and only served fresh.
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Shirako is a dish that might be a bit off-putting, or classified simply as one of those weird Japanese foods to some, but it is a cultural delicacy. It is also known as "cod sperm," and it is made by extracting the male reproductive organs, or milt, from cod or salmon. It can be served raw and/or slightly heated. It is rich, creamy, and slightly fishy as with most types of fish eggs. While the idea of eating cod sperm may be off-putting to some, shirako is considered a luxurious and indulgent dish in Japan.
Shirako can be served in a wide variety of ways, from deep-friend tempura to raw or used in sushi. The milt has a creamy, custard-like texture that is often compared to foie gras, and is said to have a subtle, sweet flavor that pairs well with soy sauce and other seasonings, which is what makes it a great ingredient in sushi. For those who are willing to try something new and adventurous, shirako is a unique and memorable dish that offers a fascinating glimpse into Japanese cuisine.
Where to try shirako?
Shirako can be found at just about any sushi restaurant, particularly in the winter months, but this restaurant in Tokyo offers it year-round. They also have a variety of ways of trying it, such as grilled, broiled, or as an add-on in hot pot. They also offer convenient reservations, take-out, and even delivery.
Kujira, or whale meat, is one of the more controversial cuisines on this list. It is typically consumed in coastal regions such as Taiji and Wakayama. While whale meat has been a traditional food source in Japan for centuries, the practice of hunting whales for meat has been widely criticized by international organizations. Particularly in recent years, as whales’ habitats and lifestyles have grown more endangered, there has been an increasing push internationally for this type of cuisine to not be sold. Regardless, this cuisine remains on this list for its cultural value and its long-standing tradition in Japan.
Whale meat is typically prepared in a variety of ways, such as by grilling, frying, and simmering. The taste of whale meat is comparable to beef, with a rich, gamey flavor and a tender texture. Despite the controversy surrounding the consumption of whale meat, it remains an important cultural tradition in certain regions of Japan. While it may not be to everyone's taste, kujira is a unique and fascinating example of Japanese cuisine and offers a glimpse into the country's complex relationship with its natural resources and the way that relationship has developed over time.
Where to try kujira?
Kujira no Tomisui (Tokyo)
This is a shop that acts a bit like a marketplace, and it offers all kinds of whale meat and kujira cuisine. To the curious eater, this is a great place to start your adventure in trying kujira. You can choose from a large selection of meat cuts and the cooking methods vary widely.
At first glance, Kusaya might not be anywhere near the top of a list of weird Japanese foods, but the way these fish are prepared give it a unique spin. It is a traditional fermented fish dish that is popular in the Izu Islands of Japan which is made by soaking and fermenting small fish like mackerel or sardines. After several days, the fish begin to ferment and the entire process gives the fish a pungent odor and a salty, savory flavor that is often described as intense and unique.
The fish are soaked in a brine solution after being gutted and cleaned. They are hung to dry in a dark, cool place for several days while the fermentation process continues, and then they are ready to eat. The process turns the fish quite dark in appearance, which could be off-putting for some, hence its placement as one of our "weird Japanese foods".
This cuisine is rich in protein, omega-3’s, and other nutrients that are often found in fish. As with other fermented foods, it is thought to improve your gut health. This versatile food can be eaten as both a snack or a meal served with other side dishes. Kusaya may not be to everyone's taste, but it is a unique and fascinating example of the role that fermentation and preservation play in Japanese cuisine. For those who are willing to try something new and adventurous, kusaya offers a rich and flavorful experience that is deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of the Izu Islands.
Where to try kusaya?
This is another dish you can make at home (although beware, it can get a bit smelly), but many places in the Izu islands offer this dish. We recommend an izakaya called Ryozanpaku, which was founded by a Hachijojima native. If you do end up making it at home, however, we have some great recommendations for beverages to pair with it, that you can find at our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Tea.
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Nankotsu refers to the cartilage of chicken. It is used in some Japanese cuisine, such as nankotsu yakitori. You might find it at izakaya served on skewers, or occasionally as a fried snack around Japan. It is a rich source of protein and calcium, as well as other essential nutrients like phosphorus and vitamin D. The cartilage is known around Japan as promoting joint health and mobility.
In Japanese cuisine, there is a strong tradition of using all parts of an animal in cooking. This practice is rooted in the cultural values of frugality and respect for nature, and is seen as a way of honoring the sacrifice of the animal that has been used for food. By using every part of the animal, from the meat and bones all the way to the organs and cartilage, Japanese chefs are able to create a wide range of unique and flavorful dishes that reflect the natural diversity of the world around them.
Where to try nankotsu?
SG Low (Tokyo)
This is another of our weird Japanese foods that you could make at home, but your best bet at finding it is a local izakaya. As chicken is a food well-used in all cuisines across Japan, you can find nankotsu, particularly nankotsu yakitori, all across Japan. The pub listed here offers it as well, and it's right in the heart of Shibuya.
For those bug-haters out there, this might be a difficult dish to swallow (literally). Hachinoko is a traditional Japanese dish made from bee or wasp larvae, harvested from the honeycomb and then boiled in soy sauce, sugar, and mirin to create a sweet and savory snack. For those willing to get past the fact that you’re eating bees, it makes for a delicious snack. It is often served as an appetizer or occasionally on rice. It’s a strong source of protein and other vitamins, and the larvae are believed to have antibacterial properties that can help boost the immune system.
Further, insects have been praised in recent years as an environmentally-friendly source of protein. Insects are quite sustainable and require much less resources to maintain than livestock, and therefore more environmentally-friendly. While the thought of eating bee or wasp larvae may be off-putting to some (which is why it makes our list of weird Japanese foods), for others it is a delicious and nutritious snack that offers a unique and fascinating culinary experience.
Where to try hachinoko?
Most often, this snack is found at matsuri, or festivals, in Japan. There’s even a whole festival dedicated to hachinoko in Gifu. The festival comes to fruition each year in November, which is peak hachinoko harvesting season. There, you can try a number of hachinoko snacks as well as wasp-inspired cuisine.
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Another of our weird Japanese foods that might be hard for those hesitant to try bugs is inago, or inago no tsukudani. Inago is a dish made from fried locusts that are seasoned by the tsukudani method, with soy sauce and sugar. The dish has a crunchy texture and a slightly sweet and savory flavor. It is not unlike cuisine you will see involving locusts in many other parts of the world, so for some this may be a familiar food.
Locusts are a great source of protein, fiber, and vitamins. They are low in fat and high in iron and zinc, and as with hachinoko they are a sustainable protein resource. They are typically boiled to remove impurities, then fried in oil, before being seasoned with soy sauce and sugar. They too are a snack or appetizer that is sometimes served with cold sake or beer.
Where to try inago?
These will be easier to find in Nagano, but try your hand at finding them at marketplaces or the occasional supermarket across Japan. You can also generally order them online, from places like amazon.
Shiokara literally means ‘salty-spicy’, and it is a dish made from fermented seafood, often tuna or squid. It is cleaned, chopped into small pieces, and then mixed with salt and rice bran. It ferments over a several-week time period, until it develops a rather strong smell and slightly sour taste. Shiokara is rich in protein, and, like other fermented foods, has probiotics that can help improve digestion. It is most often served as a condiment, either by itself or for a topping on rice and/or noodles.
In modern day, shiokara is generally known just as ‘salted fish guts’ in English, but it was once made from other types of meat, as well. The term ‘shiokara’ is more recent, as well, as it used to be called ‘nashimono’. Historically, shiokara was once made with a much higher salt content than you commonly see today, but it is now made for both modern-day preferences and due to concern for too-high of salt content. A lot of shiokara will need to be refrigerator-stored because of the lower salt content.
Konowata, number eleven on our list of weird Japanese foods, is actually a type of shiokara, and it is generally known as ‘salted guts from a sea cucumber’. This delicacy is made when the intestines are salted and left to ferment, resulting in a sticky, gelatinous texture. It is known to be high in protein, a good source of vitamins, and low in fat content. The preparation of konowata is a lengthy process that involves soaking the sea cucumber intestines in water, washing them thoroughly, and then salting them. They are mixed often for five hours, and then left to ferment for a week.
Where to try shiokara?
Shiokara Ginza (Tokyo)
You can find shiokara at supermarkets and also sometimes prepared at local izakaya. Typically ika no shiokara (squid shiokara) will be easier to come by than any other types, but check your supermarket for what is offered and see. The place listed here is a bar that offers many different types of shiokara.
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Funazushi is a traditional Japanese method of preparing funa, or carp, for what many know as the “original” sushi, called narezushi, or how sushi was prepared for the modern-day method of using raw fish. It is prepared by fermenting carp with salt and rice for several months, or even year, and is generally made with carp that are only found in Lake Biwa. The process creates a pungent, sour taste and a distinctive smell that can be quite strong. Funazushi is a source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower the risk of heart disease and improve brain function. If you want to know even more about sushi in general, we have an Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sushi. And if you'd like a great drink to pair with your funazushi, we recommend checking out this Ultimate Guide to Sake Brewery.
Where to try funazushi?
This is going to be much harder to come across “in-the-wild”, so to speak, and its generally best to go looking for it yourself near Lake Biwa. The most famous preparer of funazushi is Kitashina, located in Takashima, which opened in 1619 and has been preparing funazushi for generations. It is available to be ordered online from Kitashima and other restaurants, but will often get sold out from the november to february months, as it is a delicacy often eaten with the new year. The site can be a bit more difficult to navigate, so if you're looking for some help check out our Top 15 Japanese Kanji Tips and our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Kanji.
Popularity of "Weird Japanese Foods"
Japanese cuisine has a long, long history of incorporating what outsiders might consider unusual and unique ingredients into its dishes. This ranges from fermented foods like natto and shiokara to exotic meats like fugu (pufferfish) and horse meat. It is partly due to Japan’s isolated geography–as well as the isolationist tendencies of the country in former times, though we won’t go too deep into that–which has allowed Japan to develop a distinct culinary identity that is both traditional and innovative.
Additionally, Japan has a strong tradition of culinary artistry and attention to detail, which has led to the creation of many visually stunning and aesthetically pleasing dishes, as well as ones that taste delicious on top of all that. This, in turn, has helped to make what some consider "weird Japanese foods" more appealing to both locals and tourists alike. The spread of modern technology has also made what were once province-specific culinary dishes more available across Japan, and so much more common for people across Japan to try out.
Social Media and Tourism for "Weird Japanese Foods"
In recent years, the popularity of what some might call “weird Japanese foods” have been fueled in part by social media platforms. They have made it easier for people to share photos and videos of their culinary experiences and show where to try them out. This has helped to create a sense of excitement and buzz around weird Japanese food, as people seek out unique and interesting dishes to try and share with their followers.
Additionally, Japan's thriving tourism industry has played a significant role in promoting these foods to a wider audience, as many visitors come to Japan to specifically try what they might consider "weird Japanese foods". Of course, that's not all they come for, and if you're someone who's looking to explore more, check out this Ultimate Guide to Amusement Parks in Tokyo, or (for those outside of Tokyo) our Ultimate Guide to Sightseeing in Japan.
The Appeal of Novelty for "Weird Japanese Foods"
Finally, the popularity of weird Japanese food can at times be for the appeal of novelty. People can be drawn to foods they consider unique or unusual, and adventurous spirits are always on the lookout for something new. Japan offers a multitude of foods that many haven’t been able to explore before, and all of them have their own unique method of preparation, culture, and tradition behind them. (It’s not a bad thing that they’re all quite delicious, too.)
Ultimately, the popularity of “weird Japanese foods” can be attributed to a variety of factors. Japan's rich culinary tradition, the spread of modern technology and the role of social media and tourism, as well as the appeal of novelty are all things that draw food enthusiasts in. Whether you're a die-hard foodie or simply looking to try something new and exciting, the world of weird Japanese food is sure to have something to offer.
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