12 of the Weirdest Food I’ve Eaten in Japan

I love food. Cooking and eating together is one of my favorite ways of showing love – to my spouse, my friends, and my family.

There’s very few things I won’t eat… and can count on one hand the number of times I haven’t enjoyed that random thing I ordered off the menu.

Food in Japan is spectacular (albeit different than my palate and stomach were used to) and often odd. The two don’t have to be mutual exclusive, I’ve learned. Sometimes the most delicious things are the ones that I have difficulties explaining to friends and family back home – because they sound like they would be gross.

These are some of the weirdest (and most delicious) foods I’ve eaten in Japan:

1. Fish eggs (salmon roe – ikura)

Fish eggs took some getting used to, to be honest. I didn’t like them the first dozen or so times I tried them… I wasn’t necessarily opposed to the taste, but it freaked me out the way they just pop in your mouth as you eat them.

ikura donburi fish eggs salmon rice bowl japanese food

Now I love fish eggs, especially salmon roe. They are these large, orange/reddish spheres that go really well with rice.

A fish egg (salmon roe) and salmon rice bowl (pictured above) is my go-to meal when I’m feeling grumpy, picky, or generally irritable while out with friends.  Although it sounds weird to admit it, fish eggs have become one of my favorite seafood-related foods in Japan (second only to raw salmon).

2. Black sulfur ramen

I first tried black sulfur ramen in Hakone a bit over a year ago, when I was passing through with my husband and father.

hakone black ramen sulfur

I couldn’t get over how completely black the noodles were – eating them was such a strange sensation! In the end, they tasted pretty similar to non-sulfur noodles. Despite the similarities in taste, this still landed on my top weirdest foods in Japan list.

3. Tofu skins (yuba)

Did you know that tofu had skins? Because I definitely didn’t. They look like this:

food japan japanese food best delicious meal yuba

The skins are savory, with a sort of rubbery-chewy consistency. They weren’t so weird as they were unexpected.

I first tried yuba (tofu skins) in the city of Nikko, where I was lucky enough to get to eat them raw and cooked, as a side dish and soaked in a soba noodle dish.

4. Raw horse meat

This is one of the only ones on the list that I am not keen to try again. Back when I first went to Tokyo, I went to a bar near the Tsukiji fish market with a couple Japanese friends to celebrate something (now I can’t remember). At the time, I wasn’t a fan of fish (shame on me, I know) and didn’t speak much Japanese, so two of the members ordered for all of us, deciding we would split a huge tray of sashimi pieces over rice.

Someone gave me raw horse meat.

I tried it.

I didn’t care for it very much and asked what it was, so I could avoid it in the future. When I found out I had just eaten raw horse meat, I freaked out a little bit (while said friend laughed and thought it was hilarious – it was one of those ‘prank the foreigner’ experiences).

Long story short, no I don’t want to try that again.

5. Natto (fermented beans)

Natto is a slimey, strong smelling “super-food” composed of fermented soybeans. The running joke is that you either love natto or you hate it – and even Japanese people are split a pretty even 50/50 on “love it” vs “hate it”). I am very firmly in the “hate it” camp but since my husband and in-laws are from Ibaraki, the natto capital of Japan, I’m around it all the time.

Natto is typically eaten over rice, plain or with soy sauce, mustard, or minced leeks. Every time my husband eats it, I made him go brush his teeth twice before he can breathe next to me or kiss me, because he smells like some small animal crawled into his mouth and died there two weeks earlier.

Seriously. It’s so awful.

Ryosuke even wrote me a poem last year, making fun of my hatred for natto:

OB_15_12 comic comics life in japan texan in tokyo cartoon natto stoplights are blue rhymes poems

6. Whale meat

Whaling is a difficult topic to talk about. Period.

However, like a lot of the other food on this list, I’ve ingested whale meat without realizing it at least a dozen times.

There’s only so many times you can ask “what is this?” when you’re out with friends, eating at someone’s house, or sharing a meal with the in-laws before you just give up and eat everything on your plate. Canned and fresh whale meat can often be found at supermarkets.

Raw whale meat

Raw whale meat

7. Chicken Cartilage  (nankotsu)

You see, in Texas we don’t eat the cartilage of the chicken. Instead, you chew around the cartilage to get to the good stuff (you know, skin, meat, etc).

Imagine my surprise when on one of our first dates out in Tokyo, my boyfriend (well, now husband) ordered three sticks of chicken cartilage at the yakitori restaurant. It was chewy, odd, and not entirely awful – the most difficult part of eating it was trying to get my head around the fact that I was willingly eating cartilage.

Now, of course, years later I love the stuff. We order it every time visit the yakitori stand across town.

8. Smoked Rainbow Trout (Nijimasu)

Remember how earlier in this post I said I used to not like fish?

That’s the understatement of the century.

When I first moved to Japan, eating seafood made me feel physically ill. I have no idea why. For as long as I can remember, anything remotely related to seafood makes me nauseous and if I tried to eat it, I ended up vomiting more often than not. Shrimp flavored ramen, pan fried catfish, smoked salmon – I couldn’t eat any of that.

Then I moved to Japan with this boy I was dating and spent the summer living at his parent’s house in Ibaraki. His parents, who ate fish with nearly every meal, introduced me to other types of fish, with not as “fishy” tastes. We learned that I did better with raw fish than cooked fish (raw fish don’t taste like the ocean as much) and the first time his older brother caught nijimasu at a local river and smoked them, I was actually able to eat it.

It was delicious.

To me, nijimasu is one of the fish that helped me start liking fish.

Even though it has these creepy little eyes that stare at you while you eat it (hello, nightmares).

JPEG Image (17249)

I’m better now, when it comes to fish. I love nearly every single type of raw fish I’ve tried, do okay on smoked fish, and can handle most cooked fish. I married that boy from earlier (yay me) and began to take on his love for fish. In fact, I haven’t been physically ill after eating a fish in almost three years now- thanks to the magic of true love (or something like that).

9. Sea grapes (umi budo)

Sea grapes, also known as green caviar, are a local specialty on the island of Okinawa (although they exist in other parts of the world too). They’re technically a plant. Ish.

And are very salty and pop in your mouth. In that way, they’re rather similar to fish eggs.

okinawa okinawan food japan best eat umibudo sea grapes

10. Intestine (hormone)

I’m still not 100% what parts of the body get dumped in front of you when you order “hormone,” all I know is it’s the nasty bits. My husband swears it’s only intestines, but other friends say that restaurants will often dump organs into the mixture too.

Basically “hormone” is a bunch of very sketchy-looking meats, served in a thick sauce. I’ve tried it twice and it’s made me gag twice – taste-wise it’s probably the worst thing on this list.

Even when Japanese mom and dad serve it when we’re visiting, I won’t be polite and pretend to eat it. It’s that awful.

11. Spicy Fish Egg Pasta (Mentaiko)

Spicy fish egg pasta can be found at basically any “large” pasta restaurant in Japan. It is spicy cod roe, with mayonnaise or cream or butter or olive oil or whatever else that particular restaurant fancies. Everyone seems to have their own recipe.

I prefer to make mine at home, using black pepper and unsweetened soy yogurt.

The hardest part is squeezing all the eggs out of the sac (as seen below). Ewwww.


12. Candied grasshoppers (Inago)

Inago, or candied grasshoppers, don’t actually taste much like grasshoppers. They’re a little chewy, a little crunchy, and taste strongly of soy sauce and sugar. As long as you don’t look at what you’re eating (or touch your tongue to the food), you won’t even notice you’re eating tiny, very dead insects.

I picked some of these up for Japanese dad when Ryosuke and I were on a road trip through central Japan – and then ate them over rice with Japanese dad a couple weeks later. They were… interesting?

Honorable mention: Fried Octopus Balls (takoyaki)

Takoyaki is small chunks of octopus, friend in a ball-shaped batter and topped with green onions, mayonnaise, and sauce. It’s a rather normal dish, the only thing “weird” about it is it’s English name / explanation of “fried octopus balls.” (because it’s not actually the balls of an octopus)

It’s delicious. You should definitely try some when you’re in Japan (especially if you’re in Osaka) – takoyaki is one of my favorite foods in all of Japan~!

Takoyaki osaka best of tako yaki fried octopus balls japan japanese food


About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

41 Comments on 12 of the Weirdest Food I’ve Eaten in Japan

  1. Well, I had the opportunity to try natto yesterday evening when I took my younger daughter to the only authentic Japanese restaurant in our area (as attested to by people who have dined there and have previously visited or resided in Japan). They had natto on the menu.
    So, after all the controversy I’ve read about it on the Internet, I decided to try it and draw my own conclusions. OK, it doesn’t smell wonderful, but it’s not totally revolting either. And it
    doesn’t taste all that bad, though it has a lingering aftertaste that is easily diminished by sipping a little beer. My daughter tried a bit as well and didn’t mind the smell or the initial taste but did not like the aftertaste. I brought some home for my youngest son to try; his opinion was much like my daughter’s except he didn’t mind the aftertaste as much. He said it tasted like beans that have sat out too long (a bit of knowledge gained from Boy Scout camp outs). Would I eat natto again? Definitely yes, especially if I were a guest at someone’s home and it was served as part of a meal. Although, considering all the health benefits of natto, I could see getting used to eating it regularly. I’m going to ask my older daughter to bring some back when she returns from her year of study abroad in Japan. Natto is not easy to find around here (neither is kimchee). But, it’s fairly easy to prepare more natto if one has a starter culture. I’m not sure I’ll be able to persuade my wife to try natto as she doesn’t like kippered herring or kimchee either (though some of our kids like one or both of these yummy foods).

  2. I have only eaten two things on this list in Japan – ikura and natto. Ikura definitely is something interesting that takes getting used to and natto – ugh. I really never want to eat that again when I visit Japan!

    I guess the most interesting thing I have eaten in Japan was fugu (blowfish) when I visited Fukuoka in 2012.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this post. It brought back some memories of things I ate when I was a kid. My parents were immigrants from eastern Europe. The “intestines” part of the story brought back the memory of eating “kishka”, which in Russian means intestine. It was actually a sausage casing, the small intestine of a pig, stuffed with a mixture of cracked buckwheat, chopped up assorted pig innards, onions, garlic, and pig blood. It’s baked until it cooks through and can be eaten hot or cold with a side of pickled beets or sauerkraut (or eggs). I know, it sounds disgusting, but it actually tastes pretty good. I would not likely have any problem with eating “hormone”.

    We also ate a lot of seafood, which during the 50’s and 60’s in Boston, was the cheapest protein food one could get. We had fish several times every week, all kinds of fish. It’s hard to say what I liked best. I still love seafood, even really smelly seafood like kippers and sardines. One of the fish we ate was a small ocean perch that my mom rolled in flour and fried whole. When I was kid I would suck the eyes out and chew them; they were like fish flavored jelly beans. Summer dinners often included raw pickled herring, so the idea of eating sushi topped with raw fish was not all that strange when I first tried sushi. From what I’ve seen and read on the Internet, Japan must be a seafood lover’s paradise.

    The one thing I never acquired a liking for was chewing on cartilage. My mom grew up in a rural part of Russia (that’s most of Russia, come to think of it) where nothing was ever wasted. Even here in the U.S. she would buy jars of pickled pig’s knuckles for snacking on while watching a movie on TV. I did try it, but never acquired a fondness for cartilage.

    I have no idea whether or not I would like natto. It doesn’t seem appealing, but neither did kimchee until I tried it. It was part of a home school geography lesson with my older kids. I actually liked the taste in spite of how it smelled and looked. A couple of my kids like it too. So, I’ll reserve judgement on natto until I’ve tried it. I love your description of the smell though; it’s very close to what my wife thinks of some of the canned fish I eat every now and then.

    BTW, Jun has a good video (Jun’s Kitchen YouTube channel) on mentaiko. He slits the egg sacks lengthwise and scrapes out the eggs with a spoon.

  4. I’m 100% Asian, that I know of (Cambodian/Chinese, living in Texas).. so I ate my fair share of what Americans consider weird or gross. Most of the food listed look fine to me, but no whale or horse meat please. Traditional Cambodian foods use fermented fish and I grew up eating Durian, so natto might not be so bad for me.. althought the sliminess is off putting (thus why I don’t eat okra).

  5. I could have write the article haha But I still cannot it cooked fish. I love sushi and sashimi of fished though.

  6. It’s really weird how those ‘strange’ foods end up being things you crave!

    For me, it’s Korean sundae (the blood sausage kind, not the delicious ice cream kind), chicken gizzards/feet, and raw beef (육회/yook-hwe)

    Aaaand now I’m hungry.

  7. You are a brave, brave soul. I tried eel once, reluctantly. Eel sushi. It was a disturbing texture. I’m not one to venture into strange food when it comes to meat.

  8. I recently tried natto in a Japanese restaurant here in Hong Kong. I was curious and thought sure I can handle this. It’s not the initial taste that got to me but there is a strong after taste which I couldn’t handle. I tried my best to like it (as my bf and I had order a bowl of it with okra and tofu) knowing it’s very good for you I tried really hard to like it but couldn’t.

    Thanks for this list, I will avoid most of these on my trip to Tokyo at the end of month. But I don’t mind salmon roe, tofu skin or takoyaki which is one of my favourite Japanese snacks. Cannot wait to try more Japanese food, hopefully I don’t get anything too weird though hehe.

  9. I absolutely adore Natto. I think that makes me strange from an American standpoint.

  10. Bren in Tokyo // 9 February, 2016 at 9:10 am //

    I’m probably in the 1% of the population that doesn’t like natto, but doesn’t absolutely hate it. Because my wife and one of my two sons eat a lot of natto, I’ve been around it enough to tolerate it. And I can manage to down a container of the stuff if I put two packets of mustard into the mix. However, I very rarely eat it. But whenever I go to my local sushi-teria, I usually look forward to a plate or two of natto zushi. Maybe I like it because the natto is minced but also because of the nori.

  11. Being half-Japanese, I grew up with natto around me all the time. The family is split – my mom and sister eat it like crazy, my brother and I absolutely hate it. Dad’s the American who never even bothered to get past the smell/look to try it….! haha.

    The only way I do like to eat natto is when it’s dried. The smell disappears quite a bit and without the slimy texture I can finally enjoy it. It’s a great snack.

  12. I am one of the very rare people who love natto! I love a good natto donburi, onigiri and with raw egg/negi/shoyu/rice.

  13. I’ve tried most of these, but not all of them, for example whale meat not yet.
    I’m very interested in the black sulfur ramen! (*___*)b
    I was always afraid of trying umi budo, but I’m so glad I did last time I visited Okinawa. :D

    I guess I’m weird anyways as I also love goya and natto! :D

  14. I would try any and all of the things on the list I haven’t tried. I love fish eggs, I love octopus, I love intestines, I love most foods I try. I also adore durian, so I would probably enjoy Natto also.

  15. You need to try it all been eating it over 44 years hasn’t killed it yet and im 65

  16. I tried Natto once and that was enough. Never again.

    Meanwhile, I love Ikura, as well as Takoyaki. Some of the local Japanese restaurants are starting to serve takoyaki, which makes me happy. However, I don’t think anything could top the huuuuuge takoyaki onigiri I had while I was in Osaka 5 years ago. (Yep – giant rice ball with a big takoyaki center.)

    Hope I can try most of everything else I’ve yet to encounter. Thanks for sharing. :)

  17. Takoyaki is the best~ I was super skeptical when I heard about it, but it’s so good! My favorite food of all time.

  18. Aubrey Marshall // 8 February, 2016 at 11:50 pm //

    I’m not into spicy foods normally (if at all) but Mentaiko sounds delicious!! *_*

  19. I want to try takoyaki purely because of the Cardcaptor Sakura short where Kero and Suppi have an intense battle across town over the last takoyaki ball. Yes. Nerd.

    Thanks for the info on weird Japanese foods! I want to try all of them at least once!

    • Anonymous // 8 April, 2016 at 11:58 am //

      It’s good! I love that scene in the Cardcaptor Sakura short! I also love it when Kero shoves a ball of takoyaki in his mouth in the first opening! When I first saw it I didn’t know what it was, but soon I knew and vowed to try it some day. And I have! It’s pretty good! :D

      • YESH! The short is soooo adorable!!! <3 I hope to have a good experience, too! ;) Though I don't know where in my city I'd find takoyaki… Gonna have to work on that!!

  20. Everything you said sounds good love it all

  21. I don’t think i would be able to eat natto. i don’t know about sea-grapes.
    in romania, eating fish eggs is a common thing. the red ones you talk about are rather pricey, so most commonly we eat the white ones from other type of fish. We usually turn them into a paste with mayonnaise and lemon juice [and raw chopped onion, but i can’t stand the onion so i steer away from it]
    horse meat… hmm i think we eat that too… but i can’t be sure anymore. most people here would eat cooked fish, and there are some fish i don’t like eating.

    i am not sure about the rest of the list … :/ thanks for this post, it is really interesting

  22. Anonymous // 8 February, 2016 at 5:28 pm //

    I used to be the same as you when it came to fish, and also found I do better with raw fish. As for the intestines, my mom, being from the southern U.S., would make chitlins, boiled then fried intestines. They tasted fine to me when my mom made them, but I have since learned that if they aren’t cleaned properly they taste like… well, like what ultimately comes out when the animal is still walking around.

  23. I don’t know if it’s a Tohoku thing or maybe just a Miyagi thing, but “horumon” specialty shops are abundant here. I thing the right kind of sauce makes all the difference, also if it’s cooked long enough to crisp a bit. But yeah, I don’t dislike it.

    Ages ago as an exchange student in Hokkaido, a boy I liked gave me fresh salmon roe from a fish he caught as a birthday present. It was delicious and I was in love lol. Best roe I ever had.

    Some of the weirdest stuff I’ve had here was maybe raw squid in some pink sauce. I don’t remember everything in it, but my mother-in-law loves it. I think it’s slightly fermented. Also not really a fan of goya or “sea pineapple,” though that seems like something that would depend on how it was prepared.

    Thanks for sharing your list though, I never realized so many people don’t like fish.

  24. Ah ah, I’ve found some fresh organic natto at my place in France… will receive it tomorow… first try !!! Which side will I choose ? Love or hate ?!!! My friends in Japan love it.

    Nice post. Thanks.

  25. No matter how long I stay in this country I will not ever be inclined to eat any kind of fish. The smell alone makes me gag.

    Natto, I had the ‘priviledge’ of trying it when I was in high school in my Japanese class…NEVER AGAIN! Thankfully Ryosuke doesn’t like it either, I do believe he will eat it if he HAS to, but gernerally…doesn’t like it either.

    I actually liked the raw Horse meat, though I am weary about where I get it from. Only had it once in Osaka, but would definitely try it again. Other than that, there isn’t much anything ‘wild’ that Japan has made me like.

    Picky is as picky does. :/

  26. it`s not `hormone` it`s `horumon` because horu means throw away in kansaiben and mon is thing, so it means `things that you (normaly) throw away`= intestins :) I also thought it had something to do with horemones until I moved to Osaka

  27. Aww I love natto!! It must be an acquired taste? Because at first I didn’t like it, now I get weird cravings for it if I don’t eat it regularly! But it’s such a great fermented superfood, so cheap, can’t beat 3 nutritious breakfasts for less than $1.

    The funny thing is, most things on this list are “normal”/everyday foods for many Japanese people. I’d say the black ramen, sea grapes, and candied grasshoppers are the strangest–they’re not part of a typical everyday diet and are “exotic” even for Japanese folks I’d assume. The one thing I ate that fits that category (rare/strange both for me and for Japanese friends) was stingray fins. But the strangest thing for American me was fish sperm (shiroko), though it’s a well-loved delicacy here!

  28. My wife grew up eating natto in the Tohoku region. She loves eating it so much that she got our daughter tomeat it when she was a little baby. I never ate it myself foe obvious reasons…..the AWFUL SMELL! Our daughter still likes it but she never fed it to her child because her husband objected to the smell.

    We ate whale meat mamynyears ago when we lived in Tokyo. It is not ‘PC’ to eat it any longer, however.

  29. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) // 8 February, 2016 at 11:25 am //

    Funny that I don’t think of most of these as being weird! I’ve had most except whale or horse, and I’m actually dying to try the sea grapes. :) Lots of good stuff here!

    PS) Autocorrect change cartilage or cartridge in your header up there. Lol. Damn autocorrect.

  30. Ikura is one of my favorite sushi! But, it IS an acquired taste, no doubt. I am not into REAL natto, but I love the CANDY natto. Those aren’t real natto, right? Honest, I did NOT know, that the Sea Grapes were a PLANT! I thought that they were fish eggs attached to seaweed! And, I have heard of “crickets in soy sauce,” and I did expect to see crickets on your list. That is one thing I won’t eat!

  31. Natto – I like it cause my Dad taught me to eat it. My Uncle – Dad’s oldest brother – would yell every time he smelled natto in the house. He hated it and could not stand the smell. 50-50 is accurate and there is no middle ground – people either love it or absolutely hate it.

  32. I’ve had the same horse sashimi experience as you! I was basically peer pressured into eating it by a bunch of Japanese people one night and although it didn’t taste so bad, I couldn’t stop picturing a field of ponies prancing around while I ate it….

    I LOVE umibudo though and you can get it everywhere down here in Okinawa. The other night I had the most delicious tomato and umibudo salad with a shikuwasa dressing! yum!


  33. I like this post. I don’t know how well I will get accustomed to eating fish cause when I was a kid we were homeless and lived at a lake and we ate what we caught which was a lot of fish. So yeah… But I am willing to try it there if someone is with me and makes it differently I guess. Fish eggs yeah… I tried it and just couldn’t do it even with the ones that are really small, it was the texture and taste I think that bothered me.

    Now The whale… I am iffy on that , Horse meat ummm NO! Intestines or Hormones yeah that’s a nope. I don’t know I might try it once cause yeah they say don’t knock it before you try it….So, I will try something but hope the people don’t get upset if I gag and get sick. cause even sometimes smells will just trigger it you know.
    But thank you for sharing Grace. Take care of you guys and stay sweet and safe always! <3

  34. I’ve had octopus before and didn’t care for it. I described it as fishy tasting rubber. Maybe because I’m eating it in central Texas? I don’t know.

    Natto is right up there on my “nope nope nope” list, alongside durian. Some things just smell too bad to be edible.

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