There is a lot to love about Japanese culture, but for me, the absolute highlight of studying abroad in Japan was exploring the local cuisine.
Japanese foods and drinks are wholesome, tasty and -- though sometimes a little weird -- always enjoyable to try. Nothing really compares with a steaming bowl of ramen after a long day in the library or a trip to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant when celebrating the end of exams.
Student life is often associated with eating instant noodles or microwaved meals rather than going to restaurants. In Japan, however, going out for a meal is often cheaper than buying ingredients at the supermarket, which makes this country the ideal place for foodies who want to study abroad -- and even better if you want to stick to a budget while studying abroad in Japan. As you plan your semester in Japan, be sure to put these must-try foods and drinks on your list.
Related: Where To Study Abroad in Japan
Conveyor Belt Sushi
Just imagine: a sushi train turns food into a kind of game, making it a great tool to forget about the worries of student life and revisit childhood memories. During my time studying abroad in Japan, I could spend hours watching the little plates roll by, each of them carrying a fascinating creation by the chef.
Sushi is not just one of the tastiest foods that Japan has to offer; it's also one of the healthiest. Filled with healthy Omega-3 fatty acids, this fishy treat provides a natural brain boost that helps increase focus and memory. So what better excuse to enjoy sushi on a weekly basis?
Matcha (green tea)
Of all the drinks in Japan there is one that you simply have to try: the powdered green tea called matcha.
This Japanese drink is traditionally served in a tea ceremony, during which a trained host carefully prepares tea and serves it to guests, along with sweets to balance the bitter flavor of the tea. Even if you’re not a fan of the drink itself, the Japanese tea ceremony is an unforgettable experience for any student in Japan.
Is it an omelet or a pancake? That's usually what people think when trying okonomiyaki for the first time. The answer: it's a bit of both. This dish is made of a combination of batter and eggs, fried on a grill. Okonomiyaki is often referred to as "Japanese pizza" because it's one of the most popular types of fast food in Japan, especially among students.
The best part is customizing your pizza/pancake/omelet by picking whatever fillings you want -- options include cheese, squid, pork, noodles, cabbage, and vegetables. Okonomiyaki is usually topped with mayonnaise, a special okonomiyaki sauce, dried seaweed and fish flakes.
One of the simplest and cheapest meals you will find in Japan is gyūdon, which literally translates as "beef bowl". It is a bowl of rice topped with beef and onion that has simmered in a sweet-and-salty sauce. Despite its simplicity, this dish is a delicious and quick pick-me-up after a long day of studying.
If anything can mend your soul after a break-up, a failed exam, or just a bad day in general, it must be ramen. This Japanese dish is the queen of all comfort foods; it’s no surprise ramen is having a renaissance around the world.
Recognising a good ramen shop in Japan is easy; just look for a place that has a queue of hungry people out front. It'll be worth the wait, I promise.
A steamy bone broth with noodles, a soft-boiled egg, spring onions and the tenderest piece of pork belly you can imagine -- need I say more? One tip for ramen virgins: this bowl of goodness should be enjoyed with a reasonable amount of slurping, which helps cool the broth and makes the flavors come to life -- don't hold back!
Japanese foods and drinks are full of umami (the fifth basic flavor), but another flavor the Japanese can't get enough of is sweetness. Undoubtedly you’ve seen a selection of interesting and unusual Japanese candies at world grocery store -- or in your local grocery store if you’re lucky!
One of the cutest sugary treats is taiyaki, a fish-shaped waffle filled with sweet red bean paste, custard or chocolate. Taiyaki is a classic example of Japanese street food, mostly sold from little stalls. It’s perfect as a snack during a break from class.
Most students will get the occasional craving for deep-fried food at some point in their academic career; maybe it’s after a weekend of fun with new study abroad friends, or after a particularly tricky Japanese language test.
Either way, Japan has you covered. Tempura is a dish of battered and deep-fried ingredients like shrimp, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini, pumpkin, fish, and carrot. Heck, half of those ingredients are even healthy, despite the amount of deep-frying that happens!
Vending Machine Drinks
When studying abroad in Japan, you will notice that every street or hallway in the country is lined with vending machines, each of them filled with quirky Japanese foods and drinks. If you’re lucky, your study abroad campus will have a few, and you can sample the variety of interesting drinks they offer.
Hot coffee, iced coffee, different juices, a soft drink called "Pocari Sweat" and an intriguing hot corn drink are among the most common items on display. Embrace your adventurous side by trying some of the weirdest drinks in Japan.
An onigiri is a (filled) rice ball, often wrapped in seaweed. Fillings range from smoked salmon to chicken and from tuna-mayonnaise to pickled plum.
These small snacks are sold at pretty much every convenience store in Japan, but the best ones are found in specialized onigiri shops. When I was studying in Japan, I loved to have these yummy rice balls for breakfast or lunch -- or both!
These lovely little dumplings originate from China but have been embraced by the Japanese people as one of their favorite foods. The dumplings are usually filled with a combination of cabbage, spring onions, ginger, minced meat and/or prawns and served with a dipping sauce. Best enjoyed with a cold glass of Japanese beer after a long day of studying or exams.
More than the necessary calories to keep going, Japanese foods provide the comfort and pleasure that make a year abroad unforgettable. When living and studying in Japan, you will probably experience some challenging moments -- I will never forget spending three hours in a store, filling out heaps of paperwork simply to cancel my phone contract -- but the one thing you can always count on is a delicious meal, drink or snack to brighten up your day!