5 Strange Japanese Foods Common In Japan

You’ve seen videos of frog sashimi and other strange Japanese food. Japanese think that stuff is just as bizarre as everyone else. Stuff like that is called getemono, meaning both “strange things” and “low-quality products.” In other words–weird. A lot of everyday Japanese foods, however, would make non-Japanese rush to the toilet covering their mouth. While I actually prefer Japanese food to western food, every country has its dishes the rest of the world would sooner toss under the table at Fido. Some of us, though, the ones who think Fido knows something that we don’t, go for the unusual stuff. There’s something that makes you feel an intimate connection with a culture by trying its most traditional and retched dish.

Horumon

It makes you strong. Harumon is a broad word meaning anything from intestines to organs. It’s all the nasty bits. Any yakiniku restaurant will have a portion of the menu devoted entirely to these strange, mysterious parts of the animal. It will be blanket-labeled “harumon” without further elaboration because only a butcher or veterinarian would recognize what it was anyway. What you’re eating is left up to your imagination.

That said, thin harumon–I’m talking about intestine in this case–holds sauce very well. Once you get over the fact you’re eating cow guts, you might like it. It’s chewy, but good. Thick harumon, though, will gag you. What I had was a big, weird ball of chewy gut fat that I couldn’t swallow without a lot of water.

Nankotsu

Japanese nankotsu

via Haseo

Nankotsu is fried chicken cartilage. It’s a lot like eating the crunchy stuff at the end of a chicken wing, which before coming to Japan I actually didn’t know was edible. You’ll find it in yakitori restaurants and izakayas, Japanese pubs. It’s prepared the same way as karaage, Japanese fried chicken, so it won’t taste much different. The problem is the texture. To me, eating nankotsu is like eating chicken bones. When you bite into what looks like karaage but feel a crunch between your teeth, something’s weird. I can’t eat nankotsu because the texture is just too strange and boney for what should be chicken nuggets.

Tororo

You have Anthony Bourdain to thank for this one getting on my Strange Japanese Food list. Tastewise, tororo isn’t so bad. The problem is what it looks like. In one Japan-themed No Reservations episode, Bourdain and a Japanese Iron Chef sat down to a steaming bowl of cod semen soup, which resembled what I ordered at an expensive sushi bistro in Osaka more than I was comfortable with.

I ordered maguro yamakake. The menu had been in quite difficult kanji, but I could read maguro, so I knew I would be getting tuna. I received a bowl of tuna chunks slathered in sticky white goo, which I mistook for tuna steeped in its own semen.

After some searching on my iphone’s Japanese dictionary for yamakake, I found out the white stuff was a kind of potato that gets gooey when you mash it, named yamaimo. Granted, this member of the list may be more a personal distaste, but I can’t think of tororo without thinking of something stranger I could be putting into my mouth.

Natto

When I arrived in Japan, every non-Japanese told me the same thing.

“They will try to get you to eat natto. Don’t.”

It was a warning I didn’t take to heart. I was too curious about this strange, beloved dish of fermented soy beans passionately despised by every non-Japanese. It was Japanese comfort food, and trying it would give me an insight into the very heart of Japanese food culture.

The thing that turns most people off about natto is the smell. It’s fermented soy beans, and smells like it. It smells so bad companies even make scentless natto. A lot of Japanese will tell you that while it does smell bad, natto actually tastes good. That’s a lie. Things that smell bad taste bad too.

It was bad, but not as bad as everyone said. It does taste strange, but strange because natto is just slimy old beans. And eating slimy old beans is strange. The biggest problem with natto, though, is that it coats your mouth in natto. After you eat it, everything tastes like it. If you’re going to try it, I recommend trying it last, otherwise you’ll end up trying it the whole meal.

Basashi

Basashi is the worst thing I have ever had in my life. No exceptions. Basashi is raw horse meat. It’s popular in Yamanashi, where I live. I was at a restaurant with some friends, and they asked if I’d ever tried it.

“No,” I said. “Eating raw meat is really strange in the states–bizarre, even.”

“You should try it.”

“Sure.” Like I said, trying a country’s food is how to understand its culture.

Minutes later the waitress sat some sliced basashi in front of me, bleeding all over the plate. It was slimy, uncooked horse meat that reminded me of an autopsy scene in CSI.

This was one time I had to say, “No.”

“Just one little piece!”

Now, the slaughtered horse this had come from had likely been running around the local track last week. People don’t realize that in horse racing the horses play for higher stakes than the gamblers, and this one had lost one too many times. But this was Japanese culture! Not just Japanese culture either, but local Japanese culture.

“…just a little piece.”

It was the most horrid thing I had ever eaten. I could barely swallow even the tiny scrap I put in my mouth. It’s soft, raw, bloody horse flesh. Basashi is the strangest, worst food I have ever eaten and I will never try it again. Take my advice and don’t try basashi if you’re visiting Japan.

Bonus. Umeboshi Candy

umeboshi candy
via tamakisono

“Nathan, challenge.” My old coworker was holding out some candies that looked like Sweet Tarts, which I eyed with great suspicion.

“Doshite ‘challenge?’” I ask. Why ‘challenge?’

“Challengekara.” Because, challenge.

I took some of his candy and put it in my mouth. I was thinking Warheads, the atomically sour candy we used to burn our tongues on in junior high.

I slapped my hand over my mouth. “Nani?!” What in the nine hells did you just give me?! (Loosely translated.)

Everyone laughed. “Umeboshi ame.” Pickled plum candy.

I call it a bonus because it’s candy. But umeboshi itself can be quite bad, though even many non-Japanese like it. I for one, don’t.

The exact flavor of umeboshi depends on the region. Some prefer it more salty, others more sour. You’ll find the unique little pickled plum in bentos all over Japan, but it’s an acquired taste. The strange mix of salty and sour might actually appeal to more people if it was less intense, but not the candy. Never the candy.

So that was some strange Japanese food you may encounter if you make the pilgrimage. But don’t be thrown off course by the weird stuff. Japan has some of the best food in the world. The U.S. still makes better hamburgers, but in general I prefer the food here to my home country’s. When you come to Japan, eat up. You won’t regret it unless you try basashi. Make it a point to try the strange Japanese food in particular, because you haven’t really experienced a culture until you’ve tasted it.

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32 Comments on “5 Strange Japanese Foods Common In Japan”

  1. Jason B. Ladd
    November 22, 2013 at 4:44 am #

    I’d rather have okonomiyaki!

    • introvertnathan
      November 22, 2013 at 5:44 am #

      Lol, me too! I’m actually not a huge fan of it though. But it’s certainly better than basashi!

  2. Ciel (@madamadachan)
    November 22, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    Born and raised in the Philippines and having eaten balot (which wikipedia describes as “a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive”), barbecued chicken intestines/head/feet, and- believe it or not- pork blood stew as a normal part of our meals, I could probably take on any horumon thrown at me ^^

    But wow… I’m all for raw fish. If I could I’d eat it every single day. But raw meat?! Raw horsey meat? Never ever ever ever!!! o(>_<)o EVER! Seriously, if anyone dared me to I would eat everything in your list- in one go- except for that.

    • introvertnathan
      November 22, 2013 at 6:03 am #

      Haha. Basashi is definitely my worst food, ever. I haven’t had much Philipino food, but what I have had I liked. (Granted, I never tried balot, but I’d give it a go.)I don’t think I could handle pork blood stew though!

  3. rose2852
    November 22, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    I think my worst Japanese food experience was sake infused wasabi. We were warned we wouldn’t like it and they were right!

  4. samokan
    November 22, 2013 at 5:59 am #

    Tororo,Basashi and Natto are Big NO to me. Ume candy was actually good, and I love the first two 🙂

    • samokan
      November 22, 2013 at 6:04 am #

      oh I forgot to mention Raw liver and Raw minced beef . In one nomikai I went to, I did not know that the liver was supposed to be eaten raw so I started grilling it and everybody laughed at me and I retorted back that in my country people who eat raw liver are considered monsters/demon , suffice it to say they stopped laughing. Raw minced beef was doable but I prefer not to.

      • introvertnathan
        November 22, 2013 at 6:13 am #

        Considered monsters? That’ll shut someone up fast, lol!
        In U.S. culture, eating raw meat is pretty much unthinkable. Even raw egg is considered dangerous. I’ve started to enjoy raw egg since I’ve come to Japan, but I could never eat raw minced beef, or liver.

  5. lmjapan
    November 22, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Great list, I really enjoyed reading this post! I’ve yet to try horumon or nankotsu and chances are I probably never will. Texture is a big thing with me, chewy stuff is the worst. I’m guessing hormuon would be like the tripe I’ve had in pho noodles. That stuff was like meat flavored chewing gum, and not in a good way.

    When I was in Kumamoto, basashi restaurants were all around. I was thinking of trying it and the concierge recommended a popular restaurant, but in the end I just couldn’t go through with it. It’s hard for me to eat something that’s regarded as a pet. I did eat some horse jerky though and that tasted all right but it was a very small piece.

    • introvertnathan
      December 1, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      Thanks. I agree with the texture thing. For me, meat is not supposed to be slimy. And basashi is very slimy. I’m generally not into slimy things anyway, but when it’s meat…I can’t enjoy it.

  6. Artemis
    November 22, 2013 at 6:31 am #

    I’ve tried everything on this list other than basashi. I’d give it a go out of curiosity, but seeing as I’m not a huge meat fan to begin with I doubt I’d like it.

    • introvertnathan
      November 22, 2013 at 8:22 am #

      I think basashi is the Japanese food non-Japanese would have the most trouble with, mostly because it’s raw meat–it also happens to be horse meat, which would bother a lot of people. I don’t have any more sentimental feelings to horses than I do cows, but the taste and texture of basashi is something I just can’t stand.

  7. fingknitcoolgal
    November 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    Wow, what a hardcore! Even though I am Japanese, I never had any of them except natto & umeboshi. My mom being an extremely fussy eater, I was not exposed to any of getemono. My dad used to order some strange menu at a yakiniku restaurant and I questioned him about it. But he replied ‘You’d better not to know what they are’, so I let it lie. About basashi, is it a bit like steak tartar? Even if it is, eating raw meat doesn’t really appeal to me therefore I stay away. I saw in the past that the diners eating raw bits of chicken ‘tori sashi” in a yakitori bar in Tokyo. I was amazed if it were safe to eat uncooked! How about parasites in the meat? Also, in some part of Japan, they cook crickets too. How can they?!

    • introvertnathan
      December 1, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Haha. Wow, just noticed I never replied to you. I’d say basashi is not much like steak tartar at all, actually. Horse has a really different flavour. I also found basashi quite…slimy. Not my thing.
      I agree whole-heartedly about parasites in the meat. Last year a yakiniku chain was forced to close for selling contaminated raw beef that made a lot of people sick. But I guess “raw” is just part of Japanese culture, so it’s more accepted. I can’t really understand why though, when unagi must always be cooked for the very same reason.

  8. April Roberts
    November 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

    I am glad I will have an excuse for NOT eating most of these items when I visit Japan someday, I am a Buddhist vegetarian! I have heard though, that Buddhists are considered strange in Japan. Is that true? LOL. Thanks for another interesting article!

    • April Roberts
      November 22, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

      I meant that vegetarians are considered strange…..not Buddhists. 🙂

      • introvertnathan
        November 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

        Haha, I was thinking someone told you wrong! I’ve never met a vegetarian in Japan, and never really talked or read about it so I can’t say for sure. But I can say that there’s just not really a vegetarian culture in Japan (not any that I’m aware of anyway.) J food is already packed with veggies, but while many of my Japanese friends don’t eat meat as much as non-Japanese, I’ve never met any true herbivores.

  9. VivianaAyre
    December 17, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    …. ewwwwwwww. xDDDDD

  10. nairika (@nairika84)
    December 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    i have ate sth like horumon it’s common in my country(iran) to eat fried chicken’s intestine,feet and also eating sheep’s balls and lungs(i don’t like this one but i have ate it once) haha! so this one i can cope with.’Nankotsu is fried chicken cartilage” i actually quite enjoy chewing on bone and cartilage.about eating the raw red meat i don’t know about that i haven’t had the chance of eating anything raw(sushi or so on). as to the umeboshi i think i’ll like it because i already love sour flavors

  11. Hitch-Hikers Handbook
    January 5, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

    When I went to japan many people tried to put me off natto but I loved it. I like all kinds of beans and could never understand why people hate it so much.
    Lovely post, Nathan! Love your food section here!

  12. nanasi
    March 20, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    though in this article, basashi was said to be local food, it is popular in most of japamese region. I also like it, even living in nouthern in japan.
    I think japanese people including me like raw meat of fishes and animals, because they think it is very fresh if it can be eaten.
    well,, we don’t eat raw unagi because unagi has a lot of bones, and they smells bad because of living in dirty water in wilde.
    thank you for your interesting post.

  13. narcopathcrusher
    August 24, 2014 at 7:44 pm #

    thank you for this post! I haven’t been to japan yet but the brainwashing about natto has already started from my japanese teachers! No thanks!

  14. Thanh Hien
    December 24, 2014 at 6:57 am #

    I’ve not had enough courage to try raw Basashi but cooked horse meat with Yoshida udon is pretty good! ^_^

  15. lolipedofin
    May 15, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    I always find it weird that people didn’t eat soft bones/cartilage. Those are like the best part of chicken or pork ribs!

    And yes! I love Nankotsu Karaage.

  16. Catherine
    July 13, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    I am half Japanese and I grew up eating natto, tororo, raw eggs, umeboshi, and many other things over hot rice but never had basashi. I eat my steaks rare and love any kind of sushi or sashimi (raw fish) so raw wouldn’t be a problem but why is it slimy? Slimy meat sounds horrid lol Lots of times our meals were a pot of rice with a bunch of small jars and bags with various fermented or treated veggies or seafood. They say Japanese people eat nearly anything that comes out of the ocean except submarines and that is about right! My mom rarely ate meat and she was a tiny person that lived a long full life so theres something to be said about eating the Japanese way!

  17. Bob
    September 18, 2015 at 2:27 am #

    Sadly I don’t think any of the people commenting ever had high quality basashi. It can be fantastic and delicious. One of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

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