raw salmon, salmon sashimi
Photo: Food Photographer David Fedulov/Unsplash

30 interesting trivia and fun facts about Japanese food you didn't know

Test your knowledge of Japanese cuisine with this brain-bending list of trivia on everything from sushi to soba noodles


Japanese food might just be one of the most obsessively studied cuisines in the world. With its highly specialised ingredients and techniques, chefs and foodies alike can take years to learn the ins and outs of Japanese cooking.

We’ve compiled a list of obscure – and not so obscure – Japanese food trivia to test your knowledge or impress your friends. Did you know a high percentage of the ‘wasabi’ sold in restaurants isn’t real wasabi? Do you know why soba noodles are eaten on New Year’s Eve? 

Read on to find the answers to those questions and more.

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Japanese food trivia


Salmon isn’t traditionally used for sushi, and many purist sushi shops still won’t serve it. Until the 20th century, wild salmon was considered unsafe to eat raw, as it was potentially plagued with parasites. It wasn't until the introduction of refrigeration, controlled farming, and Norwegian imports that salmon began to appear on sushi menus.


The condiments typically served with sushi and sashimi – wasabi, pickled ginger, shiso and myoga (Japanese ginger) – are known as yakumi (‘medicinal tastes’). Before refrigeration made raw fish safer to eat, yakumi were eaten with sushi to kill bacteria.



Conveyor belt sushi (called kaitenzushi in Japan) was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who reportedly had the idea after seeing beer bottles on a conveyor belt at a brewery. He opened his first sushi restaurant with a conveyor belt transporting plates of sushi to diners in 1958 in Osaka.


Nigiri sushi is typically served in pairs. No one knows exactly why, but there are two possible explanations: one is that nigiri sushi was originally much larger, more like the size of an onigiri rice ball, but started to be split into two for quick consumption at street stalls. The other theory is that the symmetry of pairs is just more aesthetically appealing to Japanese sushi chefs and customers.

Photo courtesy of Wooden Earth Ltd.



Fugu, Japanese pufferfish, contains one of the world's most potent toxins, tetrodotoxin. Fugu chefs must be licensed to remove the potentially deadly organs. Despite the risks, around 10,000 tons of fugu is eaten annually in Japan, where it is considered a winter delicacy.


Tokyo has more restaurants than any other city in the world, with an estimated 150,000 venues. For comparison, New York has around 27,000 restaurants.



Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world. In 2019, there were 230 restaurants in the capital honoured by Michelin. The next highest scoring city, Paris, has 113.


To maintain their weight, sumo wrestlers eat a stew called chanko nabe, a combination of chicken mince balls, tofu and cabbage in a miso broth. The dish is so strongly associated with sumo that retired wrestlers will often open chanko nabe restaurants.



Soba is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day for health and prosperity. Called toshikoshi (‘year crossing’) soba, the long length of the noodle symbolises longevity, and biting them represents severing your link with the hardships of the previous year.


Wanko soba is a type of soba eaten in Iwate prefecture, where your bowl is constantly refilled by your host until you place a lid over the top. The bottomless bowl of noodles shows a spirit of hospitality. The dish has also inspired eating challenges, with local wanko-soba competitions based on volume and speed.



Sake was originally made by chewing and spitting out rice, as the enzymes in saliva break down the starch into sugar and kickstart the fermentation process. Although it sounds highly unpalatable, it’s not unique to Japan – traditional societies in Peru and Africa did the same with corn and sorghum, respectively.


Slurping noodles is not rude in Japan – it’s done to cool them down while eating quickly and is believed to enhance the aroma.



All ramen in Japan falls into four categories based on the flavour of the broth: shio (salt) ramen, shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, miso ramen, and tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen.


The noodles in a bowl of ramen are not yellow-coloured from egg, but from the alkaline water they’re cooked in, giving the noodles a soft, springy texture. 



Wasabi is one of the most difficult ingredients in the world to cultivate, which is why the plant is so expensive. For this reason, most wasabi in restaurants is actually horseradish mixed with green food colouring. Real wasabi has a more herbal flavour than the fake variety, and loses its punch around 15 minutes after being grated.


Nagashi somen is a ‘noodle waterslide’ eaten in summer in Japan. A bamboo halfpipe is set up like a slide, and cooked noodles are flushed down it with spring water, while people wait with chopsticks to catch the noodles as they flow. The dish is thought to have originated in Miyazaki prefecture, where chefs used cold water from nearby waterfalls.



At the winter solstice, it’s customary to take a bath with yuzu citrus fruit for winter solstice. The zesty dip is believed to fortify against cold and flu, while the nomilin enzymes from the oil of the peel are thought to help soften the skin and improve digestion.


Clam-based miso soup is a hangover cure in Japan. It’s made with shijimi clams, which contain an amino acid believed to promote detoxification in the liver. The soup is so popular with sloshed salarymen, it’s even available in heated cans from vending machines and convenience stores.



Matcha’s high price comes from its laborious production process: the tea plants must be grown in the shade, the young leaves are picked by hand, the stems and veins are removed from the leaves, and then the entire leaf is ground into a powder.


Eating meat aside from seafood is relatively new in Japan. Until the mid-1800s, killing animals for meat was officially forbidden because of Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation.



Food models made of wax, and later plastic, became popular in Japan in the 1930s. Before colour photography was common, they were a way to help customers choose their food in advance at busy restaurants.


The Yamazaki Distillery was the first whisky distillery in Japan, started in 1923 by Shinjiro Torii, founder of drinks brand Suntory. He appointed Masataka Taketsuru as the first master distiller, who later went on to open Nikka Whisky Distillery in Hokkaido in 1940.



Students in Japan eat tonkatsu before exams for good luck – katsu is a homonym for the verb ‘to win’ in Japanese, so tonkatsu is regarded as auspicious.


Washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, is one of only three cuisines in the world recognised by Unesco for its cultural significance, along with French and Mexican. 



The most expensive fruit in Japan is the Yubari melon of Hokkaido. In 2019, a pair of Yubari melons sold for a record-breaking ¥5 million (around USD$45,000).


Cherry blossom flowers are edible, and commonly found in Japanese cuisine. The blossoms are typically pickled in salt and ume vinegar, and used in confectionary, rice balls, even cocktails.



Bento boxes were originally used by farmers in the ninth century, as a way to make their meals portable while working in the fields. 


Passing food directly from one pair of chopsticks to another is considered taboo at the table, as it is the way the bones of the deceased are passed during funeral rituals.



Umami, the fifth taste, was identified in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at Tokyo Imperial University. Suspecting an extra flavour in seaweed distinct from sweet, sour, bitter and salty, he investigated the food’s chemical composition and found glutamate. He named the flavour of glutamate ‘umami’, coming from the word for delicious, umai, in Japanese. 


It’s estimated that there is one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan.

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