In Japan, grilled meat is called yakiniku. This word refers to all types of grilled foods, not just one specific type. The restaurants serving grilled foods are also called yakiniku.
Japanese BBQ culture is quite different from Western-style grilling.
In Japan, the meat is usually sliced and cut into small pieces, and cooked on a grill net or hot plate, usually on tabletop grills. Hibachi, shichirin, and konro are the most popular types of grills.
You will seldom see huge ribs, briskets, and steaks cooked on large pellet grills. Instead, most of the BBQ is cooked on small or medium-sized tabletop grills.
In this guide, I will list the different types of Japanese grills, popular grilled foods, how they’re cooked, and then some of the best places to find this type of authentic BBQ.
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 What is Japanese BBQ?
- 2 Japanese BBQ grills explained
- 3 Japanese BBQ foods
- 4 Common Japanese BBQ ingredients
- 5 Types of charcoal used for Japanese BBQ
- 6 Japanese BBQ culture
- 7 How do you eat Japanese BBQ?
- 8 Types of BBQ restaurants in Japan and in America
- 9 Where to travel for the best Japanese BBQ
- 10 Takeaway
What is Japanese BBQ?
Japanese BBQ is all about high-quality meat cuts and healthy vegetables. There is no “one Japanese BBQ” because there are different grills and many unique recipes. But the term refers to yakiniku.
At a yakiniku restaurant, you can savor popular meat cuts, including beef tongue, chicken, chucks, ribs, and offal. Fish and seafood are also prepared fresh on the grill and served with tasty dipping sauce.
But, it’s not all about the meat as vegetables are an integral part of the dining experience too. You’ll find grilled onions, peppers, eggplants (like delicious miso glazed ones), cabbage, and more healthy veggies.
Yakiniku originates from Korea and is based on Korean BBQ tradition popularized when many Koreans immigrated there during the Showa era.
At Yakiniku restaurants, you usually sit around tabletop grills and cook your own food. Some also offer low rates for all-you-can-eat menus.
These dining establishments are popular for lunchtime meals and after-work dinners.
Japanese BBQ grills explained
Hibachi / Shichirin
These days, shichirin and hibachi are the same things. They refer to small grills used to cook yakiniku. In the past, hibachi was a heating device and shichirin a cooking grill.
The hibachi grill is probably the most popular type of Japanese grill. It actually has a long history in the country’s culinary tradition.
Americans know the hibachi as a small portable grill with mesh grill grates. However, the original term “hibachi” means “charcoal grill,” and it refers to a small pot filled with charcoal and ash and used to heat the home.
Over time, people started cooking on this pot, and it became the perfect grill for Japanese BBQ.
These days, hibachi refers to a small portable cast iron grill with mesh grates. When used as a cooking device, the hibachi is referred to as shichirin.
In the U.S, hibachi grills are usually electric, so they’re much easier to use than charcoal grills.
Shichirin grills are usually made from ceramic or clay (diatomaceous earth) and have a round shape.
Check out our review of the best shichirin grills before you decide to buy one!
Konro refers to small portable grills, much like shichirin, but konro grills are usually fueled by gas instead of charcoal.
It is a special type of ceramic-lined small grill. It traditionally has a box shape, or it can also have a long, narrow, rectangular form which makes it ideal for yakitori and other skewered meats.
The bamboo skewers rest on the grill walls so the meat doesn’t fall into the charcoal.
Some modern konro tabletop grills are no longer fueled by charcoal and instead run on gas.
The konro grill is very compact and ideal for small homes or outdoor use for camping. It can also be made from diatomaceous earth, known for excellent thermal insulation.
Check out our top 5 konro grill picks and how to use them to make juicy, flavorful foods.
By the way, both konro and hibachi/shichirin grills can be fueled by binchotan charcoal for the tastiest BBQ you’ve probably ever tasted!
You might be familiar with teppanyaki, which is a hot plate grill.
Teppan just means “iron plate,” and it is a large flat propane-fueled griddle. It’s used to cook all kinds of grilled meats, seafood, vegetables, and pancake or omelet-style dishes.
Teppan cooking is a fairly recent cooking style that originated during World War II, and it has since become popular in restaurants.
Popular dishes cooked on the iron plate include okonomiyaki and beef yakiniku. Thinly sliced beef is cooked fast on the sizzling griddle, and it retains all its juicy flavors.
Japanese BBQ foods
There are so many delicious Japanese BBQ foods, but I want to focus on the most popular ones for this guide.
As I previously mentioned, yakiniku is the Japanese term for grilled meat. Thus, anything labeled as yakiniku refers to a type of grilled food.
Yakiniku is also commonly used to refer to grilled beef specifically.
Yakiniku is served with a tasty dipping sauce, called yakiniku sauce, and it’s easy to make!
Yakitori is specific grilled meat: chicken skewers. The chicken pieces are skewered with bamboo, wood, or steel sticks, also called kushi.
The chicken is marinated in a tasty sauce made of soy sauce, mirin, sake, brown sugar, and water. It is then grilled and served with a dipping sauce called tare.
You’ll find this food at a fast-food stall, izakaya (pubs), and restaurants as it’s one of Japan’s most famous.
Did you know there are at least 16 types of yakitori-style dishes? Take a look at all the varieties in my article.
Like yakitori, yakiton is a grilled skewered meat, but instead of chicken, it’s made of pork.
For yakiton and yakitori, the chef makes use of the whole animal. Therefore, you may have innards on the skewer, including liver and heart, considered delicacies.
This type of yaki refers to grilled fish.
Large fish are cut into chunks and placed on the skewers, whereas smaller fish are skewered whole. So, you’ll be served a whole grilled fish on a stick.
An interesting detail is that the whole fish is skewered in a wave pattern to mimic a fish swimming. The seasoning is simple and usually just salt, which is known as sakana no shioyaki.
It is another type of grilled seafood, usually eel and any long fish. Usually, the fish and eel are skinned, boned, and butterflied before grilling.
The fish stays flat on the grill and only requires a few minutes of cooking.
If you like chicken, you’ll love skewered chicken meatballs, which are called tsukune. The meatballs are coated in a sweet and salty glaze then grilled until they have bbq char marks.
Tsukune is most often grilled on a charcoal grill like the konro or shichirin.
Shio Koji grilled salmon
One of the best ways to eat salmon is to marinate the salmon fillets in a salty brine overnight. Then, the fish is grilled on a teppan or hibachi grill.
The grill marks and salty brown crust make this one of Japan’s favorite grilled dishes.
These are enjoyed as snacks or part of a bento lunch box.
Common Japanese BBQ ingredients
Now let’s have a look at the most common Japanese BBQ ingredients, from meat and vegetables to fish and sauces.
Most used meat in Japanese BBQ
Here’s a list of the most used meat:
- Paper-thin beef slices (karubi boneless short rib, rib roast, sirloin, etc.)
- Wagyu beef is a premium cattle breed and has the tastiest meat for yakiniku
- Horumon, known as offal (organs like liver, heart, kidneys, etc.)
Most used vegetables in Japanese BBQ
You can grill most vegetables, but here are the most popular ones:
- Mushrooms: shiitake, oyster, enoki, maitake, shimeji, king brown, etc
Most used fish & seafood in Japanese BBQ
I include all seafood in the fish category, too, to get a sense of what sea creatures you can grill.
- Pacific saury
- Pacific cod
Most used marination and flavors
Japanese BBQ is not known for the extensive marination of meat. Usually, the meat is flavored by dipping it into a sauce after it is grilled.
- Soy sauce (dark soy sauce is popular)
- Yakiniku sauce: made of mirin, sake, sugar, soy sauce, garlic, and sesame seeds
- Miso sauce
- Teriyaki glaze
- Tonkatsu sauce: made of apples, tomatoes, plum, onion, carrot, lemon juice, celery, soy sauce, vinegar, salt
The best seasonings include salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, togarashi spice, shoga, wasabi, coriander, cilantro.
You’ll notice that the flavors usually come from the dipping sauce and not so much from specific spices.
Teppanyaki dipping sauces are a nice pairing for grilled foods, so don’t forget to try them.
Types of charcoal used for Japanese BBQ
Traditionally, the Japanese used Binchotan white charcoal for BBQ.
These days, binchotan is premium charcoal, and it is quite expensive. It is pure white carbon charcoal made from Japanese oak trees.
It is a delicate type of charcoal with a specific texture – if you hit two pieces of binchotan, you can hear a slight metallic sound. It burns very long, about 4-5 hours, because of its high density.
Binchotan has a carbon content between 93 and 96%.
What makes it different from lump charcoal or briquettes is that this charcoal burns clean and odorless. Thus, if you sit near the hibachi and use binchotan for cooking your meat, you won’t smell that classic wood smoke.
Instead, you can smell the food’s natural aromas. This means that the meat is healthier because the charcoal neutralizes the harmful acidic byproducts.
So, how is binchotan made?
The binchotan manufacturing process is quite complex, hence why it’s costly. The charcoal is produced by firing in a kiln for a long time (several days) at a low temperature.
First, wood must undergo the perfect carbonization process, and so the kiln is sealed to reduce oxygen. Then, the charcoal is refined and covered with ash, soil, and sand, so it takes on that greyish white color.
Wood briquettes or hardwood
The average yakiniku restaurant might not use binchotan charcoal because it’s quite expensive and would drive the operating costs way too high.
However, binchotan is the best fuel for the Konro and Hibachi, and there’s nothing quite like it.
But, a cheaper alternative is Indonesian eucalyptus and teak wood briquettes or hardwood pieces. These have a shorter burn time of about 2-3 hours, but they are fairly similar.
Also, they don’t get as hot as binchotan and have a lower density, so that you might get more smoke, but the results are similar enough.
Japanese BBQ culture
There’s no doubt that it’s hard to compare the classic steakhouse experience to Japanese BBQ.
Yakiniku is all about communal dining and socializing. But since you cook your own food, you rarely have to cook huge cuts of steak or brisket.
Nevertheless, it’s an experience worth trying because it’s different from American dining styles and outdoor grilling or smoking.
The history of Yakiniku is not as ancient as you’d think. Sure, people have been grilling meat over fire pits and charcoal grills, but Yakiniku, as we know it today, originated sometime in the 1940s.
The tradition of Japanese BBQ is borrowed and adapted from Korean, and the first grilled meats were offal (horumon-yaki).
How do you eat Japanese BBQ?
Visiting a yakiniku restaurant is nothing like dining at a steakhouse. Sure, they both serve grilled meat, but the dining style is so different.
Korean BBQ is the most similar to Japanese BBQ, but the meat, sauces, and side dishes may differ. You eat the food using chopsticks and enjoy sake, beer, or a refreshing drink with your meal.
Common side dishes include pickled vegetables, salads, and rice.
How do you cook and eat the food?
Well, usually, you sit around a table that has a built-in grill or a tabletop grill.
Servers bring out the meat and vegetables on platters, and then each diner grills his or her own food.
There is a specific grilling order: first, you grill lightly marinated foods, then continue with thick or rich flavored cuts.
People take turns grilling and eating, and the whole process involves socializing and communal dining. It’s custom to grill 1 meat at a time for every person at the table.
Some restaurants change the grill net for you if you start cooking another kind of meat or you switch from meats to veggies.
You can dip food into the dipping sauce. Make sure to dip small pieces at a time.
Types of BBQ restaurants in Japan and in America
The most common types of restaurants in Asia and North America are yakiniku restaurants, where a wide variety of meat, seafood, and vegetables are offered.
Teppanyaki cooking is also common, and many restaurants on both continents serve teppan-cooked foods. These are cooked by a chef and not the diners.
Izakaya and small family-owned restaurants in Japan tend to serve the best yakitori. In America, you can find yakitori in many cities, but New York is home to some of the best ones, including a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Korean BBQ is another similar restaurant-style, but they usually serve marinated meats that you don’t need to season. Korean BBQ is also known for pork more than beef.
Read more about the differences between Korean and Japanese barbecue.
Where to travel for the best Japanese BBQ
For the best Japanese BBQ, you should travel to Japan because the chefs there really know what they’re doing.
If you’re going to Tokyo and the surrounding regions, make sure to visit a restaurant called Rokkasen. It is known for amazing beef and grilled meats that you can cook on a round tabletop grill.
Also, they offer fresh seafood yaki too. So, it’s no wonder people keep rating this place as one of the best for high-quality meat, tasty sauces, and yummy side dishes.
Next, head over to Shibuya and visit Han No Daidokoro Honten, which is a traditional Japanese steakhouse. They also serve premium Wagyu beef cuts and other types of meats, fish, and vegetables.
Then, for the best yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), go to izakayas which are small pubs that serve street food. Izakaya alleys are popular all over Japan, and you’ll find good ones in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagano, and actually all Japanese cities.
Hibachi, shichirin, konro are the best types of Japanese grills to buy for home cooking. But, if you want the full BBQ experience, then Yakiniku and Yakitori restaurants are a must-try.
There’s really nothing as delicious as thinly sliced beef dipped in a savory yakiniku sauce and served with steamed rice. Or, if you’re more of a seafood fan, miso grilled salmon is sure to satisfy your tastebuds.
The bottom line is that you have to be prepared to grill your own food with your friends because the server won’t be bringing out a plate of rib-eye steak or ribs for you!
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