No, Japanese people tend not to enjoy very spicy food as you would find in other Asian countries. In general Japanese food is quite mild and focuses on expressing the umami in quality ingredients using the perfect cooking technique.
I suppose wasabi is probably the spiciest thing you would experience in Tokyo, outside of specific dishes designed purely to be spicy. Japanese cuisine just isn’t very spicy, but there are some ingredients and condiments that turn this up a notch.
Before we dive in, if you’re looking for good food, check out our recommendations for the best restaurants in Tokyo. Not so much spicy, but absolutely incredible experiences.
In Japanese, you’ll often see on the menu the term “pirikara.’ It means spicy, but spicy in Japan isn’t the spicy you’re probably imagining when you hear the word.
I tend to think of pirikara to mean “light spice that barely tingles.” Often it’s a bit of chili pepper added for flavor rather than spice level. I’ve never seen any mention of the Scoville scale in Tokyo — Japanese cuisine just isn’t that spicy.
There are shops that offer a dish created purely for evil spicy levels. They’re often a challenge, where you have 20-30 minutes to finish the dish and if you can — you get a prize. The prize is usually some sort of dessert or maybe a ticket to come back later with a discount.
Spicy Food in Japan is About Flavor
Sometimes Japanese chefs use spicy ingredients in their cooking but tend not to go overboard. Instead, they focus on just enough to add a spicy kick without creating a dish you can’t eat without breaking into a heavy sweat.
Though you will find some shops have challenge items on the menu where they use the deadliest of spicy ingredients to make impossible-to-eat dishes to challenge your palate.
But most often the flavor profiles of Japan’s food favorites are rather mild — though full of zest and creativity.
Let’s go over some of the spicy foods and ingredients you could run into while dining in Tokyo.
Japanese curry is a lot like a stew. It’s thicker than curry you might find in India or Thailand. It tends to have hearty chunks of ingredients such as pork, beef, or even chicken.
Shops such as the ever-famous CoCo Ichibanya offer a huge variety of toppings to add, such as tonkatsu, ika, karaage, cheese, sausage, and much more.
But for spiciness they allow you to choose your spice level, 1 being barely spicy and 10 going insane (though it tends to be more bitter than spicy at higher levels).
Pro tip: if you don’t enjoy spicy food but have to tag along with a friend who does, ask for the amakuchi level. Amakuchi means sweet mouth. They add very little curry spice and also some honey to lighten the flavor.
“You can make your own at home very easily using instant Japanese curry roux. Instant Japanese curry roux is sold in packs of small, individually wrapped blocks.” (livejapan.com)
Spicy Cod Roe (Karashi Mentaiko)
Karashi Mentaiko is tarako (cod roe) with a kick of spice to give it a unique flavor. You’ll find mentaiko used in all sorts of dishes in Japanese cooking such as pizza, pasta, and salad.
It’s a flavor that is hard to describe. If you don’t like tarako because it is salty, this adds chili pepper to the mix for a little zing that levels out the saltiness a bit.
Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. It’s the famous “green stuff” found on sushi in Japan. Though not as often as it used to be… nowadays it’s on the side and you get to choose how much to use.
It’s “spicy” but also has a sort of tingly feeling on the tongue. Hard to describe but you will know when you taste it.
Wasabi was originally used for its antibiotic properties to make it safer to eat raw fish — a practice that isn’t necessary anymore — don’t worry. Now it’s purely for flavor.
You will often see Japanese people mixing wasabi with soy sauce in a saucer for dipping their sushi — which, apparently, is a no-no by sushi purists standards.
Don’t forget the matcha green tea if you eat too much wasabi at once while out at your favorite conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
“…if you’ve only had wasabi outside of Japan, it probably wasn’t wasabi, but horseradish with some green dye.” (favy-jp.com)
Shichimi is a condiment — much like pepper — but made from seven ingredients. The primary ingredient in this popular spice mix is red chili pepper, but usually also includes sansho, a green peppercorn similar to sichuan pepper from China.
I wouldn’t say shichimi was particularly spicy, but it does add some nice kick to a dish.
“Whilst black pepper has always been a popular accompaniment to many foods in Europe and the US, shichimi is a relatively recent addition to the Japanese dinner table.” (taiken.co)
Red Chili Oil (Rayu)
Rayu is a red chili oil that you will mostly find in ramen restaurants and Chinese restaurants. It’s also used in cooking when the shop does have actually spicy dishes, mostly from Chinese cooking such as ebi chili and mapo doufu (marble tofu).
Karashi is a type of Japanese mustard. Like wasabi, it also has a zing to it more than a pure spicy flavor.
You’ll find it often paired with oden — a dish where vegetables, sausage, eggs, and other ingredients simmer in a dashi broth. The karashi adds a little punch to the otherwise mild flavor of oden.
Yuzukosho is a mix of the Japanese citrus fruit yuzu with peppers and spices. The result is a fantastic garnish for things like yakitori, grilled meats, and well, almost anything really.
You’ll find yuzukosho will vary slightly from shop to shop, or brand to brand. Where each is trying to produce their unique twist on the standard recipe.
Just like wasabi, you’ll often see Japanese people mix yuzukosho with soy sauce to create a delicious dipping sauce — which is an extraordinary way to add a different flavor to yakiniku.
How to Say “I don’t like spicy food” in Japanese
If you’re worried about some items on the menu being too spicy 🌶, here is a phrase you can use to let the staff know you don’t enjoy spicy foods.
Say “karai tabemono wa, nigate desu.” Here it is in hiragana if your pronunciation isn’t enough, show this to the staff “からいたべものは、にがてです.”
Look out for “geki kara”
“Geki kara” means very spicy. It’s meant to really warn when a dish is truly spicy, not just pirikara. Geki kara supposedly translates to “hellishly spicy.”
So if you’re looking to avoid very spicy foods, don’t order geki kara dishes. On the flip side, these are what you want if you are seeking a spicy boost to the typical Japanese cuisine.
You could even ask “geki kara mono arimasu ka?”
While you can find spicy food in Japan, and there are condiments that can add some spice — truly spicy food isn’t common in Japanese culture.
You’ll find when Japanese foods are labeled spicy they’re rather mild — but have a little zing. Still worth checking out though because food in Japan is incredible.