Yakiniku: Grilled BBQ Perfection Foodies Love in Japan

Yakiniku is the Japanese word for grilled meat. Yaki means grilled and niku is meat.

It’s an incredible dining experience where you sit at a table with a grill in front of you and cook sliced meat just the way you want it (medium-rare, right?).

Totally understandable if you want to call it Japanese BBQ. In many ways, it is very much like a barbecue and yes, some aspects are similar Korean BBQ if you’re familiar with that.

Look here for our recommendations on the best yakiniku restaurants in Tokyo.

Also, check out yakiniku’s close cousin, teppanyaki, for another incredible dining experience in Japan.

The yakiniku dining experience can be split into two separate experiences.

There are two main types of yakiniku restaurants in Japan:

1. Tabehodai (食べホ大)

Tabehodai means all you can eat in Japanese. At this popular type of yakiniku restaurant you get ~90 minutes to eat as much as you desire — usually with a tiered menu where certain meats are available at different price levels.

Some restaurants will have the standard folding menu at the table, others have modernized — giving you a digital touch-screen tablet you can tap to order from. While some have a buffet of sliced meats you snag and bring back to your table to grill.

You keep ordering and the meat keeps coming, but there is a rule – don’t order more then you can actually eat. In other words don’t have a bunch of leftover meat at the end of your meal.

2. Order by the plate

The second type of yakiniku restaurant is where you choose a cut of meat and a quantity to be brought to your table by the wait staff.

You pay for each plate of meat you order. I know this sounds like it’s probably more expensive, but if you prefer quality over quantity, and eat within reasonable limits, the price is often comparable to the all you can eat restaurants.

Generally, order by the plate shops offers higher quality meats. These are the type of yakiniku restaurants that care about the quality and the experience of dining in their restaurant.

For some of the best yakiniku in Tokyo, check out these picks by some of my local friends. You’ll be glad you did. And while Tokyo is packed with delicious restaurants, you’ll find Osaka and Kyoto are loaded too.

Common Yakiniku Meats

Gyuniku (牛肉), beef, is the primary meat at yakiniku restaurants

Wagyu, Japanese beef cut, angled view of marbling

With popular cuts:

  • Tan (タン) means tongue in Japanese, the most popular cut (yes, really)!
  • Karubi (カルビ) is boneless short ribs. It’s juicy, tender, and full of flavor
  • Rosu (ロース) the shoulder, very rich, slightly leaner cut, but still very tender
  • Harami (ハラミ) is skirt steak, cut from the diaphragm area

And be on the lookout for the most amazing beef in the world, high-grade wagyu Japanese beef (the various cuts are described too).. Ask for the “nakaochi-jou kalbi,” you won’t regret it, this particular cut could be one of the most delicious slices of grilled beef you’ve tasted.

Pork (豚肉) and other meats:

  • Butabara (豚バラ) this is pork belly, a lot like bacon, very fatty
  • Tontoro (豚トロ) from around the neck and cheek area
  • Chikin (チキン) is chicken, usually thigh or breast
  • Sōsēji (ソーセージ) is sausage, usually pork-based

Careful of horomonyaki

Horumon is offal. The “innards” of a cow/ pig. Things like intestine, liver, heart; pretty much all that

Horumon-yaki refers to grilling offal, and the Japanese love it — and some shops are dedicated to horomonyaki.

Recommendation: Yoroniku in Minami Aoyama

Yoroniku is a yakiniku restaurant located in Tokyo’s upmarket Minami Aoyama district. With its elegant, classy decor, this restaurant stands out from Japan’s many ordinary yakiniku joints.

Here, you can savor yakiniku prepared with only the highest quality beef. The grades of meat that are served here are rarely available at normal restaurants or in supermarkets and are guaranteed to be melt-in-your-mouth amazing.

Learn more and make reservations here (in English)

When you are shown to your table just sit and relax. Unlike a typical backyard BBQ party, you don’t have to do any preparation at yakiniku restaurants. There’s no need to light your grill, set up the charcoal or prepare the meats, as all will be done for you. A staff member will come over and get your grill started soon after your order. Of course, you’ll still have to cook your own meat, but that’s actually part of the fun! —GuruNavi

After you barbecue the meat, it is generally eaten with a dipping sauce. The sauce is soy sauce-based seasoned with garlic, sugar and sesame oil. The taste is different in each restaurant. There are usually a spicy type and sweet type of sauce. —LiveJapan

Other Menu Items in Yakiniku Restaurants

Common soups

It’s not only grilled meats you can enjoy at yakiniku restaurants. It turns out they often have some delicious soups to try as well. Some taking days of boiling bones to create the perfect soup.

  • Karubikuppa (カルビクッパ) — a spicy soup made with the karubi short ribs, often with rice to make it more like a porridge.
  • Komutan (コムタンスープ) — a beef bone, or oxtail, broth soup. It is a white-ish soup with a very general flavor, ready for you to add salt/pepper to your preferred taste.
  • Wakame (ワカメスープ) —  a seaweed soup. It almost appears as if it is literally seaweed in hot water, but it does use chicken stock, onion, sesame oil, and other ingredients.

Yakiniku (Dipping) Sauce

Yakiniku sauce is interesting because it’s one of those things you can buy in the supermarket here in Japan, but nearly all yakiniku shops make their own unique variety.

It’s a combination of soy sauce, mirin, sugar, sesame oil, garlic, and whatever else the shop wants to add to make theirs unique. I love the sauces that add roasted white sesame seeds too (many do).

The result is a salty, sweet, slightly thick sauce the Japanese will use as a dipping sauce at essentially all yakiniku restaurants.

I have yet to find a restaurant that doesn’t have a yakiniku dipping sauce.

This sauce is fantastic as a marinade too. In fact, you’ll find Japanese beef cuts already in the marinade at supermarkets in Japan — right in the meat section alongside the other meats.

Tip: When you place an order you may be asked whether you want the meat delivered in sauce, or salted.

Sauce in Japanese is tare, pronounced tah-ley. Salt is shio, pronounced she-oh.

To answer the staff you’d say “tare/shio de.

The Yakiniku Grill

Sometimes the grill is what makes the shop. You’ll see what I mean when you start trying yakiniku restaurants.

Some will have gas grills. Some will have charcoal (Gyu Kaku is a popular yakiniku chain that uses charcoal grills, which, interestingly, can be found in Hawaii too).

Some will be these fancy hibachi, ceramic, grills. Sometimes the grill will be embedded in the table, other times it will be a tabletop grill.

Oh, a side note about the grills. Most  yakiniku shops are “grill your own.” It’s part of the allure of dining at a yakiniku restaurant.

Other shops insist on grilling it for you. Typically these are the more high-end restaurants — especially if they don’t even put the grill on your table. Check out this video to see one of the absolute best yakiniku restaurants you can find in Tokyo.

And if you’d like to learn more about the various types of Japanese grills, here’s an excellent article by GuruNavi.

There’s a little something extra to know here. While some will have gas grills, there is a difference between the good charcoal shops versus the best charcoal shops.

Binchotan is a very special type of charcoal — a “new level” of charcoal that elevates the flavor of the yakiniku grilled over it.

Prized by chefs around the world, binchotan is a very pure high carbon charcoal made from oak. Unlike lump charcoal and briquettes, because of high carbon content, it is completely odorless – enabling you to enjoy the natural flavors of the food.” —ChefsArmoury

Yakiniku Etiquette

I just wanted to touch on etiquette real quick. Not because there is some sort of Japanese cultural rules you must abide by — there aren’t really. It’s common sense really.

Generally, in a party setting, everyone sort of shares everything. The price, the food, drinks… all of it.

Often the youngest adults in a party (of Japanese) will do most of the grilling — giving the elder the first meat off the grill.

Every once in a while you’ll run into an awkward person who tries to only order what they want and pays for what they order. It’s rare, but it does come up.

I never really dig into those situations because it could be they have personal reasons for doing this. But like I said this shouldn’t come up often, and really it would only be if you join a party of Japanese people at a yakiniku restaurant.

Chances are you’re going with your friends and family so you probably won’t have to worry about any of this.

My Favorite Hidden Yakiniku Spot

Okay, the moment you’ve waiting for am I, right?

If you’re in Western Tokyo, the suburbs of Tokyo if you will… there is this outstanding yakiniku restaurant in Mizuho called Komutan.

It’s one of those mom and pop shops with just a few tables and a very homey feel. They have some of the best cuts of meat around — not A5 Kobe, but very well-marbled and delicious none-the-less.

Combine the atmosphere with delicious food and you already know it’s a treat. This place is an excellent spot to grab some of the best yakiniku in the area.

Yakiniku Day

Yes, there is a yakiniku day (Wikipedia) — a sort of holiday in Japan. Technically it is a play on the sound of the 29th day in August — 8/29. It is pronounced ya-tsu-knee-kyuu. It isn’t hard to imagine that it sounds similar to yakiniku.

The nice thing about yakiniku day is many butcher shops and yakiniku restaurants will offer great prices and specials to take advantage of.