What is Yakiniku? Your Very Own Food Heaven in Japan

Yakiniku, Japan
  • Yakinku is a wide variety of grilled meats; mostly beef, some pork, and a variety of offal
  • You grill the meat on a grill at the center of your table
  • Don’t forget to try the soup too; it’s amazing

7:29 pm… Saturday, December 8, 2018

Fshhhh…! Phweoof! Fshhhhh!

It’s a cool winter evening in Tokyo but I don’t care. Those “fshhh” sounds are slices of meat sizzling flawlessly at my expert touch — with an occasional “phweoof” of flames when I flip the meat.

I’m camped comfortably at my favorite yakiniku restaurant warming my soul with amazing food and the heat radiating from a grill in the center of my table.

This is my little world right now, with a fire in the middle for my wife and I to grill meat how we prefer it (medium rare).

I’m at my favorite little local best-kept secret place (don’t worry, I’ll tell you where it is later). It’s where Superman would go if he wanted to keep his identity secret and enjoy some of Japan’s best food.

Ah… how do I explain yakiniku to you? Or better yet, how am I going to finish this guide? Every time I sit down to write I make myself hungry just thinking about it!

Yakiniku is amazing and it really sets itself apart from the overly simple moniker of “barbecue.” It’s so much more than “BBQ.”

What is Yakiniku?

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

But “yakiniku” is really an art. Where craftsmanship and pride set yakiniku apart from just barbecue.

Really what you need to know is — if you enjoy grilled meat — you’ll LOVE yakiniku. It is hands down my favorite food in Japan (I’m a midwestern boy… love me some barbecue).

Here’s an excellent video by TabiEats trying out yakiniku in Japan.

Is yakiniku Korean?

Yes and no.

Yes, the idea of grilling meat didn’t originate in Japan. Some believe Korean workers may have brought the concept over during the Meiji era.

But to say yakiniku isn’t Japanese today would be a misnomer. Sure, you’ll still find kimchi at yakiniku restaurants, but the cuisine has certainly taken on a lot of Japanese preferences over the years.

All you can eat vs order by the plate

This is going t0 get me into trouble. I have some strong opinions on this topic.

All you can eat

Tabehodai (食べホ大), all you can eat in Japanese, is as it sounds. You get something like 90 minutes to eat as much as you can.

Most yakiniku restaurants with this option will have a tiered menu where certain meats are available at different price levels — obviously with the best being the most expensive.

Pro tip: Never, and I really do mean never, order the lowest, cheapest tier on the all you can eat menu. Go up at least one tier. Your taste buds will thank you.

Order by the plate

Ordering by the plate is where you choose a cut of meat and a quantity — and pay for specifically what you ordered. Later in this guide, I’ll give you some Japanese to help order more easily.

So where’s the beef?

Remember I said I have strong opinions on all you can eat versus order by the plate?

While there are some decent all you can eat yakiniku restaurants, most are really more like cheap barbecue than proper yakiniku.

Of course, there are very expensive all you can eat yakiniku shops where it is amazing, but you’re spending $60+ per person.

That’s not to say all order by the plate type yakiniku shops are amazing. However, most tend to focus on quality rather quantity.

In my opinion, if you want to experience amazing, traditional Japanese yakiniku… yakiniku that takes grilled meat to a whole new level… go to an order by the plate type of place.

If you want to stuff yourself on as much delicious BBQ as you can, definitely check out the tabehodai places, and never buy the lowest tier on the menu.

The Beef Cuts

You’ll find beef (gyuniku 牛肉) is the primary meat at yakiniku restaurants. Here are the standard cuts you can expect:

  • Tan (タン) — means tongue in Japanese. Sometimes you’ll see it as gyutan (牛タン), which means beef tongue. I put this on the list first because it is actually the most popular cut in Japan!
  • Karubi (カルビ) — is boneless short ribs. My personal favorite. It’s juicy, tender, and so full of flavor. Pro tip: ask for the “jo-karubi” if they have it. It’s a higher grade, very tender — and just melts in your mouth.
  • Rōsu (ロース) — the shoulder, very rich, slightly leaner cut, but still very tender.
  • Harami (ハラミ) — is skirt steak, from the diaphragm area of the cow. It is lean, bold flavor and is usually marinated in soy sauce or miso.

A fantastic article to read more about the various cuts of beef found in yakiniku restaurants is this one by GuruNavi — a Japanese company specializing in listing Japanese dining establishments.

What is Wagyu Beef?

You know how you think wagyu is this mythical, super premium beef? Well, yes, it is… but guess what wagyu actually means?

Japanese cow.

Yep, wa means Japanese and gyu means cow. This includes the famous kobe and matsusaka beef.

What is the Beef Grading Scale?

You’ve probably heard of the A5 grade beef. There is a meaning in this rating. Rather than try to explain the intricacies of this scale, here’s a fantastic article going in-depth on the subject.

It’s safe to say that attaining an A5 grade is exceptionally difficult and if you see it on the menu, you know it’s top-notch.

Are you curious about A5 grade Kobe beef?

You’ll love this video by Simon and Martina.

Pork and Other Cuts

I lumped pork in with chicken and other meats Japan grills because, as I mentioned above, beef is king.

  • Butabara (豚バラ) — this is pork belly, a lot like bacon, very fatty.
  • Tontoro (豚トロ) —this is a cut of pork from around the neck and cheek area. Not as common as butabara.
  • Chikin (チキン) — is chicken. Most yakiniku shops will have at least one cut of chicken available, usually thigh or breast
  • Sōsēji (ソーセージ) — is sausage, usually pork based. Common at most yakiniku places, but not really special, more of a filler.

There are other very popular things to grill at a yakiniku restaurant, but I want to give them a whole section of their own. It’s horumon… and you’re either going to find this very interesting, or you’ll skip it.  

What is Horumonyaki?

Ah… horumon. That weird, disgusting, awkward conversation with your conscience.

I shouldn’t say disgusting because that’s my opinion, but the Japanese love it.

Horumon is offal. The “innards” of a cow, pig, chicken, etc. Things like intestine, liver, heart, uterus, arteries… yea, pretty much all that stuff.

Horumon-yaki refers to grilling offal, and the Japanese love it.

At most yakiniku restaurants you will find a few of these, usually intestine, heart, and liver. Some shops specialize in horumon though and will offer the full roster of offal choices.

I have to include this funny quote from Wikipedia about horumon:

“The name horumon is also similar to the Kansai dialect term hōrumon (放る物), which means ‘discarded goods’” [source: Wikipedia]

And here’s Tokyo Drew eating offal. 

Common soups found at yakiniku restaurants

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 ox tail, 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.

What is Yakiniku 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.

The result is a salty, sweet, slightly thick sauce fantastic for dipping or even as a marinade.

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. Some will be these fancy hibachi, ceramic, grills.

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.

Yakiniku Etiquette (friends/family/groups)

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, if you’re in Western Tokyo, the suburbs of Tokyo if you will… there is this outstanding yakiniku restaurant in Mizuho called Komutan (コムタン).

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.

Hand-Picked Articles About Yakiniku

Savor High Grade Wagyu Beef And Yakiniku At Jiromaru Shibuya!

“If you’re wanting to try different types of meat yourself, we recommend a restaurant complete with a yakiniku service for single diners. You can taste high grade wagyu beef starting from a slice at Jiromaru Shibuya (Jiromaru).Standing-only izakayas (Japanese pubs) allow customers to freely eat and drink, and are popular in Japan despite there being no seating.

Jiromaru, like standing-only izakayas, has no seating, and is an unique yakiniku restaurant where you can enjoy standing and eating yakiniku.”

Continue on MATCHA – JAPAN TRAVEL WEB MAGAZINE

Misono – A Yakiniku Shop In Ikebukuro Perfect For Solo Diners!

“The sound of meat sizzling on the grill, the juice of the meat trickling down, the full flavor of the meat emerging the more you chew it … If you ever come to Japan, by all means please try wagyu beef yakiniku.

Though it’s not a problem if everyone goes out to eat together, there might be some who feel awkward going to a yakiniku restaurant by themselves. One serving of beef is quite a lot so you won’t be able to eat a variety of cuts of meat, and you might be concerned about other customers looking at you.”

Continue on MATCHA – JAPAN TRAVEL WEB MAGAZINE

Kirakutei Yakiniku, Minami Azabu – Date Night – Yakiniku

“One of my husband’s and my favorite Yakiniku restaurants is Kirakutei (きらく亭) in Minami Azabu. The restaurant is family friendly, but the food is so good and the price a bit on the high side (for yakiniku) so best for a date night or special family dinner. Kirakutei is very popular, so you need to have”

Continue on Best Living Japan – Your Free Family Guide to Japan

Tokyo yakiniku restaurant begins offering halal course meals for Islamic diners

“Gyu-Kaku is one of Japan’s most popular yakiniku (Korean barbecue) chains, with locations all across the country. However, Gyu-Kaku is also an internationally minded company, having expanded to the U.S., Canada and other parts of Asia as well.

While Gyu-Kaku is yet to reach the Middle East, it is ready to start accommodating Muslim diners at its new branch in Tokyo’s Akasaka neighborhood. When it opens on April 17, the Akasaka Gyu-Kaku will be the first to offer halal course meals, in accordance with Islamic dietary customs.”

Continue on MOSHI MOSHI NIPPON | もしもしにっぽん

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