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Last updated: March 23, 2023
A list of 15 unique and popular vegetables in Japan, each with unique flavors and nutritional profiles, plus handy recipe ideas.
Japanese cuisine is loaded with exotic flavors and textures, and many of these are created thanks to the unique vegetables featured in the various dishes.
Keep reading, as I have listed 15 unique veggies that are popular in Japan. All of these greens are worth incorporating into your own cooking.
Keen to learn more about Japanese cuisine? Check out my guide to Japanese food facts for a list of interesting and fun facts you probably didn’t know!
Top 15 Veggies in Japan
In alphabetical order, here are 15 of the most popular vegetables in Japan.
1. Bamboo Shoots
Bamboo shoots, also called bamboo sprouts, are the emerging culms of multiple species of bamboo plants. These tender, fibrous shoots are featured in many forms in Japanese cooking. They are often used fresh and dried, though most of us in the West are used to canned bamboo shoots.
Bamboo is native to tropical and subtropical regions of East Asia, but it has been growing in Japan for thousands of years. Here, it is used as a vegetable in many dishes. It can also be pickled and turned into menma, a popular ramen topping.
These tender shoots are sweet and earthy. Unlike most vegetables, they retain an excellent crunch even after boiling or cooking. This makes them a great choice for including in soups and sauces.
2. Burdock Root
Burdock root, also called gobo, is another crunchy vegetable used widely in Japanese cuisine. This large taproot has woody skin and white flesh. When cleaned of its many thick spindly side roots, it looks a lot like parsnip. Without this preparation, it looks more like a gnarled tree root.
Despite the less-than-appealing look, this unique root has a sweet, earthy flavor similar to lotus root but with notes of artichoke. It is highly versatile, used in soups and stir-fries, and can be boiled, baked, or fried.
The burdock plant is native to much of Eurasia, extending east into Japan. It was first used by ancient peoples as a medicinal plant before becoming a common starchy vegetable staple in Japan and Korea.
Daikon is a type of winter radish with an elongate growth habit and stark white skin and flesh. This root vegetable is native to continental Asia but so common in Japan now that it is often called Japanese radish.
Where spring radishes have an overwhelmingly spicy flavor, daikons are far milder. The skin is also tougher and generally removed before cooking.
Daikon is included as a raw veggie in many Japanese dishes. But it has far more specialized uses than that. It is often pickled, used as a spiced garnish, or painstakingly prepared with a variety of spices and sauces and used to enhance dishes.
Hakusai, also known as napa cabbage, is a variety of Chinese cabbage. While most often associated with China, this leafy green is popular across the world, especially in Japan and East Asian countries.
Unlike the typical cabbage plant, these white stalks with lime-green leaves grow upright. They form tight, elongated heads, very different from bok choy, another type of Chinese cabbage.
One of the most famous hakusai dishes is Nabe, or hot pot. It can also be used in stir-fries, soups, or fermented to make kimchi. Like other cabbages, this one is celebrated for its low-calorie content.
Kabocha squash is often associated with Japan, but this pumpkin variety actually originated in South America. It is believed to have been introduced to Japan in the late 1800s. Since then, though, it has become very popular in the region and is a key vegetable in many dishes.
These unique squashes look like compact pumpkins with dark, dull green skin and bright orange flesh. They are sweeter than most squash and comparable to sugar pumpkins and sweet potatoes in flavor. The edible skin can be left on during cooking, though removing it certainly speeds up the process.
Kabocha is commonly used in vegetable tempura and can also be incorporated into soups and even a few desserts. It is also often consumed as part of a typical Japanese breakfast.
Also known by the common name “hen of the woods”, maitake is a type of mushroom native to much of the Northern hemisphere. In Japanese, maitake means “dancing mushroom”. The name is said to have originated from how happy people were to discover it due to its nutritional benefits.
This mushroom has a strong earthy flavor with notes of pepper. The texture is succulent once cooked and makes for a great addition to many meals. It pairs just as well with rice as with noodles and is also common in soups.
These brown mushrooms grow in thick clumps that look somewhat like crumpled paper. They may not look like much, but they are loaded with adaptogens that have been widely studied for their health effects. They are also quite unique in the vegetable world in that they are rich in vitamin D.
Mitsuba is a leafy green herb popular in Japanese cuisine. It is similar in appearance to parsley and used as a garnish in much the same way. But the flavor is more akin to cilantro or celery.
Mitsuba is often called Japanese wild parsley and is native to Japan, Korea, and China. The roots and leaves are used in traditional cooking. They are a popular topper for soups and can be used in sushi.
Like other leafy greens, mitsuba is fairly nutrient-dense, and is packed with vitamins C and K, potassium, and antioxidants.
Myoga is known in much of the western world as Japanese ginger. But this plant, which is native to Japan, China, and Korea, is only a close cousin to the ginger most are familiar with. And unlike traditional ginger, instead of the root being consumed, it’s the young shoots and flower buds that are used in cooking.
These tender purplish-bronze shoots and flowers look somewhat like shallots. And the crisp, crunchy texture is reminiscent of fresh green onions. But the flavor is mildly ginger-like, with strong zesty notes and some bitter undertones, all overshadowed by a pungent aroma.
Myoga can be cooked to soften it up, but it is often eaten fresh or pickled. It is usually sliced thinly or shredded and added as a garnish to cold dishes like chilled noodles and tofu.
Nameko is one of the most popular mushrooms used in Japan and is a central ingredient in miso soup. These small amber-colored mushrooms have round, undersized caps, and long, thick stems. They are gelatinous and silky in texture and lend themselves well to cooking.
This mushroom is fairly flavorful with a fruity yet nutty forest flavor with plenty of earthy undertones. When cooked, they release a sweet, butterscotch aroma that has earned them the English name of “butterscotch mushroom”.
In addition to miso, these popular Japanese mushrooms are also used in stir-fries, soups, and as a compliment in meat-heavy dishes. They are always cooked before consumption and might cause stomach upset if eaten raw.
This unique mushroom grows wild in Japan and is now cultivated widely in China and Russia.
Nagaimo is a species of climbing vine closely related to the yam. The plant and its large tubers, which are used in cooking, are commonly known as Chinese yam. These long tan tubers are speckled and covered with fine root hairs and can grow as large as ten pounds.
Unlike traditional yams, nagaimo can be eaten raw. It is often sliced thin and added to cold dishes or grated into tororo. The naturally sticky, slimy texture of this strange tuber also makes it useful as a thickening agent and texture enhancer.
Nagaimo can also be flash cooked to brown the outside while preserving the gooey inside or added to soups. The white flesh of nagaimo is loaded with vitamins and minerals, such as vitamins C and B1, calcium, phosphorus, manganese, and iron.
Negi is the general Japanese term for green onion but is used most often to refer to welsh onions. Despite the common English vernacular, these onions are not Welsh, but native to China. The term is a holdover from the days when “welsh” was used to mean “foreign”.
Compared to typical green onions, negi are longer and thicker. The dense white stems and hollow green leaves are both used in cooking and as a garnish. More so than other onion greens, these can withstand long cooking times without breaking down or losing flavor.
Negi has a refreshing, spicy flavor similar to other allium greens. These green leaves are commonly used as a garnish or mixed into rice and noodle dishes in the final stages to add color and flavor. The white stems are used in sauces and broths.
Renkon is the Japanese name for lotus root. These vegetables are the rhizome or bulb of the lotus or lily pad plant.
In its whole form, renkon looks less than appealing. It is reminiscent of a bulbous potato with smooth, pale skin. But when you cut into it, hollow sections running through the root create a lacey pattern that turns any dish into a work of art.
Lotus is native to Eastern Asia, New Guinea, and Australia. The gorgeous flowers have been a symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism for thousands of years. But the use of lotus root in cooking is a tradition that is only a few hundred years old.
Renkon flesh is edible raw or cooked. If used raw, it is typically prepared with vinegar to reduce the bitterness. When cooked, the flavor is incredibly mild, and the spongy flesh will soak up whatever spices or sauces are used in the dish.
Shishitos are long, thin, shriveled-looking peppers that start out green and mature to red. They are generally mild but can be spicy when grown under hot and dry conditions.
They are most often prepared by blistering in a hot skillet with oil, but they can also be breaded and fried for tempura. Like other peppers, they are high in vitamins C, A, and K.
While generally considered a mild pepper, it is common for a hot shishito to make an appearance on the plate. About 1 in 10 will be spicy, a fact that only adds to the fun of eating these Japanese peppers.
Shiso is an herb in the mint family native to China and India but is now common across the globe. In Japan, green, red, and bicolor types are all used extensively.
The leaves of the plant have the typical triangle shape and serrated leaves of other mint plants. But the taste is much more complex, combining elements of cinnamon, basil, cilantro, anise, and mint. The aroma of Shiso is even more unique and is often described as smelling like a meadow or forest after a rainstorm.
Green shiso is often used as a garnish or dried and used as a spice. Red leaves are used as a coloring agent. When mixed with vinegar, the pigments in these red-purple leaves leach out, staining whatever ingredients they are mixed with.
Wasabi is a well-known Japanese ingredient, though few people think of it as a vegetable. Before this condiment becomes a bright green paste, it is actually a root.
Before processing, wasabi roots look like knotty pine cones with green skin and purple or green stems growing out of the top. Grating the flesh with a fine grater creates a paste used as a flavoring agent or condiment.
This intense paste is generally served alongside sushi. It can also be dried to a powder and used to coat food and snack items. While native to multiple areas of Far East Russia, this veggie is quintessentially Japanese.
Wasabi has an unmistakable flavor, somewhat like horseradish, which is a close relative. The spice doesn’t burn on the tongue but, rather, attacks the sinuses.