Here's Exactly Where You Can Score the Best Fried Chicken in Japan

Looking for some truly spectacular Karaage? Head to Nakatsu, a town on Japan's southern island of Kyushu.

Nakasu Irotoridori


In an illicit exchange beneath a grungy overpass, one man passes another a greasy, brown paper bag and says, "This will get you high." The bag contains karaage, Japan's beloved fried chicken. 

This scene is featured in Karaage Wars, a 13-minute promotional film produced by the Japan Karaage Association that follows Agehiko, "a boring guy who loves karaage," floundering in a dystopian society where frying, eating, and even discussing karaage is banned. Agehiko is lured to a speakeasy serving heaps of juicy, crispy, tender karaage, but before long, cops raid the place and cuff him.

Agehiko gives an impassioned speech, proclaiming, "Karaage is not just a deeply fried food! It excites us; it seasons our life; it's our ultimate national food. Even when we fall, delicious karaage can help us fly up and move forward." The ban is revoked, karaage is recognized as a national food, and nothing can keep the people from their right to fried chicken.

After a recent visit to Nakatsu, a town on Japan's southern island of Kyushu that boasts a high density of fried chicken shops, I, too, might risk arrest for karaage. 

The high-quality ingredients, careful preparation, and communal pride in the dish have cemented the town's reputation as the fried chicken capital of Japan, attracting tourists from around the country in search of perfect karaage.

Karaage begins with fresh, local chicken. Wings, legs, thighs, breasts, innards, and even cartilage are chopped evenly and drenched in soy sauce or salt-based marinades, along with ginger, garlic, spices, fruit, and other safeguarded secret ingredients (behind one counter, I spotted oversized apples from Hokkaido). The chicken is often marinated for upwards of a day, then coated in flour and potato starch blends before being precisely fried until golden. 

Chefs revise their recipes over decades (and generations), calibrating each aspect of chicken heritage, marinade time, spice combinations, oil blends, oil temperature, fry time, and so on. Ultimately, the best karaage "makes customers smile and be happy," says Ogawa Hiroki, who owns Toriyoshi in Nakatsu. “[It has to be] chicken they enjoy eating.” 

Generations of fine-tuned methodology and friendly competition between local shops have resulted in dozens of permutations of succulent, complex, flavorful, crispy-coated chicken lining the streets of Nakatsu. Each shop has developed its distinct flavor, so while locals might try several shops, there's a winnowing, and shops ultimately have core regulars who are fervently loyal.

Nakatsu's love for karaage can be measured by the town's massive successes at the Karaage Grand Prix, Japan's largest Karaage competition. In previous years, winners were decided by popular vote, but this year, judges evaluated shops across five categories — frying (appearance and color), texture (harmony of the meat and batter, crispiness, crunchiness, fluffiness), flavor, value, and, finally, the passion of the cook, who has a three-minute Q&A session to show their worthiness. 

More than 700 shops took part, along with 120 expert judges (including food critics, culinary researchers, cooking school instructors, buyers, and major fried food manufacturers) who spent 12 days taste testing. It's a nerve-wracking experience for competitors who must cook live and present to the judges. Winners are guaranteed to see an influx of new customers. 

The technique of deep frying has existed in Japan for centuries but flourished after World War II with changing diets and the introduction of broiler chickens, fast-growing, muscly chickens that thrived, especially in Kyushu's warmer southern climate. Before refrigerators arrived in Japan, marinades were used to preserve meat, karaage chef and owner Masahiko Inoue explained to me (Inoue is the chairperson of the Nakatsu Karaage Association.) Fold in deep-frying techniques arriving from Europe and China, and you get a natural progression towards karaage, which marries the techniques.

During the 1960s, the number of specialized chicken takeaway shops grew exponentially. According to Kouji Moriyama, proprietor of Moriyama, the first boom for fried chicken was in the '60s and '70s: "Deep frying was a new thing really," he said.

The second boom is happening now. "Flavors have really matured."

We're living through a golden age of deep-fried chicken, and Nakatsu is the place to celebrate it. If you're planning a visit to Japan or Kyushu island, here are some must-visit karaage shops in the city that are beloved by locals. 


Since earning the first-ever Karaage Grand Prix Champion title, Chef Moriyama has amassed awards across numerous categories. Moriyama's salt-based marinade is truly unique: The savory garlic and brightness of the ginger coat each bite of chicken. Moriyama remembers the first karaage he ever had was bone-in. While boneless cuts have become more popular due to ease of eating, Moriyama recommends accepting you'll get your hands dirty and diving into the bone-in pieces because the bone imparts umami flavor from the inside out. 

Agedokoro Bungoya 

This cheery shop is worth the trip for its 50-year legacy and less common menu items. In addition to crowd-pleasing boneless thighs, breasts, and wings, Agedokoro Bungoya serves inaka, meat from older chickens that have finished their egg-laying careers. The meat from older chickens has a stronger, deeper flavor and tougher, gamier texture. Another specialty was the deep-fried cartilage which was both chewy and snappy, a texture I'd never encountered.   


Chef-owner Ogawa Hiroki, a rarity in the male-dominated karaage landscape, gave me a peek inside her kitchen while she breaded and fried boneless thigh and neckpieces. The chicken was crackly and moist without being fatty or squidgy, and the neck pieces had pleasant chewiness. The chicken is garnished only with optional lemon; you don't need any dipping sauce here.  


Here you'll find a well-balanced soy-based marinade bolstered with ginger, mystery fruit, and hints of garlic. This shop specializes in v-shaped wishbones, which, while trickier to eat, have a big flavor payoff. You can also snag crispy beef croquettes and wagyu beef deep-fried in the same oil.


Run by the current Nakatsu Karaage Association chairperson, Karaichi serves the classics but also defies purism. There's a growing trend of adding toppings to karaage, so to keep up with the demand for new flavors and products, Karaichi offers crispy fried garlic and chili toppings atop their spicy, aromatic chicken.

P.S. (Categorically against USDA guidelines, I transported my unrefrigerated leftovers internationally so that I could enjoy them at home. Nobody recommended this or asked for this data, but after 14+ hours, the chicken was still juicy, tender, and delicious, if slightly less crispy. No crumbs left.)

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