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A Guide To Street Food In Japan

Picture of Corlena Bailey
Corlena Bailey
Updated: 9 October 2016
Japanese street food, called yatai by the natives, is based on mobile food stands where people can get delicious specialties. Although street food in Japan is not as common as in other Asian countries such as Thailand or Taiwan, it is growing in popularity due to the influx of visitors to the country each year, especially during festivals. Here is a list of tasty specialty dishes and the best places to find them in Japan.

Yakitori

Served on a stick, yakitori consists of small pieces of mostly chicken skewered on a bamboo or metal skewer which are grilled over a charcoal fire. Its convenience and portability makes yakitori very popular on the streets of Japan and in Japanese pubs called izakaya. Along the busy street of Memory Lane (or Piss Alley) in Tokyo, you will find many tiny road side pubs and take-out restaurants where you can order some of the best yakitori in the country. Sit on one of their bar stools, inhale the enchanting aroma of mouth-watering yakitori and order yours with sauce or dry.

Address: Yakitori, Memory Lane, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

Okonomiyaki

Very popular especially in Osaka and Hiroshima, okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake that contains many ingredients. Toppings and batter tend to vary depending on the region. The Osaka-style version (the most popular version) of the dish is typically prepared with flour, eggs, yam, meat, seafood, vegetables and cheese, cooked like a pancake. The ingredients can be mixed together or layered on top of each other. Okonomiyaki is often referred to as ‘Japanese pizza’ or ‘Osaka soul food’. Get it from one of the stalls in Okonomi-mura (Okonomi Village).

Address: Okonomiyaki, Okonomi-mura, Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan

Takoyaki

Inspired by a dish called akashiyaki, takoyaki was invented in 1935 by a street vendor in Osaka named Tomekichi Endo. This mouth-watering Japanese dumpling is comprised of octopus rolled into a ball to make a delicious snack. Other ingredients like pickled ginger, green onion, okonomiyaki sauce, fish shavings and Japanese mayonnaise are usually added to the octopus to make a sumptuous filling. For authentic Japanese takoyaki, look no further than the Osaka Takoyaki Museum, where you will find a variety of takoyaki from five famous vendors. There is also the opportunity to check out historical takoyaki documents and artifacts in the museum.

Address: Takoyaki, Osaka Takoyaki Museum, Shimaya Konohana-ku Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, Japan

Oden

Oden is a favored dish during winter in various regions of Japan. It can easily be found in convenient stores or at food carts. The ingredients primarily consist of daikon, boiled eggs, radish, yam cakes and processed fish cakes, stewed into a delicious, soy-flavored dashi broth. With such a variety of strange-looking ingredients the dish may appear intimidating to tourists, but be brave and taste it – it is truly mouth-watering. The carefully prepared steaming broth is perfect to warm the body during the cold season. Stop by any yatai in Hakata and ask for some oden on your next trip to Fukuoka, Japan.

Address: Oden, 2 Chrome Nakasu, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken, Japan

Yaki Imo

A part of Japanese culinary culture that is rapidly fading is yaki imo. These are baked sweet potatoes that are delicately cooked over a wood fire. To older Japanese people, the pleasant sounds of yaki imo trucks and carts moving around with street vendors crying ‘yaki imo … yaki imo … yaki imo’ from a loud speaker is like sweet music to their ears. Around the streets of Akihabara you will be able to see and hear these yakai imo vendors, creating a an atmosphere that seems to be suspended between old and modern times.

Address: Yaki imo, Akihabara, Taito, Tokyo, Japan

Bento

Very common within Japanese business districts, bento is a delicious take-out meal that is typically comprised of rice, picked or cooked vegetables and fish or meat, served in a box-shaped container. The dish is widely available not just from street vendors, but also from convenience stores, railway stations, bento shops and department stores. Home-makers sometimes prepare bentos for their children, spouses, or themselves. A bento yatai or restaurant that has developed a good reputation will delight in having a long line of customers each day. Enjoy some tasty crab bento, a delicacy of Hokkaido, at Sapporo station or on a train ride.

Address: Bento at Sapporo Station, 4 Chome Kita 6 Jonishi, Kita Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

Senbei

One of the delights of visiting the town of Nara is the opportunity to enjoy sweet or savory senbei and to feed some to the many deers in the area. Senbei, or sembei, are delicious Japanese rice crackers that come in many shapes, sizes and flavors. If you happen to be a guest in a Japanese house, be prepared to be offered some senbei as a casual snack, commonly eaten with green tea. Stop by a yatai and get some freshly grilled senbei, a much tastier treat than the ones found in packages at convenient stores.

Address: Senbei at Nara, Nara Prefecture, Japan

Ramune

Known mainly by its distinctive design, ramune is a lemon-lime carbonated soft drink that was introduced in Japan in 1876. The traditional bottle is made from glass and sealed with a marble on top. It takes a little practice to master the art of drinking ramune, as the marble sometimes blocks the flow of the drink. However, newer versions of the bottle were introduced to counter this problem and now there are many more flavors. Purchase a bottle of fizzy ramune from a yatai during the annual Asagaya Tanabata festival if you want to blend in with the locals.

Address: Ramune, Asagayakita, Suginami, Tokyo, Japan

Ramen

Fukuoka is home to some of the best ramen in Japan and perhaps the world. Many people might immediately think of instant ramen, but the traditional Japanese ramen is on a whole different universe. Ramen is a Japanese noodle dish usually flavored with soy sauce or miso and occasionally served with flavorful sliced pork, dried seaweed, kamaboko and green onions. Ramen is the most sold item at any yatai found in Japan. Head on over to Fukuosa for the treat where you are guaranteed to experience a feeling of pure joy after you’ve devoured the lovely delicacy.

Address: Ramen, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan

Taiyaki

This funny-looking fish-shaped snack is often described as a cross between a waffle and a cake. But what makes taiyaki different from them is that while the batter is usually made from ordinary pancake, it is baked with a tantalizing filling unique to Japan. The most common fillings are red bean paste made from sweetened azuri beans, chocolate, sweet potato, cheese, custard, okonomiyaki, gyoza, or sausage. If you plan on touring the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto be sure to order some mouth-watering taiyaki from one of the street vendors nearby.

Address: Taiyaki near the Fushimi Inari Shrine, 68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto, Japan

By Corlena Bailey