The aroma of ramen, marinated for days with mirin and miso; sake, lovingly poured into ancient ceramic carafes, warmed slowly in a bath of water; oysters fresh from the bay, their shells cracking as they sizzle on giant BBQs. The street food of Japan invokes all five senses – you’ll find a feast wherever you go in the Land of the Rising Sun. Come hungry to one of these Japanese food festivals and fill your plate, stomach and heart with moreish Japanese delicacies.
At this annual Japanese food and rice wine festival, there are two words to know: “Nihonshu” – the Japanese word for rice wine, more commonly known in the West as sake – and “Kanpai”, which translates as “Cheers!” Over 150 different types of sake are served at this festival in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, which brews brilliantly smooth rice wine thanks to pristine underground springwater reserves. Have your sake hot or cold and sip it while bopping to local DJs – or slurping down a bowl of hot ramen to soak up all the booze.
Speaking of ramen, zoom down the Shinkansen for 20 minutes to Osaka and you’ll find a world of soupy wonder. Held over four weekends in the Expo Commemoration Park, this food festival in Japan is relatively new on the scene and each weekend brings different ramen cooks to the fray. Admittedly, this puts you in a bit of a pickle – the ginger and garlic kind, sprinkled atop ramen – which regional variety will you settle on?
There’s more to Japanese beer than Asahi and Sapporo, but Hokkaido’s biggest city is certainly the best place to start. The Summer Festival celebrates Japan’s food and drinks at its finest. Odori Park – stretching over 12 city blocks – transforms into one big beer garden for eight weeks, serving craft beers from across Japan and the wider world. If you’re lucky enough to grab a seat on Kirin Block, you’ll find the Bikuri Tower – a 3ft-tall (0.9m) pitcher of beer, gifting the perfect pour.
If you’ve ever wondered what Japanese food is exactly, you’ll find the answer at the Tokyo Dome’s Furusato Matsuri. Walk through the street food stalls and pick up Japanese dishes from up and down the country – ranging from sweet Okinawan peach-flavoured pineapple to the nutritious Ainu staples of Hokkaido. Traditional performances take centre stage, from timeless dances to astoundingly intricate paper float parades. By the time you roll back to your Tokyo hotel, you’ll be an expert on Japan’s plethora of cultures.
Planning a trip to Miyajima from Hiroshima? This tranquil island is famous for its friendly deer and mist-covered mountaintop temples but look to the waters below Itsukushima Shrine for its most delicious export: oysters. Every February, the already-bustling ferry port comes alive with the sound of taiko drums and the salty scent of seafood as oysters at peak succulence are hauled onto shore and fried, grilled and tempura-battered to perfection – naturally gobbled up by curious crowds in search of an out-of-this-world cheap eat.
A folk tale tells of a feudal lord’s fussy palate, which led to the creation of this fishy free-for-all in Tokyo. As the lord was passing through, he forgot his lunch, so a peasant handed him a plate of grilled and salted Sanma (Pacific saury) fish. The lord couldn’t get enough, but his chef couldn’t replicate the simple taste sensation he’d enjoyed on his travels. Since then, the inland suburb of Meguro has been tied to Sanma – where a festival in September dishes more than 5,000 of them out for free: just make sure you arrive early if you’re hoping for a taste.
Looking for accommodation in Japan? Check out our guide to the very best hotels in Japan – bookable on Culture Trip. Those looking for a more authentic stay will want to relax in a ryokan or steam up in an onsen; you’ll also find cheap hotels and great hostels for every budget.