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TokyoTreat Japanese Snacks BlogJapanese Yatai: Festival Food On Wheels

Japanese Yatai: Festival Food On Wheels

By Linh Le
June 28, 2022

World-famous Japanese foods like sushi, sashimi (sliced raw fish), and tempura (fried fish and vegetables) all require careful prep and complicated techniques. However, Japanese festival and street food sold at yatai (mobile street food stalls) also have their own appeal and are worth a try. Today, we’ll take you on a journey to every corner of the Japanese street food world and show you some of the best of it!

Why We Love Yatai

Since yatai are movable, vendors used to push stalls from one place to another, but nowadays, most yatai are located at specific areas, usually crowded with residents and tourists. Everyday, Japanese street vendors push their mobile stalls out on the street in the late afternoon and close at around dawn. 

However, food stalls are more commonly found at Japanese festivals, considered to be the soul of any festival. If you come to a festival in Japan, such as hanami (cherry blossom viewing), summer festival, or winter festival, you might find yourself unable to resist the lively cooking sounds and fragrant food from these stalls. 

People sit around a yatai that is selling ramen and beer at night.
There are even some areas where yatai are around all year. Fukuoka especially loves their stalls. Image via Shutterstock

These Japanese food stalls might also have a roof, table, and stools, so although the food can be taken away, people can also sit and grab a quick bite. Diverse dishes with affordable prices and the comfortable yet bustling space to enjoy a few drinks are definitely the attractions of yatai.

Since everything is prepared in a small stall, most of the dishes are simple and handled quickly. The greatest feature of yatai is that you can always enjoy the delicious taste of a freshly cooked dish. The wait time is also never boring because the quick hand movement of the vendor is interesting enough to watch till you forget the time.

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Famous Yatai Foods 

Takoyaki 

Workers at a yatai hand flip dozens of takoyaki cooking on a griddle with chopsticks
Takoyaki is a staple of the Japanese street food scene. Osaka is the place to go for this dish. Image via Shutterstock

As a specialty of Osaka, takoyaki (grilled octopus balls) is an iconic image of Japanese street food. It is made of flour, baked in a special frying pan, and uses chopped octopus as the main ingredient, sprinkling seasoning and various sauces on top. Perhaps takoyaki’s baking process is the most fun to look at as we can see how cute little takoyaki balls are formed and how they get turned over quickly several times.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a famous savory Japanese pancake that is cooked on a teppanyaki grill (a flat iron grill). It is made with dough, which is quite similar to that of takoyaki, and is baked on a hot plate along with cabbage and meat. It is then served with delicious okonomiyaki sauce, and toppings such as aonori (seaweed flakes), tuna flakes, pickled ginger, and mayonnaise.

Yakisoba

A plate of yakisoba with pork, onions, seaweed and pickled ginger sits in a black plate on a wooden table.
Yakisoba is a great festival food if you’re looking for something cheaper and more filling. Image via Shutterstock

Another popular yatai dish is yakisoba (stir-fried noodles). Yakisoba are made from wheat flour and served with all kinds of vegetables and meats such as pork, beef or chicken. The sweet and savory taste from Worcestershire sauce is the secret to this dish.

Yakitori 

Yakitori, or grilled chicken skewers, is chicken that is skewered with sticks and grilled over charcoal. Yakitori has become a popular street food that anyone, regardless of their age, can easily fall in love with. Yakitori can be tasted with salt or tare sauce, which is made from soy sauce, mirin, sake, and suga, creating a balance between salty and sweet.

Ikayaki 

Ikayaki being cooked on a grill at a yatai as the cook glazes the squids with a brown sauce using a brush
Ikayaki may jump out for its strange appearance, but it’s super tasty and full of flavor. Image via Shutterstock

Ikayaki–soft grilled squid cut into small rings–is another popular fast food in Japan. It’s usually served with soy sauce, teriyaki, or a traditional Japanese marinade, including rice wine, miso, ginger, and soy sauce. Ikayaki is usually prepared quickly at yatai and should be eaten as soon as they are removed from the grill – when the squid is still soft and hot.

Ramen

Most of us eat ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles) at a specialized ramen shop, but ramen sold at yatai will never fail you either. Almost every part of Japan has its own version of ramen. Sapporo ramen, for example, is especially famous for its miso ramen often served with sweet corn, bean sprouts, minced pork and garlic, and sometimes local seafood. 

Tokyo-style ramen consists of slightly thin curly noodles with broth made from soy-flavored chicken. Meanwhile, Yokohama’s signature ramen consists of thick, straight noodles with soy-flavored pork broth.

Taiyaki

Six taiyaki sit in a special fish-shaped griddle at a yatai with one side having batter and the other having whole taiyaki filled with chocolate cooking.
Taiyaki is one of Japan’s favorite treats, and you can even get special shapes with your favorite characters at places like the Sega Game Centers. Image via Shutterstock

Taiyaki is a type of traditional Japanese confectionery that is shaped like sea bream and is  filled in with a variety of fillings. In addition to the basic flavor – red bean stewed with sugar (Anko), there are other flavors such as chocolate, custard, and matcha (Japanese powdered green tea).

Dango

Dango is a Japanese floating cake, made of glutinous rice flour, similar to mochi. The cake is usually eaten with green tea and enjoyed throughout the year, but depending on the time, there are unique dango cakes. The dango is covered with a layer of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, and then baked before eating.

Yaki-imo

A makeshift grill filled with hot coal with seven Japanese sweet potatoes grilling over the coals.
Grilled sweet potato is quite a simple dish, but it tastes amazing! No wonder vegetarians living in Japan love this treat. Image via Shutterstock

Yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato) is one of the most symbolic foods of autumn and winter in Japan. In the old days, Yaki-imo was often sold in yatai running around the town with a speaker that uttered an attractive invitation – “Yaki-imo, Ishi Yaki-imo“. Japanese children who heard this sound would run to buy and enjoy these hot, fragrant roasted sweet potatoes. 

Today, Yaki-imo is easy to buy in most supermarkets, and trucks don’t appear on the streets as often compared to the past. Yaki-imo is also delicious alongside vanilla ice cream as the sweetness of these two complement each other so well. 

What Japanese yatai food do you like the most? Share your favorite with us in the comment section below!

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