Did you know that people generally don’t walk around and eat at the same time in Japan? For many, it’s about properly savoring the food and keeping the streets clean, making restaurants the go-to option for food. However, Japanese street food is nothing to scoff at and has a long, rich history in Japan. In fact, some of your favorite Japanese foods probably got their start as street food!
Learn more about what world of Japanese street food has to offer with our handy guide that we will continue to update as we learn more about Japan’s street food scene!
Let’s kick off our list with an Osaka original! Takoyaki is basically an octopus dumpling, with a piece of octopus tentacle wrapped in batter and cooked on a special griddle. You see, tako means octopus and yaki means something grilled or cooked. Keep the meaning of ‘yaki’ in mind for later.
The batter for this dish is usually made of flour, eggs, and dashi (Japanese soup stock), and when cooked, it creates a crispy outside and a soft inside. However, some shops add a bit of crunch to the gooey inside with fried tempura bits, or tenkasu. Some shops will even include bacon, cheese, red ginger or green onion to their batter for a unique experience.
The key to making good takoyaki is timing and technique. Timing is important because you want to cook it long enough that the octopus cooks but not so long that it becomes tough. The technique comes in with the flipping of the octopus on the special griddle. Using a needle, you have to flip the takoyaki at the right time so the batter falls to create a ball.
What? You want to learn more about this Japanese street food? Well, you can learn all about this dish in our blog about takoyaki!
Now, let’s move away from grilled octopus balls move on to grilled noodles. Yakisoba may sound like grilled soba noodles, but the name is slightly misleading. This dish is made with a Chinese-style noodle that is very similar to ramen.
This dish involves cooking the not-soba noodles on a grill top with cabbage and pork. However, what makes this dish unique is the sauce used in the dish. When it first started spreading around Japan, many people used Worcestershire sauce, but something about this British sauce just wasn’t cutting it.
The sauce eventually changed when cooks created custom sauces that were more similar to teriyaki. Yakisoba sauce these days manages to deliver a punch of flavor that is somehow both savory and slightly sweet. This sauce is added either during the cooking process or at the very end (or sometimes both).
Yakisoba sauce can make or break any shop or stand, so chefs take great care in creating and protecting their sauces.
If you want to learn how to make this noodle dish, we've given away our highly guarded recipe as well as plenty of information about yakisoba in our blog!
Yakitori may seem really simple with it just being grilled (yaki) chicken (tori) on a skewer, but it actually has an interesting history and tons of variety.
Did you know that Japan outlawed meat at one point?
Well, not all meat, but most meat. Chicken was part of the ban, but rooster actually wasn’t, with some people eating a soup made with rooster meat. Later, when meat was okay again, chicken was still too expensive for the everyday person to eat. However, restaurants that cooked the delicacy that was chicken often had plenty of scraps.
Merchants took these scraps and grilled them, creating a new Japanese street food, yakitori. Luckily, chicken became more readily available over the years, which meant that we got better cuts and higher-quality variations of yakitori.
These days, you can find plenty of different cuts, thanks to the ‘use everything’ mentality of many yakitori chefs. It can vary from more obvious cuts like chicken breast and thighs to more “exotic” choices like chicken crowns and oviducts. Plus, many shops offer salt, tare sauce or mix seasoning options to flavor each cut to your particular tastes.
Want to learn about the interesting history of this grilled chicken dish and all of its unique cuts? Check out our blog all about yakitori to learn more!
Ramen, for many people in the West, is a sit-down experience, but Japanese ramen has a street food side to its history that can still be found today. Although this dish is Chinese by origin, the taste has changed over the years to fit the Japanese palate and has also spawned plenty of its own variations.
This Japanese version of ramen and its regional ramen styles are what have become popular all over the world. In fact, many noodle enthusiasts say that we're in the midst of a ramen boom thanks to Japan!
But back to it's street food origins. Some varieties of ramen actually picked up in popularity thanks to fisherman and merchants who needed a quick lunch during their breaks. Both shops and food stalls were able to find a need and fill that need, providing a meal of noodles that was quick, filling, and most importantly, delicious.
Let's take Fukuoka's Hakata ramen as an example. Hakata ramen, a pork bone broth ramen with thin noodles, is said to have its start at food stalls. That's partially why the noodles are thin, so they can cook more quickly. Although the amount of food stalls has decreased, you can still find some in Fukuoka with some still serving ramen.
Want to learn all about ramen? Check out our whole guide to Japanese ramen from our noodle experts!
Now let’s switch to the wonderful world of Japanese street food sweets with Japan’s twist on the French crepe! French crepes are famous for their delicious softness and sweetness. However, Japanese crepes have their own unique differences to their French older cousin.
Where French crepes tend to be softer and fluffier, the Japanese version opts for a thinner version that is softer in the middle but crispier at the edges. While creatable on in a frying pan, Japanese crepe artists use a large flat griddle and a special spatula to create a thinner crepe. And while French crepes can have fillings, Japanese crepes are all about the filling.
Fillings are added to a corner of the crepe, which is then wrapped to create a cone full of tasty goodness. You can find fillings like fruit, whipped cream, ice cream, cheesecake, pudding and so much more. And with savory flavors like ham, tuna, cheese and salad, you can take a sweet or savory snack to-go.
These treats can be found all over Japan, especially at festivals. However, if there were a Japanese crepe capital, it would be the fashionable Harajuku district in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. Harajuku has plenty of crepe stands and shops in between their stylish clothing stores, especially around Harajuku’s Takeshita Street.
Check out our blog all about this sweet treat to learn more about the history, the fillings and the shops that serve Japanese crepes!
A treat perfect for the hot Japanese summers, Japanese kakigori is shaved ice with a tasty, light syrup to flavor it. Japanese shaved ice actually has a really long history, starting back in the Heian period (794 to 1185 AD).
Nobles used to have blocks of natural ice stored during the winter in icehouses, and when it got hot, they would break those blocks of ice out. Kakigori makers would then use a knife to shave off the ice for the nobles to enjoy.
We know what you’re thinking—what’s so special about kakigori though? Well, first is that modern kakigori is usually made using pure ice from mineral water. It’s also well-known for its fluffiness. The way it is shaved creates a texture that is like eating flavored snow.
Plus, the syrup and toppings have a huge amount of variety, including local variations. This opens up the flavors from typical ones like strawberry or blue Hawaiian to more specialty flavors like green tea with red bean and mochi or ‘polar bear’ style with fruit toppings.
Looking to learn more about what makes this cool Japanese treat different from American shaved ice? Check out our blog all about kakigori!
Next up is our favorite fish-shaped treat—taiyaki. Taiyaki is a pastry cooked on a griddle with a unique sea bream (tai) shape and a tasty filling. This fishy treat uses mochi flour that creates a waffle-like, crispy outside while maintaining a soft, moist inside.
This unique treat started out as imagawayaki, a Japanese wheel cake with an anko (red bean paste) filling. In fact, the creator of taiyaki owned an imagawayaki shop. When his shop needed a little something extra to stand out, he had the idea to reinvent the wheel cake as a fish-shaped one.
Tai, the fish that inspired this dish, is a very lucky, auspicious fish, often eaten at times of celebration. It was also pretty expensive back in the day, meaning that it had quite a sense of luxury to it too. Its deliciousness and feelings of good luck and luxury all combined to create a popular, new product that is still popular today.
While the original filling for taiyaki is anko, modern taiyaki can have both sweet and savory fillings. Sweet fillings can include chocolate, (vanilla) custard, cream cheese, green tea, sweet potato and more. Meanwhile, savory fillings can include tuna, ham, and curry.
Need more info about this fishy but not-so-fishy treat? Get more in-depth knowledge in our blog all about taiyaki!
Japanese Street Sweets
When we talk about wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), many people think of the delicate and elegant treats served at tea ceremonies. However, many Japanese sweets have a street food origin or a street food part of their history. Even now, these sweets can be found at stands where people can take these sweet treats with them as they stand around or walk to their next destination.
Dorayaki is a perfect example. Basically being a castella pancake sandwich with an anko filling, this treat is so easy to take on the go. Baby castella, a festival favorite, is another popular way to get a castella fix on the go. Daifuku is another sweet wagashi treat, which features mochi stuffed with things like anko, shiroan (white bean paste), fruit, ice cream and more.
However, the best example of a snack with a street food history is amezaiku, a type of candy art. It was originally made as an offering at Kyoto temples, but amezaiku artists began doing street performances and selling their candy art on the streets.
We love Japanese sweets! That's why we're making a second bo--I mean--a whole blog about Japanese sweets with street food origins!
You can’t talk about street food without talking about yatai, a fundamental part of Japanese street food culture. Yatai are food stalls that are made to be transported to hungry customers.
Back in the day, these stalls were originally made to help serve hungry people as they made their pilgrimages across Japan to different temples. However, they continued to catch on and increase in number all across the country to feed all kinds of folks, from religious pilgrims to hungry laborers.
Yatai are actually responsible for both unique creations like Hakata ramen and popularizing certain dishes like yakitori. These days, yatai are hard to come by and have dwindled in numbers by quite a bit due to stricter and stricter government regulations. However, they still live on in two places.
If you time a visit to Japan just right, you can experience basic yatai at Japanese festivals. Here, you’ll find all of those foods that you can carry around, such as baby castella, taiyaki, yakisoba and crepes.
The other place is the location area where yatai thrive year-round, and that place is Fukuoka. Fukuoka has a few streets where cooks are allowed to set up shop (as long as they get and maintain their proper licenses). These yatai are old-school, which means that they include the whole experience. You get to sit down and enjoy a nice meal while chatting the chef and the locals.
That being said, make sure to read the room when you sit down. Some places are made for sitting, drinking and eating as long as you want, but most places will want you up and out when you’re done buying food. That also means that you can head to another food stall for more food and conversation.
We haven't even scratched the surface of these Japanese street food stalls, so to learn more, check out our blog all about yatai!
Street food is an important part of food culture, and Japanese street food is no exception. There’s surely some tasty street food that we missed, but we’ll be adding more to our guide and even more blogs about each one! Be sure to check it out!
Did we miss any of your favorites? Are any of your favorites on the list? Let us know in the comments!