When it comes to Japanese street food, you have plenty of ways to get it. You can go to a shop, order online and get it delivered, or you can make it yourself. But one of the best ways to get the traditional street food experience like people back in the day is the Japanese yatai.
Yatai are traditional wooden food carts that serve a variety of cheap and tasty Japanese foods quickly to busy customers. They are two-wheeled and usually small enough to be pushed by one person yet can become large enough to fit up to a dozen customers when unpacked.
Made of two characters that mean ‘shop’ and ‘stand’, this simple name has a deep cultural and historical food tradition. Yatai history stretches back over a thousand years, and although they still exist today, their numbers have sadly declined.
Read on to discover the history of yatai, what they sell, the reasons for their decline and where they still thrive in modern Japan.
Origin of Yatai
Japanese food cart culture first emerged in the 6th and 7th centuries and during the Heian period (794-1185 AD). It was during this time that Buddhism first came to Japan, bringing hundreds of hungry pilgrims from far away to worship at the new temples, and they needed something to eat.
Enterprising merchants set up simple wooden stalls to serve the pilgrims affordable food, and thus the yatai was born.
However, they did not become a major part of Japanese culture until the Edo period (1603-1867) in the 1700s. Increasing urbanization meant that cities became crowded, creating the perfect environment for ambitious yatai owners to set up shop on busy streets and make money.
The government at the time, the bakufu (shogunate), was not too happy about the crowds of wooden carts and all the open-flame cooking going on. Although Japan already had the world’s first fire service, it wasn’t always adequate for stopping out-of-control blazes from devastating cities packed with wooden buildings. The government made efforts to ban yatai, but the demand for their cheap and delicious food was strong enough that the government could never eradicate them entirely.
What Caused the Decline of Yatai?
During Japan’s modernization period in the early 20th century, food carts had another comeback. A wave of industrialization, urbanization and rice shortages made the demand for easy-to-eat, cheap Japanese food rise once more. Industrial workers could not get enough of the delicious yatai food!
However, this golden age didn’t last. Although food carts survived through the Second World War and the post-war period, some exchanged the stalls for storefronts. Meanwhile, others gained a somewhat negative reputation due to many owners having to rely on black market ingredients during post-war food shortages.
In preparation for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese government introduced regulations that drove many yatai out of business. They wanted to show only the best parts of Japan to the foreign tourists flocking to the country and sadly considered the traditional wooden food carts as being both risky health-wise and something to be hidden or eliminated. Unfortunately for anyone wanting to experience this part of Japan’s street food culture, the new regulations largely succeeded.
There may be fewer yatai here, but don’t give up yet! Adventurous tourists can still experience them if you know where to look.
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Where Can I Find Yatai Today?
Although the crackdown on these pieces of Japan’s food history succeeded in many places, you can still find yatai in modern day Japan if you know where to look. Here’s a few places you can still find them today.
Fukuoka is the only prefecture where true, traditional yatai remain. If you want an authentic Japanese food cart experience, your best bet is Fukuoka City. Nakamise Dori, Omoide Yokochou and Ameyoko are the streets you’ll find them on. In fact, based on the official Fukuoka City tourist guide, there are 96 stalls open as of the start of 2023. They even have an official yatai map to help you to plan your food stall feast!
Yatai also pop up during festival season all over Japan to feed the millions of people enjoying fun festival festivities.
If you go to a Japanese festival in summer, you’re sure to see them lining the streets and serving all kinds of traditional (and some not so traditional) Japanese street food.
And that’s just about it...
Sad but true, Fukuoka and summertime festivals are usually the only places you can find traditional Japanese food carts nowadays.
In recent years the government has been making it easier to get a license to run one, but the stall-owner lifestyle just isn’t that appealing to modern young people. Never fear, though. All the foods yatai traditionally sell are readily available all over Japan.
Let’s take a look at some of them!
What Food do Yatai Sell?
All kinds of traditional Japanese food! If it’s Japanese, relatively cheap, and can be prepared and eaten quickly, there’s probably a yatai that sells it.
These flavorful noodles topped with pork, boiled eggs, and many kinds of vegetable are a favorite at Japanese food carts.
Fukuoka is actually the birthplace of one of the most delicious and famous regional ramen styles: Hakata ramen. Just like ordinary tonkotsu ramen which also originated from Fukuoka prefecture, Hakata ramen is made by boiling pork bones, except they’re boiled for even longer than in typical tonkotsu ramen. Up to eighteen hours!
Hakata ramen is creamy and thick with an intense flavor and is a must-eat.
Okonomiyaki is a delicious treat that has variations based on the location and shop. This style features yakisoba on the bottom. Image via Unsplash
Okonomiyaki are often called savory pancakes, but they couldn’t be further from the Western ones you’re probably imagining.
Batter and shredded cabbage are mixed in a metal bowl. Then, the customer’s chosen meat, usually pork or squid, is placed on a hotplate and the batter-cabbage mix poured on top. After being flipped a few times and cooked to perfection, the okonomiyaki is topped with bonito flakes, sauce and more, then served piping hot.
A food that hasn’t really taken off in the West (yet?), oden is a perfect belly-filler on cold winter days.
A variety of ingredients like eggs, konjac jelly, daikon radish and fish cakes are boiled in a light broth and served hot. Don’t let the simple appearance fool you. It’s delicious and has a uniquely Japanese flavor, so make sure to try it.
These chicken skewers sound simple, but there's plenty of variety from the different cuts to the various sauces and spices.
Literally translates to ‘grilled bird’, but don’t worry, the bird is ordinary chicken. What isn’t ordinary is the flavor. Unlike oil-drenched Western fried chicken, yakitori is grilled to be crispy, light, and tender, and can be enjoyed without worrying too much about your diet.
The chicken is served hot on skewers, and they’re an absolute must-have for anyone keen to experience yatai culture.
Deep-fried shrimp, fish, and vegetables served alongside sauce and usually with noodles or on top of rice. Tempura is gaining popularity overseas, but for the true experience you’ll have to come to Japan.
Contrary to popular belief, true tempura doesn’t use panko breadcrumbs, and the batter is simply made of flour, water and eggs.
These fried dumplings originate from China but are super popular in Japan as well. Bite-sized and served hot, they are the perfect Japanese food stall dish.
Gyoza typically contain garlic, since it has a reputation in Japan for being a hearty ingredient, so if you’re a garlic lover you’ll definitely want to try some.
Soba are buckwheat noodles, served hot in broth in winter, and cold with a soy dipping sauce in summer. They are often eaten alongside tempura and are a very filling alternative to Japan’s staple food of rice.
Yakisoba is a Japanese street food staple, but Fukuoka has a unique variation called yaki-ramen! Image via Instagram (@traci.licious)
Judging by the name, you might think these are just a fried version of ordinary soba noodles. However, it’s made from a completely different type of noodle: Chinese wheat noodles.
Yakisoba noodles are fried with sauce and a mixture of pork and vegetables. An incredibly filling meal, this is perfect for those looking for a big treat.
Some Fukuoka food stalls even have a delicious yaki ramen, which is a local variation of yakisoba.
We hope you’ve learned something new about Japanese yatai today. Although there are fewer than back in the day, if you know where to look you can still get the authentic Japanese food stall experience. Would you like to learn about yatai etiquette? Or how about our yatai suggestions? Let us know in the comments!