Tokyo has more Michelin stars than practically any other city in the world, but some of the city’s—and country’s—top eats are far from the world of white-gloved fine dining. Enter Japanese street food, commonly found during festivals, at yatai (casual food stalls on the streets with a few seats where diners can grab a quick meal), at markets like Tsukiji Market in Tokyo or Nishiki Market in Kyoto, and at shotengai: long streets, often pedestrian, lined with mom-and-pop shops.
Many street foods are cooked on grills or roasted, and so the name of the food may include yaki (grilled), which describes the cooking method—yakitori, takoyaki, yakisoba, and more.
Note: In Japan, eating on the streets and eating while walking is frowned upon, as it’s impolite. Some shops that sell food in open-air markets encourage guests to stand and eat in front of the shop. If you’re not sure, just ask the owner, “OK?” Here are some popular street foods to look for on your next visit to Japan.
Different parts of the chicken (tori) are cut into bite-size pieces, skewered, grilled, and then seasoned with shio salt or a sweet tare soy sauce. Some popular skewers? Momo (thighs), mune (breast meat), reba (liver), sunagimo (gizzard), tsukune (ground chicken with minced cartilage), and kawa (chicken skin). There are upscale grill shops specializing in yakitori, serving pieces cut from almost every part of the chicken.
Casual style yakitori stalls can be found at shotengai shopping arcades or at casual stand-and-drink tachinomi spots, sometimes found underneath the train tracks or near busy train stations. The higher-end restaurants will use a smokeless binchotan charcoal. Some yakitori restaurants will also serve yakiton, grilled pork skewers.
Where to eat yakitori in Japan:
Sunamachi Ginza on the east side of Tokyo is an old-school shotengai shopping arcade with three yakitori shops: Takezawa Shouten, Niku no Nakajima, and Okada.
Kyobashi Isehiro, a short walk from Tokyo Station, has been serving yakitori for 100 years. The shop is famous for its tsukune.
Bite-size pieces of octopus (tako) are cooked inside a savory batter in a ball shape until the exterior is crispy. Takoyaki is then covered with a thick fruity and savory sauce and sprinkled with aonori (green seaweed flakes) and katsuobushi (smoked skipjack tuna flakes). While takoyaki is available throughout Japan, Osaka is most famous for the dish. Part of the experience is watching the staff make the takoyaki using two skewers only.
Where to eat takoyaki in Japan:
Gindaco is a popular chain with branches throughout the country.
In Osaka, Wanaka offers a variety of octopus balls, including a sampler plate of four different types of takoyaki.
In Fukuoka, hakata ramen is the local name for tonkotsu ramen, which is noted for its intense broth made from pork bones that are rich in collagen. Hakata ramen noodles are typically skinny and thin. Toppings traditionally include cha shu pork slices, pickled red ginger, wood-ear mushrooms, and green onions.
Where to eat ramen in Japan:
Fukuoka has a lively yatai culture that comes to life at night, with about 100 stalls serving food then. The Nakasu Island area is fun to visit; the ramen yatai are along the river for a picturesque and memorable evening of slurping noodles.
Dango are bite-size balls made from mochiko rice flour that are skewered and covered with toppings such as mitarashi (sweet glaze), azuki (sweet red bean paste), or crushed edamame paste called zunda. The mitarashi is a sweet and salty sauce usually made from soy sauce and black sugar, like a salted caramel. Springtime hanami dango consist of three balls—one pink, one white, and one green—said to represent cherry blossoms, snow, and spring greenery. In autumn, the white mochi tsukimi dango resemble the harvest full moon.
Where to eat dango in Japan:
Oiwake Dango Honpo in Shinjuku serves more than a dozen styles of dango, including nutty black sesame and a savory shichimi version blanketed with seven spices and soy sauce, then grilled and wrapped in seaweed.
5. Yaki imo
Sweet potatoes (imo) roasted until tender become naturally sweet desserts. Many supermarkets have small roasters in house selling yaki imo to shoppers. In winter, trucks will roam the streets selling roasted sweet potatoes, with singsong melodies advertising their wares (much like ice cream trucks in the U.S.) Yaki imo are delicious while still hot but can also be enjoyed once they have cooled down—skin and all.
Where to eat yaki imo in Japan:
Sweet potatoes are gently roasted in a large earthenware pot (tsubo) for up to two hours at Ginza Tsuboyaki Imo, resulting in tender and super-sweet spuds.
Imoyasu in Asakusa offers yaki imo along with daigaku imo, bite-size fried sweet potatoes with syrup and black sesame seeds.
As a street food, yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) is most often found at festivals. Yakisoba is a dish of noodles sautéed in a Worcestershire-like sauce with cabbage, garnished with a splash of bright red pickled ginger, and a dusting of aonori sea vegetable flakes rich with the minerality of the ocean. Yakisoba may also include pork, squid, or a fried egg over the top of the noodles. Note that the noodles are similar to ramen noodles, not soba, as it’s called in the name of the dish; there is a version made with heartier udon noodles called yakiudon. Yakisoba is a popular menu item at restaurants where diners sit around a hot iron plate and cook their own food like okonomiyaki and monjayaki.
Where to eat yakisoba in Japan:
Yakisoba is a popular local dish in Fujimiya (Shizuoka prefecture), Ishinomaki (Miyagi prefecture), and Oota (Gunma precture) and each city will have many restaurants serving the dish.
7. Imagawayaki and taiyaki
To make Imagawayaki and taiyaki (handheld cakes stuffed with sweet azuki beans), pancake-like batter is put into a hot iron form and filled with a sweet red bean paste. The shape may be round—called Imagawayaki, taikoyaki, obanyaki—or in the shape of a tai sea bream, taiyaki. The traditional filling is a sweet red or white bean paste, but may also be a sweet custard or other original fillings by the shop. Be on the lookout: Some depachika, or basement food floors in department stores, have stalls dedicated to making Imagawayaki.
Where to eat Imagawayaki or taiyaki in Japan:
In the Shinjuku Takashimaya department store depachika, customers can watch as the round Imagawayaki cakes are made at Gozasoro. Select aka an for red bean paste or shiro an for white bean paste.
Yanagiya has been serving taiyaki since 1916. The small shop is located on the Ningyocho Amazake Yokocho street in the historic part of Tokyo.
To make oden—fish cakes in vegetable stew—fried, grilled, and steamed fish cakes are simmered in an umami-rich broth with tender daikon, fried tofu, boiled eggs, gelatinous konnyaku, and kombu kelp. Add a bit of karashi mustard to season the hot pot—but be warned, the mustard has a kick, just like wasabi. Ingredients for the oden stew vary depending on the region. Regional variations of oden broth include a lighter style in Kyoto, miso in Nagoya, and a darker soup in Tokyo.
Where to eat oden in Japan:
The Sunamachi Ginza shotengai in eastern Tokyo has a few spots where visitors can purchase food and eat in front or next to the shop. Masuei Kamabokoten is famous for its variety of handmade fish cakes stuffed with seafood and vegetables like squid, burdock root, and shrimp.
Kanazawa, on the Sea of Japan, is famous for its local version of oden, which includes an akamaki red-and-white spiral-shaped fish cake, baigai whelks, and kanimen crab shells stuffed with crab meat. Ippukuya has a colorful selection and is in the must-visit Omicho Market in Kanazawa.