Article updated on May 14, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau
Street food is not that common in Japan, and tends to disappear fast: yatai (屋台 – literally “food cart”) or food stalls popping up in the evening can be found mainly in Fukuoka, and their tented copycats at festivals throughout the country, mainly during the summer.
If you like… street food, ramens, and skewers,
…you will love yatai food!
Go fast, the millennium-old yatai are disappearing!
If the first yatai date back to the 5th century to cater to hungry pilgrims on their way to Shinto shrines, it is during the Edo Period that started in the 17th century that food carts used to follow the daimyo (or feudal lords) in their travels to report back to the shogun. Later, during the industrialization, yatai were assimilated to working class fast food, and after World War II, to black market food to go around post-war rationing. These were the opposite images of what Japan wanted to showcase during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. Today, yatai have almost completely disappeared, but for less than a hundred left in Fukuoka. Inhabitants have complained about the noise of the generators and patrons, and the dirtiness when broth is thrown on the pavement: since 1995, no new yatai license can be issued. A yatai license can only be inherited. Yatai chefs are getting older, and can hardly push their carts. Their kids are deterred from following their tracks as yatai must be one’s only source of income.
A typical experience
At around 6 p.m., 3-by-2.5-meter compact food carts start taking place and unfolding in the Tenjin district of Fukuoka. Methodically, owners transform them into outdoor restaurants that can serve 5 to 10 guests: benches and tables pop out of the sides of the cart with short curtains and plastic menus, electric generators get started and fridges and lights powered, while the inside turns into a fully equipped-kitchen with propane gas tanks, griddles and stoves, and utensils hanging from the roof.
Long queues form fast in front of locals’ favorites. Savory smells emanate from the mobile restaurants. Browsing and peeping through the curtains reveals typical dishes such as yakitori, ramen, okonomiyaki, and more. Sitting at one where the queue is long enough to ensure consistent quality, and short enough to be fed in a reasonable amount of time, is a good method. Order the famous Hakata Ramen, a local specialty made of thin ramen noodles in a pork-bone-based broth. Chefs are busy preparing. Patrons are chatty, often enjoying a beer in the low-key atmosphere. Don’t stay long though, but instead hop from one yatai to the next as they have their own specialties.
Yatai contrast greatly with the modernity of Japan. Paradoxically, the Japanese authorities are trying to shut them down while elsewhere in the world, food trucks are becoming more and more popular – Japan included! So enjoy them fast while it is still possible!
Where to enjoy yatai in Japan: Fukuoka, either in the Tenjin district or along the river on Nakasu Island, starting at sunset every day but Sundays.
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- Yatai are specialized, so check the menu before you sit, and make sure prices are indicated.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!
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