Street food stalls or yatai are little hubs of convivial eating in Japan, where friends and strangers alike huddle together in a cosy nook to enjoy some chat and chow. Yatai were a common sight in the 1950s, but most municipalities have removed unregulated vendors off the streets in bids to improve city image. You can still see some in Fukuoka in the southern island of Kyushu, where yatai fiercely try to remain in their trade, and resist regulation. But even here, the number of yatai are in steady decline. Only about 121 remain from a count in November 2012, down from 450 in the 1960s.
Fukuoka is looking to revamp its yatai regulations – increasing food safety and quality while allowing for new licences. The new rules coming out in July aim to preserve yatai presence but overly strict control may also stifle the spontaneous and irreverent culture that the yatai pride themselves on.
Casual street food comes out in full force whenever there is a festival. The Hakata Dontaku Matsuri on 3 May 2013 saw a park in Tenshin district of Fukuoka all decked out with colourful stalls like this takoyaki one.
There are regional specialties, like this “hashimaki” which is Kyushu’s answer to okonomiyaki – rolled on a stick!
This being Japan, of course you will have pink Hello Kitty crepe stalls.
Large juicy cobs of grilled corn slathered with your seasoning of choice such as salt or butter shoyu.
Most of the yatai cluster around Tenshin (above), Nakasu island, Nagahama, and Hakata Station. You can find some right outside bank buildings in the financial district.
Yatai on Nakasu by the riverbank. The stalls sell a variety of food like yakitori, oden, ramen and tempura. Of course, no raw food is served because of hygiene concerns.
The stalls open from about 6pm to 2am. Some of them even include facades like sliding doors. But most of them only seat a dozen customers at the most, and sometimes there is a wait for the more popular stalls.
This stall sells curry rolled cutlets enhanced with kimchi or mentaiko.
Not everything is deep-fried or unhealthy. Here’s a stall offering kyuri, or Japanese cucumbers, along with dips like mayo, miso tare and ketchup.
The mobile yatai stalls sure give new meaning to the term “pop-up restaurant”!
Some of the street stalls are very bare-bone operations. This one offers you the chance to fish for your very own live eel, which can be grilled right before your eyes. That’s if the puppy doesn’t get to it first.
The wisdom of boldly declaring “Internal Organs Stew” in English is somewhat debatable. You wonder if it will bring the gaijin flocking?
While popular with tourists and locals alike, most of the yatai vendors speak only Japanese and may be gruff and impatient. Prices while generally low, may not be a bargain, so check for menus if available.
This is what the hashimaki stall looks like.
Tsukune (chicken mince meatballs) and other yakitori items are definitely mainstays of street food stalls
Grilled squid seems extremely popular.
Matsuri food stalls always bring out the happy
Warabi mochi – sticky glutinous rice cake coated with matcha (green tea) powder and kinako (sweet toasted soybean flour) – is always a treat.
Well, when it looks this good, it’s little wonder everyone wants a bit of the grilled “ika”.
Yakisoba (pan-fried soba noodles) is something you’ll definitely encounter at most festival yatai stalls. This one claims to be a Hakata famous brand.
With Hakata being the capital of tonkotsu, you’ll certainly find ramen represented somewhere.
A lady making candied apples on the spot.
Sizzling on the griddle – sausages? Intestines? Sometimes the street stalls offer eye-opening delicacies.