Category: Japan Travel


10 Unique Japanese Street Foods To Try

Introduction

What’s a visit to Japan without the full experience of Japanese street food? It’s the rite of passage to a full immersion of the local culture! Some of these delicious treats have a history that dates back to the 20th century — how insane is that!

The most common place to find a sweet array of Japanese street food is during a festival. Hundreds of food stalls known as yatai (屋台) line to local streets and roadsides, offering anything and everything there is to offer during the season. From kakigori (カキ氷, a dessert consisting of shaved ice with flavoured syrup) in summer to grilled treats in winter, you won’t be satisfied until you’ve tried them all!

Affordable yet high-quality and delicious, what’s not to like about Japanese street food? The list is endless — takoyaki (タコ焼き) and yakiniku (焼肉) are, of course, the title holders for most famous Japanese street foods — but let’s take a look at the 10 most unique ones out there.

1. Taiyaki (鯛焼き)

For those with a sweet tooth, you definitely need to try this; the taiyaki (鯛焼き) is a fish-shaped waffle that is usually filled with flavourings like red bean paste, chocolate or custard. Take your pick based on what you fancy at the moment — or try them all!

Taiyaki are made in specially-manufactured molds shaped like fish. The exterior is crispy and made from a simple batter mix of flour, baking soda, sugar and salt — complementing perfectly with the smooth, soft interior filling. 

This sweet Japanese street food is more common in Tokyo, but you’ll definitely see some yatai in other tourist attraction cities selling them. There’s a huge discussion about the proper way of eating taiyaki — is it heads first or tail? I personally go for the head!

2. Dango (団子)

If you like soft, chewy and sweet, this Japanese street food is made for you. Dango (団子) is a skewer of dumplings made from mochiko (もち粉), a type of rice flour, and often drowned in sweet sugar and shoyu (醤油) sauce.

Dango are served all year round — no season is attached to it. However, you do get seasonal-flavoured dango like the hanami (花見) dango, which is named after the cherry blossoms and is made to resemble the pink, white and green of the season’s scenery. You’ll typically get three to five dango on a stick.

There are also other types of dango depending on your preference for sweetness and filling level. For example, a sweet potato-filled dango might as well be a whole meal!

3. Senbei (煎餅)

You see this Japanese street food everywhere. You can buy senbei (煎餅) in-stores but the ones you get at a yatai are unbeatable — they’re cooked over a charcoal grill, giving a special kind of crispiness. Senbei can come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and flavors; typically they’re served savoury with soy sauce or salt seasoning, but you can also get them in sweet varieties as well.

Dense and crunchy senbei are common in Tokyo while lightly textured ones are more common in Kyoto because it’s made from mochigome (もち米) rice there. If you are in Nara and happen to have a few senbei with you, bring them to feed the sacred deers — they have grown to love this delicious local treat and might even bow to you for one!

4. Imagawayaki (今川焼き)

They look like mini pancakes — they might as well be. Imagawayaki (今川焼き) started out in Tokyo during the Edo era, and this sweet treat was named after a bridge that it was originally sold on. What a culturally rich treat, isn’t it?

Imagawayaki is made from a batter mix of flour, eggs, sugar and water. The mix is baked in disk-shaped molds that create golden and spongy bite-sized cakes. Normally, imagawayaki are filled with red bean paste, chocolate or custard — just like the taiyaki. 

5. Yakiimo (焼き芋)

Travel back in time to olden Japan with this Japanese street food, the yakiimo (焼き芋). This autumn treat is sure to warm up your bellies and fill you with not only sweet potato goodness but also a blast of culture. 

To make the yakiimo, Japanese sweet potatoes are baked carefully over a wood fire. They are then served in brown paper packets, sometimes in convenient bite sizes. Some even describe the soft skin of the yakiimo as caramel-like flavour. 

6. Ikayaki (イカ焼き)

If you love takoyaki, take a step up and go for the ikayaki (イカ焼き)! Instead of getting cube-sized octopus bites, go all out and get a full squid, grilled over charcoal that gives the slimy meat a mouthwatering, chewy texture.

It may look like simple Japanese street food but when it’s made right, you’ll be surprised at how something so simple is so delicious. The skewered octopus is then topped off with a generous amount of soy sauce and a slice of lemon or lime to add on to the flavourful experience. 

7. Yaki Tomorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし)

The Japanese love their corn — they appear on anything, from pizzas and pasta to bread. In summer, corn is in season, and that’s when this famous Japanese street food makes its appearance. Yaki tomorokoshi (焼きとうもろこし) is whole cobs of corn that are chargrilled over an open flame, sometimes with miso.

That’s not all there is to this treat; it’ll be brushed with a glaze of soy sauce, mirin and butter to give yaki tomorokoshi the mix of sweet and savoury depths in flavour. This Japanese street food can be a healthier alternative compared to the other fried and sugary options you find at other yatai.

Yaki tomorokoshi is often associated with Hokkaido, so that’s your best bet at seeing various yatai serving this snack. But because it’s become such a national street food, you’ll easily find this treat in any other city in Japan.

8. Shioyaki (塩焼き)

Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of how it looks; shioyaki (塩焼き) is actually quite a flavourful Japanese street food. It usually consists of fish that’s been marinated overnight in salt and grilled over flames the next day. 

Usually, mackerel is used to create this dish as it’s one of the most common catches throughout the year. However, when there are seasonal catches of fish, the seasonal shioyaki make their way onto the yatai menu. An annual seasonal shioyaki is the tai no shioyaki (鯛の塩焼き) which is made of sea bream and can only be found at New Year festivals. 

9. Nikuman (肉まん)

While you’ll get this all-year-round and even in convenience stores, nothing beats the ones at Japanese street festivals. This steamy dough with pork and onion filling called nikuman (肉まん) is usually served during the winter season to warm street folks right up. 

These buns are pretty much the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese steamed buns called bao. Traditionally, the filling is meat but recently there have been tons of other kinds of fillings for these steamed buns — think red bean paste or even pizza toppings! 

10. Candied Fruits

Last but definitely not least, one of the most unique Japanese street foods is candied fruits. This is without a doubt a street classic everywhere in Japan and you can find them in many fruit variations, all drenched generously with syrup. 

The most common one is the ringo ame (リンゴ飴) which are candied apples. There are seasonal candied fruits as well, like the ichigo ame (イチゴ飴) which are candied strawberries that you’ll be able to taste at the peak of strawberry season in spring. If you’re lucky enough to spot a yatai selling mikan ame (ミカン飴), grab a stick because this candied mandarin is made of a fruit that’s native to Japan and quite rare.

Conclusion                               

Have these unique Japanese street foods got your mouth watering and belly rumbling yet? While there are only ten on the list, the world of Japanese street foods is huge and it’s nothing like anything you can imagine — you have to see it to believe it. So what are you waiting for? Get on planning a trip to Japan during the peak festive season for your ultimate foodie experience.

The Ultimate Cherry Blossom Guide 2020

Introduction

It’s the time of the year again. The sun’s out and about more often than not, warming the streets and lifting spirits all over the world. What’s special about this time of year in Japan is that it’s the most beautiful time of the year in this country. Locals and foreigners from near and far plan months ahead to be in the right spot at the right time. As soon as these sakuras start to bloom, that marks the cherry blossom season in Japan.
 

What is Cherry Blossom Season?

Fujiyoshida, Japan Beautiful view of mountain Fuji and Chureito pagoda at sunset, japan in the spring with cherry blossoms

The cherry blossoms in Japan is also known as “sakura” (桜) in Japanese. It is a symbol of the beginning of spring in the country. The blooming of these flowers all around has become such a significant event. Many have come to call the weeks of these blooming the “cherry blossom season”, and so we’ll call it that as well. 
 
The months leading up to the cherry blossom season is full of predictions and forecasts. It’s to pinpoint exactly when the sakuras will make their grand appearance. “Kaika” (開花) refers to blooming of the cherry blossoms, and “mankai” (満開) translates to the full bloom. From the buds to the ultimate falling petals, it is an entire experience worth witnessing.
 

Types of “Sakura” in Japan

There isn’t only one kind of cherry blossom. In fact, there is quite a variety of them of over 200, including both cultivated and wild types! All the cherry blossoms share similar traits though, but observe a bit harder! Peep closer and you’ll see a variation in size, colour and even shape!
 
The most common one of Japanese cherry trees is the Somei Yoshino. This cultivated type of sakura is a single-flowering variety. It has five petals for each flower with a pink tint so pale that it appears almost white.
 
Another common sakura is the Yamazakura which is a wild sakura variety. It’s also known as the Hill Cherry because of its location on the mountains of Japan. This type of cherry blossom is also a faded tint of pink with five petals each flower.
 
Keep an eye out for the Shidarezakura, with another name of the Japanese Weeping Cherry Tree. Its physical appearance of drooping branches is why this variety has the name. Compared to the rest, the Shidarezakura cherry blossom type blooms earlier. The most famous place to see this variety is the Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima. This area has been growing for over a thousand years!
 
 

When is Cherry Blossom Season in Japan?

There isn’t an exact date for the whole country, or even an exact date that’s the same every year. The cherry blossoms’ blooming period is different depending on where it is. Certain regions in Japan get warmer earlier than others while some are still colder. Northern Japan gets the late blooming cherry blossoms often. The central and southern part are lucky enough to get the early bloomers. Get ready from mid-March onwards for areas like Tokyo and Osaka. Expect them till late April in areas like Hirosaki and Sapporo.
 

Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Japan?

Be in-the-know of the ideal spots for your best fill of sakuras. There are specific areas that are abundant in them than others. Some of these areas also hold festivals for the cherry blossom season.
 

Kanto Region — Tokyo and Around

Let’s address the most popular destination in all Japan for tourism: Tokyo. This city in Kanto region has one of the best areas for viewing the cherry blossoms. Never leave Shinjuku Gyoen out of your sakura hunting list. It’s the city’s largest national garden with at least a thousand cherry trees! 
 
Another popular spot is the Meguro River. During the cherry blossom season, stalls will line along the river. There are also hung-up lanterns that complement the pale pink cherry trees.
 
If you find yourself near the Tokyo Skytree, pop by the Sumida Park. You might even consider getting on a river cruise and admire them as you take in the beauty of the area. Keep a lookout for the Bokutei Sakura-matsuri Festival. The sakura trees are also lit up in the evening!
 
Ueno Park is also a festive area for a natural cherry blossom spot. There are thousands of lanterns hung up to light the way in the evening. The Ueno Sakura Matsuri is a cherry blossom festival full of local stalls for you to experience! You can also head to the former Edo Castle in Chidorigafuchi. The cherry blossoms gathers around the moats of the building.
 
The Rikugien Gardens has a 70-year-old shidarezakura tree. This is the best place to view the weeping cherry trees. The night sakura experience in this area is second to none. Witness a beautiful landscape with the most ethereal ambiance.
 
If a little adventure is what you seek, going up to Mount Fuji area might bring some cherry blossom good luck. In fact, you’re guaranteed to see some with an amazing view of the mountain in the background.
 

Kansai Region — Osaka, Kyoto, Himeji

Osaka castle among cherry blossom trees (sakura) in the evening scene after sunset with dark blue sky and light (selective focus on the castle with blurry foreground of branches and cherry blossom trees)

South of the Kanto region is the Kansai region, and they have their own fair share of cherry blossoms. Osaka is usually the first stop one would take in this area. It is one of the biggest cities in Japan, after all. The Osaka Castle provides a wonderful landscape with the pale sakuras around it. The former 1970 World Exhibition turned into a public park. Now it is the Expo 70 Park and it holds over 5000 cherry trees, making it a popular sakura viewing spot.
 
Yoshinoyama and Tanzan Shrine are wonderful places in Nara for beautiful sakura clusters. The Miho Museum in Shiga and Mt. Shiude in Shikoku area are also spots to consider. Don’t forget about the Yodogawa Riverside Park, either!
 
Kyoto is one of the most culturally-enriched cities in all Japan. Why not take advantage of your cultural visit to view some cherry blossoms at the Takase River? Stay till the evening to witness the magic of lit-up, illuminated cherry trees. Another famous spot for sakuras is the Philosopher’s Path, a stone path that’s about two kilometers long. A trip down there during the full sakura bloom period is an unforgettable experience. If you find yourself in Kyoto in mid April, Ninnaji Temple should be your first stop. The area is full of Omuro cherry trees which bloom later than usual, so snag your last chance of sakura viewing!
 

Northern Region — Hokkaido, Tohoku

Hirosaki castle and Sakura cherry blossom tree in spring. Hirosaki castle tower is not that big but it’s the only one castle tower in Tohoku area which rebuilt at Edo Period.

Northern Japan is the best place for the late blooming cherry blossoms. It is the colder region in the country. Don’t worry about missing your chance at witnessing the beauty of Japanese sakuras. Some here even last till the end of April!
 
The Tohoku area has a few wonderful spots for the cherry blossoms. The Hirosaki Castle, Hanamiyama Park and the Shiroishi River are to name a few. If you find yourself in the city of Sapporo, head over to Moerenuma Park for your fill. Hakodate’s Goryokaku Tower and the Fort Goryokaku are full of these seasonal flowers, too!
 

What to Do During Cherry Blossom Season?

There’s more to do than stare at the beautiful flowers during the cherry blossom season. People don’t get excited for these two beautiful weeks for the landscapes only. The festive atmosphere that comes with it is the best part!
 

“Hanami”

The most popular activity to do during the cherry blossom season is none other than “hanami” (花見). This translates to the traditional viewing of the sakura trees. It has become a practice for the locals to set down a mat under the blooming sakuras. Most of the time they have a few beverages and some light snacks to munch on while chatting. There are no specific places for this activity and one can go through with it anywhere they please. Yet, the best places include parks with hundreds of cherry trees and areas with stalls set up nearby.
 

Cherry Blossom Festivals

TOKYO,JAPAN-APRIL 1: People come to join Hanami festival at Ueno park in Tokyo,Japan on April 1,2015.Hanami festival will start when cherry blossom full bloom.

Speaking of stalls, the festivals that come around during this time of the year gathers quite a crowd. These festivals celebrate the start of the new season. It also brings people together over traditional Japanese food and beautiful nature. Some of these stalls serve exclusive products for the cherry blossom season. Look out for sakura-themed food, drinks and souvenirs for you to mark your experience by.
 

Photoshoot

While this may not be a customary activity, one might as well make the best of the opportunity. It’s no doubt that these sakuras have out-of-this-world beauty. Some may not even be able to comprehend the ethereal landscape they’re witnessing. What better way to show off this magnificent sight by posing in front of them? Grab a camera or your smartphone and snap some pictures of the sakura flowers. In fact, hold a mini photoshoot with you and your friends or family!
 

Conclusion

Are you excited about the cherry blossom season already? Well, you should be because it’s around the corner. Some are even blooming around Japan as we speak! It’s not too late to put on your sakura hunting shoes. Get a move on to view the best cherry blossoms Japan has to offer this year!

Traveling Through Tokyo and the Importance of Timing

When you first arrive in Tokyo, you might be tempted to hire a taxi from the airport to your hotel. If you do, be prepared to fork over a lot of yen. The better option by far is to take the train. Just follow all of the Japanese passengers–they’ll be heading the same way.

Tokyo is a lot like New York City. You’ll rely on the train to take you most places and only use taxis when absolutely necessary.

The Lines

There are five main JR lines within Tokyo that you should know.

Yamanote Line

This train line runs in a circle and connects all of the major city centers.

Keihin-Tohoku Line

This train line runs parallel to the Yamanote Line on the eastern half.

Chuo/Sobu Line

This train line runs across the Yamanote Line and provides slower, more local service.

Chuo Line (Rapid)

This train line connects Tokyo Station and Shinjuku Station and provides fast, constant service.

Saikyo Line

This train line runs parallel to the Yamanote Line on the western half.

Tokyo is 845 square miles in size, which makes it impossible to walk across. You need to know your way around, but you also need to know what times you can rely on the trains. The trains stop around 1 AM, so your last ride should start at 12:30. If you miss the train, you face an expensive taxi ride back from wherever you are.

For example, a taxi from the Roppongi district to the Ueno district runs about $60 USD. Comparatively speaking, you can purchase an unlimited use ticket for the subway lines in Tokyo for 1,590 yen, or around $15 USD.

Prepaid IC Cards

Another option is to purchase a prepaid card; the prepaid IC card. These are one of the most recommended ways to get around Tokyo due to their convenience. The price is around the same as that of a single-use pass, but a prepaid card lets you use any bus or train just by swiping it over a card reader.

Other Options

A final option is to consider renting or purchasing a bicycle during your stay. Travel by bicycle is common in Japan, and it is a great way to navigate the winding streets of Tokyo. It also provides an excellent way to see the city up close and personal that public transportation just doesn’t have.

Whether you visit Tokyo for business or for pleasure, make sure you know how to get around the city without paying a huge fare–or worse, finding yourself stranded.

Phrases to Know

One of the most difficult aspects of navigating Tokyo is the vocabulary. If you do not know what phrases to look for and listen for, it can be hard to find your way around. Here are a few of the most common words you are likely to encounter.

Basu

This word is simple. It means “bus” and is pronounced how it is read.

Kuruma

“Kuruma” is the Japanese word for “car.”

Jitensha

This word means “bicycle.”

Densha

This word is one you will encounter often. It means “train.”

Takushi

This word means “taxi.”

Take the time to learn a few basic Japanese phrases and you will find it much easier to make your way around the city. Learn to ask for directions (and learn a few key phrases to listen for) and you will enjoy your trip to Japan much more than if you spend most of your time lost.

Images via Wikimedia, Pixabay

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